The Use of Force

Eric Voegelin

. . . . The use of force for the imposition of the legal order is necessary for a number of reasons. The first of these reasons is the just-discussed calculus of error. Since there is a discrepancy between true order and empirical order, enforcement is necessary in order to eliminate disobedience on the part of citizens contending that the content of the rule is not in accord with the Ought in the ontological sense.

We do not have to adduce extreme cases for illustration. We only have to imagine what would happen if taxpayers could refuse payment until the expenditures of the government stand rational scrutiny in the light of true order. The Rivers and Harbors Bill alone would provide sufficient reason to refuse the payment of taxes.

The debate about the justice of the law must remain within the forms of political criticism and political action through voting. If the existence of the society is to be preserved, the debate cannot be permitted to degenerate into individual decision and resistance.

Force is necessary, second, because the question of truth in matters of order rarely permits a certain, unequivocal answer. The structure of a society, especially of a modern industrial society, is infinitely complex; which of the various possible policies concerning a specific problem is in agreement with the common good, and therefore should be implemented by law, will be a matter of pros and cons with no clear weight on one side or the other. The decision, when finally made, will contain an element of arbitrariness. Again, if the society is to survive, the debate cannot go on forever; and once the decision is made by the representative, disobedience on the ground that the merits of the measure are still open to doubt cannot be permitted.

The third and final reason why the sanction by force is necessary is the one to which Aristotle accords prime importance. The whole social organization for making and enforcing the law would be superfluous, he argues, if men would act in accordance with true order without compulsion or the threat of compulsion.

If men were motivated always by the aidos, piety or shame, to refrain from doing what is wrong and shameful, what defiles their stature as men; or if, in the case of possible lapse, admonitions by fellowmen would be sufficient to make the potential wrongdoer aware of what he is doing and shame him into right conduct; then there would be no need for the law and its enforcement as the organization of society for maintaining its order.

But that is not the nature of man. To be sure, it is the nature of man to be a person, that is, to order his conduct by reason and conscience. But it is also the nature of man not to be a person. In the first place, man does not spring into the world as a full-grown person but is born as a child. His personality is a structure in the soul that grows slowly and hardly achieves maturity before the age of thirty. With some it takes longer. A large proportion of men never reach full personal stature, and sometimes their growth stops very early.

For the full-grown man, Aristotle uses the term spoudaios, the mature man—but when he speaks about the possibility of realizing a true order in the Hellenic polis, he remarks that probably in no Greek polis could be found even one hundred mature men who could form the nucleus of an adequate ruling group. Besides the children who lack the full development of personality, there are in every society “slaves by nature,” that is, men who, for one reason or another, never grow to maturity but need social pressures, energetic reminders, and ultimately the threat of force to keep them on the straight path.

They still may be useful members of society by virtue of their special skills; but they are not the members who can let the substance of order that lives in man flow into the order of society and thereby sustain it, for too little of that substance lives in them.

 Contemporary social scientists have observed the same human types as Aristotle and speak of them as the inward-directed and outward-directed personalities—language that may become ontologically misleading, since the point is precisely that the outward-directed personalities are so directed because they are deficient in personality.

Obviously, we can distinguish a wide variety of human types on the scale of maturity and immaturity, ranging from the saint and philosopher to the habitual criminal. Such types in fact have become the object of extensive studies. What is important for the present analysis, however, is not the empirical study of the types, but the fact that this amplitude of types has its roots in the nature of man.

Those forces in the soul that disturb the attunement of the person with the order of being are as essentially human as the experience of order and the desire for attunement. Every man has to carry the burden of his all-too-human passions—of his pride and inertia, his aggressiveness and lack of courage, his righteous indignation and lack of wisdom, his dullness and lack of imagination, his complacency and indifference, his ignorance and folly. In brief: the nature of man is not all personal. On the contrary, it contains a powerful sector of urges, passions, concupiscences that not only are impersonal but even obstruct the formation and action of the personal center in the soul.

Hence, the use of force in society is not necessary for imposing a true order on the person of man—that matter would take care of itself if man were all person. It is necessary for imposing an order bearing the marks of human personality on the impersonal nature of man. In particular, the use of force is necessary to break the impersonality of man when it tends to disrupt the order of human existence in society.


This excerpt is from The Nature of Law and Other Related Legal Writings (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 27). Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1991), pp. 62-64.

Eric Voegelin

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Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne, and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna, and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information can be found at