What does rule mean in the rule of law? I understand the concept of it, but not the grammar. Does "rule" mean "control"/"domination"? Or does it mean "rule" as in "rules for chess"?

Personally, I find the former meaning to be more intuitive, as it sort of fits the definition (since nobody is above the law, law is the thing that rules [controls]). Moreover, Aristotle referred to this concept as: "It is more proper that law should govern than any one of the citizens" (per Wikipedia.)

But could it mean the latter? This article says the phrase "is derived from the French phrase ‘la principe de legalite’ (the principle of legality)". So could its meaning be "When enforcing laws, an invisible law/rule/principle of law itself exists, which is: nobody is above the law"?

Honestly, I was quite stumped when I first heard of this phrase. Thus, any and all help is greatly appreciated!

  • 4
    Rule is what kings do. The Rule of Law implies that the law is more important than any human ruler. Aug 14, 2022 at 14:29
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    The short answer is: the first of the two senses that you list. However, the rule of law is partially defined by some broad rules, in the second of the two senses (although principles would be a better term), such as the rules/principles that the laws generally must be published and must not be retroactive.
    – jsw29
    Aug 15, 2022 at 18:40

2 Answers 2


In “the rule of law”, rule is a mass noun (and a verbal noun – from the verb “to rule”) and indicates the concept of imposition of authority.

Thus the rule of law implies such legislation and customary practice that form the basis of the implementation of administrative power and hence popular regulation.

The OED gives rule of law as a complex noun:

1 The authority and influence of law in society, esp. when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behaviour; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.

?c1500 J. Blount tr. N. Upton Essent. Portions De Studio Militari (1931) 33 Lawes And constitutcions be ordeyned be cause the noysome Appetit of man maye be kepte vnder the Rewle of lawe by the wiche mankinde ys dewly enformed to lyue honestly [etc.].

1996 Counsel Mar. 22/2 This may prove a nice earner for the Treasury, but the rule of law is intended to protect citizens from the state, not just to punish criminals.

3. a. intransitive. Of a person: to govern, to reign; to hold supreme command or authority.

b. intransitive. In extended use of a thing: to have a presiding authority or influence.

1998 Z. Sardar Postmodernism & Other iv. 153 Postmodernism triumphs only where ignorance rules.


Apparently its origin is from Ancient Greece. Its meaning refers to the concept of being ruled by the law rather than a single ruler.

The Rule of Law has its origins in ancient Greece and, more specifically, in the philosophy of Aristotle. In his work titled Politics, Aristotle raised the question of whether it is better to be ruled by the best leader or the best laws. In exploring this question he found advantages and disadvantages to both governing methods. His conclusion, however, suggested that laws were appropriate for most societies since they were carefully thought out and could be applied to most situations. Therefore, people should be ruled by the best laws.


  • 1
    The question indicates that the OP is already aware of this, and is not seeking an account of the history of the idea of the rule of law, but of the wording that is used to express it in English.
    – jsw29
    Aug 15, 2022 at 14:47
  • @jsw29 yes! the very first sentence of the source that user 66974 cited states: "The Rule of Law is a principle that all people and organizations within a country, state, or community are held accountable to the same set of laws." I am very, very confused and still without a definite answer. Aug 17, 2022 at 13:59

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