The Lesbian Rule

Last week my wonderful friend S told me about The Lesbian Rule. Not what you’re thinking! And yet something of great philosophical interest, and with a name we should all be using! It was apparently a nifty device developed on Lesbos.

From Wikipedia (but trust it– S knows his Aristotle, and it’s just what he said!):

A lesbian rule was historically a flexible mason’s rule made of lead that could be bent to the curves of a molding, and used to measure or reproduce irregular curves.
The rule is alluded to by Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics (bk V, ch. 10) as a metaphor for the importance of flexibility in equitable justice: “For what is itself indefinite can only be measured by an indefinite standard, like the leaden rule used by Lesbian builders; just as that rule is not rigid but can be bent to the shape of the stone, so a special ordinance is made to fit the circumstances of the case.”
In the 17th and early 18th centuries the term was often used figuratively (as Aristotle had used it) to mean a pliant, flexible and accommodating principle of judgement.

I plan to invoke a Lesbian Rule as often as I can, by name. (Even if– perhaps especially because– that is just what everyone expects a feminist head of department to do.) I also think it’s an interesting and potentially useful philosophical concept. (And yes, I know this has been discussed before under other names. But the other names AREN’T AS GOOD.)

6 thoughts on “The Lesbian Rule

  1. Can someone use it in a sentence? I’m unsure whether I understand the definition.

    Would it be something like: “When determining whether to grant extensions on assignments, it is often best to use a Lesbian Rule, even if you do not articulate it as such.” ?

  2. “The one question per question rule is a lesbian rule: If, for example, the question and reply are both short and naturally require a further question, this may be permitted.”

  3. Yes, this is wonderful, and, if my memory serves, Marilyn Frye includes this definition in her tour de force demonstration of the impossibility of lesbians in The Politics of Reality (in, I think, “To Be and Be Seen”)

  4. Actually such devices are still available, though not by that splendid name. At least I bought one a few decades ago, at a place that sold drafting tools, iirc.

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