Dylan’s Aristotle, Dylan’s Melanchthon?

In “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” from Bob Dylan’s 1966 album Blonde on Blonde, we find the following lyric: “But to live outside the law, you must be honest.”

This kind of line is not something one will often hear in popular music. I’m not going to name names, but we wouldn’t, e.g., find it at the Super Bowl, whether on the field or in the stands.

What is Dylan’s source (assuming he has one)? Cowboy movies? Could be. We know Dylan loves movies, including Westerns.

It also sounds like the sort of thing we might come across in the tradition of political philosophy. Perhaps we are reminded of Aristotle’s statement in the first book of the Politics: “But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.”[1]

An intriguing possibility; but note what Aristotle goes on to say. “For man, when perfected, is the best of animals, but, when separated from law and justice, he is the worst of all.” Compare a statement in Politics 3.16.1287a: “Therefore he who bids the law rule may be deemed to bid God and Reason alone rule, but he who bids man rule adds an element of the beast; for desire is a wild beast, and passion perverts the minds of rulers, even when they are the best of men. The law is reason unaffected by desire.”

For Aristotle, then, law is connected to goodness, God, and humaneness, and to be outside of it is to be in a region of bestiality. If one is not a god–and one is not–bestiality is the only outcome for the lawless, the only alternative to the life of the polis guided by law.

I suggest that Dylan’s source for the statement is biblical, and that the proper background for the phrase is therefore theological rather than philosophical.[2]

I suggest that the biblical source is 1 Timothy 1:8-11, which I cite in the KJV:

But we know that the law is good, if a man use it lawfully;

Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,

For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;

According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust.

1 Timothy 1:9 is an important text in Lutheran dogmatics on man’s relation to the law with and without the Holy Spirit, and Dylan’s paraphrase (if I am right) of the bit in bold is harmonious with that tradition.

The basic idea is that those without the Spirit need the curb and bridle of the law to make them do what is right, even though they are unwilling. Those with the Spirit, on the other hand, don’t need such a bridle because they willingly and spontaneously act in accordance with what God desires.

For example, compare two passages from Philip Melanchthon. The first is from the Apology of the Augsburg Confession:

We think about the righteousness of reason like this: God requires it. Because of God’s commandment, the honorable works commanded by the Ten Commandments must be done, according to Galatians 3:24, “The law was our guardian.” Likewise, 1 Timothy 1:9 says, “The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless.” For God wants wild sinners to be restrained by civil discipline. To maintain discipline, He has given laws, letters, doctrine, rulers, and penalties. To a certain extent reason can, by its own strength, perform this civil righteousness. Yet it is often overcome by natural weakness and by the devil pushing it to do obvious crimes. We cheerfully credit this righteousness of reason with the praises that are due it. (This corrupt nature has no greater good.) Aristotle rightly says, “Neither the evening star nor the morning star is more beautiful than righteousness,” and God also honors it with bodily rewards. However, it ought not to be praised by dishonoring Christ.

Philip Melanchthon, Apology of the Augsburg Confession IV (II). 22-24, in Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, trans. William Hermann Theodore Dau and Gerhard Friedrich Bente, rev. Paul Timothy McCain, Edward Andrew Engelbrecht, Robert Cleveland Baker, and Gene Edward Veith.

The second is from the 1521 Loci communes:

Finally, Christianity is freedom because those who do not have the Spirit of Christ cannot keep the Law at all and are under the curses of the Law. Those who have been renewed by the Spirit of Christ are moved to do what the Law commands by their own will and without the Law’s encouragement. The Law is will of God. And the Holy Spirit is nothing else than the living will and movement of God. Therefore when we have been reborn by the Spirit of God, who is the living will of God, we willingly desire exactly what the Law used to demand of us. Paul expresses the same judgment when he says that the Law was not given for the righteous [1 Timothy 1:9].

Philip Melanchthon, Commonplaces: Loci Communes 1521, trans. Christian Preus.

In other words, “to live outside the law, you must be honest.” Every believer, though, is saint and sinner, iustus and peccator, and must use the law lawfully, while simultaneously being free from it.

Can we connect this to Aristotle, and thus end where we began? I think so. For Aristotle, to live outside the law means to be a beast or a god. For Melanchthon, the unregenerate would descend wholly to the bestial and thus need the law. Those filled with the Spirit are in some sense free from the law and are, if not gods, at least godlike. But in this mortal life, as sainted sinners, we remain compromised and thus continue to need the law and Aristotle’s polis, even if we are, in our consciences, free.

As if all that were not enough, “Absolutely Sweet Marie” is a great song, too.


1 Politics 1.2.1253a, trans. Benjamin Jowett, rev. Jonathan Barnes.
2 N.b., I am not saying this about the lyrics as a whole, but only about this one line.


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