Some time ago, my friend shared with me a word from Ancient Greek that signifies an interesting concept. The concept is knowing when it is okay to break rules. Unfortunately, I quickly forgot the word that he mentioned, but I thought that maybe you guys could help me find it. Is anyone here familiar with this concept, and with any Ancient Greek words that name this concept? Does a similar word or concept exist in Latin?

To be clear, the concept is not about condoning immoral actions, but rather, when breaking the rules is the right thing to do, or the wisest course of action. The rules I'm referring to could either be laws, norms, or your own habits or customs.

  • As an afterword, did you refer to the rule being broken by the authority or by the actor? (My opinion is that if it's the former then it's επιείκια. If the latter, then probably επιορκία.) – Helen Apr 10 '17 at 14:56
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    @Helen I couldn't say. The conversation in which this word arose happened last year, and I don't remember the context. But the distinction you raise is interesting to consider. – ktm5124 Apr 13 '17 at 6:40

You are probably looking for the words ἐπιείκεια and γνώμη. The former word is often translated "equity" and is described by Aristotle in Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 6, ch. 10 as a sort of correction to a universal rule or law that is in keeping with the spirit of the law. Plato had discussed a case in which the law might need correction in his Republic when talking about whether it is just to return someone's sword if that person has gone insane. This is a paradigmatic case calling for equity. In Nicomachean Ethics, bk. 7, ch. 11, Aristotle describes γνώμη as the intellectual capacity helping one to make equitable judgments.

Latin authors such as Cicero were clearly aware of this notion. For instance, he states that you should not return the sword to the insane person in De Officiis, bk. 3, n. 95:

Si gladium quis apud te sana mente deposuerit, repetat insaniens, reddere peccatum sit, officium non reddere.

With the recovery of Aristotle in the Latin west in Medieval times, these issues were again discussed by Aristotle's scholastic followers such as Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas notes that the term ἐπιείκεια corresponds to the Latin word aequitas in the following passage from his Summa, II-II, q. 120:

. . . Et ad hoc ordinatur epieikeia, quae apud nos dicitur aequitas.

Aquinas also discusses γνώμη but does not indicate a Latin equivalent.

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    +1 for gnome. See ST II-II, q. 48, a. 1 c.: "ponuntur partes prudentiae eubulia, quae est circa consilium; et synesis, quae est circa iudicium eorum quae communiter accidunt; et gnome, quae est circa iudicium eorum in quibus oportet quandoque a communi lege recedere." – brianpck Dec 26 '16 at 20:52
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    @brianpck Yes and there is an even fuller discussion in ST II-II, q. 51, a. 4. Aquinas's commentary on the noted passage in Nicomachean Ethics is also helpful. – SAG Dec 26 '16 at 20:58
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    After adding my answer and reading once more through everything, I tend to think that ἐπιείκεια is most probably the one. Correction to a law according to the case is knowing when to break the rules, plus the sound is similar to what the OP's friend remembered. Perhaps interestingly, επιείκεια today means mildness in one's judgment. If such a subjective quality evolved out of an actual term, then by asking for it today you are begging while in the past you were asking for a pardon. – Helen Apr 2 '17 at 18:45

I'm not sure about rule breaking in particular, but when I think of "right time" to do things, the word that first pops up in my head is καιρός.

In English, we often just make the word "time," though it's clearly distinct from the method of hour- and minute-keeping. Our "it's the time for giving" is expressed in their καιρός δόσιος. When the Scythians came with "timely advice", Herodotus characterized it as "ἐς καιρὸν."

I can't think of a particular example, but I can imagine a scenario in which someone says that it's the "time to break rules" using καιρός as the translation of time.

Note that the ordinary word for "time" is χρόνος.

  • This is very helpful and informative. Thanks! – ktm5124 Mar 31 '17 at 15:38

After a bit more research, I think the word you are looking for is φρόνησις. According to Wikipedia,

Phronesis (Ancient Greek: φρόνησις, phronēsis) is a Greek word for a type of wisdom or intelligence. It is more specifically a type of wisdom relevant to practical things, requiring an ability to discern how or why to act virtuously and encourage practical virtue, excellence of character, in others. Phronesis was a common topic of discussion in ancient Greek philosophy.


In Book 6 of the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle distinguishes between two intellectual virtues which are sometimes translated as "wisdom": sophia and phronesis... Phronesis also combines a capability of rational thinking, with a type of knowledge. On the one hand it requires the capability to rationally consider actions which can deliver desired effects.


Phronesis is concerned with particulars, because it is concerned with how to act in particular situations. One can learn the principles of action, but applying them in the real world, in situations one could not have foreseen, requires experience of the world. For example, if one knows that one should be honest, one might act in certain situations in ways that cause pain and offense; knowing how to apply honesty in balance with other considerations and in specific contexts requires experience.

  • σωφροσύνη is an interesting concept, although I'm not sure if it's exactly what I'm looking for. +1 for that word, though. – ktm5124 Dec 23 '16 at 23:59
  • Hm, unfortunately no. I figured it must have been a prominent idea in Greek philosophy. But perhaps it is not, in which case I would need more clues. – ktm5124 Dec 24 '16 at 0:08
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    The canonical Latin translation of phronesis is prudentia, "practical wisdom." Although it could deal with "rule-breaking," that would only be a concrete example of its general function. – brianpck Dec 24 '16 at 3:10
  • @brianpck – htm5124 was not concerned with rule-breaking itself, but rather “knowing when it is okay to break rules.” That is where φρόνησις comes into play. – Der Übermensch Dec 24 '16 at 3:29

What about αρνησικυρία? (pr. arnisikiria)

First of all, apologies, I speak only modern Greek. But it might be of some help.

Αρνησικυρία formally means veto, but I've heard it being used as the refusal of an authority to accept a law or conviction; authorities being able to do so more easily than individuals, of course. So it's not exactly "when it's okay to break the rules", it's more "I openly declare that I will not accept the legal decision".

I got the hint from your other question here which is the continuation of the present one :) -κυρία refers to either κυριαρχία (dominion) or κύρωση (sanction). Άρνηση is refusal.

  • It would be interesting to know if the same word existed in older Greek. Perhaps some of our experts know? – Joonas Ilmavirta Mar 31 '17 at 11:05

Although I gave another answer before and although I think that the correct answer could turn out to be "επιείκια", let me add this for completeness:

"Επιορκία" is oath-breaking and false swearing (and sounding close to the remembered one).

  • As an afterword, regardless of my previous opinion (and of the fact that I've given multiple answers myself :), I finally believe this to be the word you were looking for. If I may ask, did you refer to the rule being broken by the authority or by the actor? If it's the former, then it's επιείκια. If the latter, then probably επιορκία. – Helen Apr 10 '17 at 14:55

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