Friday, April 20, 2007

The Commandments of the Law

In the 530s (or so) the Emperor Caesar Flavius Justinian released one of the most important legal texts in Western history. With his Institutes, Justinian sought to train future generations of scholars and lawyers ("young enthusiasts for the law" are his exact words) the important aspects and distinctions of Law, its study, and its application. Though many people now would question the pertinence of a sixth century law code in our modern lives, there is a certain section of it I wish to explore, mainly because it forms the basis for almost all legal thought in the West even up until the present day.
In his introduction Justinian writes, "The commandments of the law are these: live honourably; harm nobody; give to everyone their due." This single line embodies the essence of Mediaeval law and much of the theory around it. Of course, there are countless interpretations as to what each of these commandments could possibly mean. Far from being a weakness, this actually makes them better. If they were explicit and precise then their applicability to a living society would quickly fade. In their vagueness these commandments beg for discussion, argument, definition, revision, and questioning; all the activities necessary to make this document a dynamic and ever-valid part of a real human society.
I point this passage out for two reasons. First, I think that we as a society have lost much of the ability people once had to look at things critically, or to question what we are told. While Justinian, Emperor of the known world and successor to Rome practically begs for his words to be discussed and debated thoroughly, our leaders command us not to question even their most meaningless whims. I don't think we can truly live up to our grand claims of living in a 'free society' until we regain the desire and the capability to ask questions and think deeply about what is presented to us. Who would have thought that men in sixth century Constantinople were more intellectually free than we are?
The second reason I wanted to discuss this passage is because, to me, Justinian provides one of the best outlines one can follow for living a good and meaningful life. Think deeply about each of his three commandments and tell me that someone who follows them would not be living in incredibly good life.
Live honourably: In this, I believe Justinian is referring not only to the greater concept of honour, but also to the simple day-to-day interactions that make up the bulk of our lives. Treat people well, don't steal, help the needy, protect the weak, and thousands of other little ideas can be included here. To truly live honourably would be a difficult task, but an extremely noble one.
Harm nobody: This one may seem obvious, but Justinian was very subtle. Apart from not physically hurting people he also means that we should not insult people, slander them, humiliate them etc. We should not cause someone emotional, psychological, or even financial or economic harm. This concept is one of the more difficult ones for our society to accept. We often feel that certain forms of harm are essential for the purposes of justice or education, or that in pursuing one's own goals, it is acceptable to hurt other people. Can you imagine a society in which we all truly strove to do no harm?
Give to everyone their due: This is the line that I personally find hardest to define. I think that there are a few important meanings attached to it. One is the idea of treating others with respect. Another is the idea of respecting legitimate authority and government. One that I am struggling with is the correlation between this commandment and justice. What really constitutes another's 'due' and how are we to determine this? There are dozens of answers, and I am not yet satisfied with them all, but there is one thing I must point out. In giving someone their 'due', we must be sure to live honourably, and to harm nobody. What if in harming someone I am preventing greater harm to someone else? Can I even accurately make a decision or prediction like that? I think an honest answer to the second question in 'no', but I have no satisfactory answer to the first yet. So the giving of one's 'due' raises far more questions and issues than it answers. That is precisely what makes it so important and so dynamic. If law is to be an organic and human idea then it must be thoroughly dissected, and its relevence to society examined and explored.
So, after writing all this, I think I have more questions than I did when I started. Good. I need to think about Justinian and his law in greater depth, as well as thinking about what his commandments mean for me, for you, and for our world. But before I go, I want to leave you with two thoughts.
First, discussion and debate are the keys to understanding who we really are, and what idea really mean. Second, what would our world be like if everyone were to follow Justinian's three simple commandments? I don't know about you, but I think it would be the best society I can imagine.
Bye for now, and try to keep the sixth century in your mind the next time you interact with another person. I know I will. Ciao.

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