Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons
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This is Jim. This is Jim's neighbor, Tom. Jim has a cow. Tom steals Jim's cow. Jim retrieves his cow, and steals Tom's pig to boot. That'll teach Tom to steal from Jim! Unfortunately, all Tom learns from this exchange is that Jim must die. Tom kills Jim and takes back his pig and the cow. Enraged, Jim's family descends on Tom's farm, steals all the livestock, and burns Tom's barn to the ground, with Tom inside. Tom's family retaliates in kind, and we've got ourselves a good old-fashioned feud, one to last for generations. Over the years, dozens of people will die, all over a stupid cow. Left to their own devices, these two families will tear each other apart, to no one's benefit.
Enter the judge. A judge can be anyone: a priest, an elected official, a jury of peers, a king or royal appointee, a little old man on a hill. The only real requirement for a judge is that his decisions must be respected. That is, a judge must be obeyed; otherwise he's just a spectator with an opinion. How judges enforce their will varies.
The priest uses fear of the gods to sway people. The jury of peers depends on its impartiality to bind people to its verdicts. The king can use soldiers to enforce his will. Yet whatever the system, it allows Tom and Jim to resolve their conflict over the cow without bloodshed. Tom steals Jim's cow; Jim goes to the judge. The judge threatens Tom with eternal damnation until he relents, or olds a trial to decide whom the cow belongs to, or simply sends soldiers to return Jim's cow to him. However it goes, at the end of the day, Jim has his cow back without creating a longstanding vendetta with his neighbor. Thus you can see the important role of judges in society.
There is reason to believe that the role of judge may very well be the first position of authority, and that this authority evolved into chiefdoms, priesthoods, monarchies, and all the other forms of government. At the heart of all authority is the power to make decisions for the people beneath you. Should we invade? Where shall we build? And yes, even, 'whose cow is this? '
Yet judging things is time consuming. Kings have better things to do than decide which farmer gets a cow, and emperors really can't be bothered with that sort of thing. To ease this burden, leaders can and do take advantage of hierarchies. They delegate their authority to subordinates, and leave it to them to determine guilt.
Yet it is telling that in so many cultures throughout time, sentencing has been reserved for people at the top of the hierarchy, especially in matters of capital punishment. Command over life and death has always been the prerogative of kings, and they are loath to give such an incredible power to anyone else.
But how is a king with thousands of subjects, let alone an emperor with millions, supposed to make his will known in every case? Must he pass sentence on every trial?
Enter laws. Laws allow a king to pass sentence without being there. Instead of, 'you stole a cow, you lose a hand... or your life, depending on how I'm feeling today.' Now it's, 'anyone who steals a cow loses a hand.' In this way, laws also make the justice system more just, since everyone faces the same consequences for the same actions.
The earliest surviving code of law is the code of Ur-Nammu, written by the king of Ur near the end of the Sumerian empire, around 2100 BCE. It contained 57 laws, of which 26 remain. These range from the reasonable: 'if a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.' To the draconic: 'if a man commits a robbery, he will be killed.' To the downright silly: 'if a man's slave-woman, comparing herself to her mistress, speaks insolently to her, her mouth shall be scoured with 1 quart of salt.'
300 years later, around 1790 BCE, a Babylonian king named Hammurabi would compose a much more famous, and much more nuanced, code of laws. Inscribed on a stone stele, the code of Hammurabi contains 282 laws. And we see here much more than mere consequences for actions.
We find laws for commerce: 'if any one give another silver, gold, or anything else to keep, he shall show everything to some witness, draw up a contract, and then hand it over for safe keeping.' Pricing Laws: 'if he hire an ass for threshing, the hire is twenty ka of corn.' Laws for liability: 'if an animal be killed in the stable by God (an accident), or if a lion kill it, the herdsman shall declare his innocence before God, and the owner bears the accident in the stable.' Laws of inheritance: 'if a father give a present to his daughter... and then die, then she is to receive a portion as a child from the paternal estate, and enjoy its so long as she lives. (Once she dies) Her estate belongs to her brothers.' Even laws of emancipation: 'if a State slave or the slave of a freed man marry the daughter of a free man, and children are born, the master of the slave shall have no right to enslave the children of the free.'
Laws also allow a king to establish just practices. This is very important, as unjust practices don't resolve problems. They just transfer anger from the participants to the authority figure. Unjust authority can be maintained, but it's a rather expensive process, protecting your judges with hordes of soldiers, and therefore best avoided. Even Ur-Nammu realized this 4000 years ago when he wrote, 'if a man appeared as a witness, and was shown to be a perjurer, he must pay fifteen shekels of silver.' Hammurabi goes a step further: 'if the owner (of the stolen goods) does not bring witnesses to identify the lost article, he is an evil-doer, he has transgressed, and shall be put to death.' Much later, the Law of Moses (Deutoronomy 19:15) would state, 'one witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'
So we've seen the good a justice system can do for a society. It settles disputes, and thereby prevents unnecessary bloodshed. Laws streamline this process, and give judgments a modicum of fairness by assigning set penalties for crimes and by establishing standards for proof. Still, the question remains: why would a king go through all this trouble?
Well, at its most fundamental level people killing each other leads to instability. Instability hampers trade, and trade is the lifeblood of any empire. When a king looks at Jim and Tom's situation, he doesn't see two men on the verge of a tragic murderous feud that will claim innocent lives for generations. No. What a king sees is two otherwise productive farms too busy sabotaging one another to produce anything, and messing up trade in the neighborhood to boot.
Yet perhaps the most compelling reason that kings make laws is more political than economic. Kings establish justice systems because as long as the people look to their king for justice, they will do what their king tells them to do.
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Back To CourseWestern Civilization I: Help and Review
17 chapters | 308 lessons