Always a pleasure to read the work of Paul Rosenberg.
[The title of this essay links to the original posting …]
About half the time it is used, possibly more, the word “law” is nothing more than a Jedi mind trick. There is nothing noble, righteous, or even ‘conservative’ about it. It’s a way for you to be abused via ignorance and inertia.
We’ve all seen this trick in action, of course. It’s very common. And, sadly, more or less all of us have fallen (or rather, were pushed) into it at some point. That complicates things because people generally don’t like to admit their errors.
Nearly all of us have been taught, repetitively, to “respect the law,” and because of those teachings, nearly all of us have decided certain things must be right, simply because they were “the law.”
We decided this, not because we understood the benefits that would follow certain actions, but because of the aforementioned ignorance and inertia.
It’s important to be clear on this: To uncritically, reflexively obey is not respect… it is to hold “the law” above reason… above reality. That, in simple terms, is worship.
Saying, “Everyone else did it too,” makes this no better.
It is also common for obedience to follow intimidation: Obey, or else… armed men will hurt you; teacher will shame you; the other kids will laugh at you; important people will criticize you in public. Please note all of these are primitive, degrading reasons. But they were thrust upon us as small, coerced children, and they very often stuck.
The really damaging part, however, comes after you obey reflexively or fearfully: when you leap to justify your past actions. Not many of us enjoy admitting our errors, but if we want to become honest, conscious adults, that is precisely what we need to do.
Yes, yes, I know the same automated slogans:
Without the law, all would be chaos and death!
Outside of law is tyranny!
We are a nation of laws, not of men!
Only law separates us from savages!
Please take a couple of deep breaths and continue.
There’s Law, and Then There’s Law
In the modern West, there are two different kinds of law. Unfortunately they are usually rolled up together and placed under a single tag. That’s a major part of this problem.
If the early days of Western civilization, law was simply the process of determining what was just. Law was considered good if it were reasonable, fair, and had stood the test of time. And that’s all.
Historian Fritz Kern, in his Kingship and Law in the Middle Ages, explains it this way:
For us law needs only one attribute in order to give it validity; it must, directly or indirectly, be sanctioned by the State. But in the Middle Ages, different attributes altogether were essential; medieval law must be “old” law and must be “good” law…. If law were not old and good law, it was not law at all, even though it were formally enacted by the State.
Law, in the old days, was developed locally, and judges were simply trusted men who reasoned well. The form we in the English-speaking world know best was the common law of England, and it was precisely this type of law. In fact, the historical record shows early English kings having to adopt customary law:
- The 1164 Clarendon Constitution cites a “record and recognition of a certain portion of the customs and liberties and rights of… ancestors.”
- Article 39 of the Magna Carta (1215) reads, “No free man shall be taken or imprisoned or dispossessed, or outlawed… except by the legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”
Now, before I explain how we got from law based on reason and experience to where we are now, there is one thing that is necessary to understand:
Until recent times, law was not legislation.
I know this is contrary to what you’ve understood, but it’s true all the same. Legislation is primarily a modern invention. Law in the old days was not made by politicians or even by princes. Law was, as we said above, the process of determining what was just. The common law was created and updated by judges, not by legislators.
To buttress this point, consider that when philosopher Jeremy Bentham died in 1832, he was revered as “the founder of modern legislation.”
I won’t belabor this point, but consider these two statements, please:
Legislation displaces law that is based upon reason and experience.
Under legislation, reason and experience are not required. Politicians – whom nearly all of us hold in low regard – create this new law and can change it on a whim.
Let me ask some pointed questions:
- Is it sensible to worship the words of people we also condemn?
- And if we hold words above critical thought, are we not holding them above reality? Is that not a kind of worship or idolatry?
Idolatry is precisely what we do when we hold politician-created “law” above reason. (Whatever you hold above reality is your god.)
Yes, I know, we did this because we were trained to do it and because we were intimidated into it. But we’re adults now; we should be ready to face our errors and correct them.
The law of reason and experience always stands, of course, simply because it is reasonable and useful.
An uncritical respect for legislation, on the other hand, is a mind trick and differs little from that of a Star Wars Jedi. It requires us to bypass our minds and sacrifice our will to inertia and fear.