Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Origins of Law

I've finally ended several weeks of constantly not posting. Lack of topics and simple laziness are both reasons. Hopefully I'll be able to continue the daily posting I used to have. For now I will start with laws, tomorrow or maybe later today I'll finish the First Sack of Rome posting, later I'll continue with linguistics, Mesopotamia, Crusades, and other topics. Also, I'll welcome any other topics proposed by readers, some basic info and/or Internet resources about the topic would also be nice. Last, if you have anything to say about a post, please tell it in a comment. Laws, in some way or other, are vital for efficient, long-lasting, and functioning societies. In the earliest nomadic tribes there probably were some sort of basic understood rules that all member abided by. They may have been obvious things like, don't murder other tribe members, or don't steal food. To break these rules would result in communal backlash. Also, there is evidence that these people had some ideas of an afterlife. Fear of not having a good time after you die would have been a great force too. As a tribe grew more complex the laws had to expand too. There may have been laws governing different occupations or situations. Laws helped clear up and establish procedures and customs. While they complexified life, they also took away many worries. They would have helped keep things in order and direct people in different situations as cultures grew more sophisticated. Of course, as the number of these laws increased, it would have been impossible for an ordinary person to remember every one of them, in times before writing and alphabets, the responsibility would have had to be passed on to a group of people. These could be any number of different types, priests, elders, wisemen, council members, or shamans. But of course, a growing society placed other demands on these people, and more people meant that you could have people who solely spend their lives memorizing legal rules. Whoever ruled the tribe could then draw on these as advisors in daily and long-term issues. As the number and complexity of the laws continued to grow, the specialists would have divided them up into common subjects, such as civil or criminal law. At this time society was probably already urbanized, and far from the nomadic life before. This new highly complexified and sophisticated culture was strongly influenced by three principal forces: laws, government, and religion. Laws served the function of protecting people’s rights or making sure that the economic or political systems functioned smoothly. Government had two jobs, apply its power to tackle everyday issues and situations, and plan and safeguard future growth and welfare. Religion served as an explanation of phenomena, and an important aspect in shaping culture.

Even small combinations of these three forces could produce very different civilizations, a comparison of that could be made in the differences of Egyptian and Mesopotamian lands. Ancient Egypt, during the times it was united, put together all three forces in the pharaoh. He was lawgiver, absolute ruler, and a descendant of the gods all in one. It is important to note that in Egypt all property was considered to belong to the Pharaoh, while the people were mere holders of it. Mesopotamia went an entirely different course, splitting up the three forces to a great degree. Rulers considered themselves only agents who carry out their god’s/gods’ commands. Government and religion have always been closely tied to each other.

But the important thing is that government and law were separated. Ever since writing laws could be set down on tablets, always able to be referred to later. This was completely solidified by Hammurabi’s Code of Laws (about 1800 B.C.), although earlier codes are known to exist. The significance of this was that a ruler could no longer change a law to suit his/her particular needs. This greatly protected the people’s rights. Also, private property was recognized and the rules of its exchange, along with many other commercial exchanges, were laid out in laws.

Of course laws would still have to be changed to fit changing ways. But changing often very old rules would not be easy, and public unrest or even revolt might happen if some king just did it by himself. The process of changing these laws would be a great facet of government in the future.

1 comment:

GeoBandy said...

Nice to see you're posting again. I come by regularly to see what you're thinking and writing about, it's always interesting. Have you ever come across a book called "The Golden Bough"? The author's name escapes me at the moment. I think with your interest in the origins of societal constructs you'd find that book worth a look. It's an older book, and maybe a bit dated in some of its assumptions, but then again, just because sociologists or political scientists today see things differently doesn't necessarily mean they're right.
Most of what we "know" about prehistory is based on HUGE assumptions extrapolated from tiny bits of fragmentary evidence.