Monday, December 11, 2017

The lady or the law?

      The photo to the right, of course, is the scrum of people crowded around the Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci's masterwork on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris. 
     I commented upon it after  visiting last spring. The crowd was so dense you could feel the humidity coming off their bodies—the gallery where the painting is displayed reminded me of a high school gym. 
     Now direct your attention to the photograph below, also at the Louvre. 
     Do you recognize the black basalt column? Don't feel bad if you don't. I imagine most people will draw a blank . 
    Take a second look.
     Any idea?
    It's the Code of Hammurabi. 
    Not the oldest set of laws—though the basalt stele is over 3,000 years old. But the "most complete and perfect extant collection of Babylonian laws" to come down to us, discovered in what is now Iran in 1901. 
    The code contains 282 laws, related to a range of areas: contracts, marriage, divorce, assault, theft, liability and punishments. 
     Parts are familiar to this day, such as No. 196, spelling out a classic concept of justice:
     "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man's bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one gold mina. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price."
      This "eye for an eye" might at first blush seem ancient and brutal to us now, though not as much as we'd like. Known as "lex talionis"—the law of retaliation—to this day it's the justification we use to execute murderers. You took something away from someone, now we're taking the same thing. It's odd. If we merely plucked out an offender's eye, it would be considered barbaric. Yet snuffing out an entire life is somehow less so.
     Notice also that the punishment meted out depends not only on the crime, but the person upon whom the crime is committed. The status of the criminal was also significant. 
     In that way, the code is different than our current laws. In theory. We like to think that we've progressed from days of ancient tyrants, though in this way the code has us beat: status, both of victims and perpetrators, is in practice an important factor, still—maybe the important factor—even though our law pretends it isn't. A death in one part of town is not the same as a death in another. A rich man lawyers up while a poor man sits in jail because of some piddling bond he can't pay.
     Maybe we would be better off if we were honest about it and wrote this injustice into our laws. At least then it would be clear.
     Though my goal isn't to criticize law; it is the only thing, a thin wall of words, that stands between us an despotism. Even in ancient Babylon they knew that. Nowadays, we tend to forget. 
     I want you to notice one other thing about the Code of Hammurabi. Look at the photograph again. What's missing? Take a second. Anything not there? Glance back at the Mona Lisa for a hint.
     People. The room is completely empty. I sought it out because I knew it was there and wanted to show my wife, a lawyer. I knew she would enjoy seeing it, and she did. But the masses don't bother. They pack into a gallery to see a painting they are already vastly familiar with. And probably don't even know that one of the earliest examples of the framework of law that supports all of our lives is in another gallery, largely ignored. 
    It's a worrisome neglect, because our fidelity for the law is of the utmost importance, as we in the United States will find out, sooner than later. Do we really value what we have? Do we understand its magnificence? 
    Between the Mona Lisa and the code, which is the true wonder? Which is the greater example of genius? 


  1. One of Anthony Trollope's shorter and lesser known novels is titled "An Eye for an Eye." Its ending is shocking despite adequate foreshadowing and illustrates how deeply ingrained is the desire for retribution as opposed to the respect for formal law. It also reflects the importance of status and gender in Victorian times. They may be even more important in our day because we pretend that status and gender distinctions no longer exist.


  2. There is an intermediary for crime and punishment between The Code of Hammurabi and U.S. Law, which is Mosaic Law. Mosaic Law has the death sentence for various crimes, but generally requires the testimony of two witnesses to the fact before a death sentence can be applied. They also had a law that if a witness is found to have committed perjury they would be subject to the same punishment as the accused they were lying about. For example, if you said it's Trump's fault that people were killed in violence over moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, you would be guilty under Mosaic Law and subject to the same sentence Trump would receive, that is a Presidential pardon.

  3. The law is indeed a grand thing. The administration of criminal law was first codified in the Anglo Saxon world by the Statute of Winchester, in 1285, which "constituted two constables in every hundred to prevent defaults in town and highways" and outlined their duties: "in whatever way they come and, on whatever day it is the duty of the constable to enroll everything in order, for he has record of the things he sees: but he cannot judge." Thus, the notion that police powers should be limited and closely regulated by a judicial authority was established early on.

    The community nature of peace-keeping was also reflected in the statute, wherein it was provided that "anyone, either a constable or a private citizen who witnessed a crime shall make hue and cry, and that the hue and cry should be kept up against the fleeing criminal from town to town and from county to county until the felon be apprehended and delivered to the authorities." All able bodied men, upon hearing the shouts, were obliged to assist in pursuit of the criminal, with those who abstained becoming liable for losses from theft or robbery.


  4. This piece certainly presents an interesting observation and juxtaposition, but the attempt to extrapolate from it seems a bit of a stretch, to me. Sorry! Are you worried that your wife doesn't really "value what we have" or "understand its magnificence?" Because it sounds like she'd have missed seeing the "Code of Hammurabi" if you hadn't pointed it out to her, just like the sweaty masses.

    At this point in our nation's history, I'm not *quite* so concerned with folks being suckers for the famous and popular, which is all this Mona Lisa business is really about, while ignoring what's unpopular and under-reported. That's not good, by any means, but has been commonplace for a long time. What scares me more is many people's willingness -- no, eagerness -- to ignore or dismiss well-reported, clearly significant factual information -- about science, about Dolt 45 and his band of cronies or about the Republican leadership in Congress and their motives. Is there *any* non-partisan evaluation of this tax bill that indicates that it's a good idea? Is there anybody outside of the bought-and-paid-for Congresscritters who voted for it who admires the way that it was created and thinks passing a bill with handwriting in the margins is fair, logical or acceptable?

    That being said -- yeah, we're coming to a point where we're gonna find out how much "law and order" Republicans really care about the law, and if it's only as much as they care about Russia, which for decades was their #1 evil empire, but now doesn't seem to concern them, or about deficits, which, during a Democratic administration are completely unacceptable, but while they're in charge aren't so bad -- well, we're in for a rough ride.

    "Same sentence... Presidential pardon." Nice one, Bernie!

    1. "Dolt 45" is pretty good too, Jakash. Though, in general, I'm opposed to invectives and nasty nicknames as a "descending to their level" tactic that doesn't help connect with the trumpites. But, of course, talking rationally, seriously and to the point has no effect on them either.

    2. Jakash, I'm a bit surprised with the first part of your comment. The Code of Hammurabi is something we would probably never have known about, or know about, were it not for this post on Neil's blog. I would be bored to tears reading about our current political doomsday machine every day...just sayin':)


    3. I hear ya, John, but respectfully disagree. After the election, but before the inauguration, I considered whether to stop with the silly name-calling and show "respect for the office." I surely bristled at some of the things folks called Obama during his administration, and didn't want to "descend to their level," as you say. Plus, (imagine this!) I actually thought that maybe the narcissistic charlatan would actually "pivot" and grow in the office, making the jibes unfair. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!! Not bloody likely!

      This guy is sui generis, IMHO. Obama didn't call *other* people Pocahontas or "Crooked Hillary" or rail almost daily against the "failing New York Times" and "fake news," for instance. Anyway, I'm not proud of it, but I feel like this guy can be disrespected in a blog comment at will, because he himself disrespects the very foundations this country has been built upon, and has no respect for civil discourse himself. As for "connecting with Trumpites" -- that's been proven to be a fool's errand that doesn't concern me in the least. Folks who remain among the 32% still backing him seem, by and large, willfully beyond the reach of reasonable argument, as you acknowledged.

      BTW, I saw "Dolt 45" elsewhere and did not coin it myself, but thanks! : )

    4. Well, sorry to disappoint you, Sandy @ 2:05. I said it was interesting, as is almost everything our host presents. His thoughts on the Code and the law seemed fine to me by themselves, without what I thought was the slightly strained juxtaposition of that with the crowd by the Mona Lisa. Hey, just offering my opinion, and I'd surely be among the last to vote for a daily analysis of our long national nightmare, so I guess I shouldn't have veered off in that direction, myself... : )

    5. Jakash: The line suggesting I was saying something bad about Edie was a reach on your part, Jakash, and I almost deleted it, but you're a regular commentator, and not as flinty as some, and I figured you were entitled to your lapses too. But that was a pretzel knot. I'm not castigating people for not knowing it was there, just observing that the lesser wonder is packed.

    6. Whoa, I'm on pretty thin ice here, evidently, but I would never have intended to suggest you were "saying something bad" about your wife. Indeed, there's nothing wrong with not knowing it's there, nor not knowing what it *is*, for that matter, nor did I suggest there was anything wrong with that. I was ham-handedly attempting to make the point that knowing nothing about the location of the Code and visiting the Mona Lisa instead doesn't imply anything about whether one appreciates what we have with regard to the rule of law or one's understanding of its magnificence.

      Obviously, I'm a big fan of yours and EGD, Neil, but I occasionally find things that I take a bit of an issue with. In those rare cases, I generally pull my punches and go with the maxim "If you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything." Apparently, I should have done that today, but thought my observation was pretty mild. I certainly apologize for expressing myself so poorly or offensively that you felt like deleting my comment. Thanks for your restraint, consideration and explanation.

      One thing's for sure -- we've heard way more than enough from me on this thread!

  5. I just finished reading a book ,Sapiens : a brief history of humankind by Yuval Harari. An excellent read. The Code of Hammurabi is referenced and excerpted several times. I'll admit that it's the first I'd heard of it and immediately had to Google it to find out more about what it was all about .
    In my opinion it's not the laws that differentiate us from despots and dictators , it's our justice system and how the judges fairly apply the laws.
    In many other countries the rich can buy their way out of their misdeeds. That's the difference ,in America no one is above the law rich or poor.
    Without everyone being equal under the law our society would devolve into chaos


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