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Law and Legal Authority in Western Society
Many tenets we consider rudimentary to western democracies today were cultivated not by the enlightenment thinkers of the French Revolution or the humanist scholars of Renaissance, but by the legal doctrines derived from the innovation and religious structures in the Ancient Near East. While we owe much of our civic foundation to the legal corollary of these cultural advancements of our neighbors to the east, the western, democratic institutions under which we reside today were born from a long line of constitutional growth in its predecessors’ distinctly western political ideology. As time unites us all in its ever-present change and ceaseless advancement, cultural geography divides and individualizes us as it has with western political thought. While the legalities of western society have been persuaded and molded to fit the needs of an era or location, its seemingly durable pillars have upheld its most basic principles
throughout the ages. Chief legal works of distinct time periods in the history of western civilization highlight the longevity of these principles unthwarted by time. The Code of Hammurabi, the Magna Carta, and the Edict of Nantes illuminate not only the focus on theoretical codes of justice paramount to western democracy but also the aspects of ever shifting legal authority and its subsequent questions of equity.
While society’s definition of justice today might be a bit softer, the Code of Hammurabi, often considered one of the influential legal documents of western civilization, is pinnacle in the underpinnings of crime and punishment in western civilization. While argument over whether or not an eye for an eye is truly justice, considering our conditioned beliefs on cruel and unusual punishment and our general understanding of basic human rights, prevails today, there is no denying the straightforward regulations and correlative punishments described in Hammurabi’s Code detail a kind of elementary system of crime delineation. While the Code does not explicitly state the hierarchy of power, the premise is implicit; Hammurabi makes the rules, and everyone must follow said rules. Naturally documents such as this would cause any student of western political thought to critique its contemporary lack of checks and balances, but his can be accounted for in the constitutional growth of western political thought as the Code of Hammurabi was implemented in a political realm showing almost no resemblance to a democracy and was still highly influenced by Ancient Near Eastern cultural practice. Nonetheless, the Code of Hammurabi’s basic formula for crime and punishment, its implicit establishment of legal authority, and our present-day analytical skepticism brought on by the clear lack of civic equity or a fair trial system for that matter, render it a foundational piece in the canon of western political doctrine.
Another principle doctrine, perceivably more similar to our own constitution in the United States, is the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta, often heralded for its ingenuity in the protection of the rights of the citizens in western civilization, like the Code of Hammurabi establishes a set of numerous law codes but also establishes protections of the English landowning aristocrats and the church against certain determinedly unjust rulings of the monarchy. This serves as an example pf the growth of western democracy in increased focused on the rights of the individual, not quite the average man but the individual nevertheless, but the framework is structed by justice and the positioning of legal authority. The Magna Carta provides updated laws ranging from dowager debts to compromises for the constables. Most notably though are its protections of the barons from the monarchy. Not dissimilar to our own bill of rights, albeit definitively not as liberal, are the Magna Carta’s provisions on the rights of the accused. Again, any scholar of western civilization and its politics would have a decided amount of skepticism considering the amount of church involvement retained in the document, but the mere mention of rights of the arguably accused is a sign of growth from Hammurabi’s Code. This also highlights that in some intrinsic element of western political ideology, there is a determined measure of both justice and authority which supersedes the reach of the emperor, king, president etc. The Magna Carta is leaps and bounds ahead of Hammurabi’s Code by an and all measures of contemporary western society, but like the Code its framework and insistent element remain the same; the administration of crime and punishment and its adherence to the just principles of the burgeoning democratic ideals in England, and the shift in legal authority and which guiding principles should restrict the role of an executive form of government.
The Edict of Nantes, regarded as an early notation on the protection and role of secularism in government, is another key document in tracing the lineage of western political ideology. The most prominent focus in the Edict is that of legal protection and equity. As all adjustments of legal authority in western government have, Catholic rule left French Huguenots sparring for tolerance and political equity where they might have been able to find it. While the Edict of Nantes’s may seem trivial in comparison to the Magna Carta, it is important to note that this is the protection of a minority. This is another major step in constitutional growth but clearly reflects of a shift in legal authority leads to a subsequent shift in political equity. The Edict’s decriminalization of much of French Huguenot life not only shifts power from the Catholic authority, but states that religion cannot be justly punishable by the mere fact of being different.
The wide range of political literature that has accumulated over the lifespan of Western Civilization highlights both the growth and manipulation of western political ideals. We often analyze these documents through the lens of our own contemporary, western, democratic government, and while you can see much of our history in these documents, you can also see our distinct differences from the cultures which created them. A common thread of justice and political equity weaves its presence throughout, quietly at first then more boldly with time. While political thought may have changed with time, the basic principles which formulate western civilization’s unique political identity have not. The ideals of justice and the resolutions for political equity have been behind the fires fueling change and revolution for years, as demonstrated by the array of time periods of these particular documents. Looking to the future, the tenets of western political thought will remain the same, and it is these tenets that will continue to shift the legal authority assumedly in favor of political equity for the common man.
- Claire Breay, Magna Carta: Manuscripts and Myths, British Library, 2002.
- J. H. Robinson, ed., Readings in European History, vol. II (Boston: Ginn, 1905), pp. 183–185.
- William Stearns Davis, Readings in Ancient History, vol. I, Greece and the East (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1913), pp. 35–38.
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