Tag: Ancient law

116. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

116. Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (c.350 BC)

Plot:  A discussion of the virtues and vices in the character of man.

My copy is still from the 2 volumes of the works of Aristotle which form part of the series Great Books of the Western World, published by Encyclopaedia Britannica in 1952. I would prefer a more approachable and perhaps more true translation, but needs must.

My thoughts:

First things first, the term Nicomachean is not mentioned by Aristotle in the work itself, but seems to have been a dedication to either his father or son (both were named Nicomachus).

The lecture starts with the question “What is happiness?”    Aristotle admits that most men equate happiness with pleasure, some others with honour, wealth or a life of contemplation. But happiness is bigger and more final than any of these ; it is the ultimate good for which the others are simply a means to achieve. (Admittedly happiness also requires a degree of luck or prosperity along the way!)

Not content with this definition, Aristotle pushes further to suggest that happiness must be entwined with the function of man, and results in the view that happiness requires the “virtuous activity of the soul”.  I started to disagree here, as he points out that animals and small children cannot feel happiness as they are incapable of this virtuosity. Perhaps he would distinguish joy from happiness, but you cannot tell me a small boy playing with his dog are not both capable of feeling and demonstrating obvious happiness.

He classifies virtues as either intellectual (such as philosophical wisdom and practical wisdom) or moral (liberality, temperance, courage, etc.) Moral virtues are a result of the nature of the individual reinforced by habit, with the ideal being an intermediate point between extreme vices  of excess and defect

To someone at the extreme end of one of these states, an intermediate person may seem to be at the opposite extreme, (i.e. a miser would see a liberal person as much a spendthrift as a carefree squanderer). Sometimes one extreme is more acceptable than the other, or closer to the intermediate (e.g. a rash and confident person will be more admired than a coward, and deemed not so far removed from the courageous ideal)

Thankfully Aristotle recognises that the intermediate state (virtue) is an ideal for which we must strive but cannot always reach.

“Any one can get angry – that is easy – or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble”    page 354.

But virtues (and vices) are voluntary choices : it is in the individual’s power to act (or not act) in their belief of what is good to achieve the end they desire. (Acts may also be involuntary for which no blame ensues e.g. things done under compulsion or through ignorance – although drunkeness, carelessness or ignorance of the law is not considered involuntary). This is a more realistic approach to the foundation of criminal law than Plato’s (Socrates’?) statement that no person knowingly does wrong, and approaches the basis of our modern criminal law – I wonder if legal philosophy in modern law courses includes the Nicomachean Ethics?

Aristotle then goes on to discuss moral virtues and vices individually. Much of this was straightforward and reminded me of an old snakes and ladders game I had as a child where shameful characteristics such as pride, profligacy and envy sent you down a snake, while the corresponding virtues led you up ladders.

I skimmed over the chapters on justice and intellectual virtues, and settled down to read about friendship. Aristotle classifies friendships in three types (excluding friendships of association such as fellow-travellers) : (i) friendships of utility, where one person gains an advantage from the relationship, and these only last as long as the usefulness continues, (ii) friendships of pleasure, where a person is amused by the company of another and (iii) ‘true’ friendship which is based on mutual love and goodwill between the friends, and is long lasting, takes time to develop and is proofed against slander of each party from outside. This discussion wanders around to comment on political constitutions and family relationships as well, but was easy to follow.

Favourite lines/passages:

“Those who are called by such names as ‘miserly’, ‘close’, ‘stingy’, all fall short in giving  … to this class belong the cheeseparer and every one of the sort”                              page 368

“For his friend is another self”                                                                                                 page 419

Diversions/digressions:  After Aristotle left Athens, his School was taken over by one of his students Theophrastus, who also wrote on many topics. Although better known for his contributions to botany, one of his surviving works Characters is a series of brief character sketches of different moral types, and may be a sort of descendant of this work. I’ll get to it once Aristotle is done.

Personal rating: Difficult to stick at – some parts were obvious and easy to follow, while others become convoluted and required more concentration than I admittedly gave them. Settle for a 4.

The sanity in between:  Desperation by Stephen King. Had been taking up space on my shelves. Similar ground covered as his classic The Stand  (which was much better and deserves a re-read itself) but this still kept me intrigued to the end.

Next : More Aristotle. Perhaps The Art of Rhetoric.


109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

109. The Laws by Plato (c. 348 BC)

Plot:   An Athenian, a Spartan and a Cretan walk into a bar …. no, sorry, …. walk from Cnossus to Zeus’ shrine on Crete, listening to the nameless Athenian formulate legislation for a new city to be called Magnesia.

Having recognized that his ideas for the ideal society as described in The Republic are unlikely to see the light of day, Plato here addresses a second-best blueprint for his utopia by laying down laws for every aspect of human life, from birth to death and everything in between.

My edition is the Penguin Classic translated by Trevor Saunders (ISBN 0140442227)

My thoughts:  The last of Plato I will probably ever read, and not too bad an experience, albeit lengthy, and my mind did start to wander by the time I reached the criminal law section. He does not hide behind Socrates any more, but still puts his words into the mouth of this ‘nameless Athenian’. The constant agreement of the other two with Plato’s suggestions becomes tiresome, so I simply learnt to skip their comments (which are mostly just a phrase or two praising or asking for more clarity, on Plato’s ideas).

These ideas, expressed as laws and guidelines to build and maintain his idea of Utopia are a mixed bag when taken from a 21st century viewpoint. On the plus side are his views on the equality of women, where a society which does not train women in the same way as men is “only half a state, and develops only half its potentialities, whereas with the same cost and effort, it could double its achievement”   (page 294)

while on the negative are his strong views on censorship in the arts, where music and literature are heavily regulated to prevent subversive progress or innovation for the sake of novelty.

“No one shall sing a note, or perform any dance movement, other than those in the canon of public songs, sacred music, and the general body of chorus performances…”   (page 286)

The projected utopia Magnesia is to be formed from 5,040 households, no more or less, at the time of establishment, as that magic number can be divided by all numbers 1-12 (except 11) making it ideal for administrative purposes. Oh, and buying or selling your house or land is a criminal act – you must stick to what you are given – which in theory would make real estate agents at best redundant and at worst criminals 🙂

Wealth and money is generally frowned upon, except for small amounts to pay tradesmen and wages for slaves. This last point I had not heard before, but it could have only been small amounts – maybe to let them buy some food or clothes?

And when selecting settlers from other parts of Crete to embark on this new enterprise, if anyone should not agree to their participation, they would be “gently compelled” 😦

The section on impiety towards the end did revive my interest, as it discussed three kinds of heresy : (i) disbelief in the gods (atheism), (ii) belief in gods who ignore man entirely, and (iii) belief in gods who could be persuaded by prayer or sacrifices to turn a blind eye to bad behaviour, all of which could weaken the morals underlying the community laws Plato was setting down. The argument for refuting all these heresies is based on the primary existence of a soul (actually two souls, one good and one evil) which brings about motion and order in the universe, and from which all else has arisen, and disregarding the supposed atheistic belief that everything in nature has arisen by randomness and chance.

I must confess that after this section, the last 100 pages did not look particularly interesting, and I was content to let the three gentlemen walk on discussing commercial and family laws and other miscellaneous legislation without me.

Favourite lines/passages:

  • Drinking parties are an educational opportunity whereby resisting temptation of further pleasure once mildly inebriated helps build self-control. Indeed, drunkenness is frowned on, and wine is the gift of Dionysus “to help cure the crabbiness of age…. to make us young again…. ready to sing his songs .. with more enthusiasm and less embarrassment”  (page 105)
  • “All the gold upon the earth, and all the gold beneath it, does not compensate for lack of virtue”  (page 190)
  • “An expectant mother should think it important to keep calm and cheerful and sweet-tempered throughout her pregnancy”   (page 277)

Personal rating:  Only a 3. Sorry Plato me old china, and you put so much work into it too.

Also in that year (ish):  Around 349 BC Athens is at war with Macedonia, under the rule of Philip II. The next decade sees Macedonia eventually become the dominant Greek state, while Rome is now the dominant city on the Italian peninsula.

Next :  Adieu Plato (and Socrates), and welcome to the next generation with Aristotle’s musings On the Soul (De Anima)

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

106. On the Lacedaemonian Government (The Constitution of Sparta) by Xenophon (c.358 BC)

Plot:  A description of the rules of government of Sparta, providing a major source of otherwise scarce information about the daily life of that civilisation. Legend has it that Lycurgus made the Spartans promise to uphold these laws until he returned from visiting the Delphic Oracle. He never did return.

Lacedaemonia (or Laconia) is the region for which Sparta was the capital, as Athens was the capital of the Attica region, although I don’t remember seeing the names before now. I imagine if you lived a spartan lifestyle then your speech and manner might be described as laconic.

I can now return the Minor works edition of Xenophon (published 1888 by George Bell & Sons of London) to the library. How many more years will it sit quietly on the shelves at the back of the 800s?

My thoughts: My final read by Xenophon (there is another treatise on the Constitution of Athens, but that is now believed not to have been written by Xenophon, and is attributed to the “Old Oligarch”)

The points that stand out when reading this are the differences from what we think as normal for Ancient Greece. Remember the following are taken from legislation enacted by Lycurgus to establish the military themed society for which Sparta was noted.

  • To ensure healthy robust children, it was required that older men with younger wives should introduce them to virile younger men to father their children, and men unable or unwilling to have children with their wives might father children on other men’s wives (with their consent)
  • Spartan boys were raised with less clothes and food than would make them comfortable, to prepare them for hardship during campaigns. However, the boys were encouraged to steal as much cheese as they could, to foster their skills in procuring supplies in wartime. But of course, if caught they would be punished.
  • Unlike the rest of Greece, sexual relations between men and boys was considered to be on a par with incest.
  • All citizens were to eat their meals in public to ensure they did not succumb to gluttony or drunkenness,
  • Parents were allowed to chastise not only their own children, but others as well,
  • Free men were prohibited from any form of business, and the possession of gold or silver was a punishable offence,
  • Citizens were not allowed to live in other countries “lest they be initiated in licentiousness”

Lycurgus (if indeed he was a real person) lived around 900 BC, and, alas, by the time Xenophon was writing, he himself admits the Spartans did not continue to obey all these laws so thoroughly.

Personal rating:   Short but interesting. A 5.

Next :  Farewell and thanks for the company Xenophon.  Next is Timaeus by Plato, discussing “cosmology and anthropology”

22. The Holy Bible : The Old Testament books 1-5

The Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy)
covering from the creation of the Heavens and the Earth, to the death of Moses.

My thoughts : As said previously, I will not comment on the text as religion, merely my experiences in dealing with the books as literature and evidence of life and customs in the ancient world.
I have not read the Bible in detail before, but having grown up in a Christian environment and done my fair share of Sunday School classes, the basic stories were familiar : the Creation, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Abel and Cain, Noah and his Ark, the Tower of Babel, Lot escaping from Sodom and Gomorrah, and the story of Moses from being found as a babe in the bullrushes beside the Nile, through the plagues of Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, and the 40 years in the wilderness.
Reading the complete books was quite laborious with so much repetition (Deuteronomy was almost entirely repetition of earlier sections), family histories, and detail of sacrifices (reminiscent of the offerings to the Gods in Homer’s Iliad). There was quite a long section inserted in the story of Moses to proscribe laws, not a little unlike the Laws of Hammurabi to protect society and provide guidelines for conduct. But I did learn some details to the above stories, at least by my interpretation of the text
• Man was meant to be a vegetarian, but had come to eating meat by the time of Noah
• There were two trees in the Garden of Eden, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve and Adam ate of the latter, and God banished them from the Garden in case they also ate of the Tree of Life and became immortal
• The mark put on Cain was to warn others not to kill him so he would long suffer for his sin
• There were giants in the days of Methuselah
• Noah collected seven pairs of each type of clean (edible) animal and one pair of each type of unclean animal. It rained for 40 days but the flood stayed on the earth for 150 days.
• Esau the hairy man and hunter, and his untrustworthy brother Jacob. Esau reminded me of Enkidu from the Gilgamesh epic. His description here seems too much for coincidence.
• There was a second set of tablets with the Ten Commandments inscribed presented to Noah by God after the first were smashed
• The dietary restrictions other than pigs, such as rabbits, swans and seafood
• The Israelites’ forty years wandering in the wilderness was to ensure none of that generation, who had disobeyed and angered God, survived to see the promised land of milk and honey
There were also some things that disturbed me. The severity of God’s punishments, and his favouritism of the Israelites (despite their repeated transgressions) over the Canaanites, the Amorites and other tribes, was difficult to connect with the loving God of the New Testament. Lot offering up his daughters to the mob that visited his house to sodomise his guests. The plagues inflicted on the Egyptians as a result of Pharoah’s refusal to release the Israelites, yet it was God himself who repeatedly hardened Pharoah’s heart so He had reason to continue demonstrating His powers, even to killing the first born of every Egyptian family. The war against the Midianites, where Moses insisted after the battle that his soldiers kill all the women and male children, and enslave the girl children. The God of the Old Testament is indeed a jealous God and one ready to demand love through fear.

The Book of Deuteronomy ends with the Song of Moses, which has some vivid imagery in stark contrast to the tedious repetition of the preceding chapters.

“My doctrine shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distil as the dew, as the small rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass” Deut. 32 : 2

“For their vine is of the vine of Sodom, and of the fields of Gomorrah; their grapes are grapes of gall, their clusters are bitter, their wine is the poison of dragons and the cruel venom of asps.” Deut 32 : 32-33.

Favourite lines/passages : The lines that immediately resonated with me were those that have been quoted so often since, notably “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22) and “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live (Exodus 22 : 18) but my favourite was very reassuring on a personal level in the section about lepers “And the man whose hair is fallen off his head, he is bald yet he is clean” (Leviticus 13 : 40) Phew!

Personal rating : As the source of literary themes and background, Genesis and Exodus were worthwhile reading. The other three books were a disagreeable and diminishing experience to read. 3/10

Next : I need a break before tacking more Old Testament, so I will move onto the Odes of Pindar.

2. Code of Laws promulgated by Hammurabi, King of Babylon, c.1700 BC

Version : I had an old (1903) copy in my library, and there are copies available in print via online booksellers for around $4-$5, but the text can also be found online at http://www.constitution.org/ime/hammurabi.htm

Content : A list of laws, penalties, fines, wages and fees in ancient Babylonia. What is a fairly dry list of laws actually provides a lot of insight into life in ancient times. Reading the laws provides evidence of the presence of
• agriculture, irrigation canals, tillage, tenancy of land, corn and sesame, orchards, sheep grown for wool (and prey to lions), and allowance for storm, flood and drought
• belief in magic and witchcraft
• slavery
• doctors and veterinarians (with set fees, and penalties if their patients died)
• merchants keeping written records and using money
• marriage, separation, divorce, adoption and inheritance
• adultery, incest, rape, kidnapping and manslaughter
• theft, assault, defamation, brawling
with much resulting “put to death” or “bound and thrown into the water”, with the occasional burning alive, impalement and maiming. Even governors and magistrates were not immune to such harsh treatment. Also, the famous Old Testament “eye for an eye, and tooth for a tooth” is literally recommended as fair retribution.

My thoughts : Certainly not a volume for repeat reading for pleasure, but interesting nonetheless, and shows how original sources can inform historians about many social practices of the time. It also provided some legal protection for women and the poor in an age when their rights surely would not have been recognized otherwise, including a minimum wage and the presumption of innocence.

Favourite lines/passages
#109 If a wine merchant has collected a riotous assembly in her house and has not seized those rioters and driven them to the palace, that wine merchant shall be put to death.

Personal rating 3/10

Next : The Egyptian Book of the Dead.