In ancient Greece, there was Themis (personified by the Titan goddess of divine law, the first-born daughter of Heaven and Earth (Ouranos and Gaia), second wife (after Metis) to Zeus, and mother of the Morai, Horai, the Nymphs, and occasionally of Prometheus) and nomos, the law that was generally applied to humans (Nomos is also considered to be the law, deified, though the evidence of this is a little leaner than for Themis–maybe an aspect of Zeus). Depending on how we interpret this maxim overall, and the word nomos in particular, this maxim can really be perceived as saying a variety of things from “obey the law” (literally) to “follow order” (as opposed to chaos).
I am tired of people saying that poor character is the only reason people do wrong things. Actually, circumstances cause people to act a certain way. It’s from those circumstances that a person’s attitude is affected followed by weakening of character. Not the reverse. If we had no faults of our own, we should not take so much pleasure in noticing those in others and judging their lives as either black or white, good or bad. We all live our lives in shades of gray.”
― Shannon L. Alder
I’ve been thinking about doing this maxim for a while now… Especially with the chronic epidemic of over-zealous policing and police brutality finally coming to light. Especially since the reality of crime in the US is that its been in a downward trend since its peak in the 1990’s and is at its lowest levels over all since the 1960’s (as is drug use, teen pregnancy, and a number of other social statistics that we generally perceive as “bad”). The current methods of policing are especially troubling when they are coupled with the deep seated and pervasive racial disparity that occurs in our so-called justice system. Every time I start to think about it too much, I get discouraged. More discouraged that I get even when I think about the environment, because I can at least see how the self-serving interest of the ignorant and apathetic might be transformed into action (eventually)…
Small men command the letter of the law. Great men serve its spirit. For the spirit of the law is justice… and justice is the spirit of God.”
― J.C. Marino, Dante’s Journey
Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
― Benjamin Franklin
I think before we can ever discuss the problems of our justice system though, we need to address the issue of justice. Certainly, we should obey the law–when the law is just, when there are no mitigating circumstances that would require breaking the law to uphold or protect something more important (like our own life or the life of a child) or to prevent something bad from happening (breaking into a car to rescue a forgotten child on a hot sunny day…even if that “child” turns out to be one of those creepy dolls).
There is no greater tyranny than that which is perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name of justice.
―Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws
But what is the goal of justice? To ensure fairness? To ensure order?To protect the unprivileged from the excesses and abuse of privileged? I would hope that, to some degree, it would be all of these (and for some other reasons, not enumerated). The problem then, of justice comes in reconciling the fact that the three of these things (and more) don’t always lead to the same actions (or laws) being just.
Our challenge in seeking to “obey the law” is to determine whether the spirit of the law or the letter of the law is more important when there are questions concerning the “keepability” of a law. After all, what is legal isn’t always what is ethical.
For there is but one essential justice which cements society, and one law which establishes this justice. This law is right reason, which is the true rule of all commandments and prohibitions. Whoever neglects this law, whether written or unwritten, is necessarily unjust and wicked.
― Marcus Tullius Cicero, On the laws
Past thoughts on this Maxim:
(these are all fairly old posts, since the Delphic Maxim blogging thing was a few years ago, and I only started doing it again because it tickled my fancy)
by Star Foster (as an FYI, AFAIK, she no longer actively blogs)
a translation I like!
obey the law, but be smart about it
a pithy interpretation