Review: The Rule of Laws

The Rule of Laws, Fernanda Pirie. New York: Basic Books, 2021.

Summary: A four thousand-year history of the ways different cultures have ordered their societies through various forms of law.

Every group of people develops rules to order their life together. And this has been true throughout history, whether through rulings of the city elders at the gate resolving various disputes through various legal codes. Fernanda Pirie set herself the task in this book of describing and making some sense of the four thousand year global history of laws in their various forms.

She identifies three major streams of law, the Mesopotamian that influenced the West, the Indian Brahmin, and that of China, influence much of east and southeast Asia. The book consists of three parts: the visions of order that accounted for the rise of these traditions from the Code of Hammurabi through to the European courts that arose in the wake of the fall of Rome; the development of these traditions in the Medieval period tracing the expansion upon religious law, imperial law in China and the courts and customs of Europe; and finally, law in the modern law and the development of the rule of law in western democracies and its import into colonial situations, the growth of Islamic Law, and the expansion of international law.

She traces a common thread through history: the use and development of law to order society–punishing murder, compensating injuries and damages, regulating marriage, family, and inheritance, protecting property and regulating commerce. She explores the various forms of laws from case laws to legal codes and common law, administrative structures to promulgate and implement legal codes from trade associations to royal courts, and the judicial structures to adjudicate disputes, determining guilt and innocence, and passing sentences. One of the most fascinating chapters traced the use of ordeal when the veracity of witnesses could not be readily discerned to the subsequent development of rules of evidence and trials by a jury of one’s peers. What is also striking is the fascinating array of ways in which all this was implemented from mediators to local to royal rulers and emperors, to our modern courts.

For me, the book alternated between fascinating discussions and hard slogs through an array of practices and their variations in various European royal courts, along with movement, often within chapters from European to Islamic to Chinese systems. The array of detail made it difficult at times to see the forest for all the individually interesting trees. I found it hard to discern a larger argument or structure with the mass of descriptive detail, apart from the overview and concluding discussions of the universal development of legal systems to organize social life.

Perhaps it is the task this author set herself, one for which she evidences obvious enthusiasm, to render a global history of law in under 460 pages of text. The tension between comprehensiveness and elegant structure must have been a challenge. The work has this in its favor, it is free of legal jargon and highly readable over all. And it raises the profound question of why so many and various cultures found it necessary to use laws to order their lives.

3 thoughts on “Review: The Rule of Laws

  1. As my philosophy elective in college, I took the Philosophy of Law course taught by a self-described agnostic. He used this descriptor often as he worked through the “why” of laws over time. As he walked backward in history, he expressed frustration and wonder at the way humans have universally established some sort of legal system in whatever culture they live in.

    Liked by 1 person

    • C.S. Lewis speaks of our innate sense of “fairness” that transcends culture and points to the law written on the heart. I suspect it is immensely frustrating to an agnostic to ponder who was responsible for this.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: May 2022 | Bob on Books

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