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Living Under Law

by Christopher Chantrill
January 01, 2005 at 12:18 pm

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IN the United States, the immigrant groups that have most successfully assimilated are those that possessed a culture of literacy and living under law, according to Thomas Sowell. It is clear why this is so.  In the country, people live under power. In the city, people live under law.

In the face-to-face community of the countryside, conflict was resolved by the power of the local landlord.  But in about 500 BC in China, the ego of the local lord had expanded into the ruinous warfare of the Warring States period.  Something had to tame the warring egos of the land.  As Huston Smith tells the story, this new thing was created in the spiritual awakening of the Axial Age, when Confucianism, Buddhism, and Judaism all were founded with their specific and self-conscious articulation of the correct path for the individual ego in the Five Relationships, the Eightfold Way, and the Ten Commandments.  What all these new self-conscious traditions understood was that pure power, the ego power that had burst the bonds of face-to-face community, was a problem. Human society, as it emerged from the face-to-face village community, could not be successfully carried forward solely by egotistical warlords who understood nothing but power.  The power of the unbridled ego that operates beyond the face-to-face society had to be limited by rules.

The Axial Age did not solve the problem of the unbridled ego for all time.  Its achievement was to record the problem of the unbridled ego as a great human drama, and to show that it was possible to transcend the heritage of unconscious tradition and also mitigate the brutal world of ego and power. The doctrine of might-is-right could be transcended by a higher power that stood above all power relations and could judge the actions of the powerful.  This higher power was law, growing out of the twin cultural foundations of reason and literacy.  

Law is a city phenomenon. It is in the city that the individual ego, the force that challenged the face-to-face society, is once more contained. The law of the city responds to the breakdown in kinship and the rise of the individual ego.  It marks the decline of the perpetual family and the rise of the purposeful individual.  Law waits upon the birth of reason, the idea that the universe operates by rule in regular, predictable ways, and not at the will and prompting of familiar spirits.

The rise of the European city over the last one thousand years has encouraged a move away from the power relations and the life-or-death struggle over land to the growth of law and contract.  The first to flourish,—Venice, Florence, and Genoa—were the commercial hubs of northern Italy, with Venice and Genoa establishing naval empires in the Mediterranean and Florence becoming a major center of woolen manufacture and banking. 

Law does not emerge in the city out of genius or great leadership.  It emerges through necessity and through the painstaking accumulation of experience, as expressed in case law and legislation.  In the city, the merchants need a culture that honors the idea of a contract and rewards trust and honorable dealings. They also need quick and fair adjudication of their disputes, because time is money.  Thus the city calls forth a culture of law, a mitigation of power relationships into a matrix of rules, and the softening of family and blood kinship into the individual, the family, and the perpetual corporation as the atomic nuclei of society.  Law is not just a codification of power relationships, but a genuine transcending of the simple calculus of power with something universal and beneficial to all. He who learns the art of living under law has learned to thrive in the city.  The law of the city is the rule of the road to the middle class.

  Over one hundred and fifty years ago, the Irish came to America from a land of arbitrary British power and oppression.  They struggled to adapt to the free air of New York and Boston and took the greater part of a century to cast off the culture of pessimism. But the Jews, who had spent the previous millennium reading and arguing over the Torah in their synagogues, leapt at the opportunities of the new land and began to challenge the WASP elite within a generation of their arrival.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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Faith & Purpose

“When we began first to preach these things, the people appeared as awakened from the sleep of ages—they seemed to see for the first time that they were responsible beings, and that a refusal to use the means appointed was a damning sin.”
Finke, Stark, The Churching of America, 1776-1990


Mutual Aid

In 1911... at least nine million of the 12 million covered by national insurance were already members of voluntary sick pay schemes. A similar proportion were also eligible for medical care.
Green, Reinventing Civil Society


Education

“We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.”
E. G. West, Education and the State


Living Under Law

Law being too tenuous to rely upon in [Ulster and the Scottish borderlands], people developed patterns of settling differences by personal fighting and family feuds.
Thomas Sowell, Conquests and Cultures


German Philosophy

The primary thing to keep in mind about German and Russian thought since 1800 is that it takes for granted that the Cartesian, Lockean or Humean scientific and philosophical conception of man and nature... has been shown by indisputable evidence to be inadequate. 
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West


Knowledge

Inquiry does not start unless there is a problem... It is the problem and its characteristics revealed by analysis which guides one first to the relevant facts and then, once the relevant facts are known, to the relevant hypotheses.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities


Chappies

“But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.”  —Freddy Arbuthnot
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


Democratic Capitalism

I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism


Action

The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness... But to make a man act [he must have] the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


Churches

[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


Conversion

“When we received Christ,” Phil added, “all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.”
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh


Living Law

The recognition and integration of extralegal property rights [in the Homestead Act] was a key element in the United States becoming the most important market economy and producer of capital in the world.
Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital


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©2015 Christopher Chantrill