A Comparison of Babylonian and Chinese Conceptions Of Law
The system of laws as we know it today is based upon justice, fairness and morality. The principals that dictate these aspects are molded over many years of social progress. We lived and learned from past mistakes that span thousands of years. It is our long history and our study of it that form the basis of our legal system today. The most basic necessity for law is to maintain order, the most fundamental requisite for society to exist. And this can be seen in even the earliest civilizations to settle the earth. And it is within these early civilizations that we find the fundamental principals that molded our legal system today. But whether these early laws were fair or moral for all individuals in society can be questioned by today s standards.
One early civilization to exhibit a developed legal system as seen in recorded history is the Babylonians. The passages presented in the Law Code the Babylonian king Hammurabi shows that the basic ideas of justice and requirements for social order were already in place. The Babylonians viewed their ruler Hammurabi as a wise and virtuous endowed with the support of the gods. And under no circumstances were the laws that he passed down to be questioned. Hammurabi s code was infallible in all respects at the time. Of course Hammurabi s laws undoubtedly maintained peace and order but the question of whether it was moral and just is another matter.
Hammurabi is said to have received the laws from a divine source, When the lofty Anu, king of the Anunnaki, and Bel, lord of heaven and earth, he who determines the destiny of the lan, committed the rule of all mankind to Marduk chief son of Ea When Marduk sent me (Hammurabi) to rule the people and bring help to the country, I established law and justice in the land and promoted the welfare of the people. Though it is believed so, analysis of the laws contained within Hammurabi s code reveals that its is composed by a man, and a man with a very primitive sense of justice. And this early concept of justice relied heavily upon the idea of an eye for an eye literally. For example If a physician operates on a man for a severe wound with a bronze lancet and causes the man s death . They shall cut his fingers off. It would be an understatement to say that this was maybe a little harsh by today s standards. Though in ideal this would cause the physician to no doubt attempt his best to cure the wounded, should his talents fall short is it truly justice to destroy the physician? This causes moral implications to arise such as the degree of punishment various crimes deserve and even, in the case with the physician, a crime at all.
A fundamental concept of law is that should it be broken, then punishment must be imposed on the wrong doer. Yet upon analysis of Hammurabi s code, we can see that most of the laws written or narrow and encompass very simple day to day situations. It obvious that it is more a historic account of past occurrences and the resulting verdict there of. In no way would this system be able to handle the demands of a larger more evolved society nor was there reason behind the validity of this verdict. Punishment for even the smallest crimes can be strangely severe and sometimes even cruel, such as the one dealing with the physician. And even the idea of what is crime is blurred simply for the sake of getting even and appeasing the victim. Babylonian law relies too heavily upon what is fair but not necessarily what is just and moral.
The Babylonian system of laws seem obsessed with the idea of getting even an eye for an eye . If a man destroys the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. Plain and simply said, though however barbaric by today s standards, it is still a basic human impulse. We can still see its influence in today s society from Hollywood to the death penalty. And it is this basic human impulse that influences a lot of Hammurabi s code. It shows the infancy of the concept of justice and how human emotion was confused with what is justice at that time.
Hammurabi s laws are no doubt stern and effective in its maintenance of order, but it leaves no room for the small inconsistencies that we call morality. This reflects a society whose social values were imposed upon by the beliefs of one or a few men. And since its source is deemed to be divine and hence infallible the people under this social rule were not allowed individual thought and hence their entire belief system is fashioned in that sense. The Babylonian system represented what the basic necessity was for maintaining order. Though today we may say it is barbaric and inhumane, it still provided the basis that maintained social order and laid foundation upon which our system of laws evolved.
Another early civilization that displayed a complex system of law and order was the Chinese. In contrast to the Babylonians, the Chinese did not necessarily have a written code. Instead they relied upon virtue and morality to govern. Crimes were more often a moral issue and left up to interpretation rather then by the stern word for word enforcement as seen in Babylon. Of course that is not to say that the most basic rules for social order were not enforced. The Chinese relied on the wisdom of the ruler and the trust that passed between them as virtuous and moral beings.
The Announcement to the Prince of Kang reveals that the Chinese were humble and did not believe whatever legal system that was in place was supreme. Instead they pursued wisdom from across the land in order to rule their people more wisely. When you go to Wei, seek out among the traces of the former wise kings of Yin whatever may be of use in protecting and caring for the people. Also, you must study the accomplished men of Shang, so that you may study your heart, and learn how to teach people. Further still, you must seek out what can be learned from the wise kings of Heaven, so that munificent virtue will be displayed through you. The whole belief at the time was that the King was an embodiment of wisdom, and that he is to use all his abilities to govern justly and fairly his people.
One of the greatest difference observed between Babylonian and Chinese laws are the degree of punishment for crimes. The Babylonians as mentioned before were extremely harsh and relied too much on the eye for and eye concept. The Chinese on the other hand had a much more evolved sense of crime. The Chinese sense of what is crime has more to do with the malignant intent of the wrong doer and not so much upon helping the victim get even. All people who willfully commit crimes, robbing, stealing, practicing villainy or treason, or who kills others or do violence to them to seize their property, who are capable of any infamy even under penalty of death such people are abhorred by all. And unlike the Babylonians, the Chinese saw grave punishment only as a last resort, Apply heavy sentences or the death penalty only when it is just to do so; do not warp the laws to serve your own inclinations. The Chinese enforced the concept of punishing a wrong-doer while Babylonian law focused more on alleviating harm for the victim.
The Chinese exhibited a more developed sense of what is moral or just but did not overlook the basics needed to maintain social order. The King was not supreme and human inclination towards self was also questioned. Do not seek leisure, nor be fond of idle pleasures thus may you care for your people. I have hear it said Discontent is caused not so much by things great or small, as by whether the ruler is magnanimous or not, or by whether he exerts himself on behalf of the people or not. In contrast to Hammurabi, King Wen was not directed support by Gods, but rather earned the approval of god through his just rule and influence. The role of the Chinese king is to serve the people and maintain order peace and most importantly harmony, as not seen in Babylonian culture. I would say that Chinese society was more aware of the ideas of morality and the what ifs that may occur with simply enforcing an inflexible code. That is not to say that the Chinese systems of laws were not infallible. They did have an outline of what is basically considered wrongdoing and most deserving of punishment. But unlike the Babylonians, these laws reflected a sense of honor and high morals. An example would be the passages that talk about the duties of a son to honor his father and those of a brother to respect his elders. These basic ideals were thought to be the rules given by Heaven. And it is the King s duty to swiftly administer justice according to the penal code of King Wen, punishing them severely without compromising the letter of the law. This displayed that Chinese rulers, though wise and compassionate were stern when it came to the basics of maintaining social order.
To the Chinese, law was not only a way of maintaining order but also one that is to dictate moral conduct of its citizens. It does not make its citizens fearful of committing a mistake unknowingly even when that person sets out with good intention, but rather questions himself in what is moral and ethical. This allowed room for improvement and allowed the sentiments of the people and their concepts of morality to play a major role that led to the further evolution of what is just. We can also see its influence in today s society in that we are able to amend our laws through the will of the majority.
Today s legal ideology is founded upon the three concepts, justice, morality and fairness. The Babylonians focused on the fairness and equality, while the Chinese stressed morality and ethics. It is a combination of the ideals seen in these ancient civilizations which makes our legal system superior. Our ability to question and change laws based on different circumstances is a great improvement of the sometimes biased and one-sidedness of more primitive forms of law. And it is our realization and awareness of this that allows us to live in one nation under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.