Dear Classical Wisdom Reader,
On this day, May 22nd, 44 BC, Cicero wrote to Atticus:
“You write that we must obey the victors. I certainly won’t—I find there are many other more preferable options.”
“Laws are partly formed for the sake of good men, in order to instruct them how they may live on friendly terms with one another, and partly for the sake of those who refuse to be instructed, whose spirit cannot be subdued, or softened, or hindered from plunging into evil.” ― Plato, Laws, Book IX, (360 BC)
Just because a law is a law doesn’t mean we should automatically comply.
If it’s a good law, one that aligns with virtue and our inner morals, then the instructions are easy: follow it. Indeed, these are the sorts of laws that good people don’t need, the kind we would naturally adhere to without anyone telling us we should.
Likewise, if a law is bad, the moral thing to do is not follow it (though depending on the time, place or circumstance, this is not always easy). History is replete with bad laws, from the 6th century BC order that it was illegal to die on the island of Delos, to more modern examples of the Nuremberg Race Laws or the Apartheid legislation.
In the words of Martin Luther King Jr.:
"One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
This leaves us with all the laws that lay somewhere in between. The issue is that laws are designed by fallible men and women, with their own motivations, biases and economic incentives. Perhaps there are few great lawmakers of the past, like Draco or Solon of Athens, Lycurgus of Sparta or Cicero in Rome... but let’s be honest, they are the exception, rather than the rule.
And even then sometimes the best of intentions can end badly. Draco, the first recorded legislator of Athens, attempted to replace prevailing blood feuds with a constitution, a written code to be enforced only by a court of law, as requested by the Athenian citizens.... They just didn’t realize he would make everything – and I mean everything – punishable by death. And thus, the term ‘Draconian’ was born.
The wise Athenian lawmaker, Solon, then attempted to fix the situation with a revolutionary constitution... before leaving for 10 years so as not to become a tyrant. Though widely accepted, the “law of neutrality” within the constitution still proved controversial.
Just goes to show, the “perfect” lawmaker is as elusive as the “perfect” laws he seeks.
Moreover, that was back when there weren’t so many laws, compared to today’s situation... when NO ONE (not even the lawmakers themselves) knows just how many there are.
The US Federal Register, a daily journal of federal government activity that includes presidential documents, proposed and final rules, and public notices, gives us a small indication of the sheer magnitude of the current legal mess. It regularly runs into tens of thousands of pages annually, hitting an all-time high of 95,894 pages in 2016.
Finally, the US government stopped publishing the code of federal regulations altogether, because their printing offices couldn’t keep up with the changes.
In fact, the Government Accounting Office admitted that they had no idea how many government agencies and departments were even in existence, much less what each one did.
This sheer number of laws that exist make it impossible to follow them all (as no doubt many are contradictory) and because it would be impossible to know them all! To that end, it’s estimated that every US citizen unknowingly commits at least a dozen felonies every day.
So how do we navigate these muddying waters? Especially when we may or may not know the reason behind each and every edict? Some rules might be for a safety hazard of which the public is unaware, while a seemingly inane bureaucratic regulation can be employed for identifying - and then murdering - a minority. We often submit to requirements for our details or our data unaware for what reason they will be used...
Perhaps a great deal of these ‘laws’ are there to line someone’s or some institutions' pockets. It doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to understand that special interest groups, lobbyists, and the various ‘bigs’ (ie. Tech, Pharma, etc) have a not-so-insignificant hand in shaping modern regulations…very often to their own ends.
Of course, debating the need, the nature and the execution of laws both in general and more specifically has been an essential discussion from the ancients onwards. Plato dedicated a whole dialogue to the subject... which Aristotle then criticized in his Politics. So let us don our philosophical hats and discuss it for ourselves: what are we to do with these ever increasing, ever encroaching, seemingly innocuous rules?
Do we need to follow these burgeoning laws for a smooth and functioning society? Does the act of questioning each and every one lead to a dismantling of order? Or does blindly following every regulation lead to dangerous conditions, ripe for tyranny and abuse? Does obligatory compliance train us for future submission… or worse?
Essentially, should we follow inane laws? And what happens when we don’t?
As always, you can email me by writing directly to firstname.lastname@example.org or by replying to this email.
Now, before we get onto today’s mailbag responses “Can we Choose to not be Harmed,” a quick reminder to make sure to take advantage of our Essential Classics Book Sale!
A stunning hardback anthology, comprising the greatest ancient Greek and Latin texts in one spot, is now available for only $49 (plus a small shipping fee). A perfect gift for graduates and lifelong lovers of the classics alike, this book has retailed for over $200:
Keep it in your office, your living room or study, or by your bedside table for inspiration from the ancient world. This will be the last time we offer it at this low price, so please collect your limited edition of the Essential Classics - a book 100 years in the making - HERE:
Now... onto how we can become more resilient, below.
All the best,
Founder and Director
Classical Wisdom and Classical Wisdom Kids
On Resilience and Choosing Not to be Harmed:
I’m responding to your question about choosing not to be harmed.
Firstly Elie Wiesel developed the philosophy during the holocaust that while you can’t choose what happens to you, you can choose how you react to it. That is the ultimate power that can never be taken away from you. It trumps the actions of others. And the vagaries of circumstance. It instantly turns your focus from lamenting the negative thing that has happened to the positive action of how am I going to deal with it.
Secondly, The book The Four Agreements mentions two that are particularly helpful.
1. Don’t make assumptions. Frequently we assume the worst of intentions in what someone has said or done and frequently we are wrong.
You can clarify to determine whether your assumptions were accurate. That works when the assumptions were wrong. It also works as a face saver when someone wants to gracefully retract what they said or did.
But it doesn’t work and in fact can be escalatory when the assumptions are accurate. That’s where the second Agreement is even more important.
2. Don’t take anything personally. Most things aren’t meant to be personal affronts. You aren’t the centre of anyone else’s world. You just aren’t that important. So don’t be so egocentric.
This might be summed up by my parents advice to be “thick skinned”. There is a certain grace in letting things go and not reacting to every little slight, real or imagined.
Unfortunately what I see is increasingly people doing the exact opposite of these things.
I would argue that focusing on micro-aggressions, for example, is bad for one’s mental health. And certainly does not equip someone to deal with significant problems when they occur as they most assuredly will during the course of a lifetime.
Thanks for the opportunity to start my week with some introspection. And hope you don’t mind me sharing the results of it.
There is no way to avoid being harmed. Take the occupants of Germany post Weimar. They had a choice. They could support or acquiesce to the Nazis or they could resist. To do either assured harm.
The boxer represents the decision to resist, not compromise and submit, much less acquiesce. His battered fingers and shoeless state coupled with his physical visage demonstrates the price paid for resistance.
The look on his face also shows despair that he appears to be alone in resisting and that is condemnation to the unpictured person who has spoken to him.
I think to an extent we can choose not to be harmed. We can choose to get out of our own heads. Understand that no one thinks of us the way we think of ourselves. Know that we are not the center of the universe and that car didn’t purposely cut YOU off nor that person rolled over YOUR foot with a grocery cart or whatever other slight can get our hackles up.
However, there is a line there. Just seeing the subject of this post in my email gave me NXIUM vibes. The concept of “you choose to be a victim” was a tactic Keith Ranierie used to make what the women he abused were feeling their fault, not his, thus absolving him from perpetuating harm on others, because that harm can only come from within. There are actual victims in this world, but there are also people who make themselves victims when they probably just need to touch grass.
I feel that if we can, but we have to set our Ego aside, together with its concern about our status, image, rank etc. in whichever institution we've allowed it to convince us is important. We'd empower ourselves to shrug off much of what may be considered 'Harm'.
If our opinions could be left more open, that would surely help. If our identity were less a public construct based upon attachments; if we could think less about aligning all our many selves to that which our 'society' prefers, we'd likely be less sensitive to 'slight'.
Firstly, thank you for your insightful posts, we really enjoy most of them.
As to your topic.... A very definite YES, one can choose not to be in harm's way. A very famous Aikido founder, O sensei Morihei Ueshiba, taught that one's bearing and posture tended to nullify any aggression directed towards one. He gives an accurate description of this in the book The Art Of War. We practice it every day in South Africa.
Albertinia, South Africa
P.S. Last week’s mailbag included some of the art we’ve been fortunate enough to view on this trip… so keeping with that tradition, please enjoy this Ivory face from Palazzo Massimo:
The only man made “law” that has ever mattered for a people is a Constitution grounded in natural law and human rights. Chances are the rest is either superfluous, spurious or corrupt. Man made laws throughout history have largely been tools of the powerful to either gain an advantage(or keep it) or suppress the masses. My very first Law course in college began with a statement from the professor: “The Law is what the Judges say it is”. That is certainly not Constitutional law which was designed to protect the individual from precisely such reckless use of power. The Constitution was designed to be the Supra-Law, that which stands above all other laws as a permanent and unchangeable protection of the rights of individuals. There is no such thing as group rights just as there is no such thing as social justice. Sadly in America the Constitution has been shredded and it is not an exaggeration to say that we live in a lawless land, where laws are indeed what partisan judges say they are and individual rights are being suborned to political ends and the rights of the group or class.
Great article as always, Anya! This conversation reminds me of contemporary discourse around copyright laws and how many of them are in desperate need of an update. Social media and the fact that any artist, musician, writer, etc. can upload their works in one click without gatekeeping has made plagiarism and the violation of copyright functionally inevitable. I would love to hear your take on this from a classics perspective.