Western Law and its Influences | Thinkers of the Enlightenment
|Western Law and its Influences|
|CCSTD History Grade 10 10.1.1.-10.1.3., 10.2.1.|
The influences of Western law are ancient and include a series of historical precedents from several cultures and time periods. Creators of Western law built upon these precedents. Many past ideas of law and order evolve into the legal system we use today. Not all of these concepts have their beginnings in the West, though. The first known written laws came from ancient Babylon. They are called The Code of Hammurabi.
From the concept of written law we move on to the laws themselves. Every culture around the world has its own idea of right and wrong stemming from tradition. In the West our concept of right and wrong comes from what is known as the Judeo-Christian ethic. Religion plays an important role in guiding societies' views of right and wrong. In ancient times, and even in some cultures today, religious law and non-religious, or secular, law often have the same importance. In Western societies Christianity forms the common religious view. Thus, it has influenced Western law. Christianity originated from Judaism, the religion of the Hebrews.
The Hebrews had a set of written laws known as the Ten Commandments, or the Decalogue.
Hebrew tradition states that the Decalogue was given by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai. It serves as the basis of Jewish laws. Commandments such as “thou shalt not kill,” and “thou shalt not steal,” are not only religious but social laws too. The Decalogue commands that offspring respect their parents, and people “not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” which is lying. The Decalogue reflects the values of the Hebrew people in addition to their religious beliefs.
The Christian religion also follows the Decalogue, calling it the Ten Commandments. Many people have heard of the “Golden Rule,” which basically says “treat other people the way you wish to be treated.” This idea combined with the ones included in the Ten Commandments is what makes the Judeo-Christian ethic, which makes up a major part of our modern Western concept of law and ethics.
When examining the influences of Western law, we must look at practice as well as ethics. Just as the Judeo-Christian ethic guides the values of Western law, Greco-Roman tradition guides its practice. In Greece around 500 BC the Athenian Cleisthenes (klys-thuh-neez) brought about a democratic form of government where people could participate in government and not simply be ruled over. We call it a limited democracy because in its early form only Athenian citizens could vote, and only adult, male, property owners were considered citizens. Regardless of who could vote the important thing is that people were able to participate in their government. People were able to create the laws that governed them. The Greeks of ancient Athens also came up with new legal concepts as well, such as any citizen could bring charges against anyone who did them wrong. In addition to the concept of democracy the classical Greeks also gave us philosophy, or literally “love of thought”. Two philosophers stand out in their vast influence on Western law: Plato and Aristotle. Around 370 BC Plato wrote The Republic, a work in which he builds his vision of the perfectly governed society. Aristotle wrote Politics. Both of these works influenced Western thinkers.
Around 509 BC Romans formed a government called a Republic. Republics allow people to elect their leaders. This is the basis of the current form of government in the United States. In addition, the Romans took the example of Hammurabi and wrote down their laws; they called them the Twelve Tables. The Twelve Tables established the idea that all free citizens had a right to protection under the law. Other important Roman legal concepts were:
By the second century BCE the Romans had conquered Greece. The resulting combination of Greek and Roman culture is known as Greco-Roman. This combination of cultures provided the basis for Western legal and political thought. European thinkers of the Enlightenment would often refer to the classical (Greco-Roman) civilizations when they spoke out against the absolute monarchs of the 17th and 18thcenturies.
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