January 28th: Laws and Circumstances
Today’s readings are about an apparent contradiction. We always look for universal laws and patterns, which is part of the way our mind works. But there are limits to everything. Where do the application of principle, or law, and an appreciation of the differences in each person and situation collide? And how can one best balance them?
“Take a good hard look at the ruling principles of others, especially the wise; what they run away from and what they seek out.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.38
“Without the help of a ruler, you can never make a crooked line straight.” — Seneca
“In France, we have more laws than all the rest of the world put together — more than would be required to make rules for all those worlds spoken of by Epicurus, who said, ‘We were once overwhelmed by crimes; now, by too many laws.’ And, even then, we have left so much to the discretion and opinion of our judges that their “liberty” (freedom to interpret and write the law) is licentious and powerful.
“What have our legislators gained by isolating a hundred thousand categories and specific circumstances, and then making a hundred thousand laws to apply to them? That number bears no relationship to the infinite variations of life. The multiplicity of our human “solutions” will never be as large as the diversity of our circumstances.
“Add a hundred times as many laws and rules as we have now: but never will it happen that even one of the thousands of cases that you have isolated and codified in the law will ever meet exactly one future case to which is can be matched so exactly in every detail that an appreciation of its particulars and specifics will not be needed for judgment. There is hardly any relation between our actions (which are constantly changing) and the fixed and unchanging laws or principles.” — Michel de Montaigne (1553–1592) from On Experience
It’s good to have guiding principles. Without them, we feel rather lost. We can use them to steer us in the right direction.
But there are limits. No maxim, principle, or law can sum up all of life and experience. Reality is simply too varied, especially human reality since we are the most complex species on the planet.
If we follow a principle too rigidly, we always stifle ourselves and our creativity. We can also make bad decisions if we try to fit all of reality to a few simple laws. Reality is the ruler, or standard, by which we measure laws, not the other way around.
So what should we do? We should have principles to guide us, but we must always be aware that in some circumstances they do not fit. We should always wear socks to keep our shoes from stinking, but what about sandals? The “one size fits all” approach often does not work, and we must be aware of that. We should not kill, but what if someone is trying to murder your mother? Is it justified to kill an attacker if they are using deadly force on an innocent person?
Part of wisdom is having principles but knowing that they are not universally applicable. To really know how they work we must learn their limitations.
What do you think? I’ll look forward to hearing!