Monday, April 28, 2008


Here's a 3 1/2 minute video about one of my heroes, William Blackstone. Blackstone was the English lawyer who in the 1760s wrote the influential four volume "Commentaries on the Laws of England," an attempt to explain the principles and origins of English law. This is the law as it stood in the 18th century, where the king could do no wrong and, together with parliament, was considered the guarantor of English freedom.

You don't have to agree with what Blackstone said in order to see that the argument was masterful and infinitely romantic and enriching. Blackstone chronicles the attempt of fragile, fallible humanity to understand the principles of governance implicit in nature and the mind of what he considered the Supreme Being. Watch out, if you read this you might drop everything and become a lawyer!

That's Blackstone on the very top of the post, replete with powdered wig and robes, and below that is Jeremy Bentham, his nemesis. Blackstone not only believed in monarchy but in individual liberty and what we call today "checks and balances." This seemed stupid to Bentham who couldn't see the point of deliberately having a government that was forever at war with itself. Bentham was wrong in my opinion but the debate is an interesting one. All of us should have studied this stuff in high school.

BTW, if you decide to buy a volume I recommend looking for one that's set in a modern typeface. One of the old-style facsimile editions that's on Amazon is hard to read. Google's book archive has a free edition but that might be hard to read as well (I haven't seen it). Look on the net. I'll bet somebody put up a copy that easier on the eye. The problem there is that backlit computer books are hard to read for very long, even if the type is OK.

Blogger decided to put my video on the very bottom, so here it is. It's only 3 1/2 minutes, which will either go by quickly or feel like an eternity, depending on whether you like stuff like this.


J. J. Hunsecker said...

Hi Eddie,

I'm too lazy to watch the videos you've made, but I thought I'd mention that just a decade after William Blackstone defended the English Monarchy, Thomas Paine wrote "Common Sense", where he showed how ridiculous it was for man to follow the rule of monarchy. He didn't think a system of hereditary priviledge was conducive to individual liberty. I regard Thomas Paine as a hero the way you do William Blackstone.

Josh Kinniard said...

I love the dead head image.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Common sense is a great book and Paine is a worthy hero, but liking Paine doesn't mean you have to ignore Blackstone.

Since classic literature almost always contains ideas no modern person could accept, you can make the mistake of thinking classic literature has nothing to teach us. You have to look beyond the surface argument to the nuances beneath.

Lester Hunt said...

Even though phil. of law is one of the things I teach, I've never read Blackstone. Sounds like I should! What I have read is A. V. Dicey's Law of the Constitution. It is the classic defense of the idea of the rule of law and, though it is now a rather old book, it has a lot of ideas in it that are still very viable -- in fact the rule of law is an idea that is more needed now than in his day, IMHO!

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Lester: A. V. Dicey? Thanks, I'll look it up!

The Jerk said...

"liking Paine doesn't mean you have to ignore Blackstone"

I was gonna make a bad pun about liking pain being a good reason to read Blackstone, but decided against it.

pappy d said...

Eddie, you've made a Tory out of me.

There were indeed checks & balances in English law. About a hundred years before, James I was decapitated for entering the House of Commons without permission. The republicans even looked to precedent for legal justification & found a Roman law that supported the overthrow of a tyrant by a military organisation (the New Model Army). As Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell went on to purge, then finally dismiss Parliament altogether, crush the Catholics, shut down the theaters & generally rule with admirable efficiency.

The king was indeed a protector of his subjects. There were probably hundreds of capital crimes in those days & if wrongfully convicted, at least you could appeal for a royal pardon.

If George III's rights hadn't been usurped by his American subjects in defiance of the rule of law, the American Indian would have been a morally equal subject of the king (upon his surrender) with legal rights. The American Negro would have been emancipated decades earlier, Jim Crow laws would have been struck down & today we wouldn't have a chief executive with the powers of an 18th century monarch.

While I sympathise with Blackstone in matters of tradition (“The husband and wife are one, and the husband is the one.”) I sense a creeping radicalism in his notion of natural law. Natural law is natural insofar as it relates to human nature & not a law at all. As some thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment abandoned the idea of the divine right of kings, "natural law" logically rushed in to fill the vacuum. But, with the possible exception of religious law (being Divinely-inspired), law is a human artifact. Nature has no laws, only necessity. The "laws" of gravity or thermodynamics aren't legal obligations upon Nature, just human commentary.

Rights, on the other hand, being freedoms rather than obligations, could be said to be endowed by a Creator. This makes these rights antecedent to rights endowed or retained by rulers & can be cited as a legal precedent. Of course, this argument is far from being self-evident, especially in law.

God Save the Queen!

EOCostello said...

Blackstone was at the heart of most legal teaching well up to Victorian times, but, for example, at Penn in the late 80s/early 90s, Blackstone was pretty much a footnote, except if you were taking a history of law class. A lot of the law has moved on since his day, though in many respects his writing, surprisingly, holds up.

Mr. Trombley said...

Dear Sir, If you are going to talk about philosophers how about a brief post on some of the great logicians: Euclid, Aristotle, Ockham, Scotus, Leibniz, Frege, Boole, Peirce, Hilbert, Godel, Wittgenstein, or Turing?

I left out Socrates because you mentioned him already.

Anonymous said...

Again, another interesting post! I actually, while in London in 2002, made a special visit to the University College of London to see Jeremy Bentham. I was told at the time he was on tour in Germany!! He really gets around! I was back in London in 2005 and made the trip back there again, in the pouring rain, wandered around the halls and finally found him sitting in his cabinet! Super cool! I guess I don't know much about British politics but I certainly enjoy freak show kinda stuff. The skull is not there anymore, it had to be locked away because of pranks. I think his skeleton is actually under the clothing though.


Booo Tooons Ltd. said...

Thomas Paine's vision has yet to be fully realized. "Common Sense" should be required reading in the White House I think.

That and Howard Zinn's "People's History of The United States".

- trevor.

Anonymous said...

there is no god and no meaning, and trying to fill that void with art and philosophy is pathetic.

Life should be spent concentrating upon the center of our atoms and soaking in vinegar so that they may weaken and collapse into nothingness upon our deaths so that our energy is not forced to endure the indignity of life.

Cartoons poke fun at the meaninglessness of life but why not cut out the middleman and try to avoid their fleeting joys which only make us sadder. I shall now return to my repose to stoicly focus on death and nothingness. Ta Ta

Johnny Mastronardi said...

More, more! This is great, now I have to find a copy of the Commentaries so I can be inspired to become a lawyer as well as a mathematician and a cartoonist. The dichotomy between Blackstone and Bentham is interesting, and it's something I haven't made up my mind about yet. From the meager summaries on Wikipedia, it looks like English law evolved as an entire system based on what works, rather than what is logical. Maybe there would be more clarity in the legal system of our government if they would sort this out.

Traven said...

I have an animation question to ask (Alas, I couldn't find a more suitable place. You can point a better one.)

In the late eighties I watched a series about animated film(cartoon?) where each episode was devoted to one national school of animation: cf French, Czech, Canadian and so on. do you know this series, can you find a link to it? (believe me, Googling and imdb-ing weren't helpful.)

And in this series, in the episode about USA animation, there was an excerpt from a film about an epic, exhausting struggle of one man under earth (a miner?). The pictures were painting-like, and there was a booming song in the background. It left me a great impression.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Traven: I don't know anything about a series like that. Ask jerry or Amid on the Cartoon Brew site. Maybe the guy you thought was a miner was John Henry from the George pal Puppetoons.

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Johnny: Wow! I'm glad you liked it! About Bentham, I like the man but like so many zealots he had a dark side. He believed in a government set up to promote the general happiness, and not the happiness of a few (good), but he also believed that such a government shouldn't be hampered in it's good work by a concern for individual rights (bad).

If you buy one of the Blackstone volumes be sure to avoid the facsimile editions which are set in archaic type and are hard to read. The Ss all look like Fs. On the other hand, it's better to have a hard to read version than none at all.

I don't know which of the four books is the best. I bought the one on constitutions and loved it, but maybe the one on personal property has the most interesting stories.

Sherm said...

Eddie-- your passion and love for Wm Blackstone and his work makes this video a JOY to watch, even though I had no previous interest in the topic at all. An inspiration! Best --Sherm

Eddie Fitzgerald said...

Pappy: Law is a human construct as you say, and in that light the quest for a natural law is a little bit odd. On the other hand law has to have some objective basis, otherwise it's just the expression of whatever group has the most guns.

I'm not aware that anybody has demonstrated unassailable objective principles that would allow us to deduce good, workable laws. Attempts usually lead to authoritarian governments. The popularity of Nietzche shows that even when government does succeed it's vulnerable to emotional arguments that it doesn't satisfy our higher needs. Humans are weird creatures. We have the instinct to make rules and we also have the instinct to break them. It's amazing that we're able to carry on at all.

My own preference is for a kind of anarchy tempered with religious, cultural and philosophical restraints, with the government taking care to see that peoples' rights are other words the system handed down to us by people like Washington and Franklin.

Anonymous said...

humanity will sort itself out once we've evolved to the point where we're all einsteins

pappy d said...

This really is the best blog ever. I'd never heard of either of these guys before. I've just got to reply before I check out FRANCES LANGFORD'S "LOVELY HULA HANDS".

I must say, you gotta like a system that starts out by society putting obligations on government. I can only imagine how radical that must have been in 1776.

I read where Wertham called natural law "nonsense on stilts".

Maybe it was just the lack of objective moral principles on which to base "natural law" that led to Wertham's objection to the term. Or maybe he was put off that Blackstone felt he already had a handle on them.

I believe that there is such a thing a natural morality. We use the notion of rational self-interest when we make rational arguments about the nature of society & economics. If ever a truth was self-evident to humankind, it has to be self-interest. Logic & human instinct (emotion) generally agree on this point. But there is also a genuine instinct behind altruism as well.

I have always been puzzled & awed by the phenomenon of someone placing their life at risk to save someone else who they have never met. People often say after the fact that it wasn't anything they thought about, they just saw the kid in the river & jumped in. If they had stopped to calculate the risk to their own survival vs. the benefit of getting a nice write-up in the local paper, they would stay on the river bank. In any case, it might be too late to help.

If we accept the idea that instincts are hard-wired animal behaviors that have been passed down to the present age because they favored the reproduction or survival of organisms who had them, we have to ask ourselves how altruism can possibly be adaptive. Sharing my food means less for me.

I think that the mere fact of our being naked, relatively feeble animals argues that we're social animals. We're hard-wired for reciprocity. You can only ride in a carpool so long without buying a car. Your carpool buddies will get pissed at you.

There was an experiment in the 60's where they asked participants to write a piece of software that would simulate the basic choices of an individual actor in a group. They were to conduct transactions with each other. They could choose whether to transact with an individual or not, & they had an option to deal fairly or cheat (by which they would obviously benefit in the short term). It was a simple experiment (these were the punch card days) & the last one standing was one of the simplest programs. The actor would deal with anybody, but if you cheat him once, he'll never do business with you again.

But what about the kid in the river?

Someone once asked an evolutionary biologist (I forgot who) if he would give his life for his (genetic) brother. He replied, "No, but I'd give my life for 2 brothers...or 8 cousins." He was illustrating the idea that altruism is related to genetic similarity. In the scope of evolutionary history, large societies are a very recent development. We evolved in family groups where almost everyone was at least some sort of cousin. In this structure, altruism makes more sense. I'm risking, not giving up my life & if that kid is my nephew, it changes the math. I'm preserving more of the structure of my own DNA than if he's a stranger, including (possibly) the structure that manifests itself as instinctual altruism.

Nature has no reasons only necessity. Self-replicating DNA doesn't know or care about individuals. They're just a vehicle. It's all about survival of the fittest DNA. Genetic material reproduces only because it reproduces. If it means anything, it's not because it means to.

Maybe altruism doesn't make logical sense in the context of a huge society like ours. In a society that rigorously defends enlightened self-interest & is large enough to allow for social disconnectedness, maybe sociopaths will eventually out-breed & out-kill us. Everyone is tempted to cheat if they know they'll get away with it.

For the forseeable future, we can expect to be fundamentally both altruistic & self-serving (IMHO).