Ancient Law: Its Connection to the History of Early Society by Henry Sumner, Sir Maine

By Henry Sumner, Sir Maine

Advent through J. H. MORGAN

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For the Natural Law of the jurisconsults was distinctly conceived by them as a system which ought gradually to absorb civil laws, without superseding them so long as they remained unrepealed. There was no such impression of its sanctity abroad, that an appeal to it would be likely to overpower the mind of a judge who was charged with the superintendence of a particular litigation. The value and serviceableness of the conception arose from its keeping before the mental vision a type of perfect law, and from its inspiring the hope of an indefinite approximation to it, at the same time that it never tempted the practitioner or the citizen to deny the obligation of existing laws which had not yet been adjusted to the theory.

One of them is that law may be too rapidly developed. This occurred with the codes of the more progressive Greek communities, which disembarrassed themselves with astonishing facility from cumbrous forms of procedure and needless terms of art, and soon ceased to attach any superstitious value to rigid rules and prescriptions. It was not for the ultimate advantage of mankind that they did so, though the immediate benefit conferred on their citizens may have been considerable. One of the rarest qualities of national character is the capacity for applying and working out the law, as such, at the cost of constant miscarriages of abstract justice, without at the same time losing the hope or the wish that law may be conformed to a higher ideal.

The Roman theory guided men's efforts in the same direction as the theory put into shape by the Englishman; its practical results were not widely different from those which would have been attained by a sect of law-reformers who maintained a steady pursuit of the general good of the community. It would be a mistake, however, to suppose it a conscious anticipation of Bentham's principles. The happiness of mankind is, no doubt, sometimes assigned, both in the popular and in the legal literature of the Romans, as the proper object of remedial legislation, but it is very remarkable how few and faint are the testimonies to this principle compared with the tributes which are constantly offered to the overshadowing claims of the Law of Nature.

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