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knowing the laws


This was on the Patras blog, about Oregon claiming copyright over its laws. It’s mostly interesting to me as a reminiscence about stone tablets and the like.

[I]t is a maxim of universal application that every man is presumed to know the law, and it would seem inherent that freedom of access to the laws, or the official interpretation of those laws, should be co-extensive with the sweep of the maxim. Knowledge is the only just condition of obedience. The laws of Rome were written on tablets and posted, that all might read, and all were bound to obedience. The act of that emperor who caused his enactments to be written in small letters, on small tablets, and then posted the latter at such height that none could read the letters, and at the same time insisted upon the rule of obedience, outraging as it did the relations of governor and governed under his own system of government, has never been deemed consistent with or possible under ours

It’s funny how the idea of publication of the law on tablets comes back in the idea of publishing the laws. My associate and I went to the Roman Art from the Louvre exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum this weekend, and they actually had one of those tablets. The tablet (in greek) was a declaration by one of the Roman Emperors that a city and its markets were an autonomous city. It was, as stated in the law cite, designed to be published where readable by all and sundry — publish itself comes from a latin verb (publicare) that means to make public.

The other place where this shows up (in books I’ve recently looked at) is in Jaynor Jaynes The Rise of Consciousness in the Decline of the Bicameral Mind, which talked about similar tablets back in Sumeria. The main difference in the conceptualization of the tablets is that the Roman tables were designed to be read as a letter, and the Sumerian tablets were designed as the recording of a narration of a letter that should be read back. However, both of them were mounted in public places. Even if you don’t take Jaynes’ belief that it reflects a different stage of human consciousness, it’s at least a very different conception of people’s literacy.

Yeah, welcome to pointless literary reminiscing, this must be a blog or something

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