Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Introduction (1) – the point of view

"To find a congenial subject, and to express that subject as lucidly, as sincerely, as frankly as possible, appears to me to be the most delightful occupation in the world."

AC Benson, "From a College Window" (1906) p 208

Benson's subject was human nature, and this book is required reading for any educated person. My congenial subject is criminal law, and my highly technical approach to it will be of interest to only a few. I have tried here to describe its recent developments lucidly and sincerely, but not necessarily as frankly as I could have. This is not the occasion for absolute frankness, for the law of contempt must be borne in mind, and it is more sensible to confine myself to the "delightful occupation" of attaining mastery of the subject. But first things first. What do some of western civilisation's really wise guys have to say about tackling a subject? Schopenhauer described the process of attaining mastery:

"... only through ordering what you know by comparing every truth with every other truth can you take complete possession of your knowledge and get it into your power. You can think about only what you know, so you ought to learn something; on the other hand, you can only know what you have thought about."

A Schopenhauer, "On thinking for yourself" in Essays and Aphorisms (trans.RJ Hollingdale, Penguin Classics 1970) p 89

My aim is to learn what judges have said about the law, to think about those dicta, and to compare the emergent "truths" in order to make the subject mine. In considering the opinions of judges it is more important to be sincere – that is, honest - and respectful than it is to be frank.

"One of the many excellent customs of our ancestors was their invariably respectful treatment of experts in the interpretation of our excellent law."

Cicero, "On Duties (II)", in Cicero: On the Good Life (trans. Michael Grant, Penguin Classics 1971) p 156.

Cicero also said, controversially, that it is more honourable for a lawyer to defend than to prosecute (ibid, p 145). My opinion is that when they are done properly both prosecuting and defending are equally honourable. Neither role necessarily requires frankness but both involve respect. It is apt to consider Montaigne's observation:

"It suits our imagination better to think of a craftsman on the close-stool or on top of his wife, than of a Chief Justice, venerable for his bearing and his talents, in the same position."

Michel de Montaigne, "On Repentance", in Essays (trans. JM Cohen, Penguin Books 1958) p 241.

Yes, judges defecate and copulate, some perhaps not as much as they should, but I am not here concerned with judges as people. I do not aim to inquire into whatever intrigues and stratagems may be found between the lines of their decisions. At the same time, I am not a naive toady. Like Schopenhauer (above, p 218), I concede a superior judgment to nobody. And the application of that judgment to the work of judges is an intense intellectual exercise, and like all such exercises is "the most wonderful spiritual nourishment in the world" (Cicero, "Discussions at Tusculum V", above p 87).

No comments: