Fleming_05-1992
Perspective

Law and/or Order

All civilization rests upon the executioner. Despite our feelings of revulsion, "He is the horror and bond of human association. Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world, and at that very moment, order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears." Joseph de Maistre's insight has alarmed most readers—among them not a few Catholic reactionaries—who have encountered it. There are, it hardly needs to be said, more cheerful terms in which to define civilization, such as the beauty of its arts, the morals of the people, the strength of its institutions, but in practical terms, Maistre's pronouncement will work as well as any. Without law, without a firm commitment to enforce justice by punishing malefactors, no civilization, indeed no human culture, can be said to exist.

But we can go further than this. In a very real sense we can define the qualities of a culture in terms of its punishments. Some societies—the Japanese and many Amerindian tribes, for example—have exulted in torture as something delightful for its own sake; in others (the Comanche) justice is the rule of the strongest, and a weakling man without friends is powerless against a larger man; in 18th-century England, under the influence of Locke's theories and the interests of the rising capitalist class, crimes against property were more often capital than crimes against persons.

In the modem United...

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