Law and Lawfulness in a Civilized Society

Society's laws represent an attempt to supply a deficit in human consciousness. If every human being always acted with deep discernment, there would be no need for laws. People would simply understand and accommodate the needs of every situation in the manner most fitting the circumstances. Because we haven't cultivated esoteric discernment, the law provides an exoteric alternative to facilitate human interaction.[1]

How well the law does this is problematical. Laws, being human creations, are as susceptible to imperfection as the creatures that fashion them. But law, as an idea, is intrinsically redemptive. It embodies the hope -- indeed, the expectation -- that once people acquire the habit of lawful behavior, they will voluntarily comport themselves in a regardful manner.[2] In this way, the law is deeply honoring of, and also dependent upon, the exercise of individual free will.

True, most laws carry a penalty for failure to comply. That coercive component has always been found in the records of humanity, and it seems to be necessary if laws are to be taken seriously. But the real power of the law isn't compulsion; it's persuasion. For laws, rightly conceived and fairly applied, will always recommend themselves to people who possess a practical regard for their own well being.[3]

Yet, despite the pragmatic utility of a law abiding citizenry, people often speak in ways that betray a deep misunderstanding about the role of law in a civilized society. A common modern refrain is that it's all right to do something disregardful of others if you can "get away with it."  But this notion ignores the central fact that life doesn't offer free rides. Nobody ever really "gets away" with anything. In the economy of nature, nothing is extraneous, and no act or omission ever fails to produce a complementary response.[4]

If we understand this "complementarity" principle, we can begin to grasp the essential purpose of the law, for the law is an exoteric mirror of an esoteric truth about human existence. It is the legal edifice we erect in society to remind us of the need to build a temple of lawfulness within our selves. That inner temple of lawfulness is constructed out of a conscious regard for self and others -- the very sensibility whose absence creates the deficit that society's laws attempt to remedy.

Traditionally, we have called this sensibility "conscience."[5]  It is the ability of human beings to know and honor the difference between right and wrong. But our ability to recognize and our will to honor that difference have always been subject to countervailing forces of deep disregard that originate inside of our beings and manifest in the world around us.[6]

Down through the ages, we have received countless prescriptions to help us combat the forces of disregard within us, self-help techniques to assist us to build strong the temple of conscience. The Old Covenant, with its emphasis on intellectual knowledge, says: "Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you." The New Covenant, with its emphasis on emotional knowledge, says: "Do unto others what you would have others do unto you."

The Old Testament prescription is a prohibitory injunction, requiring us to stop acting out any ill will we feel towards others. It is our exoteric self-help remedy. The New Testament prescription is a mandatory injunction, requiring us to cultivate good will in our own hearts. It is our esoteric self-help remedy. Like two sides of the same coin, these injunctions combine to produce a golden rule of human conscience, which may be summarized thusly: be compassionate and do justice![7]

Unfortunately, like all self-help remedies, the golden rule of conscience isn't a panacea for the problem of human fallibility. The injunction is a blended technique that must be perfected by constant practice. To the degree that we fall short of perfection, human beings rely on the laws of society to bridge the gap between who we are and who we need to become.

Reliance on society's laws, though necessary, is nonetheless regrettable. It imposes a burden while conferring a benefit. It has been said that, "As soon as a rule is invoked in order to short circuit the process of individual confrontation with reality, morality has been abandoned."[8] This pithy statement illustrates a deep truth about human life. It is that we cannot rely on exoteric remedies to produce an esoteric change in our consciousness.

At best, social laws are a crutch to help us move toward a higher stage of conscious regard for ourselves and one another. Laws are an aid, not a substitute, for the higher consciousness we need to develop. The playwright Robert Bolt saw this clearly when he wrote that statesmen lead their countries by a short route to chaos if they "forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties."[9]  By recognizing the centrality of our own conscience to the law, we take the first step toward true lawfulness.

Jed Gladstein is an attorney, author, and educator. He can be reached at jedweb.com.

[1] Esoteric is used here to denote "inner" human characteristics, and thus adheres to the word's root meaning, which derives from the Greek word for "within." Exoteric typically connotes the opposite of "esoteric," and is used here to refer to something outside of our selves.

[2] No society ever existed that had the wherewithal to enforce compliance with every law by coercion. Even totalitarian states rely on the fear of enforcement, rather than enforcement itself, to compel compliance with their laws most of the time by most of their citizenry. In his 1912 essay, the English jurist John Moulton observed that a nation's greatness consists in how well it abides by social mores, not legal mandates.

[3] There is, of course, a school of thought that holds that no law can ever be well conceived or fairly applied. However, the author assumes that the reader has accepted at least the interim historical necessity for a social consensus embodied in exoteric law, and such readers should understand that the non-specific "laws" to which this essay refers are implicitly assumed to be only those that are rightly conceived and fairly applied.

[4] To cite one of the more obvious examples, according to Newton's Third Law of Motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, if you smash your car into another driver, both of the vehicles suffer from the impact. In her excellent book, The Alchemy of Illness, Kat Duff observes that "Nothing is gained without a loss in the economy of nature or psyche."  More prosaically, but no less compellingly, it is common knowledge among fashion models that "you have to suffer to be beautiful."

[5] In his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul noted the connection between conscience and the Law in this way: "2:15  who show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness with [them], and among themselves their thoughts accusing or even defending [them]..."

[6] History is replete with examples of how these forces of disregard wreak havoc in human life. Whether you believe that these forces are the original impulse of "original sin," or you conclude, as Camus did, that "the worm is in the heart," there can be no dispute that the willingness to act disregardfully of ourselves and one another exacts a terrible toll on this planet.

[7] In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah put it this way: "... and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

[8] Germaine Greer, The Madwoman's Underclothes.

[9] Quote lifted from the movie, "A Man For All Seasons."
Society's laws represent an attempt to supply a deficit in human consciousness. If every human being always acted with deep discernment, there would be no need for laws. People would simply understand and accommodate the needs of every situation in the manner most fitting the circumstances. Because we haven't cultivated esoteric discernment, the law provides an exoteric alternative to facilitate human interaction.[1]

How well the law does this is problematical. Laws, being human creations, are as susceptible to imperfection as the creatures that fashion them. But law, as an idea, is intrinsically redemptive. It embodies the hope -- indeed, the expectation -- that once people acquire the habit of lawful behavior, they will voluntarily comport themselves in a regardful manner.[2] In this way, the law is deeply honoring of, and also dependent upon, the exercise of individual free will.

True, most laws carry a penalty for failure to comply. That coercive component has always been found in the records of humanity, and it seems to be necessary if laws are to be taken seriously. But the real power of the law isn't compulsion; it's persuasion. For laws, rightly conceived and fairly applied, will always recommend themselves to people who possess a practical regard for their own well being.[3]

Yet, despite the pragmatic utility of a law abiding citizenry, people often speak in ways that betray a deep misunderstanding about the role of law in a civilized society. A common modern refrain is that it's all right to do something disregardful of others if you can "get away with it."  But this notion ignores the central fact that life doesn't offer free rides. Nobody ever really "gets away" with anything. In the economy of nature, nothing is extraneous, and no act or omission ever fails to produce a complementary response.[4]

If we understand this "complementarity" principle, we can begin to grasp the essential purpose of the law, for the law is an exoteric mirror of an esoteric truth about human existence. It is the legal edifice we erect in society to remind us of the need to build a temple of lawfulness within our selves. That inner temple of lawfulness is constructed out of a conscious regard for self and others -- the very sensibility whose absence creates the deficit that society's laws attempt to remedy.

Traditionally, we have called this sensibility "conscience."[5]  It is the ability of human beings to know and honor the difference between right and wrong. But our ability to recognize and our will to honor that difference have always been subject to countervailing forces of deep disregard that originate inside of our beings and manifest in the world around us.[6]

Down through the ages, we have received countless prescriptions to help us combat the forces of disregard within us, self-help techniques to assist us to build strong the temple of conscience. The Old Covenant, with its emphasis on intellectual knowledge, says: "Do not do unto others what you would not have others do unto you." The New Covenant, with its emphasis on emotional knowledge, says: "Do unto others what you would have others do unto you."

The Old Testament prescription is a prohibitory injunction, requiring us to stop acting out any ill will we feel towards others. It is our exoteric self-help remedy. The New Testament prescription is a mandatory injunction, requiring us to cultivate good will in our own hearts. It is our esoteric self-help remedy. Like two sides of the same coin, these injunctions combine to produce a golden rule of human conscience, which may be summarized thusly: be compassionate and do justice![7]

Unfortunately, like all self-help remedies, the golden rule of conscience isn't a panacea for the problem of human fallibility. The injunction is a blended technique that must be perfected by constant practice. To the degree that we fall short of perfection, human beings rely on the laws of society to bridge the gap between who we are and who we need to become.

Reliance on society's laws, though necessary, is nonetheless regrettable. It imposes a burden while conferring a benefit. It has been said that, "As soon as a rule is invoked in order to short circuit the process of individual confrontation with reality, morality has been abandoned."[8] This pithy statement illustrates a deep truth about human life. It is that we cannot rely on exoteric remedies to produce an esoteric change in our consciousness.

At best, social laws are a crutch to help us move toward a higher stage of conscious regard for ourselves and one another. Laws are an aid, not a substitute, for the higher consciousness we need to develop. The playwright Robert Bolt saw this clearly when he wrote that statesmen lead their countries by a short route to chaos if they "forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties."[9]  By recognizing the centrality of our own conscience to the law, we take the first step toward true lawfulness.

Jed Gladstein is an attorney, author, and educator. He can be reached at jedweb.com.

[1] Esoteric is used here to denote "inner" human characteristics, and thus adheres to the word's root meaning, which derives from the Greek word for "within." Exoteric typically connotes the opposite of "esoteric," and is used here to refer to something outside of our selves.

[2] No society ever existed that had the wherewithal to enforce compliance with every law by coercion. Even totalitarian states rely on the fear of enforcement, rather than enforcement itself, to compel compliance with their laws most of the time by most of their citizenry. In his 1912 essay, the English jurist John Moulton observed that a nation's greatness consists in how well it abides by social mores, not legal mandates.

[3] There is, of course, a school of thought that holds that no law can ever be well conceived or fairly applied. However, the author assumes that the reader has accepted at least the interim historical necessity for a social consensus embodied in exoteric law, and such readers should understand that the non-specific "laws" to which this essay refers are implicitly assumed to be only those that are rightly conceived and fairly applied.

[4] To cite one of the more obvious examples, according to Newton's Third Law of Motion, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, if you smash your car into another driver, both of the vehicles suffer from the impact. In her excellent book, The Alchemy of Illness, Kat Duff observes that "Nothing is gained without a loss in the economy of nature or psyche."  More prosaically, but no less compellingly, it is common knowledge among fashion models that "you have to suffer to be beautiful."

[5] In his Epistle to the Romans, the Apostle Paul noted the connection between conscience and the Law in this way: "2:15  who show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness with [them], and among themselves their thoughts accusing or even defending [them]..."

[6] History is replete with examples of how these forces of disregard wreak havoc in human life. Whether you believe that these forces are the original impulse of "original sin," or you conclude, as Camus did, that "the worm is in the heart," there can be no dispute that the willingness to act disregardfully of ourselves and one another exacts a terrible toll on this planet.

[7] In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah put it this way: "... and what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

[8] Germaine Greer, The Madwoman's Underclothes.

[9] Quote lifted from the movie, "A Man For All Seasons."