Monday 6 August 2012

high school revisited, part 2: the code of hammurabi

The Code of Hammurabi is a foundational legal text of human civilisation and a crucial stepping-stone in the development of civil society throughout the ages.  Commissioned and promulgated in approximately 1772 BCE by Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon, the Code is one of the first examples of a written code of laws in history, and is famous in the popular imagination for its codification of the "eye for an eye" principle.

In 2007, I was lucky enough to see the largest existing copy of the Code on display at the Louvre museum.  As I stood alone in a small chamber in the back wings of the Louvre and gazed at the Code, I felt a small shiver run down my spine.  At the time, I attributed this to the feeling of desolate awe gained from staring at the remains of a long-gone people, empire, and way of life.

However, in light of my recent re-discovery of a forgotten cache of high school-era assignments and my efforts on this blog to chronicle this insipid phase of my existence, I now know that shivering feeling was no more than my subconscious attempting to block out the bubbling memory of an essay I wrote, aged fifteen, analysing the very Code I now stood in front of.

My subconscious knew what it was doing.  Unlike the re-discovered treasures of the ancient world, this essay deserved to be buried until the death of the universe.  Nevertheless, I will now re-grade and present to you this abomination.

For reference, here is a copy of the code for you to follow along with.  When I quote my essay, I'll do so in italics.  When I quote the Code, I'll do so in bold.  Easy.

We'll start with the very beginning of my essay.  You might think I would've opened with, oh, I don't know, a overview of who Hammurabi was, why he was important, and what he was doing at the time he created the Code.  Wrong.  How about some broad statements that levitate above the page, with not a fact in sight to support them?
When looked at in today’s society, Hammurabi’s code seems rather strict and harsh, compared to the laws we live under today.  And the code is also very solid and rigid – with no loopholes or cracks in it.   
Impressive.  Most people require entire essays or articles to get a point across.  I, however, within the space of two opening sentences, have made one thing abundantly clear to the reader: I have not actually read Hammurabi's code.  

"No loopholes or cracks"?  Really?  

Let's consider the humble ox. 
Out of the 282 laws contained within the Code, seven relate to injuries commonly sustained by rented oxen.  Each law sets out the compensation that applies to the owner of the ox in each circumstance.  You might say ox owners are nicely protected under the Code—that is, until THIS:
249. If any one hire an ox, and God strike it that it die, the man who hired it shall swear by God and be considered guiltless.
Has any legal system from Hammurabi's time to the present day actually come up with a better loophole than this one?

"Balthasar, you hired five oxen from me, and yet you have only returned four, with the last one dead!  By the Code of Hammurabi, the lord to whom come scepter and crown, you owe me a replacement ox!"  

"God did it."


My opening paragraph continues:
The code was created like this because of the state of Babylonian society at the time.  Before the code was created, Babylonian society was in chaos, with murder, false accusation, adultery, and other crimes running rampant.  This is known, because that is what the code focuses on, with harsh penalties for false accusation, and other crimes listed and not listed above.  
What?  How was I allowed to get away with this?

I appear to be saying that the Code was created because Babylonian society was rubbish.  Okay.  But how do we know Babylonian society was rubbish?  Because the Code tells us so, it seems.  And where did the Code come from?  Erm, it originated as a response to a rubbish Babylonian society!  And how do we know Babylonian society was rubbish?  Well, it's in the Code, stupid!

In hindsight, my high school guidance counsellor must've been pretty appalling.  Even the most dimwitted of observers can see that my grasp of logic and reasoning shown in the above extract, if given the correct nurturing, would've given me great career success in such occupations as "defender of creationism".

Sadly, this never happened.  But let's assume for the sake of argument that murder and other heinous acts were "rampant" across ancient Babylonia—especially "false accusation", which was particularly out of control.  

An example: Merodach says that Hassimir is sleeping with his wife; Hassimir says Bel-Samu sold him said wife for eight shekels worth of corn; Bel-Samu says Nurval has been eating all his corn; and Nurval said that Merodach has been sowing neighbouring farmers' fields with salt to drive up the profits of his own corn business. It was later found out that Merodach's wife had merely snuck off to weep beside the river (being wholly unaware that her actions would lead to top-40 success for Boney M almost 3,750 years in the future), and that it was actually an ox that had been eating all the corn.  The ox was promptly butchered and shared amongst the four men.  When the owner of the ox protested, Nurval said: "God did it, f*** off". 

So, is the Code itself evidence of such Babylonian decadence? Despite my logical shortcomings, this would be an interesting and compelling argument—if the Code actually contained a substantial amount of criminal law!  At this point, I am now utterly convinced I did not read the Code. 
In actuality, around one-half of the Code covered contract law:
 45. If a man rent his field for tillage for a fixed rental, and receive the rent of his field, but bad weather come and destroy the harvest, the injury falls upon the tiller of the soil.
Another third covers family law (and gives helpful tips on how to say "you're dumped" in the ancient world):
 142. If a woman quarrel with her husband, and say: "You are not congenial to me," the reasons for her prejudice must be presented.
 For good measure, there's some employment law—if my essay is correct, there must've been some "rampant" union disputes going on at the time that only the grace of Hammurabi could rectify:
239. If a man hire a sailor, he shall pay him six gur of corn per year.
Some negligence law!
55. If any one open his ditches to water his crop, but is careless, and the water flood the field of his neighbor, then he shall pay his neighbor corn for his loss. 
And—need I go on—some consumer law:
235. If a shipbuilder build a boat for some one, and do not make it tight, if during that same year that boat is sent away and suffers injury, the shipbuilder shall take the boat apart and put it together tight at his own expense.
To be fair, some credit is due here.  If this essay were to be marked purely on baseless generalities alone, I would've topped the class.  Have a re-read of the last sentence above: 
 "...and other crimes listed and not listed above."
Brilliant. In one sweep of the keyboard, I've neatly encapsulated the fact that I cannot be bothered to read the Code in search of these "crimes", and am simply content to state that the Code imposes "harsh penalties" upon every crime that I have or have not written down.  Audaciously brilliant.

I give credit now, because things get much, much worse as we continue:
After the code was introduced, it seemed as if the Babylonian people accepted the rigid class divisions, and the harsh laws, because there is no record of any uprising in Babylonia against Hammurabi, and nothing in the code relating to this either. 
Okay.  Last year, a law was passed in my neighbourhood imposing a "cat curfew".  Any cat caught outside between sunset and sunrise could be impounded by the city council and their owners subjected to a visit by a "cat education officer".  Many people believe this law to be ridiculous—BUT seeing as there have been no attempts to overthrow the government (!) as a result of this law, my teenage logic requires that we must assume the law is "accepted".

And who says there is no record of any uprising in Babylonia against Hammurabi?  Possibly an idiot boy who did no research whatsoeveror else he would've found that circa 1757 BCE, Hammurabi conquered the city of Mari, in order to make the Mari king "kneel into the dust".  There was an uprising.  The city of Mari no longer exists.

Here's a sentence that I promise has not been edited from the late-1990s original:
The people probably accepted the code as the Babylonian society was one which needed control, rules, and regulations.  Example: Almost 300 laws in the code.
Rice is proven to make you smarter.  Example: 2400 grains of rice in my cupboard at last count.

The scientific study of dreams is called oneirology.  Example: I had a dream last night about how best to pay a duck for services rendered.  He would not accept a fifty.
Hammurabi included several psychological techniques in his code to ensure law and order in his society.  One of these techniques is the idea of “Shame Culture”, where people are pressed into doing as they are told to avoid embarrassment or shame. 
Shame?!  Okay, but how about the straight-up, unadulterated FEAR OF DEATH—which doesn't get even a single mention in my essay...
108. If a female tavern-keeper does not accept corn according to gross weight in payment of drink, but takes money, and the price of the drink is less than that of the corn, she shall be convicted and thrown into the water. 
Death!!  For not accepting corn to pay a bar tab!!  How did I miss this?  Oh yes, easily—by not doing any work.

It's getting to the stage where I need a drink myself.  With that in mind, let's skip to the conclusion, which stinks up the page one last time by inviting the reader to form assumptions based on things they have not read:
 Nowadays, our laws cover almost all of society.  But back in Hammurabi’s time, only upper class men were thoroughly covered by the laws.  Lower classes, women, and chidden [sic] only had a minimum of legal protection, while slaves had almost none. When these three factors, plus many others are looked at, it can be seen that justice did not truly exist in Hammurabi’s Babylon.
Grade: D.  Won't somebody think of the chidden?  Your attempts to babble on about Hammurabi have left the lawgiver spinning in his grave—possibly wishing he had adapted law #5 to deal with lazy students instead of shoddy members of the judiciary:
5. If a judge present his judgment in writing and error appear in his decision, then he shall pay twelve times the fine set by him in the case, and he shall be publicly removed from the judge's bench, and never again shall he sit there to render judgement.
If you too are as forgiving as the gracious Hammurabi, you can continue on to part 1 and part 3 of the "high school revisited" series at your leisure. 

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