Western Legal Tradition

Jul 22, 2019
folder_opencategory: Law


What comes to one’s mind when thinking of the modern-day unique Western tradition so much characterized by constitutionalism, institutions underpinning democracy and the rule of law? The ancient world, of course! It is important for people today to go back to the ninth century, because from there, the legal system and institutions that the West enjoys now first had their foundations formed. It was then when what now is termed ‘Western legal tradition’ had its conception. It was the time that our ancestors planted the seeds of the future development. It was exactly when the 21st century revolution derived its vibrant political underpinnings (Williams, 2000). This paper aims at describing a comprehensive Western legal tradition with emphasis on the ancient laws and Biblical foundations.

The laws such as the Hammurabi Code, which is class-based and extremely gender-biased; the Biblical foundations of Torah and its extension to the modern-day laws; the Christian foundations of the Greek philosophy; the works of Greek-Roman sophists such as Plato; and the role of Roman Catholic laws are just but a few references that can be made when exploring today’s political arena (Goodman, 1995). These foundations are the best teachings of the relationship among law, citizens, and individuals, which is relevant to the contemporary political world. Perhaps what today is viewed as philosophy, religion and science and what the modern world considers scientific and ‘unscientific' have their roots in the Pythagoreanism. We are informed by the move from curiosity to the existential search for a relationship between humans and the universe. The relevance of the ancient texts, therefore, as highlighted within this introduction, cannot be overlooked when dealing with modern political and law issues.

In this study, a thorough literature review and strong arguments for or against the issue will be presented in a succinct and clear manner. Furthermore, the author’s opinion will be provided. Therefore, this study will reveal the historical relevance of legal, political and economic matters.

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The Code of Hammurabi

Well-known in the 1780 B.C., this Babylonian King has provoked the interests of law societies and politicians. In his codified laws such as the famous "eye for an eye" (law 196) and "tooth for a tooth" (law 200), this leader showed the world that his laws were superior in the past, as they guided the ancient-day people, and not the modern citizens (King, 2007). It is arguable that the Law, as compared to its counterpart Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2050 BC), was a modernized form that would make people enjoy their freedom and seek justice when wronged. The Hammurabi Law was written in tablets so that everyone would have access to it. Such foundations have a huge influence on modern constitutionalism. The Code of Hammurabi was aimed at protecting the weak through the application of stricter laws. This case is still relevant today, whereby high-class individuals are supposed to be treated equally in the eyes of the law to the poor people. The political class is not left behind either. Hammurabi was hailed as a great unifier until his death (Bos, 1999). Today’s leaders who have contributed to the rule of law perhaps share some characteristics with him. Furthermore, the laws are considered to be the basis of the Christian, Judaist and Islamic laws still applicable in the modern world. The Hammurabi Laws were so cruel that they ended up being more destructive than constructive. However, they motivated the world to realize that law and order are need to achieve a lasting peace. In the contemporary world, such issues as gender equality and the recognition of the role of women can be traced back to Hammurabi’s discriminative and biased laws.

Sophocles in Today’s World

Sophocles devised a way of writing tragedies about ordinary people and extended his work on how such tragedies caused interaction with fate. The theme of ‘heroic flaw’ features prominently in Sophocles’ work Antigone (2004). This work reminds that laws are rules which are enforce upon the weak by the strong. This relationship is demonstrated by the acts of pretense of politicians and rulers even in today’s world.


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The Sophists

The works of Plato such as Politikos (365-361 B.C.) and Statesman (1804 B.C.) reminds of the search for definitions that when applied will seem to delimit the statesman and the sophist (Plato & Tredennick, 1954). Besides, the works of Aristotle have wider application in today's political field. In essence, modern scientific political studies derive their meaning from the tasks of the politician or statesman (politikos). Viewed critically, sophists have contributed more to politics than law by articulating their works to represent the true happiness the citizens can have under democracy. Aristotle argues that a politician’s task is that of lawgiver (nomothetês) in order to make the best constitution for the city-state (Brooks & Murphy, 2003). Politicians should follow laws, customs, and constitution for the citizens that they represent. After drafting the constitution, the politician is required to take necessary measures to maintain it. Furthermore, the politician should introduce reforms where necessary and try to deal with laws that subvert the political system. This sphere of influence is legislative science, highly regarded as the most important one by Aristotle. Aristotle’s Politics has a central theme recurring almost in the entire work (Symposium Aristotelicum & Patzig, 1990). This idea articulates good life or happiness, as the most important and proper goal of the city-state is fundamental for informing today’s political and law societies that human aim is to be happy and denial of this right is an abuse of freedom.

The works of Plato remind of what it takes to be a ruler of citizens. The application of law may not be necessary if only people seek to live in truth. Additionally, the rulers would be the seekers of true beauty and justice. According to Plato, state is governed by a wise and flexible statesman. His view that laws are just but inferior make one think what may happen if laws were not there. His works also define the types of government. Therefore, the works of Plato have contributed a lot to the law and politics and feature prominently in today’s political arena.

Therefore, these sophists are found to deliver the true origins of today’s politics, law and the relationship between people and state. The previously discussed Hammurabi Law had laid the foundations, but the extensions given by sophists were better at illustrating the need for respect and the application of laws.

The Torah

Exodus 19-35 reminds of the laws that God gave to the Israelites when they were moving from Egypt (Exod. 19-35 King James Version). These laws have been considered to be almost similar to the ancient Hammurabi Law with particular extensions as observed in Exodus chapter 21 (Exod. 21). The law of ‘eye for an eye' features prominently in the Torah and the application of such law was meant to be punitive. God made a promise to the Israelites, and thus wider application for such laws was provided by the early Christian development. Perhaps the lessons drawn from the Dark Ages are the best illustration of the application of abstract laws without regard for thought as advocated by the sophists. The most important lesson that the political philosophy of Torah has taught is the fact that all men were not created equal. The social scheme adopted by the Torah may only represent a series of quantum leaps in a more sophisticated and highly interconnected theological matrix of socioeconomics and politics. As Aristotle reminded, justice would mean that equals deserved treatment as equals, and those unequal would be treated as equals. In the Torah, the justice towards Jews and slaves is clearly distinct as the application of such laws has differed. Ancient religion represents one of the distortions that hide the real nature of human nature and the exercise of power.

Western legal traditions have deep foundations in Christianity that extends to the use of Torah. As such, today’s legal and political processes are based on the notions articulated in the Torah. However, unlike the Torah, the expressions and applications are usually hidden in the spirit of people. For example, the case of slavery represents the most outrageous application of Torah laws that were meant to guide humans. Today, the transgender and other special groups of people seek justice in a highly politicized world based on religious beliefs that originate from Torah. In its application, this book has revolutionized the political thought and the unequal application of law. Seekers of justice and fair human relations are viewed from the angle of religion. The political crisis observed today among the refugees from Syria can attest to the fact that religion and law can determine the way humans relate.


This study aimed at revealing the texts that offer teachings about the relationship among law, citizens, and individuals in the contemporary world. So far, this study has found Hammurabi Law to inform the application of justice in a disproportionate way. The sophists explain the contemporary world better than Torah. In addition, the modern Western legal tradition is highly attributable to the sophists and the foundations laid in Hammurabi Law and Torah. Therefore, the tradition is not self-reliant, as it has borrowed heavily from the ancient world. Additionally, there have been modifications that have solved the misapplications of the ancient laws.

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