This is a beautiful map of Rome’s administrative units. There’s not much more to say, really.
Individual freedoms are tethered to law, but in what sense? We could call Hobbesian the insight into law and liberty which states that norms are addressed by the sovereign power to the individuals. The Sovereign is the only one who prescribes the law, being the individuals subject to the legal obligation. Even the limitations to the power of the government in the face of fundamental rights – such as the Due Process – are not expressed in terms of limits to the sovereign power but of commands to the public servants: for example, the imprisonment of an individual without accomplishing the legal standards of Due Process allows the government’s agents to punish their unlawful colleagues. The law is always addressed, in the last resort, to an individual by the State.
Proponents of individual liberty thus advocate equality before the law, which means simply “only one state for everyone,” or “individual rights before the state.” Examples include the said guarantee of Due Process, or a system of check and balances among the branches of the government as safeguards against arbitrary coercion by the State. However, they all have a severe difficulty in defending individual liberties without recourse to an extra-system concept, such as natural law, moral duties, or political statements. The emphasis in formal legal procedures would be the utmost in coherence between liberalism and Hobbesianism, but it is easy to slide from procedures that protect individual legal rights to devices assuring the enforcement of the law – which has the individual as its last subject. It seems it is hard to restrain oneself from invoking metaphysical rights when it comes time to advocate individual liberty.
Nevertheless, it should not be surprising that every limit to political power of the State over the individual depends on metaphysical notions, since it is a tenet of the Hobbesian insight that the power of the State is absolute. Moreover, the Minimal State – a true effort to advocate individual liberty without resting on metaphysical notions – owes to Thomas Hobbes its main inspiration.
Historical evidence suggests, however, that in the relation among power, law and liberty is the other way round. The development of common law in England and the phenomenon of the reception of the Roman law in Continental Europe show that law is not necessarily created ex nihilo by the State. The State could provide enforcement to a given system of law, as it is shown in the book System of the Modern Roman Law (System des heutigen Römischen Rechts), by F. K. v. Savigny. Moreover, the States could adapt legal notions originating in private law to elaborate procedures to follow in the public sphere. The principle “venire contra factum proprium non valet” was born in private law and today is a guarantee to the individual against the arbitrary action of the State.
This is the process of rationalization of power described by Max Weber, the German concept of Rechtsstaat or the widely known concept of “Rule of Law.” In that process of rationalization, lawyers outshone the sages, the mandarins, and the humanists in the administration of public affairs by incorporating legal procedures and principles taken from private law. There might be differences among these concepts and historical events, but their common invariances allows us to get the gist.
There is, also, an evolutionary case for the relative advantages of a Rechtsstaat over the notion of sovereignty. In the former the decisions are principle-based while in the latter they are mostly taken by expediency. Since the said principle of venire contra factum proprium non valet and other legal procedures constrain rulers’ whims, government actions are more rational, in the sense of transitivity of preferences.
Thus, in the long run, the performance of the Rule of Law is higher than the Rule of Men. Lawyers outshine mandarins in government posts and, in turn, governments run by lawyers outperform governments run by mandarins. One device to switch from a given form of State to another one is, for example, immigration: people flock to countries where the Rule of Law prevails.
What we have called the Hobbesian insight into Law and Liberty is tied up with the definition of liberty as power. Thus, the equation of law and liberty becomes a zero-sum game: the more state, the less individual liberty, and the less state, the more individual liberty. On the other hand, the definition of individual liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion engages with the concept of Rule of Law: to substitute principles for expediency reduces arbitrary coercion and, thus, enlarges individual liberty.
Does this Rechtsstaat insight into Law and Liberty dissolve the question about the dimensions of the State? Not at all. But it provides a more strategic view: a big State will demand more decisions to be taken on expediency. A small state will provide two advantages to the enjoyment of individual liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion: more decisions based on principles and a larger space for the law to evolve by its own and discover new legal principles in response to the constant changes in the society.
But even if the conclusions might be the same (a smaller State), the two insights carry within them a set of premises that ineluctably will unravel by themselves when it comes the time of a deeper controversy. Then, the Hobbesian Insight will present the disjunction between Minimal State and metaphysical boundaries to the absolute power of the State. The Rechtsstaat strain, instead, will provide a humbler but subtler position.
The last post referred to the need to investigate ideas about law and related ideas in discussing Britain’s relation both with the Anglosphere (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and with the rest of Europe. The big issue here is Anglosphere common law tradition versus Roman or civil law tradition in the European mainland and indeed most of the world outside the Anglosphere. Common law in this context refers to judge-made law based on precedent versus civil law referring to statute laws based on the will of the sovereign. Statute laws are laws instituted by the state, in writing, in public explicit acts of law making.
Judge-made laws based on precedent refers to the ways in which judges, using a general sense of justice, make judgements according to that sense of justice with the precedents of previous relevant judgements shaping the sense of justice along with the whole set of laws and their general principles. Civil law judges look at the text of statutes, as do common law judges, but apparently the latter category of judges are also concerned with the mixture of precedents and general spirit of the laws.
There are certainly some real differences between common law and civil law traditions, but how straight forward are these difference? The phrase ‘common law’ itself comes from the codification and national harmonisation of laws undertaken by French-speaking kings of England, after William, Duke of Normandy, conquered England. So the phrase ‘common law’ itself refers to the opposite of what common law has come to mean: the English legal tradition since the High Middle Ages has come out of conquest by an external power. We can argue about how far Anglo-Saxon laws and judicial formalities survived the Norman and Angevin re-codification, but there is no denying that the re-codification happened and that nothing now survives from the Anglo-Saxon era.
England started off in the earlier Middle Ages where all of post-Roman Europe stood, that is Roman law had collapsed and Germanic tribes introduced their own laws in conquered territories, where some elements of Roman law survived in the canon law of the church. The Roman law system itself reached a peak with the final codification undertaken under the Emperor Justinian in Constantinople during the sixth century. The transformation of the eastern part of the Roman Empire into a Greek empire included a decline in knowledge of Latin so understanding of the definitive law text was limited, but survived in the Empire including the last Roman-‘Byzantine’ holdings in Italy.
Knowledge of Roman law increased in the thirteenth century, in association with the growth of new universities where legal education played a very large role. England was not outside this process, but it is fair to say that it was less influenced by it than some continental powers, particularly France. The process of Revolution and Bonapartist rule, from 1789, produced a large scale deliberate construction of law as a unified system based on the will of the sovereign (whether elected assembly or absolute monarch) with regard to the laws, which was exported to other parts of Europe in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.
The British commitment to common law was not entirely consistent since Scotland has always retained some differences from England in its legal system, which place it closer to the civil law tradition, at least compared with England. In the United States, there was a parallel to the French republican and Bonapartist experience of redesigned institutions in the process of adopting first the Articles of Confederation and then the Constitution of the United States, which unified the thirteen British colonies in a common structure.
The difference between French and American constitution making is often held to be that the French constitutions claimed that laws are the will of the people and the product of nature, while the American constitution is designed to disperse any idea of a single political law-making will between the different branches of federal government and the ‘several states’. However, the preamble to the US Constitution refers to ‘we the people’ and therefore asserts that it is the product of a single political will of the people in the union.
While the US Constitution does not refer directly to good laws as the work of nature, there were shared underlying assumptions in France and the US concerning the ‘natural’ status of good laws, good political institutions, and justice. It is at least true that the US constitution federalises rather than centralises, while the French process of about the same time ended in a very centralised state. This cannot be the difference between common and civil law systems though, since there are federal civil law states like Germany and Switzerland and unitary common law states like the UK and New Zealand, though the UK has been evolving in a more federal direction, if in a rather ad hoc and limited way, since the turn of the century.
Next, laws, charters and constitutions
John Fortescue (who was knighted and so is also known as Sir John Fortescue) lived from approximately from 1394 to 1480, and so endured the Wars of the Roses, the highly destructive struggle of two families in the late Middle Ages for possession of the English crown. These wars were fictionalised and mythologised in the Shakespeare plays on Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III, so there is a perfect literary way of obtaining an introduction to the political struggles of that time, though of course that is not the same as reliable scholarly history of that period.
Fortescue was from the gentry, as the lower level of the English aristocracy are known, of southwestern England. He was therefore in a good position to follow a career as a lawyer and Member of Parliament (which in Britain refers to someone elected to the House of Commons, but not members of the House of Lords). That combination of careers is still a frequent one in Britain and I believe even more so in the United States, and is an important part of the history of the modern state and of modern politics. The relevance of Fortescue’s career to the emergence of the modern state is enhanced when we consider that as well as those roles he was engaged in the administrative aspects of judicial-administrative inquiries, a judge, and crown minister responsible for the judiciary, that is Chancellor then the most senior office under the crown so the nearest thing to a modern Prime Minister.
He only held the latter office during the exile of Henry VI to Scotland (then a completely separate state from England), while Edward IV was the king in possession of power. In any case, we can see that Fortescue was at the centre of politics and of royal power structures. His exile with Henry VI as a result of the War of the Roses included a period in France as tutor to Henry VI’s son. On the death of Henry, Fortescue was able to return to England and made his peace with Edward, who returned confiscated properties.
There might seem to be some irony in discussing liberty with regard to a servant of the crown at the time monarchs claimed some kind of divinely instituted power above human interference and accountability, and were busy dragging their peoples into destructive and expensive dynastic war . There are, however, various examples of liberty oriented thinkers linked with not very restrained beneficiaries of royal power. Aristotle was a tutor to Alexander the Great, Seneca was tutor and advisor to Nero, and Marsilius of Padua was under the protection of the Emperor Ludwig. Such closeness to power may be beneficial with regard to knowledge of state power and with regard to acquiring understanding of the dangers of unlimited state of power. Later great liberty thinkers such as Montaigne and Montesquieu (to be discussed later) were both judges whose experience of interpreting and administering the law enhanced their understanding of the possible benefits and dangers of law and legal institutions for liberty.
Fortescue was approaching from a more monarchical and less republican direction than Marsilius, as his writings on law and politics are largely about the correct form of monarchy. However, the difference between the two writers and the two orientations if we address a trio of issues.
Marsilius was a dependent of the Emperor of Germany, while Fortescue held elected office. Marsilius’ understanding of law was very focused on the great codification of Roman law undertaken by the eastern Roman Emperor, Justinian, in the sixth century, while Fortescue was a defended of an English legal tradition independent of the sovereignty of princes, which Justinian made the central source of law.
The thinking of servants of the crown, even of princes themselves, in England, and across Catholic Latin (for the purposes of state, church, and scholarly business) was deeply conditioned by the republicanism of Cicero, which educated people could and did read in the original language, since Cicero was central to the Latin curriculum, and the republicanism of Aristotle, widely known through Latin translations and commentaries.
It should be noted that England had a monarchy, a Senate (known as the House of Lords), and an assembly representing the ‘common’ (in practice gentry, local notables, and merchants) people. Cicero’s Roman model had annual consuls in the place of a king, and an assembly of all citizens’ rather than an elected body for them, but the triad in England was that recommend by Cicero, even if existed for reasons other than enthusiasm for Roman republicanism. Other European monarchies had similar ‘estates’ which they felt obliged to consult at least on occasion, in Fortescue’s time.
A useful, if crude, generalisation about modern liberty tendencies is that they come out of two streams: a monarchist stream which emphasises that princes should act under the law and with other political institutions; a republican stream in which the ‘people’ institutes laws and governments in a spirit of respect for customary laws and institutions. These streams often become one river, but we can sometimes see them separate out and it is useful, at least some of the time, to think about the difference.
Fortescue’s work in administration, government and direct service of the royal family, refers to an aspect of the emergent modern state other than the role of law and of representative institutions. The modern state is one of administrative growth and has been ever since the consolidation of monarchical power over barons and over dispersed agents of power during the Middle Ages.
It is hard to say when exactly it began, but the Norman Conquest of England in 1066 is as good a starting point as any, allowing as it did for the enhancement of royal state powers through eradication of the Anglo-Saxon elite and many associated institutions, proving a model of modern monarchy. The thirteenth century revival of the study and application of Roman law, as codified under Justinian, is maybe the best known way in which that growth of a centralised monarchical administration expressed itself. Fortescue’s crossing over between private legal, parliamentary, administrative, judicial and political roles itself expresses the way that the judicial-legal aspect of the state was often at the heart of regularising the increase of administrative machinery as well as political sovereignty.
The issue of growing ‘Roman’ law is the appropriate point at which to bring in some consideration of Fortescue’s most influential texts: In Praise of the Laws of England and The Governance of England. In these texts, Fortescue is very critical of what he calls ‘civil law’, which is a standard way, then and now, of referring to the Roman law tradition, containing the assumption of law made by the supreme civil political institution. His understanding of Civil Law comes directly from the texts that were produced during the Justinian directed codification, which is correct in terms of origins and the scholarly approach to civil law at that time, but maybe gives a distorting view of a legal approach which has evolved over time in a multiplicity of codes round the world.
What Fortescue opposes to civil law is the law of England, which is now generally known as common law. Common law refers to the role of judicial precedence in English courts, where preceding judgements, and the judge’s understanding of natural justice, along with role of a jury of citizens in reaching a verdict are distinct features. Judges in the civil law tradition are comparatively concerned with the meaning of statues rather than preceding judgements, and verdicts are given by judges rather than juries.
In Fortescue’s understanding earlier English kings (going back to the time of Norman kings and Francophone Angevin kings with more land in western France than England) tried to impose civil law, but failed. This is a bit one-sided since the law of England, or common law, as Fortescue knew it, was rooted in Norman impositions and Angevin codification of the various laws of the different parts of England, but does refer to a reality of a greater role for juries and judicial precedent than in civil law systems.
The laws of England, in Fortescue’s account, are what gives content to a political state alongside the royal state. This is a distinction that Fortescue attributes to Aquinas (so a philosopher from civil law Italy) and which has clear roots in antique republicanism. The political state refers to the laws that do not come from royal edict, or which at least were passed by parliament as laws rather than just remaining commands from the king, and the institutions which have some basis in the nation rather than the designs of the monarchy alone.
Fortescue’s historical explication of the origin of the English political state is highly mythologised, as he claims it comes from the Trojan prince Brutus. This comes from the twelfth century ‘historical’ writing of Geoffrey of Monmouth, which is largely myths about King Arthur, the Trojan origins of England, and the like. The belief that a Trojan prince founded England goes back to the antique Roman claim to be descended from refugees from the fall of Troy (as described by Homer) under Prince Aeneas (as described by Virgil). Medieval and early modern monarchies all thought of their sovereignty as modelled on Rome under Julius Caesar and Augustus, so welcomed localised versions of the mythical Trojan prince founder.
For Fortescue, the Brutus myth shows the English nation to have been a voluntary political creation with a monarchy existing by popular consent (so in a republican kind of way, though Fortescue does not say so). The evolution of the law of England or common law over time, interrupted and transformed by political traumas, almost requires a foundational myth to give it some underlying legitimacy, given there was never a moment of collective political will to adopt it. It can also be argued that the non-political, relatively non state centric evolution of law is good for liberty, a liberty defined in a rather indirect tacit way from the movement of parliamentary laws, verdicts of juries, and judicial interpretations.
Fortescue’s portrait of the advantages of the law of England over civil law leads him to a highly coloured picture of France as containing a common people on the verge of destruction from poverty and lack of self-respect as a consequence of the unrestrained power of the king in a civil law system. Some of his negative portrayals have some truth in them, but France did not collapse from destitution and demoralisation as Fortescue’s description would lead you to expect.
While French kings were less influenced by the Estates General than English kings were influenced by parliament, aristocratic judges in local courts known as ‘parlements’ exercised the right to resist and protest with regard to royal edicts they did not like. France was rather less centralised and uniform than England in its administration and laws right up to the French Revolution, even under monarchs who claimed absolute powers ordained by God and did their best to erode local privileges and liberties.
The projection of bad things onto France, presumably at least in part so as to condemn royal abuse of power without appearing to criticise the English crown, extends to Fortescue’s condemnation of judicial torture, though even in his own account it can be seen that extreme torture was used in England to extract false confessions and accusations as part of a judicial process. Anyway, certainly Fortescue’s condemnation of such practices is very admirable and ahead of his time, as it was then widely assumed that torture was a good way of getting at the truth, for the purpose of a trial, and was not to be considered disturbing. Fortescue was disturbed and did believe that it was against humanity to use torture, as well as being ineffective from the point of view of determining guilt in a reliable manner. Fortescue greatly helped further the cause of liberty in this and other ways.