Monday, March 29, 2010

The Codes of Hammurabi and Moses with Copious Comments, Index, and Bible References / W.W. Davies -- Cincinnati: Jennings and Graham, 1905

More recent translations of The Code of Hammurabi are probably more reliable than Davies's 1905 translation, but the "copious comments, index, and Bible references" in this translation make it well worth perusing. Davies writes in his introduction that Hammurabi flourished about 2250 BC. More recent historians place him 500 years later (see Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy and The Ancient Near East, Vol 1, edited by James B. Pritchard); but even this later date places his Code well before Mosaic Law, and so it is interesting to see what in Mosaic Law is prefigured in Hammurabi's Code. Davies's volume goes beyond annotating Hammurabi with Biblical citations. It often includes the full Biblical text for comparison and is valuably augmented by his commentary.

The strong similarities between the two legal systems probably does not indicate a direct borrowing of one from the other, but instead is evidence of the continuity between the Old Babylonian society and Judea of the first millennium BC. The Code is a remarkable compendium of contract law, family law, and criminal law. There are even regulations for sentencing and clues to judicial procedure. Careful study can reveal the relative legal standing of different elements of the society and broad principles of justice, most generally: lex talionis.

Punishments ranged from fines -- usually a multiple of the value of what was illegally lost, stolen, or destroyed -- to whipping, mutilation, and death. Executions generally were accomplished by drowning or burning the felon, possibly burning him or her alive.

The parallels with Mosaic Law and even with contemporary legal principles are sometimes striking, leading one to wonder how deeply seated is our sense of justice.

Perhaps most interesting, though, is the inventory of social positions and occupations that can be generated from the Code, giving the careful reader a vivid picture of life in Old Babylon where grains, fruit, cattle, oxen, sheep, asses, and goats provided sustenance. The Code regulates farmers, herders, orchard growers, tenants, landlords, sailors, traveling salesmen, teamsters, business agents, money lenders, doctors, artisans, brick makers, tailors, stone cutters, carpenters, builders, tavern keepers, kings, priests, sacred prostitutes, slaves, masters, indentured servants, husbands, wives, concubines, fathers, step-fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, neighbors, and aliens. The mores and behavior of these people are revealed by the laws that Hammurabi found necessary to promulgate. Infractions were few enough to be regulated, but frequent enough to need regulation.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War / Burrus M. Carnahan -- Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2010

The recent "War on Terrorism" has generated some perplexing legal problems with regard to how a nation state, in particular the U.S., may treat "unlawful combatants," i.e., persons who are members of a non-state terrorist group. As such, they are said not to enjoy the protections of the Third Geneva Convention. Furthermore, the U.S. government asserts the right to detain them until the end of hostilities; however, when such persons are U.S. citizens, their right to petition for habeas corpus stands against the government's claim to detain them for the duration of hostilities. Clear and uncomplicated rulings on these issues seem remote, and it is doubtful that the law governing such cases will be settled anytime soon.

The difficulty is not without precedent, though, as is demonstrated in Burrus M. Carnahan's recent book Lincoln on Trial. Carnahan amply illustrates the legal, political, and moral difficulties that Lincoln and the military forces of the Union had in dealing with Confederate rebels. As with the current conflict, the legal treatment of Confederate rebels was complex and at times contradictory.

At the start of the war, Lincoln took pains to do nothing that would bestow sovereign status on the seceded states.  This was far from simple. The first challenge was to maintain a blockade of Southern ports. To be effective, the blockade would require Union ships to search and seize ships and their cargoes outside of the territorial waters of the U.S. Under international law, this would be permitted only if the South were recognized as a sovereign state.

Similarly, the right of the Union armies to appropriate supplies from non-combatant Southerners would exist only if the population was deemed an alien population, not protected by the Constitution. Furthermore, captured Union soldiers could not be exchanged for Confederate soldiers unless all were officially classified as prisoners of war. Lincoln's response to these dilemmas was to gradually act as though the Confederacy was a sovereign state.

Carnahan's book is primarily a litany of ostensible violations of the rights of Southern non-combatants. Through out, Carnahan argues that Lincoln largely allowed his generals to interpret and abide by rules of engagement for Union troops developed and outlined by Francis Lieber in the Lieber Code; however, when specific controversial acts that did not seem justified by military necessity were brought to his attention, Lincoln commonly intervened without ever establishing broader executive orders to prevent future abuses.

The final verdict appears to be that Lincoln expected his generals to interpret and abide by a code of conduct that might justify significant attrocities under strained interpretations, but would not, himself, reach those interpretations. In all, Lincoln appears to have approached the problem pragmatically, seeking to minimize damage to the South, without compromising the aims of the war.

Tolkien: A Biography / Humphrey Carpenter -- Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977

J.R.R. Tolkien didn't understand why anyone would want to know about the life of an author. He thought the facts of an author's life would tell you little about what was important in an author's work. Nonetheless, he and his close friends and family permitted Humphrey Carpenter numerous interviews and other assistance in writing Tolkien's biography. The result is consistent with Tolkien's gloss on biographies: it tells us little about the significance of Tolkien's writings. Now and again, a fragment of Tolkien's life appears to have echos in The Lord of the Rings or The Silmarillion, but mostly the biography is an interesting peak into a somewhat ordinary life of a British academic.

Clearly, Tolkien was an enormously talented linguist and philologist, but it was as much his foibles as his talents that made him the important figure that he became. His early academic successes secured him his position at Leeds and later Oxford, but he never generated a huge mass of academic writing that he might have been expected to publish. Instead, he directed his energy into teaching, marking papers, and writing the literary work that made him famous. Carpenter's biography of him leads one to think that his literary work was mostly a way of avoiding the work that he might have expected to do in his academic position, but undoubtedly in this case, the fruits of procrastination and diversion turned out to be much sweeter than what he otherwise would have produced.

We can be thankful that Tolkien's publisher, George Allen, applied what pressure he did to ensure that Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings. Without such pressure, not only would we not have this masterpiece, but Tolkien's larger legendarium, the Silmarillion and other works may never have seen publication. The world would have known Tolkien for a quaint children's novel, The Hobbit, and for revolutionizing Beowulf studies with his lecture Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics. Instead of numerous volumes of his manscripts being edited and published by his son Christopher Tolkien, Tolkien's genius probably would have languished on slowly decaying paper in a forgotten archive.

Carpenter's biography is alternately generous with Tolkien and unflatteringly frank. In many respects, Tolkien comes off as a likable though unambitious man. In other respects, he seems a bit self-absorbed. It isn't clear just how accurate any of this is, but in all, Carpenter presents a believably three dimensional personality. There is, though, little to recommend this biography, except to Tolkien's most committed admirers.

Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science / Robert L. Park -- Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008

Atheists have been on the offensive recently. Note, for example, Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion or Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. In something of this vein, Robert L. Park has written Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science. It's a fairly successful indictment of some simple superstitious follies, but it addresses easy targets.

Park takes on, for example, creationism, the efficacy of prayer, homeopathic medicine, and acupuncture; all in an effort to establish that the only basis for knowledge of the empirical world is science. The critical ideas are observation, causation, and testability. What comes of this is a fairly pedestrian scientific realism. What doesn't come of this is a more probing inquiry into ontology and the scientific method. This is, perhaps, forgivable in that a popular understanding of even the simplest version of science is sorely lacking, and many important public policy decisions are being made based on the rank superstitions that Park attacks.

Perhaps the most interesting passage in Superstition comes in the chapter "Schrodinger's Grave," in which Park attempts to discredit the arguments against materialism that have been developed as a result of Schrodinger's wave equation and Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. Park describes the argument for non-materialism this way: "..since events on an atomic scale are affected by the act of observation, and since everthing in the universe is made of atoms, we should not be surprised to find our thoughts influencing events on the macroscopic scale in which our lives are lived." Put this way, Park's opponents are, of course, easily defeated; however, subtler arguments against Park's materialism are quite common and unaddressed by Park.

Reading Superstition led me to pick up A.A. Eddington's The Nature of the Physical World, published in 1929. Most of this work is a popular presentation of the state of physics of the time; however, the last chapters argue that we must entertain seriously an idealist ontology. Eddington observes that with the success of quantum mechanics, the concept of causation is no long particularly useful when seeking the most fundamental explanation of phenomena. Instead, probabilities are employed. One might further note that as physics has moved well beyond observable, macroscopic phenomena, its bread and butter lies with inferred objects that are only made meaningful in mathematical descriptions and that non-empirical aspects of theories, for example, simplicity, are as important to establishing a theory as are often dubious observations. For Eddington, the consequence of such considerations is that idealism and even mysticism are now a viable positions for the most tough minded scientists.

Park never addresses these more philosophical arguments. He is content to tackle more popular notions.

The Writings of Chuang Tse / Chuang Tse -- in The Sacred Books of the East, V. XXXIX & XL -- London: Oxford University Press, 1927.

It is often remarked that the Taoist texts are in some sense inferior to Buddhist and Confucian texts; that they are frequently obscure, incoherent, and even contradictory. It is difficult to know if this is a result of the original text or of poor translations, but reading The Writings of Chuang Tsu, translated by James Legge doesn't dispel the common opinion. Nonetheless, much insight and pleasure still can be gained from this work. Immersing oneself in 462 pages of Taoist writing eventually has its effect. Central themes and ideas recur, while the obscure and contradictory passages recede into the background.

Chuang Tse, is thought to have lived in the fourth century BCE and is considered second only to Lao Tse among Taoist authors. Chuang Tse's Writings translated by Legge appear along with Lao Tse's Tao Te Ching in the monumental monographic series Sacred Books of the East, edited by Max Muller. Together, they provide an excellent introduction to anyone seeking to understand the foundations of Taoism.

Two important related themes arise in the Writings: non-resistance and humility. The attitude of non-resistance might better be described as a refusal to engage in conflict and disputation. This appears in the first two parts of the Writings. When faced with conflict or partisan aggression, Chuang Tse advises the Taoist to avoid attempts to engage the conflict or to refute misguided views. To do so will only enflame the conflict or further entrench the partisan in his or her misguided view. By refusing to engage the partisan, one allows the circumstance of the conflict to pass away, leaving an opportunity for the true opinion to assert itself in time, naturally.

The theme of humility appears prominently in the third part of the Writings. Here the similarities between Taoism and Buddhism are clear. Chuang Tse repeatedly emphasizes how detrimental wealth, power, and fame are to living according to the Tao. Instead, the Taoist is encouraged to diminish the significance of the self and allow the self to be swallowed up current of nature. By subordinating one's self to the way of nature, one helps to avoid the destructive disruptions that come from aggrandizing the self.

Regardless of the literary quality of Taoist writings, these ideas are ones which the world would do well to heed. For the ancient Taoist, "nature" likely meant something different from what we mean by it today, but the concept is not wholly alien. The desire to aggrandize our selves, to accumulate wealth and power, and to struggle against evil has only led the world to unending, escalating conflict, fought with weapons of mass destruction and to immanent environmental destruction. Chuang Tse would not be surprised.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization / Steven Solomon -- NY: Harper Collins, 2010

My habit is to read books cover to cover. I feel a certain obligation to an author to treat his or her work as a whole, but in the case of Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization, I decided to read only the last 130 pages of this nearly 500 page book. These pages were titled, "The Age of Scarcity." Solomon's interesting treatment of the planet's unfolding water crisis made me wish I had time to read his earlier chapters on water's role in the history of civilization, but time is fleeting, so I contented myself with that portion of his book that seemed most pressing to read.

The world currently faces three enormous problems: climate change, the depletion of conventional oil reserves, and the depletion of water resources. Each interacts with the others to complicate solving (or even mitigating) any of these problems. Solomon's section "The Age of Scarcity" is a detailed examination of many of the issues we face regarding the depletion of water resources.

Most critical are the pressures faced by water poor countries which also turn out to be among the poorest countries in the world. There are exception to this, of course, mostly oil producing countries, but virtually no country is untouched by the unfolding water shortage, and some -- particularly China and India -- are rapidly moving toward water poverty. Both countries are planning massive water diversion projects to support industrial and agricultural development and are rapidly depleting their ancient ground water. Their impending water shortages are likely to put a significant break on their vaunted economic futures.

Such massive diversion projects are consistent with, but larger than, projects previously employed by other countries to manage water. In nearly every instance, these projects have resulted in the destruction of water resources and environmental disaster. Among the most dramatic was the diversion of water for irrigation in Central Asia which destroyed the Aral Sea. Less obvious was the loss of Nile water due to evaporation from the reservoir created by the Aswan Dam.

It is noteworthy that the Nile is currently completely exploited. Nile water no longer flows into the Mediterranian Sea. With the predicted increase in Egypt's population (along with the populations of other Nile basin countries) political turmoil is bound to erupt, both between Nile basin countries and within domestic populations. Such turmoil will not be unique. The shrinking of Lake Chad due to climate changes already has resulted in significant political turmoil in Africa and the melting of Himalayan glaciers could cause even greater turmoil in south Asia. Solomon describes the decades of war between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors as significantly rooted in the control of water resources.

Even the water rich countries (the US, Canada, Russia, and nearly all European and South American countries) are or will one day need to more rigorously manage their water as economic development and population growth creates an increasing demand for water. This will become particularly problematic in the American West which has enjoyed an unusually wet century. Solomon devotes a good deal of attention to the Colorado River basin, which currently is completely exploited. No water from the Colorado reaches the Gulf of California. He also observes that 40% of the huge Ogallala aquifer under the Midwest has been depleted.

Solomon alludes to two important strategies for dealing with these problems. The first is to adopt "soft" approaches to water use, i.e., innovative conservation methods. Isreal and Austrailia are well advanced in generating these methods. Much can be learned from them. The second is to abandon the age old tradition of considering water a basic human right which thereby undervalues it in the market. According to Solomon, allowing market discipline to set prices for water will obviate waste. This later technique has obvious pitfalls. Using the market to price water may have some application in more affluent countries, but globally, without safeguards, it promises greater and greater political strife and human misery.

One method not mentioned by Solomon for employing pricing discipline on water consumption would be to establish a sliding scale for water pricing, where a consumer may purchase a small (necessary) amount of water for little to no cost, with progressive price increases for additional increments of consumption. This method would continue to respect water as a basic human right while discouraging waste.

In all, Solomon's "The Age of Scarcity" is a sobering examination of an unavoidable future. For another admirable treatment of the world's water crises, see When Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce reviewed in this blog.