Letting the Laws Sleep

1 08 2008

Two years ago, I did a series of posts on Pierre Hadot’s reading of Marcus Aurelius. I cited the following quote from Hadot’s book, The Inner Citadel:

“…the formula ‘to let the laws sleep’ was a proverbial expression, meaning that, in case of serious crises, we must resign ourselves to silencing our moral principles… When Apollonius died before Marcus became emperor, the latter was deeply grieved, and wept abundantly. The courtiers reproached Marcus for his demonstration of affection, probably because they considered his philosophical pretensions to be a joke, and wanted to show him that he was being unfaithful to his own principles. However, the emperor Antoninus Pius said to them: “Let him be a man. Neither philosophy nor the Empire can uproot affections.’

Since I read that passage, the phrase, “letting the laws sleep” has been on my mind more and more. The phrase has nothing to do with living immorally or immoderately. It has more to do with acknowledging that life is sloppy, difficult, and never in black and white. The modern approach to this would either have us assert the law everywhere and at all times, or kill the law altogether. While this makes for a very predictable and safe society, it is far from the solution to all of our problems.

One can suspect that those who would want to assert the law of things without any regard for consequences do not really believe in the goodness or truth of the law, but rather are afraid that the law is neither good or true in itself. That is the difference between ideology or fundamentalism and truth in itself. Deciding that the law may not apply in all circumstances does not mean that it is false. It only means that we are weak and it is eternal, and we must be humble before the cold fact of our wavering humanity.


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3 responses

2 08 2008
Arturo Vasquez

I quote something written below:

“It should hardly be surprising then that our own society is so immoral, and speaking as if we are on the verge of a new Sodom and Gomorrah may be grossly exaggerated. That, or perhaps it has always been here.

Or perhaps it was not so bad since we are speaking of people who are not white, and they are “naturally immoral” anyway (at least this is probably the subconcious thinking behind the defense of the ‘Leave It to Beaver’ imaginings of white suburbia). People everywhere and at all times should be exhorted to virtue, but historical amnesia should not blow our current situation out of proportion. All we have done is exchanged one set of vices for another. That makes us neither more or less virtuous, nor more or less evil. It just means that we’re human, and no amount of human effort can change sinful nature.”

1 08 2008
ochlophobist

I had an anthropology prof who occasionally taught NT classes from an anthropological perspective. In one class he replied to a rather zealous student, “Who is it in scripture that plays the role of always insisting that the law be remembered to the letter in every instance? Who demands that punishment be enacted for every breaking of the law, however slight? Satan. The accuser. Go his way if you wish.”

But on the other hand, in a culture that is habitually antinomian, anyone who suggests that we remember a law is apt to be portrayed as “without any regard for consequences” and with the advent of überDr.Phil pop-psychoanalysis anyone who ever cites a law might be deemed “afraid that the law is neither good or true in itself.” Even in a context of satanic insistence upon the letter of the law, antinomianism does not seem to provide a better path. Apathy is a middle ground that does not seem a good option for the Christian. A temperance with regard to the law is best way to go, but temperance requires, to some degree, a social context, and when society (inside and outside of the Church) has decided that we all write our own choose-your-own-adventure books, finding a place for measured legal temperance is difficult and, wells, feels rather forced and affected.

1 08 2008
Nathan

Your post reminds me of one of my favorite lines from “The Return of the King.” Faramir says to Pippin: “A generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel.” There is something deeply human about this approach.

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