Natural Law: An Introduction to Legal Philosophy

By A. P. d'entrèves | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER I
A UNIVERSAL SYSTEM OF LAWS

THE first great achievement of natural law lies in the legal field proper, in the foundation, that is, of a system of laws of universal validity. That system was embodied and transmitted to posterity in the law-books of Justinian.

It is no exaggeration to say that, next to the Bible, no book has left a deeper mark upon the history of mankind than the Corpus Juris Civilis. Much has been written about the impact of Rome upon Western civilization. Much has been disputed about "the ghost of the Roman Empire" that still lurks far beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. The heritage of Roman law is not a ghost, but a living reality. It is present in the court as well as in the market-place. It lives on not only in the institutions but even in the language of all civilized nations.

To the pessimist or the sceptic, who too readily accepts the view that ideologies are nothing but a superstructure on facts, the history of that heritage is a reminder of the predominance of the spiritual over the material factor. "The history of Roman Law during the Middle Ages testifies to the latent vigour and organizing power of ideas in the midst of shifting surroundings" (Vinogradoff). The revival of Roman law was a powerful leaven in the transformation of the social and political structure of Europe. Those who speak of a damnosa hereditas have their eye only on one side of the picture. They overlook what is our greatest debt to the Roman inheritance: the notion that law is the common patrimony of men, a bond that can overcome their differences and reduce them to unity.

The great compilation and codification of legal material which is commonly known by the name of the Corpus Iuris Civilis, was completed in the year 534 A.D. by a body of Byzantine lawyers who had been ordered to undertake that task by the Emperor Justinian. It embodied the results of a long

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