Jun 5th 2015

Magna Carta at 800

"There is nothing in Magna Carta that prevents the enactment and enforcement of unjust laws; but it does elevate the law above the ruler’s will."

PRINCETON – Fly out of London’s Heathrow Airport and you may pass over a grassy field called Runnymede. Eight hundred years ago this month, it offered a colorful spectacle, dotted with the tents of barons and knights, and the larger pavilion of King John of England, looking like a circus top with the royal standard fluttering above.

Despite the gathering’s pageant-like appearance, the atmosphere was undoubtedly tense. The purpose was to settle a conflict between rebellious barons and their king, a ruler described by a contemporary as “brimful of evil qualities.”

John’s efforts to raise money to regain lost lands in France exceeded the usual taxes and levies that the nobles had accepted from his predecessors. The king seized the estates, and sometimes the person, of wealthy lords or merchants and demanded hefty payments for their release.

If his years of amassing cash had led to victory, John might have got away with his arbitrary methods; but when he was defeated in France, a group of barons rose up against him and captured London. As part of a peace deal brokered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the king accepted the baron’s demands, put to him in a document called Magna Carta, or “the Great Charter.”

Magna Carta was not the first charter to be granted by an English king. A century earlier, Henry I, by issuing a Coronation Charter, had indicated that he would be more respectful of the nobles’ privileges than was his predecessor. But Henry’s successors soon returned to the arbitrary ways of kings in those times.

Magna Carta, too, looked like it might be short-lived. It was soon annulled by Pope Innocent III, who had formed an alliance with the king. But John died the following year, and the nobles backing his successor, the nine-year-old Henry III, needed support against a rival claimant to the throne. To gain that support, Henry’s government reissued its own version of Magna Carta, which remains part of the laws of England.

Copies were made and dispersed to many of the great English cathedrals. The Latin original was translated first into French, the language of the nobility, and then into English. By the end of the century, peasants were citing it in a struggle against injustice.

The first printed edition was made in 1508. In the 1640s, parliamentarians saw in it a legal basis for their overthrow of King Charles I. Later rebels, including the American revolutionaries and Nelson Mandela, have similarly justified their actions by appealing to Magna Carta.

What these fighters for justice and freedom take from this 3,500-word document is the brief statements of general principles in response to John’s arbitrary seizure of his subjects’ property and person. In its 39th Chapter, Magna Carta states: “No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or diseised [dispossessed], or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed, nor will we go against him, nor will we send against him, save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.” Chapter 40 states, concisely, another powerful principle: “To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice.”

These two chapters have their modern echo in the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which decrees that no state shall deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property “without due process of law” or deny anyone “the equal protection of the laws.”

Yet Magna Carta is not a democratic document. Although it established the requirement of common consent to taxation, that consent was to be obtained from an assembly of earls, barons, bishops, and abbots – in the age of chivalry, not even knights were invited to participate.

The idea that towns such as London should be represented was voiced at the time, but it found no place in the final text. What Magna Carta shows, therefore, is that “Who rules?” is one question, and “What, if any, are the limits to political power?” is another.

Because Magna Carta attempted to set limits to political power without grounding these limits in the sovereignty of the people, it demonstrated a problem with which philosophers have grappled for even longer than 800 years. From where do the principles that constrain rulers come, if from neither the rulers nor their subjects?

The tradition of natural law offers an answer that was familiar to medieval scholars, for whom natural law was knowable to us by our natural reason (as opposed to those laws that could be discovered only through divine revelation). Magna Carta’s key principles can be seen as derived from reason because the very idea of a law excludes arbitrary arrest and seizure, as well as the rendering of a verdict on any grounds other than the proper application of the law. If A is legally bound to return B’s cow when she strays onto his land, and then C’s cow strays onto B’s land in relevantly similar circumstances, B must also be bound to return C’s cow. C need not bribe the judge to get his cow back.

There is nothing in Magna Carta that prevents the enactment and enforcement of unjust laws; but it does elevate the law above the ruler’s will. Unfortunately, that idea still is not accepted in many countries. Moreover, as the continued existence of the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay shows, even among countries that trace their political institutions to Magna Carta, perceived security threats have weakened the requirement that no one be arrested except under the law of the land, and that justice not be delayed.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2015.


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.



Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jun 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Confronting our complex history and ultimately embracing a more equitable, balanced, and humble culture may be a tall order in these fractious times. But that makes it even more imperative that we fully reckon with who we are and who we are capable of becoming."
Jun 11th 2021
EXTARCT: "A further health benefit of hiking is that it’s classed as “green exercise”. This refers to the added health benefit that doing physical activity in nature has on us. Research shows that not only can green exercise decrease blood pressure, it also benefits mental wellbeing by improving mood and reducing depression to a greater extent than exercising indoors can."
Jun 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress,” Mahatma Gandhi said, “can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” If we apply that test to the world as a whole, how much moral progress have we made over the past two millennia? ...... That question is suggested by The Golden Ass, arguably the world’s earliest surviving novel, written around 170 CE, when Emperor Marcus Aurelius ruled the Roman Empire. Apuleius, the author, was an African philosopher and writer, born in what is now the Algerian city of M’Daourouch."
Jun 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Research we’ve done, which looked at 37 adults with type 2 diabetes, found that over two weeks, prolonged sitting was associated with high blood sugar levels. But we also found that when people stood up or walked around between periods of sitting, they had lower blood sugar levels. Other studies have also had similar results."
May 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Paul Van Doren's legacy lies in a famous company, and in his advice to young entrepreneurs to get their hands dirty, and to know what goes into making what they are selling."
May 19th 2021
EXTRACT: "May 7th marked three hundred and ten years since the philosopher David Hume was born. He is chiefly remembered as the most original and destructive of the early modern empiricists, following John Locke and George Berkeley." .... " Shocking as it may (and should) sound, Hume is implying nothing less than that the next time you turn the key in your car ignition, you are as justified to expect the engine will start as you are in believing it will turn into a pumpkin. For there is a radical contingency that pervades all our experience. We could wake up tomorrow to a world that looks and behaves very differently to the one we are in now. Matters of fact are dependent on experience and can never be known a priori — they are purely contingent, and could always turn out different than what we expect."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: " The sad reality is that the Mizrahim (Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent) were discriminated against from the day of Israel’s inception, whose Ashkenazi (European Jewish) leaders viewed them as intellectually inferior, “backward,” and “too Arab,” and treated them as such, largely because the Ashkenazim agenda was to maintain their upper-class status while controlling the levers of power, which remain prevalent to this day." ..... " The greatest heartbreaking outcome is that for yet another generation of Israelis, growing up in these debilitating conditions has a direct effect on their cognitive development. A 2015 study published in Nature Neuroscience found that “family income is significantly correlated with children’s brain size…increases in income were associated with the greatest increases in brain surface area among the poorest children.” "
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "We all owe Farah Nabulsi an enormous debt of gratitude. In a short 24-minute film, The Present, she has exposed the oppressive indecency of the Israeli occupation while telling the deeply moving story of a Palestinian family. What is especially exciting is that after winning awards at a number of international film festivals​, Ms. Nabulsi has been nominated for an Academy Award for this remarkable work of art. " 
Apr 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "When I crashed to the floor of my home in Bordeaux recently after two months of Covid-19 dizziness, I was annoyed. The next day I collapsed again. Now I was worried. What I didn’t know was that my brain was sloshing around inside my skull, causing a mild concussion. Nor did I know that I was in for a whole new world of weird and wonderful hallucinations."
Apr 13th 2021
EXTRACT: "Overall, our review has found that there isn’t evidence to back up the claims that veganism is good for your heart. But that is partly because there are few studies ....... But veganism may have other health benefits. Vegans have been found to have a healthier weight and lower blood glucose levels than those who consume meat and dairy. They are also less likely to develop cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. "
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Pollock’s universe, the universe of Mural, cannot be said to be a rational universe. Nor is it simply devoid of all sense. It is not a purely imaginary world, although in it everything is in a constant state of flux. Mural invokes one of the oldest questions of philosophy, a question going back to the Pre-Socratic philosophers Parmenides and Heraclitus – namely, whether the nature of Reality constitutes unchanging permanence or constant movement and flux. For Pollock, the only thing that is truly unchanging is change itself. The only certainty is that all is uncertain."
Apr 8th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many present day politicians appear to have psychopathic and narcissistic traits too. It’s easy to spot such leaders, because they are always authoritarian, following hardline policies. They try to subvert democracy, to reduce the freedom of the press and clamp down on dissent. They are obsessed with national prestige, and often persecute minority groups. And they are always corrupt and lacking in moral principles."
Apr 6th 2021
EXTRACT: "This has led some to claim that not just half, but perhaps nearly all advertising money is wasted, at least online. There are similar results outside of commerce. One review of field experiments in political campaigning argued “the best estimate of the effects of campaign contact and advertising on Americans’ candidates choices in general elections is zero”. Zero!"
Mar 30th 2021
EXTRACT: "The Father is an extraordinary film, from Florian Zeller’s 2012 play entitled Le Père and directed by Zeller. I’m here to tell you why it is a ‘must see’." EDITOR'S NOTE: The official trailer is attached to the review.
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "Picasso was 26 in 1907, when he completed the Demoiselles; de Kooning was 48 in 1952, when he finished Woman I.  The difference in their ages was not an accident, for studies of hundreds of painters have revealed a striking regularity - the conceptual painters who preconceive their paintings, from Raphael to Warhol, consistently make their greatest contributions earlier in their careers than experimental painters, from Rembrandt to Pollock, who paint directly, without preparatory studies."
Mar 26th 2021
EXTRACT: "Mental toughness levels are influenced by many different factors. While genetics are partly responsible, a person’s environment is also relevant. For example, both positive experiences while you’re young and mental toughness training programmes have been found to make people mentally tougher."
Mar 20th 2021

The city of Homs has been ravaged by war, leaving millions of people homeless an

Mar 20th 2021
EXTRACT: "There are two main rival models of ethics: one is based on rights, the other on duties. The rights-based model, which traces its philosophical origins to the work of John Locke in the 17th century, starts from the assumption that individuals have rights ....... According to this approach, duties are related to rights, but only in a subordinate role. My right to health implies a duty on my country to provide some healthcare services, to the best of its abilities. This is arguably the dominant interpretation when philosophers talk about rights, including human rights." ........ "Your right to get sick, or to risk getting sick, could imply a duty on others to look after you during your illness." ..... "The pre-eminence of rights in our moral compass has vindicated unacceptable levels of selfishness. It is imperative to undertake a fundamental duty not to get sick, and to do everything in our means to avoid causing others to get sick. Morally speaking, duties should come first and should not be subordinated to rights." ..... "Putting duties before rights is not a new, revolutionary idea. In fact it is one of the oldest rules in the book of ethics. Primum non nocere, or first do no harm, is the core principle in the Hippocratic Oath historically taken by doctors, widely attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher and physician Hippocrates. It is also a fundamental principle in the moral philosophy of the Roman statesman Marcus Tullius Cicero, who in De Officiis (On Duties) argues that the first task of justice is to prevent men and women from causing harm to others."
Mar 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Several studies have recently compared the difference between antibodies produced straight after a coronavirus infection and those that can be detected six months later. The findings have been both impressive and reassuring. Although there are fewer coronavirus-specific antibodies detectable in the blood six months after infection, the antibodies that remain have undergone significant changes. …….. the “mature” antibodies were better at recognising the variants."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Like Shakespeare, Goya sees evil as something existing in itself – indeed, the horror of evil arises precisely from its excess. It overflows and refuses to be contained by or integrated into our categories of reason or comprehension. By its very nature, evil refuses to remain within prescribed bounds – to remain fixed, say, within an economy where evil is counterbalanced by good. Evil is always excess of evil." ....... "Nowhere is this more evident than in war. Goya offers us a profound and sustained meditation on the nature of war ........ The image of a Napoleonic soldier gazing indifferently on a man who has been summarily hanged, probably by his own belt, expresses the tragedy of war – its dehumanization of both war’s victims and victors."