What are the laws that have shaped the way we live and lead our lives? From monogamy laws to real estate laws; there are a myriad of laws which shape and give birth to our existence. What is law? Is it a system which tells us what we can and can’t do? Or is it a system through which society is shaped and birthed through laws which direct society onto a certain path at the expense of many other potentialities and possibilities?

On a basic level, laws seek to regulate human behaviour. Legal systems vary between countries–resulting in laws that can differ considerably from country to country. The scope of law can be divided into two domains: public and private. Public law concerns government and society. It encompasses areas such as: constitutional law, administrative law and criminal law. Private law, on the other hand, deals with legal disputes between individuals and organisations in areas such as: contracts, property, torts and commercial law.

The Early Beginnings of Law

The legal impetus was born when civilisation, as a concept, begin to develop in a tangible form. The oldest laws of which we have tangible evidence is the Code of Hammurabi of ancient Mesopotamia. Ancient Egyptian law, which came after the Mesopotamians, dates as far back as 3000 BC. It was based on the concept of Ma’at, who was personified as a goddess of justice and order.

If there was no state-sanctioned impetus for justice and order, civilisations which consisted of a large population would never have been born. We would instead have continued to live in small or sizeable clans and tribes. The early domain of law–when we still lived in small groups that numbered no more than a few hundred–was largely characterised by tradition and rhetorical speech.

In the East, Ancient India and China developed distinct traditions of law and have historically had independent schools of legal theory and practice. The Arthashastra and the Manusmriti were the foundational treatises of India and comprised texts that were considered authoritative legal guidance.

Manu’s central philosophy was tolerance and pluralism and its influence spread to Southeast Asia as peoples begin to mingle and merge. It was a law solidified through a belief in syncretism, instead of military rule. In China, the legal system was based on the Confucian philosophy of social control through moral education, as well as the legalist emphasis on codified law and criminal sanction.

During the time when ancient civilisations flourished, there was both a religious and secular dimension to the laws that were created, maintained and later passed on.

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