Friday, March 12, 2021

The inevitable empire of nature?

The new journal LawArt. Rivista di Diritto, Arte, Storia / Journal of Law, Art and History just posted its first issue (as an aside, we've now counted 63 active legal history journals!), including an article by Nader Hakim, the English title of which is "A Legal Picture of Nature: Legal Discourse or the Aesthetics of Truth. An Example from the Heart of 19th Century France" (the article is in French). The crux of the article (with help from Google Translate, notes omitted):

Sculpture of Charles Demolombe,
Caen, c. 1910
Charles Demolombe (1804-1887), famous professor of civil law in Caen, Normandy, lets us see a picture in which nature holds a place that is significant and quite symptomatic of the legal discourse of his time. From the outset, in fact, the reader encounters nature very frequently when reading the famous Cours de Code Napoléon. Nature seems made up of "all that exists, not only the objects which can become the property of man, but even all that, in nature, escapes this exclusive appropriation." Nature is thus opposed to human activity, it forms the backdrop for actions or the landscape within which law is played out.

However, far from being an objective reference to the physical-chemical world alone, nature is mobilized to integrate into the discourse not only biological life or physical forces but also essences and values. It is then natural what the author, in this case Charles Demolombe in our example, declares as such. One might think that nature is this thing external to the human will and which is imposed on everyone, objectively, but it is not.

Of course, we meet this mysterious and irresistible force, this force majeure considered an "inevitable empire"* of nature. Of course, tangible or immovable property or even men and women have undeniable physical properties. Things and people, the objects of the jurist's discourse, indeed exist. In reality, we can easily see that the law and jurists choose from what is objectively “natural” or physical-chemical, that which they will qualify as “nature”. In a way, the law has the last word because it chooses among the constraints of nature those that it wants to admit and if necessary extend, and those that it simply ignores.

* In a note here Hakim cites from Demolombe (vol. X, no. 5) a passage on the law of alluvion that resonates with a recent paper of mine (for a collection edited by Hakim on "Nature as a Norm"...):

As if the rivers and rivers needed the permission of the legislator, to roll their waters according to the mysterious and irresistible movements which carry them along! As if this empire, or as we still say, this absolutism of running waters were not the work of nature itself, an inevitable empire, of which the legislator would seek in vain to dispossess them; whereas its only claim can be to regulate the consequences as equitably as possible. We must therefore recognize that there is a force majeure here, a force often capricious and undoubtedly blind, regarding which the laws cannot always right the wrongs or repair the injustices.

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