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Published some fifty six years ago it immediately took rank as a classic, and its epoch making influence may not unfitly be compared to that exercised by Darwin's Origin of Species. The revolution effected by the latter in the study of biology was hardly more remarkable than that effected by Maine's brilliant treatise in the study of early institutions. Well does one of Maine's latest and most learned commentators say of his work that "he did nothing less than create the natural history of law.

This was a new departure, inasmuch as the school of jurists, represented by Bentham and Austin, and of political philosophers, headed by Hobbes, Locke, and their nineteenth century disciples, had approached the study of law and political society almost entirely from an unhistoric point of view and had substituted dogmatism for historical investigation. They had read history, so far as they troubled to read it at all, "backwards," and had invested early man and early society with conceptions which, as a matter of fact, are themselves historical products.

The jurists, for example, had in their analysis of legal sovereignty postulated the commands of a supreme lawgiver by simply ignoring the fact that, in point of time, custom precedes legislation and that early law is, to use Maine's own phrase, "a habit" and not a conscious exercise of the volition of a lawgiver or a legislature.


The political philosophers, similarly, had sought the origin of political society in a "state of nature" humane, according to Locke and Rousseau, barbarous, according to Hobbes in which men freely subscribed to an "original contract" whereby each submitted to the will of all. It was not difficult to show, as Maine has done, that contract i.

There are few general propositions concerning the age to which we belong which seem at first sight likely to be received with readier concurrence than the assertion that the society of our day is mainly distinguished from that of preceding generations by the largeness of the sphere which is occupied in it by Contract. Some of the phenomena on which this proposition rests are among those most frequently singled out for notice, for comment, and for eulogy.

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Xot many of us are so unobservant as not to perceive that in innumerable cases where old law fixed a man's social position irreversibly at his birth, modern law allows him to create it for himself by convention; and indeed several of the few exceptions which remain to this rule are constantly denounced with passionate indignation. The point, for instance, which is really debated in the vigorous controversy still carried on upon the subject of negro servitude, is whether the status of the slave does not belong to by-gone institutions, and whether the only relation between employer and labourer which commends itself to modern morality be not a relation determined exclusively by contract.

The recognition of tbis difference between past ages and the present enters into the very essence of the most famous contemporary speculations. It is certain that the science of Political Economy, the only department of moral inquiry which has made any considerable progress in our day, would fail to correspond with the facts of life if it were not true that Imperative Law had abandoned the largest part of the field which it once occupied, and had left men to settle rules of conduct for themselves with a liberty never allowed to them till recently.

The bias indeed of most persons trained in political economy is to consider the general truth on which their science reposes as entitled to become universal, and, when they apply it as an art, their efforts are ordinarily directed to enlarging the province of Contract and to curtailing that of Imperative Law, except so far as law is necessary to enforce the performance of Contracts.

The impulse given by thinkers who are under the influence of these ideas is beginning to be very strongly felt in the Western world.

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Legislation has nearly confessed its inability to keep pace with the activity of man in discovery, in invention, and in the manipulation of accumulated wealth; and the law even of the least advanced communities tends more and more to become a mere surface-stratum, having under it an ever-changing assemblage of contractual rules with which it rarely interferes except to compel compliance with a few fundamental principles, or unless it be called in to punish the violation of good faith. Social inquiries, so far as they depend on the consideration of legal phenomena, are in so backward a condition that we need not be surprised at not finding these truths recognised in the commonplaces which pass current concerning the progress of society.

These commonplaces answer much more to our prejudices than to our convictions. The strong disinclination of most men to regard morality as advancing seems to be especially powerful when the virtues on which Contract depends are in question, and many of us have an almost instinctive reluctance to admitting that good faith and trust in our fellows are more widely diffused than of old, or that there is anything in contemporary manners which parallels the loyalty of the antique world.

From time to time, these prepossessions are greatly strengthened by the spectacle of frauds, unheard of before the period at which they were observed, and astonishing from their complication as well as shocking from their criminality. But the very character of these frauds shows clearly that, before they became possible, the moral obligations of which they are the breach must have been more than proportionately developed.

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The Brehon Laws of Early Ireland: An Introduction (Extract "Ancient Ireland Culture and Society)