A blupete Essay

Tradition, Part 2 to blupete's Essay
"The Common Law"

"There is hardly an absurdity of the past that cannot be found flourishing somewhere in the present." (Durant, Our Oriental Heritage.)
It was a Dutch meteorologist who lived back in the 19th century and who formulated a law in respect to wind known as Buys-Ballot's Law of the Winds. It is expressed as follows:
"The wind neither blows round the space of lowest pressure in circles returning on themselves, nor does it blow directly towards that space; but it takes a direction intermediate, approaching, however, more nearly to the direction and course of circular curves than of radii to a centre."
Thus expressed, it is hard for most of us mortals to understand what this Dutchman, Buys-Ballot, was talking about. How about this:
"... if a man stands with his back to the wind, the lower pressure will be to his left in the northern hemisphere, and to his right in the southern."
Ah! Now, we are making some progress. In Nova Scotia, the prevailing direction of our weather systems is north-east, that is to say we generally get what's coming to us from the south-west, up the eastern American seaboard.3 In Nova Scotia, if one were to stand with his back to the Atlantic ocean and his back to the wind, then the low (bad weather) is to the south-west and heading for you; with the wind just the opposite (blowing off shore), then the low is to the north-west and heading away from you. A flat ocean with an offshore wind is something that a weather-fearing fisherman in Nova Scotia likes. He knows nothing of Buys-Ballot's Law of the Winds, but he obeys it; he knows about it in his gut; and knows, -- Oh! So, well, he and his family know, the grief that will come if he does not obey The Law of the Winds.

Primitive man knew nothing of laws, all he knew was custom. Custom, or tradition, evolved into rules for living. They grew spontaneously, viz., not deliberately designed by some particular human mind. While no one can point to the origins of our traditional moral rules, their function in human society is clear enough. These moral rules, or traditions, are necessary to preserve the existing state of affairs; such that culture was allowed to evolve; and in turn, with culture, civilizations came about. Thus, as David Hume wrote, man developed in an evolutionary fashion -- not only biologically, but also culturally. That, like the lot of all animals, man evolved in accordance with certain natural rules, in that "no form can persist unless it possesses those powers and organs necessary for its subsistence: some new order or economy must be tried and so on, without intermission; until at last some order which can support and maintain itself, is fallen upon."

The preservation of existing laws as was represented by traditions and cultural rules, to early man, at least, was of greater concern than putting up with bad laws: change was what men feared: change and its social upheaval was what brought on suffering and death. I quote from Bagehot's work:

"In early societies it matters much more that the law should be fixed than that it should be good. Any law which the people of ignorant times enact is sure to involve many misconceptions, and to cause many evils. Perfection in legislation is not to be looked for, and is not, indeed, much wanted in a rude, painful, confined life. But such an age covets fixity. That men should enjoy the fruits of their labour, that the law of property should be known, that the law of marriage should be known, that the whole course of life should be kept in a calculable track, is the summum bonum of early ages, the first desire of semi-civilized mankind. In that age men do not want to have their laws adapted, but to have their laws steady. The passions are so powerful, force so eager, the social bond so weak, that the august spectacle of an all but unalterable law is necessary to preserve society. In the early stages of human society all change is thought an evil. And most change is an evil. The conditions of life are so simple and so unvarying that any decent sort of rules suffice, so long as men know what they are. Custom is the first check on tyranny; that fixed routine of social life at which modern innovations have, and by which modern improvement is impeded, is the primitive check on base power. The perception of political expediency has then hardly begun; the sense of abstract justice is weak and vague; and a rigid adherence to the fixed mould of transmitted usage is essential to an unmarred, unspoiled, unbroken life." (Walter Bagehot, The English Constitution, at pp. 229-30.)

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[Essays, First Series]
[Essays, Second Series]
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Peter Landry

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