A General View on Law – The Definition of the Word

Legal books

Since the word “law” is used in many different senses, it is important to indicate that in this article it will be used in the sense which the word is commonly understood in speaking and writing.

Law, in this sense, consists of a system of social rules which, in the communities that in varying degrees share Western civilization, has become the special business of institutions called courts, and is enforced by officials typified in England and the United States by sheriffs and policemen, and by similar officials elsewhere.

In these communities, the institutions and officials that deal with the law have this as their exclusive business. In other civilized communities, a clean-cut differentiation is not always made. The institutions and officials that most resemble the Anglo-American courts are enforcing officials often have other functions as well.

Legal books
Legal books

They sometimes give moral and religious guidance and do so with authority. Furthermore, in some communities of a high degree of culture and in nearly all primitive communities, it is impossible to tell whether a given social rule is one of manner, or morals, of religion, or of law, or of some amalgam or admixture of all four.

Attention must be called to the other senses in which “law” is used in English and which are here excluded. Scientific “laws” like the “law of gravitation” or Newton’s “laws of motion,” are, of course, not social regulations at all.

They are merely observed sequences of natural phenomena and it is only by an easily abused metaphor that the world “law” is applied to them.

And despite the fact that morals are religion are, as have been stated, fused with law proper in many communities, we shall have to distinguish, as far as Europe and America are concerned, the law which needs courts and policemen from the “moral law,” which depends on the approval of the individual conscience.

We must also distinguish the law here discussed from the “law of God” as it is expounded by theologians, although in our system as well as in less differentiated ones, the moral law and the divine law play a real part in determining what law is.

The system of social rules to which the term “law” is here limited is subject to constant modification since it must change in every particular society as the society itself changes.

the court room
the court room

All over the world and particularly in Europe and America, this has often been accomplished by the conscious activity of official persons called “legislators,” and we nearly always find the task of legislating, that is, of making changes in the laws, entrusted to a corporately organized section of the government which has various names – parliaments, congress, Reichstag, legislature, council, assembly, diet, or some similar designation.

In English, when the term “law” is used with the indefinite article (“a law”) or in the plural (“laws”), those legislative enactments are generally intended which technically are called “statutes.” When, however, the terms “the law” or “law” without an article are used, the entire system, which includes statutes and a great deal of material besides, is denoted.

In other European languages the same distinction is made, except that the etymological equivalent of “law” is used almost exclusively for “statute,” as is the German Gesetz; and the word which translates terms like “the law” or “law” is some derivative of the Latin word that means “right”.