From Publishers Weekly
Getting even, as the biblical precept implies, is the essence of justice, according to this engaging essay. It's a simple idea, but Miller, a University of Michigan law professor (The Anatomy of Disgust
), finds a world of social complexity in humanity's efforts to get the accounting right. He explores the inventive methods people have used to assign a concrete valuation to body parts (in the seventh century, King Aethelberht of Kent prescribed 10 shillings' compensation for a lost big toe), to whole human beings, to injuries and intangibles like pain and humiliation. Miller considers the fine weighing of debts and even our intrinsic value as humans (he's big on rankings and 10-best lists) to be nuanced and even poetic. Drawing on history, philosophy, linguistics and cultural anthropology, Miller pursues these themes down many byways, meandering from Hammurabi's code to cannibalism themes in The Merchant of Venice
and the eternal frustration of Wile E. Coyote. He doesn't have a thesis, but he has a decided admiration for "honor cultures," where justice is structured by personal obligation, payback and revenge rather than a modern regime of abstract rights conferred by an impersonal state. Miller offers a discursive, erudite, idiosyncratic but illuminating reappraisal of our urge to settle scores. (Jan.)
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*Starred Review* Widely dismissed as a relic of barbarism, the law of retribution--an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth--evokes in Miller a profound sense of respect. As a legal scholar well versed in literature and philosophy, Miller orchestrates a fascinating dialogue between the bards of heroic antiquity and the moral theorists of modern democracies, so exposing the smug complacency of modern idealism to the interrogation of bygone eras' stern legal realists. Readers see in this interrogation how the grim ancient arithmetic of corpse for corpse, flesh for flesh, ensured justice and protected life, often much more effectively than do the modern ideologies of individual rights. Clear illustrations drawn from Icelandic sagas and Hebrew scripture, from Shakespeare's plays and Clint Eastwood's films, draw readers into a legal investigation short on jargon and long on saucy humor. Miller hardly seeks a return to the lex talionis
that scripted the way tribal chieftains once defended their honor and their peoples' security. But he does want readers to recognize how much modern protocols for justice and compensation are ultimately rooted in a primal calculus of vengeance and dismemberment. And he also wants readers to understand how often modern jurisprudence lapses into bureaucratic routine and statistical cost/benefit formulas that mean less to most moral sensibilities than the old rules for getting even. A provocative reminder of the primal passions hidden by sanitized legal theories. Bryce ChristensenCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved