LLRX Book Review by Heather A. Phillips – Eye for an Eye

Eye for an Eye

William Ian Miller, Eye for an Eye, (Cambridge University Press, 2007). ISBN 978-0521856805

Themes of crime, punishment, and the measuring of justice abound in legal literature. William Ian Miller’s treatment of the concept of “getting even” could have easily done nothing more than trod old ground. I am delighted to say, however, that Miller does not fall into this trap. Where Miller could have evinced a distaste, and thus a distance, from retributive notions of justice, he closely examines the ties between the literal realism of “an eye for an eye”, and notions of honor and redemption.

He does this by examining “what people thought, what they actually did, what they wrote and the stories they told, not just yesterday but 2,500 years ago, too.” Miller begins by recounting a discussion he has with his law students about the scales that Lady Justice holds. Are they tipped, he asks, or are they balanced? What would each option symbolize? What was being weighed by her scale? And then by observing that, “Scales are the tools of the marketplace” that “justice cannot shake its connection to measuring value, setting prices and exchange”, and that “Dollars are not the proper measure of all things”. Miller sets the stage for his examination of talionic justice.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘talionic’ as ‘the rendering of like for like’. Quite literally, it prescribes that the recompense for Adam taking Bob’s eye is for Bob to take Adam’s eye in return. In his book, Miller examines the methods of determining what, precisely, constitutes equivalent compensation, who makes this determination and how it is made, as well as the motivations and characteristics of talionic cultures. While noting anti-talionic arguments such as “turn the other cheek”, Miller keeps his focus on the lex talionis and its ramifications – which include such seemingly unrelated phenomena as debt slavery, the veneration of saints’ relics, ritual sacrifice, ritual hospitality, and the idea of “killing your enemy with kindness”. While Miller professes no desire to return to the lex talonis, he clearly finds it – or at least aspects of it – admirable.

In examining the idea of wergeld (a phenomenon of Old English and Teutonic law that set a monetary value upon a man according to his rank), Miller explores the development of “accepting blood money in lieu of blood”, and the gradual shift toward the development of actuarial schedules delineating what each body part was “worth”. Miller examines the various social benefits and detriments accompanied this shift toward accepting compensation in lieu of retribution – a system that still exists in modern jurisprudence in workers’ compensation schedules — a system of “making the victim whole” that has aroused complaints of being infused with a dispassionate, bureaucratic, formulaic sensibility that can never approximate — and thus has stopped trying to account for — the true value of a person. In a way, Miller’s admiration for talionic cultures is infectious — it brushes aside the white-washed platitudes that infest modern law and gets down to our primal motivations.

By using instances from linguistics and etymology, as well as history, contemporary culture and religion, Miller not only illustrates his points, but tempts the reader into a deeper examination of a time and a mindset which at first glance may seem barbaric, or too remote to be relevant to modern problems. Miller’s prose is thought-provoking, and engaging without being frivolous – like having a long discussion with an uncommonly witty and informed old friend.

Law libraries looking to increase their holdings in the areas of remedies and therapeutic jurisprudence will be especially interested in this book, as will libraries with an interest in legal history or the philosophy of law.

Eye for an Eye
Author: William Ian Miller
Binding: Paperback
List price: $21.99
Amazon price: $33.03
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