University of Southern California

The Thousand Mile Journey: Taoism and Western Legal Philosophy

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Note by Eric Neigher
From Volume 76, Number 3 (March, 2003)

It was often said of K’ung Fu-tse: “If the mat was not straight, the master would not sit.” This is surely an outlook with which many American lawyers, and those who deal with them, are familiar today. Though there is, of course, something to be said for keeping the mat straight, especially in an area as specific and particular as the law, the refusal to sit because of minor discrepancies can lead to tired legs and a bad temper. In the legal context, this means that certain “mat-straightening” practices can lead to inefficient procedure, incomprehensible or purposeless laws, and, at worst, miscarriages of justice.

The American legal system, descended as it is from Hebraic, Roman, and British law, is, in spite of the genius of its framers, at times hopelessly mired in the muck of mat-straightening when it should be concerned with simply sitting and getting down to the business of justice. This is due not so much to flaws in the basic structure of the law, but to the immense over-complexity that is largely (though certainly not solely) a phenomenon of the modern era. These days, it seems that the simple purpose of the law has been completely obscured by the practice of it. Fortunately, though much of Western legal scholarship has ignored or simply not recognized this trend toward unnecessary complexity, in the East, particularly in China, political and social philosophers have been dealing with this exact kind of excessive insistence on convolution and bureaucracy for thousands of years. They know it as Confucianism.

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