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February 1, 2016

Chicago Judge Richard Posner Gives Talk on Greek Philosophers and American Founders

Last Thursday, Chicagoans gathered at the National Hellenic Society to listen to Richard Posner, federal judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago and senior lecturer at the Law School, give a talk on the influence of ancient Greek thought in the American founding documents.

The lecture focused almost entirely on Aristotle’s contribution to Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment legal theory.

Posner began the talk by addressing the common misconception that the roots of modern legal theory can be traced back to the Magna Carta. The only contribution that the Magna Carta made, when it was ratified in 1215, was that it allowed British aristocrats to be judged by other aristocrats—not that people could be judged by juries of their peers, as is commonly believed.

Posner went on to discuss how Aristotle contributed to legal theory, explaining that he laid the groundwork for the concept of “rule of law.” Rule of law, loosely defined, is the idea that in any legal decision, the ultimate recourse is to the law of the land. In his Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle defines two types of justice: distributive justice and corrective justice. It was the latter, Posner argued, that led to the rule of law.

Aristotle defines corrective justice as the liability imposed on a party to reinstate the balance of justice between two parties when one has been wronged. Posner used the example of theft to illustrate this idea. He showed that when someone takes something from someone else, the balance of justice is disrupted. To reinstate the balance of justice, Aristotle argues that the wronged party must be compensated.

In his talk, Posner showed that this compensation must be made without consideration of the social status of the person being compensated. When a court decides to what extent a damaged party must be compensated, they do so by considering what laws were transgressed.

To explain this, he paraphrased Aristotle: “If the thief was a gentleman, and the injured party a beggar, a member of the inferior class of state, this difference in rank is nothing to the law.”

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