by Ed Dickerson
Apparently crafting sensible laws is harder than it looks. From the time when ideas literally had to be chiselled into stone to be preserved until the present day, philosophers, artists, politicians, monarchs, and sages have all tried their hand at this task. Nowadays, computers and laser printers make recording and publishing these crucial ‘words to live by’ easier. Maybe too easy. For example, the Constitution for the European Union runs to 265 pages and more than 60,000 words in the English version. Maybe I have too much empathy for the ancient Egyptian scribe who would have spent his life chiselling those ideographs into sandstone, but for me, that’s about 263 pages too long. Who can remember 265 pages of anything? You can’t live by 265 pages of rules, of ‘whereas’ and ‘by authority of.’ Besides, the greater the number of laws, the greater likelihood that they will contradict one another, and the greater possibility that this interlocking web of legislation will snare an innocent person out of simple ignorance. Nazi Germany multiplied laws and regulations to the point that the average citizen had no way of knowing if he’d broken the
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to live by
law. But that’s to the advantage of a totalitarian state, because it can throw troublemakers in jail whenever their activities become inconvenient to the powers that be – with so many laws, it’s only a matter of discovering which particular law they’ve broken. So, unless it’s actually the purpose of government to blackmail its citizens – as totalitarian states like to do – ‘words to live by’ need to be few enough that the conscientious citizen has at least a fighting chance of remembering them. Sixty thousand words are too many – way too many! In the 1960s, some proposed that we could live by four words: Do the loving thing. It sounded good at the time. But of course, ‘the loving thing’ to do might be different to different people, and to the same people at different times. ‘Do the loving thing’ lacked content, and ended up meaning ‘Do what you feel like doing.’ Instead of promoting peace, joy, and harmony, ‘doing the loving thing’ produced a lot of conflict, anger, and discord as some abandoned mates and children in order to ‘do the loving thing’ with another partner. Sixty thousand words may be too many, four words proved to be too few.
© iStockphoto/Sharon Dominick
© iStockphoto/Matej Michelizza
Some laws you may not know about:1 In the UK: 4 All English males over the age of 14 are to carry out 2 or so hours of longbow practice a week supervised by the local clergy. 4 Since 1313, MPs are not allowed to don armour in Parliament. In Italy: 4 A man may be arrested for wearing a skirt. In Switzerland: 4 It is illegal to flush the toilet after 10pm. In France: 4 No pig may be addressed as Napoleon by its owner. In Singapore: 4 Bungee jumping is illegal.
No one can travel in two directions at once. Whatever your purpose in life, be clear about it and stick to it. That’s still good counsel.
Two: No graven images. Contrary to popular opinion, this doesn’t ban statuary, but forbids carrying your ‘god’ around as a good luck charm.
Four: Remember the Sabbath. Socrates told us the unexamined life is not worth living. In today’s frenzied culture, setting aside time to contemplate your existence, to take stock of who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going, makes more sense than ever.
Seven: No adultery. Today, this one often meets with eyerolling. But history warns us that when the family breaks down, so does the larger society. And children of divorce know the chaos it brings. Eight: No stealing. When stealing becomes more profitable than to produce, people stop producing, and eventually there’s nothing left to steal.
Five: Honour parents. Mark Twain claimed that at sixteen, his father’s ignorance appalled him. By the time he turned twenty-one, he was surprised at how much the old man had learned in five years. Parents have a wealth of experience, and can help you avoid some serious mistakes.
Nine: No false testimony. Lying always causes problems, but when false testimony undermines justice, society cannot survive. Ten: No coveting. This provision separates the Ten Commandments from all other ancient codes. Students of the law will tell you that at the root of every crime lies the ‘mens rea’, or criminal intent. And the tenth commandment brings that to the fore. People who fail to discipline their thoughts often end up in prisons or mental hospitals. Ten simple principles. Fewer than 250 words. Concepts far ahead of their time. Words to live by.
Six: Don’t kill.
The King James Bible uses the more genteel ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ but the original Hebrew reads ‘No murder.’ Societies that tolerate murder are soon destroyed by it.
If you’d like to read the 10 commandments for yourself but don’t have a Bible of your own contact us and, if you live in the UK or Eire, we’ll send you one for free. Contact details on p.2
The original audience understood that this commandment bans using the deity’s name to cast spells. Magic still doesn’t work; trying to manipulate people or events only backfires in the long run.
His name was Fleming, and he was a poor Scottish farmer. One day he heard a cry for help coming from a nearby bog. He dropped his tools and ran to the bog. There, mired to his waist in black muck, was a terrified boy screaming and struggling to free himself. Farmer Fleming saved the lad from what could have been a slow and terrifying death. The next day, a fancy carriage pulled up at the Scotsman’s sparse surroundings. An elegantly dressed nobleman stepped out and introduced himself as the father of the boy Farmer Fleming had saved. ‘I want to repay you,’ said the nobleman. ‘You saved my son’s life.’ ‘No, I can’t accept payment for what I did,’ the Scottish farmer replied. At that moment, the farmer’s own son came to the door of the family hovel. ‘Is that your son?’ the nobleman asked. ‘Yes,’ the farmer replied proudly. ‘I’ll make you a deal. Let me provide him with the level of education my own son will enjoy. If the lad is anything like his father, he’ll no doubt grow to be a man we both will be proud of.’ And that he did. Farmer Fleming’s son attended the very best schools and, in time, graduated from St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London. He went on to become known worldwide as the noted Sir Alexander Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin. Years later, the same nobleman’s son who was saved from the bog was stricken with pneumonia. What saved his life this time? Penicillin. The name of the nobleman? Lord Randolph Churchill. His son’s name? Sir Winston Churchill. Someone once said: What goes round comes around. Work like you don’t need the money. Love like you’ve never been hurt. Dance like nobody’s watching. Sing like nobody’s listening. Live like it’s Heaven on Earth.
Three: Don’t misuse God’s name.
© iStockphoto/Joseph Jean Rolland Dubé
One: No other gods.
Heaven on earth
‘Trusting to luck’ still doesn’t work. Somebody wins the lottery. Millions lose.
© iStockphoto/Mike Manzano
Too many words bring on contradiction, confusion, and frustration. Too few leave us with no real guidance. To be useful, ‘words to live by’ need to be short enough to be memorable and manageable, yet long enough to give us guidance in our daily lives. The more we think about it, the more daunting the task appears. Condensing the most important things to know into a few words that can be easily remembered and understood would require genius – or inspiration. As it happens, I think I’ve found those words of inspiration. In English, they run to fewer than 250 words total. Two hundred and fifty words that cover all the basics of an ordered society. Yet today, many people consider them outdated. I’m speaking, of course, of the Ten Commandments. Oh, I know, they’re out of fashion. That’s nothing new. The first man to see them threw them down in disgust. For a time they were carried around in a gold-inlaid wooden box. The originals were lost before Nebuchadnezzar’s army conquered the world. Through subsequent millennia they have been ignored, reviled, broken, mocked, and revered, but despite all that, they endure. That alone makes them worth looking at. Most of the laws we listed at the beginning may have made sense when they were passed, but time has made them seem ridiculous. By contrast, the Ten Commandments embody principles that still look good. For example: