As we all grapple with a country of protest, government response to it and partisanship on all sides, perhaps some commentary in an unlikely place can help us make sense of it.
I have been enjoying Polish author Andrej Sapkowski’s The Witcher book series for some time. It follows the titular character, Geralt of Rivia, as he earns a living hunting and killing dangerous magical creatures, being “a witcher,” as well as become involved in a centuries old prophecy. To avoid spoilers, I kept the summary very basic. If you haven’t read, go on, get! It’s some of the best fantasy and fiction around, in my opinion.
I was struck by an exchange between Geralt and a local official, Fulko Artevelde, about law, order and justice in Book 4, The Tower of Swallows, from pages 177–178. Artevelde’s quote is quite long, so I will break it into parts and analyze it bit by bit.
“Know you, master witcher,” the prefect continued after a pause, “That I swore to myself that the law would rule on my turf. At any cost, and using any methods, per fas et nefas. For the law is not jurisprudence, not a weighty tome full of articles, not philosophical treatises, not peevish nonsense about justice, not hackneyed platitudes abut morality and ethics.”
Right away we can see that Artevelde is an extreme character. First, he shockingly declares that he will have law in his turf by any means, per fast et nefas. According to lexico.com, this Latin phrase translates to “by right or wrong; by fair or unfair means; by any means (good or bad).” Nasty ends justify the end mean of law. Logically, why would Artevelde waste time with theory, debate, philosophy or ideals? They simply get in the way, preventing him from doing his job. Obvious objections from the reader arise immediately.
“The law means safe paths and highways. It means backstreets one can walk along even after sundown. It means inns and taverns one can leave to visit the privy, leaving one’s purse on the table and one’s wife beside it. The law is the sleep of the people certain they’ll be woken by the crowing of the rooster and not the crashing of burning roof timbers!”
Artevelde doesn’t simply say what the law isn’t, he says what it is to him. His examples, based in a medievalish society, can easily apply to our own. There is no law if you cannot go from place to place, enjoy yourself, get a bit drunk, without living in fear, constantly looking over your shoulder. We should be able to sleep in peace, without fearing what the sunrise will bring.
“And for those who break the law, the noose, the axe, the stake and the red hot iron! Punishments which deter others. Those that break the law should be caught and punished. Using all available means and methods….Eh witcher? Is the disapproval written on your countenance a reaction to the intention or the methods? The methods, I think! For it’s easy to criticise methods, but we would all prefer to live in a safe world, wouldn’t we?”
Since Artevelde authorizes any means necessary to achieve the law, it makes sense that he supports unlimited, harsh deterrents. Echoing Colonel Nathan Jessup from A Few Good Men, the prefect notes that criticism of the methods is easy, while the benefits said methods provide are quite attractive.
Geralt articulates many potential audience objections quite well. I will break his quote into two parts:
“The world you envision is made for a witcher. A witcher would never be short of work in it. Instead of codes, articles and peevish platitudes about justice, your idea creates lawlessness, anarchy, the license and self-serving of princelings and mandarins, the officiousness of careerists wanting to endear themselves to their superiors, the blind vindictiveness of fanatics, the cruelty of assassins, retribution and sadistic vengeance. Your vision is a world where people are afraid to venture out after dark; not for fear of cut-throats, but of the guardians of public order. For, after all, the result of all great crackdowns on miscreants is always that the miscreants enter the ranks of the guardians of public order en masse.”
Without a solid basis of what justice is, which is done through value-driven culture, debate among citizens and scholars and codification of legal tradition, the enforcers of the law become the enforcers of oppression. You trade bandit ridden streets for the police state. In the powerful last line, Geralt argues that Artevelde’s philosophy will lead to criminals in law enforcement clothing, a great and tragic irony.
“Your vision is a world of bribery, blackmail and entrapment, a world of turning imperial evidence and false witnesses. A world of snoopers and coerced confessions. Informing and the fear of being informed upon. And inevitably the day will come in your world when the flesh of the wrong person will be torn with pincers, when an innocent person is hanged or impaled. And then it will be a world of crime. In short, a world where a witcher would be in his element.”
Naturally, a world in which you fear the state more than criminals, in which the state is full of criminals-produces such an environment. Everyone tries to save their own skin and doesn’t care how they do it. Inevitably, an innocent person will be punished for something they didn’t do. Artevelde’s extreme methods produce the exact opposite of what he wants-ironically, he becomes what he despises.
Geralt’s point of how an innocent person suffering rots the whole system reminds me of Blackstone’s ratio. Sir Blackstone wrote “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Benjamin Franklin upped the ratio, writing “That it is better 100 guilty persons should escape, than that one innocent Person should suffer, is a Maxim that has been long and generally approv’d, never that I know of controverted.”
You can punish as many guilty people as you want, but if innocents fall through the cracks, what does it matter? If the means are unjust, then the ends are unjust. We can’t sacrifice people for the collective goal of justice-we lose ourselves along the way, in this view.
While it’s easy to see the negative implications of Artevelde’s philosophy and how it fosters criminality, oppression and totalitarianism, it’s important to not dismiss him entirely. His beliefs about what law is are valid. If he modified his language, his position would be much more palatable.
For example, he could’ve said: “For the law is not jurisprudence, not weighty tomes full of articles, not philosophical treatises, not peevish nonsense about justice, not platitudes abut morality and ethics alone. Without results, such as clean, ordered streets, a working legal system and a feeling of peace, allowing you to sleep at night, what good is such hackneyed, trite language, written in flowery parchment, embossed with the Emperor’s Sigil?”
The average person is not involved in legal debates or interpretations of the law, by and large. His/her experience is the day to day, in the easily recognizable fruits of the law-results-mentioned above. It’s easy to tell if law triumphs based on these metrics. Some bureaucrats and politicians try to hide behind lofty rhetoric and ideals, but the reality has to at least partially reflect them. Otherwise, the ideals, codices and whatever else is meaningless.
Geralt and Artevelde’s exchange reveals how damn hard it is to achieve just law. It, like many things, is a result of balance between realism and idealism, preparation and results, the spirit and the letter of the law. We in the West have been largely gifted with functioning, law-abiding societies. We have born witness to police states in Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. Artevelde’s extremism reminds us of these fears and we focus on it.
However, we mustn’t forget that all of the lofty rhetoric and documents surrounding the law has to produce results. No matter how elegant, if law doesn’t produce results and cannot be applied in practical, real ways, what good is it? We quickly devolve into chaos, which isn’t much better than totalitarianism. Chaos paves the way for figures like Artevelde to rise to power.
The exchange between witcher and prefect leads to many conclusions. It has helped me see current events with a bit more clarity. Perhaps it will do the same for you. At the very least, I hope this post inspires you to start reading some of the best books around!