Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What are You Worth?

At the very beginning of our Humanities course, we read two samples of law codes from the Ancient Near East: Hammurabi and Moses. In many ways, these two leaders form a paradigmatic dichotomy. The Babylonian king Hammurabi sees human life as a commodity, which has a cash value, and can be traded or taken at will. Moses, leading a group of escaped slaves out of Egypt and organizing them into their own society, views human life as something with value and dignity, something which demands respect.

There are many other polarities between these two worldviews, and they continue today.

Hammurabi lives on today, in the words of a Supreme Court Justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes: "I see no reason for attributing to man a significance different in kind from that which belongs to a baboon or a grain of sand." Holmes sees human life as merely a series of material objects, like rocks or dirt. Representing Moses in our era, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Saul Bellow, writes that if we agree with Holmes, "our humanity is at risk - it is at risk because the feeling that life is sacred has died away in this century."