by Zixin Jiang
Having come to law from a background in philosophy, I’m sometimes asked which of the two I like better. The two are similar, e.g. they both test a combination of logical and verbal skills. I find both very interesting. Philosophy can be very abstract sometimes, whereas law has a more obvious practical importance. It’s certainly more likely to pay the bills. But there’s one thing I miss about philosophy that makes me wonder whether I will ever like law quite as much: I can’t find beauty in law.
The Roman jurists would sometimes describe a statement of law as ‘elegant’, which the Cambridge Roman law scholar Peter Stein defined as ‘acuteness of thought as shown by the ability to transcend traditional categories’. In other words, because of the sheer volume of shit in law, it’s a relief when someone clever manages to cut through all that shit and state the legal principles simply and sensibly. It’s a bit like when everyone takes twenty lines to solve a maths problem, and then someone comes along and solves it in ten. Lawyers get a kick out of that. But I think this ‘elegance’ is different from beauty.
Philosophers, as the name implies, are lovers of wisdom. There is something beautiful about the pursuit of truth. Apart from philosophers, I would suppose that scientists, mathematicians, and historians also experience that kind of beauty (students of the arts know a different kind).
Law is different. The aim of the law student so often is not to learn the true nature of things, but to learn the law, an artificially constructed system of rationality. It’s not just that the law is a tool. Even tools can be beautiful in the way they make clever use of the laws of physics. Law is unique in that it obeys its own artificial logic. And this constructed system of technical legal reasoning simply does not match up to the natural beauty of the truth.
I think we all want to find beauty in what we do. So I envy those who study subjects where the beauty is easy to see. And yet I think there is beauty to be found in law, though it is difficult to see. At heart, law is about truth—it aims to find genuinely just solutions to practical disputes. It’s very hard to see it that way while I’m lost in a thicket of cases, but I believe that’s what law is ultimately about, and that pursuit is beautiful.
Perhaps there is a broader moral here, aside from the unsolicited rant of a finalist lawyer. Oxford is a place of abundant beauty, and among the most beautiful things about Oxford is the pursuit of truth. This is the beauty I missed about philosophy and that I am trying to rediscover in law. I have learned that such beauty is precious and hard to come by. It is not easy to find in a world that cares primarily about utility. At the end of this term, a new cohort of graduates will have to find their places in this utilitarian world. Will we find some way to hold on to the beauty of the pursuit of truth, or will we lose it before we even learn to miss it?