Letter and Spirit of the Law

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pound of flesh

The letter of the law versus the spirit of the law is an idiomatic antithesis (a common expression where two opposites are introduced for contrasting effect): When one obeys the letter of the law but not the spirit, one is obeying the literal interpretation of the words (the ‘letter’) of the law, but not the intent of those who wrote the law. Conversely, when one obeys the spirit of the law but not the letter, one is doing what the authors of the law intended, though not necessarily adhering to the literal wording.

‘Law’ originally referred to legislative statute, but in the idiom may refer to any kind of rule. Intentionally following the letter of the law but not the spirit may be accomplished through exploiting technicalities, loopholes, and ambiguous language.

Shakespeare wrote numerous plays dealing with the letter versus spirit antithesis, almost always coming down on the side of ‘spirit,’ often forcing villains (who always sided with the letter) to make concessions and remedy. In one of the best known examples, ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ he introduces the quibble as a plot device to save both the spirit and the letter of the law. The moneylender Shylock has made an agreement with Antonio that if he cannot repay a loan he will have a pound of flesh from him. When the debt is not repaid in time Portia at first pleads for mercy in a famous speech: ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.’ When Shylock refuses, she finally saves Antonio by pointing out that Shylock’s agreement with him mentioned no blood, and therefore Shylock can have his pound of flesh only if he sheds no blood.

Interpretations of the US Constitution have historically divided on the ‘Letter versus Spirit’ debate. For example, at the founding, the Federalist Party argued for a looser interpretation of the Constitution, granting Congress broad powers in keeping with the spirit of the broader purpose of some founders (notably including the Federalist founders’ purposes). The Federalists would have represented the ‘spirit’ aspect. In contrast, the Democratic-Republicans, who favored a limited federal government, argued for the strict interpretation of the Constitution, arguing that the federal government was granted only those powers enumerated in the Constitution, and nothing not explicitly stated; they represented the ‘letter’ interpretation.

Modern Constitutional interpretation also divides on these lines. Currently, ‘Living Constitution’ scholars advocate a ‘spirit’-esque interpretative strategy, although one grounded in a spirit that reflects broad powers. ‘Originalist’ or ‘Textualist’ scholars advocate a more ‘letter’-based approach, arguing that the Amendment process of the Constitution necessarily forecloses broader interpretations that can be accomplished simply by passing an amendment. Originalism is a principle of interpretation that tries to discover the original meaning or intent of the Constitution. Textualism holds that a statute’s ordinary meaning should govern its interpretation, as opposed to inquiries into non-textual sources such as the intention of the legislature in passing the law, the problem it was intended to remedy, or substantive questions of the justice.

The Christian Bible references the letter and the spirit of the law in the book of ‘Romans.’ Though it is not quoted directly, the principle is applied using the words ‘spirit’ and “‘letter’ in context with the legalistic view of the Hebrew Bible. This may be the first recorded use of the phrase. In the ‘Gospel of Mark’, Pharisees are seen as people who place the letter of the law above the spirit. Thus, ‘Pharisee’ has entered the language as a pejorative for one who does so; the OED defines the word as: ‘a legalist or formalist.’ In ‘Matthew,’ Pharisees are also depicted as being lawless or corrupt; the Greek word used means ‘lawlessness,’ and the corresponding Hebrew word means ‘fraud’ or ‘injustice.’ However, the Hebrew word ‘Perushim’ from which ‘Pharisee’ is derived, actually means ‘separatists,’ referencing their focus on spiritual needs versus worldly pleasures.

In the Gospels Jesus is often shown as being critical of Pharisees. He is more like the Essenes than the other Jewish groups of the time (Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots); however, the Pharisees, like Jesus, believed in the resurrection of the dead, and in divine judgment. They advocated prayer, almsgiving and fasting as spiritual practices. The Pharisees were those who were trying to be faithful to the law given to them by God. Not all Pharisees, nor all Jews of that time, were legalistic. Though modern language has used the word Pharisee in the pejorative to describe someone who is legalistic and rigid, it is not an accurate description of all Pharisees. The argument over the ‘Spirit of the Law’ versus. the ‘Letter of the Law’ was part of early Jewish dialogue as well.

The ‘Parable of the Good Samaritan’ in ‘Luke’ is another New Testament text that addresses this theme. The passage concerns a dialogue between Jesus and an ‘expert in the law’ or ‘lawyer’: ‘A certain lawyer stood up and tested Him saying, Teacher what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ The intent of the dialogue was to trap Jesus into making statements contrary to the law. Jesus responds by posing the question back to the lawyer, as already having knowledge of the law, ‘What is written in the law?’ The lawyer quotes Deuteronomy, ‘You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind and your neighbor as yourself.’

It is then that Jesus responds with the story of a man beaten by robbers who is ignored by a Priest and a Levite, but then rescued and compassionately cared for by a Samaritan. Priests and Levites were Jews whose qualifications and duties were very meticulously set forth in Mosaic law, while Samaritans were descended from Jews who had intermarried with their Babylonian captives and had been forced to establish a sect with an alternative interpretation of the Law. In the story, both the Priest and Levite follow their prescribed regulations dutifully, yet do not help the injured traveller, even crossing to the other side of the road to avoid possible rule violations. The Samaritan, whose very existence is based on a refutation of Jewish law, goes above and beyond simply tending to the injured man. He takes him to an inn and gives money for the man’s care, promises and then actually does return to inquire about the man, and pay any overage incurred. Jesus concludes by asking him which of the men was a ‘neighbor’ to the beaten traveller, to which his reply was ‘the one who showed compassion.’

According to Jeremiah, ‘the qualities of the new covenant expounded upon the old are : a) It will not be broken; b) Its law will be written in the heart, not merely on tablets of stone; c) The knowledge of God will deem it no longer necessary to put it into written words of instruction.’ According to Paul in the first epistle to the Corinthians, this prophecy was fulfilled only through the work of Jesus Christ, who said ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which will be shed for you.’ Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. His purpose was to encourage people to look beyond the ‘letter of the law’ to the ‘spirit of the law.’

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