“I don’t know where that leaves you, but you’re still deceased as far as the law is concerned.”
You couldn’t make it up. A man disappears in 1986; is declared legally dead in 1994; reappears in 2005. And the judge, calling it a “strange, strange situation”, found that death rulings cannot be overturned after three years. There’s no more raising Lazarus from the dead, not with today’s Pharisees. Especially if you’ve been dead three years or more.
Sometimes the problem is not with returning from the dead, there’s a more fundamental issue at stake. In some places it’s illegal to die. Yup, death is prohibited.
A few years ago, we went to Aiguebelle for our summer vacation, far from the madding crowd. And the nearest town was Le Lavandou. Which you could get to on the “road train” pictured above. And so we did. While we were there, I looked up Wikipedia to learn more about the place. It turned out that A Nightingale Sang In Berkeley Square was written in a bar there.
It also turns out that it’s illegal to die there. The mayor called it “absurd… to counter an absurd situation”.
Le Lavandou’s not alone. Apparently the Greeks of Delos beat them to it by about 2500 years, and there have been many others since.
Not being allowed to die. Once dead, not be allowed to come back. Predictable phenomena in a world of letter rather than spirit, a topic I’ve had the opportunity to delve into time and time again. Some decades ago, as part of my investigations, I was pointed towards the works of Michael Polanyi in this regard, particularly in the context of things tacit and things explicit. His “we can know more than we can tell” mantra resonated with me, and helped me understand something about the challenges of formulating workable law in any sphere.
Influenced by my upbringing (Brahmin family, Jesuit schooling and university, all in cosmopolitan Calcutta) and by my teenage reading habits (which included a healthy dose of Asimov, not just the fashionable Foundation series, but, more relevant to this context, the Robot series), I had become a firm believer in spirit-not-letter, that the intent of the law or principle or guidance was what really mattered.
Asimov believed that we all needed to understand why the spirit-versus-letter argument was going to become more and more important, particularly as we moved towards a posthuman society. It takes a lot to laugh, it takes a train to cry. Robots can do “letter” with their eyes closed. But spirit? That’s a whole ‘nother deal. [Incidentally, if you're interested in this topic, you should go read Sage Leslie-McCarthy's paper on Asimov's Posthuman Pharisees; it is excellent].
Polanyi believed that our tacit dimension included tradition, inherited practices, implied values and prejudgments. We live in a time of intense change, and often we throw much of this to the four winds in the name of progress. But we have to be careful. Amidst all the bathwater of tradition there’s a baby that may be worth keeping.
Some of those implied values are part of what makes us us.
That’s what I believe George VI was referring to when he said:
Sometimes, we behave “in a way which would not do if generally adopted“. It is something that every one of us is capable of, something we need to watch for.
So I get concerned when Stuart Broad doesn’t walk, deciding that the letter of the law had suddenly become more important than the spirit. In cricket, there is nothing more important than spirit.
It’s not just in cricket. Spirit matters.
Throughout the Cold War, there appeared to be a tacit rule that spies did what they did as part of statecraft while carefully avoiding any accusation of spying on commercial grounds alone. That rule is now being declared irrelevant and unworkable.
There used to be an unwritten rule that governments didn’t spy on their own citizens unless they had demonstrable cause.
There used to be an unwritten rule that the role of elected officials was to serve their electors, to “govern”; to debate law while it was formed, then to uphold law once it was passed; where law needed changing, to use the process of law to change the law.
These unwritten, tacit rules were part of the fabric of society. An “understanding of things we knew but could not tell”, formed over millennia.
We are moving headlong into a society where we have to learn to teach robots to be human as they drive cars and operate drones and perform surgery and make our hearts work.
We need to be careful.
Because we could also be moving headlong into a society where we forget how to be human, and become primitive robots instead, unable to tell spirit from letter.