Eye for an Eye

William Ian Miller, Author . Cambridge Univ. $28 (266p) ISBN 978-0-521-85680-5

Getting even, as the biblical precept implies, is the essence of justice, according to this engaging essay. It's a simple idea, but Miller, a University of Michigan law professor (The Anatomy of Disgust ), finds a world of social complexity in humanity's efforts to get the accounting right. He explores the inventive methods people have used to assign a concrete valuation to body parts (in the seventh century, King Aethelberht of Kent prescribed 10 shillings' compensation for a lost big toe), to whole human beings, to injuries and intangibles like pain and humiliation. Miller considers the fine weighing of debts and even our intrinsic value as humans (he's big on rankings and 10-best lists) to be nuanced and even poetic. Drawing on history, philosophy, linguistics and cultural anthropology, Miller pursues these themes down many byways, meandering from Hammurabi's code to cannibalism themes in The Merchant of Venice and the eternal frustration of Wile E. Coyote. He doesn't have a thesis, but he has a decided admiration for "honor cultures," where justice is structured by personal obligation, payback and revenge rather than a modern regime of abstract rights conferred by an impersonal state. Miller offers a discursive, erudite, idiosyncratic but illuminating reappraisal of our urge to settle scores. (Jan.)

Reviewed on: 10/24/2005
Release date: 01/01/2006
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 304 pages - 978-0-511-13412-8
Open Ebook - 281 pages - 978-0-511-13770-9
Paperback - 266 pages - 978-0-521-70467-0
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