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Saint Augustine (Augustine of Hippo)  (November 13, 354 – August 28, 430)

“An unjust law is no law at all.”

Image of Augustine from the Nuremberg Chronicles. Beloit College.


Augustine of Hippo (354–430 CE) is considered one of the most influential writers of the early Church. He was raised and educated in the classical Roman tradition in Thagaste, part of the Roman province of Numidia in North Africa.  As a young man, he was a dedicated student of Latin literature and rhetoric, and he travelled to Carthage and later Rome to continue his studies.  Although Augustine did not initially follow his mother’s Christian faith, while in Rome he converted to Christianity in 387 CE. Later, he returned to North Africa and devoted his life to the Church. There he founded an ascetic community, was ordained and eventually rose to be bishop of the city of Hippo.  It is not surprising that Augustine is traditionally represented holding a book, since he was a prolific writer of theological works and pastoral letters.  Augustine wrote in an era when many Catholic rites and doctrines were still unsettled, and the Church was confronted by a number of schismatic movements. Many of his writings directly challenge these movements. De Libero Arbitrio (On Free Will), the source of the quote, is one of Augustine’s earliest Christian writings. In it he addresses free will, grace and divine foreknowledge—themes he would revisit in his writings throughout his life.



Qur’an  (622 CE)

“O ye who believe!
Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses
To Allah, even as againstPhoto of Group Veiled Women with a Baby, Artist Unknown, late 19th century. Brooklyn MuseumYourselves, or your parents,
Or your kin, and whether
It be (against) rich or poor:
For Allah can best protect both.”



According to Islamic tradition, this surah (chapter), was revealed in Medina after the Prophet’s hijra (migration) from Mecca in 622 CE. As the name of this surah implies, An-Nisa’ mainly deals with the obligations and responsibilities of women in Islamic society, but it also touches on inheritance and family law along with slavery and temporary marriage. In this verse, the Qur’an is addressing the importance of truthfulness in testimony.



Magna Carta of King John, A.D. 1215

“To no one will We sell, to none will We deny or defer, right or justice.”


Illuminated initial from a fourteenth century copy of the Magna charta cum statutis angliae (Magna Carta with English Statutes)

King John agreed to the terms of Magna Carta in a field at Runnymede in June of 1215. John’s reign had been an unhappy one, marred by wars in France, ongoing financial difficulties, friction with the Church and conflict with his subjects. Many of his barons resented his heavy-handed attempts to assert royal authority and extract funds to support his military campaigns. By late 1214, the barons rose against King John’s arbitrary rule, and after months of negotiation and armed rebellion, the barons took the city of London, drastically weakening John’s position. Under duress, John agreed to negotiate the settlement that led to the Magna Carta. Today, many of the claims set forth in Magna Carta seem modest in scope. They address grievances against the king’s abuse of his powers over inheritance, fines and legal procedure.  Over time, however, these specific claims became less important than the underlying principles that recognized that royal power should be limited by the law.  By 1765, the great English jurist Sir William Blackstone cited “the emphatical words of the Magna Carta” to support his statement that “the law is in England the supreme arbiter of every man’s life, liberty and property. ” (Commentaries on the Law of England, I.137-138). The Magna Carta’s simple statement quoted here is now considered a founding principle in English constitutional law.

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