The definition of illegality was a bit tautological
Posted Friday, April 27 2012 at 17:39
In logic, it is tautological to define a thing by itself. A famous example I often quote is Moliere’s statement that opium has a dormitive virtue which sends you to sleep.
This is tautological because it says merely that “opium is opium is opium” or that “sleep is sleep is sleep”.
The Frenchman was, of course, writing in caustic sarcasm — committing deliberate tautology in order to satirise something.
I doubt, however, if we can say the same thing of Mathira MP Ephraim Maina’s recent assertion that “Stealing is an illegal crime in this country”.
I cannot tell whether — on drawing our attention to it last Saturday — the Nation’s own headline (“The Illegality of a Crime”) was tongue-in-cheek.
But, clearly, it is also tautological. The Nation was using the substantive illegality and Mr Maina the adjective “illegal” to define the noun “crime”.
Yet if you give it a little thought, the question becomes stark: Do you know any crime which is not illegal or — the other way round — any illegality which is not a crime?
In short, even “in this country” – which has taken over from Nigeria as the continent’s most wonderful paradise of thieves — do you know any difference between a “crime” and an “illegality”?
Collins defines a crime as “…an act prohibited … by law…” Only as an extension of those definitions, does a crime acquire the significance also of “…any disgraceful act…” But we have to be very careful here. For both a crime and the law that forbids it are moral categories.
They – and their linguistic representations that we call words – are possible only in a species whose Adam and Eve have long ago partaken of a certain fruit, namely, Genesis’ allegorical fruit of knowledge which, in evolutionary terms, transformed homo habilis into homo erectus and this into homo sapiens.
As our ancestors did (in their extraordinary fondness for symbolism and allegory), human beings did represent as a divine opening of the specific “eye” to bodily, mental and moral “nakedness” all this evolutionary transformation of an anthropoid ape’s inchoate mental property into humanity’s fully fledged intellectual propensity.
Among the Nubians, Copts, Edomites, Caanaanites, Babylonians and other Nilo-Hamites from whom the Jews borrowed their creation story in Genesis, the adin (or what Genesis corrupted as Eden), the Tree of Knowledge, was only an allegory for humanity’s primordial attempts to make rules, declaring “good” those which promoted social peace and “evil” those which did not.
That is why, only in human eyes, can animals also perpetrate what Collins calls “disgraceful acts”. But, because animals have never eaten that evolutionary fruit, they cannot commit any crime or be subjected to any moral law.
The definition of “illegality” as any flouting of the law is, of course, tautological.
But it tells you in the clearest of terms that an “illegality” is the same thing as a “crime”. In other words, it tells you that illegality can define crime just a little as crime can define illegality.