Chapter 2: What is Law?

Many legal scholars have tried to answer the essential, but difficult question, “what is law?” In his 1881 book The Common Law, US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated that “[t]he Law embodies the story of a nation’s development through many centuries, and it cannot be dealt with as if it contained only the axioms and corollaries of a book of mathematics.”[1] Consequently, because the law is not math, a precise definition may be unattainable. 

According to A Dictionary of Basic Legal Terms, law is “[t]he regime that orders human activities and relations through systematic application of the force of politically organized society, or through social pressure, backed by force, in such a society."[2] This definition of the law, while true, is too abstract and long for our needs. We should therefore think of the law in more basic terms as rules that govern and guide actions and relations among and between persons, organizations, and governments. This is the short and easily understandable definition that we will use.

[1] Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company 1881), 1.
[2] Bryan A. Garner, ed., A Dictionary of Basic Legal Terms (West Group 1999), 120. This work is part of the Black’s Law Dictionary Series. Black’s Law Dictionary is the most widely-used and accepted dictionary of legal terms in the United States.