Front Page Titles (by Subject) Balzac on Natural Law vs. Corrupt Law - Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3
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Balzac on Natural Law vs. Corrupt Law - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Autumn 1982, vol. 5, No. 3 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Balzac on Natural Law vs. Corrupt Law
“Balzacian Legality: A Proposal for Natural Law Juridical Standards of Legitimacy.” Loyola Law Review 27, no. 1 (1981): 1–39.
Since its publication in the nineteenth century, Honoré de Balzac's (1799–1850) Comédie Humaine has been praised for its incisive observations of the social milieu of its time, as well as for its detailed descriptions of the world of commerce and finance. The accuracy of Balzac's social observations, however, also extends to his treatment of the law.
Balzac's personal experience in and intimate acquaintance with the law is unique, at least in the annals of French literary history. He was one of the few French writers to hold a law degree and to have clerked in a law office. Prof. Carbonneau devotes the greater part of his article to an analysis of the social function of law in Balzac's novel Les Illusions Perdues. As the title suggests, the novel describes the confrontation between purity of ideals and the corrosive immorality of society, a theme that runs through the fabric of many Balzac novels.
In this narrative, Balzac tells how the unscrupulous Boniface Cointet defrauds an idealistic inventor, David Séchard, of a secret process which will surely revolutionize the paper-making industry. Balzac shows that the only weapons Cointet needs to secure his goal are an acute knowledge of human nature and a familiarity with the technicalities and loopholes of the commercial code. Significantly, his plan includes the cooperation of the sollicitor, Petit-Cloud, whose enormous desire for success is buttressed by an utter insensitivity to the ethics of his profession. Through a series of stealthy, but perfectly legal maneuvers, Cointet gains control of Séchard's paper-making formula.
Throughout his story, Balzac attempts to highlight the inconsistencies between the application of the laws and their theoretically expressed purpose. As he saw it, the origin of the law's perverted use lay in the fact that, even though it affects all men, its rules and purposes are known only to a small minority of interested parties. This ignorance of the law on the part of the majority is not the result of an intrinsic lack of intellectual ability. Rather it stems from the entanglement of legislative provisions and from the befuddling complexity of the legal process. Thus does the legal system invite its own subversion by an elitist manipulation of its technicalities. The laws cease to refer to a higher standard of what is just and instead become tools for the aggrandizement of a privileged few.
For Balzac, the use to which law is put in a particular society depends less on its theoretical foundations than on the social mores which predominate. He saw law in his day as the instrument of an unbridled individualism in which respect for natural Justice bowed before the Machiavellian attitude that morality is irrelevant to the assessment of man's conduct in society.
From all this, Prof. Carbonneau concludes that the Balzacian vision of law is closely akin to natural law norms. The legal devices invented by men can serve no legitimizing function in society, unless the men who promulgate and administer them identify them with an overriding moral sense. Unless legislators instill the legal system and its judicial offices with moral consciousness, law, instead of cultivating and refining man's precious humanity, will turn against it and finally destroy it.