~ law justice and mercy: the difference? ~


The three great principles of law, justice & mercy not only undergird the practice of criminal law, they influence my daily life & living.

These days, & quite often, I find myself thinking about their impact on the lives of those around me & around the world.

In today’s overt political & social climate of


division & discord

them & us

rich & poor

winners & losers

strong & weak

good & bad

love & hate

kindness & cruelty

black, coloured & white

inclusion & exclusion

success above all

self worship above all


the almighty dollar & the greed it brings

I wonder about Ambrose Bierce’s take on the three great principles reflected in his poem, Law, n:

LAW, n.

Once LAW was sitting on the bench, And MERCY knelt a-weeping.

“Clear out!” he cried, “disordered wench!  Nor come before me creeping.  Upon your knees if you appear,  ‘Tis plain you have no standing here.”

Then JUSTICE came.

His Honor cried:  “Your status? — devil seize you!”

“Amica curiae,” she replied — “Friend of the court, so please you.”

“Begone!” he shouted — “there’s the door — I never saw your face before!”

G.J.Ambrose BierceThe Devil’s Dictionary
US author & satirist (1842 – 1914)


Cumberland School of Law Birmingham, Alabama



What about Law?

Historically the law is male.  In Ambrose Bierce‘ poem the law is personified in a man.

One of the first things that struck me at Law school was the law’s overt maleness & bias against women.



What about Justice?

In Ambrose Bierce‘ poem justice is personified in a woman.

The ancient Greeks & (Romans) personified the forces of nature as gods & goddesses.

Justice (Iustitia) is personified as a woman.  Truth (Veritas) is also a woman. Justice is the female symbol of morality & virtue in the law, the moral force in judicial systems.  Usually we see Justitia with her eyes covered (blindfolded) as she holds scales & a sword.

Again, the moral ideal of humanity is justice without which there is no liberty.

Can it be that justice is  a woman? Only the law is male?


mercy[1]What about Mercy?

In Ambrose Bierce‘ poem, mercy is personified in a woman, a ‘wench’.

Clementia was the Roman goddess of mercy & compassion.  Her name means “gentleness”, “mercy”, “forbearance”, or “mildness”.  Think clemency.

Mercy seems to have both male & female connotations in legal & ethical circles.

While we often think of mercy personified in a female form such as the angel of mercy, a tender mother or an order of nuns such as the Sisters of Mercy, we also speak of a merciful God, his mercy, or God in his wisdom & mercy.

Perhaps mercy is personified in both law & justice – male & female – such as when law & justice show mercy before adjudication, before sentence & after sentence in ensuring punishment is dealt out in merciful ways through fairness, clemency & compassion.  Or is it justice operating without law to find mercy?

Weeping Woman Statue by Luc de Leeuw (2007)
Weeping Woman Statue by Luc de Leeuw (2009)

In Bierce’ poem justice & mercy (both female) are appearing before law pleading on behalf of the one before the court, a court of law, where law is personified in a male.

Bierce basically pits mercy and justice against law.


Which brings me to Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘The Sisters of Mercy’.  While not a song about chaste & obedient nuns (in the conventional sense) it perhaps personifies mercy in being inspired by two female backpackers, Barbara & Lorraine, who gave Cohen shelter & comfort one night.

In the song the girls shelter & comfort a person crying out from deep within his soul.  They are warmth & kindness, mercy & forgiveness, balm in a time of need when life had dealt crushing blows to a human spirit leaving him lonely & desperate feeling like a sinner. ‘When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned‘.  The females personify mercy, the sisters of mercy, for this sinner.

The song is not about law or justice.  It is about mercy.

Oh the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.
They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.
And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.
Oh I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.

Yes you who must leave everything that you cannot control.
It begins with your family, but soon it comes around to your soul.
Well I’ve been where you’re hanging, I think I can see how you’re pinned:
When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.

Well they lay down beside me, I made my confession to them.

They touched both my eyes and I touched the dew on their hem.

If your life is a leaf that the seasons tear off and condemn

They will bind you with love that is graceful and green as a stem.

When I left they were sleeping, I hope you run into them soon.
Don’t turn on the lights, you can read their address by the moon.
And you won’t make me jealous if I hear that they sweetened your night:
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right,
We weren’t lovers like that and besides it would still be all right.


(Symbol of Justiceby Gokalp10)


If Justice is a woman,

Mercy is a woman,

Is Law not a man?


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