When: Friday, 21 October 2022 at 1:00pm - 2:00pm (UTC+3)
Where: Siltavuorenpenger 1A, Room 229, University of Helsinki. You can also join us online via Zoom:
Meeting ID: 699 5443 8993
Topoi of Custom: Classical Antiquity and European Narratives of Customary International Law
"In this presentation, I would like to focus on how certain values of classical antiquity (boldness, fear, honour, sanctity) were used as important interpretative tools to identify customary rules of ius gentium. To this effect, I will analyze four paradigmatic cases of custom and the classical topoi respectively associated with the values above: the right of passage; the inviolability of ambassadors; the treatment of prisoners of war and slaves; and moderation towards women. In doing so, I wish to offer a critical tool to deconstruct the alleged inevitability and universality of natural law, on which the idea of custom was constructed. As I have shown in my recently published monograph The Invention of Custom (OUP 2021), such inevitability was, rather, a fictional and careful construction of a European literary canon, selected and perpetuated over time via two fundamental operative devices: exemplarity and engagement. In classical literature, the exemplum is a literary episode deemed to have a paradigmatic moral quality worthy of imitation and collective appropriation. Such process of appropriation happens through frequent and active engagement with exempla. Much like what happens today in social media, metrics of engagement are what bring success to a given content, besides its exemplary and paradigmatic value. The more authors comment on a certain passage or story from classical antiquity, the more they make it visible; the more a certain exemplum is visible, the more it attracts other authors to engage with it. Thus, certain characters or events from the past become commonplace references to identify customary rules by proxy – a game of mental association we can only decipher through rigorous textual analysis."