Who cut off Samson’s hair?

Betchen and Paul Barber (authors of “When They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth” [Princeton University Press] and now coauthors of “Two Thoughts with but a Single Mind: Crime and Punishment and the Writing of Fiction”) once asked me this question.

Of course I said “Delilah” — I knew that had to be wrong (or why would they have asked?), but I didn’t have any better answer. The right answer is a man Delilah called (her agent, in legal parlance): “[S]he called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head.”

The point (and yes, there is one) isn’t just that people get things wrong — rather, it is that much of what we remember is oversimplified, often along rational pathways. The actions of a servant or an agent, the Barbers theorize, are easily remembered as the actions of the master.

This may be quite reasonable in many ways, both practically and morally. Indeed, the law turns this into a legal fiction, which lets us speak of some corporation being “the author” of a work, or some business “doing” something that was of course done by its agents. But if we want to be precise, we need to be aware of this limit of our memories.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.
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