Oliver Wendell Holmes





Of Truth and the Choices that We Make

By Will Baker


Recent events in the wide world have caused me to reflect on the life, words and actions of Oliver Wendell Holmes: a noted philosopher, soldier, lawyer and Supreme Court Justice. His career spanned the middle to latter parts of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He was a friend of the poet/philosopher Emerson, and to a degree, his personal philosophy and political views were shaped by his experiences during the Civil War-he was an officer in a Massachusetts regiment. Anyway, in reflecting upon this extraordinary individual, it occurs to me that his philosophy might hold some relevance in our times.

It seems to me that his political philosophy was one of tolerance and the promotion of the discussion of ideas between cohorts of folks. He was a staunch defender of the democratic process, for his experiences during the Civil War showed him that the alternative could be truly grisly. But his was also a philosophy of irony. He understood the natural inclination of the individual towards self-interest. He also wrote about something he referred to as the "certitude of violence." Holmes believed that, with regard to one’s personal views, the more certain that one believes one is right, the more justified one feels about imposing his view(s) on others. As a result, he believed that every person holds a natural inclination towards violence. He once wrote to a friend, "I detest a man who knows that he knows…" In the same letter he said, "Some kind of despotism is at the bottom of seeking for change. I don’t care to boss my neighbors and to require them to want something different from what they do-even when, as frequently, I think their wishes more or less suicidal." Privately, he was a staunch defender of capitalism and conservative positions, yet as a Supreme Court Justice his actions made him a hero to the progressives. He once said," If they could make a case for putting Rockefeller in prison I should do my part, but if they left it to me I should put up a bronze statue to him."

You see he was able to detach himself from his private views, and look at the whole. But he was pragmatic about it. As he continued the above referenced correspondence he said, "You respect the rights of man. I don’t, except those things a given crowd will fight for-which vary from religion to the price of a glass of beer. I also would fight for some things-but instead of saying that they ought to be I merely say they are part of the kind of world that I like-or should like." And it seems to me, that there is some relevance for us in these words. For although the man acknowledges that there are some things that he believes to be worth fighting for, he attempts to mitigate his certitude. He does not say that out of righteousness his view-point "ought to be," but rather his personal convictions imply the "kind of world" that he desires. I believe that this is no small distinction. For it implies a sort of relativism that, at least to me, seems to resonate.

In a law review article published in 1872 he wrote, "The life struggle is mitigated by sympathy, prudence, and all the social and moral qualities. But in the last resort a man rightly prefers his own self interest to that of his neighbors. And this is as true in legislation as in any other form of corporate action. All that can be expected from modern improvement is that legislation should easily and quickly, yet not too quickly, modify itself in accordance with the will of the de facto supreme power in the community, and that the spread of an educated sympathy should reduce the sacrifices of minorities to a minimum."

It seems to me that, philosophically speaking, Holmes is discussing the idea of Subjective Truth, and by implication, the choices that are often made as a result of this basis. And we need not look too far to see illustrations of this phenomenon in our own times. For instance, some in the US would call Bin Laden evil, while some folks in other parts of the world call him a hero. Another example would be the contempt that some folks hold for their political adversaries. My point is that truth is mostly a subjective proposition. And as our certainty about our own righteousness increases, so does the probability for violence.

So gentle reader, where does all of this leave us? Well, for starters, it seems to me that Holmes’ words might provide us with some well timed caution. For perhaps our words and actions do sometimes imply a sort of righteousness. And perhaps this righteousness makes it easier for us, as individuals and as a nation to sometimes behave unfortunately. Oh, by the way, I should mention that, although Holmes felt that we all possess this "certitude of violence," he was quite convinced that mankind had managed to develop something to mitigate this propensity. He believed that "thing" to be democracy. So there we have it, as Americans we are left with democracy, and the challenge of practicing what we preach.




 (Essay Collection)