Richard Nisley

Echo of the Infinite
History - American Released - Jun 01, 2019
The following is my review of "The Path of the Law," by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

To my knowledge, there have been three geniuses to sit on the United States Supreme Court: Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Justice Louis Brandeis. Marshall served in the first half of the 19th century with majority opinions that helped foster a strong central government. Holmes and Brandeis served in the first half of the 20th century with dissenting opinions that in the second half of the century were adopted by the Court and to become majority opinions that revolutionized our concepts of free speech, free press, workers’ rights, and personal freedom.

Theirs are the voices that resonate with the ring of truth, theirs the words that are immortalized on the granite walls of our institutions. Words have power, but as each of them well understood, it’s not the words that have power but the rightness of the ideas behind them.

“The Path of the Law” is an address delivered by Justice Holmes at the dedication of the new hall of the Boston University School of Law, on January 8, 1897. At the time he was a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. The speech is not as piquant as his U.S. Supreme Court opinions, but rather a more leisurely discourse on the law and its history, strewn with a few jewels of wisdom and peppered with a bit of debunking—reason enough to read it. The address runs slightly over 26 pages.

The following are a few—but certainly not all—lines that caught my attention:

“The language of judicial decision is mainly the language of logic. And the logical method and form flatter that longing for certainty and repose which is in every human mind. But certainty generally is illusion, and repose is not the destiny of man.”

“No concrete proposition is self-evident, no matter how ready we may be to accept it. Every man has a right to do what he wills, provided he interferes not with a like right on the part of his neighbors.”

“The rational study of law is still to a large extent the study of history. History must be a part of the study, because without it we cannot know the precise scope of rules which it is our business to know.”

'I venerate the law, and especially our system of law, as one of the vastest products of the human mind.”

“Read the works of the great German jurists, and see how much more the world is governed today by Kant than by Bonaparte.”

“An intellect great enough to win the prize needs other food beside success. The remoter and more general aspects of the law are those which give it universal interest. It is through them that you not only become a great master in your calling, but connect your subject with the universe and catch an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law.”

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