The Faith of Oliver Wendell Holmes
Bill Long 10/23/05
A Brief Reflection on Two Quotations from Jesus
So, what was the nature of Holmes' religious faith? Even though that often isn't a burning question in polite society today, it was a fundamental question 150 years ago. People were seemingly more forthright in those days than in ours in identifying and speaking about the religous traditions that had shaped them. We saw earlier that Holmes confessed himself an heir to the Puritan tradition, but this doesn't end our inquiry. We also saw how Holmes' experience in the War shaped his understanding of life significantly. But here I will mention his reference to two words of Jesus in a speech before the Bar Association of Boston the day before his 59th birthday.
The Scripture Word that Isn't His
For Jesus the greatest commandment was to love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and your neigbor as yourself. When he explained this to a Pharisee in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was uniting two passages from two separate strands of Old Testament tradition in a unique way. A dual love, towards God and neighbor, would be foundational for faithful living. But Holmes didn't like this. The Scripture he actually selected (see below) is "infinitely more important than the vain attempt to love one's neighbor as one's self" (125). Indeed, in the middle of a task, when you are trying "to hit a bird on the wing," you can't be thinking about yourself and "you must not be thinking about your neighbor."
I don't think anyone in 2005, even if not a particularly strong fan of Jesus, would quite be willing to say something like this.
The Scripture that Does Drive Holmes
We cannot imagine that a man of Holmes' temperament and heart would not appreciate Jesus, however. And so the quotation that provides the basis of his remarks on this occasion is also from Jesus, "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might." Why is this verse so foundational to Holmes? Because of the paramount importance not simply of duty but of a sort of joy in finding an outlet for the unique powers that you possess. Hear him:
"The joy of life is to put out one's power in some natural and useful or harmless way. Ther is no other. And the real misery is not to do this" (125).
A "deeper abyss," consisting of "intellectual asphyxia or vital ennui," is when powers conscious of themselves are denied their chance for expression.* The "rule of joy and the law of duty seem to me
[*His sentence saying this begins with "This country has experienced in story--I suppose because it has experienced it in life--a deeper abyss..." What is he referring to? The enslavement of Blacks? Being under the British yoke?]
all one." Both altruistic and cynically selfish talk seem unequally unreal to him. The key to life is action. But when you are active you are focused on the goal of the moment--which has little to do with honoring your neighbor. Both thoughts of self and thoughts of neighbor at a moment like this are equally unimportant.
The joy of life is in fulfilling your duty. "Life is action, the use of one's powers. As to use them to their height is our joy and duty, so it is the one end that justifies itself." Though he doesn't want to "trench upon the province of spiritual guides, he is quite committed to this proposition. And, when does it stop?
"When a man is satisfied with himself it means that he has ceased to struggle and therefore has ceased to achieve. He is dead, and may be allowed the thin delight of reading his own obituary" (147).
In his briefest "address" in this book, delivered to the nation on the occasion of his 90th birthday in March 1931, He realizes that he has reached the "goal" of his life. Holmes is conscious of the biblical word that the years of are life are threescore and ten, or maybe by reason of strength fourscore, yet he has topped this by adding a decade to fourscore. So, how does he look at his life when he has reached the end?
"The riders in a race to not stop short when they reach the goal. There is a little finishing canter before coming to a standstill."
And then, with words that are still ringing in my ears,
"There is time to hear the kind voice of friends and to say to one's self: 'The work is done.' But just as one says that, the answer comes, 'The race is over, but the work never is done while the power to work remains'" (178)
Is Holmes your type of guy?
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long