The Metaphysical Club, 2

Reading: Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club, Ch. 3.

This chapter provides some poignant description of Holmes’s wartime experience (including a gruesomely poetic line from Holmes about the wounded “writhing under superincumbent dead”). The real crux of the chapter, for the larger purposes of the book anyway, begins on p. 59 where Menand addresses Holmes’s “rejection of the intellectual style of prewar Boston.” The next section (4) really comes around to the point of Menand’s analysis of OWH’s wartime experience. Thankfully, Menand puts the “lesson” that OWH learned from the war into “a single sentence” — “that certitude leads to violence” (61). Menand goes on to discuss this lesson at some length, explaining its significance for OWH’s political opinions and, more importantly, for his legal opinions as a Supreme Court justice. (This whole section is crucial for Menand’s argument.)

What Menand is not yet saying, is that Holmes’s way of think was essentially a form of pragmatism — the war had made Holmes into a pragmatist. It seems to me that the most important question to ask here is: what, in Holmes’s mind, went wrong with the intellectual system that he had been raised up in? What values or ways of thinking did he have to reject in order to embrace his pragmatic approach? (Menand gets back to Holmes on pp. 216-17, where he quotes Holmes identifying himself as a “bettabilitarian.”)

13 thoughts on “The Metaphysical Club, 2”

  1. It seems to me that Holmes’ “rejection of the intellectual style of prewar Boston”(59) was that it proved to be a “hub” of idealism and individualism rather than an objective, disinterested force, it “was not the measure of all things” (67). Norton’s article on the Crusades apears to have convinced Holmes that something not akin to idealism, but true patriotism, killed his friend Henry Abbott. A style of not just persuasion of what one believed was right, but an imposition on one’s neighbor to defend it as well. It was not enough that “nobilty of character consist of doing one’s job with indifference”(54), but certainty in social cause was a prerequisite. Holmes’ view of the war increasingly became one less idealistc, and one of disillusionment, “I am not the same man… and certainly not so elastic as I was” (56) alluding to the change he (and the nation) underwent during the war. When he tried to tell the story while reading a poem, he seemed overwhelmed by emotion due to the loss of life and loss of youthful enthusiasm for the nation, just as he had observed in a speech memorilizing Abbott, “in our youth, our hearts were touched with fire”(68).
    It is sad that, although not lost, Holmes’ Emersonian thought was transformed into more of Norton’s expendable human experience for social progress.

  2. Holmes intellectual lesson attacked the traditional thought of intellectuals of prewar Boston. Due to the horrors of war Holmes end up discovering his dislike for this prewar thought process. The prewar thought promoted values of “professionalism” and implied “impersonality, respect for institutions”. Holmes saw that these thoughts and values lead men into the Civil War blindly and full of false hope. Holmes felt that these values of prewar America need to change in order to prevent civil war like repeats.

  3. I think his ideals he had entering the war, while still pretty young, were shattered by not only the war but age. Having seen what he had seen and for the reasons given to him about the war he soon realized that there was a much bigger picture to the world than what the Boston intellectuals thought. The picture of him when he was 21 to three months before his death seem to show the young kid ready to take on the world, and the old man crushed by it.

  4. I think Holmes’ ideas and writings were strongly influenced by the war and how the the he lived in changed during the war. I would agree with Jordan when he talks about how Holmes seems to go from a young ambituous boy before the war to a old bitter and somewhat defeated man after the war until his death. I would think that this was the norm for anybody who participated in this horrific war. Everyone’s thoughts and beliefs almost had to change when they saw what human beings were capable of when fighting for what they believed in.

  5. I agree with Jordan that age was a factor in how Holmes’ ideals changed during his service in the army. I also thought it interesting how deeply he worshiped Emerson, event to the point of writing him to look over things he himself had written.

  6. I would have to agree with Jordan in that Holmes was a young man ready for anything. Then he entered the Civil War and was awakened by the existents of the real word out side of the idealistic city of Boston. After the war Holmes is a changed man, and even during the war he writes his mother, telling her he does not want to hear his father go on about different movements, when he is facing the ugly truth everyday on the front lines of the war.

  7. Someone once said that “War was Hell”. The Civil War was one of the bloodiest wars in American history. Holmes himself says something like “I am not the man I once was”, and “he was not even sure if he will make it out a live”. Any young person that goes to war is thinking he is doing this for something great. They do not think of the horrors they will encounter, and how this will change their lives. People are full of wonderful ideas, and thoughts, until their friends, and comrade’s gets killed off, or you go to a battler field in which the dead are mixed in with the living and nobody is helping. I believe this type of stress will change anyone’s views on life. Perhaps he had something like PDS?

  8. Abandoning the intellectual ideals of pre-war Boston, Holmes begins his intellectual journey from an entirely new basis. This is a philosophical journey which no longer stressed the importance of individuality. As Menard notes, “But he had not given up the idea of doing philosophy. He had only given up the idea of doing it in a way Emerson and his father had done it-by syntensis and introspection. He thought it could be done better by scholarship and analysis.”(57) Here Holmes is expressing the need for people to act in an objective, reasonable, and disinterested manner. As Menard goes on to point out, “The idea of disintersted inquiry is the best way to crack the world’s nut was Holmes’s message to his generation.”(59) Holmes is rejecting individualism and is concentrating objectively on the larger picture. As Menard again notes “He reversed in effect, the priorities of his youth: He took the Constitution for his text and rejected the Declaration of Independence.”(66)
    In conclusion we see Holmes moving away from the individualistic thoughts of his youth, to a more broad, objectifiable perspective. This is, in effect, the beginning of Holmes pragmatic nature of thought. It would also serve as the basis behing many of his court decisions.

  9. During the war, Holmes believed in expertise because it was the key for soldiers to fight more efficient. After the war was over Holmes’s ideas and writings shifted to a rejection of expertise and professionalism. Holmes was shell-shocked by the war and didn’t want that to happen again. He believed that democracy would help fight against violence, but it just needed time to work. It is interesting to see how Holmes broadened himself in order to except more ideas.

  10. I agree that the war changed Holmes. During the war we can’t be sure what he was thinking at all times, because many of his diary entries were destroyed. Perhaps he wanted nobody to know. I think he was torn and going back and forth on his thinking. I think he started to loose a lot of faith in the union, because there were so many casualties. Also, leadership positions were based on political influence, rather than experience. Many people felt friends and family were dying because of “mismanagement and political meddling.”

  11. I would like too add that in time’s of great dispare we do loose the faith in much of what we think we know about the world around us. An hold on closer too which we are more secure in or give us the chance of hope. I think that this further discribes what this story is telling.

  12. I like what Brian said in the begining of his comment. I do believe Holmes did start from anew after the war. He almost had a rebirth of life or an awakening to the way in which he thought.

  13. I would have to disagree with the notion that Holmes change was because of his age and I don’t necessary think it was because he was physically effected by the war. I believe that Holmes was emotionally ill from the war and didn’t know how to deal with his emotions. He realized that people had died in his place–and he felt like he had owed them something for that.

    When your higher up in our society, its very hard to see whats going on below you. It’s hard to see how the real world is and it’s hard to see how the power your class holds can destroy groups of people. When Holmes entered the war, I believe that he may have felt some equality with a class of people he normally would not have associated with. He began to understand what his class of people was doing and how they were in fact the reason we were in war. I think he understood that power was a horrible thing for someone to have to much of.

    I think that Holmes had to give up his ego because he that this could be deadly and he had to live with the notion that there was life outside the bubble he had been raised in.

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