I have just finished reading Stephen Budiansky’s riveting biography of Oliver Wendell Holmes, subtitled “A Life in War, Law, and Ideas” (Norton, 2019). Like Louis Menand, Budiansky claims—and makes a very compelling case for the claim—that Holmes’ manner and belief are all shaped by his service in the Civil War. Holmes was severely wounded twice (once in late July 1861 and then again at Antietam in September 1862). The second time (like Robert Graves) his death was reported in the newspapers. Holmes returned to service after both wounds, but saw only limited combat after 1862 since he joined a general’s staff. He had had more than enough—and quit the war in 1864 as soon as his three year term of service had expired.
Budiansky does a superb job in portraying Holmes’ worldview, one that I think is shared by many veterans. It certainly resonates with the hard to describe beliefs that animated my own father, who saw serious combat (although far short of the slaughterhouse that was September 17, 1862 at Antietam) in the Pacific during World War II. At bottom, Holmes became a “it’s struggle all the way down” guy. In the final analysis, it is force that tells—and that rules. That is an ugly truth. Force is relentless, mindless, brutal, and unrelated to justice or any other ideals. People who mouth ideals or try to call others to account in the name of ideals are naïve at best, deluded hypocrites speaking claptrap. At worst, they are moralistic despots, deploying their moral certainties to tyrannize over the rest of us. Dewey’s pragmatist attack on “the quest for certainty” becomes in Holmes the justification of an activist pluralism. The role of the law is to create a social field in which individuals are free to live their lives according to their own vision of the good life. Oddly enough, this yields a positive value: basically the very English value (both Holmes and my father were over-the-top Anglophiles) of “fair play.” Holmes’ Supreme Court decisions, in almost every instance, were directed to leveling the playing field, to denying any one or any group more power than any other. Thus he was a liberal in the Judith Shklar’s “liberalism of fear” sense; the focus is on preventing concentrations of power.
But Holmes (and here he is also very pragmatist) did not accept that uncertainty meant nihilism. “’Of all humbugs the greatest is the humbug of indifference and superiority,’ he wrote . . . in 1897. ‘Our destiny is to care, to idealize, to live toward passionately desired ends.’ He always dismissed the nihilistic attitude ‘it is all futile,’ which he termed ‘the dogmatism that often is disguised under skepticism. The sceptic has no standard to warrant such universal judgments. If a man has counted in the actual striving of his fellows he cannot pronounce it vain’” (130).
Eureka! I can’t help but take this for the cornerstone. It jives with William James’s constant harping of “striving,” and it is tied to a deep commitment to a certain ideal of masculinity. Holmes (like my father) was clear-eyed about the waste, the futility, the sheer brutal nastiness and devastation of war. He could see that a killing field like Antietam left nothing to individual initiative, ability, or resolve. It was all sheer chance as to whether one survived or not. And yet, he still hung on to the time-worn notion that war was the supreme test of manhood—and thus valuable because (for reasons never examined) manhood has to be tested. Maybe that goes back to the struggle thing; one needs to compete against others for the prize of being able to, in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others, be accounted a man. Since the struggle lies in front of us, the prize goes to those who most energetically strive. And by upping the stakes to life or death in the way that combat does, manhood is fully tested.
Thus, he famously wrote (in 1884) of himself and his fellow Civil War veterans: “We have shared the incommunicable experience of war; we have felt, we still feel, the passion of life to its top . . . Through our good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire” (127). And later, during the First World War, he wrote: “I truly believe that young men who live through a war in which they have taken part will find themselves different thenceforth—I feel it—I see it in the eyes of the few surviving men who served in my Regiment. So, although I would have averted the war if I could have, I believe that all the suffering and waste are not without their reward. I hope will all my heart that your boys may win the reward and at not too great a cost” (363).
That last bit strikes the note perfectly. A real desire to avoid war joined with an equally real belief that war brings its own distinctive rewards, along with the absolute distinction between those who have the incommunicable experienced of war and those who do not. The veteran is part of the elect; he has looked into the abyss; he has seen the fundamental ugly truth of struggle, and is the better man for it.
In the implacable face of violence and death, high ideals mean nothing. The only worthy response is to shut up and get on with it. Grim determination, strong silence, and doing the job well are what is worthy of respect; nothing more or less. His ideal men “were free to be egoists or altruists on the usual Saturday half holiday provided they were neither while on their job. Their job is their contribution to the general welfare and when a man is on that, he will do it better the less he thinks ether of himself or of his neighbors, and the more he puts his energy into the problem he has to solve” (137). His contempt for intellectuals and moralists was unbounded. “More than once he cautioned his friends about ‘the irresponsibility of running the universe on paper. . . . The test of an ideal or rather of an idealist, is the power to hold it and get one’s inspiration from it under difficulties. When one is comfortable and well off, it is easy to talk high talk’”(131). His attitude toward intellectuals was very close to that of George Orwell; they talked a talk they never had to walk—and they rendered the world frictionless in their images of its betterment. It is the contempt of the self-styled man of action for the man of ideals—and is undoubtedly tied up with a cherished ideal of manhood. And, of course, in both Holmes and Orwell, it comes from two men who are primarily men of words. But they both share their military experience, so can see themselves as superior to the non-veteran.
When you aspire to be a man of action, the nostalgia for combat is understandable. What other field of action that is not contemptible does the modern world offer? What honor is there in making more money than others? Where, in other words, is the moral equivalent of war? Certainly not in politics, which is even more contemptible than trade. Holmes was determined not to become either the gloomy Henry Adams nor the god-seeking William James. He wanted, instead, to be the tough-minded realist described in the opening pages of James’s Pragmatism book.
I want, in my next post, to consider how tough-minded realism plays itself out in Holmes’ understanding of the law. But today I will end with the way that realism renders Holmes a pluralist in an additional sense. He is a pluralist in the John Rawls sense of believing that the central unalterable fact that liberal society must negotiate is the existence of multiple visions of the good, none of which should be allowed to trample on the others. He is a pluralist in the Isaiah Berlin sense in asserting that, even within a single vision of the good, there are competing goods that require tradeoffs and compromises; we will never getting everything we could wish for because those things cannot co-exist. Going to the theater tonight means missing a dinner with a different set of friends. Intellectuals, he thinks, never take the inevitability of never achieving the maximum into account in their criticisms of the men of action or in their imagined utopias. “Remember, my friend [he wrote], that every good costs something. Don’t forget that to have anything means to go without something else. Even to be a person, to be this means to be not that’ (131).
In sum, life’s a struggle and a real man just gets on with the job, harboring no illusion that it will be all wine and roses. That real man is full of contempt for the complainers and idealists, the ones who aim to change the basic fact of struggle into some kind of gentler form of cooperation that tends toward ameliorating the sufferings of himself and/or others. You just need to face up to the suffering in stoic silence, doing the best that you can for yourself and for those you love. Because you are a man and they are depending on you, even as you have no one to depend on but yourself. It’s a cop-out of your manhood to expect help; it’s a sign of weakness, of not being up to the struggle, to whine for help from the law, from society, from anyone.