I just completed Part 1 of Louis Menand’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. I am sure that preface wasn’t necessary since you can readily see the cover of the book in the form of the attractive graphic that I have provided above.
In all seriousness though, if the book continues to be as insightful and well-written as it has been so far, I am in for a wonderful treat.
Menand’s scholarship takes the reader through the life-journeys of four giants in American intellectual thought: Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey.
Having just finished Part 1, I made it through the history of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. Menand does a marvelous job taking the reader beyond the mere life story of Holmes, which is in itself interesting enough. Deeper than this though, Menand traces the philosophical development of Holmes from the idealism of his antebellum youth through the horrors of the Civil War, and to his ultimate conclusion thereafter that “certitude leads to violence,” and that “truth” is that which “is impossible for one to doubt” within the construct their circumstances provide. More importantly, from the Civil War he saw that inevitably people will fight for those truths they hold most sacred.
For Holmes, it was Democracy that was the mediator of this constant tension, the push and pull between factions who cannot reconcile their differences as to what they perceive as truth. As a Supreme Court justice, like a solider, he exalted in carrying out a solemn social duty that was in no way related to his own personal views. One quote I found particularly compelling:
It has given me great pleasure to sustain the Constitutionality of laws that I believe to be as bad as possible, because I thereby helped to mark the difference between what I would forbid and what the Constitution permits.
This idea really resonates with me, and I wholeheartedly agree with it. If only more justices could be truly removed from their own personal biases.
Thus Menand in part 1 does an exceptional job threading together the fundamental truth of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. – His life experiences had a formative role in his arrival at a paradigm that rejected paradigms, a fundamental disbelief in beliefs. Too much was at stake for humans to be driven to war and slaughter by ideas, especially since in war it is the heroic who are sacrificed first.
More to come after I finish part 2…