42 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 1998
Posner, who is arguably today's most influential legal thinker, has put together an invaluable collection of Justice Holmes' most memorable writings. The combo of Posner selecting Holmes is powerful: the selections invariably present the brilliant Holmes on timeless legal topics. So much brain power is frightening, and we are lucky to be able to get it all in one fairly short book. All the more remarkable is how Holmes' ideas have not aged a bit; the similarities between Holmes and Posner are obvious.
This book is a must for academically-inclined lawyers, judges and professors.
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
The Essential Holmes, edited by Richard A. Posner (judge on the seventh circuit) collects the thoughts of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. via his numerous letters, court opinions, law journal articles and miscelleneous writings. It is a daunting task as Holmes was quite well-learned and something of a polymath, discoursing on everything from metaphysical philosophy to economics to law.
Posner, though, does a great job in editing the letters and pasting the relevant sections into easily digestible sections loosely related to the chapter's 'theme.' Posner's goal, to be sure, is to focus more on Holmes the philosopher, and i'm sure law students (who may know Holmes the Justice best) will thrill at the chance to really see how his philosophy - sympathetic with American pragmatism - extends into his thoughts on law. About the first half of the book is devoted to Holmes's philosophy on everything from metaphysics to the 'life struggle' and 'social struggle.' The second half segues the more theoretical sections into Holmes's views on statutory and common law, the interpretative 'theory' of both, and Holmes's ever contreversial and confusing views on individual liberty.
As the reader will find (or may already know) Holmes's social, ethical, and metaphysical philosophy is something of an individualistic relativism. Dreams of any final theory are suspect, and the social order is not much more than each person operating in self-interest, clashing with other people (doing the same) in something of a never-ending Darwinian struggle. From this (and the fact that Holmes believed all morality to be local and relative to context), law should not be seen as being gotten from some 'natural law'-like moral order, but should be disconnected from morality; rather, it should be seen as humankind's way of deriving regularity from the clashes of human interest in a neat little fiat. The law, then, is simply what the soveriegn says it is.
This (among other things) has made Holmes out to be something of a bad guy. To be sure, he can come off as crass and 'pre-post-modern.' But Holmes is also refreshingly real (at least to my eyes, as I am a philosophic ptragmatist through and through). It is becasue Holmes saw that there is no universal standard of 'natural law' or other such 'free-floating' fictions that he was such a believer in judicial restraint - holding to the constitution even when he personally disagreed. Many of those cases (Lochner, etc.) are included in this volume.
The only two things I was disappointed did not get more time was Holmes's first amendment views which are notoriously hard to decipher, and the conflict between his simultenous support of a 'living constitution' and his belief in judicial restraint. Both are conflicts that even the best of scholars wade through confusedly (never able to resolve their tensions), and it would have been nice to see a bit more focus on these two areas.
Of course, Posner is not at fault as this is an edited collection which can only provide what Holmes said; maybe he simply never resolved these two views.
To conclude, this is a great and artfully done collection that focuses more on Holmes's philosophy (from metaphysics to ethics) than do most of Holmes's collections. For those that know Posner, he is awfully sympathetic in idea to Holmes and his intro, though, breif is first rate; the selections, also, are fantastically picked. This book is not to be missed by lawyers who want some philosophy, and philosophers that want some law. Holmes was just amazingly skilled at both.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 23, 2007
This is a fantastic and accessible tour through the work of one of the greatest prose stylists of the 20th century--within the law or outside it. Holmes's style is clear-eyed without being cynical, concrete without being simplistic, and erudite without being pedantic. Just when a thought threatens to become wispy and indefinite, Holmes nails it down with a perfect metaphor.
This collection covers a wide range of Holmes's seemingly inexhaustible interests: literature, history, economics, science, and, of course, the law. The introduction by Judge Posner is excellent.
After reading this, I am eager to read more about Holmes and even more eager to read more Holmes.
on January 29, 2013
. . . , but it's too damn beautiful to put it down.
The sections on "Aging and Death" and "The Life Struggle" are especially thought-provoking and paint a crystal-clear portrait of one of the most brilliant people our country has ever produced.
If you're interested in the evolution of judicial reasoning and the beautiful prose of an amazing American thinker, I highly recommend buying this book to read from cover to cover, or to peruse in small portions at your leisure. Either way, it's a terrific read and a great resource to have simply for the copious quotable phrases peppered throughout this collection.
on August 31, 2007
This selection made by Posner gives us an interesting and different approach to Judge Holmes which allow us to discover not only the Judge but the most intimate thoughts of the writer and philosoper who Holmes was.
A must for those interested in Law and Freedom and the human beings who, as Holmes, had no fears to develop a free spirit and to be free individuals.
4 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 3, 2011
I purchased this book because I had always heard such great things about Holmes & I wanted to learn more.
This book may be exciting for a constitutional attorney, but for the layman it is quite boring.
The letters selected by the erudite author (Posner) are languorous.
I suppose that is how they wrote in those days, but I just could not get into the book & thus I know no more about Holmes than when I started.
I wished I could have learned more about this fascinating person.