- Series: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, an
- Paperback: 374 pages
- Publisher: University of Chicago Press; New edition edition (January 1, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0226675548
- ISBN-13: 978-0226675541
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 10 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #423,261 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Essential Holmes: Selections from the Letters, Speeches, Judicial Opinions, and Other Writings of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. New edition Edition
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Legendary U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes is not only a giant in American legal history but is also remarkable for having been a master prose stylist. This collection, edited by Richard Posner, who is himself a federal judge, contains essays, speeches, letters to friends, and legal opinions that give the reader a highly enjoyable look into the thoughts that emanated from a very active mind.
From the Back Cover
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., has been called the greatest jurist and legal scholar in the history of the English-speaking world. In this collection of his speeches, opinions, and letters, Richard Posner reveals the fullness of Holmes's achievements as judge, historian, philosopher, and master English style.
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To poach one of Holmes' lines, this work collects the wool of his writing and weaves them into a fine coat. Richard Posner is a philosophical pragmatist in the mold of Holmes and one of the few first-rate minds to serve on the federal bench in recent decades. He retired in 2017 and it is a shame he will never serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. His admiration for Holmes in clear throughout his thirty-page introduction to this volume, but he also clearly lays out Holmes' influence on legal realism and other theories of jurisprudence.
To be clear, Holmes writes in a style that is often hard for a layman to understand, or even a lawyer not well-versed in antiquated legal debates. Holmes is at his best when writing letters to friends. Among them are letters to Harold Laski, Lewis Einstein, William James, John C.H. Wu, Canon Sheehan, Alice Stopford Green (published for the first time here), Frederick Pollock, and many others. Most have been collected in other volumes, but, in the same way one's e-mails would mostly be boring, many in those other collections are mundane. Posner has chipped away the dirt and left us only with the gold.
We will likely never see somewhat of Justice Holmes' ilk on the Supreme Court ever again. TR did the rare act for a politician of choosing the best man for the job, rather than one who was popular or uncontroversial and bland. His frankness and occasionally harsh views would likewise lead him to the woodshed of public opinion. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to the words of a man who was educated, cosmopolitan, patriotic, and a man of a bygone era whose voice seems eternally modern.
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.
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.
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.