Holmes and the Fragments of Life
Bill Long 10/23/05
Sooner or later even those of prodigious learning and unflagging devotion to understanding the human condition must not only come up against their obvious limitations in learning but also the fragmentariness of what they know and can transmit to the world. Holmes reflected on this problem in a 1900 speech. This essay give Holmes' words and then posits a few ways in which our own life is full of fragments or partial understanding.
Holmes on Life's Fragments
Holmes was 59 at the time of his speech, having worked already about 33 years in law. He asks the question, almost with too eerie prescience (since he would die almost precisely 33 years from the time of the speech), "I ask myself, what is there to show for this half lifetime that has passed?" (123) He goes on:
"I look into my book in which I keep a docket of the decisions of the full court (the Supreme Judicial Court of MA) which fall to me to write, and find about a thousand cases. A thousand cases, many of them upon trifling or transitory matters, to represent half a lifetime! A thousand cases, when one would have liked to study to the bottom and to say his say on every question which the law has ever presented, and then to go on and invent new problems which should be the test of doctrine, and then to generalize it all and write it in continuous logical, philosophic exposition, setting forth the whole corpus with its roots in history and its justifications of expedience real or supposed!" (123)
He longs to paint the picture of all the cases, arrange them, come up with consistent and comprehensive doctrines and write it all in clear and coherent prose. This was the spirit that kept him up long days and nights in the 1870s as he tried to master the Germanic and Roman antecedents of the English common law, as he attempted to plumb the depths of the common law Year Books, as he tried to internalize all the modern words of jurisprudence and philosophy. Would that he could truly "do justice" to it all. Then he thinks about Shakespeare and Napoleon.
"I often imagine Shakespeare or Napoleon summing himself up and thinking: 'Yes, I have written 5,000 lines of solid gold and a good deal of padding--I, who would have covered the milky way with words which outshone the stars!' 'Yes, I beat the Austrians in Italy and elsewhere: I made a few brilliant campaigns, and I ended in middle life in a cul-de-sac--I, who had dreamed of a world monarchy and Asiatic power" (123).
Then he comments. "We cannot live our dreams. We are lucky enough if we can give a sample of our best, and if in our hearts we can feel that it has been nobly done."
Fast Forward to 2005
Maturity in 2005 forces us to think about our the fragmentariness of our own knowledge, even as we might seek to provide the comprehensive interpretive template over all of it. Here are four ways in which our life is also a fragmentary one. First, our laws. Our legislatures pass laws, trying to cover all eventualities, but sooner or later (usually sooner) a situation presents itself that wasn't conceived by the drafters of the statute. For example, the Controlled Substances Act of 1971 focused on stemming the flow of illegal drugs in our economy but said not a word about the practice of using licit drugs to aid patients in the process of dying. So, the US Supreme Court handled a contentious case in October 2005 to determine the "reach" of this statute in relation to what has been called "physician-assisted suicide."
Second, our historians write books, combing past sources to try to bring to life a period long past. But it is difficult and sometimes impossible to capture the voice of a solitary individual in the past much less to "create the world" that took place at the time. Our historical knowledge gives us no more than a taste, a sip of a vast ocean consisting of richly textured lives that are no longer available to us. And, third, who can't say but that the nature of our love is also fragmentary? Lovers may have studied each other's desires and habits for decades, but each individual remains a mystery, a person inaccessible to the other and even to the self.
The lover of knowledge wants to provide a completeness of explanation and a comprehensiveness of vision. Indeed, we would love to find such overarching explanations as we pick up a book or engage in a conversation. But those who have lived a while, and have looked deeply into their own limitations and foibles, realize that the efforts even of the best historians and writers only provide the most fragmentary explanations of things. Questions are not fully answered or even skillfully presented. Data are not fully weighed. Blind spots or knowledge limitations of the author limit the scope of the "canvas" on which s/he draws the picture of a person, problem or time. But still we honor ourselves with plaudits, chairs, glossy brochures and smiling pictures suggesting competence and mastery. Still we argue ourselves into thinking that one soulmate or more is "out there" for us. Let's just take one moment to realize that what we are building in life may be a huge and daunting structure, but that the materials we have at hand to do so are irregularly-shaped bricks, chipped rocks, mangled wires and piles of rubble. It is a wonder that we make any sense of life at all.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long