OW Holmes, Jr--Commencement 1897
Bill Long 10/19/05
At Brown University, June 17, 1897*
[*Four essays reviewing Edward White's biography of Holmes are here.
One essay on the faith of OW Holmes is here.
Four essays on problems with Unitarianism and religious freedom in Massachusettes in the early 19th century are here.]
I have a B.A. and Ph. D. from Brown. It was the one school I had vowed as a youngster never to attend because it had such a pitiful football team at the time, and I imagined myself (when I was around 10) a budding football star. Yet, way leads to way and I found myself there in the Fall of 1970 and then again, as a doctoral student, seven years later. My experience at Brown is a sort of strange thing to me, however--I remember quite vividly many, many things of the place and people, but when I returned to Brown for my 25th reunion in 1999 I didn't know a soul, and no one remembered me. My picture from that occasion appeared in a subsequent edition of the Brown Alumni Magazine, but I was misidentified. Thus, in some ways, I am almost completely severed (except in my mind) from these intellectual roots, roots that nurtured me in significant ways for about a decade.
Yet still I feel a sort of fondness for Brown and take vicarious pride in its accomplishments or news, even if it will never recall that I was there. So I was delighted to read a footnote in White's biography of OW Holmes Jr. that Holmes had delivered the Commencement Address at Brown in 1897. I quickly tracked down the text. This essay reports on what I found.
An Autobiographical Address
Holmes' address is mercifully brief. It covers only three pages in his Occasional Speeches and could probably have been delivered in seven minutes or less. He likens life to a journey to the Eternal City, the starting point of which is the university. Holmes is therefore addressing those who are at the starting gate, and he wants to chart out some likely steps in their future. He further likens their life's task to a journey on the ocean, having the adventures of the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen in his mind. He talks about a journey in three stages: (1) starting out in darkness, though with companions; (2) plunging alone into the deep recesses of original work; and (3) producing work that unites you to the universe of which you are a part.
The Journey Begins
Holmes speaks of his own journey as through the "ocean of the Law." When he began (late 1860s) there were few charts or guides in law. "One found oneself plunged in a thick fog of details--in a black and frozen night, in which were no flower, no springs, no easy joys." American law had not yet come into its own; there were only one or two attempts at systematization (Story or Kent) of it. Its foundations in natural law were being blown to pieces by the aftermath of the Civil War. Thus, all that existed for Holmes and the field were the scattered pieces of rubble all around. Details. In addition, he was warned about the law from significant people. Thackeray and Burke for example, said that law only narrowed the mind or that it was the "bending of a great mind to a mean profession." Thus, the first stage in its learning was done with companions (fellow students) but in a "cold and black" environment. Yet, you realize that if you stick with it, if you trust it "to courage and to time" there is, as Nansen discovered, some "drift" to it. You make headway; you understand; you break out of the darkness and coldness of being "frozen in."
But then comes the time of aloneness. Holmes doesn't speak much of this part, though I suspect he could have addressed it for hours. It is here that the person who has learned that there is some "drift" in life and that you don't forever have to stay frozen in the ice learns another lesson. Listen to Holmes:
"So far his trials have been those of his companions. But if he is a man of high ambitions he must leave even his fellow-adventurers and go forth into a deeper solitude and greater trials. He must start for the pole. In plain words he must face the loneliness of original work. No one can cut new paths in company. He does that himself."
This statement belies a deafening message that is, I believe, being spoken to American society today. The message from 2005 is that teamwork pays, that you don't accomplish things by yourself, that you must be part of a group in order to make a contribution in life. Even when those who supposedly contribute something starkly "individual" are interviewed, they speak at length about their indebtednesses. Thus, a societal conspiracy of sorts exists out there--that learning and contribution only happen as you join with others.
I rather prefer Holmes' articulation of the issue, however. "No one can cut new paths in company." Indeed, you can't do so because you have to have the time and courage to still all the voices around you and listen to that one voice coming from within that leads you where you should go. But, then again, maybe I have just discovered something about America. Maybe America wants to emphasize teamwork and groupness now because it is basically afraid of the individual. It is afraid of what someone might conclude when left to the silence of the mind.
Joining with the World
But the purpose of the creative work of solitude isn't just to stay apart and alone. You retreat so that you will know the secret of achievement. But when you realize that lesson you are ready "for the consummation of the whole." You realize that one part of the universe yields the same teaching as any other, and you realize that what you uniquely have to offer is really a part of the whole. In isolation you might have thought that your contributions were simply irrelevant and unrelated to the whole. Consummation, however, teaches you that whatever you learn, from justification by faith to continuity with the universe, is to be of service to that same universe. Ultimately the "key to intellectual salvation" is to accept the fact that one is a willing instrument in working out the "inscrutable end" of the universe. We discover our happiness when he learn that we cannot set ourselves over against the universe as a rival god but that the universe's meaning is our meaning, and that we are humble instruments of the universal power. Transcendentalism lives.
Such a wise and insightful address. I am glad that I heard it, 108 years after it was delivered.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long