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Enlisted For Life
Oliver Wendell Holmes was wounded three times in some of the worst fighting of the Civil War. But for him, the most terrible battles were the ones he had missed.
June/July 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 4
Holmes came to teaching with a clear understanding that, although he was bound not to return to practice for five years, he was free to accept a judgeship if one were offered. One was, late in 1882, when a vacancy occurred in the Supreme Judicial Court.
Holmes had only been teaching for three months when he got the offer. He had been filling a newly endowed chair funded with the understanding, at least in part, that Holmes would be the first occupant. Moreover, going on the bench would probably not comport with the teaching load he was carrying. The Supreme Judicial Court in those days served not only as the appellate court of Massachusetts but also as an active trial court, whose justices sat throughout the commonwealth. It heard every type of case, from divorces to murder, and at that time was the only court possessing equity jurisdiction. On the other hand, the active life of a justice was apparently more attractive to Holmes than the quiet of academia. In later years he described the conflict characteristically: “Academic life is but half life—it is withdrawal from the fight in order to utter smart things that cost you nothing except the thinking them from a cloister.” This conviction emerged again and again: “But after all the place for a man who is complete in all his powers is in the fight. The professor, the man of letters, gives up one-half of life that his protected talent may grow and flower in peace. But to make up your mind at your peril upon a living question, for purposes of action, calls upon your whole nature.”
A letter written the month he accepted the appointment puts the point even more trenchantly: “I felt that if I declined the struggle offered me, I should never be so happy again—I should feel that I had chosen the less manly course.”
The shift from teaching to the bench offers an interesting contrast to Holmes’s departing the army in 1864, when he was leaving the hardships of active service and accepting comfortable safety.
In 1882 he was again quitting an unfinished assignment. This time, however, he felt his moral direction was correct. He was following the manly course, taking his protected talent away from the cloister, going out to fire and peril, to the struggle, to the fight—where the complete man should be. Small wonder that Holmes never bothered, as one irate Harvard colleague put it, “to sleep over it and to confer with those who had a right to be consulted.” Soldiers leaving for the front need no civilian passports.
What, then, does Holmes’s preoccupation with war mean? What are we to take from his evident immersion in soldiering, killing, and dying? To some extent, perhaps it is only an exceptional case of “survivor’s syndrome,” that combination of joy and guilt that sometimes afflicts those who have escaped a general disaster.
Objectively, of course, Holmes’s selfreproach lacked any rational basis. He had enlisted early, he had remained at his post, and he had returned to the front after three separate wounds, at least one of which might well have justified his leaving the service permanently.
All of us shape our lives and, to some extent, our self-appraisal by reference to the standards of the society in which we live. “The nearest [i.e., deepest] motive for good conduct” Holmes once wrote, “is found in the opinion of neighbors and friends.” It is worth noting here his repeated reference, often at the height of a professional or personal triumph, to his hope that he has not—of all things—failed.
If, as Holmes said, for the most powerful men, battle means either death or a generalship, and if, in fact, Holmes neither died nor became a general, does that mean that Holmes was not one of the most powerful—that is, the most courageous and manly—men? Measured against reality, the question is absurd. Holmes’s battle experiences, even—perhaps especially—his staff service, met every reasonable test of objective bravery. Moreover, as Holmes himself noted in another of his militaristic similes, the reward of a general is not a bigger tent; it is command.
Surely Holmes knew that, if nothing else, his judicial work had placed him among that small group he so admired, those thinkers who set the beat to which the future would march, a power “more real than that which commands an army.” Once again, however, objective reality is not so important as the reality that Holmes perceived, or, to put it more accurately, imagined. He had been to the war, and unlike Abbott, Shaw, and the Lowells, he had not died; nor had he, like Bartlett, come out a general. By his own standards, Holmes was not among the powerful.
In one sense, then, it may be that Holmes’s incessant war metaphor represents an effort to convince others—and, of course, himself—that he did indeed perform in the way that his social class and his Harvard class demanded of a gentleman in the 1860s. All his life he worried that he had not met his obligation; if he had it to do again, he told friends, he would have stayed through the war.