Oliver Wendell Holmes on the Way of Reason and Living Books

Dear Reader,

I have been reading Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes and find these two very intriguing quotes:

“You can hire logic, in the shape of a lawyer, to prove anything that you want to prove. You can buy treatises to show that Napoleon never lived, and that no battle of Bunker-hill was ever fought. The great minds are those with a wide span, which couple truths, related to, but far removed from, each other . . . Some of the sharpest men in argument are notoriously unsound in judgment. I should not trust the counsel of a smart debater, any more than that of a good chess-player.”

(Autocrat of the Breakfast Table by Oliver Wendell Holmes, p.11)

“We can make a book alive for us just in proportion to its resemblance in essence or in form to our own experience.” (p.35)

In the first quote, we see echoes of what Charlotte Mason calls “the Way of Reason.” The best arguer, Holmes tells us, is not necessarily your best source of truth. Conspiracy theories, it seems, are not a 20th century invention. One may produce seemingly rock-solid evidence and arguments that, as Holmes says, Napoleon and Bunker-hill never were or, as some in our day would claim, that Elvis lives and men never walked on the moon, but arguments, even ones that seem solid and convincing at the time, do not make truth. Reason can be contorted to support any position.

Notice as well that in the midst of this first quote that Holmes also speaks of what Charlotte calls “the Science of Relations.” Great minds, he says, have a wide body of knowledge – Charlotte said to “set their feet in a wide room” – and are able to make connections between seemingly diverse ideas.

The second quote above speaks of living books. We often speak as if a book is living or not, and indeed some books seem to be almost universally living books for whoever reads them while others are quite the opposite. At times, we may find books in the middle; perhaps you, like I, have found to your disappointment that your child despises a book you adore. Books may be living for one person and not another. But Holmes adds a new thought: it is our own experience which may make a book alive for us. Do you think Charlotte would agree? It certainly seems to make sense though I think we may also have books come alive for us which have no relation to our own experience, perhaps even because they are so new and different.

What do you think?

Nebby

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