Ideas (and Lawyers) Have Consequences per Oliver Wendell Holmes

Oliver Wendell Holmes said the following in speech regarding a lawyer named Sidney Bartlett on March 28, 1889. (You can read the entire speech in Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Speeches.)

It seems to me that we are apt to take short-sighted views of what constitutes power, and of how a man may serve his fellows. The external and immediate result of an advocate’s work is but to win or lose a case. But remotely what the lawyer does is to establish, develop, or illuminate rules which are to govern the conduct of men for centuries; to set in motion principles and influences which shape the thought and action of generations which know not by whose command they move. The man of action has the present, but the thinker controls the future; his is the most subtile, the most far-reaching power. His ambition is the vastest, as it is the most ideal. (43-44)

This quote shows Holmes’s evolutionary, humanist millennial dreams. He advocates for a long-term view of what we do. We focus on what we are doing now (for the lawyer or judge, the matter or case before us.) But, we do that realizing that what we are doing now has the power to “govern the conduct of men for centuries” and to “shape . . . thought and action of generations.”

What if the church caught this vision, this passion for the future? What if we lost our myopia, and began to take a hopeful, long-term view of our lives and callings? Holmes, a committed unbeliever whose worldview gave him little reason to have any real hope, did just that and thereby shaped a century or more of jurisprudence. If he did that, what might we by God’s grace be able to do?