Holmes’s Vision of Intellectual Heroism

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.‘s image of intellectual heroism:

No man has earned the right to intellectual ambition until he has learned to lay his course by a star which he has never seen — to dig by the divining rod for springs which he may never reach. In saying this, I point to that which will make your study heroic. For I say to you in all sadness of conviction, that to think great thoughts you must be heroes as well as idealists. Only when you have worked alone — when you have felt around you a black gulf of solitude more isolating than that which surrounds the dying man, and in hope and in despair have trusted to your own unshaken will — then only will you have achieved. Thus only can you gain the secret isolated joy of the thinker, who knows that, a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, men who never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought — the subtile rapture of a postponed power, which the world knows not because it has no external trappings, but which to his prophetic vision is more real than that which commands an army.

From page 60 of Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. Emphasis mine.

5 comments on “Holmes’s Vision of Intellectual Heroism
  • Good emphasis, inspiring and true. In such times of extreme solitude, it becomes even more important not to give in to peer pressure which can influence choices steering them towards the average rather than the exemplar..

  • I like it. I think that idea can be extended to all forms of heroism. Heroism could perhaps be defined as doing that which no one else was or would be able to do. That in itself is an incredibly solitary pursuit, because there’s no one else to turn to for guidance.

    And just an aside: Ben, I’m really looking forward to your book. As a 20-year-old entrepreneur myself, I think it will be an invaluable guide.

  • Holmes had some interesting things to say. And he did what not many others were able to do: make judicial opinions interesting to read. I believe his father was a poet/writer.

    Here are a few other things he’s said:

    “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”

    “To be 70 years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be 40 years old.”

    “Carve every word before you let it fall.”

    “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.”

    “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”

  • *a hundred years after he is dead and forgotten, men who never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought — the subtile rapture of a postponed power,…*


  • I used to rent from a lady who was a descendant of Oliver Wendell Holmes. While she wasn’t as skilled at turning a phrase, she was quite accomplished in her own right. She was a NASA computer programmer when there were very few women in the field.

    A few years later, she decided that she’d had enough of living on the East Coast and working 80-hour weeks in the computer field, so she moved to Tucson. Once here, she needed a place to live. So, she built her own house.

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