[H]appiness, I am sure from having known many successful men, cannot be won simply by being counsel for great corporations and having an income of fifty thousand dollars. An intellect great enough to win the prize needs other food besides success. The remoter and more general aspects of the law are those which give it a universal interest. It is through them that you not only become a great master in your calling, but connect your subject with the universe and catch an echo of the infinite, a glimpse of its unfathomable process, a hint of the universal law.
—Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
There are some people—and I am one of them—who think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether, in the long run, anything else affects them.
—G. K. Chesterton
Where there is no vision, the people perish.
Holmes’s encomium to the law may strike us today as quaintly grandiose—and also deeply ironic, given Holmes’s own savagely nihilistic outlook on life and law. An “echo of the infinite”? A “hint of the universal law”? Seriously?
And yet through much of Western history, the statement might have seemed utterly sensible. In what is sometimes called the classical legal tradition, human law was understood to be grounded in the natural law, which was itself that part of God’s providential plan (or of the “eternal law,” as Aquinas called it) that was knowable through reason by human beings. Law was precisely the point at which the eternal truths studied in their abstraction by philosophers and theologians met up with the practicalities of everyday life.