Oliver Wendell Holmes.

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-Sranbarfc Eibrarn Edition





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Cfa tf iterate press, Camfcri&0e



Copyright, 1859, 1887, and 1891,

Copyright, 1892,

All rights reserved.

The Riverside Press, Cambridge, Mass., U. S. A.
Electrotyped and Printed by H. O. Houghton & Company.


THE reader of to-day will not forget, I trust, that
it is nearly a quarter of a century since these papers
were written. Statements which were true then are
not necessarily true now. Thus, the speed of the trot
ting horse has been so much developed that the record
of the year when the fastest time to that date was
given must be very considerably altered, as may be
seen by referring to a note on page 49 of the " Auto
crat." No doubt many other statements and opinions
might be more or less modified if I were writing to
day instead of having written before the war, when
the world and I were both more than a score of years

These papers followed close upon the track of the
"Autocrat." They had to endure the trial to which
all second comers are subjected, which is a formidable
ordeal for the least as well as the greatest. Paradise
Regained and the Second Part of Faust are examples
which are enough to warn every one who has made a
single fair hit with his arrow of the danger of missing
when he looses "his fellow of the selfsame flight."

There is good reason why it should be so. The first
juice that runs of itself from the grapes comes from
the heart of the fruit, and tastes of the pulp only;
when the grapes are squeezed in the press the flow be
trays the flavor of the skin. If there is any freshness


in the original idea of the work, if there is any indi
viduality in the method or style of a new author, or
of an old author on a new track, it will have lost
much of its first effect when repeated. Still, there
have not been wanting readers who have preferred
this second series of papers to the first. The new pa
pers were more aggressive than the earlier ones, and
for that reason found a heartier welcome in some
quarters, and met with a sharper antagonism in oth
ers. It amuses me to look back on some of the at
tacks they called forth. Opinions which do not ex
cite the faintest show of temper at this time from
those who do not accept them were treated as if they
were the utterances of a nihilist incendiary. It re
quired the exercise of some forbearance not to recrim

How a stray sentence, a popular saying, the maxim
of some wise man, a line accidentally fallen upon and
remembered, will sometimes help one when he is all
ready to be vexed or indignant! One day, in the
time when I was young or youngish, I happened to
open a small copy of "Tom Jones," and glance at the
title-page. There was one of those little engravings
opposite, which bore the familiar name of "T. Uwins,"
as I remember it, and under it the words "Mr. Par
tridge bore all this patiently." How many times,
when, after rough usage from ill-mannered critics, my
own vocabulary of vituperation was simmering in such
a lively way that it threatened to boil and lift its lid
and so boil over, those words have calmed the small
internal effervescence ! There is very little in them
and very little of them ; and so there is not much in
a linchpin considered by itself, but it often keeps a
wheel from coming off and prevents what might be a


catastrophe. The chief trouble in offering such pa
pers as these to the readers of to-day is that their her
esies have become so familiar among intelligent people
that they have too commonplace an aspect. All the
light-houses and land-marks of belief bear so differ
ently from the way in which they presented them
selves when these papers were written that it is hard
to recognize that we and our fellow-passengers are
still in the same old vessel sailing the same unfathom
able sea and bound to the same as yet unseen harbor.
But after all, there is not enough theology, good or
bad, in these papers to cause them to be inscribed on
the protestant Index Expurgatorius ; and if they are
medicated with a few questionable dogmas or anti-
dogmas, the public has become used to so much
rougher treatment that what was once an irritant may
now act as an anodyne, and the reader may nod over
pages which, when they were first written, would have
waked him into a paroxysm of protest and denuncia

November, 1882.


THIS book is one of those which, if it lives for a
number of decades, and if it requires any Preface at
all, wants a new one every ten years. The first Pre
face to a book is apt to be explanatory, perhaps apol
ogetic, in the expectation of attacks from various
quarters. If the book is in some points in advance of
public opinion, it is natural that the writer should try
to smooth the way to the reception of his more or less
aggressive ideas. He wishes to convince, not to
offend, to obtain a hearing for his thought, not to
stir up angry opposition in those who do not accept it.
There is commonly an anxious look about a first Pre
face. The author thinks he shall be misapprehended
about this or that matter, that his well-meant expres
sions will probably be invidiously interpreted by those
whom he looks upon as prejudiced critics, and if he
deals with living questions that he will be attacked as
a destructive by the conservatives and reproached for
his timidity by the noisier radicals. The first Pre
face, therefore, is likely to be the weakest part of a
work containing the thoughts of an honest writer.

After a time the writer has cooled down from his ex
citement, has got over his apprehensions, is pleased to
find that his book is still read, and that he must write
a new Preface. He comes smiling to his task. How
many things have explained themselves in the ten or


twenty or thirty years since he came before his untried
public in those almost plaintive paragraphs in which
he introduced himself to his readers, for the Pre
face writer, no matter how fierce a combatant he may
prove, comes on to the stage with his shield on his
right arm and his sword in his left hand.

The Professor at the Breakfast-Table came out in
the "Atlantic Monthly " and introduced itself without
any formal Preface. A quarter of a century later the
Preface of 1882, which the reader has just had laid
before him, was written. There is no mark of worry,
I think, in that. Old opponents had come up and
shaken hands with the author they had attacked or
denounced. Newspapers which had warned their sub
scribers against him were glad to get him as a con
tributor to their columns. A great change had come
over the community with reference to their beliefs.
Christian believers were united as never before in the
feeling that, after all, their common object was to
elevate the moral and religious standard of humanity.
But within the special compartments of the great
Christian fold the marks of division have pronounced
themselves in the most unmistakable manner. As an
example we may take the lines of cleavage which have
shown themselves in the two great churches, the Con
gregational and the Presbyterian, and the very distinct
fissure which is manifest in the transplanted Angli
can church of this country. Recent circumstances
have brought out the fact of the great change in the
dogmatic communities which has been going on
silently but surely. The licensing of a missionary,
the transfer of a Professor from one department to
another, the election of a Bishop, each of these
movements furnishes evidence that there is no such
thing as an air-tight reservoir of doctrinal finalities.


The folding-doors are wide open to every Protestant
to enter all the privileged precincts and private apart
ments of the various exclusive religious organizations.
We may demand the credentials of every creed and
catechise all the catechisms. So we may discuss the
gravest questions unblamed over our morning coffee-
cups or our evening tea-cups. There is no rest for
the Protestant until he gives up his legendary anthro
pology and all its dogmatic dependencies.

It is only incidentally, however, that the Professor
at the Breakfast-Table handles matters which are the
subjects of religious controversy. The reader who is
sensitive about having his fixed beliefs dealt with as if
they were open to question had better skip the pages
which look as if they would disturb his complacency.
"Faith" is the most precious of possessions, and it
dislikes being meddled with. It means, of course,
self -trust, that is, a belief in the value of our own
opinion of a doctrine, of a church, of a religion, of a
Being, a belief quite independent of any evidence that
we can bring to convince a jury of our fellow beings.
Its roots are thus inextricably entangled with those
of self-love and bleed as mandrakes were said to, when
pulled up as weeds. Some persons may even at this
late day take offence at a few opinions expressed in
the following pages, but most of these passages will
be read without loss of temper by those who disagree
with them, and by-and-by they may be found too
timid and conservative for intelligent readers, if they
are still read by any.

O. W. H.

BEVERLY FARMS, MASS., June 18, 1891.




Photograph by Warren Frontispiece






The above illustrations are by Alfred Kappes.




What he said, what he heard, and ivhat he saw.


I INTENDED to have signalized my first appearance
by a certain large statement, which I flatter myself is
the nearest approach to a universal formula of life
yet promulgated at this breakfast-table. It would
have had a grand effect. For this purpose I fixed my
eyes on a certain divinity-student, with the intention
of exchanging a few phrases, and then forcing my
court-card, namely, The great end of being. I will
thank you for the sugar, I said. Man is a de
pendent creature.

It is a small favor to ask, said the divinity- stu
dent, and passed the sugar to me.

Life is a great bundle of little things, I

The divinity-student smiled, as if that were the con
cluding epigram of the sugar question.

You smile, I said. Perhaps life seems to you a
little bundle of great things?

The divinity-student started a laugh, but suddenly
reined it back with a pull, as one throws a horse on


his haunches. Life is a great bundle of great things,
he said.

(Now, then /) The great end of being, after all,

Hold on ! said my neighbor, a young fellow whose
name seems to be John, and nothing else, for that
is what they all call him, hold on ! the Sculpin is
go'n' to say somethin'.

Now the Sculpin (Cottus Virginianus) is a little
water-beast which pretends to consider itself a fish,
and, under that pretext, hangs about the piles upon
which West-Boston Bridge is built, swallowing the
bait and hook intended for flounders. On being-
drawn from the water, it exposes an immense head,
a diminutive bony carcass, and a surface so full of
spines, ridges, ruffles, and frills, that the naturalists
have not been able to count them without quarrelling
about the number, and that the colored youth, whose
sport they spoil, do not like to touch them, and espe
cially to tread on them, unless they happen to have
shoes on, to cover the thick white soles of their broad
black feet.

When, therefore, I heard the young fellow's ex
clamation, I looked round the table with curiosity to
see what it meant. At the further end of it I saw a
head, and a small portion of a little deformed body,
mounted on a high chair, which brought the occupant
up to a fair level enough for him to get at his food.
His whole appearance was so grotesque, I felt for a
minute as if there was a showman behind him who
would pull him down presently and put up Judy, or
the hangman, or the Devil, or some other wooden per
sonage of the famous spectacle. I contrived to lose
the first of his sentence, but what I heard began so:


- by the Frog -Pond, when there were frogs in
it, and the folks used to come down from the tents on
'Lection and Independence days with their pails to
get water to make egg-pop with. Born in Boston;
went to school in Boston as long as the boys would let
me. The little man groaned, turned, as if to look
round, and went on. Ran away from school one day
to see Phillips hung for killing Denegri with a logger
head. That was in flip days, when there were always
two or three loggerheads in the fire. I 'm a Boston
boy, I tell you, born at North End, and mean to be
buried on Copp's Hill, with the good old underground
people, the Worthylakes, and the rest of 'em. Yes,
Sir, up on the old hill, where they buried Captain
Daniel Malcolm in a stone grave, ten feet deep, to
keep him safe from the red-coats, in those old times
when the world was frozen up tight and there was n't
but one spot open, and that was right over Faneuil
Hall, and black enough it looked, I tell you !
There 's where my bones shall lie, Sir, and rattle away
when the big guns go off at the Navy Yard opposite !
You can't make me ashamed of the old place ! Full
of crooked little streets ; I was born and used to run
round in one of 'em

I should think so, said that young man whom
I hear them call "John," softly, not meaning to
be heard, nor to be cruel, but thinking in a half-
whisper, evidently. I should think so ; and got
kinked up, turnin' so many corners. The little man
did not hear what was said, but went on,

- full of crooked little streets ; but I tell you
Boston has opened, and kept open, more turnpikes
that lead straight to free thought and free speech and
free deeds than any other city of live men or dead


men, I don't care how broad their streets are, nor
how high their steeples !

How high is Bosting meet'n'-house? said a
person with black whiskers and imperial, a velvet
waistcoat, a guard-chain rather too massive, and a
diamond pin so very large that the most trusting na
ture might confess an inward suggestion, of course,
nothing amounting to a suspicion. For this is a gen
tleman from a great city, and sits next to the land
lady's daughter, who evidently believes in him, and is
the object of his especial attention.

How high? said the little man. As high as the
first step of the stairs that lead to the New Jerusalem.
Is n't that high enough?

It is, I said. The great end of being is to har
monize man with the order of things, and the church
has been a good pitch-pipe, and may be so still. But
who shall tune the pitch-pipe? Quis cus (On the
whole, as this quotation was not entirely new, and,
being in a foreign language, might not be familiar to
all the boarders, I thought I would not finish it.)

Go to the Bible ! said a sharp voice from a
sharp-faced, sharp-eyed, sharp-elbowed, strenuous-
looking woman in a black dress, appearing as if it be
gan as a piece of mourning and perpetuated itself as
a bit of economy.

You speak well, Madam, I said ; yet there is
room for a gloss or commentary on what you say.
"He who would bring back the wealth of the Indies
must carry out the wealth of the Indies." What you
bring away from the Bible depends to some extent on
what you carry to it. Benjamin Franklin ! Be so
good as to step up to my chamber and bring me down
the small uncovered pamphlet of twenty pages which


you will find lying under the "Cruden's Concordance.''
[The boy took a large bite, which left a very perfect
crescent in the slice of bread-and-butter he held, and
departed on his errand, with the portable fraction of
his breakfast to sustain him on the way.]

Here it is. "Go to the Bible. A Dissertation,
etc., etc. By J. J. Flournoy. Athens, Georgia,

Mr. Flournoy, Madam, has obeyed the precept
which you have judiciously delivered. You may be
interested, Madam, to know what are the conclusions
at which Mr. J. J. Flournoy of Athens, Georgia, has
arrived. You shall hear, Madam. He has gone to
the Bible, and he has come back from the Bible,
bringing a remedy for existing social evils, which, if
it is the real specific, as it professes to be, is of great
interest to humanity, and to the female part of hu
manity in particular. It is what he calls trigamy,
Madam, or the marrying of three wives, so that
"good old men " may be solaced at once by the com
panionship of the wisdom of maturity, and of those
less perfected but hardly less engaging qualities which
are found at an earlier period of life. He has fol
lowed your precept, Madam; I hope you accept his

The female boarder in black attire looked so puz
zled, and, in fact, "all abroad," after the delivery of
this "counter" of mine, that I left her to recover her
wits, and went on with the conversation, which I was
beginning to get pretty well in hand.

But in the mean time I kept my eye on the female
boarder to see what effect I had produced. First,
she was a little stunned at having her argument
knocked over. Secondly, she was a little shocked at


the tremendous character of the triple matrimonial
suggestion. Thirdly. I don't like to say what
I thought. Something seemed to have pleased her
fancy. Whether it was, that, if trigamy should come
into fashion, there would be three times as many
chances to enjoy the luxury of saying, "No! " is more
than I can tell you. I may as well mention that B.
F. came to me after breakfast to borrow the pamphlet
for "a lady," one of the boarders, he said, look
ing as if he had a secret he wished to be relieved of.

I continued. If a human soul is necessarily
to be trained up in the faith of those from whom it
inherits its body, why, there is the end of all reason.
If, sooner or later, every soul is to look for truth with
its own eyes, the first thing is to recognize that no
presumption in favor of any particular belief arises
from the fact of our inheriting it. Otherwise you
would not give the Mahometan a fair chance to be
come a convert to a better religion.

The second thing would be to depolarize every fixed
religious idea in the mind by changing the word which
stands for it.

I don't know what you mean by "depolarizing"
an idea, said the divinity- student.

I will tell you, I said. When a given symbol
which represents a thought has lain for a certain
length of time in the mind, it undergoes a change like
that which rest in a certain position gives to iron. It
becomes magnetic in its relations, it is traversed by
strange forces which did not belong to it. The word,
and consequently the idea it represents, is polarized.

The religious currency of mankind, in thought, in
speech, and in print, consists entirely of polarized
words. Borrow one of these from another language


and religion, and you will find it leaves all its mag
netism behind it. Take that famous word, O'm, of
the Hindoo mythology. Even a priest cannot pro
nounce it without sin; and a holy Pundit would shut
his ears and run away from you in horror, if you
should say it aloud. What do you care for O'm? If
you wanted to get the Pundit to look at his religion
fairly, you must first depolarize this and all similar
words for him. The argument for and against new
translations of the Bible really turns on this. Skep
ticism is afraid to trust its truths in depolarized
words, and so cries out against a new translation. I
think, myself, if every idea our Book contains could
be shelled out of its old symbol and put into a new,
clean, unmagnetic word, we should have some chance
of reading it as philosophers, or wisdom-lovers, ought
to read it, which we do not and cannot now any
more than a Hindoo can read the "Gayatri " as a fair
man and lover of truth should do. When society has
once fairly dissolved the New Testament, which it
never has done yet, it will perhaps crystallize it over
again in new forms of language.

- I did n't know you was a settled minister over
this parish, - said the young fellow near me.

A sermon by a lay-preacher may be worth listening
to, I replied, calmly. It gives the parallax of
thought and feeling as they appear to the observers
from two very different points of view. If you wish
to get the distance of a heavenly body, you know that
you must take two observations from remote points of
the earth's orbit, in midsummer and midwinter, for
instance. To get the parallax of heavenly truths, you
must take an observation from the position of the laity
as well as of the clergy. Teachers and students of


theology get a certain look, certain conventional tones
of voice, a clerical gait, a professional neckcloth, and
habits of mind as professional as their externals.
They are scholarly men and read Bacon, and know
well enough what the "idols of the tribe" are. Of
course they have their false gods, as all men that fol
low one exclusive calling are prone to do. The
clergy have played the part of the fly-wheel in our
modern civilization. They have never suffered it to
stop. They have often carried on its movement, when
other moving powers failed, by the momentum stored
in their vast body. Sometimes, too, they have kept it
back by their vis inertice, when its wheels were like to
grind the bones of some old canonized error into fer
tilizers for the soil that yields the bread of life. But
the mainspring of the world's onward religious move
ment is not in them, nor in any one body of men, let
me tell you. It is the people that makes the clergy,
and not the clergy that makes the people. Of course,
the profession reacts on its source with variable energy.
But there never was a guild of dealers or a com
pany of craftsmen that did not need sharp looking

Our old friend, Dr. Holyoke, whom we gave the
dinner to some time since, must have known many
people that saw the great bonfire in Harvard College

Bonfire? shrieked the little man. The bon
fire when Robert Calef 's book was burned?

The same, I said, when Robert Calef the Bos
ton merchant's book was burned in the yard of Har
vard College, by order of Increase Mather, President
of the College and Minister of the Gospel. You
remember the old witchcraft revival of '92, and how


stout Master Robert Calef , trader of Boston, had the
pluck to tell the ministers and judges what a set of
fools and worse than fools they were

Remember it? said the little man. I don't
think I shall forget it, as long as I can stretch this
forefinger to point with, and see what it wears.
There was a ring on it.

May I look at it? I said.

Where it is, said the little man ; it will never
come off, till it falls off from the bone in the darkness
and in the dust.

He pushed the high chair on which* he sat slightly
back from the table, and dropped himself, standing,
to the floor, his head being only a little above the
level of the table, as he stood. With pain and labor,
lifting one foot over the other, as a drummer handles
his sticks, he took a few steps from his place, his
motions and the deadbeat of the misshapen boots
announcing to my practised eye and ear the malfor
mation which is called in learned language talipes
varus, or inverted club-foot.

Stop ! stop ! I said, let me come to you.

The little man hobbled back, and lifted himself by
the left arm, with an ease approaching to grace which
surprised me, into his high chair. I walked to his
side, and he stretched out the forefinger of his right
hand, with the ring upon it. The ring had been put
on long ago, and could not pass the misshapen joint.
Tt was one of those funeral rings which used to be
given to relatives and friends after the decease of
persons of any note or importance. Beneath a round

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