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Justice Learned Hand

March 26, 2014

These comments are from ‘Sources of Tolerance’, delivered before the Juristic Society of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, June 1930, and reprinted from the University of Pennsylvania Law Review (November 1930, vol. LXXIX, pp. 1-14) in the collection The Spirit of Liberty (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952).

“[W]hat nature has not done for us, perhaps time can. I conceive that there is nothing which gives a man more pause before taking as absolute what his feelings welcome, and his mind deems plausible, than even the flicker of a recollection that something of the sort has been tried before, felt before, disputed before, and for some reason or other has not quite gone into Limbo. Historians may be dogmatists, I know, though not so often now as when history was dogma. At least you will perhaps agree that even a smattering of history and especially of letters will go far to dull the edges of uncompromising conviction…. Besides, it is not so much history one learns as the fact that one is aware that man has had a history at all. The liberation is not in the information but in the background acquired, the sense of mutability, and of the transience of what seems so poignant and so pressing today….

In short, I argue that the political life of a country like ours would get depth and steadiness, would tend to escape its greatest danger, which is the disposition to take the immediate for the eternal, to press the advantage of present numbers to the full, to ignore dissenters and regard them as heretics, by some adumbration of what men have thought and felt in other times and at other places….

[T]oday in America vast concourses of youth are flocking to our colleges, eager for something, just what they do not know. It makes much difference what they get. They will be prone to demand something they can immediately use; the tendency is strong to give it them; science, economics, business administration, law in its narrower sense. I submit that the shepherds should not first feed the flocks with these. I argue for the outlines of what used to go as a liberal education – not necessarily in the sense that young folks should waster precious years in efforts, unsuccessful for some reason I cannot understand, to master ancient tongues; but I speak for an introduction into the thoughts and deeds of men who have lived before them, in other countries that their own, with other strifes and other needs. This I maintain, not in the interest of that general cultural background, which is so often a cloak for the superior person, the prig, the snob and the pedant. But I submit to you that in some such way alone can we meet and master the high-power salesman of political patent medicines. I come to you, not as an advocate of education for education’s sake, but as one, who like you, I suppose, is troubled by the spirit of faction, by the catch-words with the explosive energy of faith behind them, by the unwillingness to live and let live with which we are plagued. It is well enough to put one’s faith in education, but the kind makes a vast difference….

We shall not succeed by any attempt to put the old wine in new bottles; liberty is an essence so volatile that it will escape any vial however corked. It rests in the hearts of men, in the belief that knowledge is hard to get, that man must break through again and again the thin crust on which he walks, that the certainties of today may become the superstitions of tomorrow; that we have no warrant of assurance save by everlasting readiness to test and test again.”


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