Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Learned Hand, fully Billings Learned Hand

American Judge and Judicial Philosopher

"Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it... While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it."

"How often the deepest convictions of one generation are the rejects of the next."

"In the end it is worse to suppress dissent than to run the risk of heresy. "

"Right knows no boundaries, and justice no frontiers; the brotherhood of man is not a domestic institution. "

"Words are chameleons, which reflect the color of their environment."

"You cannot raise the standard against oppression, or leap into the breach to relieve injustice, and still keep an open mind to every disconcerting fact, or an open ear to the cold voice of doubt. "

"Life is made up of constant calls to action, and we seldom have time for more than hastily contrived answers. "

"Our dangers, as it seems to me, are not from the outrageous but from the conforming; not from those who rarely and under the lurid glare of obloquy upset our moral complaisance, or shock us with unaccustomed conduct, but from those, the mass of us, who take their virtues and their tastes, like their shirts and their furniture, from the limited patterns which the market offers."

"Life is made up of a series of judgments on insufficient data, and if we waited to run down all our doubts, it would flow past us. "

"Heretics have been hated from the beginning of recorded time; they have been ostracized, exiled, tortured, maimed, and butchered; but it has generally proved impossible to smother them; and when it has not, the society that has succeeded has always declined."

"There is no surer way to misread any document than to read it literally. ... As nearly as we can, we must put ourselves in the place of those who uttered the words, and try to divine how they would have dealt with the unforeseen situation; and, although their words are by far the most decisive evidence of what they would have done, they are by no means final."

"If the prosecution of crime is to be conducted with so little regard for that protection which centuries of English law have given to the individual, we are indeed at the dawn of a new era; and much that we have deemed vital to our liberties, is a delusion."

"Right knows no boundaries and justice no frontiers; the brotherhood of man is not a domestic institution."

"If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice."

"Political agitation, by the passions it arouses or the convictions it engenders, may in fact stimulate men to the violation of the law. Detestation of existing policies is easily transformed into forcible resistance of the authority which puts them in execution, and it would be folly to disregard the causal relation between the two. Yet to assimilate agitation, legitimate as such, with direct incitement to violent resistance, is to disregard the tolerance of all methods of political agitation which in normal times is a safeguard of free government."

"Life is not a thing of knowing only — nay, mere knowledge has properly no place at all save as it becomes the handmaiden of feeling and emotion."

"I had rather take my chance that some traitors will escape detection than spread abroad a spirit of general suspicion and distrust, which accepts rumor and gossip in place of undismayed and unintimidated inquiry."

"We may win when we lose, if we have done what we can; for by so doing we have made real at least some part of that finished product in whose fabrication we are most concerned: ourselves."

"The mutual confidence on which all else depends can be maintained only by an open mind and a brave reliance upon free discussion."

"The hand that rules the press, the radio, the screen and the far-spread magazine, rules the country whether we like it or not, we must learn to accept it."

"A self-made man may prefer a self-made name."

"Anyone may arrange his affairs so that his taxes shall be as low as possible; he is not bound to choose that pattern which best pays the treasury. There is not even a patriotic duty to increase one's taxes. Over and over again the Courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everyone does it, rich and poor alike and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands."

"A wise man once said, "Convention is like the shell to the chick, a protection till he is strong enough to break it through.""

"But he knew it was a judge's duty to decide, not to debate, and the loser who asked him to reopen a decision once made found a cold welcome."

"And so when I hear so much impatient and irritable complaint, so much readiness to replace what we have by guardians for us all, those supermen, evoked somewhere from the clouds, whom none have seen and none are ready to name, I lapse into a dream, as it were. I see children playing on the grass; their voices are shrill and discordant as children's are; they are restive and quarrelsome; they cannot agree to any common plan; their play annoys them; it goes poorly. And one says, let us make Jack the master; Jack knows all about it; Jack will tell us what each is to do and we shall all agree. But Jack is like all the rest; Helen is discontented with her part and Henry with his, and soon they fall again into their old state. No, the children must learn to play by themselves; there is no Jack the master. And in the end slowly and with infinite disappointment they do learn a little; they learn to forbear, to reckon with anther, accept a little where they wanted much, to live and let live, to yield when they must yield; perhaps, we may hope, not to take all they can. But the condition is that they shall be willing at least to listen to one another, to get the habit of pooling their wishes. Somehow or other they must do this, if the play is to go on; maybe it will not, but there is no Jack, in or out of the box, who can come to straighten the game."

"Common law stands as a monument slowly raised, like a coral reef, from the minute accretions of past individuals, of whom each built upon the relics which his predecessors left, and in his turn left a foundation upon which his successors might work"

"For, when all is said, as my friend George Rublee likes to put it, the only success is to be a success as a person; and it is still not too late for that."

"For myself it would be most irksome to be ruled by a bevy of Platonic Guardians, even if I knew how to choose them, which I assuredly do not."

"How long shall we blunder along without the aid of unpartisan and authoritative scientific assistance in the administration of justice, no one knows; but all fair persons not conventionalized by provincial legal habits of mind ought, I should think, unite to effect some change."

"Here I am an old man in a long nightgown making muffled noises at people who may be no worse than I am."

"I shall ask no more than that you agree with Dean Inge that even though counting heads is not an ideal way to govern, at least it is better than breaking them."

"I submit to you that we must press along. Borrowing from Epictetus, let us say to ourselves: "Since we are men, we will play the part of Man.""

"I often wonder whether we do not rest our hopes too much upon constitutions, upon laws and upon courts. These are false hopes; believe me, these are false hopes. Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. And what is this liberty which must lie in the hearts of men and women? It is not the ruthless, the unbridled will; it is not freedom to do as one likes. That is the denial of liberty, and leads straight to its overthrow. A society in which men recognize no check upon their freedom soon becomes a society where freedom is the possession of only a savage few; as we have learned to our sorrow."

"I remember he loved the patent cases, ... He used to get the invention involved in the case, take it apart and put it together again. He enjoyed seeing how the apparatus worked. . . . He also enjoyed the admiralty cases. He loved to get models of ships and recreate the circumstances of a collision."

"It is still in the lap of the gods whether a society can succeed which is based on "civil liberties and human rights" conceived as I have tried to describe them; but of one thing at least we may be sure: the alternatives that have so far appeared have been immeasurably worse."

"It is of course true that any kind of judicial legislation is objectionable on the score of the limited interests which a Court can represent, yet there are wrongs which in fact legislatures cannot be brought to take an interest in, at least not until the Courts have acted."

"It is enough that we set out to mold the motley stuff of life into some form of our own choosing; when we do, the performance is itself the wage."

"It lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it. While it lies there, it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it."

"It is often hard to secure unanimity about the borders of legislative power, but that is much easier than to decide how far a particular adjustment diverges from what the judges deem tolerable. On such issues experience has over and over again shown the difficulty of securing unanimity. This is disastrous because disunity cancels the impact of monolithic solidarity on which the authority of a bench of judges so largely depends."

"Justice, I think, is the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society, and I don't believe there is any royal road to attain such accommodations concretely."

"Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which seeks to understand the minds of other men and women; the spirit of liberty is the spirit which weighs their interests alongside its own without bias; the spirit of liberty remembers that not even a sparrow falls to earth unheeded; the spirit of liberty is the spirit of Him who, near two thousand years ago, taught mankind that lesson it has never learned, but has never quite forgotten; that there may be a kingdom where the least shall be heard and considered side by side with the greatest."

"My vote is one of the most unimportant acts of my life; if I were to acquaint myself with the matters on which it ought really to depend, if I were to try to get a judgment on which I was willing to risk affairs of even the smallest moment, I should be doing nothing else, and that seems a fatuous conclusion to a fatuous undertaking."

"Like John Stuart Mill, he would often begin by stating the other side better than its advocate had stated it himself."

"No doubt one may quote history to support any cause, as the devil quotes scripture; but modern history is not a very satisfactory side-arm in political polemics; it grows less and less so."

"Over and over again courts have said that there is nothing sinister in so arranging one's affairs as to keep taxes as low as possible. Everybody does so, rich or poor; and all do right, for nobody owes any public duty to pay more than the law demands: taxes are enforced exactions, not voluntary contributions. To demand more in the name of morals is mere cant."

"Proceed. You have my biased attention."

"Often the convictions of one generation are the rejects of the next. That does not deny the possibility that, as time goes on, we shall accumulate some body of valid conclusions. But it does mean that we can achieve only by accumulation that wisdom is to be gained only as we stand upon the shoulders of those who have gone before. Just as in science, we cannot advance except as we take over what we inherit, and in statecraft no generation can safely start at scratch, so personal, basic beliefs must be slowly built from our experience, but also from a study of the experience and conclusions of others."

"That community is already in the process of dissolution where each man begins to eye his neighbor as a possible enemy, where nonconformity with the accepted creed, political as well as religious, is a mark of disaffection; where denunciation, without specification or backing, takes the place of evidence; where orthodoxy chokes freedom of dissent; where faith in the eventual supremacy of reason has become so timid that we dare not enter our convictions in the open lists, to win or lose."

"The apathy of the modern voter is the confusion of the modern reformer."

"The aim of law is the maximum gratification of the nervous system of man."