Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

American Supreme Court Justice, Attorney and Author

"Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and, if believed, it is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it, or some failure of energy stifles the movements at its birth."

"Life is a romantic business. It is painting a picture, not doing a sum."

"Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it."

"All life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge."

"A weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself; stupidity often saves a man from going mad."

"A man is usually more careful of his money than of his principles."

"When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas - that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out."

"Certainty generally is illusion and repose is not the destiny of man."

"Life is action and passion; therefore, it is required of a man that he should share the passion and action of the time, at period of being judged not to have lived."

"Historic continuity with the past is not a duty, it is only a necessity."

"Our system of morality is a body of imperfect social generalizations expressed in terms of emotion."

"To have doubted one's own first principles is the mark of a civilized man."

"I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country."

"The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."

"What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us."

"Everywhere the basis of principle is tradition."

"Every society rests on the death of man."

"I know of no teachers so powerful and persuasive as the little army of specialists. They carry no banners, they beat no drums; but where they are men learn that bustle and push are not the equals of quiet genius and serene mastery."

"If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought - not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

"Most people reason dramatically, not quantitatively."

"Life seems to me like a Japanese picture which our imagination does not allow to end with the margin. We aim at the infinite and when our arrow falls to earth it is in flames."

"One can bear grief, but it takes two to be glad."

"The joy of life is to put out one's power in some natural and useful or harmless way. There is no other. And the real misery is not to do this."

"Systems die; instincts remain."

"Thus only can you gain the secret isolated joy of the thinker, who knows that, a hundred years after his is dead and forgotten, men who never heard of him will be moving to the measure of his thought - the subtle 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."

"The world is always ready to receive talent with open arms. Very often it does not know what to do with genius. Talent is a docile creature. It bows its head meekly while the world slips the collar over it."

"To think great thought you must be heroes as well as idealists."

"The difference between gossip and philosophy lies only in one's way of taking a fact."

"With effervescing opinions, as with the not yet forgotten champagne, the quickest way to let them go flat is to let them get exposed to the air."

"Greatness is not in where we stand, but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it -- but sail we must and not drift, nor lie at anchor."

"You must see the infinite, i.e., the universal, in your particular, or it is only gossip."

"All life is an experiment."

"I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving: To reach the port of heaven, we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it – but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor."

"Most of the things we do, we do for no better reason than that our fathers have done them or our neighbors do them, and the same is true of a larger part than what we suspect of what we think."

"It is the province of knowledge to speak and it is the privilege of wisdom to listen."

"It is well that the stately synagogue should lift its walls by the side of the aspiring cathedral, a perpetual reminder that there as many mansions of the Father’s earthly house as well as in the heavenly one; that civilized humanity… is mightier than any one institution."

"Whatever disagreement there may be as to the scope of the phrase "due process of law" there can be no doubt that it embraces the fundamental conception of a fair trial, with opportunity to be heard."

"The great act of faith is when a man decides he is not God."

"Man is born to act. To act is to affirm the worth of an end, and to affirm the worth of an end, is to create an ideal."

"The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done."

"The measure of power is obstacles overcome."

"Man's mind stretched to a new idea never goes back to its original dimensions."

"The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater, and causing a panic… The question in every case is whether the words used are in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent."

"To be seventy years young is sometimes far more cheerful and hopeful than to be forty years old."

"The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas [and] the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."

"Wisdom is the abstract of the past, but beauty is the promise of the future."

"A man's mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions.""

"Every calling is great when greatly pursued."

"Don't flatter yourself that friendship authorizes you to say disagreeable things to your intimates. The nearer you come in relation with a person, the more necessary tact and courtesy become."

"You commit a sin of omission if you do not utilize all the power that is within you. All people have claims on man, and to the person with special talents, this is a very special claim. It is required that a person take part in the actions and clashes of their time than the peril of being judged not to have lived at all."