Oliver Wendell Holmes quotes

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Oliver Wendell Holmes

Birthdate: 29. August 1809
Date of death: 7. October 1894

Oliver Wendell Holmes was an American physician, poet, and polymath based in Boston. A member of the Fireside Poets, he was acclaimed by his peers as one of the best writers of the day. His most famous prose works are the "Breakfast-Table" series, which began with The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table . He was also an important medical reformer. In addition to his work as an author and poet, Holmes also served as a physician, professor, lecturer and inventor and, although he never practiced it, he received formal training in law.

Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Holmes was educated at Phillips Academy and Harvard College. After graduating from Harvard in 1829, he briefly studied law before turning to the medical profession. He began writing poetry at an early age; one of his most famous works, "Old Ironsides", was published in 1830 and was influential in the eventual preservation of the USS Constitution. Following training at the prestigious medical schools of Paris, Holmes was granted his Doctor of Medicine degree from Harvard Medical School in 1836. He taught at Dartmouth Medical School before returning to teach at Harvard and, for a time, served as dean there. During his long professorship, he became an advocate for various medical reforms and notably posited the controversial idea that doctors were capable of carrying puerperal fever from patient to patient. Holmes retired from Harvard in 1882 and continued writing poetry, novels and essays until his death in 1894.

Surrounded by Boston's literary elite—which included friends such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and James Russell Lowell—Holmes made an indelible imprint on the literary world of the 19th century. Many of his works were published in The Atlantic Monthly, a magazine that he named. For his literary achievements and other accomplishments, he was awarded numerous honorary degrees from universities around the world. Holmes's writing often commemorated his native Boston area, and much of it was meant to be humorous or conversational. Some of his medical writings, notably his 1843 essay regarding the contagiousness of puerperal fever, were considered innovative for their time. He was often called upon to issue occasional poetry, or poems written specifically for an event, including many occasions at Harvard. Holmes also popularized several terms, including Boston Brahmin and anesthesia. He was the father of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. of the Supreme Court of the United States. Wikipedia

Works

Elsie Venner
Elsie Venner
Oliver Wendell Holmes

„One flag, one land, one heart, one hand,
One Nation evermore!“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

Voyage of the good Ship Union; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919).

„Treat bad men exactly as if they were insane.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes, book Elsie Venner

Elsie Venner (1859)
Context: I do not know in what shape the practical question may present itself to you; but I will tell you my rule in life, and I think you will find it a good one. Treat bad men exactly as if they were insane. They are in-sane, out of health, morally. Reason, which is food to sound minds, is not tolerated, still less assimilated, unless administered with the greatest caution; perhaps, not at all. Avoid collision with them, so far as you honorably can; keep your temper, if you can,—for one angry man is as good as another; restrain them from violence, promptly, completely, and with the least possible injury, just as in the case of maniacs,—and when you have got rid of them, or got them tied hand and foot so that they can do no mischief, sit down and contemplate them charitably...

„A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

Source: The Professor at the Breakfast Table (1859), Ch. X.
Context: Poets are never young, in one sense. Their delicate ear hears the far-off whispers of eternity, which coarser souls must travel towards for scores of years before their dull sense is touched by them. A moment's insight is sometimes worth a life's experience.

„A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new and express train of associations.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858)
Context: He must be a poor creature that does not often repeat himself. Imagine the author of the excellent piece of advice, "Know thyself," never alluding to that sentiment again during the course of a protracted existence! Why, the truths a man carries about with him are his tools; and do you think a carpenter is bound to use the same plane but once to smooth a knotty board with, or to hang up his hammer after it has driven its first nail? I shall never repeat a conversation, but an idea often. I shall use the same types when I like, but not commonly the same stereotypes. A thought is often original, though you have uttered it a hundred times. It has come to you over a new route, by a new and express train of associations.

„We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Poet at the Breakfast Table (1872)
Context: We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribe; the record may seem superficial, but it is indelible. You cannot educate a man wholly out of the superstitious fears which were early implanted in his imagination; no matter how utterly his reason may reject them, he will still feel as the famous woman did about ghosts, Je n'y crois pas, mais je les crains,—"I don't believe in them, but I am afraid of them, nevertheless".

„Death only grasps; to live is to pursue, —
Dream on! there 's nothing but illusion true!“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

"The Old Player" (1861), in Songs in Many Keys (1862).
Context: Dream on! Though Heaven may woo our open eyes,
Through their closed lids we look on fairer skies;
Truth is for other worlds, and hope for this;
The cheating future lends the present's bliss;
Life is a running shade, with fettered hands,
That chases phantoms over shifting sands;
Death a still spectre on a marble seat,
With ever clutching palms and shackled feet;
The airy shapes that mock life's slender chain,
The flying joys he strives to clasp in vain,
Death only grasps; to live is to pursue, —
Dream on! there 's nothing but illusion true!

„It will take you a hundred or two more years to get decently humanized, after so many centuries of de-humanizing celibacy.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes, book Elsie Venner

Elsie Venner (1859)
Context: You inherit your notions from a set of priests that had no wives and no children, or none to speak of, and so let their humanity die out of them. It didn't seem much to them to condemn a few thousand millions of people to purgatory or worse for a mistake of judgment. They didn't know what it was to have a child look up in their faces and say 'Father!' It will take you a hundred or two more years to get decently humanized, after so many centuries of de-humanizing celibacy.

„You inherit your notions from a set of priests that had no wives and no children, or none to speak of, and so let their humanity die out of them.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes, book Elsie Venner

Elsie Venner (1859)
Context: You inherit your notions from a set of priests that had no wives and no children, or none to speak of, and so let their humanity die out of them. It didn't seem much to them to condemn a few thousand millions of people to purgatory or worse for a mistake of judgment. They didn't know what it was to have a child look up in their faces and say 'Father!' It will take you a hundred or two more years to get decently humanized, after so many centuries of de-humanizing celibacy.

„You can never be too cautious in your prognosis, in the view of the great uncertainty of the course of any disease not long watched, and the many unexpected turns it may take.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

Valedictory Address to medical graduates at Harvard University (10 March 1858), published in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal Vol. LVIII, No. 8 (25 March 1858), p. 158; this has also been paraphrased "Beware how you take away hope from another human being".
Context: You can never be too cautious in your prognosis, in the view of the great uncertainty of the course of any disease not long watched, and the many unexpected turns it may take.
I think I am not the first to utter the following caution : —
Beware how you take away hope from any human being. Nothing is clearer than that the merciful Creator intends to blind most people as they pass down into the dark valley. Without very good reasons, temporal or spiritual, we should not interfere with his kind arrangements. It is the height of cruelty and the extreme of impertinence to tell your patient he must die, except you are sure that he wishes to know it, or that there is some particular cause for his knowing it. I should be especially unwilling to tell a child that it could not recover; if the theologians think it necessary, let them take the responsibility. God leads it by the hand to the edge of the precipice in happy unconsciousness, and I would not open its eyes to what he wisely conceals.

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„I should be especially unwilling to tell a child that it could not recover; if the theologians think it necessary, let them take the responsibility. God leads it by the hand to the edge of the precipice in happy unconsciousness, and I would not open its eyes to what he wisely conceals.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

Valedictory Address to medical graduates at Harvard University (10 March 1858), published in The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal Vol. LVIII, No. 8 (25 March 1858), p. 158; this has also been paraphrased "Beware how you take away hope from another human being".
Context: You can never be too cautious in your prognosis, in the view of the great uncertainty of the course of any disease not long watched, and the many unexpected turns it may take.
I think I am not the first to utter the following caution : —
Beware how you take away hope from any human being. Nothing is clearer than that the merciful Creator intends to blind most people as they pass down into the dark valley. Without very good reasons, temporal or spiritual, we should not interfere with his kind arrangements. It is the height of cruelty and the extreme of impertinence to tell your patient he must die, except you are sure that he wishes to know it, or that there is some particular cause for his knowing it. I should be especially unwilling to tell a child that it could not recover; if the theologians think it necessary, let them take the responsibility. God leads it by the hand to the edge of the precipice in happy unconsciousness, and I would not open its eyes to what he wisely conceals.

„Though fortune scowl, though prudence interfere,
One thing is certain: Love will triumph here!“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858)
Context: Though fortune scowl, though prudence interfere,
One thing is certain: Love will triumph here!
Lords of creation, whom your ladies rule,—
The world's great masters, when you 're out of school,—
Learn the brief moral of our evening's play
Man has his will,—but woman has her way!

„Man has his will,—but woman has her way!“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858)
Context: Though fortune scowl, though prudence interfere,
One thing is certain: Love will triumph here!
Lords of creation, whom your ladies rule,—
The world's great masters, when you 're out of school,—
Learn the brief moral of our evening's play
Man has his will,—but woman has her way!

„The god looked out upon the troubled deep
Waked into tumult from its placid sleep“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

"Translation From The Æneid, Book I" written while at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts (c. 1824).
Context: The god looked out upon the troubled deep
Waked into tumult from its placid sleep;
The flame of anger kindles in his eye
As the wild waves ascend the lowering sky;
He lifts his head above their awful height
And to the distant fleet directs his sight.

„If a man has a genuine, sincere, hearty wish to get rid of his liberty, if he is really bent upon becoming a slave, nothing can stop him.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes, book Elsie Venner

Elsie Venner (1859)
Context: If a man has a genuine, sincere, hearty wish to get rid of his liberty, if he is really bent upon becoming a slave, nothing can stop him. And the temptation is to some natures a very great one. Liberty is often a heavy burden on a man. It involves that necessity for perpetual choice which is the kind of labor men have always dreaded. In common life we shirk it by forming habits, which take the place of self-determination. In politics party-organization saves us the pains of much thinking before deciding how to cast our vote.

„Call him not old whose visionary brain
Holds o’er the post its undivided reign“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

"The Old Player" (1861), in Songs in Many Keys (1862).
Context: Call him not old whose visionary brain
Holds o’er the post its undivided reign,
For him in vain the envious seasons roll,
Who bears eternal summer in this soul.

„Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way, — and the fools know it.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858)
Context: Do you think I don't understand what my friend, the Professor, long ago called the hydrostatic paradox of controversy?
Don't know what it means? - Well, I will tell you. You know, that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way, — and the fools know it.

„Be polite and generous, but don't undervalue yourself.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes, book Elsie Venner

Elsie Venner (1859)
Context: Be polite and generous, but don't undervalue yourself. You will be useful, at any rate; you may just as well be happy, while you are about it.

„Lord of all being, thronèd afar,
Thy glory flames from sun and star;
Center and soul of every sphere,
Yet to each loving heart how near!“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

"Lord Of All Being" (1848).
Context: Lord of all being, thronèd afar,
Thy glory flames from sun and star;
Center and soul of every sphere,
Yet to each loving heart how near!
Sun of our life, Thy quickening ray,
Sheds on our path the glow of day;
Star of our hope, Thy softened light
Cheers the long watches of the night.

„Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked.“

—  Oliver Wendell Holmes

The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table (1858)
Context: Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Good mental machinery ought to break its own wheels and levers, if anything is thrust among them suddenly which tends to stop them or reverse their motion. A weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself; stupidity often saves a man from going mad.

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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