Law in Contemporary Society
Walt Whitman (1819–1892). Leaves of Grass. 1900. When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer

WHEN I heard the learn’d astronomer; When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me; When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them; When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick; Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

Judicial opinions are couched in the language of “logic,” and it may be for the same reason that the astronomer in this poem gains an understanding of the stars through the equations and the numbers: it flatters human longing for certainty and repose.

Whitman might agree with Holmes’ assertion that certainty is illusion and repose is not the destiny of man. The poem’s speaker ultimately seems to accept that the stars can never be fully understood, and knowledge of them is incomplete by definition, but that silence – no verbal explanation at all – is enough to adequately capture their beauty.

The weakness of law as a social force may be a beautiful thing, but words cannot capture the stars' beauty, and words cannot capture the law's beauty.

(SherieGertler, CourtneyDoak, HarryKhanna 28 Mar 2012)

Harry and Courtney,

Thank you for your thoughts on this. After letting it sit for a few weeks, another thought started rolling around in my head:

What is the motivation to take the sight of the stars and the universe and present it as a series of charts and diagrams? Perhaps (and it's only a working hypothesis) society does this in order to learn from the phenomenon - explain it, grasp it, and be able to coexist and learn from it. It arguably serves a scientific purpose, and thus a societal purpose, to understand the universal system we live in, and to thereby understand how and when conditions may change, and how we can continue to live without upsetting the system.

When Whitman walks out of the classroom to look at the stars and gaze at their beauty, he does it with the luxury of being a poet and not a scientist. Similarly, while we may appreciate the beauty of the law as a weakened social force, we do it as observers, members of society. But, as lawyers, it seems it has to be more than that. We have to understand its effects and inner workings, know when the force is at it's strongest and it's weakest, and ultimately figure out how to work alongside it, if not manipulate it. Eben mentioned that the lawyer-ing we do doesn't necessarily have to be about law, but at the same time, I don't think we're off the hook from mastering it.

Now, when I look back at this poem, it feels a little naive - like the easy way out, for me at least. I'd like to admire from afar and condemn parts of it at will, look for something more useful, but I think what needs to happen is a deep and comprehensive learning of the ugly parts, so I can use whatever I learn to make other beautiful things happen.

SherieGertler 20 Apr 2012

I like the comparison of law to astronomy. Similar to the stars in the sky, the law always seemed to me to be an overwhelmingly complex and powerful thing, separate from and floating above us--so much bigger than any one mind could ever hope to understand. Since starting into law school, and especially since coming into contact with Eben's thoughts on the relatively weak nature of the law, I've started thinking about it differently. Where the stars are very separate from our individual and collective volitions, and essentially subject only to observation, the law demands more than observation. If we are doing our work, we will get to build up some portion of the firmament for ourselves--or reframe it, subvert it, or destroy it.

RyanBingham 21 Apr 2012


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r6 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:05:45 - IanSullivan
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