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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Lost Idealism

My friend and MOJ co-blogger Michael Moreland has a post called "Law Students and Lost Idealism" that I wanted to share with Prawfs readers as well:

As the law school semester turns to its final lap and the anxiety of our students--especially 1Ls--begins to take on dire proportions, I take a page from my 1L contracts teacher, Philip Soper, and give my students this passage about lost idealism from Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river's face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody's steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling 'boils' show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the 'break' from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty's cheek mean to a doctor but a 'break' that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn't he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn't he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade?

Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883), Chapter IX

Posted by Rick Garnett on November 2, 2011 at 03:02 PM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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My 1L Civ Pro professor closed our last class by summarizing this same segment of Twain's reflections. It was a wonderful analogy of navigating the ever-changing boundaries of the law like the shoals of the river. He ended by saying "so as you learn to recognize the dangerous shadows that lurk just below the surface, I hope you still manage to appreciate the beauty of the moonlight on the water."

After a semester of joinder, pleadings, personal jurisdiction, and subject matter jurisdiction, it summoned those idealistic, romantic feelings that had driven us to law school (and had somewhat been driven out of us throughout the semester).

Posted by: 2L | Nov 2, 2011 3:33:04 PM

I wonder if this lack of perspective is a result of the hard work, or of some students without a whole ton of non-academic life experience. For those that choose to work for large firms at long, often tedious hours, the law school days will probably seem intellectually exciting in comparison. Of course, you don't get paid like you do at large, important firms for just studying the law.

Posted by: Beckley Mason | Nov 2, 2011 4:26:41 PM

Years ago, my ConLaw professor closed the class with the great passage from Robert Bolt's Man for All Seasons (also cited in TVA v. Hill)....loved it!

"The law, Roper, the law. I know what's legal, not what's right. And I'll stick to what's legal. . . . I'm not God. The currents and eddies of right and wrong, which you find such plain-sailing, I can't navigate, I'm no voyager. But in the thickets of the law, oh there I'm a forester. . . . What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? . . . And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? . . . This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast—Man's laws, not God's—and if you cut them down . . . d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow them? . . . Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake." R. Bolt, A Man for All Seasons, Act I, p. 147 (Three Plays, Heinemann ed. 1967).

Posted by: b | Nov 2, 2011 4:56:05 PM

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