Mr. Justice Pangloss

The Anatomy of Liberty: The Rights of Man without Force

by William O. Douglas
Trident Press, 194 pp., $3.95

Freedom of the Mind

by William O. Douglas
Doubleday, 44 pp., $2.50

Mr. Justice Douglas has never suffered from what Mr. Justice Frankfurter once called “judicial lockjaw.” Since 1950, Douglas has written twenty books and dozens of articles. Whether we see this list as confirming or as refuting the widespread belief that Supreme Court Justices do not have enough time to think, it is clear that Douglas rejects the austerity and detachment traditionally imposed upon a judge. Indeed, he has come to think of himself as no mere judge, but a moralist, a political visionary, a universal philosopher. The results are appalling.

These two latest books are worth noticing only because they were written by a Supreme Court Justice and because they tell us something about current thought in the law. Douglas sees them as setting forth the general ideas behind politics and world affairs, or something of the sort: one cannot say for certain. The style wavers from junior high school civics text (“The executive power is vested in the President who has a term of four years”) to commencement address (“The American political creed has as its main ingredient the sovereignty of goodwill”), from travelogue (“This I saw with my own eyes as I roamed Macedonia”) to Deep Thoughts (“A goodly part of life is the arousal of sexual desires”). Passage after passage sounds like H. G. Wells gone mad: “We Aryans seem to have a special capacity for aggression. When we moved down into the subcontinent of India (about 2000 B.C.) we destroyed the great civilization of Mohenjenaro…. We also produced Hitler. After him came Trujillo.” Banality can be found at some places in most writers, but it dominates these shrill and humorless books. One soon braces oneself for sentences like “Ideas are more dangerous than armies,” or “Ideas have immortality” (not all of them, thank God) or “Outer space is a specialty of vast proportions.”

These banalities are not accidental; they are part of Douglas’s relentless effort to simplify our understanding of the world. In pursuit of this doubtful end, he reduces the most complex political and legal difficulties to a few abstract moral principles, and the sharpest antagonisms to a flabby and homogeneous togetherness. Politics, in particular, disappears in the larger truth of neighborliness. “It is easy to find disagreeable qualities in one’s neighbor—let alone in the Russian and the Chinese…. We and the Russians (not to mention the Chinese) …. are in the same fragile boat and desperately interdependent.”

Some recent conservative writers have constructed what amounts to a caricature of the simple-minded liberal, a portrait so overdrawn that one can scarcely take it seriously. Douglas, however, provides an actual example of a searcher for what Michael Oakeshott has called a “short cut to heaven”; he maintains today the kind of shallow and undiscriminating radicalism attributed perhaps unfairly, to Populism. (“Banish the mysticism of inequality,” Douglas quotes approvingly, “and you banish almost all the evils attendant on human nature.”) Whereas genuine Utopian thought can reveal unprecedented aspects of a new situation, new possibilities …

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Letters

Letters December 3, 1964

Letters December 3, 1964