This essay investigates the relationship between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the context of the common law. Holmes’s Emersonian writings, in particular his dissents, fall within the theoretical framework of agonism, which Harold Bloom refers to as a revisionary and Emersonian “program.” Agonism as a political and aesthetic theory maintains that sites of contestation can be productive rather than destructive; it suggests that confrontational relationships can be at once mutually offsetting and generative. Drawing from the Greek word for an athletic competition, agonism applied to rhetoric underscores the importance of mutuality to conflict: writers struggling against other writers understand and admire, yet seek creatively to outdo and overcome, their competition. The common-law system substantiates this theory insofar as every case answers an anterior case and creates a succession of precedents marked by strong judges and justices struggling against their predecessors. I submit that Emerson and Holmes were both pragmatic champions of descendent agonism, the former in the American literary tradition and the latter in the American common-law tradition that is distinct from its British precursor.
- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.,
- Common Law,
- Ralph Waldo Emerson,
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