I’ve been listening to an oral history of the U.S. Supreme Court. One section deals with Justices Oliver Wendell Holmes and Louis Brandeis, two of the most distinguished justices in the Court’s history. Holmes was known as “The Great Dissenter”.
It seems that during the early decades of the twentieth century, Holmes and Brandeis were voices crying in the wilderness. Often they dissented together from the Court’s majority opinions.
Yet their perceptive views eventually became the law of the land, particularly in such matters as free speech. The later Court considerably altered its positions.
In 1882, Henrik Ibsen wrote a play called An Enemy of the People. The play’s protagonist, Dr. Stockmann, argues that truths are accepted only by the few. Once they are accepted by most people in a society, they are no longer true.
This position is not quite accurate. I would hold that truths remain as such. Yet their relevance fades. Those who advance emerging truths meet with considerable resistance while the majority recognizes only long-established ones.
Near the end of his life, Beethoven composed his Grosse Fugue for string quartet. This piece, with its finely-wrought dissonances, seems more the work of a Stravinsky or Bartok than a composer of classical period. Yet Beethoven wisely said, “This work is not for now. It is for the future.”
Beethoven’s words indicate that there would be a future in which his work would be grasped. The many people who cling to threadbare platitudes are able to be educated, and it is the duty of the vanguard to educate them.
As a civilization, we need to regain our forward momentum.