In 1930, Judge Learned Hand, widely regarded as one of the most distinguished judges in our nation's history, spoke to the Juristic Society at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. In his address, "Sources of Tolerance," he told his listeners
"I venture to believe that it is as important to a judge called upon to pass on a question of constitutional law, to have at least a bowing acquaintance with Acton and Maitland, with Thucydides, Gibbon, and Carlyle, with Homer, Dante, Shakespeare and Milton, with Machiavelli, Montaigne and Rabelais, with Plato, Bacon, Hume and Kant, as with the books which have been specifically written on the subject."
Hand's remarks assume three points that form the central focus of this essay. The first is that the study of law is either part of or is strongly connected to the humanities. The second is that the lawyer or legal scholar called upon to discuss and analyze legal questions cannot do so by looking merely within the confines of traditional legal materials: cases, statutes, and "books which have been specifically written on the subject" of law. Instead, he or she needs assistance and edification from other sources. The third is that those external sources of knowledge are to be found not in the natural sciences or the social sciences, but in subjects that we customarily call "the humanities."
Hand is not merely assuming these things. He also presents himself to us as a wise jurist who has been influenced by the "great books" he has selected for our attention. Because he is himself familiar with each of the writers he mentions, he enjoys membership in a "republic of letters," the sort of membership that is necessary for anyone who wishes to "live greatly in the law." There was nothing particularly unusual about these assumptions in the early twentieth century, particularly coming from an elite member of the legal profession like Hand. Moreover, membership in the American republics of law and letters had run both ways. Robert Ferguson's important book, Law and Letters in American Culture, discusses the many late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century American writers who had been trained as lawyers (and in many instances, had actually practiced law), including Charles Brockden Brown, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Washington Irving, William Bryant, and James Fenimore Cooper. One might also think of Hand's contemporary, the Harvard Law School-educated poet Archibald McLeish, or, closer to our own time, writers ranging from Louis Auchincloss to Scott Turow and John Grisham.
Jack M. Balkin & Sanford Levinson,
Law and the Humanities: An Uneasy Relationship,
Yale J.L. & Human.
Available at: https://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol18/iss2/1