55 Wise Oliver Wendell Holmes Quotes

As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure for more info.

Oliver Wendell Holmes was a US philosopher, legal historian, and American Supreme Court jurist, who was born in 1841 in Boston and died in 1935 in Washington DC. Oliver Holmes, Jr. was the son of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. who was a great writer and physician. Olivier Holmes joined a private school and later joined Havard University where he studied law, which later brought him a great reputation.

After completing his studies at Harvard, Holmes began to practice law in private, and it is during this time that he wrote different law articles and essays. This led him to become one of the American Law Review editors. Olivier Holmes became a great law intellect and a well-reputed man in his time, due to his common-law expertise. He was then appointed at the Supreme Court of Massachusetts where he later became the Chief Justice. During his term as Chief Justice, Holmes was appointed at the United States Supreme Court, where he was nicknamed as ‘the Great Dissenter’ because of opposing his fellow justices in most opinions.

The Great Dissenter’s first remarkable opinion was seen during the National Economy amendment, where he opposed the removal of the 60-hour workweek limitation, which was the court’s decision. Holmes also created the standards of speech that consisted of some of the very important free speech decisions ever given by the court. Other contributions included the shaping of the libel and slander laws among other sectors.

His logical arguments made him a civil libertarian and legal philosopher. Holmes was one of the best jurists who lived during his time. He wrote various books explaining the philosophy of law, as well as other subjects and viewpoints.

The following is a collection of Olivier Wendell Holmes quotes obtained from his various books, logical arguments, thoughts, and decisions that will impact your view of things and general life.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Quotes

1. “Where we stand is not as important as the direction in which we are moving.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

2. “The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye. The more light you shine on it, the more it will contract.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

3. “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

4. “A person of genius should marry a person of character.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

5. “Don’t flatter yourself that friendship authorizes you to say disagreeable things to your intimates. The nearer you come into relation with a person, the more necessary do tact and courtesy become. Except in cases of necessity, which are rare, leave your friend to learn unpleasant things from his enemies; they are ready enough to tell them.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

6. “I find the great thing in this world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving – we must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it – but we must sail, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

7. “The books we read should be chosen with great care, that they may be, as an Egyptian king wrote over his library,’ The medicines of the soul.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

8. “The character of every act depends upon the circumstances in which it is done.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

9. “Death tugs at my ear and says, ‘Live. I am coming.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

10. “When I think of talking, it is of course with a woman. For talking at its best being an inspiration, it wants a corresponding divine quality of receptiveness, and where will you find this but in a woman?” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

11. “Man has his will, but woman has her way.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

12. “The man of action has the present, but the thinker controls the future.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

13. “A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

14. “Learn the sweet magic of a cheerful face.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

15. “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

16. “Pretty much all law consists in forbidding men to do something that they want to do.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

17. “Speak clearly if you speak at all, carve every word before you let it fall.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

18. “Many people die with their music still in them. Too often it is because they are always getting ready to live. Before they know it time runs out.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

19. “The sound of a kiss is not so loud as that of a cannon, but its echo lasts a great deal longer.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

20. “The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable. To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

21. “It’s faith in something and enthusiasm for something that makes a life worth living.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

22. “I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

23. “A man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

24. “What refuge is there for the victim who is oppressed with the feeling that there are a thousand new books he ought to read, while life is only long enough for him to attempt to read a hundred?” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

25. “This is a court of law, not a court of justice.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

26. “The morning cup of coffee has an exhilaration about it which the cheering influence of the afternoon or evening cup of tea cannot be expected to reproduce.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

27. “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

28. “Even a dog distinguishes between being stumbled over and being kicked.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

29. “The mark of a civilized man is his willingness to re-examine his most cherished beliefs.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

30. “Science is the topography of ignorance.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

31. “Success. Is not the position where you are standing, but which direction you are going.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

32. “Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Good mental machinery ought to break its own wheels and levers if anything is thrust among them suddenly which tends to stop them or reverse their motion. A weak mind does not accumulate force enough to hurt itself; stupidity often saves a man from going mad.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

33. “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

34. “A moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

35. “Beware how you take away hope from another human being.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

36. “The provisions of the Constitution are not mathematical formulas having their essence in their form; they are organic, living institutions transplanted from English soil. Their significance is vital, not formal; it is to be gathered not simply by taking the words and a dictionary, but by considering their origin and the line of their growth.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

37. “Young men know the rules, but old men know the exceptions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

38. “One’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

39. “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought, not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

40. “I have no respect for the passion of equality, which seems to me merely idealizing envy – I don’t disparage envy, but I don’t accept it as legitimately my master.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

41. “Certitude leads to violence. This is a proposition that has an easy application and a difficult one. The easy application is to ideologues, dogmatists, and bullies–people who think that their rightness justifies them in imposing on anyone who does not happen to subscribe to their particular ideology, dogma, or notion of turf. If the conviction of rightness is powerful enough, resistance to it will be met, sooner or later by force. There are people like this in every sphere of life, and it is natural to feel that the world would be a better place without them!” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

42. “I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

43. “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

44. “Old age is fifteen years older than I am.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

45. “Liberty is often a heavy burden on a man. It involves the necessity for perpetual choice which is the kind of labor men have always dreaded.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

46. “Reason means truth and those who are not governed by it take the chance that someday the sunken fact will rip the bottom out of their boat.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

47. “The best of a book is not the thought which it contains, but the thought which it suggests; just as the charm of music dwells not in the tones but in the echoes of our hearts.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

48. “If you can eat sawdust without butter, you can be a success in the law.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

49. “Be willing to commit yourself to a course, perhaps a long and hard one, without being able to foresee exactly where you will come out.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

50. “Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than in the one where they sprung up.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

51. “The root of joy, as of duty, is to put all one’s powers towards some great end.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

52. “To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind, and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

53. “Love is the master key that opens the gates of happiness, of hatred, of jealousy, and, most easily of all, the gate of fear.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

54. “Without wearing any mask we are conscious of, we have a special face for each friend.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

55. “There is no friend like an old friend who has shared our morning days, no greeting like his welcome, no homage like his praise.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

If you are interested in libertarian philosophy, be sure to see our collection of Murray Rothbard Quotes – he was a key figure in the American libertarian movement.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Video

This is an excellent fun video that goes through a few of the key things you should know about Legal Realism. This was one of the legacies that Oliver Wendell Holmes left to the legal community.


In conclusion, Olivier Wendell Holmes was a common-law jurist with great law intellect that attributed to his expertise and fame. Holmes was a celebrated legal philosopher and civil libertarian of his time, which was evident in his logical arguments and opinions in the various Supreme Courts.

The all-time common-law genius wrote and said various wise saying concerning law, freedom, thoughts, and life. The above article has provided you with 55 wise quotes about Olivier Wendell Holmes that can help you make better decisions and have a different view of things in life.