Emerson and Oliver Wendell Holmes

Apropos of my post a few weeks ago, Surprises on the Bookshelves of CEOs, I’ve been meaning to post a fabulous literary story that I came across in a recent review in the New York Times Book Review:

In the early 1860s, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., then a brash Harvard undergraduate, wrote an essay criticizing Plato, whose classifications of ideas he found ”loose and unscientific.” Holmes sent a copy of the essay to Emerson, whose books, he later said, had ”set me on fire.” He soon received in return a nugget of stern wisdom. ”I have read your piece,” Emerson replied. ”When you strike at a king you must kill him.”

In line with the idea of quotations and literary stories as “tools to think with,” this is advice that could well have been given to many companies that set out to compete with Microsoft, or now with Google. Of course, now and again, someone does kill the king. But the story forcefully gets across the stakes of crossing a giant. I also love the unexpected leap in the quote from Emerson. When my wife first read this paragraph aloud to me from the Sunday paper, it struck me like a bolt of joy! (Incidentally, see Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry for a wonderful analysis of the power of the leap, or the spark-gap if you prefer that metaphor, as a driver of poetry.)

  • The Tao Te Ching and the I Ching have in common that one good way to use either as a meditative device is to flip around randomly. They’re pattern books, in that sense, and famous quotes generally function similarly. (The Tao Te Ching, though, is certainly not random: it’s an extened length poetic contemplation of the psychological phenomenon of polarization and its relation to the complex dynamics of natural phenomenon.)

    It seems to me that pretty much everyone in western philosophy since Plato has, in some measure, been “refuting” him. Except that his main point seems to have been, simply, that it’s good to have a culture of letters tossing around abstract ideas about human experience for the sake of gaining better understanding through chat. Plato’s nickname must have been Pandora.

    Laurie Anderson said:


  • It is easier to kill a dead king like Plato. A live one, like our educational system, with its army of “stake holders” is more difficult to take on. But the job should be undertaken.

    Bly’s “leaping” or “the ability to associate fast” has great application to learning in the web 2.0 world. You can jump in the middle of any text,in any language, and with enough links to other resources, efficient storage of information for retrieval and review, and help from community members on the web, you can be on your way to learning what you want to learn, (assuming you want to, otherwise why bother) and acquiring the language(s) it was written in. No beginners, just explorers, or leapers!

  • Just because something is big doesn’t make it a king – the educational system, for example, is about as polar an opposite of a king as I can think of – it is terrible at what it does and there is no one who can credibly take the blame.

  • J Mann

    I don’t think that story is correct, although I’ve heard it many times.

    If you read Holmes’ book, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1882), Oliver Wendell Holmes tells a similar, but not identical story, in a college friend of Holmes mentions to Emerson that he is had written an essay Plato, and Emerson then cautioned him with the “shoot at the king” line.

    Specifically, Holmes wrote:

    “A young friend of mine in his college days wrote an essay on Plato. When he mentioned his subject to Mr. Emerson, he got the caution, long remembered, “When you strike at a King, you must kill him.””

    You can read the original here:


    I suppose it’s possible that the “friend” really was Holmes himself, and that Holmes showed Emerson the essay rather than mentioning it, but it doesn’t seem likely.