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By the time of this pithy and accessible writing, Holmes had crystallized and clarified that conception of law which he had, in introducing his earlier book, described in the famous statement "the life of the law is not logic: it is experience." Taking that observation to the next level, this essay made it clear that judges make law, not simply finding it in books -- and they must draw on practical effects and ends in declaring legal rules, not simply reasoning from precedent. He does not hedge: it is a "fallacy" to think that "the only force at work in the development of the law is logic."
More controversially, this essay makes a powerful distinction between law and morality. Law is more about what judges do, and how people react to that, than some lofty sense of ethics, he suggests. But is his figure of the "bad man" a hero or a cautionary tale? A realistic way to look at law and social control...or a precursor to Hitler and Stalin?
The single most important essay about law ever written. This essay defines the responsibilities of the legal profession from one of law's greatest practitioners.