Friday, June 8, 2018

Sunlight disinfects

In 1913 United States Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis coined the maxim that "sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants".  As a former lawyer it pleases me to source this attribution. I am shamefully proud to characterize many members of the legal profession as insightful and occasionally provocative.  I say this with the knowledge that some people rightfully take a dimmer view of the profession. But for the most part my experience after 40 years of practicing law is that I relish reading what elevated members of the bar and the bench have written - whether the topic is strictly law and jurisprudence, or whether the subject is journalistic, biographical, historical or even comic.  I like to imagine that elemental training in language and logic creates a very palatable resource.

Though the gist of the maxim about disinfecting sunlight is that knowledge awakens with illumination of the facts (a decidedly legal rendition), I view the catchphrase as generic for the application of thought to almost any consideration. It is an idea which promotes clarity.  Getting one's ideas out of the shade simplifies confusion and misunderstanding. I am naturally assuming that everyone has unsettling contemplations from time to time.

There is another critical feature to the adage; and that is its uncompromising assertion. Sunlight isn't a matter of just throwing some light on the situation; it is the very source of intelligence. Its appearance, while wildly highlighting segments of a thought or event, may just as plainly cloud and marginalize other elements. The brilliance lies in its focus and concentration not the blurriness of its edges. As always the paramountcy lies in what is seen not what is ignored. This admission brings one importantly close to the conjunctive reminder to believe what you see (a mental trajectory which requires sharp thinking).

Explicitness isn't invariably a pretty picture. We can easily abuse ourselves by revolving around false or irrelevant premises which lead to inapt conclusions. It is the forcefulness of lucidity which fuels meaningful thought. How one reacts to this luminosity is not however as obvious. Frequently we allow ourselves to be shrouded by impediments to definition - the usual culprits like ambiguity, emotional inertia, self-deception and irrationality. Because the primary strengths of the metaphorical sunbeam are coherence and definition, it follows that capitalizing upon its transparency necessitates resolve.  This can prove to be decidedly difficult and ultimately unpleasant for the sole reason that it demands attention and coherence. While it is possible to disregard the distinctness of what evolves, it is a pour strategy.

It may help to palliate the sting of the light to recall that one's private conundrums are seldom of genuine interest to others (as shocking as the admission resounds). Most of us operate on what is generously called an intimate level - or what more plainly amounts to pure selfishness.  Between these two poles is nothing more than social convention and instinctive appetites, neither of which merits applause for sympathy for anything which sunlight might reveal - but does at least emphasize the lack of morality. Therein lies the very convenient answer to the internal monologue - namely, don't be persuaded by the rubbish, listen to your instincts! The process of disinfecting ourselves is no more complicated than accepting what is revealed by clear analysis. Yet like most axiomatic truths it is more easily shared than performed.


"As an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Louis Dembitz Brandeis (1856-1941) tried to reconcile the developing powers of modern government and society with the maintenance of individual liberties and opportunities for personal development. As the United States entered the 20th century, many men became concerned with trying to equip government so as to deal with the excesses and inequities fostered by the industrial development of the 19th century. States passed laws trying to regulate utility rates and insurance manipulations and established minimum-wage and maximum-hour laws. Louis Brandeis was one of the most important Americans involved in this effort, first as a publicly minded lawyer and, after 1916, as a member of the U.S. Supreme Court."

"Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman."

"Behind every argument is someone's ignorance."

"The most important political office is that of the private citizen."

"We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

“America has believed that in differentiation, not in uniformity, lies the path of progress. It acted on this belief; it has advanced human happiness, and it has prospered.”

“Experience teaches us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficent.”

“Fear of serious injury alone cannot justify oppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.”

“I abhor averages. I like the individual case. A man may have six meals one day and none the next, making an average of three meals per day, but that is not a good way to live.”

“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.”

“If we would guide by the light of reason we must let our minds be bold.”

“If you would only recognize that life is hard, things would be so much easier for you.”

“In the frank expression of conflicting opinions lies the greatest promise of wisdom in governmental action.”

“Most of the things worth doing in the world had been declared impossible before they were done.”

“Neutrality is at times a graver sin than belligerence.”

“Organization can never be a substitute for initiative and for judgment.”

“Our government ... teaches the whole people by its example. If the government becomes the lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”

“The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in the insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well meaning but without understanding.”

“The logic of words should yield to the logic of realities.”

“The world presents enough problems if you believe it to be a world of law and order; do not add to them by believing it to be a world of miracles.”

“There are no shortcuts in evolution.”

“Those who won our independence ... valued liberty as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty.”

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