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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Three Professions

By Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894)

From ‘The Poet at the Breakfast-Table’

WHAT is your general estimate of doctors, lawyers, and ministers? said I.

—Wait a minute, till I have got through with your first question, said the Master. One thing at a time.—You asked me about the young doctors, and about our young doctor. They come home très bien chaussés, as a Frenchman would say, mighty well shod with professional knowledge. But when they begin walking round among their poor patients,—they don’t commonly start with millionaires,—they find that their new shoes of scientific acquirements have got to be broken in just like a pair of boots or brogans. I don’t know that I have put it quite strong enough. Let me try again. You’ve seen those fellows at the circus that get up on horseback, so big that you wonder how they could climb into the saddle. But pretty soon they throw off their outside coat, and the next minute another one, and then the one under that, and so they keep peeling off one garment after another till people begin to look queer and think they are going too far for strict propriety. Well, that is the way a fellow with a real practical turn serves a good many of his scientific wrappers,—flings ’em off for other people to pick up, and goes right at the work of curing stomach-aches and all the other little mean unscientific complaints that make up the larger part of every doctor’s business. I think our Dr. Benjamin is a worthy young man, and if you are in need of a doctor at any time I hope you will go to him; and if you come off without harm, I will—recommend some other friend to try him.

—I thought he was going to say he would try him in his own person; but the Master is not fond of committing himself.

Now I will answer your other question, he said.—The lawyers are the cleverest men, the ministers are the most learned, and the doctors are the most sensible.

The lawyers are a picked lot, “first scholars” and the like, but their business is as unsympathetic as Jack Ketch’s. There is nothing humanizing in their relations with their fellow-creatures. They go for the side that retains them. They defend the man they know to be a rogue, and not very rarely throw suspicion on the man they know to be innocent. Mind you, I am not finding fault with them,—every side of a case has a right to the best statement it admits of; but I say it does not tend to make them sympathetic. Suppose in a case of Fever vs. Patient, the doctor should side with either party according to whether the old miser or his expectant heir was his employer. Suppose the minister should side with the Lord or the Devil, according to the salary offered, and other incidental advantages, where the soul of a sinner was in question. You can see what a piece of work it would make of their sympathies. But the lawyers are quicker witted than either of the other professions, and abler men generally. They are good-natured, or if they quarrel, their quarrels are above-board. I don’t think they are as accomplished as the ministers; but they have a way of cramming with special knowledge for a case, which leaves a certain shallow sediment of intelligence in their memories about a good many things. They are apt to talk law in mixed company; and they have a way of looking round when they make a point, as if they were addressing a jury, that is mighty aggravating,—as I once had occasion to see when one of ’em, and a pretty famous one, put me on the witness stand at a dinner party once.

The ministers come next in point of talent. They are far more curious and widely interested outside of their own calling than either of the other professions. I like to talk with ’em. They are interesting men: full of good feelings, hard workers, always foremost in good deeds, and on the whole the most efficient civilizing class—working downwards from knowledge to ignorance, that is; not so much upwards, perhaps—that we have. The trouble is, that so many of ’em work in harness, and it is pretty sure to chafe somewhere. They feed us on canned meats mostly. They cripple our instincts and reason, and give us a crutch of doctrine. I have talked with a great many of ’em, of all sorts of belief; and I don’t think they are quite so easy in their minds, the greater number of them, nor so clear in their convictions, as one would think to hear ’em lay down the law in the pulpit. They used to lead the intelligence of their parishes; now they do pretty well if they keep up with it, and they are very apt to lag behind it. Then they must have a colleague. The old minister thinks he can hold to his old course, sailing right into the wind’s eye of human nature, as straight as that famous old skipper John Bunyan; the young minister falls off three or four points, and catches the breeze that left the old man’s sails all shivering. By-and-by the congregation will get ahead of him, and then it must have another new skipper. The priest holds his own pretty well; the minister is coming down every generation nearer and nearer to the common level of the useful citizen,—no oracle at all, but a man of more than average moral instincts, who, if he knows anything, knows how little he knows. The ministers are good talkers, only the struggle between nature and grace makes some of ’em a little awkward occasionally. The women do their best to spoil ’em, as they do the poets. You find it very pleasant to be spoiled, no doubt; so do they. Now and then one of ’em goes over the dam; no wonder,—they’re always in the rapids.

By this time our three ladies had their faces all turned toward the speaker, like the weathercocks in a northeaster, and I thought it best to switch off the talk on to another rail.

How about the doctors? I said.

—Theirs is the least learned of the professions, in this country at least. They have not half the general culture of the lawyers, nor a quarter of that of the ministers. I rather think, though, they are more agreeable to the common run of people than the men with black coats or the men with green bags. People can swear before ’em if they want to, and they can’t very well before ministers. I don’t care whether they want to swear or not, they don’t want to be on their good behavior. Besides, the minister has a little smack of the sexton about him; he comes when people are in extremis, but they don’t send for him every time they make a slight moral slip,—tell a lie, for instance, or smuggle a silk dress through the custom-house: but they call in the doctor when the child is cutting a tooth or gets a splinter in its finger. So it doesn’t mean much to send for him, only a pleasant chat about the news of the day; for putting the baby to rights doesn’t take long. Besides, everybody doesn’t like to talk about the next world; people are modest in their desires, and find this world as good as they deserve: but everybody loves to talk physic. Everybody loves to hear of strange cases; people are eager to tell the doctor of the wonderful cures they have heard of; they want to know what is the matter with somebody or other who is said to be suffering from “a complication of diseases,” and above all to get a hard name, Greek or Latin, for some complaint which sounds altogether too commonplace in plain English. If you will only call a headache a Cephalalgia, it acquires dignity at once, and a patient becomes rather proud of it. So I think doctors are generally welcome in most companies.

In old times, when people were more afraid of the Devil and of witches than they are now, they liked to have a priest or a minister somewhere near to scare ’em off: but nowadays, if you could find an old woman that would ride round the room on a broomstick, Barnum would build an amphitheatre to exhibit her in; and if he could come across a young imp, with hoofs, tail, and budding horns,—a lineal descendant of one of those “dæmons” which the good people of Gloucester fired at and were fired at by “for the best part of a month together,” in the year 1692, the great showman would have him at any cost for his museum or menagerie. Men are cowards, sir, and are driven by fear as the sovereign motive. Men are idolaters, and want something to look at and kiss and hug, or throw themselves down before; they always did, they always will: and if you don’t make it of wood, you must make it of words, which are just as much used for idols as promissory notes are used for values. The ministers have a hard time of it without bell and book and holy water; they are dismounted men in armor since Luther cut their saddle-girths, and you can see they are quietly taking off one piece of iron after another until some of the best of ’em are fighting the devil (not the zoölogical Devil with the big D) with the sword of the Spirit, and precious little else in the way of weapons of offense or defense. But we couldn’t get on without the spiritual brotherhood, whatever became of our special creeds. There is a genius for religion, just as there is for painting or sculpture. It is half-sister to the genius for music, and has some of the features which remind us of earthly love. But it lifts us all by its mere presence. To see a good man and hear his voice once a week would be reason enough for building churches and pulpits.—The Master stopped all at once, and after about half a minute laughed his pleasant laugh.

What is it? I asked him.

I was thinking of the great coach and team that is carrying us fast enough, I don’t know but too fast, somewhere or other. The D. D.s used to be the leaders, but now they are the wheel-horses. It’s pretty hard to tell how much they pull, but we know they can hold back like the—

—When we’re going down hill,—I said, as neatly as if I had been a High Church curate trained to snap at the last word of the response, so that you couldn’t wedge in the tail of a comma between the end of the congregation’s closing syllable and the beginning of the next petition.