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Towards A Theory Of David Souter

David Souter is one of the most private Supreme Court Justices, but this 1993 TNR article by Jeffrey Rosen did a fascinating job of illuminating Souter's inner life:

"Have you read Proust?" Justice Souter asked near the beginning of my interview for a clerkship last March. We were talking about Henry Adams, the subject of my college thesis, and so the question was unexpected. I hadn't gotten very far, I confessed; but Justice Souter was sympathetic. "I failed, too, when I tried the first time. But then I read him in a gulp one August, and was struck by the cumulative effect of the prose." Suddenly he smiled. "If I could take a year off from this job, I'd like nothing better than to go to a small college and teach a comparative seminar on Adams and Proust. The similarities are remarkable." Quoting from memory, he then recited the last sentence of The Education of Henry Adams: "Perhaps some day, -- say 1938, their centenary, -- [Adams and his friends] might be permitted to return together for a holiday ... and perhaps then, for the first time since man began his education among the carnivores, they would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder."

Souter's affinity for Adams and Proust reveals qualities at the core of the man and his jurisprudence. (When I wrote to Souter, asking permission to describe our conversation in this article, he wrote back: "I have no objection to your saying something about my fantasy of teaching an Adams-Proust course"; he then repeated his original conceit about Proust: "If you can spare the time, read it in a gulp.") For the resemblances between Adams, the aesthetic Puritan, and Proust, the bed-ridden aesthete, are veiled but intense. There is a thin-spun quality to both men: both were concerned with the philosophical uses of timidity and felt free to exercise their power by hiding it behind a carefully constructed appearance of fragility. Both lived as hermits in the city, drawn to society but holding themselves apart from it. By cultivating some of the same qualities, Souter has endeared himself to his clerks, friends and colleagues, and has become increasingly influential on the Court. But his emerging jurisprudence of "passive virtues" is far less passive than it appears. ...

Click here to read the entire fascinating piece.

--Barron YoungSmith