The Professor at the Breakfast Table

Author: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.


The reader of to-day will not forget, I trust, that it is nearly a quarter of a century since these papers were written. Statements which were true then are not necessarily true now. Thus, the speed of the trotting horse has been so much developed that the record of the year when the fastest time to that date was given must be very considerably altered, as may be seen by referring to a note on page 49 of the "Autocrat." No doubt many other statements and opinions might be more or less modified if I were writing today instead of having written before the war, when the world and I were both more than a score of years younger.

These papers followed close upon the track of the "Autocrat." They had to endure the trial to which all second comers are subjected, which is a formidable ordeal for the least as well as the greatest. Paradise Regained and the Second Part of Faust are examples which are enough to warn every one who has made a jingle fair hit with his arrow of the danger of missing when he looses "his fellow of the selfsame flight."

There is good reason why it should be so. The first juice that runs of itself from the grapes comes from the heart of the fruit, and tastes of the pulp only; when the grapes are squeezed in the press the flow betrays the flavor of the skin. If there is any freshness in the original idea of the work, if there is any individuality in the method or style of a new author, or of an old author on a new track, it will have lost much of its first effect when repeated. Still, there have not been wanting readers who have preferred this second series of papers to the first. The new papers were more aggressive than the earlier ones, and for that reason found a heartier welcome in some quarters, and met with a sharper antagonism in others. It amuses me to look back on some of the attacks they called forth. Opinions which do not excite the faintest show of temper at this time from those who do not accept them were treated as if they were the utterances of a nihilist incendiary. It required the exercise of some forbearance not to recriminate.

How a stray sentence, a popular saying, the maxim of some wise man, a line accidentally fallen upon and remembered, will sometimes help one when he is all ready to be vexed or indignant! One day, in the time when I was young or youngish, I happened to open a small copy of "Tom Jones," and glance at the title-page. There was one of those little engravings opposite, which bore the familiar name of "T. Uwins," as I remember it, and under it the words "Mr. Partridge bore all this patiently." How many times, when, after rough usage from ill-mannered critics, my own vocabulary of vituperation was simmering in such a lively way that it threatened to boil and lift its lid and so boil over, those words have calmed the small internal effervescence! There is very little in them and very little of them; and so there is not much in a linchpin considered by itself, but it often keeps a wheel from coming off and prevents what might be a catastrophe. The chief trouble in offering such papers as these to the readers of to-day is that their heresies have become so familiar among intelligent people that they have too commonplace an aspect. All the lighthouses and land-marks of belief bear so differently from the way in which they presented themselves when these papers were written that it is hard to recognize that we and our fellowpassengers are still in the same old vessel sailing the same unfathomable sea and bound to the same as yet unseen harbor.

But after all, there is not enough theology, good or bad, in these papers to cause them to be inscribed on the Protestant Index Expurgatorius; and if they are medicated with a few questionable dogmas or antidogmas, the public has become used to so much rougher treatments, that what was once an irritant may now act as an anodyne, and the reader may nod over pages which, when they were first written, would have waked him into a paroxysm of protest and denunciation.

November, 1882.


This book is one of those which, if it lives for a number of decades, and if it requires any Preface at all, wants a new one every ten years. The first Preface to a book is apt to be explanatory, perhaps apologetic, in the expectation of attacks from various quarters. If the book is in some points in advance of public opinion, it is natural that the writer should try to smooth the way to the reception of his more or less aggressive ideas. He wishes to convince, not to offend,—to obtain a hearing for his thought, not to stir up angry opposition in those who do not accept it. There is commonly an anxious look about a first Preface. The author thinks he shall be misapprehended about this or that matter, that his well-meant expressions will probably be invidiously interpreted by those whom he looks upon as prejudiced critics, and if he deals with living questions that he will be attacked as a destructive by the conservatives and reproached for his timidity by the noisier radicals. The first Preface, therefore, is likely to be the weakest part of a work containing the thoughts of an honest writer.

After a time the writer has cooled down from his excitement,—has got over his apprehensions, is pleased to find that his book is still read, and that he must write a new Preface. He comes smiling to his task. How many things have explained themselves in the ten or twenty or thirty years since he came before his untried public in those almost plaintive paragraphs in which he introduced himself to his readers,—for the Preface writer, no matter how fierce a combatant he may prove, comes on to the stage with his shield on his right arm and his sword in his left hand.

The Professor at the Breakfast-Table came out in the "Atlantic Monthly" and introduced itself without any formal Preface. A quarter of a century later the Preface of 1882, which the reader has just had laid before him, was written. There is no mark of worry, I think, in that. Old opponents had come up and shaken hands with the author they had attacked or denounced. Newspapers which had warned their subscribers against him were glad to get him as a contributor to their columns. A great change had come over the community with reference to their beliefs. Christian believers were united as never before in the feeling that, after all, their common object was to elevate the moral and religious standard of humanity. But within the special compartments of the great Christian fold the marks of division have pronounced themselves in the most unmistakable manner. As an example we may take the lines of cleavage which have shown themselves in the two great churches, the Congregational and the Presbyterian, and the very distinct fissure which is manifest in the transplanted Anglican church of this country. Recent circumstances have brought out the fact of the great change in the dogmatic communities which has been going on silently but surely. The licensing of a missionary, the transfer of a Professor from one department to another, the election of a Bishop,—each of these movements furnishes evidence that there is no such thing as an airtight reservoir of doctrinal finalities.

The folding-doors are wide open to every Protestant to enter all the privileged precincts and private apartments of the various exclusive religious organizations. We may demand the credentials of every creed and catechise all the catechisms. So we may discuss the gravest questions unblamed over our morning coffee-cups or our evening tea-cups. There is no rest for the Protestant until he gives up his legendary anthropology and all its dogmatic dependencies.

It is only incidentally, however, that the Professor at the Breakfast-Table handles matters which are the subjects of religious controversy. The reader who is sensitive about having his fixed beliefs dealt with as if they were open to question had better skip the pages which look as if they would disturb his complacency. "Faith" is the most precious of possessions, and it dislikes being meddled with. It means, of course, self-trust,—that is, a belief in the value of our, own opinion of a doctrine, of a church, of a religion, of a Being, a belief quite independent of any evidence that we can bring to convince a jury of our fellow beings. Its roots are thus inextricably entangled with those of self-love and bleed as mandrakes were said to, when pulled up as weeds. Some persons may even at this late day take offence at a few opinions expressed in the following pages, but most of these passages will be read without loss of temper by those who disagree with them, and by-and-by they may be found too timid and conservative for intelligent readers, if they are still read by any.

BEVERLY FARM, MASS., June 18, 1891.

O. W. H.


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Chicago: Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., "Preface," The Professor at the Breakfast Table, ed. Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926 in The Professor at the Breakfast Table (New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909), Original Sources, accessed July 20, 2024,

MLA: Holmes, Oliver Wendell, Sr. "Preface." The Professor at the Breakfast Table, edited by Davis, Charles Belmont, 1866-1926, in The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Vol. 22, New York, Doubleday, Page & Company, 1909, Original Sources. 20 Jul. 2024.

Harvard: Holmes, OW, 'Preface' in The Professor at the Breakfast Table, ed. . cited in 1909, The Professor at the Breakfast Table, Doubleday, Page & Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 20 July 2024, from