Teaching Lessons

The Power of Metaphor

By Jacob A. Stein | June 20, 2016


In 1946, I was a student in Professor John Spaulding’s equity class at the George Washington University Law School. In one of the classes, he asked a student to stand and define the word metaphor. The student stood up and said he had heard the word before but he could not define it. Professor Spaulding read from a book on his desk. I can’t recall the title (this was 70 years ago, after all!), but the quotation went something like this: “Metaphor is the center of legal fiction. Metaphor provides lawyers with a memorable and colorful reference, such as at arm’s length, clean hands, meeting of the minds, and piercing the corporate veil.”

Professor Spaulding then said, “In the next class, I want you to tell us whether the following are metaphors or not.” I still remember them. Judge for yourself.

Life is like an artichoke; each, day, week, month, year, gives you one little bit which you nibble off—but precious little compared with what you throw away.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, letter to Pollock, January 17, 1887

The world needs the flower more than the flower needs life.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, “Class of ’61,” Speeches, 1913

All life is an experiment. Every year if not every day we have to wager our salvation upon some prophecy based upon imperfect knowledge.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, quoted by Henry Steel Commager, The New York Times, November 20, 1985

In my judgment, Holmes’s son—Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the Supreme Court justice—resorted to metaphors many times.

Some years ago, back when I was still frequently arguing cases in the courtroom, I made certain to give the jury at least three good metaphors in order to spring the defendant.

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