"There Was Only Mercy."

I've been reading a very good biography, John A. Farrell's Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned. Most of what I knew about Darrow was from his involvement with the Scopes Monkey Trial. But Farrell's biography has been a revelation about this iconic and iconoclastic lawyer. More, I hadn't expected Darrow's story to be so theologically provocative.

For example, Darrow was a determinist. A fatalist even. He felt that we were all just feathers blown in the wind. As Darrow once said, "We are all poor, blind creatures bound hand and foot by the invisible chains of heredity and environment, doing pretty much what we have to do in a barbarous and cruel world. That's about all there is to any court case." This perspective helped to support Darrow's work as a defense lawyer, speaking up for all sorts of shady characters, work that earned him the moniker "attorney for the damned." Farrell summarizes both Darrow's worldview and method:

It was not unusual, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for lawyers to take many hours--spread over two or three days--to give a closing argument in a significant case. Darrow did so without notes, in marvelous displays of intellect and concentration. Taking his time, Darrow worked like a weaver, ranging back and fourth across the crime, laying down threads, reviving assertions in different form, showing the facts from different angles. To a modern ear, his rhetoric seems to sprawl. But when he was done he had reshaped the case. "He will travel far beyond the immediate issue of guilt or innocence," said Hays [Darrow's co-counsel in several celebrated cases]. "The whole background of the case takes on a difference coloring."

It was more than a tactic. It was his creed. Darrow was a determinist. He did not believe in free will, nor good and evil, nor choice. There were no moral absolutes, no truth, and no justice. There was only mercy.

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8 thoughts on “"There Was Only Mercy."”

  1. Perhaps it's of no more difficult to reconcile than "pre-election to glory" and justification by faith..

  2. I'm trying my damnedest to figure out how the last sentence follows from what you wrote (and quoted) before.

  3. Sorry - should have said I'm trying to figure out how Farrell gets to his last sentence from what he wrote.

  4. Yeah, I admire the poetic thought here - and the idea that even though he didn't believe it made any difference he did things that those who believe in good and evil would characterize as good. But it really is a nonsensical idea. If what he was doing wasn't good - why do it? Other than he had no choice - in which case why should be be admired or proud of doing what he had no choice to do? Also, the idea of believing in tactics and creed when you don't believe you have freedom to choose tactics and creeds...

    Sounds like a lawyer alright!

  5. I think what he is trying to say is that Darrow would defend people
    who, pretty clearly, were guilty. He was a defense lawyer. So what he
    would do in cases is to work on the background of the case, talking
    about how the person came to do what they did. This would shift the
    "blame" off the individual and onto things like environmental forces.
    His argument, thus, shifted the issue from "Did this person do the
    deed?" to "Would any of us, in the exact same circumstances, have done
    anything differently?" He felt that if he could get the jury to
    identify with the life narrative of his client the jury would be more
    likely to render a more favorable verdict. (And it should be noted that
    Darrow, in defending guilty clients, was really just trying to save
    their lives. "Mercy" here was getting the jury to move to a verdict of
    life in prison over sending the person to the hangman.) 

    This sets up the final summary. The issue in the case for Darrow wasn't
    guilt or innocence, justice, or good or evil. It was simply
    identification with the person he was defending. Empathy for their life
    story, how they, like all of us, were clawing their way through a harsh
    and hostile world. And if Darrow could get to that empathy he'd be able
    to get a more merciful result.

    Finally, I'm not saying I agree with any of this, but given my
    interests in free will and Christian salvation (how blame is involved
    in who goes to heaven or hell) I found the perspective of defending the
    "damned" to be theologically interesting.

  6. It would appear that the logic is self-immolating.  If strict determinism is the paradigm, then even that which appears to be "mercy" is itself determined, which empties "mercy" of all of its ethical and moral content.  I suppose that's why Michael (see above or below) calls it a "miracle."  qb

  7. I'm with Darrow on the limitations of free will.

    It's the overreach from that fairly (philosophically, anyway) benign idea that our choices are constrained by factors other than idealistic free choice to the idea that there is *no* choice and, further, that there is no "right/wrong" or "good/evil" differentiations.

    These are misunderstandings so deep and tragically flawed as to all but overshadow the more sympathetic notions Darrow espoused.

    Instead of a thoughtful philosophical humanistic sentiment, it comes off as just an end-justifies-the-means legal defense trick - poetic biographical attributions aside.

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