Document Type


Publication Date


Publication Information

54 Mo. L. Rev. 259 (1989)


Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951) was a resolute critic of pretension in American business and in the professions. His only hero story is the story of a physician and research scientist, Arrowsmith (1925).' It is a story that puts up for examination Lewis's prescription for a moral life in the professions in America and, beyond that, it shows what professional life is like. I want to argue here that (1) although the story is useful for lawyers and for legal ethics, Lewis's principal moral prescription, a brief for individualism in professional life, is incoherent. The ethic of individualism, as Lewis grounds it, depends on an anthropology that is not a truthful description of our situation. Lewis's ethic is an argument for individualism as a virtue that rests on this untruthful anthropology, and is therefore incoherent in its description of reality and in its consequent failure to indicate the difference between a good life and an evil life.

But then I want to argue (2) that the story of Dr. Arrowsmith's struggle with plague on the island of St. Hubert, which is the heart of the novel, is valuable for ethics in the professions: It shows that life in the professions is tragic, tragic because it is limited. We doctors, lawyers, teachers, and ministers want to help, but—even in moral struggle, and even at our best—we cannot help enough. We are limited, and we find, when we look closely at our limits, that it is our ideals that limit us. Our traditions of helpfulness become obstacles to our being helpful. "It takes a long time before a man gets to understand what his duty is," as Martin Buber's Yehudi put it. "It is the duties that prevent him from doing so." Arrowsmith is, then, useful for the professions, despite Lewis's failure to make a persuasive case for the virtue of individualism.


Originally published in Missouri Law Review; reprinted with permission.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.