Wreak yourself upon the world!"

Robert H. Bork drew on a cigarette and punched the air for emphasis as he enunciated his life's credo, handed down from a friend and mentor. It calls upon him always to provoke, to be a force in intellectual and political debate -- not a cloistered academic, certainly not a faceless judge.

This approach to life has made Bork, President Reagan's choice to fill the Supreme Court vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., the object of a fierce ideological struggle over the role of the nation's highest court. Rarely has one nomination so sharply focused the conflict between forces trying to shape American society.

A liberal Democrat in his college days, Bork was a confirmed conservative by the time he joined the Yale Law School faculty in the early 1960s. His habit of speaking his mind quickly made him the conservative movement's Ivy League voice.

As a young professor, he wrote articles opposing landmark civil-rights legislation, became a Scholar for Goldwater, an Academic for Nixon. In 1973, he puts his ideas into practice, joining the Nixon administration and ending up the "executioner" in the "Saturday Night Massacre" -- saying then, as before, that his actions were driven by deeply held convictions about constitutional law.

With the same conviction, Bork said in 1978, he led the opposition to a Yale Law School policy barring from the campus those recruiters whose firms discriminated against homosexuals. "Homosexuality is obviously not an unchangeable condition like race or gender," Bork wrote in a memo at the time. " . . . {Homosexual} behavior, it is relevant to observe, is criminal in many states."

And, in three speeches since 1982, Bork has indicated agreement with the Reagan administration's efforts to promote prayer in public schools and to allow federal aid to religious schools.

As a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Bork, 60, is today an unrelenting voice for "judicial restraint," railing against "imperialistic" liberal judges who have read their values into the Constitution, but saying the same criticism would apply to conservative activists. Bork holds that elected lawmakers, not unelected judges, should control public morality: the death penalty, abortion, affirmative action.

But this most complex person is not the stick figure either side would make him. While his judicial writings are often icy and uncompromising, his friends and foes, in rare agreement, call him a man of uncommon charm, intellect, introspection and emotion, with a wit so sharp that constitutional scholar Alexander Bickel once termed it dangerous, and with a capacity to feel personal loss deeply. Bork has valued mental discipline since his teens, but his professional life recently has been characterized by restlessness; colleagues said he bores easily, is frequently late with his work and is often fighting an addiction to nicotine and a fondness for large meals and martinis.

Between the public and private Bork lie many contradictions. He staked his legal career, when a rising associate in a leading Chicago law firm, on a demand that his partners cease discriminating against Jewish applicants. (They did.) Yet two years ago, at a forum on religion, two participants described him as "callous" to religious minorities who do not share the majority's values.

A 6-foot ex-Marine, a bear of a man who hopes to trim down to 220 pounds by his September confirmation hearings, Bork appears nowadays under enormous pressure. In an interview last week, he chomped for a few minutes on nicotine gum, then spat it out and declared: "I don't care what anybody says, I'm going to have a cigarette." He proceeded to chain-smoke Marlboro Lights for more than an hour.'There's Never Been Anything Like It'

Bork does not shy away from discussing the pain of the national vilification he experienced after the Saturday Night Massacre, particularly when some of his Yale ex-colleagues joined in. Bork, then solicitor general at the Justice Department, fired the Watergate special prosecutor on orders from President Richard M. Nixon. In that same period, Bork's first wife, Claire, was suffering from terminal cancer.

"There's never been anything like it," he said, as if lost in memories of earlier days. After a pause, he winced, and amended his thought:

"Till now."

With the high court more evenly divided than at any time since the New Deal, Bork's nomination is magnified in importance for those who support and oppose it. Reagan now seeks to institutionalize the conservative social agenda that has eluded him throughout his tenure: authorizing public school prayer, expanding police powers, ending affirmative action and banning abortion.

Liberal leaders fear that Bork will mark the end of 45 years of expanding individual freedoms.

Bork has never dodged an intellectual brawl, and he has not shied from this this fight, either. He has responded not only by making customary courtesy calls to key senators but also -- virtually without precedent for a Supreme Court nominee -- by granting interviews to numerous news organizations, including this one. The goal, according to one colleague, is to "humanize him, to show he doesn't have horns."

In the interviews, Bork has portrayed himself as flexible and pragmatic, not the ideologue that supporters and opponents are debating. The "humanizing" campaign has caught so many people off guard that it produced a Washington joke that Reagan will withdraw the nomination because he didn't realize Bork was so moderate.

Bork's intellectual strength -- and one of his political vulnerabilities -- is that he spent his academic life seeking frameworks to explain the society around him. He now concedes that this habit of mind was often misguided, leading him to embrace seamless theories that overlooked human complexities. He has left in his wake a trail of strongly worded speeches and articles that made him a conservative demigod, but have come back to haunt him.

For example, as a libertarian in the 1960s, seeking a society without government intrusion, Bork applied his philosophy to civil rights. He ended up championing the rights of innkeepers to refuse to serve blacks in response to the 1963 Public Accommodations Act, and writing a critique of the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964.

In 1971, in his most important academic treatise on constitutional rights, Bork wrote that the First Amendment protected only political speech excluding such forms of expression as science, literature and education. He later conceded that he adopted a far too limited view.'Original Intent' Should Guide Judges

"I was looking for bright lines," he said. "I've since decided that bright lines aren't available and to impose {them} is to reach a ridiculous result. Reality doesn't work that neatly."

While Bork has often expressed disdain for court precedents with which he disagrees, he portrays himself today as reverent toward tradition, institutions and continuity even if he privately disapproves of some of the underlying reasoning. But he returns often to the idea that only the "original intent" of the Constitution's framers should guide today's judges.

"When a court becomes that active or that imperialistic," he said in 1982 of rulings going beyond rights specifically mentioned in the Constitution, "then I think it engages in judicial legislation, and that seems to me inconsistent with the democratic form of government that we have."

Opponents said Bork's current tones of moderation are window-dressing designed to help his Senate confirmation chances. In their view, he has shed one intellectual straitjacket for another, trading rigorous allegiance to libertarian economics for equally rigorous allegiance to the "original intent" of the Constitution's framers as he reads it.

These opponents ask: Does his narrow view of rights for blacks in the early 1960s differ from his view of homosexual rights at Yale in 1978? His expanded definition of First Amendment protections, encompassing other forms of expression than political speech, remains in the view of critics a narrow reading of those rights. With Bork on the high court, no longer under the institutional constraints he felt on the appeals court, they perceive largely unchecked majority rule.

While at Yale, Bork wrote only one book, putting much of his energy into articles for popular organs that promised a broader audience -- The New Republic, Fortune, The Wall Street Journal. Bork reached for that audience largely at the urging of Alexander Bickel, his Yale Law School colleague who became Bork's mentor and closest friend. The dictum to "wreak yourself upon the world" also came from Bickel, who had learned it from Felix Frankfurter, a celebrated scholar and advocate of restraint named to the high court by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"Try to be a force, an intellectual force," Bork recalls Bickel telling him.

Robert Heron Bork was groomed to argue. Born March 1, 1927, in Pittsburgh, he was the only child of Harry and Elizabeth Bork, a steel-firm purchasing agent and schoolteacher. His mother passed on to him a love of books, raising him as an avid reader of the Saturday Review and other journals of ideas.

"My mother and I used to argue far into the night about all kinds of things," Bork recalled. "My father would yell down at us from the bedroom: 'This is not a debating society. Go to sleep!' "

Asked how she influenced her son, Elizabeth Bork said: "I wouldn't bite that for anything. I could only say good things. But I prefer not to be involved at all because {pause} well, my son can explain everything."

Bork spent most of his youth in the suburb of Ben Avon. The community's social standing was measured by its distance up the hill from the Ohio River: Ben Avon was about two-thirds of the way up.

"There was a handful of Catholic families. I don't remember any Jewish people. And it was very Republican. Maybe three or four registered Democrats," said Virginia Jeffries Sturm, Bork's high school girlfriend. It was also virtually all white.

Perhaps it was clear even then that Bork would not blend in gently with the world around him. As a boy he had an affinity for pet snakes, which rattled his next-door neighbor and childhood friend, William Karns.

To make matters more difficult in Republican Ben Avon, Bork defined himself as a socialist. "Socialism sounded to me like a swell idea, and rebellion sounded like a swell idea, too," he said. Bork said his sentiments came in part from his father, Harry, a successful businessman who was a union sympathizer and who had taken repeated pay cuts during the Depression.

Karns recalled that Bork once talked him into attending a Communist Party meeting downtown. "The nation had just gone through a severe depression, and these ideas were considered appropriate by some people," Karns said. "We weren't concerned about women's rights and abortion, but we wanted to put food on tables and find jobs for people."

Bork also read in earnest as a youth: Aldous Huxley, George Bernard Shaw and Thomas Paine, among others, according to Virginia Sturm. By his second year of high school, he was reading essays by John Strachey, a British Marxist, and discussing those ideas with all who would listen.

"Bob liked to provoke, especially the people who were so self-satisfied, like the people of this borough," Karns said.

Despite his rebelliousness, Bork was very much one of the boys. He was president of his class and editor of the high school paper in his junior year, and like most boys during that time of world war, highly patriotic and determined to fight for his country.

Even in writing about the school chess team, Bork's enthusiasm for the military and mental rigor come out: "Many people think the game of chess develops mental powers. It is encouraged at West Point because it lays stress on logic, clear thinking and foresight," he wrote in the school paper.

With U.S. participation in World War II at full strength, most of Ben Avon's best teachers joined up in 1943, and Bork transferred to the Hotchkiss School in Lakewood, Conn., for his senior high school year. Most of the Hotchkiss students came from wealthy families, although Bork recalled a number of scholarship students.

It marked a major change for a popular boy from Ben Avon, made more difficult because Hotchkiss had a rule barring first-year students from most activities. Bork managed nonetheless to become a champion boxer.

Beside a pensive, unsmiling Bork in the Hotchkiss yearbook is this "favorite" quotation: "Do you want a contusious {bruised} scab, maybe?"

"You wouldn't expect Bob Bork to give someone an ordinary, nonerudite scab," explained Hotchkiss and Avonworth classmate Richard Gordon.

After graduating from high school in 1944, Bork joined the Marine Corps and studied to be a translator for front-line troops interrogating Japanese prisoners. But the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan before he went, and Bork spent the rest of his time in China guarding supply lines for Chiang Kai-shek. Then he entered the University of Chicago.

Bork's Ben Avon high school history teacher, Raymond Kuhl, recalled that Elizabeth Bork had visited him to discuss "a liberal leaning of Bob's that she thought maybe was going extreme." It was Kuhl who sold Bork on going to the University of Chicago, portraying it as one of the world's most intellectual environments, led by Chancellor Robert Maynard Hutchins, a youthful visionary.

Chicago, under Hutchins, was an intensely intellectual world, where professors put a premium on free -- even rebellious -- thinking. Conformity was for cowards. Bork blossomed there, graduating Phi Beta Kappa and then marrying Claire Davidson, a Chicago undergraduate. (Davidson was raised a Jew and Bork a Protestant, but he said neither dwelled on the religious difference; throughout their marriage the couple did not practice an organized religion.)Called Back to Duty in the Korean War

Bork then entered the University of Chicago Law School because, he said, a poet-teacher persuaded him that law would allow him to "take philosophy into the marketplace." Ever an admirer of insulting humor, Bork was dazzled by his first professor, Edward H. Levi (later U.S. attorney general and Bork's boss). Bork recalled in an adulatory speech upon Levi's retirement that the professor opened his first lecture on antitrust this way:

"I won't keep you long today. I won't keep you long because you are too ignorant to talk to." Bork said he was won over by the combination of insult and dare.

Although comfortable on a campus, Bork grew homesick for the physical rigor of the Marines and enlisted in the reserves. After his first year of law school, during the Korean war, he was called back to duty.

He returned to Chicago two years later and embarked on what he fervently calls his "conversion" from liberalism to free-market conservatism. Its agent was a Polish-born economist named Aaron Director, who then was developing a powerful critique of government-controlled enterprises.

Director also argued, persuasively to Bork and other then-liberals, that aggressive antitrust enforcement had hampered market forces during the New Deal, often hurting consumers rather than helping them.

Director's ideal was a totally free market, and he held it up as a standard for judging the efficiency of regulation, of antitrust policy and more. "At first, everything he said seemed to me counterintuitive," Bork said. At least through 1952, Bork remained a New Deal liberal; he and Claire campaigned for Democratic presidential nominee Adlai E. Stevenson that year.

But free-market theory began to win him over, and Bork stayed at Chicago for a year after law school to work on a research project led by Director. Bork describes the effect upon him in the language of a religious convert.

"It was a new way of looking at the world, and an enormously rigorous and logical way -- a method that seemed to promise further explanations of things if one pursued it," Bork said at a 1981 program on the Chicago school.

Bork and the other researchers occupied dark cubicles in the law school library from morning till night, emerging only when they thought they had a breakthrough idea, which they would share with Director. Bork and the others had frequent lunches, tea-time discussions and beers with Director, and all were captivated by his elegant undressing of conventional economic wisdom. But Director said in an interview that "conversion" was not the word for what was afoot.

"Bob never said he was being converted," said Director, now at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. "If he had, I would have told him he was being emotional about an intellectual issue. If you considered it a conversion every time you learned something, you'd be converted all the time."

Under Director, Bork wrote a 1954 paper arguing that when businesses bought up smaller companies "downstream" in the production process -- a practice known as vertical integration -- they often were acting not as monopolies, as then believed, but were simply becoming more efficient.

"The dominant opinion at the time was that this was monopolistic behavior," Director said, "but it became clear as we worked on it that it was not that case at all in some industries." The paper won the 27-year-old Bork wide acclaim among antitrust experts.

That year, Bork entered private law practice as an antitrust specialist. He worked first for a New York firm and for the next six years for the Chicago firm now known as Kirkland & Ellis, the city's largest.

Another Director protege, Howard Krane, came to interview at the firm a couple of years later, but was given short shrift. One associate overheard a partner mentioning in the corridor that Krane was passed over because he was Jewish, and reported this to Bork, who had an affinity for Director's students.

Then a star lawyer on his way to becoming a partner, Bork went with this associate to see several senior partners and said, according to his colleague, "We have a larger stake in the future of this firm than you do. We want this man considered on his merits." The partners agreed to take a second look. (Krane is today the managing partner of Kirkland & Ellis.)

Bork confirmed the story, but played down its significance. "You couldn't very well be running a quota system with a Jewish wife," he cracked.

Krane became a close friend of Bork's, possessing the same "dangerous" wit and lightning-fast mind. The two worked antitrust cases together, staying up all night at least three times a month. They also fantasized about writing mysteries -- a lifelong passion of Bork's -- featuring a detective named Dirk Dork. The first book, never written, was to be about a murder in a law firm.

Bork also became friends at Kirkland with Dallin Oaks, another Chicago-trained lawyer, now a member of the Mormon Church's governing Council of Twelve. The two were instantly compatible, both enamored of law, but both sensing what Oaks called "the lack of fulfillment {in law practice} in the intellectual area."

They talked for three years about their intellectual frustrations. During that time Bork became a partner and moved to Chicago's comfortable northern suburbs with his wife and three children. In 1961, Oaks announced to Bork that he was leaving to join the University of Chicago Law School faculty.

"I know that was a blow to Bob," Oaks recalled. "I was acting on what we'd been discussing."

A year later, in 1962, Bork left his $40,000 a year law partnership and joined the Yale University law faculty for a salary of less than $15,000.NEXT: A conservative's progress