31 December 2009
15 December 2009
The above statement may seem like a witticism of a sort, and sometimes it amuses me in a tragic sense, but it’s a true statement for me that expresses my increasing cynicism about society and my discomfort at that.
I think the American socio-, economic- and political structure is flawed in many ways. The majority of the nation is not in control its destiny: the people are routinely exploited, lied to, and manipulated. People have become addicted to being entertained: the emotional depth of their lives has dissipated. Their talk has become small talk, devoid of substance or relevance. We spend more time reacting to what television tells us than actually living life -- more time using people for our own entertainment than connecting with them: we attempt to console ourselves by endlessly buying things. The list goes on.
Perhaps many people think that society is sick for reasons different than my own, but they go on participating in it. I increasingly understand Henry David Thoreau, and sometimes wish that I, too, could run off into the woods and get away from the irrational and unhealthy society that has arisen in the United States. I even find monks to be understandable, and I want to live in a quiet little community somewhere with other people who find society objectionable and don’t want to participate it in anymore.
At the same time as I am thinking these things, I examine my motives and I wonder if I am not just becoming a perpetual whiner, pacifying and even entertaining myself by finding flaws in society instead of living up to my own ideals and doing what I can to change what I can. I wonder if my cynicism is just a way of protecting myself from the emotional toll living fully would actually take.
At the same time, I think a good thing that I am so wary of this increasing cynicism, that I don’t want to give up. It seems that many people do, and think themselves the better for it, but I am not convinced. I believe we must strive and fight in life, but my ability to do so is more and more impaired by my suspicion that I am merely kicking against a mountain.
How do other people prevent themselves from sliding into the abyss of jadedness?
11 November 2009
After that point, the Great War became known as "World War I', and the history books of my youth painted it as merely the introduction to World War 2, the "big one". There's a notable dichomy between the two wars, at least for me: the former is war at its basest and least noble, while the latter is war at its most romanticized. I do not know of any other war in history where the two sides have so clearly been sorted into "Good" and "Evil" categories. The second war is what Americans seem to think of when they think of war -- glory, goodness, self-sacrifice, and honor.
I wish Americans would think of the Great War when they thought of war. Regardless of the degree to which you may romanticize the second war or not, it is damned impossible for anyone to romantcize the first, except out of utter ignorance to its reality. Perhaps if your knowledge was limited to movies like Flyboys, you might think it a lark -- but otherwise, the cold reality is unavoidable. The Great War is war in its essence: utterly miserable and utterly futile. Those millions of deaths and all that misery endured accomplished virtually nothing, failing to teach even the lesson that nationalism and dreams of glory were furtile. That had to wait twenty years, and even then the lesson was not wholly learned. I think humanity would cease to war if we kept the Great War in our minds -- for once wars are stripped of their pretty ribbons and creative retellings, they all consist of people killing one another in horiffic ways, unable to see the humanity they're butchering behind ideal-tinted glasses.
Three years ago, I stumbled upon the song "Green Fields of France" in a Humanist magazine. I later heard it performed, and it haunts me from time to time -- and especially today.
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I've been walking all day, and I'm nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the glorious fallen in 1916,
Well, I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean
Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?
Did they Beat the drum slowly, did the play the pipes lowly?
Did the rifles fir o'er you as they lowered you down?
Did the bugles sound The Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?
And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
To that loyal heart are you forever 19?
Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?
The sun's shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that's still No Man's Land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man's blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.
And I can't help but wonder, no Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you "The Cause?"
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.
10 November 2009
24 October 2009
Will: Why shouldn't I work for the N.S.A.? That's a tough one, but I'll take a shot. Say I'm working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I'm real happy with myself, 'cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin', "Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area" 'cause they don't give a shit. It won't be their kid over there, gettin' shot. Just like it wasn't them when their number got called, 'cause they were pullin' a tour in the National Guard. It'll be some kid from Southie takin' shrapnel in the ass. And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, 'cause he'll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain't helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon. And they're takin' their sweet time bringin' the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin' play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain't too long 'til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy's out of work and he can't afford to drive, so he's got to walk to the fuckin' job interviews, which sucks 'cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin' him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he's starvin', 'cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they're servin' is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State. So what did I think? I'm holdin' out for somethin' better. I figure fuck it, while I'm at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.
01 October 2009
27 September 2009
25 August 2009
10 August 2009
06 August 2009
31 July 2009
Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.
Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.
This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
29 July 2009
25 July 2009
He's five foot two,And he's six feet four,He fights with missiles and with spears.He's all of thirty-oneAnd he's only seventeen,He's been a soldier for a thousand years...He's a Christian, a HinduAn atheist, a Jain..A Buddhist and a Muslim and a Jew.And he knows he shouldn't kill,And he knows he always will --Kill you for me, my friend, and me for you...And he's fighting for Palestine,He's fighting for Israel..And he's fighting for the USA.And he's fighting for the Russians,And he's fighting for Iraq --And he thinks we'll put an end to war this way.He's fighting for democracy,He's fighting for his soilHe says it's for the peace of all.He's the one who must decideWho's to live and who's to die --And he never sees the writing on the wall.But without him, how would HitlerHave condemned him at Dachau,Without him Caesar would have stood alone.He's the one who gives his body as a weapon of the war,And without him all this killing can't go on.No, no...He's the universal soldier,And he really is to blame.His order comes from far away no more --They come from here and there and you and me,And brother -- can't you see?This is not the way we put an end to war.No, no...
05 July 2009
27 June 2009
12 June 2009
06 June 2009
- The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell. A modern translation of Epictetus' Handbook and Discourses.
- The Art of Happness and Ethnics for a New Millenium, Tenjin Gyatso (the 14th Dalai Lama).
- Doug Muder's "Humanist Spirituality"
22 May 2009
"But knocking wood is only one example of a class of notions, so comforting and so productive of feelings of security, that men will seize upon them on the slightest provocation or none at all. Any piece of evidence tending to support such a 'Security Belief', however frail and nonsensical it might be, is grabbed and hugged close to the bosom. Every piece of evidence tending to break down a Security Belief, however strong and logical that evidence might be, is pushed away. (Indeed, if the evidence against a Security Belief is strong enough, those presenting the evidence might well be in danger of violence.) [...] I have come up with six very broad Security Beliefs that, I think, blanket the field -- although the Gentle Reader is welcome to add a seventh, if he can think of one.
Security Belief No. 1: There exist supernatural forces that can be cajoled or forced into protecting mankind. "
(Here Asimov addresses the possible root of such a belief, the capriciousness of natural events, their importance to hunting and agricultural societies, and thus the importance of being able to control those forces. )
"Security Belief No. 2: There is no such thing, really, as death."
Asimov details the fear and denial of death and explores some of its offspring -- spiritualism, for instance.
"Security Belief No. 3: There is some purpose to the Universe.
After all, if you're going to have a whole battery of spirits and demons running the Universe, you can't really have them doing it all for nothing. [...]"
"Security Belief No. 4: Individuals have special powers that will enable them to get something for nothing."
'Wishing will make is so' is a line from a popular song and oh, how many people believe it. It is so much easier to wish, hope, and pray, than to take the trouble to do something. [...]
Security Belief No. 5: You are better than the next fellow. [...]
Security Belief No. 6: If anything goes wrong, it's not one's own fault." [...]
When the Security Believers are strung by the explosion of the hoaxes and follies that deceive them, what is there last, best defense? Why, that there is a conspiracy of scientists against them."
I have been unable to find a copy of this essay online: I would like to be able to link people to it. It is contained in the posthumous collection Magic: The Final Fantasy Collection, which is a bit ironic. Magic consists of stories by Asimov that have been labeled as fantasy as well as essays on fantasy fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and other unrelated topics.
06 May 2009
You hold the key to love and fear, all in your tremblin' hands...
Just one key unlocks them both, it's there at your command...
C'mon, people now, smile on your brother --
Everybody get together, try to love one another right now. - "Get Together", the Youngbloods
One of my monthly pleasures while growing up was riding to the state capital, where my parents and I would enjoy the advantages of the 'big city" -- for my parents, stores, and for myself, the zoo. The state capital, the closest "big city", was an hour away and along the way, we would listen to what my father termed "oldies": rock and folk music from the fifties and sixties. Since we were fundamentalist Pentecostals, I was barred from listening to 'worldly', or non-church, music. My father relaxed the rules when it came to the music of his youth, however, and so his childhood bands became my childhood bands. My mother, much more conservative in that area than my dad, would be very uncomfortable at this prospect, but grudgingly admitted a certain affection for the Monkees. Although I relished in all of the music -- it was, aside from sneaking around and listening to country music when my parents weren't around, my only source of "real" music -- I especially liked the folk songs done by the beats and "hippies".
Their message -- peace, love, tolerance, and understanding -- was very attractive to a social misfit like myself, much the target of bullying and jeers. In retrospect I can't say I regret that those things happened to me: for whatever reason, they gave me a humanist heart and I have benefited enormously from the lessons learned. My appreciation for the message of the hippies grew when I hit high school and learned what the counterculture was actually about. Although since childhood I had regarded the 1960s with very romantic eyes, understanding the racism, intolerance, and indifference of the conservative fifties made me realize how necessary the hippies were. Although I was subscribing more and more to my parents' religion and becoming even more fundamentalist than they in certain aspects of my life, I found myself preferring the world of the hippies. Even though I wanted the typical suburbans dream, I could understand why the hippies wanted to get away from it.
As I've grown older still, my relationship with hippies has become more complicated. I've since learned about the drug abuse, for instance, and how they popularized horoscopes and so on. At the same time, as I have grown -- have started to question consumerism and have started practicing a philosophically spiritual life rather than a religiously dogmatic one, my appreciation for them has grown in those aspects. I understand the motivation behind the "back to the land" movements, and as something of a free spirit myself, I 'get' living outside cultural norms. Although the way I have looked at hippies has changed, I still love their music.
Some of songs I regarded as"hippie" songs from my childhood:
- "Get Together", the Youngbloods
- "For What It's Worth", Buffalo Springfield
- "Turn, Turn, Turn", the Byrds
- "California Dreamin'", the Mamas and the Papas
- "Blowin' in the Wind", Bob Dylan
- "All You Need is Love", John Lennon/the Beatles
- "If You're Going to San Francisco", Scott McKenzie
03 May 2009
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things
27 April 2009
13 April 2009
I realized early this morning that doing these things would be difficult. How could I endure aerobics class, for instance, if I couldn't even hold a cup of hot tea without my trembling spilling it on the table? After having breakfast and realizing that I wasn't going to be feeling better anytime soon, I decided to send my teacher an email telling her I wouldn't be there and trembled my way across campus to the university library, where I finished my paper and studied for German. The morning passed, and I felt oh so miserable. By the time 12:30 had arrived and I was leaving the office for lunch, I thought to myself "You know, I think if I found a handgun I wouldn't even wait to write a note!"
At lunch, I sat myself and pondered my situation. I still had so much to do -- how was I going to make it through the day? What I really disliked, beyond the physical pain and "Oh, just shoot me" feelings, was how the suffering had eroded my ability to interact with people. I found myself trying to get irritated or angry at trivial things (like the sound of someone walking behind me). I was also having to deal with feelings of paranoia. People kept staring at me, or so I thought, and I kept going to the rest room to check my zipper to make sure it wasn't open. When I began feeling irritated at two professors quietly talking, I knew I had to do something.
According to The Stoic Life, the Stoics believe that everything that happened to us left an impression upon our consciousness, but that we could "give assent to" or "Deny" those impressions. "Denying" the idea that people were staring at me because my zipper might be open was one thing, but denying my mental suffering was quite another. I knew it could be done, though. As far as I know, there are two types of pain: physical pain, as received through our nervous system, and mental pain. Mental pain, or suffering, can arise from both physical stimuli (a hammer hitting our thumb) or emotional stimuli (the loss of a friend). If suffering is in the mind, then I can deal with it -- disarm it. But how?
After lunch I had planned on walking through town to my local library for my weekly visit. My fatiuge had made me wonder if I shouldn't just go later this week, but I value my books to the point that I decided to stick it out. Leaving the dining hall and trailing behind the two whispering academics who had annoyed me so much, I decided to do something. I decided to sing to myself. "It's a good day...for shinin' your shoes, and it's a good day...for losin' the blues..."
While the song is one of my favorites, the lyrics refused to come to me. I continued walking -- and then tried again. "What did Dela-ware, boys, what did Dela-ware? What did Dela-ware, boys, what did Dela-ware? She wore her brand-new Jersey, she wore her brand-new Jersey, she wore her brand-new Jersey, and that's what Dela wore..."
It didn't seem to be working, and singing tired me. I continued, though, because there was nothing else to do. "Why did Cali-phone ya, why did Cali-phone ya? Why did Cali-phone ya, was she all alone? She called to say how-ah-yah, she called to say how-ah-yah, she called to say (Hawaii) and that's why she did phone!"
I continued singing softly to myself, stopping when I met a friend coming back from the library. We spoke a little and I went on my way, singing "How did Wiscon-sin, boys? She stole a new-brass-key. Too bad that Arkan saw boys, and so did Tenne-see! It made poor Flori die boys, it made poor Flori-die you see, she died in miss-our-i boys, she died in misery!"
And there I was, walking across the park to the library and I was feeling not "good", but...a lot less bad than I had before. The suffering had diminished. Thrilled, I continued humming to myself until I arrived in the library, at which I stopped as they generally frown on such things. I got my books, and noticed that one of them was not what I had expected. A week ago, while searching for "world religions", I found a book called "Embroidered Textiles". Then I was somewhat entranced by the title, thinking to myself that the author was going to look at the rich tapestry of human religious and spiritual experiences and then show to us the patterns hidden within. What a marvelous metaphor! I was quite looking forward to it. Imagine my amusement, then, when I opened the book to find that it was about actual textiles -- blankets, cloaks, and so on. I laughed for a while, and as I did realized that the suffering had diminished even more.
On my walk back through the park, I noticed a tennis ball. I made a sound of glee -- two weeks ago I'd found a similar tennis ball and had for a week kept it on my person for impromptu games of handball. I lost it last Sunday while throwing it against a building and catching it, because it hit a gutter pipe and bounced off at an odd angle into a trench that I couldn't access. And so there I was, walking back home, singing to myself, bouncing the tennis ball against the wet pavement. I had a headache and was still very much tired,but my suffering was gone. I had denied it through my behavior, and now felt strangely energetic and playful. Such is the power of the mind and mental denial.
And here is another thought: were I still in my parents' religion, I probably could have accomplished the same by singing a song of praise. Then, however, I would have interpeted what happened as being the work of God, who rewarded praise for relief from mental anguish. Either there's power in singing gaily, or Perry Como rewards those who keep his memory alive by singing his old songs.
If you want to hear the song I was singing, here it is below.
06 April 2009
"An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."
02 April 2009
- "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child"
Few people have heard of the man whose image has become my avatar on blogspot. His name is Robert Green Ingersoll (1833 - 1899), and he was an extraordinary man. Although raised in the early 19th century, his opinions and values were "24th" century -- Star Trek fans will take my meaning. He was raised by an abolitionist preacher, and although he did not share his father's religious beliefs, he certainly shared his father's gift for oratory. While he made his living as a lawyer and state attorney general, he was known in his day for his oratorical abilities. Mark Twain raved about him; the New York Times took notice of him. His talent may have been partially genetic and partially learned: some biographies attribute his spell-binding oratory to his early experience in the law. * He drew crowds, attracting the attention of far better known men like Samuel Clemens and Thomas Edison. Clemens may have borrowed examples and arguments from Ingersoll's own work. Although not exactly a champion of the working class -- he believed labor and the owners of factories were not fundamentally at odds with one another, and stated that he did not believe in Socialism or Communism -- he urged for fair and safe conditions. (On a minor note, he said this before the 20th century dawned in a time when those words had different meanings. While he advocated fair conditions for workers, he also promoted equal rights for blacks and "east Asian" immigrants to the United States in a time where their civil liberties and rights were severely curtailed. His sterling example shames his peers. Their prejudices cannot simply be excused by murmurs of "Well, it was the times..". His life sees him standing tall, towering over others.
Given the scope of Ingersoll's life, it is difficult to approach a tributary essay to him. The best approach I have found is to present him as a champion of liberty. It penetrated the man: it shaped his politics, his ethics, his parenting style, his efforts to find truth and meaning in the world. It was, I think, his watchword. He devoted at least one speech -- "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" -- wholly to the subject, applying the principle to seemingly every aspect of life he could think of. He was passionately devoted to the idea that people -- men, women, and children -- should be able to think for themselves, to discern the truth as best they could find it. "I have never claimed to know the truth," he said, "Only that there are things I believe to be true." Even those who disagreed with him could not help but admire the eloquence of his arguments: "The plea for liberty was sublime. [...]Freedom of speech, and of thought were never battled for in more manly fashion," reported the Troy NY Daily Press upon his delivery of it. It was in "The Liberty...." that he delivered the words that first enraptured me:
"If there is a God who will damn his children forever, I would rather go to hell than to go to heaven and keep the society of such an infamous tyrant. I make my choice now. I despise that doctrine. It has covered the cheeks of this world with tears. It has polluted the hearts of children, and poisoned the imaginations of men. It has been a constant pain, a perpetual terror to every good man and woman and child. It has filled the good with horror and with fear; but it has had no effect upon the infamous and base. It has wrung the hearts of the tender; it has furrowed the checks of the good. This doctrine never should be preached again. What right have you, sir, Mr. clergyman, you, minister of the gospel, to stand at the portals of the tomb, at the vestibule of eternity, and fill the future with horror and with fear? I do not believe this doctrine; neither do you. If you did, you could not sleep one moment. Any man who believes it, and has within his breast a decent, throbbing heart, will go insane. A man who believes that doctrine and does not go insane has the heart of a snake, and the conscience of a hyena."
When I read those words, I think of the poem "Invictus": "It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll: I am the master of my fate; I am the Captain of my soul." Such was Ingersoll's conviction that he could stand tall, proud, and defiant in the face of not utter destruction, but utter misery -- the purported "flames of Hell". He made a choice -- such was his love for compassion and liberty that rather than submit to the rule of a being who would punish someone for "thinking an honest thought", he would embrace the chance of that misery. There's something noble in standing firm for one's ideals in the face of power that urges one to write them off. A critic might say that it was easy for Ingersoll to utter these words given that he was an agnostic who had no belief in the afterlife -- only a faint hope that there might be one. But Ingersoll stood for his convictions in this life. When offered the chance to run for the governorship of Illinois if only he would stay silent about his religious views, he waved opportunity off: "Goodbye, gentlemen! [...] My position I would not, under any circumstances, not even for my life, seem to renounce. I would rather refuse to be President of the United States than to do so. My religious belief is my own. It belongs to me, not to the State of Illinois. I would not smother one sentiment of my heart to be the Emperor of the round world. "** Ingersoll stands as a standing rebuke to those politicians who assume religions they do not have -- who deceive in the quest for power.
I was almost hesitant to include Ingersoll's defiant words, knowing that for some readers this essay is their first exposure to the man. It was not feelings of intellectual superiority that set fire to his blood and moved him to utter those words. It was, I think, his compassion. The severity of his defiance above is matched by the depth of his love for life and joy. The same man who scoffs at delusions of god-given supremacy and moral superiority is the same who pleads with his readers to have a heart, to not "deny the same liberties one claims for one's own self". His hostility toward the "frightful dogma of eternal pain" began -- as he elaborates in "Why I Am Agnostic" -- when his father took him to a tent revival meeting and he heard a sermon on the agonies of Hell. So moving was this sermon that Ingersoll said he became the "implacable enemy" of the doctrine. He elaborates further: "The truth is that this belief in eternal pain has been the real persecutor. It founded the Inquisition, forged the chains, and furnished the fagots. It has darkened the lives of many millions. It made the cradle as terrible as the coffin. It enslaved nations and shed the blood of countless thousands. It sacrificed the wisest, the bravest and the best. It subverted the idea of justice, drove mercy from the heart, changed men to fiends and banished reason from the brain.
"Like a venomous serpent it crawls and coils and hisses in every orthodox creed. It makes man an eternal victim and God an eternal fiend. It is the one infinite horror. Every church in which it is taught is a public curse. Every preacher who teaches it is an enemy of mankind. Below this Christian dogma, savagery cannot go. It is the infinite of malice, hatred, and revenge."
It may be difficult for readers who have never lived under the idea of Hell to appreciate Ingersoll's motivation, to understand why he loathed this infinite hatred so much. I grew up in a world very much like Ingersoll's. The Pentecostal tradition in which I was raised hearkened back to those tent revival meetings. As a matter of fact, if you were to grace the doors of the church I grew up in, the first thing you would see hanging on the walls of the foyer is a painting depicting one of those meetings, with the fathers of the current Pentecostal movement depicted in profile. The sermon on hate that Ingersoll heard once bludgeoned me with its cruelty every week. It was only when I had grown callous to the threat of it that I could utter sentiments similar to Ingersoll's.
In another essay, "Orthodoxy", Ingersoll builds on his disdain for dogma. Here he dissembles the Nicene Creed while expressing his belief -- his hope -- that the religions centered around "things we not know of" would abandon their dogma and become religions of justice and compassion. He reveals a source for his contempt for doctrines and dogmas -- "My objection to orthodox religion is that it destroys human love, and tells us that the love of this world is not necessary to make a heaven in the next." Here we arrive at love, which I believe to be the root of a man, providing the basis for even his conviction to liberty. This is the love that guides him in his parenting style: the love for wisdom that sees him poring over the many books he talked about in "Why I Am Agnostic". Here, in this essay, he utters some of the most beautiful words I've ever heard -- words that belong in a wedding service.
Love is the only bow on Life's dark cloud. It is the morning
and the evening star. It shines upon the babe, and sheds its
radiance on the quiet tomb. It is the mother of art, inspirer of
poet, patriot and philosopher. It is the air and light of every
heart -- builder of every home, kindler of every fire on every
hearth. It was the first to dream of immortality. It fills the
world with melody -- for music is the voice of love. Love is the
magician, the enchanter, that changes worthless things to Joy, and
makes royal kings and queens of common clay. It is the perfume of
that wondrous flower, the heart, and without that sacred passion,
that divine swoon, we are less than beasts; but with it, earth is
heaven, and we are gods.
Ingersoll's flair for oratory has often made me think of him as a "secular preacher". One of his speeches I have is titled "A Lay Sermon", and here he shines. He promotes the same "spirituality" that the Dalai Lama writes about in The Art of Happiness: a commitment to human happiness. Happiness, Ingersoll states, cannot be found in anything but. To pursue wealth is to, in his words, pursue a "gilded hell". Money becomes one's captive. " That money will get him up at daylight; that money will separate him from his friends; that money will fill his heart with fear; that money will rob his days of sunshine and his nights of pleasant dreams. He cannot own it. He becomes the property of that money. And he goes right on making more. What for? He does not know. It becomes a kind of insanity." Ingersoll bucks attempts to pigeonhole him. He can't just be written off as god-hating bible-bashing atheist. I dare say that if I quoted those words in a Pentecostal church -- to an audience who had never heard of Ingersoll -- they would nod and chuckle. (I make an exception for the "prosperity gospel" believers.) Ingersoll once summed up his approach to life: "For while I am opposed to all orthodox creeds, I have a creed myself. My creed is this -- happiness is the only good. The time to be happy is now. The place to be happy is here. The way to be happy is to make others so." He expounds upon that simple creed -- which, by the way, you can hear him speak via sound recordings here -- in his "Lay Sermon", but the theme in general is interwoven throughout many of his works. In "The Foundations of Faith", he puts forth what he calls "The Creed of Science".
To love justice, to long for the right, to love mercy, to pity the suffering, to assist the weak, to forget wrongs and remember benefits -- to love the truth, to be sincere, to utter honest words, to love liberty, to wage relentless war against slavery in all its forms, to love wife and child and friend, to make a happy home, to love the beautiful; in art, in nature, to cultivate the mind, to be familiar with the mighty thoughts that genius has expressed, the noble deeds of all the world, to cultivate courage and cheerfulness, to make others happy, to fill life with the splendor of generous acts, the warmth of loving words, to discard error, to destroy prejudice, to receive new truths with gladness, to cultivate hope, to see the calm beyond the storm, the dawn beyond the night, to do the best that can be done and then to be resigned -- this is the religion of reason, the creed of science. This satisfies the brain and heart.
Note the source, an essay about faith. This is the beauty of Ingersoll. He isn't interested in just shouting down the preachers. However wrong he believes dogma to be, shouting it down isn't the point. "The more false we destroy," he once commented, "The more room there will be for the truth." This was a man who was not interested in sitting in a bar and grousing about the evils of orthodox religion. This was a man who runs to the churchhouse door, falls on his knees, pounds the door, and shouts "Stop, you're doing in wrong! In the name of love, you're creating misery! Can't you see? There's a better way." He railed against hate and dogma to create room for love and free inquiry. He was a humanist if there ever was one. He had no desire to make people unhappy, for he believed his own happiness lay in making other people happy. He had no desire to strip people of beliefs in heaven. He himself had "hope for the dead". But he could not accept a doctrine that would make -- in his words -- "the cradle as horrible as the tomb". Is it necessary, he asked, that heaven should borrow its light from the glare of Hell? Note also his term "religion of reason", and his commitment to both "Brain and heart". In his constant urging of people to think for themselves, he promoted the use of reason in our everyday affair. He was a man who celebrated intellectual progress and human achievements -- not just in science, but in literature as well. He was particularly fond of Shakespeare -- fond to the point of developing a lecture in which he praised the Bard's words.
There is so much more that could be said about Ingersoll. Part of what I like about him is his grandness -- he was interested in and talked about almost everything. Philosophy, politics, law, history, sociological critique, biology, literature, skepticism -- the man knew no bounds. He celebrated humanity, calling it the grand religion. His is a life that should be celebrated -- a name that should be known. Instead, in spite of his life, he has been consigned to obscurity. The reasons are not entirely known to me: he was one of the last orators in the so-called "Golden Age of Freethought", a man who fought the growing approach of dogmatic darkness in vain. The great Christian social movements of the late 1890s -- while perhaps giving him satisfaction that the churches were starting to practice the love they ought to have -- may have also dulled the bite of his criticism. Economic revival and the gilded age would have also made his criticism of seeking happiness through wealth unpopular. But he lived, and more importantly he lived well. He died as he wanted, with a family that loved him. They collected his speeches, ensuring that the lightening that once "glared around his words" was safely caught in a bottle for future generations to witness.
Such was the power of Ingersoll that even in print form, his speeches stir me. I have tried to express why he means so much to me that I would adopt his face as my own in this medium -- why I constantly often quote him, why I often hear his words. I can only hope that I have interested others in his life. The speeches collected are a goodly amount. Those I have quoted here -- "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" and "Why I Am Agnostic", principally -- are good starting points. If you are reading Ingersoll for the first time, I cannot guarantee that you will be entirely comfortable. He was severe, but passionate -- gentle and loving but fearfully agressive at the same time. This is a man of whom Hamlet might have said, "He was a man -- take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again."
Ingersoll is quite quotable. He was an orator, and his available work reflects the medium, providing short quotations brimming with content. When I have quoted Ingersoll in the above essay, I have generally made reference to the work I'm quoting directly in the text. Those works are online for free at the Bank of Wisdom and the Secular Web Library. The two speeches I quoted most were "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" and "Why I Am Agnostic", although I also drew heavily from "Orthodoxy" and "A Lay Sermon". Some of his work reflects developing opinions: during the economic depression of the 1870s, for instance, he is harsh in his address to the "working class". As the decades wear on and the abuses by the factories become more apparant, he is much more sympathetic and it is then that he defends them in "Orthodoxy" and "Eight Hours Must Come". Ingersoll could be quite eloquent, and I think his "Declaration of the Free" is an example of that. It also expresses his faint hope in an afterlife.Some of the more poetic bits of his speeches are presented on their own by the website "Positive Atheism". Do pay a visit!
* Robert Ingersoll, David Anderson
**Specific quote from Ingersoll the Magnificent, by Joseph Lewis.
- The Ingersoll Chronology Project, from which I borrowed the newspaper images
- The Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, including audio recordings. (Low quality, but one is fairly understandable and it served as my source for the "Happiness is the only good" creed quotation.)
- Robert Ingersoll at the Secular Web Library