29 April 2011

Freethought Friday #16: Intellectual Liberty

(Robert G. Ingersoll, 1830 - 1890)

From "Individuality": 

In my judgment, every human being should take a road of his own. Every mind should be true to itself -- should think, investigate and conclude for itself. This is a duty alike incumbent upon pauper and prince. Every soul should repel dictation and tyranny no matter from what source they come -- from earth or heaven from men or gods. Besides, every traveler upon this vast plain should give to every other traveler his best idea as to the road that should be taken. Each is entitled to the honest opinion of all. And there is but one way to get an honest opinion upon any subject whatever. The person giving the opinion must be free from fear. The merchant must not fear to lose his custom, the doctor his practice, nor the preacher his pulpit. There can he no advance without liberty. Suppression of honest inquiry is retrogression, and must end in intellectual night. The tendency of orthodox religion to-day is toward mental slavery and barbarism.

23 April 2011

Bernard Cornwell on Thinking for One's Self

Increasingly, one of my favorite authors is Bernard Cornwell, creator of several historical fiction series and a scattering of standalone novels. He boasts many strengths, among them irreverence toward politics and religion. I often search YouTube for interviews with authors I enjoy reading, and tonight I found this commencement address with message that will be appreciated by the kind of people whom I assume constitute this blog's audience.  A partial transcription follows: I omitted some asides and (regrettably) a somewhat humorous but lengthy aside in the interests of reducing the 'wall of text' as much as possible.

"I asked those same friends, and I said -- 'You all graduated, some of you a long time ago; what advice did you get at your graduation?' Eighty-seven percent could not remember. They had absolutely no idea, which suggests that my presence here is as of much use as an ashtray on a motorbike, but -- we have to push on, don't we?  [...] "But anyway, I thought to give you useful advice. Something really concrete, something that will keep you out of trouble -- something that will really stand you in  good stead. Never play poker with a man called 'Doc'.  It works! But my wife, who knows about these things, tell me I have got to be more useful than that. I've got to 'uplift you', she says, and so I shall try.  

It's quite possible that one of this graduating class will fail; you'll become a politician. And maybe what you have learned here will equip you to such an extent that you'll become President of the United States. I hope when that happens she will come back to Emerson College, but even if she does, or whatever you do, whatever success you have -- I wish you all success - -whatever dreams you have that come true, none of that is going to guarantee your happiness. Success doesn't guarantee happiness.  Selling thirty-seven million books doesn't guarantee happiness. It helps! -- but it doesn't guarantee it.

What will guarantee your happiness is that you think for yourselves, and become decent, honorable people.  And that's my second piece of advice, the one you're going to forget -- think for yourself.  Think for a moment what people have believed in the past. Astrology was reckoned to control our fates! -- some people still believe that. [...]  In the 12th century, they thought that celery was poisonous!  (I think that may well be true; I'm not sure...) We all know that Galileo -- what trouble he incurred when he suggested that the Earth went round the sun and not the other way around: did you also know that Murillo, the painter, was arrested by the Inquisition for daring to suggest that the Madonna had toes?  In the 19th century, at the beginning, it was believed that traveling greater than 30 miles per hour could be dangerous to your health; it could even kill you! ...I must say the Chatham police on Cape Cod still believe that.

Less than a hundred years ago, a textbook that was widely used in colleges throughout  the United States and for all I know, Europe, too...it was called Applied Eugenics.  It sold hundreds of thousands. It claimed that educating girls at college was tending towards 'race suicide'.  And why? I want you to listen to this, girls. 'Many a college girl of the finest innate qualities, who sincerely desires to enter matrimony, is unable to find a husband of her own class, simply because she has been rendered so cold and so unattractive, so overstuffed intellectually, and starved emotionally, that a typical man does not wish to spend the rest of his life in her company. " 

And if you think that eugenics was a crank science, that people didn't really believe in it, then consider that in 1927, the Supreme Court of the United States by a vote of eight to one, found it constitutional to sterilize people who were deemed mentally subnormal. In the name of eugenics. We have held beliefs -- I don't need to tell you of the more egregious ones -- but we have all been guilty. We have all held beliefs we assumed were true. Your job is to challenge everything, to think for yourself.  All those ideas and thousands more were preposterous, were reprehensible -- they were not held because our ancestors were evil. Women were not burned as witches because man is intrinsically bad, but because man wanted to do good. Those ideas were the accepted ideas of their times, and all I am trying to suggest to you is, think for yourself. Think for yourself. I don't care what your opinion is, but think it through. [...]

I'm not saying you shouldn't listen to advice -- you should listen to advice! [...] Listen to advice, but think for yourself. There are horrible dangers out there -- there are even....lawyers waiting for you.  Well done, all of you. Really, well done. You've been to one of the great colleges in one of the most blessed states in what is certainly the most blessed country in the world; you are well-launched. I leave you with this advice from somebody who knew how to give it:  "This above all: to thine own self be true. And it must follow, as the night  the day, that thou canst not then be false to any man. Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!"* Thank you; good luck.