02 April 2009

Robert Green Ingersoll: a Tribute

"Let us thank every good and noble man who stood so grandly, so proudly, in spite of opposition, of hatred and death, for what he believed to be the truth."
- "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.

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