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Sunday, August 22, 2010

The Great Agnostic: Robert G. Ingersoll

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 help make others so.

Reason is the highest attribute of man.

The truth is, our government is not founded upon the rights of gods, but upon the rights of men. . . .  It is the only nation with which the gods have had nothing to do.

Argument cannot be answered with insults. Kindness is strength; anger blows out the lamp of the mind.

Happiness is the only good, reason the only torch, justice the only worship, humanity the only religion, and love the only priest.
The other day, while doing a little research on the history of divorce laws in this country - which just goes to show that the straight boys have been changing the rules of marriage all the time, just as they pleased - your Head Trucker happened to stumble upon this very interesting work:  Is Divorce Wrong? 

Written in 1889, it is a response to the question by three well-known public figures of the time:  Archibishop Cardinal Gibbons of Maryland, who naturally condemns the very idea out of hand, holding squarely to Roman Catholic teaching on the sanctity of marriage; Episcopal Bishop Henry C. Potter of New York, who as a good Anglican naturally waffles a good deal about it, pro and con; and finally Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, known as "The Great Agnostic," who ringingly denounces the tyranny and injustice of religious precepts against divorce, which cause so much needless harm to innocent people, though at the same time very warmly and rather poetically defending the sanctity of marital love and the family home.

Somewhere along the line I had heard of Ingersoll's name before, but couldn't remember anything about him.  So a little further googling turned up the very interesting facts of his life, and his numerous speeches and writings, which you can browse through at your leisure if you have nothing better to do after brunch.  Many of which are quite good, and even amusing at times.  "The Most Remarkable American You Never Heard Of" - yes, and I can see why he was never, ever mentioned in the history books down here in the Bible Belt when I was a schoolboy.  Or if you don't have time for reading today, at least check out this video, I think you'll be amazed for one reason or another:

[For some strange reason, none of Ingersoll's videos will display here - how odd. But try this link for an overview of his life and work:]

What I Say:  Ingersoll was a man of great intelligence, and of great compassion for the human race.  It seems to me that he is a more outspoken proponent of Thomas Jefferson's famous vow of "eternal hostility to every form of tyranny over the human mind."  And I agree wholeheartedly with Ingersoll's great aim of removing the shackles of ignorance and superstition from the human race.  Quite an admirable man, who deserves to be better remembered than he is.

Yet from reading a few of his works, I think Ingersoll, in his zeal to bring light and freedom to his audiences, sometimes overstates his case - as all zealots do.  Just as Ingersoll inveighs against ever placing "unquestioning faith" in any scripture or supernatural authority, so your Head Trucker would offer a gentle warning against placing the same kind of blind faith in any one remark of Ingersoll's.  To take just one example, in one of his writings he heaps great scorn upon the book of Job and condemns it as essentially worthless.  Perhaps so, if you think it was written to be taken literally.  On the other hand, if you approach it as a work of fiction - moral fiction - to begin with, then you may take an entirely different view of its worth.

Continued after the jump . . .

Nevertheless, Ingersoll's writings make for some fascinating reading, which perhaps will stimulate your thinking on this Sabbath day, whether you agree or disagree with his conclusions. One can only wonder at the effect his words had on the listeners and readers of his era - when what we now call "fundamentalism" was in fact the norm in nearly all churches, in a day when "freethinking" was heavily frowned upon - though of course he was not the first freethinker to come along in American history, but rather just one of a long line that includes Whitman, Thoreau, Emerson, Jefferson, Paine, and many others. I can tell you with certainty that if Ingersoll had done much lecturing in the South in those days, he would have been run out of town on a rail, if not worse; our great-grandfathers were no less "fundamentalist" than their descendants in these parts - and more quick to do something about it.

Ingersoll covers far too much ground for me even to attempt a summary of his main tenets here, except that through it all he seems to hold Reason - intelligence and factual evidence - as the supreme value in human life.  Your Head Trucker gets the point, to be sure, but would humbly add that Reason alone is not enough either to guide human affairs or to shape an individual's character.  It is entirely possible - as you perhaps have seen with your own eyes among your circle of acquaintances - to be extremely intelligent, logical, and knowledgeable, and still be a genuine prick:  selfish, ungrateful, and merciless.  A hard-hearted bastard.

Some one of those old Greek boys way back said that "to know virtue is to do virtue," which Ingersoll seems to agree with.  Literacy, education, science, material progress:  these are all that are needed for human happiness - the doctrine of progress, in other words.  Yet this seems to me another kind of dogmatic view that is flatly contradicted by the century that has passed since Ingersoll's death, and indeed by the entire history of the human race.  And that, your Head Trucker would assert, is because of one glaring flaw in Ingersoll's own reasoning:  human beings are not naturally good.  Human beings are, and always have been and will be, a mixture of good and evil.  That is our unchangeable human nature, and no amount of either religion or reason will ever eradicate it.

And here I must define my terms, or at least one of them:  when I say evil, I mean selfishness.  Theologians say that Pride is the first sin and the root of all the others, which is just another way of getting at my meaning here:  we are all born extremely selfish, self-centered babies, every one of whom - quite naturally, like any other young animal, no need to bring in any doctrine of Original Sin - every one of whom believes he is the center of the universe.  Unchecked, this attitude can persist, and all too frequently does in some ways, from the cradle to the grave.  We can all name examples of that, can't we?

Home training is the only remedy for it:  to cause a child to learn, by the very gentlest lessons at first, of course, that there are others in the world whose needs and wants and wishes must also be considered.  And those early lessons must be reinforced by others suited to the stages of development that follow.  It doesn't hurt to remind adults of some simple precepts from time to time, either.  So, not to make a long post here - it's too long already, perhaps you are thinking, and you might be right - your Head Trucker would amend Ingersoll's view to say that Reason must be balanced with Feeling, and tempered with Experience.  And here I will try to summarize a somewhat deep thought in a few words, for whatever it's worth to anyone - or no one, as the case may be:

I hold that the quality of loving unselfishly - denying or even sacrificing one's own good for that of another - is the highest good of humanity.  You musn't think I necessarily mean this in some dramatic, women-and-children-first way here; for most people, a single act of physical courage is much easier, even at risk of life and limb, than the steady, persistent daily habit of simply being kind to our neighbors.  Something everyone can do at least sometimes - even the ignorant and the feebleminded have a capacity for love, which is the opposite of selfishness.  Not something we can all practice all the time; but nevertheless, something to be aimed at even beyond the lofty heights of logic. 

Reason - knowledge - science - as we know only too well in this modern age, can lead, and have, to the senseless, undeserved suffering of millions, as surely as any dogma or supersition.  On a smaller scale, what shall we say about a man who buys or builds the biggest house in town - but cannot pronounce two little words:  "I'm sorry."  The best men and women are those who have developed not only the Mind but also the Heart - and have thereby acquired a Soul.  This is not the diction, I know, of the modern scientific age, but maybe the modern age needs to rediscover a little poetry for its own good.

Your Head Trucker also begs leave to assert, and he bases this not merely on religious ideas but also on personal experience, that above and apart from the twin poles of orthodoxy and atheism, there is a spiritual dimension to this our life, and to the universe:  the Love that moves the stars, as the poet wrote, the Love that is God.  Something that Science can never fathom:  as one may measure, indeed, pulse and pressure and hormones and endorphins, and still never arrive at the true measure of one human being's love for another. 

"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." --Hamlet, Act I.

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