Posts Tagged ‘Walt Whitman’

Our Secular Heritage – Whitman had it right: ‘Argue not concerning God’ – published in the Concord Monitor 8/9/2013

August 9, 2013 2 comments

When Judge John Lewis of Stratford County Superior Court ruled in June that the tax credit program for private religious schools was unconstitutional, he relied on Article 83 of the New Hampshire state constitution. That article plainly states, “no money raised by taxation shall ever be granted or applied for the use of schools or institutions of any religious sect or denomination”.

On its face, that language seems clear. However, the case is being appealed to the state Supreme Court. Like so many other church/state issues, there are always two sides. Both sides appealed Judge Lewis’s ruling.

As Judge Lewis noted, the issue has deep historical roots. Really since the very beginning of the United States, separation of church and state, in multiple contexts, has been highly controversial. The threads of secularism and religion have been closely interwoven in American history. Judge Lewis’s decision is just the latest reflection of that tension.

People on the secular side of the divide have often been put on the defensive by religious fundamentalists and biblical literalists. They are derided and demonized as secular humanists, atheists, and elitists.

The fundamentalists have framed the church/state debate as between the believers (themselves) and the non-believers (the godless). Allegedly, they have values and secularists are value-free. I think this framing is grossly unfair to those of us on the secular side. While there certainly are hardcore atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, I would stake out a different position on the secular side. It is what I would call the Walt Whitman viewpoint. I actually think this viewpoint is more consistent with the views of many Founding Fathers who were Enlightenment thinkers.

In Leaves of Grass, Whitman famously wrote:

“This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyranny, argue not concerning God…”

I think there is much wisdom in the advice “argue not concerning God”. Whitman argues for the acceptance and validity of the views of both believers and non-believers. In the face of ultimate mystery, he respects multiple perspectives. In a country as diverse as the United States, Whitman’s perspective makes much sense. Look only as far as Egypt to see the potential for bloodshed and divisiveness when one sectarian religion gains power and tries to consolidate its gains at the expense of others.

The name-calling against American secularists has obscured our secular tradition in America which is honorable and insufficiently appreciated. There is no single repository of this tradition which is part of the reason it is underappreciated.

I wanted to acknowledge some of the contributors to the American secular tradition whom I admire, including a couple who are relatively unknown now. All the secularists I highlight have fought theocracy and have struggled to make America a more egalitarian society. It has to start with Tom Paine. The outstanding propagandist of the American revolution, Paine agitated in both the American and French revolutions and always fought economic privilege. In 1805, John Adams wrote this about Paine:

“I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine.”

In the 19th century, secularists played a vital role in both the abolitionist and women’s rights movements. I would mention the Grimke sisters, Sarah and Angelina, who were Quakers but who were fiercely anti-clerical and anti-slavery. They publicly spoke out against slavery before interracial audiences of both sexes, a practice that shocked the public of that day.

I also wanted to mention Lucretia Mott and Ernestine Rose. Both have landed in the forgotten category but they also deserve recognition and appreciation. They fought for equal rights for women in a very tough climate. Mott helped found the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society and she also helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 which was the first public women’s rights meeting in the United States. Rose was the first Jewish immigrant to campaign aggressively for social reform in the United States. In her book, “Freethinkers”, Susan Jacoby describes Rose as “the Emma Goldman of the 1840’s and 1850’s”.

Robert Ingersoll also deserves special mention. Known as “the Great Agnostic”, Ingersoll may be the most famous man of his time who is unknown now. A lawyer and an eloquent orator, Ingersoll made fun of religion, supported the Bill of Rights, and opposed the death penalty. He has been described as the American Voltaire. He spoke widely around the country in the late 19th century and he had a gift for charming audiences by using humor to disarm opponents. Of the Founders, he wrote:

“They knew that to put God in the constitution was to put man out. They knew that the recognition of a Deity would be seized upon by fanatics and zealots as a pretext for destroying the liberty of thought. They knew the terrible history of the church too well to place in her keeping, or in the keeping of her God, the sacred rights of man. They intended that all should have the right to worship, or not to worship; that our laws should make no distinction on account of creed. They intended to found and frame a government for man, and for man alone. They wished to preserve the individuality of all; to prevent the few from governing the many, and the many from persecuting and destroying the few.”

Moving into the 20th century, I will only mention two names – Clarence Darrow and Eugene V. Debs. I know others might question this choice. Darrow is certainly one of the most famous American lawyers of all time. In the Scopes monkey trial, Darrow represented a Tennessee high school biology teacher accused of teaching evolution. Debs, a labor leader who ran for President five times on the Socialist Party ticket, was extremely charismatic and inspirational. He was a die-hard supporter of working class Americans. Later in his career, he went to jail for opposing World War I and the military draft. At his sentencing hearing in November 1918 when he faced ten years in prison, he stated:

“Your honor, years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

I wanted to put in a plug for Susan Jacoby’s book, Freethinkers, that I had mentioned earlier. Freethinkers is a very comprehensive history of American secularism. It is an entertaining read and it gives great background on a far wider range of characters than I acknowledged in this short piece.

Jacoby makes the point that maybe secular humanists should call themselves freethinkers. It might be harder to demonize that term. I think it is past time for freethinkers to be defensive about arguing for reason and science rather than faith in the supernatural. There is nothing wrong with bringing a rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earthly existence. It is really a matter of intellectual integrity.

Robert Ingersoll and His Walt Whitman Eulogy – posted 4/14/2013

April 14, 2013 2 comments

Sometimes I like to post things just because they are beautiful. Robert Ingersoll’s eulogy to his friend Walt Whitman falls into that category. Ingersoll delivered the eulogy which I have reprinted below in Camden New Jersey on March 30, 1892.
For those who have never heard of Ingersoll, you are not alone. I came across a new 2013 book, “The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought” written by Susan Jacoby. It introduced me to Ingersoll.
Ingersoll was famous long ago. Although he is unknown now, he had achieved great fame in 19th century America. Known as ‘the Great Agnostic” Ingersoll was a leading proponent of secularism and the separationof church and state.
That summary actually fails to do Ingersoll justice. He could be considered the American Voltaire. I am not sure I grasp why he has been so banished from our history. He is a pillar of American secular tradition. Jacoby writes that Ingersoll stands next to Tom Paine in importance.
A trial lawyer by profession, Ingersoll was renowned for his entertaining and biting oratory. It was not unusual for Ingersoll to give captivating three hour speeches to sold out crowds. He travelled across America, speaking all over, mocking religion and speaking up for science and humanism. He was a strong supporter of women’s rights and racial equality. He had a gift for communicating to wide audiences. He was way ahead of his time.
There really is not anybody like him today. I do think we need to ask why Ingersoll remains so unknown. That question interests me although I think Ingersoll’s obscurity is comparable to quite a few others. I guess it is a matter of what we, as a society, pay attention to and remember.
Because of my own interest in history and also because of curiosity about unsung heroes and heroines, in the next year I intend to write periodically about others, like Ingersoll, who have been unfairly consigned to the historical dustbin. Anyway, here is Ingersoll’s eulogy of Whitman:


Camden, N.J., March 30, 1892.

MY FRIENDS: Again we, in the mystery of Life, are brought face to face with the mystery of Death. A great man, a great American, the most eminent citizen of this Republic, lies dead before us, and we have met to pay a tribute to his greatness and his worth.

I know he needs no words of mine. His fame is secure. He laid the foundations of it deep in the human heart and brain. He was, above all I have known, the poet of humanity, of sympathy. He was so great that he rose above the greatest that he met without arrogance, and so great that he stooped to the lowest without conscious condescension. He never claimed to be lower or greater than any of the sons of men.

He came into our generation a free, untrammeled spirit, with sympathy for all. His arm was beneath the form of the sick. He sympathized with the imprisoned and despised, and even on the brow of crime he was great enough to place the kiss of human sympathy.

One of the greatest lines in our literature is his, and the line is great enough to do honor to the greatest genius that has ever lived. He said, speaking of an outcast: “Not till the sun excludes you do I exclude you.”

His charity was as wide as the sky, and wherever there was human suffering, human misfortune, the sympathy of Whitman bent above it as the firmament bends above the earth.

He was built on a broad and splendid plan — ample, without appearing to have limitations — passing easily for a brother of mountains and seas and constellations; caring nothing for the little maps and charts with which timid pilots hug the shore, but giving himself freely with recklessness of genius to winds and waves and tides; caring for nothing as long as the stars were above him. He walked among men, among writers, among verbal varnishers and veneerers, among literary milliners and tailors, with the unconscious majesty of an antique god.

He was the poet of that divine democracy which gives equal rights to all the sons and daughters of men. He uttered the great American voice; uttered a song worthy of the great Republic. No man ever said more for the rights of humanity, more in favor of real democracy, of real justice.
He neither scorned nor cringed, was
neither tyrant nor slave. He asked only to stand the equal of his fellows beneath the great flag of nature, the blue and stars.
He was the poet of Life. It was a joy simply to breathe. He loved the clouds; he enjoyed the breath of morning, the twilight, the wind, the winding streams. He loved to look at the sea when the waves burst into the whitecaps of joy. He loved the fields, the hills; he was acquainted with the trees, with birds, with all the beautiful objects of the earth. He not only saw these objects, but understood their meaning, and he used them that he might exhibit his heart to his fellow-men.

He was the poet of Love. He was not ashamed of that divine passion that has built every home in the world; that divine passion that has painted every picture and given us every real work of art; that divine passion that has made the world worth living in and has given some value to human life.

He was the poet of the natural, and taught men not to be ashamed of that which is natural. He was not only the poet of democracy, not only the poet of the great Republic, but he was the Poet of the human race. He was not confined to the limits of this country, but his sympathy went out over the seas to all the nations of the earth.

He stretched out his hand and felt himself the equal of all kings and of all princes, and the brother of all men, no matter how high, no matter how low.

He has uttered more supreme words than any writer of our century, possibly of almost any other. He was, above all things, a man, and above genius, above all the snow-capped peaks of
intelligence, above all art, rises the true man, Greater than all is the true man, and he walked among his fellow-men as such.

He was the poet of Death. He accepted all life and all death, and he justified all. He had the courage to meet all, and was great enough and splendid enough to harmonize all and to accept all there is of life as a divine melody.

You know better than I what his life has been, but let me say one thing. Knowing, as he did, what others can know and what they cannot, he accepted and absorbed all theories, all creeds, all religions, and believed in none. His philosophy was a sky that embraced all clouds and accounted for all clouds. He had a
philosophy and a religion of his own, broader, as he believed — and as I believe — than others. He accepted all, he understood all, and he was above all.

He was absolutely true to himself. He had frankness and
courage, and he was as candid as light. He was willing that all the sons of men should be absolutely acquainted with his heart and brain. He had nothing to conceal. Frank, candid, pure, serene, noble, and yet for years he was maligned and slandered, simply because he had the candor of nature. He will be understood yet, and that for which he was condemned — his frankness, his candor — will add to the glory and greatness of his fame.

He wrote a liturgy for mankind; he wrote a great and splendid psalm of life, and he gave to us the gospel of humanity — the greatest gospel that can be preached.

He was not afraid to live, not afraid to die. For many years he and death were near neighbors. He was always willing and ready to meet and greet this king called death, and for many months he sat in the deepening twilight waiting for the night, waiting for the light.

He never lost his hope. When the mists filled the valleys, he looked upon the mountain tops, and when the mountains in darkness disappeared, he fixed his gaze upon the stars.

In his brain were the blessed memories of the day, and in his heart were mingled the dawn and dusk of life.

He was not afraid; he was cheerful every moment. The laughing nymphs of day did not desert him. They remained that they might clasp the hands and greet with smiles the veiled and silent sisters of the night. And when they did come, Walt Whitman stretched his hand to them. On one side were the nymphs of the day, and on the other the silent sisters of the night, and so, hand in hand, between smiles and tears, he reached his journey’s end.

From the frontier of life, from the western wave-kissed shore, he sent us messages of content and hope, and these messages seem now like strains of music blown by the “Mystic Trumpeter” from Death’s pale realm.

To-day we give back to Mother Nature, to her clasp and kiss, one of the bravest, sweetest souls that ever lived in human clay.

Charitable as the air and generous as Nature, he was negligent of all except to do and say what he believed he should do and should say.

And I to-day thank him, not only for you but for myself, — for all the brave words he has uttered. I thank him for all the great and splendid words he has said in favor of liberty, in favor of man and woman, in favor of motherhood, in favor of fathers, in favor of children, and I thank him for the brave words that he has said of death.

He has lived, he has died, and death is less terrible than it was before. Thousands and millions will walk down into the “dark valley of the shadow” holding Walt Whitman by the hand. Long after we are dead the brave words he has spoken will sound like trumpets to the dying.

And so I lay this little wreath upon this great man’s tomb. I loved him living, and I love him still.