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The Great Agnostic,
This review is from: The Best of Robert Ingersoll (Paperback)
Nobody knows Ingersoll's name today, and that's a shame. America has pushed him down into the footnotes of its history books. If it remembers him at all, it is as an atheist crackpot, a son of Tom Paine.
"I would rather be right than be president." Henry Clay said it, but if he hadn't, Col. Robert G. Ingersoll would have. It was certainly more true of Ingersoll than of Clay. He had the qualities people sought, then and now, in a leader. He had a keen, powerful mind; he was a matchless orator in an age which understood, and adored, oratory. He had led a regiment bravely in battle in the Civil War. He was honest, moral, dignified and in love with his wife and daughters. But when people encouraged him to run for president, or governor, he told them it was impossible, that he could only win votes if he would renounce his agnosticism, which he would never do. He would renounce high office rather than be false to his conception of truth. Between power and integrity there was, for him, no choice. And this disqualified him for office.
Mark Twain idolized him. Oscar Wilde, when he came to the United States, was curious to see this man Ingersoll whose lectures were so much more in demand than his own. He attended several Ingersoll performances, and pronounced him "the most intelligent man in America." It has been written that Frederick Douglass said that, "of all the great men of his personal acquaintance, there had been only two in whose presence he could be without feeling that he was regarded as inferior to them -- Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll."
People turned out by the thousands to hear him speak -- 50,000 one night in Chicago, in the days before microphones and sound systems. Ingersoll criss-crossed an America still deeply pious, heaping scorn on the brutality of religion. By the time he died in 1899, he had probably been heard by more human beings than any other person who lived in the 19th century. Although Ingersoll launched a broad-front free-thinker's assault on religious credulity, people seemed to focus on his words against the stupider aspects of Christianity, the ones that good, intelligent people had, by the late 1800s, outgrown. His sarcasm shreded the lingering bigotry in the national religion.
He held the odd status of beloved agnostic in a Christian land, in part, because this public man was so clearly living an honest, useful and loving life. His house was filled with spiritual and intellectual light, and he used a wonderful mind and a matchless personal power in the service of the good of all humanity. He frankly advocated equality for women when few men did, and he damned child abuse masquerading as parental authority. "Gentlemen," he said in one circumstance, "it isn't to have you think that I would call Christ 'an illegitimate child' which hurts me: it is that you should think that I would think any the less of Christ if I knew it was so."
His friend Walt Whitman probably captured the common view of Ingersoll when he called him, "a fiery blast for new virtues, which are only old virtues done over for honest use again." The odd thing is, Ingersoll would have been shut out of public discourse in America today. The fundamentalist movement began a few years after Ingersoll died, and the level of public and private spirituality in this country sank steadily and rapidly, unto the current level, where leading "men of faith" include Bob Jones and Jimmy Swaggart, "a cellarage only to be gazed at across the barriers of libel law."
Ingersoll's words and his life give proof to the suspicion many Americans may have, but few dare utter, that people without religion can live full, generous public lives, can have a better sense of right and wrong, than those bound up in creeds. I look forward to the day when I can cast a vote for a man as worthy as Ingersoll to be president of the United States, whether he believes in God or not. I doubt I will live to do it.
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Initial post: Jan 23, 2007 11:57:25 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 23, 2007 11:57:54 AM PST
I stumbled across a very old copy of Ingersoll's collected lectures almost 15 years ago and was delighted and amazed by it. Much of the amazement resides in the fact that, as this reviewer mentions, we are nowadays less free to hear this kind of discourse than we were then. A hard and bitter truth.
Posted on Sep 23, 2012 11:19:03 AM PDT
"the masses lead lives of quite desperation" No wonder! The human animal is full of fear-superstition-and a false sense of security by virtue of believing in the mythology of snake-oil salesmen keeping them from living in the HERE & NOW
Posted on Jan 29, 2013 12:50:32 PM PST
Margarita G. Gutierrez says:
Ive heard some of Robert Ingersoll's speeches on Youtube. He was a amazing man, and knew so much even in his day and age. Im glad to see that his name is becoming more well known these days amoung atheists.
Posted on Jun 7, 2015 1:22:17 PM PDT
Cactus Ed says:
An absolutely brilliant review of not only this book but of Ingersoll himself. Thank you!!
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