Inspiration for the Day: Walt Whitman's Eulogy

Before he died in 1892, the great American poet Walt Whitman asked his friend and fellow secularist Robert Green Ingersoll to deliver a eulogy at his funeral.

Ingersoll was a political leader and orator known as "The Great Agnostic," and the pair had been friends for a long time. Whitman once said of Ingersoll: "It should not be surprising that I am drawn to Ingersoll, for he is Leaves of Grass... He lives, embodies, the individuality, I preach. I see in Bob the noblest specimen — American-flavored — pure out of the soil, spreading, giving, demanding light." After reading a bit about Ingersoll and Whitman last night in Susan Jacoby's book "Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism," I decided to find the eulogy online. It didn't disappoint.

In my experience, the best eulogies do two things. First, they sum up the essence of a dead person both accurately and artfully. And, second, they inspire the living.

Ingersoll's eulogy, which I've included in full below, did that. After reading it, I had half a mind to CafePress a What Would Walt Whitman Do? sticker for my car. Although the whole thing is worth reading, the most (nonreligiously) relevant paragraph is this one:

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.

Beautiful, right? It reminded me a lot of a quote by revolutionary writer Thomas Paine, author of The Age of Reason.

"My own mind," Paine wrote, "is my own church."


                    A TRIBUTE TO WALT WHITMAN 
                    by Robert Green Ingersoll
                  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.


                         Bank of Wisdom
                  Box 926, Louisville, KY 40201


Crucifixion Story, As Told By a Freethinking 7-Year-Old

Field of Sheep 2

A couple of weeks ago, while walking along a gravel road in the French countryside (!!!), my 7-year-old daughter, Maxine, decided to tell her 4-year-old cousin the story of Jesus' death. It hadn't been a recent topic of conversation in our house or anything, but we'd just passed by a very old, very Christian cemetery, so that must have been what prompted the storytelling. The narrative was classic Maxine — relatively accurate, deliberately paced, full of distractions and incredibly amusing, with an editorial comment or two thrown in along the way. After the story was over, my nephew had A LOT of questions for his mom. I'd like to apologize for that, Jen. But what could I do? It was blogger gold! Oh, and a special thank you to the iPhone for allowing me to both record the conversation and get this shot of Maxine in a field of sheep.

Field of Sheep

Maxine: Once upon a time, Jesus... well, you know the story of Christmas. Do you know the story of Christmas?

Jack: No.

Maxine: Well, we’re not going to tell the story of Christmas. Okay, so one time there were some men. Or maybe there was one man. Or some men. I don’t know. So this man was a mean man. He wanted to kill Jesus. And he wasn’t very nice. So he went after Jesus and got Jesus and he put him in … jail? Well, I think it was in jail. And he wanted to kill him, so this is what he did:  He nailed him to the wall. Nailed him to the WALL. He nailed his hands and he nailed his feet. I would think it would be really hard. And he left him there for three days, or five days, something like that. Three days, yes. Yes, three days.

[Gets distracted by a loose-gravel sign on the road.] 

So. They nailed him to the wall. They left him there for three days. He died. Of course. Well, it’s not the end of the story yet. You THINK it’s the end of the story. Don't you think?

Jack: Yeah.

Maxine: Yeah. But it’s not. People believe in God. You believe in God. Also, even if you don’t believe in God, you believe that someone nailed him to the wall and he died. People HAVE to believe that because if they don’t believe that, they’re wrong. Okay, so whatever. Now.

[Gets distracted by a car driving by.] 

Okay. So. He, of course, he died. But some of his relatives, like his mom and...  I’m not sure if he saw his dad or not. Oh well. His mom and maybe his dad, I’m not sure, whatever, his dad, whatever, I'm not sure, and his relatives, his friends —

Jack: Or maybe Jesus didn't have a dad.

Maxine: Yeah, Jesus had a dad. Mary and Joseph. Okay, whatever.

Jack: Hey, my grandma has a toy about that!

Maxine: Oh yeah! She does! She absolutely, positutely does.

[Gets distracted by a goat tied up in someone's yard.]

Okay. So, anyway, back to the story.

Jack: Is this a true story?

Maxine: Yes, true story. But some people don’t believe this part: Everybody put Jesus in a cave.

Jack: All the mean mans?

Maxine: Yes, there were mean men. Oh, who put him in the cave? Well his mom, his friends, his relatives, or even people who believed in him. Okay, so they put Jesus in a cave and they left him there for another three days. And guess what happened?

Jack: What?

Maxine: He came back alive! Remember, Jack, some people don’t believe this part. [Whispers] It’s probably not real, just to let you know. But people do believe in it.

Jack: When he came alive, is that true?

Maxine: Jack, I just told you the answer to that question. I’m not sure. People believe that it's true. Also, people believe that it’s not true at all. My parents believe that it’s not true at all. But I believe in ghosts, so I believe it is. Maybe. I’m not sure. I still don’t believe in God, though.

Jack: My grandma has an angel in the Jesus toy.

Maxine: Yeah, uh-huh. Okay, so we’re getting to the end of the story. Jesus came back alive and — BABY COWS!

[Gets distracted by cows in a field.]

 Okay so then Jesus came back alive and said, 'I’ll be back to visit you.’ And he floated up to heaven. The end. I can't believe I memorized that whole — BULL!

Who the Hell are 'Nones' Anyway?

nonesThose unaffiliated with any religious group — AKA the "Nones" — often are misrepresented as those who "don't believe in anything" or who "don't care about religion." In fact, the group is far more diverse than that. Nones may refer to any of the following: Agnostics: Those who don't know whether God exists, and do not think it's possible for anyone to know.

Anti-theists: Those who are opposed to religion and/or the belief in a deity or deities.

Apatheist: Those who are indifferent to belief or disbelief and consider the subject meaningless.

Atheists: Those who do not believe in God, or — put more strongly — believe there is no God.

Brights: Those who belong to a sociocultural movement promoting a "naturalistic" worldview — based in nature with no supernatural forces.

Deists: Those who believe in the existence of God as creator of the universe but reject all organized religion and supernatural events.

Freethinkers: Those who form opinions about religion on the basis of reason — rather than tradition, authority or established belief.

Humanists/Secular humanists: Those who embrace ethics, compassion, social justice and naturalism and attach primary importance to human matters, rather than the divine or supernatural.

Naturalists: Those who believe the universe is devoid of general purpose and indifferent to human needs or desires.

Theists: Those who believe in the existence of at least one deity who is personal, present and active in the universe.

Pantheists: Those who reject the idea of a person-God but believe that the "holy" manifests itself in all that exists.

Pluralists: Those who accept all religious paths as equally valid.

Rationalists: Those who hold that reason and logic are the only true sources of knowledge.

Skeptics: Those who believe that continuously and vigorously applying methods of science are the only ways to arrive at explanations for natural phenomena.

Searchers: Those who belong to no belief system or worldview but are still open to ideas and actively searching for the truth.

Spiritualists: Those who are spiritual — which is an undefined term but generally refers to people who open to "the sacred" and are interested in personal well-being and development.


Who am I missing?