I would like to pay tribute, in my own small way, to the man who first taught me the importance of thinking for myself. It was more than 30 years ago that I first picked up a volume of his works in a San Francisco book store, and I was immediately impressed with the philosophical trend of his clear thinking and excellent command of English. Like many others brought up in an orthodox religious faith, I had been led to believe that this man was very irreligious, and that his chief aim had been to destroy everything of spiritual value that men held sacred. I was pleasantly surprised to learn first hand that he stood for many things which I had always felt religion should stand for, but all too often does not, particularly intellectual honesty and a loyal adherence to the dictates of conscience without which any religion becomes a mere form of external observances, blind faith, and a collection of prejudices from which the soul and spirit have fled.
While I have never considered that his philosophy of life was complete, nor did he claim it to be, I believe, it was sound as far as it went and was a step in the right direction, and one which opened up new avenues of investigation and search, and hence, a necessary step. It is frequently necessary to do a little unlearning before an advancement can be made. With this preamble let us turn to the man.
One hundred and seventeen years ago, August 11, 1833, Robert Green Ingersoll was born in Dresden, Yates Co., New York, the son of a Congregational clergyman. He had a distinguished career in many fields; as a lawyer, soldier, author, diplomat, and statesman, but he won his greatest renown as an orator, probably the most distinguished the western hemisphere has ever produced, and his ideas on religious and intellectual freedom, expressed with originality of thought and a fluent command of language, probably influenced the trend of mass thinking more than did any other single individual of his day.
Although he has been dead more than 40 years, there are still many people, particularly those who have never read his works, who have a totally wrong impression of the man and his ideas regarding religion philosophy and morality, due to the fact that they accept hearsay rather than the truth which is available to anyone who will read his works. Like all others who have dared to challenge the popular beliefs of any day and age, he has been misrepresented and maligned and things which he never said have been charged against him. It is a common practice of small souls, that when an honest argument cannot be answered, to start a campaign of misrepresentation. This was certainly true in the case of Ingersoll, and has continued for many years, long after his death. Simple justice and common decency among men demand that what he said, and what he did not say, be better understood.
Contrary to popular misconceptions, Ingersoll never denied the existence of God. What he did deny, just as many liberal minded people with religious inclinations today, deny, was the existence of such a God as described in the Old Testament. On this subject he stated as follows:
Let me say once for all, that when I speak of God I mean the being described by Moses the Jehovah of the Jews. There may be for aught I know, somewhere in the unknown shoreless vast, some Being whose dreams are constellations, and within whose thought the infinite exists. About this Being, if such an one exists, I have nothing to say.
Yet in view of this frank and clear-cut statement made many years ago and published in the authorized edition of his works, the following is found in the Universal Encyclopedia, Vol. 6, page 252:
Col Ingersoll's notoriety has been made by his public lectures denying the existence of a God.
The writer and publishers of such gross misrepresentation might well have taken a lesson in morality and honesty from the victim of their bias and prejudice. Regarding truth Col. Ingersoll said:
To love the truth is mental virtue — intellectual purity. This is true manhood . . .
A fact will fit every other fact in the universe, because it is the product of all other facts. A lie will fit nothing except another he made for the express purpose of fitting it.
Ingersoll wrote an intellectual declaration of independence for many who came within the sound of his voice or who have later read his lectures. His foremost plea was for intellectual honesty.
Standing in the presence of the Unknown, all have the same right to think, and all are equally interested in the great question of origin and destiny . . .
No subject can be too sacred to be understood. Each person should be allowed to reach his own conclusions and to speak his honest thought.
Regarding education he said:
Nothing should be taught in any school that the teacher does not know. Beliefs, superstitions, theories, should not be treated like demonstrated facts. The child should be taught to investigate, to understand, and, if possible, to know.
The charge has often been made by his critics that he sought to take away the solace of religion while giving nothing in return. The most cursory reading of his works by any fair minded person will reveal that such was not the case. While he was the avowed foe of blind, unreasoning superstitions of the past, I am convinced his only aim was to banish fear and mental servitude from the minds of his fellow men, and I have always considered that he was a true friend of real religion, if by that term is meant the highest aspirations of the human heart and mind. The moral tone of his philosophy was a plea for intellectual honesty, justice, truth, love, kindness and compassion.
The higher we become in the scale of being, the grander, the nobler, the tenderer you will become. Kindness is always an evidence of greatness. Malice is the property of small souls. Whoever allows the feeling of brotherhood to die in his heart becomes a wild beast. You know it and so do I . . . .
The consequences of a bad action cannot be avoided, they are the invisible police, the unseen avengers, that accept no gifts, that hear no prayers, that no cunning can deceive.
He reiterated the essence of all religion when he said: "Every man should be true to himself — true to the inward light." Nearly 2,000 years ago a Great Teacher of men said virtually the same thing when he stated:. "The Father and the kingdom of heaven are within." Referring to this same teacher Ingersoll stated that for him he "had only tears of admiration and respect." Thus it will be seen by any impartial observer that Ingersoll did not attack religion per se, as has often been charged. What he did attack was modern Phariseeism, with its theological errors and dead-letter observances which have always killed the spirit of real religion. It was Henry Ward Beecher who said: "A Pharisee is one who worships instruments. Whoever believes that churches, or books, or institutions, or customs, are more valuable than men is a Pharisee."
The following paragraphs are chosen from several of Ingersoll's lectures:
The truth, plainly told, naturally commends itself to the intelligence. Every fact is a genuine link in the infinite chain, and will agree perfectly with every other fact. A fact asks to be inspected, asks to be understood. It needs no oath, no ceremony, no supernatural aid. It is independent of all the gods.
Truth is neither young nor old, it is neither ancient nor modern, but it is the same for all times and places and should be sought for with ceaseless activity, eagerly acknowledged, and loved more than life, and abandoned — never.
Ingersoll never denied the immortality of the soul. He expressed his views on that subject in what I consider one of the most beautiful passages of any language when he said: "In the night of death hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing."
I believe that every man who wants to learn to think for himself; to exercise the divine prerogative of searching out his own intellectual and spiritual pathways of thought should read the works of Ingersoll. I do not mean that he should necessarily agree with everything that Ingersoll said, for to follow anyone or any school of thought blindly is the very thing which should be avoided, and would be contrary to Ingersoll's philosophy. The burden of his message was to teach men to think for themselves.
Each man, in the laboratory of his own mind, and for himself alone, should test the so-called facts — the theories of all the world. Truth, in accordance with his reason, should be his guide and master.
Only in that way can we really grow inwardly — intellectually and spiritually.
1. Courtesy The Norwalk Hour, Norwalk, Connecticut. (return to text)