Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Gem From Robert Ingersoll

I have easily 500 "good" books on my shelves.  Only seven are esteemed enough (by me) to be sitting between bookends, on my desk, within arms reach at all times:  (i) the complete works of Edward de Vere ("William Shakespeare"), (ii) Thoreau's Walden, (iii) Homer's The Iliad, (iv) Willa Cather's My Antonia, (v) Wallace Stegner's Angle of Repose (vi) Clay Jenkinson's Becoming Jefferson's People and (vii) Joseph Lewis' Ingersoll The Magnificent

Lewis' book is an admittedly hagiographic compilation of "gems" on all sorts of subjects by the great agnostic Col. Robert Ingersoll.  Largely forgotten today, Ingersoll was world famous in the three decades after the American Civil War for his oratory and his brilliant critiques of revealed religion.  Though best known for his witty skewering of organized religion and the Judeo-Christian Bible, look how eloquent he could be on other topics:

I know a great many rich men and I have read about a great many others, and I do not envy them.  They are no happier than I am.  You see, after all, few rich men own their property.  The property owns them.  It gets them up early in the morning.  It will not let them sleep; it makes them suspect their friends.  Sometimes they think their children would like to attend a first-class funeral.  Why should we envy the rich?  They have fear; we have hope.  They are on the top of the ladder; we are close to the ground.  They are afraid of falling, and we hope to rise.

Why should we envy the rich?  They never drank any colder water than I have.  They never ate any lighter biscuits or any better corn bread.  They never drank any better wine, or felt better after drinking it, than I have; than you have.  They never saw any more glorious sunsets with the great palaces of amethyst and gold, and they never saw the heavens thicker with constellations; they never read better poetry.  They know no more about the ecstasies of love than we do.  They never got any more pleasure out of courting than I did.  Why should we envy the rich?  I know as much about the ecstasies of love of family and friends as they.  They never had any better weather in June than I have or you have.  They can buy splendid pictures.  I can look at them.  And who owns a great picture or a great statue?  The man who bought it?  Possibly, and possibly not.  The man who really owns it, is the man who understands it, that appreciates it, the man into whose heart its beauty and genius come, the man who is ennobled and refined and glorified by it.

They never heard any better music than I have.  When the great notes, winged like eagles, soar to the great dome of sound, I have felt just as good as though I had a hundred million dollars.

It almost sounds like something you might read in Walden.