Editor's note: Though little known today, Robert Ingersoll (1833–1899) was the post-Civil War era’s most potent orator and intellectual defender of reason and freedom. “I think that Ingersoll had all the attributes of a perfect man,” said Thomas Edison, “and, in my opinion, no finer personality ever existed.” After hearing Ingersoll speak, Mark Twain said it was “the supreme combination of words that was ever put together since the world began” and that “Of all men living or dead, I love Ingersoll most.” There were only two men that Frederick Douglass reported ever feeling inferior to: Abraham Lincoln and Robert Ingersoll. In the essay that follows, you can assess Ingersoll’s stature and eloquence for yourself. For more on this great-souled giant, I refer you to Tom Malone’s wonderful biographical portrait, “Robert Ingersoll: Intellectual and Moral Atlas.”1 Jon Hersey

“His Soul was like a Star and dwelt apart.”2

On every hand are the enemies of individuality and mental freedom. Custom meets us at the cradle and leaves us only at the tomb. Our first questions are answered by ignorance, and our last by superstition. We are pushed and dragged by countless hands along the beaten track, and our entire training can be summed up in the word—suppression. Our desire to have a thing or to do a thing is considered as conclusive evidence that we ought not to have it and ought not to do it. At every turn we run against cherubim and a flaming sword guarding some entrance to the Eden of our desire. We are allowed to investigate all subjects in which we feel no particular interest, and to express the opinions of the majority with the utmost freedom. We are taught that liberty of speech should never be carried to the extent of contradicting the dead witnesses of a popular superstition. Society offers continual rewards for self-betrayal, and they are nearly all earned and claimed, and some are paid.

We have all read accounts of Christian gentlemen remarking, when about to be hanged, how much better it would have been for them if they had only followed a mother’s advice. But after all, how fortunate it is for the world that the maternal advice has not always been followed. How fortunate it is for us all that it is somewhat unnatural for a human being to obey. Universal obedience is universal stagnation; disobedience is one of the conditions of progress. Select any age of the world and tell me what would have been the effect of implicit obedience. Suppose the church had had absolute control of the human mind at any time, would not the words liberty and progress have been blotted from human speech? In defiance of advice, the world has advanced.

Suppose the astronomers had controlled the science of astronomy; suppose the doctors had controlled the science of medicine; suppose kings had been left to fix the forms of government; suppose our fathers had taken the advice of Paul, who said, “be subject to the powers that be, because they are ordained of God”; suppose the church could control the world to-day, we would go back to chaos and old night. Philosophy would be branded as infamous; Science would again press its pale and thoughtful face against the prison bars, and round the limbs of liberty would climb the bigot’s flame.

It is a blessed thing that in every age some one has had individuality enough and courage enough to stand by his own convictions—some one who had the grandeur to say his say. I believe it was Magellan who said, “The church says the earth is flat; but I have seen its shadow on the moon, and I have more confidence even in a shadow than in the church.” On the prow of his ship were disobedience, defiance, scorn, and success.

The trouble with most people is, they bow to what is called authority; they have a certain reverence for the old because it is old. They think a man is better for being dead, especially if he has been dead a long time. They think the fathers of their nation were the greatest and best of all mankind. All these things they implicitly believe because it is popular and patriotic, and because they were told so when they were very small and remember distinctly of hearing mother read it out of a book. It is hard to overestimate the influence of early training in the direction of superstition. You first teach children that a certain book is true—that it was written by God himself—that to question its truth is a sin, that to deny it is a crime, and that should they die without believing that book they will be forever damned without benefit of clergy. The consequence is, that long before they read that book, they believe it to be true. When they do read it, their minds are wholly unfitted to investigate its claims. They accept it as a matter of course. . . .

“Surely there is grandeur in knowing that in the realm of thought, at least, you are without a chain; that you have the right to explore all heights and all depths.” —Robert Ingersoll
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1. Tom Malone, “Robert Ingersoll: Intellectual and Moral Atlas,” The Objective Standard, 13, no. 1, Spring 2018, https://theobjectivestandard.com/2018/02/robert-ingersoll-intellectual-moral-atlas/; I take these quotes and biographical tidbits from Malone’s extensively researched article, which was my own introduction to Ingersoll.

2. Ingersoll apparently takes this line from William Wordsworth’s poem “London, 1802,” which is about John Milton. See William Wordsworth, “London, 1802,” Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45528/london-1802 (accessed May 21, 2024).

3. “Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” is quoted from the Book of Daniel, in which the blasphemer Belshazzar receives this message from god, which is interpreted as follows: “MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed . . . and found wanting”; and “UPHARSIN,” your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” See “Belshazzar’s Feast,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belshazzar%27s_feast (accessed February 16, 2024).

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