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