A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
FROM EIGHTEEN NINETY-SEVEN TO EIGHTEEN NINETY-NINE
Two lectures, The Truth and A Thanksgiving Sermon, were published in 1897.
The orator’s attitude toward the subject of the first, and the objects and recipients of his gratitude and thankfulness in the second, may be safely left, for the present at least, to inference and imagination. These lectures are among the rarest of Ingersoll’s artistic and intellectual treats.
Even those whose knowledge of Ingersoll has been derived solely from the preceding pages will not be surprised at the statement, that, in common with many other individuals of genius, he was a passionate lover of music. Of its origin he once said: —
“Music expresses feeling and thought, without language. It was below and before speech, and it is above and beyond all words. Beneath the waves is the sea — above the clouds is the sky.
“Before man found a name for any thought, or thing, he had hopes and fears and passions, and these were rudely expressed in tones.
“Of one thing, however, I am certain, and that is, that music was born of love. Had there never been any human affection, there never could have been uttered a strain of music. Possibly some mother, looking in the eyes of her baby, gave the first melody to the enraptured air.”
Could anything be tenderer than the last sentence? It will, however, doubtless surprise many to learn, that, at the same time, he did not, as he himself remarked, know “one note from another.” He did not need to know: he had a heart and a brain. By this, I do not mean, that, like so many others, he had, in his thorax, merely a mechanical apparatus which pumped red ice-water, and, in his cranium, merely an extremely accurate physicopsychical contrivance for examining and analyzing facts, and forming conclusions. I mean that he had feeling and imagination, in their fullest, highest, and noblest sense — the elemental passion, instinct, and insight of which all art is born; which can neither be taught nor learned; which are coexistent with genius; and which, without knowing why, recognize their kind as invariably, as inevitably, as the nodding violet catches the image of its perfumed self in the stainless bosom of the meadow stream.
And not only did he have the most fitting and adequate appreciation of music of all kinds, from the vocal solo to the choral, “from the hand-organ to the orchestra”: he could describe this appreciation, — the impressions which music made upon him. In the presence of a flower; at sight of a sunset, a star; in the hearing of “music yearning like a god in pain,” — most men are dumb; but the poet is moved to expression. Proof of the unusually profound depths to which Ingersoll was stirred by music is not only a part of the precious memories of all who were near and dear to him; there is an abundance of such proof in his works. This varies from the merest fanciful word-picture of tone, melody, harmony, as occurring in the simplest pieces, to the most profound, subtle, and strangely beautiful conceptions of the greatest productions of the greatest composer.
Thus, in Ingersoll’s posthumous writings is this random “fragment” in appreciation of the voice of Scalchi: —
“Imagine amethysts, rubies, diamonds, emeralds and opals mingled as liquids — then imagine these marvelous glories of light and color changing to a tone, and you have the wondrous, the incomparable voice of Scalchi.”
And this, of “The Organ”: —
“The beginnings — the timidities — the half-thoughts — blushes — suggestions — a phrase of grace and feeling — a sustained note — the wing on the wind — confidence — the flight — rising with many harmonies that unite in the voluptuous swell — in the passionate tremor — rising still higher — flooding the great dome with the soul of enraptured sound.”
After reading only these few lines, in the light of previous knowledge of their author, can we wonder that many a musician, instinct with the artist’s yearning for sympathy and approval, was drawn to Ingersoll in the ties of a friendship which only death could sever? The following “fragment,” written in August, 1880, is not only most interesting evidence of one such friendship, but furnishes additional proof of Ingersoll’s high and noble appreciation of music, and his ability to convey to others, in language as subtly sweet as the strains of the violin itself, expressions of that appreciation: —
“This week the great violinist Edouard Remenyi, as my guest, visited the Bass Rocks House, Cape Ann, Mass., and for three days delighted and entranced the fortunate idlers of the beach. He played nearly all the time, night and day, seemingly carried away with his own music. Among the many selections given, were the andante from the Tenth Sonata in E flat, also from the Twelfth Sonata in G minor, by Mozart. Nothing could exceed the wonderful playing of the selections from the Twelfth Sonata. A hush as of death fell upon the audience, and when he ceased, tears fell upon applauding hands. Then followed the Elegy from Ernst; then ‘The Ideal Dance’ composed by himself — a fairy piece, full of wings and glancing feet, moonlight and melody, where fountains fall in showers of pearl, and waves of music die on the sands of gold — then came the ‘Barcarole’ by Schubert, and he played this with infinite spirit, in a kind of inspired frenzy, as though music itself were mad with joy; then the grand Sonata in G, in three movements, by Beethoven.”
“Where fountains fall in showers of pearl,
And waves of music die on sands of gold.”
Indeed, the frenzied bow of the master will make its many journeys, and we shall linger long in the enchanted realms of Wordsworth and Keats and Swinburne, before our senses are pained again by a strain so enamored of the Elysian fields.
In another “fragment,” Ingersoll writes of Remenyi’s playing:
“In my mind the old tones are still rising and falling — still throbbing, pleading, beseeching, imploring, wailing like the lost — rising winged and triumphant, superb and victorious — then caressing, whispering every thought of love — intoxicated, delirious with joy — panting with passion — fading to silence as softly and imperceptibly as consciousness is lost in sleep.”
We shall not wonder at the praise bestowed in these descriptions if we consider that, at the time of their writing, Remenyi, who had just completed a tour of the world, was aglow with renewed inspiration naturally incident to personal association with the foremost musical masters then living, including Brahms, Liszt, and Wagner.
Remenyi’s admiration of, and fondness for, Ingersoll were most intense. The violinist was a frequent guest of the orator, whose self and family he would delight by the hour with his marvelous music. His Liberty is dedicated to Ingersoll; and I once saw an envelope that was addressed in Remenyi’s peculiar hand, “To Col. Robert G. Ingersoll, the World’s Brain Progenitor.” Remenyi seems to have been both as sturdy as a lion and as playful as a kitten. Naturally the latter side of his personality was unreservedly manifested toward his genial, sunny-hearted friend. This is best seen in his amusing and altogether delightful letters. They would usually begin with some such salutation as, “Dear Colonellibus,” or “Dear Ingersollibus,” or both, and, after running the gamut of affectionate friendship, would end with, “Love to alllll,” from “Your porridge prodigy and admiring friend, the old fiddler.” They are, indeed, amusing and delightful. Thus one of them, written in Chicago, on February 8, 1892, indulges the hope that Ingersoll (to arrive later) may evade the thousands of other friends long enough to “come and take lunch with me and my friend Dr. E. H. Pratt, who is the very bigggestest surgeon doctor on this Globe.” Another letter, announcing a prospective visit to “400 (5th Avenue),” concludes with the warning: ” * * * and then woe to you. I will suffocate you with music.” One of these communications, not too intimate for publication, shall here be introduced in full, and without sacrificing (to the ruthless rules of grammar!) a whit of the unique musical genius and litterateur who penned it: —
“73 West 85th Street,
“Thursday — 12 Aug. 1897.
“Col. Robert Ingersoll
“Here I is at last in N. York, and I long to see you — and to see you all — Are you, are you all in good Health, because this Health matter is THE thing — I knows it now, since I have been partly — mostly on the other side — Now I appreciate my GOOD health — and I take precious good care of it — and to-day it is the 342d day that I am living on milk — and apples, and rough- shoed bread, but which is good enough for me, as it keeps me not only in ship-shape order, but through the apples in apple-pie order — without the actual pie entering into my system — but all this is much too much about me — but what is the principle thing, is, that I hope to see you all soon — whereupon I will conclude my present epistolary with my loveable salaams to you, my prophet — and to you all —
From this digression, so naturally incidental to Ingersoll’s appreciation of Remenyi’s genius (and vice versa), we turn to Ingersoll’s appreciation of music in general. In so doing, we come, in logical progression, to his description of the Sixth Symphony (Beethoven): —
“This sound-wrought picture of the fields and woods, of flowering hedge and happy home, where thrushes build and swallows fly, and mothers sing to babes; this echo of the babbled lullaby of brooks that, dallying, wind and fall where meadows bare their daised bosoms to the sun; this joyous mimicry of summer rain, the laugh of children, and the rhythmic rustle of the whispering leaves; this strophe of peasant life; this perfect poem of content and love.”
Although it seem incredible, there was another music which Ingersoll appreciated far more than that referred to in this and preceding quotations. That was because there was a far greater music. The account of his anticipation and discovery of the latter, — the story of his musical evolution, — is as interesting as that of his intellectual evolution. in Why I Am An Agnostic. He says:–
“During all my life, of course, like other people, I had heard what they call music, and I had my favorite pieces, most of those favorite pieces being favorites on account of association; and nine-tenths of the music that is beautiful to the world is beautiful because of the association; not because the music is good, but because of association. * * *
“Now, I always felt that there must be some greater music somewhere, somehow. You know this little music that comes back with recurring emphasis every two inches or every three-and-a-half inches; I thought there ought to be music somewhere with a great sweep from horizon to horizon, and that could fill the great dome of sound with winged notes like the eagle; if there was not such music, somebody, some time, would make it, and I was waiting for it. One day I heard it, and I said, ‘What music is that?’ I felt it everywhere. I was cold. I was almost hysterical. It answered to my brain and heart; not only to association, but to all there was of hope and aspiration, all my future; and they said, ‘This is the music of Wagner.'”
Richard Wagner was one of the gods on whose altar Ingersoll reverently laid the offerings of his great and tender soul. Had Ingersoll been a musician, he would have made as devout a grimage to Wagner as Wagner made to Beethoven; and we know, that, had Ingersoll arrived in time at the shrine of Wagner, one of the most unobtrusive of Americans, as well as one of the most obtrusive of Englishmen, would have accompanied “the Shakespeare of music” to the home of the blind composer. For the genius of Wagner, Ingersoll poured out the same unstinted glorification, which he embellished the tombs of Shakespeare, Burns, Voltaire, and Lincoln: “Some things,” he said, “are immortal: The plays of Shakespeare, the marbles of the Greeks, and the music of Wagner.” He went even further than this; he declared it as his belief, that the human mind had reached its limit in the three departments concerned. It was his unqualified opinion, notwithstanding his confidence in the future splendor of our race, that man would never produce “anything greater, sublimer, than the marbles of the Greeks” nor the dramas of Shakespeare, and that the time would never come “when any man, with such instruments of music as we now have, and having nothing but the common air that we now breathe, will * * * produce greater pictures in sound, greater music, than Wagner. Never! Never!” And why did Ingersoll hold this opinion? Because he believed that the Greek sculptors and Shakespeare and Wagner had expressed in marble, language, and sound, respectively, all that the heart and brain ever were, are, or ever will be, capable of appreciating. He believed, that, just as the air gets from the earth and the ocean as much only as it is capable of receiving; so there is a limit to what the soul can receive from the oceans and continents of music: and he believed that this limit, — the supreme degree of harmonic saturation, — the dew-point of melody, — was, and forever would be, Richard Wagner.
Without a demonstration, it were difficult to believe that even Ingersoll could have expressed in common words more fitting and wonderful descriptions of music, — that he could have woven in imagination’s loom more subtly rare and delicate conceptions, — than those which have been quoted. But his felicity of description, always apace with his appreciation, has given us the following justification of “the music of the future”: —
“In Wagner’s music there is a touch of chaos that suggests the infinite. The melodies seem strange and changing forms, like summer clouds, and weird harmonies come like sounds from the sea brought by fitful winds, and others moan like waves on desolate shores, and mingled with these, are shouts of joy, with sighs and sobs and ripples of laughter, and the wondrous voices of eternal love.”
After the following poetic vision can we wonder at Ingersoll’s opinion, that Wagner will remain eternally supreme — that he has expressed in sound all that the heart and brain of man are capable of receiving? —
“When I listen to the music of Wagner, I see pictures, forms, glimpses of the perfect, the swell of a hip, the wave of a breast, the glance of an eye. I am in the midst of great galleries. Before me are passing the endless panoramas. I see vast landscapes with vollies of verdure and vine, with souring crags, snow-covered. I am on the wide seas, where countless billows burst into the whitecaps of joy. I am in the depths of caverns roofed with mighty crags, while through some rent I see the eternal stars. In a moment the music becomes a river of melody, flowing through some wondrous land; suddenly it falls in strange chasms, and the mighty cataract is changed to seven-hued foam.”
If all of Ingersoll’s critics could see half as much in fifty actual landscape-paintings, what a wondrously artistic people we should be!
And who, after viewing this picture of the dawn, will not derive a nobler, grander delight from the music of Wagner? Who will not see in the latter the glimmer of the morning-star, the retreating darkness, and catch the light-like shimmer of melody from the violins? —
“The music of Wagner has color, and when I hear the violins, the morning seems to slowly come. A horn puts a star above the horizon. The night, in the purple hum of the base, wanders away like some enormous bee across wide fields of dead clover. The light grows whiter as the violins increase. Colors come from other instruments, and then the full orchestra floods the world with day.”
Next to the composer of divine harmonies, — the sculptor in sound, — the painter in viewless air; next to him who, in nature’s every tone, — from the first faint whisper when April amorous smiles, to the monstrous thunder-sobs of night, — tells of the joys and sorrows, the loves and hatreds, the despair, the hopes, the aspirations and the triumphs, — the sunlit shallows and the murky deeps of human life — next to him is his interpreter. For, although the composer is the only one who seeks expression in a universal tongue, he is the very one who is least often understood. He has many readers, but few interpreters. Millions read his notes on paper; but few there are who read them in his heart and brain, — who really and truly feel and understand them, — and whose own emotion and intellect are the inevitable medium of their perfect and instinctive interpretation.
So it is, after all, the interpreter who enables the lover of music to enjoy the genius of his favorite master; and Ingersoll regarded Anton Seidl as not only the greatest leader in the world, but “the noblest, tenderest and the most artistic interpreter” of Wagner that had ever lived. When this prince of conductors raised his baton, Ingersoll was enraptured. Of all the Wagnerian numbers, he was fondest of Tristan und Isolde, that Mississippi of melody.” A gentleman who was intimately associated with Ingersoll told the author, that, on many occasions, during the rendition of this and other Wagnerian compositions by Seidl’s or chestra, he had seen “the Colonel” entirely overcome, the tears coursing down his cheeks. That was because he was a perfectly developed human being, with all the emotions equally responsive. As he naturally and necessarily laughed at the risible, so he naturally and necessarily wept at the sad; and “Great music is always sad, because it tells us the perfect; and such is the difference between what we are and that which music suggests, that even in the vase of joy we find some tears.” It was the same with him when in the presence of beauty in any other art. But not to digress: Seidl himself once said, that, of all the people whom he had met, Ingersoll was the most sensitive to music. The following incident is here in point. After a Philharmonic concert, at which selections from Parsifal were given, and which Ingersoll and family attended, all, including Seidl, were seated in the Ingersoll home.
“Everything seemed to be all right tonight, Seidl, except the harp,” remarked Ingersoll, adding as to where, in his judgment, it should have been placed with relation to the other instruments. “Great God!” exclaimed the conductor, springing to his feet. “You are the only man, but one, whom I have ever heard make that criticism, and that man was Richard Wagner!”
Aware of suck musical sensitiveness as this on Ingersoll’s part, can we wonder, I ask again, at his opinion that Wagner had expressed in sound all that the heart and brain of man are capable of receiving? And can we wonder that he formed with Anton Seidl another of those friendships which was severed only by death, — the death of the great interpreter?
As had been the case on the death of Whitman, Ingersoll was absent from home; and the cold, laconic click of the telegraph told him of the death of Seidl. But who would not have recognized, regardless of its date and signature, the author of the following telegram, which was sent to Mrs. Seidl from Pittsburgh, on March 30, 1898? —
“We know that your heart is breaking. Our tears fall not only for him, but for you. It does not seem possible that the wonderful brain in which dwelt the greatest harmonies — the divinest melodies — has passed to the silence of death. Do not despair. You have left a wreath of sacred memories and many friends. We clasp your empty hands.”
As this message would indicate, and as would naturally be inferred from all that precedes it, the death of Seidl touched Ingersoll sadly and profoundly. If we can properly apply here the well known psychological truth, that an individual suffers to the same extent that he enjoys, then the death of Seidl, who had for many years been the very source of some of Ingersoll’s keenest joys, must indeed have been to the latter a deep and bitter sorrow.
As we have seen, it had for more than twenty years been Ingersoll’s practice to speak, in person, words of love and eulogy above his dead. On the death of Seidl, however, he was unable to be present in New York; and there was not time to communicate by mail. His tribute to the great conductor is therefore notable not only for being the only one which Ingersoll ever delivered in absentia, but the only one which he or any one else, perhaps, ever delivered through the media of the telegraph and a reader.
Since 1846, many millions of telegrams have been transmitted; but it is more than probable that the following, filed at Wheeling, W. Va., on March 30, 1898, is the most wonderful of them all: —
“In the noon and zenith of his career, in the flush and glory of success, Anton Seidl, the greatest orchestral leader of all time, the perfect interpreter of Wagner, of all his subtlety and sympathy, his heroism and grandeur, his intensity and limitless passion, his wondrous harmonies that tell of all there is in life, and touch the longings and the hopes of every heart, has passed from the shores of sound to the realm of silence, born by the mysterious and resistless tide that ever ebbs but never flows.
“All moods were his. Delicate as the perfume of the first violet, wild as the storm, he knew the music of all sounds, from the rustle of leaves, the whisper of hidden springs, to the voices of the sea.
“He was the master of music, from the rhythmical strains of irresponsible joy to the sob of the funeral march.
“He stood like a king with his scepter in his hand, and we know that every tone and harmony were in his brain, every passion in his breast, and yet his sculptured face was calm, as serene as perfect art. He mingled his soul with the music and gave his heart to the enchanted air.
“He appeared to have no limitations, no walls, no chains. He seemed to follow the pathway of desire, and the marvelous melodies, the sublime harmonies, were as free as eagles above the clouds with outstretched wings.
“He educated, refined, and gave unspeakable joy to many thousands of his fellow-men. He added to the grace and glory of life. He spoke a language deeper, more poetic than words — the language of the perfect, the language of love and death.
“But he is voiceless now; a fountain of harmony has ceased. Its inspired strains have died away in night, and all its murmuring melodies are strangely still.
“We will mourn for him, we will honor him, not in words, but in the language that he used.
“Anton Seidl is dead. Play the grand funeral march. Envelope him in music. Let its wailing waves cover him. Let its wild and mournful winds sigh and moan above him. Give his face to its kisses and its tears.
“Play the great funeral march, music as profound as death. That will express our sorrow — that will voice our love, our hope, and that will tell of the life, the triumph, the genius, the death of Anton Seidl.”
Before the echoes of the last sentence, — the last crescendo, — died away, the conductor of the orchestra raised his baton; and the first strains of the Siegfried march mingled the sorrow of the greatest composer “for all the dead” with the sorrow of the greatest orator for Anton Seidl.
Superstition was delivered, for the first time, on Sunday October 16th, in Chicago. In this lecture, Ingersoll surveyed, with the intuitive instinct and insight of the poet, — the analytical penetration and astronomical scope of the philosopher, — the entire realm of thought. With reason as his standard, guide, and touchstone, he began, as he invariably did, at the foundation, by specifying the several mental operations which must be classed as superstition; and he declared: “The foundation of superstition is ignorance, the superstructure is faith, and the dome is a vain hope.” He then analytically examined, as typical, many of the superstitions of mankind, — from that of the simple female, to that of the learned theologian “of the most authentic creed”; and he placed all on precisely the same intellectual plane. He found that there is as much evidence for the belief that the dropping of a dishcloth from the hand of a woman means “company” as for the belief that the dropping of a world from the hand of Time means an Infinite Personality independent of and superior to nature. There was as much philosophical profundity in the mind of the girl who counts the leaves of a flower and says; “‘One, he comes; two, he tarries; three, he courts; four, he marries; five, he goes away,'” as there was in the mind of the theological astronomer who sees in the glimmer of a distant sun the image of the “Great First Cause.” A shower of petals in the sunlight, from the dimpled hand of a maiden, was just as convincing as a shower of stars from the hand of Time, in the dusky dome of night. In nature’s infinite realm — throughout the thoughtless eons past — nothing had occurred, or had failed to occur, with reference to man. So far as “design,” “plan,” and “purpose” were concerned, a man and a petal were the same. Hence, to believe in any form, phase, or manifestation of the supernatural, was simply superstition.
But this lecture was something more than a classification, — something more than a declaration as to what is, and what is not, superstition. As the latter, born of ignorance, had given us, in its multifarious forms, all there is of evil; so science, born of intelligence, had given us all there is of good. We must therefore abandon superstition and the supernatural, and depend absolutely upon intelligence and the natural, — upon reason and science: —
“Science is the real redeemer. It will put honesty above hypocrisy; mental veracity above all belief. It will teach the religion of usefulness. It will destroy bigotry in all its forms. It will put thoughtful above thoughtless faith. It will give us philosophers, thinkers and savants, instead of priests, theologians and saints. It will abolish poverty and crime, and greater, grander, nobler than all else, it will make the whole world free.”
This, in brief, was the positive element of the lecture, — its cardinal conclusion. But it contained many minor ones; and of these, the most startling to theologians, if not the most important, concerned the Prince of Darkness. It was declared by Ingersoll, after a most critical examination of the Bible, that, — notwithstanding the terrible evils which have always followed, and which must ever follow, belief in the supernatural, in miracles, inspiration, signs and wonders, amulets and charms, witchcraft, evil spirits, and all the rest of superstition’s brood, — the Christian world could not deny the existence of the Devil; that he was really “the keystone of the arch”; and that to take him away was to destroy the entire system.
“A great many clergymen answered or criticized this statement. Some of these ministers avowed their belief in the existence of his Satanic Majesty, while others actually denied his existence; but some, without stating their own position, said that others believed, not in the existence of a personal devil, but in the personification of evil, and that all references to the Devil in the Scriptures could be explained on the hypothesis that the Devil thus alluded to was simply a personification of evil.”
That the clergy ever made a greater mistake with reference to Ingersoll than in assuming this attitude concerning the Devil, is very doubtful. “But what were the clergy to do?” may be asked. The answer is easy. There was but one thing that they wisely and consistently could have done: they could have kept silence. This would, indeed, have been “golden.” But they had evidently gained no prudence from My Reviewers Reviewed; from the experiences of Black, Field, Gladstone, and Manning; nor from those afforded by A Christmas Sermon and Is Suicide A Sin? They had not learned, even yet, that there was only one thing for them to do with Ingersoll, — leave him entirely alone. Had they done this, they would have been given “the benefit of the doubt,” as far as belief in the physical existence of the Devil was concerned; the comparatively few specific remarks on that subject in Superstition would not have been multiplied; and all would have remained relatively well. As it transpired, their evasive and shifting criticisms, — their attempt literally to “beat the Devil around the stump,” — so amused the Great Agnostic’s sense of justice and mental honesty as to bring forth one of his most formidable rejoinders. While Superstition was comparatively brief, and weaker on any given point than it would have been had its author not been obliged to deal with the many aspects and phases of the subject, his rejoinder, a lecture entitled The Devil, was not only comparatively long and exhaustive, but exclusively devoted to a single aspect of superstition. It was first delivered on Sunday February 5th (1899), in New York.
“When I read these answers,” said Ingersoll, referring, in the beginning of this lecture, to the statements of the clergymen concerning his own remarks on the Devil in Superstition, “I thought of this line from Heine: ‘Christ rode on an ass, but now asses ride on Christ.'”
Ingersoll then reviewed the history of demonology. He showed that all the devils, great and small, like all the gods, were created by mankind that they were inferred from nature by savages — sculptured by fear and terror from injurious phenomena. He showed that Christianity obtained its particular devil from the Jews, who brought him from Babylon; that the Old Testament teaches the existence of a real living Devil, not of “a personification of evil”; that, according to this book, the Devil once lived in Heaven, raised a rebellion, and was cast out; that “it is impossible to explain him away without at the same time explaining God away”; that had it not been for the Devil, there would have been no Christ; that, as a matter of fact, “the religion known as ‘Christianity’ was invented by God himself to repair in part the wreck and ruin that had resulted from the Devil’s work.”
He declared, that, on the subject of the existence of a real Devil, “the New Testament is far more explicit than the Old.” He pointed out, that Christ was tempted in the wilderness and on the mountain, not by “a personification of evil,” but by the Devil, who “knew that Christ was God, and knew that Christ knew that the tempter was the Devil.” “If,” said Ingersoll, “Christ was not tempted by the Devil, then the temptation was born in his own heart. If that be true, can it be said that he was divine? If these adders, these vipers, were coiled in his bosom, was he the Son of God? Was he pure?” Ingersoll also showed, by the gospels, that not only the writers thereof, but Christ himself, believed in the existence of a real Devil, and of innumerable little devils; that the principal occupation of Christ was the casting out of devils; and that, therefore, if the Devil does not exist, the New Testament is not inspired, the fall of man is a mistake, the atonement is an absurdity, and “Christ was either honestly mistaken, insane or an impostor.”
Of course, I have recited only a small part of the arguments which the Great Agnostic brought forward on the point concerned; but even these few will suffice to indicate the utter folly of his clerical critics in breaking silence — the consummate ease with which he refuted their assertion, “that all references to the Devil in the Scriptures could be explained on the hypothesis that the Devil thus alluded to was simply a personification of evil,” and with what similar ease he defended, at the same time, the thesis laid down in Superstition, “that the Christian world could not deny the existence of the Devil, that the Devil was really the keystone of the arch, and that to take him away was to destroy the entire system.”
Following as it did within four months the delivery of Superstition, this lecture on The Devil affords, in its acutely reasoned main text, and in the manner in which it was brought to a close, another typical example, not only of the Great Agnostic’s controversial resourcefulness, but of the versatility of his genius.
“What poem was that with which ‘the Colonel’ closed?” was asked of one of Ingersoll’s associates, who had not heard the lecture delivered.
“I do not know,” answered the latter, adding, in effect, that he supposed it to be a quotation from one of the poets.
The inquirer replied, in substance, that he did not think so; that the poem consisted of many stanzas; and that they were not from any poet with whom he was familiar. When Ingersoll was seen, soon afterwards, he was asked by the associate about the poem in question. He replied that it was something which he had written that afternoon, before the lecture. It was then recalled that “the Colonel” was writing for a time, in the afternoon, at a desk in the room in which the usual conversation was going on among friends and members of the family. He had written a poem of eighteen stanzas, — 108 verses, — entitling it the Declaration of the Free. Evidently intended, in the main, as a rebuke for his clerical critics of Superstition, it is, to that extent, essentially didactic. Nevertheless, it is by no means destitute of real poetic quality. Ingersoll preceded its recitation by the sentence, “Let me now give you the declaration of a creed.” I quote the first, fifth, fifteenth, and last stanzas: —
We want the facts;
Our force, our thought, we do not spend
In vain attacks.
And we will never meanly try
To save some fair and pleasing lie.
“We have no master on the land —
No king in air —
Without a manicle we stand,
Without a prayer,
Without a fear of coming night,
We seek the truth, we love the light.
“The hands that help are better far
Than lips that pray.
Love is the ever gleaming star
That leads the way,
That shines, not on vague worlds of bliss,
But on paradise in this.
“Is there beyond the silent night
An endless day?
Is death a door that leads to light?
We cannot say.
The tongueless secret locked in fate
We do not know. — We hope and wait.”
This was his last poem — in verse.
On June 2d of this year (1899), he delivered before the American Free Religious Association, in the Hollis Street Theater, Boston, an address on What is Religion? many clergymen being comprised in the audience.
To a correct knowledge of his mental tendencies throughout his career as a rationalistic reformer, it is as essential as it is interesting to note that this, his last public utterance on religion, differs from his first, Progress, chiefly in being far more radical. Following is its noble and heroic peroration: —
“Religion can never reform mankind, because religion is slavery.
“It is far better to be free, to leave the forts and barricades of fear, to stand erect and face the future with a smile.
“It is far better to give yourself sometimes to negligence, to drift with wave and tide, with the blind force of the world, to think and dream, to forget the chains and limitations of the breathing life, to forget purpose and object, to lounge in the picture-gallery of the brain,to feel once more the clasp and kisses of the past, to bring life’s morning back, to see again the forms and faces of the dead, to paint fair pictures for the coming years, to forget all Gods, their promises and threats, to feel within your veins life’s joyous stream and hear the martial music, the rhythmic beating of your fearless heart.
“And then to rouse yourself to do all useful things, to reach with thought and deed the ideal in your brain, to give your fancies wings, that they, like chemist bees, may find art’s nectar in the weeds of common things, to look with trained and steady eyes for facts, to find the subtle threads that join the distant with the now, to increase knowledge, to take burdens from the week, to develop the brain, to defend the right, to make a place for the soul.
“This is real religion. This is real worship.”
Nine years before, or on June 23, 1890, in an interview published in The Post-Express of Rochester, N.Y., appeared the following: —
“Question. — If you should write your last sentence on religious topics, what would be your closing?”
“Answer. — I now, in the presence of death, affirm and reaffirm the truth of all that I have said against the superstitions of the world. I would say at least that much on the subject with my last breath.”
In conjunction with this and the preceding quotation, the following letter to Clinton J. Robins (Dayton, O.) is of interesting significance, especially if we consider its date: —
“New York, July 13, 1899.
“C.J. Robins, Esq.
“Dear Sir: First accept my thousand thanks for your good letter. The only trouble is that it is too flattering. You are right in thinking that I have not changed. I still believe that all religions are based on falsehoods and mistakes. I still deny the existence of the supernatural, and I still say that real religion is usefulness. Thanking you again, I remain
His last public appearance was on June 21st, at Camden, N.J., in an argument before the vice-chancellor of that state, in the case of Russell versus Russell. During this argument, made on behalf of Mrs. Russell, in connection with the disposition of her deceased husband’s estate, Ingersoll declared, as he had so often done before, that the love of man for woman, of woman for man, was “the holiest and the most beautiful” thing in nature — that it had given us “all there is of value in the world.”
So, too, his last letter, like his last legal, his last religious, and his last political address, breathes the same sentiments that, with steadfast nobility and heroism, he had voiced throughout his life.
The letter, addressed to the editor of the Clarion (Mr. William Matlock), Chester, Ill., is as follows: —
“July 20, ’99.
“My Dear Sir: I enclose a clipping from your paper, Of course you copied it from some exchange.
“The words attributed to me I never uttered or wrote.
“‘I have one sentiment for soldiers; — Cheers for the living and tears for the dead.’ This is mine — but all the rest is by some one else.
“It is true that I think the treatment of the Filipinos wrong — foolish. It is also true that I do not want the Filipinos if they do not want us. I believe in expansion — if it is honest.
“I want Cuba if the Cubans want us.
“At the same time, I think our forces should be immediately withdrawn from Cuba, and the people of that island allowed to govern themselves. We waged the war against Spain for liberty — for right — and we must bear the laurel unstained.
Could fate have decreed that the champion of liberty, justice, and humanity should write his last letter on a more fitting theme?
It was pointed out in the beginning of Chapter VI, that one of the most remarkable exceptions which nature made in the case of Ingersoll was his intellectual vigor and productiveness during “the afternoon of life.” These were undeminishingly manifest until November 16, 1896. In the evening of that date, however, while delivering a lecture at Janesville, Wis., he experienced a cerebral hemorrhage. Its immediate effect was wholly subjective, and did not prevent the completion of the discourse. He continued to lecture, on his original itinerary, for a few days, when, at the solicitation of his family, he went to Chicago and consulted Dr. Frank Billings, one of the faculty of the Northwestern University Medical School. Dr. Billings advised him to go home and rest two months, which he did, resuming his lectures on January 24, 1897. About this time, he developed angina pectoris, from which he became an intense sufferer.
For a number of years, he had been in the practice of spending the summer at “Walston,” a charming country-seat, which, taking its name from his son-in-law, Mr. Walston B. Brown, is situated on the highlands of the Hudson, a little more than a mile from the village of Dobbs’ Ferry. At “Walston,” beauty seems omnipresent. To the west, the river lies like a great string of pearls placed by some huge Wontan on the breast of a sleeping Brunnhilde.
“Surrounded by pleasant fields and faithful friends, by those I have loved, I hope to end my days. And this I hope may be the lot of all who hear my voice,” said Ingersoll in 1877. Was the heart of destiny touched to fulfillment by this tender and generous wish?
During the night of Thursday and Friday July 20th and 21, 1899, at “Walston,” Ingersoll had an attack of acute indigestion, sleeping very little, and suffering great pain, which he sought to relieve with nitroglycerine, previously prescribed; but he went to breakfast in the morning, and afterwards sat on the veranda, as he was wont to do, reading and talking with the family.
About ten-thirty he remarked that he would lie down and rest awhile, and would then return and play pool with his son-in-law. Mrs. Ingersoll accompanied her husband up-stairs to their bedroom and remained with him while he slept.
About eleven-forty-five he arose and sat in his chair to put on his shoes. Miss Sue Skarkey, a member of the family, entered the room, followed by Mrs. Ingersoll’s sister, Mrs. Sue M. Farrell.
Mrs. Ingersoll said: “Do not dress, Papa, until after luncheon — I will eat up-stairs with you.”
He replied: “Oh, no; I do not want to trouble you.”
Mrs. Farrell then remarked: “How absurd, after the hundreds of times you have eaten upstairs with her.”
He glanced laughingly at Mrs. Farrell, as she turned to leave the room; and then Mrs. Ingersoll said: “Why, Papa, your tongue is coated — I must give you some medicine.”
He looked up at her with a smile and said, “I am better now,” and, as he did so, closed his eyes.
[NOTE: These were the exact last words said by Robert’s brother Ebon Ingersoll]
Ingersoll was dead.
The light of a hemisphere was out.
But, companioning that of Shakespeare, another star gleamed in the fadeless galaxy of the immortals.
Since Ingersoll’s death, which was caused by angina pectoris, it has been learned that, throughout the two and a half years preceding, he possessed exact knowledge of his physical condition. He had been told by his physicians that he was likely to die at any moment; but, earnestly entreating them to tell no one else, he kept the awful secret from his loved ones. Nor does this alone indicate his concern for their happiness. Although fully realizing that death was ever beside him, he was always very cheerful, and when asked as to his health invariably replied, “All right.”
Seven years before the development of the disease that caused his death, he said: —
“It is a great thing to preach philosophy — far greater to live it. The highest philosophy accepts the inevitable with a smile, and greets it as thought it were desired.”
As soon as poignant and overwhelming grief would permit, it was decided that the funeral should be private and the extreme of simplicity Accordingly, at four o’clock in the afternoon of Tuesday July 25th, — a little more than four day after his death, — his family and thirty or forty friends gathered in the room in which he died, and in which the body, without casket or conventional shroud, rested upon a bier, — rested “beneath a wilderness of flowers.” These had come, in mute expression of sympathy, boundless admiration, and love, from men and women of all stations, in various parts of America and Europe. And these flowers were to pay, in voiceless fragrance and beauty, the only tribute not born of the once warm heart of the dead himself. For those of the living to whom he had been dearer even than life itself, knew that in his own immortal words, if in any, there was solace, — the only solace that their grief could bear. It was therefore arranged to read three selections from his works. The first the Declaration of the Free, was read by Professor John Clark Ridpath; the second, My Religion, by Major Orlando J. Smith; and the third, A Tribute to Ebon C. Ingersoll, by Dr. John Lovejoy Elliott. This constituted the only service or ceremony at “Walston” or elsewhere.
On the morning of Thursday July 27th, it being realized that the last look at the idolized dead could nut longer be postponed, the body was borne by loving hands to a hearse, which, followed by five carriages containing the family and friends, proceeded, at eight forty-five, to the railroad-station in Dobbs’ Ferry. As the cortege passed through the village, business was suspended and blinds were drawn. Scores of men along the streets removed their hats. At the station, the casket and party were transferred to the funeral car “Kensico” and one coach, both of which (as a special train) Mr. S. R. Calloway, the president of the road, had begged to place at the disposal of the family. At the Grand Central Station, New York, the casket and party were again transferred to hearse and carriages; the cortege proceeding, via the East Twenty-third Street ferry and Greenpoint, Long Island, to the Fresh Pond crematory. The latter was reached at eleven-thirty; and about four in the afternoon the ashes were received in an urn which the family had specially provided, and with which they returned to “Walston.”
The urn, resting on a base of porphyry six inches square and two and a half inches deep, is of rich bronze, nineteen inches high, and ovoid in form, the largest diameter near the top. From the lower face upward and backward over the left side twines a branch of cypress, and around the top on the right side is a sprig of laurel, both in exquisite bas-relief. On the face is engraved:
and on the back:
The urn guards the ashes, the heart the memory of Robert G. Ingersoll. And so the urn does; and — so does the heart.