A Biographical Appreciation of
Robert Green Ingersoll
THE PHILOSOPHICAL FOUNDATION UPON WHICH HE STOOD
Before attempting an estimate of those views the dissemination of which constituted the life-work of Ingersoll, let us carefully and candidly examine the foundation upon which he stood. Let us ascertain, if possible, whether, of frail and flimsy fancy, it rests on the sands of sophistry, or whether, hewn by logic from the granite of intellect, it lies deep and unshakable in the hard-pan of reason.
There have been applied to Ingersoll numerous theological and philosophical epithets and designations. He has been styled a heretic, an unbeliever, a skeptic, a liberal, a rationalist, a materialist, a Freethinker, an infidel, an iconoclast, a disbeliever, an atheist, and an Agnostic. It is essential, to rightful understanding and just appreciation of his opinions and arguments, that we here determine which of these terms, if any, have been applied to him with propriety, and which, if any, with total impropriety, and that we define such of them, in connection with their proper application to him, as are frequently misunderstood.
Now, all who are tolerably familiar alike with the English language and the tendency of Ingersoll’s thought will agree that, as concerns Christianity and the other alleged supernatural religions he was a heretic, an unbeliever, a skeptic, a liberal and a rationalist, using those words in their generally accepted sense; that he was a materialist using that word in its generic philosophical sense; and that he was a Freethinker and an infidel, using those words minus, of course, their usual odium theologicum.
Leaving the application of the term “iconoclast” to be considered in a later chapter, let us next ascertain whether Ingersoll was a “disbeliever.” Briefly, a disbeliever, according to dictionaries and theologians, is one who refuses to believe. Of course, it would be just as reasonable to speak of one’s refusing to like a certain article of food, for example, as to speak of one’s refusing to believe a certain thing. Both belief and unbelief unavoidably result from the consideration of testimony. If in the testimony there is sufficient evidence, the reason accepts, and belief results; if in the testimony there is insufficient evidence, the reason does not accept, and unbelief results. The will is not a factor in the process. In the vocabulary of the really intelligent, there is no such word as “disbeliever,” in the theological sense. Ingersoll, therefore, was not a disbeliever.
This brings us to the terms “atheist” and “Agnostic.” Numerous well-meaning individuals, many of them sincere admirers of Ingersoll, have attempted to rescue his memory from the theological abyss of unbelief by saying that he did not deny, that he only failed to believe. They have strongly emphasized the assertion that he was not an atheist, that he was merely an Agnostic. What would they think if they knew that Ingersoll himself declared the beliefs of the atheist and the Agnostic to be the same? But let us see for ourselves. A theist is one who believes in the existence of God. An atheist, the opposite of the theist, is one who does not believe in the existence of God. Ingersoll did not believe in the existence of God. Ingersoll was therefore an atheist. “But,” you will object, “Ingersoll did not deny.” True; but an atheist is not an atheist because he denies: he is an atheist because he does not believe. The atheist who denies, — and there are such, — may be a worse philosopher, but he is not a better atheist. On the other hand, the atheist who refrains from denying, on the ground that the nature and the limitations of the human mind are such that he has, and can have, no positive evidence on the subject, requires, in fairness, and for the sake of philosophical accuracy, to be distinguished alike from the atheist who does deny, and from the theist who claims to know. Such an atheist was Ingersoll, — “an agnostic- atheist — an atheist because an agnostic.”
An adequate knowledge of the intellectual foundation upon which Ingersoll stood involves an understanding of the origin and the more precise meaning and limitations of the latter word. In the first century of our era, there arose in the Roman Empire, simultaneously with what is now called Christianity, several widely different sects whose members claimed to possess knowledge of the being and the providence of God, and of the creation and the destiny of man. Collectively known as Gnostics, they were not mere believers, they were knowers.
In 1869, in England, the Metaphysical Society was formed, with Huxley as a member. Then in his forty-fourth year, he was not only one of the most distinguished of scientists: he was master of nearly everything of value in the realms of history and philosophy. From the cradle, he had been a philosopher. When a mere boy, he had read such works as Guizot’s History of Civilization and Sir William Hamilton’s essay On the Philosophy of the Unconditioned. In the fertile fields of thought, he had toiled with all the ardor that youth can know, and though the autumn’s mellowing days were yet to come, he already stood among the golden sheaves, and watched the purpling grapes. With all, and above all, he was mentally veracious — honest with himself and others — absolutely faithful to his ideal of truth. Upon his thoughtful brow, Candor, with firm and fearless hand, had placed a wreath; and the more Huxley thought, the greener it grew.
The Metaphysical Society numbered among its members many other able and variously distinguished men, including Tennyson, Tyndall, Clifford, Sidgwick, Carpenter, Ruskin, Gladstone, the Duke of Argyll, Harrison, Morley, and Stephen. Like the “secular leagues” and “liberal clubs” of America to-day, it was, as Huxley himself described it, a “confraternity of antagonists.” There were theists, pantheists, atheists, idealists of all shades, materialists, Freethinkers, and Christians. Like the Gnostics of old, they were not mere believers, they were knowers.
Huxley, the intellectual chemist, examined one by one the divers specimens which these modern Gnostics placed in the crucible of his brain, and he found that they were all “unknowns.” He could not make even a qualitative analysis. That which to the theist or the dogmatic atheist or the idealist was pure gold was, to Huxley, evidently a compound of many inferior elements. Just what those elements were, how united, and in what proportions, he could not say. Far from having revealed any new truth, his analyses, conducted with all the acumen and candor of which he was capable, had developed this solitary fact, that, except his being a Freethinker, he was philosophically unlike every other member of the Metaphysical Society. But he did not become egotistic and vain, and, after the manner of the Pharisee, give thanks that he was not as other men. Rather did he regret his unlikeness to them — the unique loneliness of his position. Indeed, in at least one respect, he longed to resemble his fellows — to have a name. He saw that, while the minds of those about him were clad in gorgeous robes, the warp and woof of which had been wrought in the loom of theological tradition and metaphysical fancy, he was “without a rag” to cover the nakedness of his candor. And so he became meditative, introspective, — began to contemplate himself and his associates. He perceived that they “had attained a certain ‘gnosis,'” and that, consequently, they were his exact opposites, like the Gnostics. He therefore concluded that he was an “Agnostic,” and that the application of his principle, or method, in the ascertainment of truth was “Agnosticism.” He says: —
“Positively the principle may be expressed: In matters of the intellect, follow your reason as far as it will take you, without regard to any other consideration. And negatively: In matters of the intellect, do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable.” [From Science and Christian Tradition. Essays by Thomas Huxley.]
Thus was coined, and thus is defined, Agnosticism, — one of the most useful, one of the most universal, one of the noblest words that ever fell from human lips. Its birth was one of the really important and significant events of the nineteenth century. It is one of the milestones on the mental highway. It means honest intelligence — candor wedded to intellect. It represents a great, a sublime principle — a method for avoiding mental mistakes. Says Kant: —
“The greatest and perhaps the sole use of all philosophy of pure reason is, after all, merely negative, since it serves not as an organon for the enlargement [of knowledge], but as a discipline for its delimitation; and, instead of discovering truth, has only the modest merit of preventing error.”
But Agnosticism, as is shown by my first quotation, from Huxley, is as positive as it is negative. It represents the psychological state in which one declines, or to he strictly accurate, fails, to assent to, or to assert the truth of, a proposition in the absence of sufficient evidence.
Agnosticism is a Pasteur filter in the great stream of human thought. The filtrate, that is, the clear and sparkling liquid which passes through, is what we believe. The turbid slush, the pathogenic sediment and scum which does not pass through, is what we do not believe: we cast it out. Ingersoll had one of these filters, and in its infinitesimal meshes he found all of the theologies of mankind. But he did not either construct or select the filter: it was given to him before he was born.
Let us now go a little deeper; for we have not quite reached the bed-rock of truth. Having shown how the word Agnosticism came into use, what it means, and something of what it does not mean, let us candidly try to ascertain whether it represents a mental vanity, — a principle existing in the immutable necessity of things.
We have what is called the science of metaphysics. It deals with the contents and operations of mind, the so-called metaphysical, in contradistinction to physics, which deals with certain phases of substance and energy, — matter in motion. This sublime science of metaphysics originated far back among those wonderful peoples who gave to us most of our present philosophy and theology, including of course, Christianity, and to whom we have given the title of “heathen.” Many individuals, more especially dogmatic materialistic Freethinkers, are wont to discredit the science; but as Huxley wisely says: —
“Sound metaphysics is an amulet which renders its possessor proof alike against the poison of superstition and the counter- poison of shallow negation; by showing that the affirmations of the farmer and the denials of the latter alike deal with matters about which, for lack of evidence, nothing can be either affirmed or denied.” [from Hume]
Of course, a comprehensive consideration of the logical relations of the agnostic principle to metaphysics would involve a presentation of the relevant views of nearly all of the great ancient and modern thinkers, including Xenophanes, Heraclitus, Anaxagoras, Democritus, Protagoras, Aristotle, Parmenides, Pyrrho, Epicurus, Arcesilaus, Bacon, and especially those of Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, Hamilton, Mansel, Comte, Mill, Huxley, Tyndall, and Spencer. But it is hoped that the immeasurably briefer consideration of the relations just mentioned which space here affords will not prove wholly inadequate.
To realize the latter, — to trace the agnostic principle to its origin, — it is necessary that we became oblivious of the physical, or outer, world and enter, for a few moments, the world of mind. Although it may seem egotistic, I shall here write in the first person singular. I shall do this for the sake of simplicity and perspicuity, if not from logical necessity, — rather the latter; for the attentive reader will presently perceive that I could not consistently employ either the second or the third person.
Now, I examine my own mind, and I find that I know two things. First, I know that I exist. How do I know this? Because “I examine.” How could I examine if I did not exist? In other words, I am conscious; therefore, I exist — “I think, hence I am.” Second, I perceive that my stream of consciousness is subject to continuous interruptions, or changes; and these interruptions, or changes, I call phenomena. Now, these two things, — the perception of my existence and the perception of phenomena, — in other words, these states of consciousness, or “psychoses,” — are what I know. To put it more briefly still, I know phenomena. Above, below, behind these phenomena, I cannot logically and honestly go. Whether the multitudinous divergent phenomena manifest in my subjective consciousness, through the five senses, are mere seemings; whether they represent objective realities, and, if so, whether those realities are different from, or greater or less than, the phenomena themselves, I do not and can not know. Whether the paper on which I write, my limbs, my body, are objective realities, and, if so, whether they are precisely what they seem to be, I do not and can not know. Why can I not know? Because everything concerning them must reach my consciousness through one or more of the senses, and be perceived as phenomena. Hence I am where I started. The circle shows no break. Like Archimedes, my lever is without a fulcrum. What then, shall be my attitude? Shall I either assent to or deny the assertion of the idealist, that, back of subjective phenomena, there is no objective reality, no material substance? Shall I either assent to or deny the assertion of the dogmatic materialist, that, back of subjective phenomena, there is an objective reality, an eternal material substance which is the cause of those phenomena? Shall I either assent to or deny the assertion of the theist, that back of subjective phenomena is God, their “Great First Cause”? What shall be my attitude? “Whoso has mastered the elements of philosophy knows that the attribute of unquestionable certainty appertains only to the existence of a state of consciousness so long as it exists; * * *.” “For any demonstration that can be given to the contrary effect, the `collection of perceptions’ which makes up our consciousness may be an orderly phantasmagoria generated by the Ego, unfolding its successive scenes on the background of the abyss of nothingness; as a firework, which is but cunningly arranged combustibles, grows from a spark into a coruscation, and from a coruscation into figures, and words, and cascades of devouring fire, and then vanishes into the darkness of the night.
“On the other hand, it must no less readily be allowed that, for anything that can be proved to the contrary, there may be a real something which is the cause of all our impressions; that sensations, though not likenesses, are symbols of that something; and that the part of that something, which we call the nervous system, is an apparatus for supplying us with a sort of algebra of fact, based on those symbols. A brain may be the machinery by which the material universe becomes conscious of itself.” What, then, I ask again, shall be my attitude? Shall I either assent to or deny the assertion of the idealist, of the dogmatic materialist, or of the theist? I shall do none of these. I shall say, with Ingersoll, “I do not know.”
Now, this one sublime truth, that all we positively know, or can positively know, is phenomena; that the pneumonia, the things (if any things) back of phenomena, “the things in themselves,” the ultimate realities, the “Absolute,” or “Unconditioned,” are unknown and inscrutable, is the truth which I had in view when, at the beginning of this chapter, I proposed to examine the philosophical foundation upon which Ingersoll stood. It is, I repeat, the one sublime truth; and until it shall have been blotted out, the attitude of the Agnostic, it seems to me, must be recognized as the only tenable attitude of the human mind. Says Ingersoll: —
“Let us be honest with ourselves. In the presence of countless mysteries; standing beneath the boundless heaven sown thick with constellations; knowing that each grain of sand, each leaf, each blade of grass, asks of every mind the answerless question; knowing that the simplest thing defies solution; feeling that we deal with the superficial and the relative, and that we are forever eluded by the real, the absolute, — let us admit the limitations of our minds, and let us have the courage and candor to say: We do not know.”
Anxious to hear at first hand his views on so vital a point, I once asked Ingersoll why he had accepted Agnosticism, instead of either theism or dogmatic atheism. Be replied, in effect, that he possessed, as his only guide in this and all other matters, a brain capable of certain things: there were limits within which its processes were confined. Under given conditions, it reached given conclusions — we will say beliefs. These beliefs unavoidably resulted from evidence, as that which is called “weight” results from the gravitation of matter placed upon a scale. As far as he could see, his beliefs, — his weights, — were right, but he did not affirm that they were right; for he recognized the fact that, after all, his brain, — his mental scales, — might be wrong. To him, the assertion that an infinitely wise and powerful Being created and governs this world was a monstrous absurdity; but he did not deny, because, as already stated, he realized that the mental scales in which he was obliged to weigh the evidence for and against might be wrong, — might have erroneously tipped to the negative side. And so he never claimed to know the right weight: he simply read the scale. Moreover, he knew that there were millions of other “scales,” every one differing from his own, and that, consequently, in spite of themselves, they would all give different weights to the same matter. This is the golden kernel of Ingersollism — every mind its own “sealer of weights and measures.” He knew that the theist and the dogmatic atheist alike must, too, have weighed the matter in their scales, and must have reached, unavoidably, their respective conclusions. He did not blame them for their conclusions: he simply demanded that they, like himself, tell them as conclusions, not as facts.
By many, Agnosticism is looked upon as a sort of philosophical system or anti-theological creed. It is regarded as collectively representing all the ideas and doctrines that are more or less antagonistic to supernaturalism, particularly the supernaturalism of Christendom. Its opponents, evidently unable to cope with it on fair and logical grounds, would confound it with “infidelity” in general, thereby charging it with such weaknesses as they may be pleased to find in the latter. Moreover, they would limit it to the theological field. Of course, nothing could be more unjust and unreasonable. Agnosticism is not infidelity, though it is often practiced by persons to whom religionists have applied the epithet “infidel.” Nor is Agnosticism either a philosophical system or an anti-theological creed. Indeed, it is no more a system or a creed of any sort than a smelter is a goldbrick, or than a threshing- machine is a loaf of bread; and it is no more limited to theology than gravitation is to apples.
Is it not evident that Agnosticism is simply a principle, which may be either positively or negatively employed? and that it is universally applicable? Is it not true that, in all questions not theological, the theist and the atheist are themselves Agnostics? Will any Christian who happens to be a scientist deny that the practice of withholding judgment pending the solution of a problem is the very bulwark of modern science? Will anybody say that this is not the Agnosticism of Ingersoll?
Take the very water that we drink. Prior to 1781, most chemists believed it to be composed of one atom of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen to the molecule. Cavendish, however, was not satisfied, — had not reached a conclusion; and not long after the year mentioned, water was shown to consist of two atoms of hydrogen and one of oxygen. Therefore, oar knowledge of the molecular structure of water is a result of an application of the agnostic principle in the science of chemistry.
Now, the suspension of judgment on the part of Cavendish must have been due to the fact that his knowledge in the particular branch concerned was greater than that of those who believed the composition of water to have been determined. If this means anything, it means that the difference between his (agnostic) attitude and the (theistic) attitude of his contemporaries in chemistry was simply a difference of knowledge. Cavendish knew enough to know that he did not know, and that no one else did.
Again, if a layman possessing a smattering of bacteriology should enter the laboratory of some justly renowned bacteriologist, and positively but candidly assert that there is no such thing as an infectious disease, and that, moreover, bacteria are invariably a blessing to mankind, and thereupon the bacteriologist should disagree with his visitor, the disagreement would surely be due to a difference of knowledge. Similar examples might be drawn from every other science.
Let us go further. What is the source of the Agnosticism manifested in matters about which nothing is known by anybody? It cannot be a difference of knowledge; for there is no knowledge. If one person declares that the center of the earth is a huge diamond, and another declines, from lack of knowledge on the subject, either to affirm or to deny the assertion what causes the disagreement? What is the source of the Agnosticism manifested by the person who declines either to affirm or to deny? There can be but one answer to this question. It is candor — “the courage of the soul.”
Some will claim that this application of the principle of Agnosticism is unjust; that the question chosen is not analogous to the one over which the Great Agnostic waged so many battles. Can such an objection be sustained? Is the alleged evidence of the theist, in support of the supernatural, superior to that which might be deduced to prove that a huge diamond lies where gravitation is naught? With his crucible for a weapon, the scientist has driven from the field the followers of the “Great First Cause,” and has blotted from every language the words “create” and “annihilate.” Extending to the stars his inquiring gaze, he has found no “New Jerusalem”; and from that mystic realm in which all roads converge is still to come the first authentic word. We have no evidence. We may hope; but on this question of questions, the savage is the equal of the sage. Perhaps nothing else illustrates this better than the following story, which Ingersoll himself used to tell in his inimitable way:
A missionary was trying to convince an Indian of the wonderful truths of Christianity. The red man listened attentively, then stooped and, with a stick, drew a little circle in the sand. “This,” said he, “is what Indian knows.” Then, tracing a very large circle around the first, he added, “and this is what white man knows; but out here [Pointing outside both circles] Indian knows just as much as white man.”
But while Ingersoll kept constantly in mind the vast difference between knowledge and belief, — while he was ever faithful to the ethical and intellectual agnostic principle, “that it is wrong for a man to say that he is certain of the objective truth of any proposition unless he can produce evidence which logically justifies that certainty,” he believed a great many things. It is with his belief on the subject of a Creator, that we are next concerned. Satisfied with nothing that did not rest upon the bed-rock of reason, Ingersoll attacked the problem chiefly from two standpoints, the scientific and the philosophical. Starting with the scientifically demonstrated truths embraced in “the law of substance” and “the law of the conservation of energy,” namely, that not the minutest imaginable atom of matter, nor the least of the total sum of force, or energy, can be annihilated, he reached the conclusion that neither could have been created, and that, therefore, both must have always existed, and will forever continue to exist. Or, to state the same facts in a different way: As there can be no force without matter, no matter without force, — the two whenever and wherever cognizant to the mind being inseparable, — the idea of a creator is an absurdity. Because, a being who could create must have derived from matter his energy to create, in which case he was not a creator. To put it even more plainly: If he had energy, he was inseparable from matter — was matter, or a phase of matter — and could not have created matter, that is, could not have created himself. It is here that Deism and Theism, with their “First Cause,” or “Creator,” meet their “Waterloo” on the battlefield of science.
Just as great a difficulty — precisely the same difficulty, in reality — is encountered when the problem is approached from a purely philosophical standpoint. For (according to the theist himself) nothing uncaused ever existed. Now, a first cause, if it occurred, was uncaused, which is a contradiction, and therefore absurd. Further, before we can logically speak of a First (uncaused) Cause, we must trace somewhere in the universe a last effect — a “Great Last Effect.” Let us, as a test, apply this reasoning to some everyday phenomenon. Suppose that a child is suffering from an incurable congenital disease which has produced certain structural changes in the brain or other part of the nervous system. These changes will surely give rise to symptoms, — will cause the conduct of the individual to deviate from what is called “normal.” Imagine, now, that some theistic sociologist, eager to establish the falsity of Ingersoll’s position, is to undertake a conception of the last effect that the lesion in the nervous system of this child will have upon society! Would he not press the snow-line of common sense? And yet theologians, lawyers, statesmen, scientists, physicians (who, above all, should be wiser), babble about a First Cause as glibly as a merchant gossips over a commodity.
The cardinal conclusion to which Ingersoll was forced by these scientific and philosophical truths was, of course, that neither the God of the Bible, nor of any other so-called sacred book, created the universe. And this conclusion he urged. In the place of the theological view, he put the mechanical, or monistic. To him, the universe, of which we ourselves are a part, was one eternal and, so far as can be known, planless and purposeless machine, which, by virtue of its composition, could not be otherwise than as it is; every part, from atom to planet, obeying the law of necessity, without the possibility of miracle, chance, or accident. In this sublime yet awful mechanism, the sum of matter and energy must remain forever the same, though forms change and manifestations vary. A heap of coal might be converted into heat, the heat into steam, the steam into motion, the motion arrested and changed back to heat, and so forth; but the totality of matter and energy would not be affected. A molecule of iron, liberated by chemical action from one of its chlorides, entering the blood, and uniting with the coloring matter (hemoglobin) of the red blood- cells, might so modify the force of thought as to assist in the production of a grander poem. In such a case, the total amount of chloride of iron would be lessened, but the total amounts of iron and chlorine would remain the same. And this same iron, centuries after the poet’s death, might be gathered up by the roots of plants, to course again through human veins.
That intellects capable of a universal view should adopt the monistic theory of the universe, could excite no wonder in a mind like Ingersoll’s. Rather did the wonder lie in the spectacle of thinking men and women, in this age of thought and scientific generalization, attempting to displace infinite necessity, “the mother of the world,” by that which, examined in the light of pure reason, is, at best, only a useless and superfluous conception. In other words, the belief that behind the totality of objective sensations which we call the universe lies no independent power, was not wonderful, nor even “radical.” But the opposite belief, that the universe, in which substance and energy are inseparable and eternal; in which not the mentally highest and morally best, but the physically fittest, survives — the ignorant and vicious often triumphing over the intellectual and innocent; in which, from the astronomical to the microscopical, — from wheeling Neptune to bacterial spore, — Necessity reigns omnipotent, is the sport and prey of some capricious, immaterial nothing — this, to Ingersoll, was the real cause for wonder.
From the preceding, it of course follows, that, contrary to his superficial theological critics, Ingersoll did not and could not entertain even the faintest idea of “accident,” or “chance,” in relation to universal phenomena. Such an idea can he held by those only who fail to recognize the unity of things. Ingersoll believed that the universe is the one infinite and eternal fact, and he could not, therefore, believe that it had ever been, or would be, the subject of “accident,” or “chance,” or “happening.” He knew that nothing can “happen” to one. He knew that all such terms imply plurality. “Accidents” and “happenings” occur with reference to two or more, but never with reference to one.
The simple and logical truth of the matter is, that the charge of postulating the accidental with reference to cosmogonic processes is justly to be laid, not at Ingersoll’s door, but at the door of his theological critics. Chance and accident are implied, not by belief in the infinite and eternal existence and persistence of substance and energy, but by such words as “creation” and “annihilation.” Indeed, to believe in the possibility of the phenomena which these words indicate, is to believe in chance and accident, and in nothing else. He who believes in substance and energy, believes in necessity; he who believes in creation, believes in caprice: necessity means order; caprice, accident. Perhaps nothing else more clearly demonstrates Ingersoll’s philosophic grasp and insight, than his conception of natural law. In that conception, he did what most of his critics, and even many scientific writers, fail to do: he distinguished law from cause. He recognized, with the clarity of a technical scientist, that a deduction based upon an observation of a phenomenon is one thing; the cause of the phenomenon, quite another. As to a given phenomenon, he knew that the cause was behind, and that the law, with its human creator, was in front. He knew that he himself, like this creator, was limited to the observation of only this side of the phenomenon, and that even should he ascertain the cause, the cause of that cause would logically demand an explanation. Confronted with these insuperable difficulties, he did not seek relief in a vain confusion of terms. He did not confound a man-made law, — that is, a mental perception of phenomenal sequence, — with its cause, and announce that he had discovered God. He did not build him a philosophical palace of “fool’s gold” mined in a muddled brain. He chose to stand modestly and candidly in the open light of reason. He said: —
“Let it be understood that by the term law is meant the same invariable relations of succession and resemblance produced of all facts springing from like conditions. Law is a fact — not a cause. it is a fact, that like conditions produce like results: this fact is law. When we say that the universe is governed by law, we mean that this fact, called law, is incapable of change; that it is, has been, and forever will be, the same inexorable, immutable Fact, inseparable from all phenomena. Law, in this sense, was not enacted or made. It could not have been otherwise than as it is. That which necessarily exists has no creator.”
And yet writers and speakers of the dualistic theological school, — the critics of Ingersoll, — constantly use the term “natural law” as though the latter were an entity, a force, a cause of phenomena. Evidently their conception of natural law differs in no essential respect from their conception of civil law. Frequently are they chargeable with such expressions as: “Evolution unfolds itself in regular order, in obedience to natural laws”; “The law of gravity holds the planets in their orbits,” and so forth.
The truth is, that nothing occurs in nature because of, or in obedience to, law. Evolution obeys no law or laws. If it obeys “natural laws” now, what did it obey before there were any natural laws? and what would it obey if those laws should be forgotten? All we can truthfully say is, that evolution is a universal and orderly phenomenon of what we call substance and energy. Its cause or causes are within, behind, or beneath the latter; its laws are in the human mind, and on paper. As to the next proposition, if “the law of gravity holds the planets in their orbits,” what held them before Newton’s time? What held him to the earth while he was discovering that law? It would be a safe wager, that the law of gravity could not “hold” a mustard-seed.
“But what about this confusion of ideas and terms? — what harm is done by confounding natural law with cause? “will be asked. In the consideration of the ultimate world-problems, with which Ingersoll dealt, the greatest harm, I reply. It misleads the uninformed and uncritical. It contributes to the dissemination of pseudo-science, and, therethrough, to the predominance of pseudo- philosophy. It tends to denial of the integrity of nature, thereby affording standing-room for the supernatural. How? In this way: Socialized individuals are accustomed to obeying civil law. To the extent that they obey unwillingly, they come to regard law as force. The less intelligent they are, the more will they so regard it. Furthermore, these individuals know that laws have not always existed; that they have had makers, creators. Now, if we use the term law in the sense of force, or cause, — if, for example, we speak of a falling stone’s obeying the law of gravity, as a person obeys a law of the state, — we establish in the mind of the uncritical, through the inevitable association of ideas, the necessity for a creator of the law which the stone is said to obey; because it is unthinkable that a law, in the usual sense, could create itself. No other thinker understood this more clearly than Ingersoll.
Convinced by his earnest studies in physical science, and by careful observation of sociological phenomena, that the scientific, or monistic, conception of nature, already mentioned, is the only tenable one, and possessing that mental poise which enables one to view things, not as pictured by the sentiments, but as they really are, Ingersoll naturally and necessarily spurned every idea that savored of “design” or of “special providence.” He saw that these are fancies of which only the provincial mind is capable. To him, the teleological view was, at best, a sort of mental emetic. His intellectual horizon was too broad for the sort of special providence that, for example, acknowledged the necessity of raising up a Lincoln who should break the fetters of an enslaved race, while a nation’s soil ran red with innocent blood, and who should then, untimely, find a martyr’s grave, through the medium of an assassin’s bullet. Ingersoll could see no reason for having permitted the race to be enslaved in the first place.
He read with scorn and pity the various “Christian evidences,” the” fundamental truths,” the “analogies.” Examining Paley’s wonderful “watch,” he found that it did not keep time with the logic of this age, and that it afforded no greater degree of conviction than Aladdin’s wonderful lamp. He possessed, to a rare degree, the faculty of universal sight. Recognizing the law of correlatives, a knowledge of a part implied, with him, a knowledge of the whole; and, as he saw that the human mind is limited, he knew that to assert design for any thing or phenomenon in nature is illogical. He knew that we must understand causes and effects — children of necessity — before asserting purpose. This rule had been applied in every other branch of human effort, where perfection is not claimed; and he supplied it in theology, where perfection is claimed.
Of course, the “evidences” of “design” were as apparent to Ingersoll as to any one else; that is, they were superficially apparent. They never took him farther on the turnpike of teleology than where the path of Agnosticism branches off. He said: —
“In nature I see, or seem to see, good and evil — intelligence and ignorance — goodness and cruelty — care and carelessness — economy and waste. I see means that do not accomplish the ends — designs that seem to fail.”
For example, although recognizing apparent design, as far as the welfare of the microbe itself is concerned, he could not believe that any wise and beneficent purpose is subserved by the bacterium which thrives in dust and soil, and, fortuitously entering the tissues of man, or of some lower mammal, causes the horrible disease called “lockjaw.” Considering all the known facts regarding this micro-organism, he could not think otherwise than that the part played by it is, to say the least, a most useless one. But he would not attempt to account for the existence of this germ. He was satisfied that, like all other things, it necessarily exists — that it is — and that the deplorable phenomena which it excites are, for want of a better word, accidental.
He understood, as only minds of the widest range and keenest insight can understand, that the forces of nature are everywhere immutable, inexorable, implacable. In him were combined, as in very few, the grasp and penetration of the physical scientist, and the instinct of the poet. He was therefore able to realize the utter helplessness, the insignificance, the nothingness, of man in the midst of an infinite environment that has neither malice to gratify nor mercy to bestow. He felt the pathos of human existence. Of this, nothing could make us more certain than the following: —
“A man heart breaks, a man dies, a leaf falls in the far forest, a babe is born, and the great world sweeps on.”
It would be difficult to find in literature a more tragically pathetic line.
Upon whatever of nature’s phenomena Ingersoll looked, whatever of them he contemplated, he intuitively saw how little she does with reference to man. He saw that whatever brings woe to one brings weal to another, — and that it brings both without intention. He knew that the ocean tempest, in whitecapper horror raging, — lashing with implacable fury the helpless ship on reef and rock, — strewing the pallid corpses on the shore, — might also hasten to a mother’s arms her long-lost child and that somewhere, its fury spent, it would repentant grow, and soothe with cool and fragrant breath the invalid’s fevered brow.
Scientist and poet, he knew that the electric force invariably takes the easiest why, whether it fires the only shelter of the noblest and the best, and leaves lifeless and charred the forms of wife and babe, or whether, freighted with love, it flashes through vague, mysterious depths, — through wrecks of vessels manned by fleshless crews, — over craters whose fiery hearts long since were quenched, — across the sightless valleys where foldage waves without a flower through all the ceaseless years, — onward still, to thrill some distant soul with joy.
Not the most entrancing feature of nature’s endless panorama could make him forget, that, notwithstanding the blessings which we experience, — the few fleet moments when Joy, with rosy lips, defying, mocks at Fate, — this life is a heartless maelstrom in which millions of mankind are caught. When he saw the dawn, — saw the somber granite bastille of the east, trembling, change to rubied gold and topple down, — saw the sun, the unprisoned god, walk scornful the fallen ruins into a palace with sapphire domed and with diamonds strewn, — he thought of what had just occurred on the other side of the globe. He was not content to know that this sun had come to weave for another day a robe of verdure for the fields and hills; to vie with its old companion in building fairy forms where babbling brooks are canopied with leaves, nor yet to gild the billowy seas, and weight with red the bending boughs, for Autumn’s tawny arms. He knew that it had just furnished light for man to murder hundreds of his fellows; that its chemic rays had just distilled countless gallons of poison for the destruction of mankind; that every step of its glorious march had crushed the life from millions of animal and vegetable forms; and that, in the Orient, it had been shooting its arrows of thirsting fire into waterless wells beside which Famine sat with hollow cheeks and vacant eyes.
Thus convinced of the relativity of everything in nature, Ingersoll naturally believed that there is nothing absolutely good, nothing absolutely bad, and that, outside the planless, ever- changing cycle of the universe, there is no watchful power to curse or bless mankind. He held that man’s ideas of good and evil had been inferred from natural phenomena; those things tending to happiness being called good; those to unhappiness, bad. He once illustrated this phase of his belief, and especially the egotism of man, with the following fable: —
A colony of red ants lived at the foot of the Alps. It happened one day that an avalanche destroyed the hill; and one of the ants was heard to remark: ‘Who could have taken so much trouble to destroy our home?'”
Ingersoll was wise enough to see that nature neither rejoices nor regrets, and that the so-called rewards and punishments which she bestows and inflicts are but ephemeral phases of the eternal panorama of antecedents and consequence.
I once visited a home in which the husband and father had died of an acute illness. He lay in a room adjoining that in which I stood, the door between the two being closed. It was a summer morning; and the sun streamed through a window and fell against the closed door, imparting, as it passed, a fairer gold to the careless locks of a little girl, who thought her papa “asleep.” I recalled these words of Ingersoll: “The sun shines as gladly on coffins as on cradles.”
Unlike his two distinguished predecessors, Voltaire and Paine, Ingersoll was not, in the strictest sense, a pioneer in the struggle for intellectual freedom. In justice to him, however, it should be remembered that, although he came at a later date, and consequently possessed better tools with which to do his work, his opportunities were not so great.
In addition to the influence exerted by the reformers mentioned, and by such thinkers and writers as Buckle, Draper, Lecky, Buchner, and Spencer, modern physical science was, at the beginning of Ingersoll’s anti-theological crusade, rapidly becoming the handmaid of rationalism. The great masters, — the real Titans and Hercules, — were hurling thunderbolts of truth at all the monsters of superstition.
One of the most splendid achievements was that of Rudolph Virchow, who, in 1858, published his cellular pathology, placing our knowledge of morbid processes upon a firm scientific basis, demonstrating that disease is as natural as health, and removing it forever from the domain of the supernatural. The ample significance of this discovery can be better realized in no other way than by recalling, that, for more than six hundred years of Christian darkness, mental disease was believed to be the work of evil spirits. I need not here draw upon the sad annals of mental therapeutics.
In 1859 Charles Darwin, “the Newton of organic science,” after whom Ingersoll himself declared that the last century should be named, established the theory of descent, relegating forever to the ignorant past all “special creation” myths.
Next came Kirchoff and Bunsen, who began, in 1860, a series of investigations which was to demonstrate, by spectral analysis, through millions upon millions of miles of space, the existence in all other planets of the same chemical elements that are found in our earth and its atmosphere.
Three years later Huxley, “Darwin’s Bulldog,” declared unmistakably, in Man’s Place in Nature, his opinion that man descended from the apes. Huxley supported his beliefs by most important biological facts.
Tyndall also — he of the “prayer-gauge,” which demonstrated alike the credulity of Christendom and the immutability of natural laws — was busy; for he crowned with a master hand, in his Heat Considered as a Mode of Motion (1863), the splendid work of Mayer, Joule, Thomson, Helmholtz, and others, by presenting in popular form “the law of the conservation of energy.”
Thoroughly familiar with these great scientific achievements; profound in history, and a master of literature; with personal and political experience that had not tended to increase his affection for orthodoxy; and with his mind still alive to the vivid impressions of the struggle for physical freedom, Robert G. Ingersoll, — “like an armed warrior, like a plumed knight,” — entered the mental lists and shook “his shining lance” at the enemies of intellectual liberty.