Thursday, November 12, 2009

Robert Ingersoll

Robert Ingersoll
© 1972 David Anderson
141 pages

You may have never heard of Robert Ingersoll before, but you've probably seen him: I use a portrait of him as my "user picture" here on blogger. As you may be able to guess, I hold him in high esteem -- enough to have written a tributary essay in his honor. I encountered quotations from him at Humanism by Joe, went to his Wikiquote page to find more, and have in the years since started collecting his speeches on my computer, re-reading favorites like "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child" or "Why I Am Agnostic".

After an intruductory chapter exploring Ingersoll's childhood and historical context,  Anderson committs different chapters to exploring Ingersoll's role as a lawyer, politican, and -- finally -- orator. Anderson approaches Ingersoll the same way I would approach Cicero: carefully, wanting to comment on a remarkable personality but also wanting to be fair about it. I use Cicero as an example because Ingersoll  reminded me of him in his early adulthood while functioning as lawyer and politican. He's a master orator,  but uses his gift as a tool to accomplish his job. My own affection for Ingersoll not withstanding, I don't think he's bad as Cicero in regards to being a mouth for hire.  According to Anderson, Ingersoll was especially gifted at "waving the bloody shirt", stirring up emotional support for his cause by referencing heroic deeds of men gone before who endured much to accomplish what they did. Ingersoll as occassional demagouge is a somewhat disturbing image for me, but one believeable and perhaps predictable. Oratory is a powerful tool. Anderson takes time to comment on especially notable speeches of the Ingersoll canon, exploring what they reveal about Ingersoll's political and religious convictions -- as well as his literary preferences. A number of Ingersoll's speeches are tributary in nature: he praises such men as Abraham Lincoln, Voltaire, Thomas Paine, and Diderot.

The book is well written, and fair. Although Anderson often compliments Ingersoll, he does not hestiate to criticize him, often rather sharply. When referencing "The Liberty of Man, Woman, and Child", for instance, Anderson writes that Ingersoll was too narrow in his focus. Rather than attacking broad social issues, he only commented on matters of concern only to his own middle class, and conservatively so at that. I don't know if it's fair to critcize Ingersoll for not being a feminist before his time, although he was such a radical personality in other areas, pehaps it is. Ingersoll was in his way a very conservative man, very much attached to the idea of the family and a "classical liberal" in the ecnomic sense. What Ingersoll often earns praise for  from Anderson -- and what I love him most for -- is his humanistic passion. I have never heard a more passionate defender of the human spirit than Ingersoll.

I would reccommend the book to those interested in Ingersoll, either as fans or as those who simply think him an interesting historical figure worth finding more about.

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