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May 01, 2005

How to edit a liberal paper (1887)

I found this Ingersoll essay while researching my Sunday Sermonette. It's too long to deserve the "-ette" suffix, but I thought I'd recommend it anyway.

Edit Liberal Paper (1887)
by Robert Green Ingersoll

A LIBERAL paper should be edited by a Liberal man. And by the word Liberal I mean, not only free, not only one who thinks for himself, not only one who has escaped from the prisons of customs and creed, but one who is candid, intelligent and kind -- that is to say, Liberal toward others.

This Liberal editor should not forever play upon one string, no matter how wonderful the music. He should not have his attention forever fixed upon one question -- that is to say, he should not look through a reversed telescope and narrow his horizon to that degree that he sees only one thing.

To know that the Bible is the literature of a barbarous people, to know that it is uninspired, to be certain that the supernatural does not and cannot exist -- all this is but the beginning of wisdom. This only lays the foundation for unprejudiced observation. To kill weeds, to fell forests, to drove away or exterminate wild beasts -- this is preparatory to doing something of greater value. Of course the weeds must be killed, the forests must be felled. and the beasts must be destroyed before the building of homes and the cultivation of fields.

A Liberal paper should not discuss theological questions alone. Intelligent people everywhere have given up most of the old superstitions. They have pretty well made up their minds what is false, and they want to know something that is true. For this reason, a Liberal paper should keep abreast of the discoveries of the human mind. No science should be neglected; no fact should be overlooked. Inventions should be described and understood. And not only this, but the beautiful in thought, in form and color, should be preserved. The paper should be filled with things calculated to interest thoughtful, intelligent and serious people. There should be a column for children as well as for men and women. [Continued.]

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Interesting that you should pick Ingersoll today because I almost did too. This one:

“Suppose, however, that God did give this law to the Jews, and did tell them that whenever a man preached a heresy, or proposed to worship any other God that they should kill him; and suppose that afterward this same God took upon himself flesh, and came to this very chosen people and taught a different religion, and that thereupon the Jews crucified him; I ask you, did he not reap exactly what he had sown? What right would this god have to complain of a crucifixion suffered in accordance with his own command?”

(Robert Green Ingersoll, "Some Mistakes Of Moses," 1879; from The Works of Robert Ingersoll, vol. II, New York: The Ingersoll League, 1933, p. 259.)

Great paper. Do you know the writings of Randolph S Bourne?

"Some Mistakes Of Moses"

reminds me of oolon colluphid. it's probably the hitchhiker's overdrive kicking in.

Apparently in every era the word "liberal" comes to be associated with some very narrow perspective, which delibrately overlooks some part of the overall liberal tradition. Ingersoll's summary above may have been a fine summary of the conventional view when he was writing, but it clearly doesn't address the whole of liberalism.
The assumption of atheism wasn't in Locke, Jefferson or Adam Smith.

Every era emphasizes some different part of the tradition. For awhile liberalism was synonomous with laissez-faire, as if Jeremy Bentham had never existed. Friedrich Hayek has a good line in "The Road To Serfdom" in which he laments the rigidity with which some liberals used to insist on laissez-faire. Liberalism is a big, big tradition.

(Incidentally, I plan to relaunch my personal weblog this month. With the relaunch, it will be focused on the question, "What is liberalism?")

I prefer stories about how to edit an agricultural paper.

if someone is going to bogart my google entry for "robert green", thank no-one-in-particular that's it's this guy, one of the great thinkers of the 19th century.

preach on, sister, i'm back for another sermon soon as you got one.

Lawrence, I'm not sure what you mean when you say the assumption of atheism wasn't in Adam Smith. He was every bit as little inclined as his great influence, Hume, to invoke any religious doctrine to explain or justify anything at all. If he was not actually an atheist, he might as well have been as far as his doctrines were concerned.

"He was every bit as little inclined as his great influence, Hume, to invoke any religious doctrine to explain or justify anything at all."

I think perhaps you misunderstood me, and perhaps I wasn't clear. I wasn't saying that the great liberal writers weren't secular - they all were. It's one thing that makes Locke (and all later Englightenment writers) different from all the political theorists that wrote during the English Revolution. Locke sought secular explanations for the functions of government.

The British historian Christoper Hill has an obvious admiration for the "leader" of the Diggers - Winstanley. Hills book "The World Turned Upside Down: radical ideas during the English Revolution" highlights the way that Winstanley saw further into the future than any of his peers. But Winstanley still turned to the Bible to justify his theories. Starting with Locke, Western political theory gets put on a different footing.

However, Adam Smith doesn't preach atheism, he doesn't suggest that atheism is a necessary part of being liberal. I don't know if he was much of a believer. He uses the word "God" in his text, though mostly in a metaphoric way: "God in his anger visits ambition upon the poor man's son."

Some Enlightenment writers were violently anti-clerical. Deiderot comes to mind. But not all Enlightment writers were.

In the text above, Ingersoll sounds to me like he is saying that you must be a non-believer to be a true liberal. I think that is an extreme position. Obviously, there have been people who somehow reconciled their faith with liberal political theory.

It must be very easy to reconcile anything with something which is imaginary and infinite.

Because it is imaginary, it can not complain. Because it is infinite, and thus contains all within it, it necessarily contains sufficient meat to reconcile anything with it.

I guess I vividly remember the bit in _The Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations_ where Smith discusses, apparently somewhat approvingly, the idea that state funding of churches is a good idea because state-funded churches tend to be lazy and not have much impact on society, while churches that have to collect funds from their members to survive tend to stir up fanaticism. Sounds at least mildly anti-clerical to me.

"Obviously, there have been people who somehow reconciled their faith with liberal political theory."

You make it sound a truly inferior position. Though far less schooled than the rest of you in philosophy, I find at least liberal politics today easier reconciled with my faith than conservative politics. Though I tend to have a 'buffet'-style faith; picking and choosing moral principles. More accurately, I distinguish between what i see as institutional fallacies (infallibility, gender-discrimination in priesthood, sexual dogma, etc.) and the basic moral teachings (Golden Rule, Jesus treatment of others regardless, etc.) of Christianity. In regards to sexuality specifically, I find gender descrimination within the church, anti-homosexual opinions, etc. to be institutional fallacies included only through misinterpretation due to social relativism and the inevitable fallibility of humans. Yet, minus the strict, IMHO, human-imposed guidelines of sexuality, I find principles such as limiting ones sexual partners to true loving relationships to be emotionally, physically, and mentally healthy, and thus a valuable moral stance.

...who knows, I'm sure there are plenty of holes in my argument, for the mean time this is all i got.

"You make it sound a truly inferior position. Though far less schooled than the rest of you in philosophy, I find at least liberal politics today easier reconciled with my faith than conservative politics."

No inferiority was suggested or implied. However, you and I are using the word "liberal" in somewhat different ways, and are therefore talking about somewhat different things.

Poor Ingersoll. I'm sure he didn't anticipate that a century after his death America would still be very much under the sway of religious nonsense. Ingersoll was a great orator of his day, but precious few people today know who he was, or pay any attention to what he said.

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