Tuesday, September 04, 2012

A whiff by Whitman

People like quotations.  You see them at the bottom of e-mail signature blocks, on social media, and in various editorial outlets (including this blog).  A pithy perspective to punctuate a point can be as irresistable as alliteration.  (Yes, I'm seeking help for that particular affliction...)

All too often, though, style is emphasized over substance.  I have to wonder sometimes how many people have truly mulled over the statements they toss around.  I'll say this: before I use a quote, to the best of my ability I at least make sure I seek the author's context.

I recently encountered this Walt Whitman quote from a friend:
“This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun, and animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence towards the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown, or to any man or number of men; go freely with the powerful uneducated persons, and with the young, and mothers, of families: read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life: re-examine all you have been told at school or church, or in any books, and dismiss whatever insults your soul."
And thus do we trace the 19th Century roots of today's relativism.  On it's face, the quote seems admirable: protecting nature, not seeking material wealth, fellowship with outcasts, and plenty of tolerance to go around.  What's not to like, right?

Let's start with the end of the quote.  The urging to reexamine whatever one is told is prudent enough, but the measure of merit is self-referential.  This is a fatal error, "dismissing whatever insults your soul."  As I responded to my friend (as graciously as I knew how), there are truths each of us will find unappealing or 'insulting.'  We demonstrate wisdom by adapting to those truths, rather than expecting the reverse.

This "self at the center of all things" mindset permeates the quote, if you then look back through the rest of it.  "Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown?"  Such a courtesy was meant to convey respect... refusing to do so is simply placing self above all others.  "Argue not concerning God?"  Yes, civility is a must, but disagreements are an essential process of searching for Truth. 

Therein lies the problem -- the vast majority of people today are not interested in Truth.  They are interested mostly in comfort and a calm conscience.  This is really the root of Whitman's instruction: not to debate the divine, but rather, hold oneself in high regard, while performing admirable service that can bolster such self-esteem.

Indeed, as it is written (twice, no less), "there is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death..." 


Jim said...

Good Day Mr. Jemison -

When I began to read your post today, I started think to myself, "uh oh, where is this going" -- I'm greatly relieved to read your quote from the "Good Book" of life eternal -- we do live in a world that is self-absorbed and it seems only to get worse with each passing day. Thank you for your time, effort and thought provoking words.

Jemison Thorsby said...

Glad you found it a profitable read! Thanks for visiting. - JT

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