The Scientist and Communicator: Reflections on Carl Sagan

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It has been twenty years today since we lost Carl Sagan, the beloved astronomer and science communicator at the age of 62. His untimely death still feels prescient, especially in light of our seemingly chaotic and irrational world. However, I know that if he was still alive, Sagan would have found a way to be optimistic, looking ever forward to new horizons of knowledge and exploration.

I came to learn about him as an adult. Growing up in the rural Midwest, I received an abysmal science education, which left me largely ignorant and uninspired. I went into the humanities, history specifically, and found it to be my calling. I love studying the human race’s march toward betterment, through understanding ourselves and the universe around us.

As a result, I came to Sagan as an undergraduate in college. I am a huge fan of Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye, so it’s surprising that I didn’t get to Sagan earlier. But once I watched Cosmos for the first time, I was hooked. His ability to interweave science, history, and philosophy in way that is eloquent, engaging, and entertaining is unmatched by anyone. Even after all these years, Sagan is still the master.

From there, I began to read his books, which were even more rewarding than Cosmos. My all-time favorite is The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Published shortly before his death, this book is easily his best. In it, he stresses the importance of not just learning about science, but about critical thinking and skepticism. As he writes:

“One of the reasons for its [science’s] success is that science has a built-in, error-correcting machinery at its very heart. Some may consider this an overbroad characterization, but to me every time we exercise self-criticism, every time we test our ideas against the outside world, we are doing science. When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.”

The more we think critically, the more we test ideas against the evidence, the more we learn and grow as a people. As he said countless times, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

In his own career, he was a pioneering scientist. A professor at Cornell, Sagan’s research on the greenhouse effect on Venus and his work on the Viking and Voyager missions for NASA solidified his position as an astute scientist. Alongside his popular books, he published numerous scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals and continued his research into the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life for most of his career. Despite all this, he was never admitted to the National Academy of Sciences (they did give him a distinguished public service award, but not full membership).

His snub by the NAS was likely the result of his role as “popularizer” of scientific ideas, which was an unheard of endeavor during his time as a scientist. Most scientists were content with researching, publishing, and teaching, but Sagan took it a step further. He didn’t just want to be a great scientist; he wanted to be a great communicator of ideas. Even though some of his peers derided his public advocacy of science, the court of public opinion held him in the highest-esteem.

This is why Carl Sagan matters, why his work stands the test of time. When I started my search for graduate schools in history, I was inspired by Sagan to do something different. As such, I became a public historian, dedicated to quality research and analysis but interested in sharing this knowledge with the public. I didn’t just want to be a historian. I wanted to be a history communicator, someone who not only shared history with others but explained the importance of history to my fellow citizens and the world. I got this lesson from Carl.

Carl wasn’t just a great scientist; he was an amazing champion for skepticism, critical thinking, and intellectualism. His powerful voice, decades on, still inspires me to be a better thinker, a better communicator, and a better person. I have such a deep admiration and affection for someone I’ve never met, but whose mind and life compel me to be the man I am today.

Carl, thank you for all you did for the world. We love you and we miss you.

On Colin Kaepernick and Patriotism

 

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“What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” by Dread Scott. Courtesy of Dread Scott.

In 1989, this installation, created by artist Dread Scott, was displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago. As Scott’s website describes:

The installation is comprised of: a photomontage (the montage consists of pictures of South Korean students burning US flags holding signs saying ‘Yankee go home son of bitch’ and flag draped coffins in a troop transport; text printed on the photomontage reads “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?”), books (originally with blank pages) on a shelf, ink pens, a 3’x5′ American flag on the ground and an active audience. The audience was encouraged to write responses to the question “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” As they did so, they had the opportunity to stand on the flag as they wrote their response. When this work has been displayed, thousands of people filled hundreds of pages with responses. Many many of those stood on the flag as they added their comments to the work.

The installation’s main goal was to critique the often sycophantic and narcissistic displays of so called “patriotism” in our society. President George H.W. Bush condemned the exhibit and the US Congress even moved to make displays like this illegal. Protesting Congress’s action, artists burned the flag on the steps of the Capitol, which led to a landmark ruling by the Supreme Court that defended their right to burn the flag as “protected speech.”

I bring this up because of the recent controversy concerning the actions of pro Football player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, as a protest against the continued violence against minorities in this country. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick said.

The backlash was predictable and typically myopic. People burned his jersey, called for his firing, and publicly railed against his actions, yet did not actually acknowledge or understand why, as a person of color, he might do this. But that’s the specific circumstances of this incident; I wish to speak of its larger implications.

In my estimation, Kaepernick’s protest is just as legally defensible and morally consistent as “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” His action was exactly what people of privilege and tradition fear: showing them what’s wrong with our society and making them deal with it.

We have violence in our cities, continued high unemployment within minority communities, homelessness, and the chronic mistreatment of our past and present service members who need vital healthcare and social services. And yet this is what dominates the news.

We have a society that obsesses over meaningless objects of idolatry, like the flag or lapel pins, but ignores and actively undermines alternative acts of patriotism.

Kaepernick’s act was that of patriotism, just as much as any person who stood proudly during the anthem and sang their hearts out. Who is to say what is and is not patriotic? If patriotism is nothing more than blind deference to symbols and slogans, than we are no better than the fascists the democratic world defeated nearly 70 years ago.

Patriotism is not a showy display of hero or symbol worship; it is embodying the idea of what your nation believes in. In the U.S., our cornerstone ideal is liberty. When Kaepernick refused to stand for the anthem, when Dread Scott created their art with the flag on the floor, and when a young kid refuses to say the pledge of alliegence because of the divisive and unconstitutional phrase of “One Nation Under God,” they are all reaffirming the true nature of our Republic, which is that of freedom.

Freedom to think, freedom to act, freedom to worship or not to worship. These ideals mean far more than some piece of cloth, a metal pin, or some national song. These symbols mean absolutely nothing if the ideals upon which they stand for cannot be lived out.

Therefore, until every homeless person is fed, clothed, and sheltered. Until every child can achieve a good education and live in communities that are safe. Until every act of patriotism, both traditional and unorthodox, is honored. And until every veteran and active service member is cared for with dignity and respect, shut the fuck up about national anthems, pledges, lapel pins, and flags.

Symbols do not deserve unadulterated respect; only people do.

Slavery, Morality, and Christianity: A Dialogue with Pastor Chad Damitz

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I  recently had a very passionate and interesting exchange through social media with Chad Damitz, associate pastor at Bible Baptist Church in Kokomo, Indiana. We have known each other for years and even participated together in a public debate on the origins of morality. (It can be found on YouTube.)

This polite, but heated exchange was spurred by my post of a quote from Alice Walker, celebrated African-American novelist, whose view of Christianity Chad took issue with.

Here’s the quote:

“What a burden to think one is conceived in sin rather than in pleasure; that one is born into evil rather than into
joy. . .

It is chilling to think that the same people who persecuted the wise women and men of Europe, its midwives and healers, then crossed the oceans to Africa and the Americas and tortured and enslaved, raped, impoverished, and eradicated the peaceful, Christ-like people they found. And that the blueprint from which they worked, and still work, was the Bible.”

Our unabridged dialogue is as follows:

Chad:

This quote is blatantly misleading. There are several scripture references that denounce the idea of kidnapping or man-stealing, which is what happened in Africa in the 19th century. Africans were stolen by slave hunters, sold to slave traders, and these slave traders forced them into harsh labor. These practices will always be loathsome to God.

Here are a few verses to confirm this: “Anyone who kidnaps another and either sells him or still has him when he is caught must be put to death (Exodus 21:16).” 1 Timothy 1:8-10 lists “enslavers” along with liars and murderers, condeming their acts against humanity too. I think the Bible even has a stricter stance against slavery than today.

Currently, there are 27 million people in the world that are subject to slavery. This includes forced labor, human trafficking, and inheritable property. Why aren’t there stricter penalties for these atrocious acts against humanity today? Just look at the Norweigein Bodnariu family who the government is taking their children away from them without duable cause. This is supposed to be one of the most progressive countries in the world and the government is literally stealing children away from law-abiding citizens. This is progressive?

With that said, the Bible did talk about slavery (Deut. 15; Eph. 6; Colossians 4:1), but people were not enslaved because of their ethnic background. People who owed a debt actually voluntarily sold themselves to owners since that was the only way to provide for their families, some of them even being doctors, lawyers, and politicians. It wasn’t always the poor that this happened to.

And let’s be honest. Just look to William Wilberforce, Granville Sharp, Hannah More, and Charles Middleton, all Christians, who took on the cause of abolition because of their idea that all men are created equally in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). In my opinion, this quote is academically and historically dishonest.

Justin:

I’m really glad you ended this comment with, “in my opinion,” because your comment is about as blatantly misleading to me as this quote was to you.

Slavery is an extremely murky subject in the Bible. You can read passages in both its defense as well as its rejection. For example, your comment on slave trading is misleading.

In Exodus, there are restrictions for slave masters on the attainment of Hebrew slaves (Exodus 21:7-11 NASB), but not so much on non-Hebrews. Here’s an extended passage from Leviticus 25: 44-46 (NASB) on this point:

“As for your male and female slaves whom you may have—you may acquire male and female slaves from the pagan nations that are around you. Then, too, it is out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you that you may gain acquisition, and out of their families who are with you, whom they will have produced in your land; they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to receive as a possession; you can use them as permanent slaves. But in respect to your countrymen, the sons of Israel, you shall not rule with severity over one another.”

If you look at the Reverend E. W. Warren’s 1864 tract, Nellie Norton: or, Southern Slavery and the Bible, this same argument is made in defense of American slavery. I am in no way denigrating the strong abolitionists who were religious, like Henry Ward Beecher, Horace Greely, or even John Brown. My point is that it is not a clear-cut as you see it.

The Bible was used, from the earliest days of the Republic, to both defend and refute the “peculiar institution.” Even Thomas Paine, the freethinking deist, showed this point in an excellent essay from 1774 called “African Slavery in America.” Here’s a quote from his essay that illustrates his view:

“Such arguments ill become us, since the time of reformation came, under Gospel light. All distinctions of nations and privileges of one above others, are ceased; Christians are taught to account all men their neighbours; and love their neighbours as themselves; and do to all men as they would be done by; to do good to all men; and Man-stealing is ranked with enormous crimes. Is the barbarous enslaving our inoffensive neighbours, and treating them like wild beasts subdued by force, reconcilable with the Divine precepts! Is this doing to them as we would desire they should do to us? If they could carry off and enslave some thousands of us, would we think it just? — One would almost wish they could for once; it might convince more than reason, or the Bible.”

Your argument about indentured servitude makes sense within the context of scripture, but the moral point remains. Is indentured servitude a moral action? I would argue that it isn’t, since it is still founded on the unequal rights and treatment of human beings. Contracted labor is fine, especially if someone has a right to exit (key to a free society), but indentured servitude is a barbaric practice that should end, much like witch killing and death by torture.

I read up a bit about this family in Norway that you speak of. The claim that they were taken with no doable cause is nonsense. This issue is complicated enough to warrant an investigation by authorities. In Norway, spanking and other forms of corporal punishment on children is illegal, and the children accused their parents of abuse. Now, the children could be lying, and in which case, an investigation could display that. But when there’s the potential abuse of children at play by what seems to me as radical, Pentecostal parents who have no respect for civil laws and civil society, I have no issue with Norway’s version of CPS to come and help these children. Your equating this incident with slavery is morally problematic, and if I was a believer, I wouldn’t have used it as an example.

You’re a smart guy, and you clearly are moral and kind. It must be hard for a believer like you to constantly have to circle a square, which is what religious people have to do when it comes to claims about the Bible. As I’ve said, it is the “Big Book of Multiple Choice.” It can be used to defend or denounce just about anything.

Slavery is upheld, both by the Old and New Testaments. It would’ve been easy for God in the Ten Commandments to add, “thou shalt not own another person as property,” but for some reason he wastes the first few commandments reminding you of how much of a petty, jealous god he is. This, along with not clearly stating that rape and abuse of children is wrong, pretty much nullifies Christianity in my estimation.

Alice Walker is right, and your attempt to justify this Bronze Age religion, is wrong. (If you wish to continue this discussion, let’s do so in a message. It will be easier to type to one another.)

Chad:

Justin, let me first start by apologizing for being brash in our conversation the other day. My desire is not to be mean-spirited but have a reasonable discourse concerning biblical ethics. I want you to know I respect your viewpoint.

I want to start by sharing Job 31:13. It states here: “If i have denied injustice to any of my servants, whether male or female, when they had a grievance against me, what will I do when God confronts me? How will I answer when called to account? Did not He who made me in the womb also make them? Did not the same one form us both within our mothers?

Job is agreed upon by most scholars as one of the oldest books in the Bible. This suggests that the concept of equality and human dignity was taught from the beginning.

You made the comment that all forms of servitude, even voluntarily servitude, is immoral. I do agree that no one should be forced into labor, but what if someone needs to earn a living or learn a trade? Shouldn’t they be “highly encouraged” to provide for their family? Also, what about criminals in jail. Is it wrong for them to be mandated to have certain jobs, like washing dishes or taking care of their laundry? They do receive free food, housing, and clothes. The same happened in the Bible. When some of the foreigners who were at war against the Israelites were captured, they were treated just like prisoners today.

And I know you selected the passage about non-Israelites being captured, but even they were not constituted to a life time of bondage. The Bible says in Deuteronomy 15 they were able to earn their freedom.

Moreover, the institution of slavery was deeply rooted in the culture. Every historical record confirms the Egyptians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Ammonites, Edomites, etc were involved. That doesn’t justify the Israelites being involved in this practice, but there was a major difference. The OT Mosaic Law limited and regulated the practice and was determined to correct its inhumane abuses. See Exodus 20:10 and 21:20-27. Also, Israel never captured and sold humans as did the Phoenicians and Philistines.

In the New Testament, Jesus, who Christians believe to be the God-Man, taught through the disciples that there is neither slave nor free, but that all are part of Christ’s church and equally accountable to God (Galatians 3:28, Colossians 3:11; Ephesians 6:5-9). Also, Jesus was a revolutionary. He told people to love his enemies. This was unheard of.

Finally, you are correct in mentioning that the South promoted slavery because of their religious viewpoint, but that doesn’t mean it was a biblical viewpoint. I already shared with you the passage that condemns antebellum slavery by the very fact that people were “stolen.” This was punishable by death in the OT. Also, as mentioned, it was not racially motivated. Remember how I mentioned Moses and other Israelites were able to intermarry among different races? A few examples are an Egyptian Cushite, Ruth a Moabite, Rahab from Jericho, etc. These were different nationalities accepted into the Israelite community.

When we look at our culture today, anyone can take the Bible out of context. Just take a look at Fred Phelps and his “hatred speech” towards everyone. Or think about Jim Jones and others who have enticed people to take their own lives from preaching “the Bible.” This, of course, is diametrically opposed to the Bible.

I understand we will be at a stalemate, but I would like to hear your response. Thanks again for listening to my worldview and  being gracious to sympathize as best as you can. Have a good day.

Justin

I appreciate your response and your willingness to intellectually spar a bit.

I certainly agree with you that the Bible has been used, and will continue to be used, as an instrument or good or ill. But that isn’t the main issue.

My issue is that God could’ve easily said, “Thou shalt not own another person as property.” But he didn’t. Instead, there are obscure and often contradictory statements made in the Bible

The passage of Job is a good one, and its overall point is sound but it still doesn’t address the issue. By calling them servants, which in this context are slaves, Job is still considered superior to them in his society. Even if he is kind and righteous and moral to them, his ownership of them is still morally wrong. I also wouldn’t go so far as to the say the Bible endorses equality in the passage. Concepts of equality, that we often think of today, come from humanistic traditions that both pre-date and supersede Biblical traditions. Overall, this is a difference of opinion for us.

Race has nothing to do with this issue from a Biblical view; this is where we also agree. Whether they are black, white, brown, whatever; people should not be owned as property. The Bible still doesn’t get that across clearly.

And while Jesus does say that we are equal in the eyes of God, that means nothing for the here and now. While you may be equal in the next life, you are still desperately unequal in this one. This may not matter to you that much, but this means everything to me, since I have no belief or interest in the afterlife. Since it is an “if,” I would rather focus on this life and improve things here. However, for the sake of argument, if we’re all equal in the eyes of God, according to your view, it shouldn’t matter if we want to improve things here. But apparently, slavery is still something that goes on the Biblical narrative.

Let’s look at Ephesians 6:5-8 (NASB) in detail:

“Slaves, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as to Christ; not by way of eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. With good will render service, as to the Lord, and not to men, knowing that whatever good thing each one does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether slave or free.”

Again, it reaffirms what I said earlier, which is that a person will receive equality in the next life if they are ignorantly obedient in this one. Still pretty murky to me.

And while 1 Timothy 1:10 does decry against “menstealers,” its context relates more to those who steal others to sell them into slavery, rather than slave traders in general. So, to be more accurate, the Bible is against a certain form of slavery (human trafficking spurred by kidnapping) rather than slavery broadly. Good, but not quite good enough.

I do not believe that prisoners should work for free. They should be compensated for their work, but it does not have to be at the same value. Most prisons do not make their incarcerated work for free; they may earn bad wages but it is still a wage. Far more moral in my book than servitude.

We should also work towards a society where no person should have to sell themselves into servitude, where all free men and women should be able to work, or not work, as they please. Labor should have just as many rights as the owner. Abraham Lincoln agrees with me on this point. In his first annual message to Congress, Lincoln wrote that, “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Lincoln’s strongest opponents, those who favored slavery, still continued to use Christianity to defend slavery. Alexander Stephens, Vice President of the Confederate States of America, gave a speech in 1861 where he said, “They [meaning the North] were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.”

He also stated that, “It is, indeed, in conformity with the ordinance of the Creator. It is not for us to inquire into the wisdom of His ordinances, or to question them. For His own purposes, He has made one race to differ from another, as He has made “one star to differ from another star in glory.” The great objects of humanity are best attained when there is conformity to His laws and decrees, in the formation of governments as well as in all things else. Our confederacy is founded upon principles in strict conformity with these laws.”

Like Phelps and Jones who came after him, Stephens used his own view of religion to commit himself to terrible ideas, ideas he got from a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

We are at an impasse. You continue to use post hoc rationalizations for the barbarism within the Bible. I respect the fact that you make an effort to make the book more moral than it actually is. It speaks to what I said in our debate last year, which is that most Christians are far more moral than the religion they actually believe in.

I always enjoy our discussions and appreciate your criticisms. It helps me be a better thinker and writer. I hope I have done the same for you.

In that vein, would it be ok if I published our exchange on my blog? I will not edit a single thing (other than typos, ha) and you will have final say on whether it goes up. Let me know what you think. My blog is at www.armyofprinciplesblog.wordpress.com.

Best wishes.

Chad

Hey Justin, thanks for your response. Yes, you can publish our exchange on your blog. Thanks again for the discussion and valid points you brought up.

Justin

Excellent. Thanks for letting me do that and your willingness to discuss things. You made great points as well. It was too good of a discussion to be left to Facebook.

While we disagree on much, Chad and I had a very respectul, if at times  confrontational, dialogue. He’s a really nice guy and very bright; he’s the kind of religious person I always enjoy talking to.

More importantly than our own personal views, it is good that the two of us can have these discussions and remain civil. That’s the goal of free inquiry and expression. I hope to have many more of these discussions in the future.

To learn more about slavery in the Bibile, I highly recommed the Rational Wiki’s entry on the subject.

The Difference Between Atheism and Agnosticism

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A Facebook acquaintance of mine recently posted about his distinction between atheism and agnosticism. His main point was that atheism required faith to agree with the proposition that there is no god. Conversely, he defined agnosticism as being either without knowledge or without the possibility to attain knowledge about the existence of god. His definition of agnosticism is right, but his definition of atheism was completely off the mark. This post will correct this misunderstanding and reassert the traditional distinction between the two concepts. I hope to show that one can be an atheist, an agnostic, or both (like I am).

At their most basic, agnosticism is a position of knowledge (epistemology) while atheism is a position of belief (metaphysics). Agnosticism literally means “without knowledge,” and as such, almost all of us are agnostic about the claim of a god’s existence. I can say upfront that I am; I do not know with absolute certainty that god either exists or doesn’t exist. However, absolute certainly is (almost) impossible in relation to most claims about the world. I don’t know with absolute certainty that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, or gnomes inhabit my apartment, or if I’m sitting here right now typing this to you. As such, agnosticism is the default position when one doesn’t have knowledge of a claim and most skeptics (myself included) agree with this view.

Contrarily, atheism is a position of belief, whether or not you agree with a proposition. When addressing belief in a god, there are only two possible conclusions: the acceptance or rejection of a claim. Because of this logical distinction, a person can come to a conclusion without any knowledge that substantiates it. For example, one can believe that a pink unicorn exists with the feeling of absolute certainty, but that doesn’t change whether or not one has knowledge of its existence. In regards to god claims, atheists and theists can accept or reject this belief, but that doesn’t change the ability to attain knowledge regarding its existence. Therefore, one can be an agnostic atheist (reject the god claim based on a lack of evidence or knowledge) or a gnostic atheist (reject the god claim based on an affirmative belief of evidence or knowledge). Theists can do just the same.

Inimical to popular usage, agnosticism is not a “half-way house” between belief and unbelief. Rather, it answers a completely different question. Agnosticism addresses what a person can know; atheism addresses what a person believes. Neither worldview requires faith, since faith is pretending to know something that you don’t. Most atheists arrive at non-belief because the evidence is either lacking or evidence disproves a specific version of the god claim outlined by religions such as Christianity and Islam. Atheism is a lack of belief, so when a believer makes a claim about something supernatural or theistic, it is on the theist to substantiate that belief. The atheist doesn’t have to prove that the theist is wrong; the theist has to prove that they’re right. Furthermore, when one concludes that they have no knowledge regarding a god (agnosticism), the reasonable default position of belief is atheism. The position that my friend presented as atheism is actually anti-theism or strong atheism, which positively asserts that there is no god. Most atheists who are intellectually honest do not take this position, since the burden of proof shifts to them and it doesn’t easily hold up to critical scrutiny.

My own personal position is agnostic atheism. I don’t know with absolute certainty if a god exists but I reject belief in god because the evidence for his/her/its existence is spurious at best, nonexistent at worst. When evidence for god is lacking, one should suspend judgment on knowledge (agnostic) and take the default position of belief (atheist). Regardless of how you feel about the label, if your answer to the question of belief in god is anything but “yes,” in my book you’re an atheist. If you prefer agnostic, that’s fine too, but it’s rather insulting to say that atheists are just as faith filled as theists. Just because you’re uncomfortable with the label doesn’t make it inapplicable.

Intellectual sparring aside, we atheists and agnostics should unite under our shared principles of freedom of conscience, critical examination of superstition, and a commitment to a secular, humanistic world. This squabbling is great for discussion and debate, but when it comes to taking on the charlatans, there’s more important issues at hand.

Fellow agnostic, comrade in arms, let’s fight against the harbingers of fear and ignorance. Let’s build a better world.

———————————————————————-

For more on this topic, I highly recommend the Iron Chariots Wikipedia page. It can be found here.

 

Ambrose Bierce, American Iconoclast

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The history of American letters overflows with stories of eccentric characters, from inside the pages and out. One particular author whose unique view of the world shaped his writings and his lifestyle was Ambrose Bierce. Like Mark Twain, Bierce is usually associated with the San Francisco writing scene of the late nineteenth century. However, he spent many of his formative years in Indiana, learning about the newspaper business and ultimately enlisting in the Civil War. These early experiences not only shaped his incomparable writing style, but they influenced his distinctive views on life and religion.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce was born June 24, 1842 in Horse Cave Creek, Meigs County, Ohio. His parents, Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, were descendents of English immigrants, and his father had a love of literature.[1] Bierce’s early life in Indiana is largely shrouded in mystery. Some sources indicate that the Bierce family moved to Kosciusko County in 1846, but it is hard to verify. The 1850 Census shows them in Akron, Ohio and the earliest deed document dates their entry into Kosciusko County as 1858.[2] Bierce reportedly lived on the family’s settlement in Walnut Creek until he was 15, when he moved to Warsaw to work as a “printer’s devil” (an apprentice tasked with multiple duties) for the abolitionist newspaper, the Northern Indianan.[3] Reportedly, Bierce also traveled to Kentucky in 1859-60, learning typography at the Kentucky Military Institute.[4]

After returning from Kentucky, Bierce supposedly lived in Elkhart from 1860-1861.[5] Two newspaper articles published after his death, one from the Elkhart Truth (1922) and another from the Indianapolis Sunday Star (1923), discuss his time as a restaurant clerk for A. E. Faber. An 1860 City Directory does list an A. E. Faber, along with his eating establishment.[6]  Also, an 1881 history of Elkhart County credits Faber as one of Elkhart’s founding citizens who petitioned for its formal creation.[7] In the Star article, Bierce’s brother Andrew indicates that Bierce worked there and was liked by the staff and the clientle. However, these newspaper articles are far removed from the 1860-61 timeframe, so his time in Elkhart appears vague.[8]

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bierce enlisted in C Company of the Ninth Indiana Regiment in April 1861 and served as a private for three months.[9] He was promoted to Sergeant in July 1861, when he reenlisted for a three year term. His upgrade in rank came as a result of his valor during the Battle of Laurel Hill on July 10, 1861.[10] He was wounded at Kennesaw Mountain in 1864 and eventually opted not to reenlist, mustering out in January 1865 with the rank of First Lieutenant.[11] Bierce’s intense and often painful experiences during his service in the Civil War provided much fodder for his literary work, particularly his short fiction and journalism.

After the Civil War, Bierce did not immediately go to California. He reenlisted in the Army, but served as a “Topographical Engineer at Brigade and Division Head Quarters, 21st Army Corps.”[12] In his essay, “Across the Plains,” Bierce refers to his role as an “engineer attaché to an expedition through Dakota and Montana, to inspect some new military posts.”[13] He worked under the leadership of General William B. Hazen, who named Bierce as an Acting Topographical Officer during the Civil War.[14] After declining a second lieutenant commission in San Francisco in 1867, Bierce formally ended his career in the military and spent the rest of his career as a professional writer.[15]

Bierce began his journalism career in 1867, writing poems and essays for the Californian and Golden Era, under newspaper editor James T. Watkins. From 1868-1872, Bierce wrote a local column for the San Francisco News Letter called the “Town Crier.”[16] One critic referred to his writing as “…humor [that] borders as nearly upon the blasphemous and sacrilegious as that of Swift or Sterne…” Another review considered his early works “The Haunted Valley” and “Broke” as offbeat pieces that showed his “capacity, acute observation, and descriptive powers of very unusual simplicity, grace, and effectiveness.”[17]

For the next three years, Bierce lived and worked in England, under the pseudonym “Dod Grile.” The origins of such an unorthodox penname came from an 1872 letter, written by a friend and early employer of Bierce in England named Tom Hood, who addressed Bierce as “Dear God Rile.” Bierce used an anagram of it, “Dod Grile,” as a penname while in England. As Biographer Roy Morris speculates, Bierce may have chosen this simple name as a way to attract readers, same as Samuel Clemens did with “Mark Twain.”[18] His columns were published in English and American newspapers. Bierce also published three collected humor works while in Great Britain; his most successful was Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, published in 1873. Prominent advertisements and reviews in This Week’s News and Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper solidified their modest success.[19]

After his time in England, Bierce returned to California and began work at the Argonaut and the Wasp and established his successful column, “Prattle.” In 1887, he was employed by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst at the San Francisco Examiner. Like in Britain, Bierce’s columns were nationally syndicated, in outlets like the Wichita Eagle, The Louisiana Democrat, and the Washington Herald.[20] Even though Hearst gave Bierce nearly complete editorial freedom in his years at his newspapers, there always existed a growing antagonism between the two. This may have been due to Bierce’s disgust with some of Hearst’s other journalists, specifically after 1906.[21] Bierce formally left the employ of Hearst in March of 1909 to focus on compiling his collected works and memoirs.[22]

His best-known work related to the civil war is Tales of Soldiers and Civilians, fist published in 1891. Literature scholar Donald T. Blume notes that Tales of Soldiers and Civilians went through multiple editions, with Bierce adding and editing stories in multiple printings through 1909. “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Hoosier author Kurt Vonnegut called the “greatest American Short Story,” is a great example of Bierce’s style and grasp of the complexities of war. [23] Many publications also praised the work during its original printing. As a review from the New York Tribune noted, Bierce’s stories are “elaborated pictures of what the American soldier actually experienced in the great war [Civil War].”[24] The New Orleans’ Daily Picayune  called Bierce a “genius” and considered Tales of Soldiers and Civilians the “most noteworthy book of stories by an American writer published in ten years.”[25]

While Bierce’s journalism and short stories garnered serious acclaim, his outspoken views on religion often made him notorious to the prevailing attitudes of his time. Bierce’s own agnosticism (the position of neutrality concerning knowledge of God and religious claims) also squares nicely with another iconoclast of the period: Robert Green Ingersoll. Known as the “Great Agnostic,” Ingersoll was a politician and lawyer who had a lucrative career in oratory.  He gave sold-out speeches all across the country, including Indiana, critical of religion, Christianity, and superstition. While there is no evidence to suggest that he and Bierce met, their paths crossed numerous times in literary endeavors, and their “against-the-grain” natures continue to influence and inspire scholars of the nineteenth century.

In volume ten of his collected works, his essay, “A Dead Lion,” defends the agnostic orator and fights back against unjustified criticism. When Ingersoll died, religious and intellectual leaders all over the country both paid respect as well as continued their criticisms. One such scholar was Harry Thurston Peck, who argued that Ingersoll’s limitations as an intellect overshadowed his prowess as a public orator.[26] Undercutting Peck’s opprobrium, Bierce defends Ingersoll with some clever barbs at religion. “If men can be good without religion, and scorning religion,” Bierce writes, “then it is not religion that makes men good; and if religion does not do this it is of no practical value and one may well be without it as with it, so far as concern’s one’s relations with one’s fellow men.” Of Ingersoll’s own wit, Bierce argues that it was, “…keen, bright, and clean as an Arab’s scimitar…”[27] While Bierce’s own pessimism may have rankled Ingersoll’s more utopian proclivities, this essay shows a deep intellectual kinship between the two.

Another interesting connection between the two agnostics was their position on suicide. Both of them favored the practice, but based on what they described as ethical and reasonable conditions. In his 1894 essay, “Is Suicide a Sin?,” Ingersoll says unequivocally that “there are many cases of perfectly justifiable suicide—cases in which not to end life would be a mistake, sometimes almost a crime.” Suicide, in Ingersoll’s estimation, is a perfectly rational response to a malignant illness, disaster, or lack of utility in one’s life. He believed that laws against the practice were “born of superstition, passed by thoughtlessness, and enforced by ignorance and cruelty.” Instead of the traditionally prohibitive view, Ingersoll offered this alternative:  “Those who attempt suicide should not be punished. If they are insane they should if possible be restored to reason; if sane, they should be reasoned, calmed and assured.”[28]

Bierce’s essay, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” echoes many of Ingersoll’s sentiments. Bierce also believed it could an appropriate act, based on reasonable and ethical considerations. In one passage, Bierce even notes and defends Ingersoll’s position:

It was Robert G. Ingersoll’s opinion that there is rather too little than too much suicidein the world—that people are so cowardly as to live on after endurance has ceased to a virtue. This view is but a return to the wisdom of the ancients, in whose splendid civilization suicide had as honorable place as any other courageous, reasonable, and unselfish act.[29]

Bierce, like Ingersoll, saw the modern interpretation of the practice as backward and religiously dogmatic and defended its courageous nature. “…suicide does more than face death;” Bierce notes, “he incurs it, and with a certainty, not of glory, but of reproach. If that is not courage we must reform our vocabulary.”[30] In both Ingersoll and Bierce’s essays is a secular, humanistic view of ethics, one that divorces human actions and contexts from the religious beliefs of the past. In some respects, this put both men quite ahead of their time.

He also held irreverent views on life after death. In an essay entitled “Not All Men Desire Immortality,” Bierce decries the spiritualism of his time, albeit with clever quips such as this: “If we have among us one who can put over a blaze by looking at it, the matter may not have any visible bearing on the question of life after death, but it is of the liveliest interest to the Fire Department.”[31] Bierce contemplated questions of the afterlife and spirituality as a skeptic, noting that they are “still as much a matter of faith as ever it was.”[32] In other words, he had to see it to believe it.

Above all else, the lasting legacy of Ambrose Bierce’s freethought and connection to Ingersoll is arguably The Devil’s Dictionary, published in 1911. Originally released as The Cynic’s Word Book in 1906, The Devil’s Dictionary displays Bierce’s heretical nature in economical, but clever definitions. Some entries in his lexicon include, “Apostate: A leech who, having penetrated the shell of a turtle only to find that the creature has long been dead, deems it expedient to form a new attachment to a fresh turtle,” and, “Clergyman: A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering our temporal ones.”[33] He would often include poems or short story fragments with his definitions, with funny pseudonyms like “Father Gassalasca Jape” and “Booley Fito.”[34] Selected entries also appeared in newspapers throughout the country, and its controversial definitions even inspired lectures by clergymen.[35] This work would have a bug influence on journalist and fellow iconoclast H. L. Mencken, who would write clever “definitions” in his own columns and newspapers.

Bierce’s own mysterious disappearance in 1914 adds to his firebrand persona. After his last letters to family and friends in 1913, there is only one primary source that suggests that he went to Mexico. The only indication that he was headed that way is in other letters from the fall and winter of 1913, where he repeatedly describes his future trip to Mexico. His final letter to a family member, dated November 6, 1913, he notes that “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much.”[36] However, a letter from December 26, 1913 to friend Blanche Partington does place him in Chihuahua, Mexico but the last sentence of the letter leaves it more ambiguous: “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.”[37]

Based on the evidence of this last letter, Bierce possibly went to Mexico, but as investigator Joe Nickell notes, this supposed last letter attributed to Bierce, and preserved by his daughter, is probable at best.[38] Therefore, it is more likely that he did disappeared after 1914 (no credible primary sources appear from Bierce after that) and that the claim that he went to Mexico is plausible but not confirmed, based on his letters from late 1913.

After his disappearance, numerous newspaper articles were written that tried to explain what happened to Bierce, but most of them describe only rumors. For example, in the September 12, 1916 Fort Wayne Sentinel, some people described him as having been short by Don Poncho Villa’s forces in Mexico or laying in a hospital ward in France.[39] Since there are no primary sources to authenticate these rumors, they are at best hearsay. As in life, Bierce’s “death” was as elusive as the man himself.

Ambrose Bierce’s life and literary work speaks to an era of “lost souls,” men whose lives were shaped, or shattered, by the Civil War. Some came out of the war with a renewed interest in the spiritual, like Ben-Hur author and fellow Hoosier Lew Wallace. Others, like Bierce and Ingersoll, saw it as their life’s mission to destroy myths and comfortable illusions that crept through their society like a plague. Gifted with the power of prose, Bierce’s incisive and often tragically-hilarious writings showcase a man deeply in-synch with his own convictions. Bierce never believed in a personal immortality, but his writing’s enduring appeal has given an immortality he may have never imagined.

[1] His parents, Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce, were descendents of English immigrants, and his father had a love of literature. 1850 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com; “Ambrose Bierce Passport Application, April 29, 1872,” Passport Applications, 1795-1905, NARA, National Archives, Fold3; Richard O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), 10-11; “Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors (Volume 139), 42; Roy Morris, Jr., Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company (New York: Oxford Press, 1995), 9, Google Books; Robert L. Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001), xv, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Online Library; Robert A. Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964), 6, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Online Library.

[2] 1850 United States Federal Census; Deed Book 18, Kosciusko County Recorder, Warsaw, Indiana, quoted in Paul Fatout, Ambrose Bierce: the Devil’s Lexicographer (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1951), 31. A local Kosciusko County newspaper, entitled the Northern Indianan, has a business listing for an “A. Bierce” in its November 20, 1857 issue. This may push the date a little earlier, but why they moved or exactly when is still not clear (“Business Directory,” Northern Indianan (Warsaw, Indiana), November 20, 1857, 1, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection).

[3] O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 17; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 7; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, 1857.

[4] Fatout, The Devil’s Lexicographer, 392; O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 18; “Ambrose Bierce,” Contemporary Authors, Vol. 139, 44.

[5] O’Connor, Ambrose Bierce: A Biography, 18; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xv; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 7.

[6] “New Volume of Bierce Letters Issued,” Elkhart Truth, October 7, 1922, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection; Maurice M. Frink, “Little Recalled of Ambrose Bierce, Hoosier Author, in Home Town, Elkhart,” Indianapolis Sunday Star, February 16, 1923, 22, Newspaperarchive.com.

[7] History of Elkhart County, Indiana (Chicago: Chas. C. Chapman & Company, 1881), 743, Google Books.

[8] The 1860 Census still places Bierce in Kosciusko County, but his enlistment records indicate that he enlisted for the Union Army in Elkhart County in April of 1861. He may have moved in between the Census data and his enlistment date, but there are no primary sources to prove that. The earliest Elkhart City Directory available is 1874. The 1870 Census places his father in Elkhart, but again, there are few sources that document exactly when they moved. (1860 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com; 1870 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.com).

[9] W.H.H. Terrell, Report of the Adjutant General of the State of Indiana, Volume 4- 1861-1865 (Indianapolis: Samuel L. Douglass, 1866), 41; Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, Fold3.

[10] “Good Boy,” Indianapolis Daily Journal, July 27, 1861, Indiana State Library Newspaper Microfilm Collection.

[11] Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, accessed August 28, 2015, Fold3.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ambrose Bierce, “Across the Plains,” in Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume One (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1909), 363, Archive.org.

[14] Owens, The Devil’s Typographer, 10.

[15] “Letter to Adjutant General’s Office, April 1867,” Letters Received by the Commission Branch of the Adjutant Generals Office, 1863-1870, NARA, National Archives, Fold3.

[16] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xvi-xvii; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 11.

[17]“The Overland Monthly,” Arizona Citizen, March 11, 1871, Chronicling America; “July Magazines,” New York Times, July 5, 1871, ProQuest Historical Newspapers.

[18] Morris, Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company, 139.

[19] “List of New Books,” This Week’s News [London], October 25, 1873, 1356; “Dod Grile,” Elkhart Observer, June 10, 1874, 1; “Holiday Literature,” Lloyd’s Weekly London Newspaper, November 29, 1874, 5.

[20] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45; Gale, Ambrose Bierce Companion, xvi-xvii; Wiggins, Ambrose Bierce, 11; Ambrose Bierce, “At Coulter’s Notch,” Wichita Eagle, January 7, 1890, 7, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “A Comfortable Creed for Some,” Louisiana Democrat, July 1, 1891, 4, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “Wrong Rejections,” St. Paul Daily Globe, July 30, 1893, 13, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “His Human Side,” Washington Herald, November 4, 1906, 1, Chronicling America.

[21] In an March 30, 1908 letter, Bierce wrote to Hearst about his growing dissatisfaction with journalists Samuel Chamberlain, Perriton Maxwell, and Rudolph Block, whom he regarded as low-rate journalists who cheated their employer (Ambrose Bierce, A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2003), 174).

[22] “Ambrose Bierce,” Encyclopedia of Contemporary Authors, 44-45. In a letter from March 23, 1909, Bierce writes that he is “no longer in Mr. Hearst’s service” (Ibid., 193).

[23] Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (San Francisco: E.L.G. Steele, 1891), 21-40, Archive.org; Donald T. Blume, Ambrose Bierce’s Civilians and Soldiers in Context (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2004), xxi; Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), 7-8.

[24] “New Publications,” New York Tribune, March 21, 1892, 8, Chronicling America.

[25] “Ambrose Bierce,” Daily Picayune, April 24, 1892, 16.

[26] Harry Thurston Peck, “Robert G. Ingersoll,” in What is Good English and Other Essays (New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1899), 227-249, Google Books.

[27]Ambrose Bierce, “A Dead Lion,” in Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume Ten (New York and Washington: The Neale Publishing Company, 1909), 221-228, Archive.org.

[28] Robert Green Ingersoll, “Is Suicide a Sin?: First Letter,” in The Works of Robert G. Ingersoll, Dresden Edition, Volume Seven (Dresden, NY: The Dresden Publishing Company, C. P. Farrell, 1902), accessed September 23, 2015, 378, 382, 387, Archive.org.

[29] Ambrose Bierce, “The Right to Take Oneself Off,” in The Shadow on the Dial and other Essays (San Francisco: A. M. Robertson, 1909), accessed August 19, 2015, 246, Archive.org.

[30] Ibid., 247.

[31] Ambrose Bierce, Skepticism and Dissent: Selected Journalism from 1898-1901, edited by Lawrence I. Berkove (Ann Arbor, MI: Delmas Books, 1980), 285.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary (Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Company, 1911), 24, 50, Archive.org.

[34] Ibid., 22.

[35] Ambrose Bierce, “Some Modern Definitions,” Edgefield Advertiser, December 13, 1911, 2, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “From the Devil’s Dictionary,” Washington Herald, January 20, 1907, 7, Chronicling America; Ambrose Bierce, “Queer Definitions from Devil’s Dictionary,” Hartford Republican, March 15, 1912, 2, Chronicling America; “Church Services- Continued,” San Francisco Call, June 12, 1910, 58, Chronicling America.

[36] Ambrose Bierce, The Letters of Ambrose Bierce, edited by Bertha Clark Pope (San Francisco: Book Club of California, 1922), 198, Archive.org.

[37] Ambrose Bierce, A Much Misunderstood Man, 246.

[38] Joe Nickell, Ambrose Bierce is Missing and Other Historical Mysteries (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 28.

[39] “Man of Mystery,’ Thrice Reported Dead, Promises That He’ll Soon Return Once More,” Fort Wayne Sentinel, September 12, 1916, 12, Fold3.

Lord Acton and the Role of History

lordacton-2

One of the most famous quotes is “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This now-cliché axiom of political and historical lore was written by Lord Acton, the 19th Century English scholar and historian whose classical liberalism persuaded him to lean on the side of freedom over despotism. However, the quote above appears in a much longer letter to a Bishop Creighton and Acton’s words speak to a larger truth about the role of history. Acton wrote:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favourable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases. Historic responsibility has to make up for the want of legal responsibility. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which the negation of Catholicism and the negation of Liberalism meet and keep high festival, and the end learns to justify the means. You would hang a man of no position, like Ravaillac; but if what one hears is true, then Elizabeth asked the gaoler to murder Mary, and William III ordered his Scots minister to extirpate a clan. Here are the greater names coupled with the greater crimes. You would spare these criminals, for some mysterious reason. I would hang them, higher than Haman, for reasons of quite obvious justice; still more, still higher, for the sake of historical science.

In other words, no man (or woman, pardon Acton’s historical sexism) is sacred. Everything is up for scrutiny, especially if it harms the liberty and conscience of others. History’s goal is to extirpate the hero worship of leaders from its narrative and replace it with a balanced, if sometimes brutal, evaluation of the evidence.

The other revolutionary concept Acton argued for is the naturalistic judgment of supposed supernatural agents.  ‘Popes and Kings’ are men, with their own biases, appeals to emotionalism, and bouts of ignorance. These leaders, supposedly chosen by a divine authority, must use said authority within the natural rights of individuals or be subject to intellectual and moral scrutiny. Despotism only grows when these leaders are held unaccountable, either in the public square or by the verdict of history. While Acton was a Catholic, he believed that religious liberty and individual rights stood for far more than the hagiography of a temporary “agent” of divine purpose.

As an historian, I try my best to do the exact same thing that Acton did, which is put everyone on a level playing field. Human beings are imperfect and their mistakes must be discussed in the light of evidence and broad ethical standards. No leader, godly or otherwise, should be universally praised simply by virtue of their standing. This is what makes Acton a freethought hero, even though he was religious. He believed that the actions of those in power should stand on their own moral ground and not celebrated simply by invoking spiritual assistance.  It is said that light is the best disinfectant; so too is skepticism.