Archive for the ‘School’ Category
I believe in the sanctity of human life. I oppose elective abortion for personal or social convenience. We should not submit to, perform, encourage, pay for, or arrange such abortions. Possible exceptions to elective abortion include: 1) When pregnancy results from rape or incest, 2) When a competent medical authority determines the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy or 3) When a physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth. Even these exceptions do not automatically justify abortion. Abortion is a most serious matter and should only be contemplated after the persons involved have considered other alternatives such as adoption. Although freedom of choice was denied a raped 15-year old girl causing an unwanted pregnancy, she can still exercise her freedom by allowing the child to be born and adopted, especially if she has strong feelings that abortion is the taking of a human life. I don’t believe the abortion argument should be about rights, but about potentiality. In this paper I hope to present a persuasive moral argument that abortion is akin to murder and should be avoided, even if the child is unplanned or unwanted.
Abortion is a war on the defenseless and voiceless. It is a war on the unborn. It is ironic that civilized societies that generally place safeguards on human life have now passed laws that sanction and publically fund the practice of abortion. Since the legalization of abortion in 1973 (Roe vs. Wade), approximately 50 million abortions have been performed the United States. Worldwide more than 40 million abortions are performed each year. More abortions are performed each year than soldiers killed in both WWI and WWII (30 million). Death from abortion far exceeds the toll of the deplorable loss of life from warfare. 93% of abortions occur for social reasons – the child is inconvenient or unwanted. Who speaks up for the rights of these unborn children – the right to life and all the potentialities it affords?
Let me be clear: I do not intend to argue against the legal right of the mother for abortion on demand. She has that legal right. She can do with her own body as she chooses. I intend to argue that the fetus has a right to life because it is a separate person that deserves to be born and to experience life. There are at least two people involved in the decision, even if we exclude the father. Terminating the life of a developing baby involves two individuals with separate bodies, brains and hearts. Perhaps it is presumptive to do so but in order to support that statement we need to consider when meaningful life begins. At conception, the mother and the father each donated 23 chromosomes containing the genetic coding that, when combined, establish all the characteristics of an unborn person. This genetic combining results in a new human being. Approximately 22 days after conception, a little heart begins to beat. At 26 days the circulation of blood begins. Just because the baby is not yet fully developed does not mean that it is any less of a person. The effort of man to legislate when a developing life is considered “meaningful” is presumptive and arbitrary. The fetus, no matter at what stage, is a person.
Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton and one of the most prolific writers on philosophy and ethics. He has stated, “The central argument against abortion may be put like this: It is wrong to kill an innocent human being. A human fetus is an innocent human being. Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.” Peter Singer disagrees with this logic. He has argued that “human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons.” He has also said that “In a strictly biological sense, opponents of abortion are right to say that abortion ends a human life.” But he does not consider a fetus or even a human infant to be a person. His views on abortion center on the right to life being intrinsically tied to a being’s capacity to hold preferences. I disagree with that assessment. Just because the fetus cannot yet express itself, does not make it any less of a person.
The real problem is defining what constitutes a person. Personhood cannot be defined based on functionality, presently realized. We must consider that abortion destroys one’s possible future. It is for this very reason that it is morally wrong to take our own lives. But is it a compelling argument? Not yet. It doesn’t answer the question of why human life is valuable and therefore why it is wrong to take another human life. A person or a potential person in the case of a fetus has great worth, even infinite worth if you consider what it can become. Even though a human fetus has not yet been born, it still possesses all the characteristics of a human being and thus is indeed a “person” or a member of the human family. Unrealized human potentiality gives that fetus a moral right to live. The fetus has intrinsic worth and value in its very nature as a human being in embryo. Abortion is indeed murder in that it denies the potential human person the growth opportunities this life affords. To truly understand the worth of a human being, you must consider that there is more to a person than merely a human body.
I am a substance dualist and readily concede my belief in a soul as a bias influencing my position on abortion. It is my belief that I exist now, have always existed and always will exist in some form or another with or without my physical, mortal body. In other words, I am composed of more than the neurons and molecules that make up my physical body. I have a mind and a spirit that are temporarily housed inside this mortal body. I have no idea how my mind and spirit interact with my body. My metaphysical position supports the idea of a plane of existence other than the natural world around us that we see and experience. Because I am self-aware and have a sense of personal identity over time, I have concluded consciousness will continue for me after the death of my mortal body. I cannot conceive of not “being.” I am more than a mental state produced by chemicals in my brain. I am an intelligent, eternal being housed in this mortal body for a time and season, learning and growing. In short, I have great worth and potential.
Abortion is murder in that it is destroying the mortal body created to house an eternal spirit. Abortion takes away the right of that eternal being to have a mortal experience with all the attendant growth and learning that takes place in this world. I am pro-choice but not in the sense that the phrase is normally used. I believe in freedom to choose my course in life but I do not believe I am free to choose the consequences of my choices. The analogy of an astronaut may help. Anytime during the selection or preparation process, the potential astronaut is free to withdraw from the program. But once the spacecraft has lifted off, the astronaut is bound to the consequences of the previous choice to make the journey. In like manner, once conception has occurred, the choice of the woman has already been made. She cannot “unchoose.” Yes, she is free to choose what she will do with her body, but once a new life has begun within her, she must consider the impact future choices will have on that new human being. Elective abortion simply becomes a form of birth control, a way to avoid undesired consequences of choice. It is morally wrong because it takes the life of another human being without their consent.
A common rebuttal to the argument against abortion is the woman’s right to what she can do with her own body. She has a right to choose and has a right to consent to what is done to her body. As I noted previously, I do not contest these rights. I am pro-choice in this regard. But I wonder if we are giving enough attention to the rights of the father. What if he is opposed to having his child aborted? I have purposely avoided including harsh descriptions of the abortion process such as “sucked down a sink,” or “skull crushed and severed.” Has the father nothing to say if he does not wish to have the child he helped create killed in such a brutal manner? The fetal pain debate is unsettled, since it is impossible to determine what the fetus feels during the abortion process. Why do we hold fathers responsible to provide for their children and not hold mother’s to the same standard? Abortion is a way of avoiding responsibility for choice.
Another rebuttal to the argument against abortion is that we are trying to force a woman to carry an unwanted pregnancy to full term. I noted exceptions to my position of a general opposition to abortion in the opening paragraph. If the mother was raped or the pregnancy resulted from incest, statistically shown to be less than 1% of unwanted pregnancies, then abortion may be justified. However, in the case of pregnancy arising from consensual sex, the woman has tacitly consented to the fetus using her body so she is not being forced against her will. The right to life of the fetus and the right of the woman over her own body are ongoing debates. I do not believe in forcing a woman to do anything against her own will. The decision is a difficult one that ultimately, only the woman can make. She must live with the consequences of her own decision. She may regret having participated in an abortion in her later years.
In this paper, I hope I have made it clear that I believe human life begins at conception. I cannot say at what point the intelligence, soul or eternal spirit enters the human fetus. That is an important consideration in my personal religious beliefs but not relevant to this argument. You do not have to believe in the existence of a soul to understand that life begins at conception. I think anyone who has studied the issue concedes this fact. A new human life is a miracle, worth preserving. Why destroy a life that could bring joy to others? There are better ways of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. Preserve the life of the child and give it to someone else through adoption. It is a wonderful alternative to abortion. I hope I have argued persuasively that life is precious, especially unrealized potential life. Life comes from life. It is no accident. It is a gift that is not our right to take as we choose. Choose life, not death.
For more information:
Official Statement on Abortion from LDS Newsroom
Abortion, An Assult on the Defenseless by Elder Russell M. Nelson
Weightier Matters by Elder Dallin H. Oaks
Is Abortion Right for Me? – a resource from LDS family services
Of the “Big Three” moral philosophies, virtue ethics seems to be the most problematic. Criticisms and rebuttals of the other two theories, utilitarianism and deontology, are relatively simple to state and understand, or at least I found them so. On the other hand, I was able to easily compile a dozen criticisms of virtue ethics from a very few professional papers on the subject in a short amount of time. That intrigued me. In this paper I intend to defend virtue ethics as the best moral philosophy by addressing several of the excellent criticisms.
The theory is straight-forward: Moral life should have a purpose and lead to happiness. Virtue ethics is about building character. Developing good moral character leads to contentment that comes from “doing the right thing.” This moral theory is not about rules or something called “utility.” Virtue ethics requires a lifetime of practice to develop. The way to become a moral person is to be moral. This theory is more about being or becoming, not so much about doing. It’s about who you are. The concept of the “mean” is crucial to this philosophy. The focus is on balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Aristotle taught in order to achieve a virtuous and potentially happy character, we must first be taught by teachers and by experience. Later, we then consciously choose to do the best or virtuous things when presented with moral choices. This requires a lot of pondering of our choices and ultimately, feeling about things in a certain way. It is this feeling which causes, motivates or empowers virtuous or good actions.
Perhaps it is this component of feeling that raises such criticism. Those who practice virtue ethics are seeking eudemonia (Greek), a state meaning well-being, blessedness, or for our purposes, a state of human flourishing. That makes it hard to measure and hard to determine when such a state has been reached. How can virtue ethics be useful in a society if the objective is so subjective to the individual? This is just one of the criticisms I will address in this essay. Of course, just because a theory has legitimate criticisms does not negate the value of the theory, especially if favorable rebuttals can be presented. I am going to assume you are familiar with the theory beyond the basics presented in the preceding paragraph and will therefore focus on the rebuttals as the core of the argument advocating my position.
Let’s address the applicability problem right up front. What sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not? What sorts of measureable outcomes are desired with virtue ethics? What are the duties or rules of virtue ethics that can be used in specific moral situations? The difficulty in this objection is that it focuses on a lower functioning level of human nature – having to be told what to do in all situations. Such a lower level is indicative of immaturity. Virtue ethics works best as one seeks to do the virtuous thing partly by avoiding vices. Let’s take the specific example of a raped fifteen year old girl trying to decide whether or not to have an abortion. The moral guidance of virtue ethics would have her avoid vices such as selfishness, irresponsibility or short-sightedness. Abortion is a personal choice but has consequences that reach far beyond the individual. Adoption is an alternative to abortion. Virtue ethics provides moral guidance in this situation by allowing the young mother a choice. She can make a very difficult situation better by applying the moral guidance afforded by seeking the virtues of love, patience, unselfishness, forgiveness, tolerance, kindness and charity. She may choose to raise the child herself but is probably not yet suited to provide the child the best care. She can have the abortion but perhaps she has strong feelings that she might regret her decision. Action guidance from virtue ethics allows her to choose to endure the unwanted pregnancy and give the child up for adoption as being a better choice. The criticism that virtue ethics does not provide action guidance in specific moral situations demonstrates an unwillingness to think things through, weigh the alternatives and make a choice, a process that rule-based systems don’t do well.
Now let’s address the cultural relativity problem. This is not unique to virtue ethics, but seems to be made less difficult by the unique aspects of this theory. You are probably familiar with the example of the differences in how some societies treat their dead. With virtue ethics, we can readily see that something abhorrent to Western civilization like cooking and eating a piece of flesh from your recently deceased grandmother might actually be an acceptable practice because it embodies the virtue of honoring your ancestors. Such a virtue is applicable to most cultures even though we may disagree with the way a specific culture implements it. Another example is the idea of slave-holding. In some cultures it was considered morally acceptable, even virtuous to enslave human beings. Virtue ethics does not necessarily require a static ranking of virtues over time. In the slave-holding example, there is an obvious conflict of virtues at work, which in the minds of some, justified the vice of enslaving another human being against their will (I’ll address the conflict problem and justification problem next). Virtue ethics embraces the idea of community. Our values are determined in large part by the communities to which we belong: nation, family, school, church and private and public associations. We accept that some virtues will hold a greater influence upon us according to the time and place in which we live. We are social animals, grounded in a particular place and time. The ethos of our society shapes our moral views and moral activity. The application of virtue ethics allows for the influence of our community to determine the ranking of our values according to our circumstances.
A good moral system must address dilemmas. The requirements of different virtues can bring about conflict because they seemingly point to different courses of action. However, this conflict is only apparent and can be resolved by those possessed with phronesis, translated as practical wisdom. This wisdom comes only with time and through practice, which of course means making mistakes. In reality, virtues do not make opposing demands. One course of action, which some may consider a rule, may outrank another in a particular case. Or it may be that there is an exception to a standard course of action based on the specific circumstances of a moral choice at hand. Over time, the practitioner of virtue ethics will come to know instinctively, or by a feeling, what is the right course of action in this situation. Since the complexities of every dilemma cannot be determined in advance, virtue ethics teaches the skills needed to study the problem out, ponder the choices and make the best decision. At first, this is difficult and prone to mistakes, but over time, it becomes second nature to know the best course of action.
I only have room to address one other criticism of virtue ethics known as the justification problem. In short, how do we justify or ground our ethical beliefs of what is moral? Which of all the character traits are the virtues? Perhaps this is where the idea of the mean comes into play. We can make lists of all kinds of character traits and then note the extremes of each end. While this may be an exercise to teach the skill for the uninitiated, I do not recommend it as a regular course of action. At one end of the spectrum is excessiveness, while the other end represents deficiency. For the virtue of courage we have recklessness and cowardice. For the virtue of work, we can consider laziness on one end and frenetic on the other. The Golden Mean is the virtue that is to be found in between two corresponding vices. As virtue ethicists, our objective is to be somewhere in the middle. Plato gave us the four Cardinal Virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Aristotle then added five additional virtues of wisdom, courage, liberality, magnificence and magnanimity. There is no master list of virtues because it could never be all-inclusive. This moral theory is not grounded in a list of rules, desired outcomes or even specific virtues, but rather on the idea of balance, moderation and avoiding extremes. Virtue ethics is grounded on a skill of how to choose wisely, which only comes with practice over time.
In conclusion, it is my contention that virtue ethics is a superior moral system because it is more flexible and embraces a wider range of possibilities than rule-based or outcome-based systems, mainly because of the central component of endorsing agent-based choice as the best way to guide one’s life. Just because a person is continent or falls short of a perfect virtue does not negate the value of virtue ethics. There is something particularly admirable about people who manage to act well when it is especially hard for them to do so. They may not yet have achieved eudemonia, but they are still practicing, which is a major part of the theory of virtue ethics. They may fall short of the ideal again and again but continue to seek the goal of perfection through an ever-so-slightly different approach. This may seem repetitive or even counter-productive, but perhaps that is part of the beauty of the theory. Eventually, given sufficient time and effort and with encouragement from teachers and leaders, practice will pay off. The performance will be complete and the practitioner of virtue ethics will reap the benefits of a moral life well lived.
We have limited free will. Within certain limitations, we can make choices and act upon those choices. Our choices are partially controlled and determined by outside forces and by the laws of physics. But we have agency to act within certain bounds of natural laws that exist. We can exercise that agency, make choices and act upon those choices. Logic dictates there is no purpose or meaning to life if we do not have some free will. We instinctively know we have power to act in some things without constraint of necessity or fate. We are bound or limited by physics but we are independent agents within our sphere of influence. We intuitively think or feel we are free. We therefore act at our own discretion. We are capable of responding to random chance with purposeful choices. Thus we can be held morally responsible and accountable for our choices and actions in both the deterministic world of physics and the indeterminate world of observable quantum mechanics that we are still discovering.
Absolute free will is logically incompatible with determinism because we do not control the universe. However, as individuals, we are able to take more than one possible course of action in any given scenario. There are obvious choices in life we can choose to follow. We can conceive and believe things. This proves some free will even though there are limitations on the choices available to us. For example, because I am not a fish, I do not have the choice of living underwater without some sort of breathing apparatus. It is determined beforehand that human life is incompatible with living unaided under water. I am therefore limited to certain pre-determined boundaries if I want to sustain life. In like manner, in some situations I have a limited number of choices I can make because of the randomness of life. I hope I never have to decide what to do if I am in a plane that is about to crash. I would have no control of the physics causing the plane to crash, but I still have some obvious choices I can make and act upon, like remain calm or panic.
As an argument against any kind of free will, consider the views of hard determinism. Determinists believe that our thoughts, feelings, actions and behaviors are all predetermined from the moment that time began at the big bang. A determinist advocates that we do not have any control over the state of the universe or the laws that govern the universe. Free will is an illusion, they say. You may think that your choices and actions have an effect on the universe but you are really no more than an observer. For a determinist, free will is a nothing more than a necessary delusion that allows us to build a society where praise and punishment actually mean something. Compatibilists hold individuals morally responsible for their actions as if they had free will. Although it doesn’t really exist, they say, we can act as if it does, thus providing a necessary condition for moral responsibility – accountability.
Following this logic, the universe is deterministic and bound by the laws of physics. Our bodies are bound by those same laws. If you are a materialist, you believe that all behavior is caused by chemical brain states outside of our control. In order for free will to exist, there must be a supernatural agent that is not bound by those laws to inject an input from outside the system; in other words, a God. I wish I could develop this further, but for now I will propose that there are only two arguments against free will. First, if determinism is the true state of things, then the will is not free because all events are caused and our actions are predetermined. Therefore, there is no moral responsibility or free will. The second argument against free will is indeterminism of random events or chance. If all our actions are caused by chance then we have no control, and therefore, again, no free will or moral responsibility. True free will requires we have control of outcomes. However, we do not control the universe or the laws of physics. If you think about it, we control nothing of this world or the universe. To prove free will, we must prove that we can control at least some things, thus becoming independent agents with power to act.
I don’t disagree with all the views of materialists or determinists. In fact, I readily concur with determinists that the laws of the universe are outside our control. I also concur that a large part of our body processes are apparently outside the control of at least our conscious mind and will. I can’t control the motion of the planets, the effects of nature, or prevent myself from dying someday. These things are determined. My bounds are set in these matters and many others. I also concur with indeterminism as it relates to many of the choices with which I am presented in this life. So many things are just random and purely by chance. I come across an object on the freeway that gives me a flat tire. It was pure chance that I happened to come upon that object and embed it in my tire first because I just happened to be there at that place and at that time. Random chance is just part of this life. So many things – most things – are out of my control.
So what do I control? There are many things over which I have control and thus free will. I control my responses to the choices I am presented in life. I can control my thoughts. I can control the things I put into my body. I control the things I say and the things I do. Nobody forces me to act a certain way or respond in a specific manner. I control my attitudes and my beliefs. I decide what I will do with my time, who I will go visit, what work I will do, what I choose to study. I may not choose many of the things that happen to me in this life but I can and do choose how I respond to those situations. I determine the character I build by using my free will adequately. My free will is limited to those things over which I have some control and have choices. I do not have free will when it comes to the laws of physics and nature. They are out of my control. In the things over which I do have control such as thoughts, beliefs and opinions I choose what I want to think about or believe. My thoughts are not caused and are not random. They are purposeful and demonstrate free will, especially when I act upon them. Therefore, my conclusion is that we have limited or adequate determinism and limited but genuine free will.
I’ve been doing some critical thinking about a couple of recent statements made by J. Michael Bailey. He is the Northwestern psychology professor who has been the subject of so much media attention due to the live sex demonstration in his human sexuality classroom last month. You can Google the story if you want the details.
What intrigued me was the challenging nature of the defensive statements he offered when the story became public knowledge. He said that he didn’t expect everyone to agree with his decision to allow the demonstration to take place and that “thoughtful discussion of controversial topics is a cornerstone of learning.”
I happen to be enrolled in a critical thinking class right now so this idea caught my attention. While I don’t agree with his decision, I do agree with his statement. So I expected someone to take him up on his challenge, because he offered it as such. Maybe it is too soon but I have yet to see a serious response to his justification.
An Argument to Illuminate Reasoning
A couple of days after the story broke, professor Bailey continued his defense by saying that he would give an F to those who objected to his teaching method. He wrote that the responses conveyed disapproval but did not “illuminate reasoning.” Apparently he has yet to receive an explanation as to why his demo was a problem.
I hope someone with more knowledge of this subject will respond to his proposal for a thoughtful discussion and offer a few reasons why his demonstration was not the best choice. I’m looking for arguments that will illuminate reasoning and do more than to just express disapproval. I could use it when I argue this in my class.
The Man who would be Queen
A little more background information on professor Baily might be helpful. He wrote and published a controversial book in 2003, The Man who would be Queen: The Science of Gender-Bending and Transsexualism. He admitted that he had sex with his research subjects and said he thought there was nothing wrong with this.
Coincidently, about that same year he found himself divorced and no longer the chair of the psychology department at Northwestern University. According to published reports from students, he is not a great lecturer, but makes up for it by presenting extremely controversial aspects of human sexuality in his classroom.
Teaching Should Benefit Society
I love to teach so maybe this is an area in which we can agree. Professor Bailey is an educator; therefore I’ll assume that it is his intent to help his students learn. As a professor of psychology, I would hope that it is his desire to prevent psychological damage in his students. After all, isn’t that the objective of studying the subject?
We study human behavior to understand it and to be able to deal more effectively with activities that are disturbing, distressing or problematic for the individual or society. For most practitioners, a goal of applied psychology is to benefit society. A university professor is in a particularly influential position upon civilization.
Pornography in the Classroom
Professor Bailey said he uses pornography in his classroom. “I don’t see anything wrong with showing pornography in the classroom provided it has some purpose in the class. Some can be a little explicit,” he said. “I teach the truth – as I understand it…[which] sometimes conflicts with people’s assumptions. That is controversial.”
Bill Yarber, a researcher at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and author of the widely used textbook Human Sexuality: Diversity in Contemporary America, said he’s never heard of a naked woman being brought to orgasm in front of a class of students. Watching a video is one thing but seeing a live demo is pushing things.
A commentary from a Catholic blogger about this episode illustrates a typical reaction, “Professor J. Michael Bailey’s Human Sexuality class has nothing to do with psychosexual development, morality, biology — nothing worthy of study; just an excuse for presenting risqué and deviant sexual behaviors as normative.”
Sexual Relations Should be Private
It is my contention that demonstrating the use of a motorized phallus to a group of students is not a legitimate form of sexual education, especially in the classroom. In fact, I will go so far as to say that viewing of pornographic material is equally inappropriate and unnecessary to meet the requirements of human sex education.
I believe that sexual relations should be expressed privately in marriage, between a husband and wife. I therefore believe that all public displays of sexual activity are inappropriate. I believe that pornography is harmful and destructive to the souls of those who create it and those who consume it. It is not needed for sexual education.
Professor Bailey’s demonstration was controversial because as far as I can tell, it was the first time live sex has been used in a classroom setting. But the real issue is how diametrically opposed this is to the values of virtue, modesty and respect for human sexual relations. It is degrading and cheapens it to something undesirable.
Achieving a Fulfilling Love
I think the comment of a student studying to be a therapist who then reported on her human sexuality class says it best for me. She stated that she had become a sexual zombie; that sex meant nothing to her because she had tried it all. She found no joy in sexuality. And yet she wants to become a therapist to fix others like her.
Pornography is any material describing or depicting the human body or sexual conduct in a way that arouses sexual feelings. Pornography degrades the heart, mind and spirit. It robs us of self-respect and the sense of beauties of life. It tears us down and does not lift us up. It does not help us achieve fulfilling human love.
I will be leading a classroom discussion of this current event in my critical thinking class in a few weeks. When I shared my subject with the professor he was pleased and said that I might be surprised to learn how many in the class feel the same way I do. That would be a pleasant discovery that I hope is not limited to my college.
William Shakespeare was arguably the most influential writer in all of English literature. One of his plays, Hamlet, seems to have become so influential that it has profoundly affected the course of Western literature and culture even after 400 years. From Hamlet, I have chosen three themes that Shakespeare developed so beautifully: 1) The impossibility of certainty, 2) The complexity of action and 3) The mystery of life and death. These ideas are further advanced in Tom Stoppard’s existentialist work, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Through absurdity, we are lead to believe that 1) The world is incomprehensible, 2) We are insignificant and incapable of making meaningful choices and 3) We are but players on a stage.
The very purpose of life
In effect, Stoppard’s ideas are the same as Shakespeare’s, illustrated with an equal amount of wit, but in a much more bleak and sarcastic style. I dispute these ideas and in contrast, it is my contention that 1) We can choose what we believe about and do with our lives, 2) We have power to act and can cause things to happen and 3) We can be certain about our choices to act in this life. In fact, making choices and acting upon those choices is the very purpose of life. The process of choosing and acting brings great meaning and fulfillment to our lives and is of significant value to our mental health and happiness. It is by not acting that we forfeit opportunities for growth.
Removing doubt from our lives
When the ghost appears to Hamlet and makes him swear to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet does not seek that vengeance right away. Hamlet is not sure that he believes the ghost is who he says he is or if he is telling the truth. He is uncertain. He is placed in a difficult situation and wants to be certain that Claudius is guilty before taking action. In an effort to gather support for his sworn course of action, he feigns madness and causes actions that will help him ascertain the veracity of the events related by the ghost. He asks the players to change the production so he can watch the reaction of Claudius when he sees his crime revealed in dramatic form. These are the actions of a very thoughtful and intelligent man. It is obvious that his madness is an act. So it is not so impossible to be certain about things. Perhaps it just takes a little time and planning. A little later Hamlet witnesses Claudius confess his crime in prayer, thus his doubts are removed.
Dealing with uncertainty
In response to the confusion expressed by Guildenstern at the incomprehensibility of the events unfolding around him, the Player in Act II of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Uncertainty is the normal state. You’re nobody special.” Tom Stoppard purposefully demonstrates for us that Guildenstern does not have all the information he needs to make sense of the world around him. Obviously, Stoppard is relating that we are all in the same boat in that we also do not know of everything in the script, so to speak, except for the small part we play.
To act or be acted upon
Of course we are not really in the same boat as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in that we live in the real world where we can seek out and obtain more information if we chose to do so. They are only actors, figments of the imagination of Shakespeare and Stoppard, with no control over their lives. In a sense, they are being acted upon by the whims of the authors. With their limited viewpoint, life does seem incomprehensible and impossible to be certain about anything. On the other hand, we can discover, learn and choose to be certain in our beliefs about life around us.
Philosophies and belief systems
When the Player in Act III of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead says, “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it,” he is implying that the universe is unfair and does not discriminate between good people and bad; that rewards and punishments are entirely random. But is the world such a chaotic place as Stoppard seems to believe it is as expressed through the words of the Player? We go to great effort to create meaning in our lives, developing belief systems and philosophies that give us comfort and a sense of order. It’s true that we cannot control the elements and we cannot control what other people say or do, but we, all of us, have created philosophies or adopted religious ideas to help us cope with the seeming disorder and confusion. Thus, we create our own sense of order and fairness, especially if we look at this life as only a small part of our existence, a mere blip on the timeline of eternity.
To be or not to be
In what may be the most famous speech in the English language, Hamlet examines the mystery of life and death, weighing the moral ramifications of living and dying. “To be, or not to be,” he poses; to live, or not to live. Is it nobler to suffer a life full of “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” or to seek to end one’s suffering through death? He compares death to sleep and thinks of the end to pain, suffering and uncertainty that it might bring. In fact, he decides that it would be better to die than to live with the heartache and shocks of life.
Philosophical inquiry not enough
But then he considers the afterlife and the dread of possibly trading one miserable existence for something unknown but conceivably worse. He concludes that this dread makes “cowards of us all,” and so we thus continue to suffer through lovesickness, hard work, political oppression and a host of other undesirable afflictions common to all in this life. This speech connects several of the main themes of the play, including the idea of uncertainty, inability to act and the mystery of death. Hamlet is deeply passionate and relentlessly logical but he has demonstrated for us the difficulty of knowing truth through philosophical inquiry alone. There must be another way.
The power to act
There is a better way. When we are presented with something new or different from what we previously believed, we can choose to believe it or to reject it. When we choose to believe a piece of information, a theory, a philosophy or even a religion, we then have the power to act upon our new belief, thus causing results either within ourselves or the world around us. We have that power because we are agents unto ourselves. We can cause things to happen of our own free will. In effect, it is the ultimate in scientific inquiry and the empirical method. Once we act or cause action, we can then see the results for ourselves. We then have knowledge. We can now be certain about our choices to act in this life based on the results they bring about.
Experience brings knowledge
Let’s apply this to Hamlet. Presented with the news from the ghost that his father had been murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, he decided to believe it, at least partially, but also decided to obtain greater evidence. He caused the players to act as accusers which rattled Claudius into a confession overheard by our hero. Hamlet then had confirming knowledge, obtained by his own actions. He no longer needed to believe what the ghost said. He was certain of this thing. He acted upon his belief and learned something for himself through his own experiences. He no longer needed to believe what someone else said was true. He now had a personal knowledge.
Ask the right questions
Now let’s apply this to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as presented by Tom Stoppard. These confused gentlemen are small players in the big picture, but we are made privy to some of their thoughts and actions while they are not on stage. When they encounter the Player, we sense that they have an opportunity to learn more about their purpose and meaning from him as he seems to know far more about what is going on than he reveals. If only the pair would ask the right questions, they might get some answers. Alas, they do not and continue to march through the entire book just as confused and bewildered as they began. Because they do not actively seek understanding from a potentially knowledgeable source, they therefore have nothing in which to believe or act upon. Consequently, they are unable to make any significant choices and obtain no confirming knowledge to make sense out of their life. They die meaningless deaths.
Choose what we believe
Finally, let’s apply this to us. We come into this world with no knowledge of the purpose or meaning of our lives. Over time, we are presented with a multitude of explanations, beliefs and philosophies to explain the events that are going on around us. Unlike players or actors on a stage who have no control of their lives, we have been given the ability to makes choices and act upon our beliefs. For example, we can choose to believe that there is purpose and meaning to life and that there is someone who knows the beginning from the end. Acting upon this belief, we seek for more knowledge from others who profess similar beliefs. Again, we are presented with choices as some will claim that their answers are the best. They invite us to act upon their beliefs as well as their requests to support them, often financially. They even invite us to participate in their cause in spreading their views to others.
Act upon our beliefs
Choosing to believe something and then acting upon that belief gives us experience. We can then decide if we like the results of our experiment. We can be certain that something is of value or not based upon our own experience. In the process, we learn a lot about ourselves. We discover what will satisfy us and what makes us happy. We rise to the level of our own desires for knowledge. The critical part of the process is to take action. Unless we act upon our beliefs we can never know for ourselves if it is of any value to us. For example, someone may tell you that seeing a Shakespeare play is an enjoyable and enlightening experience. But unless you go see one for yourself, you will never know. Similarly, the best way to learn something about a life philosophy or religion is to participate in activities that practitioners of that way of life follow.
We can be certain
We can choose what we want to believe, act upon those beliefs and then be certain for ourselves if those beliefs have merit or value. Life does not have to be so complex, uncertain or mysterious, especially if we reduce it to a serious of choices and actions. We choose to believe that an education is of value and act upon that belief by paying for an education and doing the hard work required to get a degree. We are then certain of the value of an education. We may decide that it was a waste of time and money or we may choose to believe that our life has been improved and enhanced by our achievement. After all, most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. The world is not so incomprehensible. We are significant and more than just actors on a stage. We are here to gain knowledge through our choices in life.
Be forewarned: This essay contains references to masturbation and other sexual acts. Once again by assignment, I examine the social impact of a controversial book first published over forty years ago, at the height of the sexual revolution. I’ve noticed a trend among most of the short stories and books that we have considered this year in our American Literature classes: many of them contain material that would be considered to be shocking or offensive to more conservative readers. Portnoy’s Complaint is no exception. In fact, if Ginsberg hadn’t broken the indecency barrier with his poem Howl a decade earlier, I am certain that Philip Roth would have been charged with breaking some sort of obscenity law. As it was, attempts were made to prohibit the distribution of the book in some countries and many U.S. libraries banned the book as too vulgar. Of course that was in 1969. Today it is considered an American classic.
I would like to address in this essay just what it is that makes Portnoy’s Complaint such an American classic, to discuss its universal appeal beyond the context of the Jewish culture in which the story takes place and to delve into the very important theme of religious influence on sexual thought, development and behavior. I can’t think of any two subjects that are more a part of our American literature tradition than religion and sex. Put them together in the same paper or book and you introduce conflict. Make them one in your treatise and you have broken a taboo. Roth’s book was a bestseller because he did just that. If you aren’t familiar with the novel, it was Portnoy’s Complaint that he could not enjoy sex because of the guilt that he felt from his religious culture. It is my thesis that the majority of American literature addressing this theme is faulty because of an incorrect understanding of the place of sex in religion. In fact, it is my contention that Portnoy’s Complaint is deeply flawed because of the focus on guilt as a direct result of religious culture and upbringing. But then, that’s what makes it so very American.
Alexander Portnoy understood the principle of guilt. He was an expert at guilt. In fact, he was a slave to it. He lived with it day in and day out. And where did he get it? He tells us that it came from his parents. After providing numerous examples he exclaims, “Doctor, these people are incredible! These people are unbelievable! These two are the outstanding producers and packagers of guilt in our time! They render it from me like fat from a chicken!” (p39) Did they do it on purpose? Are they to blame? Perhaps this later observation from Alex makes it clearer. “Doctor, what do you call this sickness I have? Is this the Jewish suffering I used to hear so much about? Is this what has come down to me from the pogroms and the persecution? from the mockery and abuse bestowed by the goyim over these two thousand lovely years?” (p40) In other words, he did not necessarily blame his parents for the guilt he felt; he blamed his religion. He equated Jewish suffering, and in particular, his own guilt, upon his cultural religious history.
At the age of fourteen, coincidentally about the age that most boys are in the midst of puberty, Alex decided that he would no longer participate in the traditional religious practices of his parents. He told them that he would no longer go to the synagogue with them. Since Alex has been masturbating, he has been experiencing guilt. It is clear that he attributes this guilt to his religious culture. In Jewish tradition, masturbation is prohibited, as are impure thoughts and sexual relations before marriage. In the midst of a long-winded diatribe directed at his father but more generally directed at his people, he says, “… instead of crying over he-who refuses at the age of fourteen ever to set foot inside a synagogue again, instead of wailing for he-who has turned his back on the saga of his people, weep for your own pathetic selves … It is coming out of my ears already, the saga of the suffering Jews! Do me a favor, my people, and stick your suffering heritage up your suffering ass– I happen also to be a human being!” (p84) But he could not get away from the guilt he continued to experience because of his ongoing sexual activities.
Portnoy’s Complaint is not just a novel about masturbation or the sexual activities of a young Jewish man. It is really a very Catholic book, which means that the subject matter has universal and widespread appeal. Every young man goes through puberty, and if we are to believe the statistics, the majority of them (90% by some accounts) will have masturbated at least once by the time they are 18, with 60% masturbating regularly during their adolescent years. In America, the land of porn, we have the unique distinction of also being a very religious country. According to recent statistics, 83% of Americans claim to belong to a religious organization even though less than 40% formally participate by attending church regularly. Do you see my point? If the majority of young men masturbate and the majority of people in America have some sort of religious tradition in their lives, then this really is an American conflict that Roth has brought to our attention in such an entertaining manner. It is a characteristically American problem.
Portnoy’s answer to his complaint of guilt was to disassociate himself with his religious practices, a common solution for many young men in America who experience their own crisis of faith. In his case, he continued to have a very difficult time with guilt because being Jewish is more than just a religion. It is also his cultural heritage. He simply could not get away from the terrible feelings of shame and remorse he experienced even though he had renounced his faith. As he so eloquently exclaimed, “Doctor, I can’t stand any more being frightened like this over nothing! Bless me with manhood! Make me brave! Make me strong! Make me whole! Enough being a nice Jewish boy, publicly pleasing my parents while privately pulling my putz!” (p 40) Even many years after his vow of non-participation, he still felt like he had to be a nice Jewish boy to please his parents. Even though he had graduated first in his law school class and was a very successful government lawyer, he could not free himself from the control of his parent’s beliefs, especially his mother’s ability to manipulate his feelings after so many years.
That was the wrong answer. Instead of rejecting his faith, maybe he should have listened to his father and embraced it, or at least the good parts of it. Alex went to Israel in a spontaneous attempt to find himself, his roots and some peace to his predicament. Unfortunately, he did not approach his quest with the right attitude. To him, it was purely an intellectual exercise. “I set off traveling about the country as though the trip had been undertaken deliberately, with forethought, desire, and for praiseworthy, if conventional, reasons. Yes, I would have (now that I was unaccountably here) what is called an educational experience. I would improve myself, which is my way, after all. Or was, wasn’t it? Isn’t that why I still read with a pencil in my hand? To learn? To become better? (than whom?) So, I studied maps in my bed, bought historical and archeological texts and read them with my meals, hired guides, rented cars—doggedly in that sweltering heat, I searched out and saw everything I could.” (pp284-285) In the middle of his travels, he hits up on the local Israeli girls but finds that he has suddenly become impotent.
Alex concludes that he has been cursed by God, or at least by some sort of all-powerful judge because of the way he treated the women in his life. He resolves nothing and returns to America to a long session with his psychoanalyst, which results in the book we have read. Of course this is a fictional account but it so aptly describes the typical intellectual approach of some to finding answers to the really big questions in life – like how to be free of guilt. I have read the writings of a good rabbi who advocates the need to feel remorse and make amends. If Alex had looked deeper into his faith, I am convinced that he could have found an intelligent way to eliminate guilt that is both rational and practical. Guilt is a universal part of the human condition. It is something that we all feel when we have done something that goes against our own moral beliefs. In Alex’s case, he knew that it was wrong to masturbate, or at least to take it to the level that he did. He also knew that he had hurt each of the women he introduced us to in the book. If he had studied his own religion even just a little bit (how did he ever get through his own Bar Mitzvah?), he just might have learned the true meaning of Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, one of the holiest days of the year for his people.
To me, guilt is an indication that you still care about something that you once valued. If Alex didn’t care about these girls and their feelings, why did he keep bringing them up? If he didn’t really believe deep down in his heart that masturbation was wrong, then why did he feel so guilty after all these years? Alex was a good man, an intelligent man, but a confused man. He was confused by the idea that sex was something only meant for personal pleasure. If he would have considered that maybe, just maybe, what his faith taught about sex was worth considering, then maybe he could also have accepted the idea that he could be forgiven for whatever he has done that has caused him so much guilt. In Judaism, sex is reserved for marriage. It is intended to draw the married couple close to one another and to bind them as partners in their family. It is not just Judaism that believes this, so again this is a very catholic book with universal appeal. Alex did not want to get married, because to him, marriage was all about lust.
“Look, at least I don’t find myself still in my early thirties locked into a marriage with some nice person whose body has ceased to be of any genuine interest to me. How much longer do I go on conducting these experiments with women?” (p114) That’s pretty shallow. People do get old. Bodies change. Yet they stay married. Why? Because they are comfortable and happy together. It’s not all about sex. Marriage is more about a relationship, helping each other find happiness, learning and growing together. It’s not an experiment. It’s a commitment to one another. “I have affairs that last as long as a year, a year and a half, months and months of love, both tender and voluptuous, but in the end-it is as inevitable as death-time marches on and lust peters out. In the end, I just cannot take that step into marriage. But why should I? Why? Is there a law saying Alex Portnoy has to be somebody’s husband and father? I simply cannot, I simply will not, enter into a contract to sleep with just one woman for the rest of my days.” (p116)
No, Alex, there’s no law, but you are missing out on wonderful things that come from marriage and in no other way: a sense of security and belonging that lasts. People get married because they love each other. They get married for love. And because you love another person you agree to be faithful to them and to do all you can to help them want to be faithful to you. But he continues, “For love? What love? Is that what binds all these couples we know together– the ones who even bother to let themselves be bound? Isn’t it something more like weakness? Isn’t it rather convenience and apathy and guilt? Isn’t it rather fear and exhaustion and inertia, gutlessness plain and simple, far, far more than that ‘love’ that the marriage counselors and the songwriters and the psychotherapists are forever dreaming about?” (p117)
No Alex, love isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength, but then you’ve admitted that you know nothing about love. You don’t understand that love involves sacrifice and giving and caring. Actually, Alex, love is not convenient at all, it is often very inconvenient. Love is the opposite of fear, it is faith. One doesn’t enter into a marriage relationship at the end of a long series of exhausting sexual escapades, but at the beginning, when sex is a novelty to be discovered together by two people who are committed to each other and want to please each other for a lifetime. I think we can safely conclude that Alex is against marriage. He does not want to be married. He does not want to be faithful to one woman. He seems to think that a marriage will only work as long as there is a strong lust element. Yet, he also complains over and over that he is not satisfied with his lustful, perverted life.
He won’t marry because he doesn’t believe he can or will be faithful. He justifies dumping these girls because he says he knows that he will just tire of them and that he doesn’t want to cause them grief or pain down the road. He tells us that he knows he will have a mistress a few years into the marriage, and asks why “… my devoted wife, who has made me such a lovely home, et cetera, bravely suffers her loneliness and rejection? How could I face her terrible tears? I couldn’t. How could I face my adoring children? And then the divorce, right? The child support. The alimony. The visitation rights. Wonderful prospect, just wonderful.” (p117) He’s already decided that marriage will never work for him. He does not want to get married and probably never will. He does not see that it brings him anything that he is not already getting, because apparently all he wants is sex. Oh Alex, that is such a small part of marriage. You have no clue, you have no idea what joy can be found in a marriage relationship that does not involve the bedroom. You idiot! You’re so smart, but you’re such a schmuck! Grow up!
Get rid of that guilt by forgiving your parents, forgiving yourself and getting on with your life. Decide that you’re going to change your approach to sex and marriage into something much more wholesome. Get a clue from your religion. Talk to your rabbis again. Maybe you should study your theology and discover what it really teaches about how to overcome guilt. You’re not the first person to ever experience this you know. And Alex, thanks for the entertaining novel and for contributing greatly to this very American literary tradition of religion and sex in such a unique way. But couldn’t you have done it without so much obscenity and vulgarity?
Roth, Phillip, Portnoy’s Complaint, New York: Bantam Books,1969
Walt Whitman left a legacy as an American poet that cannot be ignored. Yet, nearly 120 years after his death, polarization of opinion about his work and his influence is still strong. It seems that you either love him or you hate him, and in most cases that view depends upon your moral convictions. There is no doubt that his work was controversial in his day, evidenced by the labels of “obscene” and “pornographic” given by some reviewers. For those who have seriously studied his work, the general consensus of opinion is that Walt Whitman was a great American poet and in fact, is considered the first great poet of America. However, to many in this great nation, instead of singing the body electric, Whitman’s poetry demeans and degrades the human spirit. And while his works may have shocked the sensitivities of some readers in his day, it is tame by today’s standards, giving us an early preview of America as the land of porn.
A Short Biography
Walt Whitman was born in 1819 in New York and died in 1892 in New Jersey at age 72. He was the second of eight surviving children in a poor family struggling to barely subsist, both physically and emotionally. Biographers have surmised that his father was probably an alcoholic. There was some mental instability in his family among his brothers and sisters. Although his formal education ended at age 11, Whitman was a very successful autodidact, a self-educated man. He worked for a time in the newspaper industry as a journalist, editor and printer. He tried his hand at teaching for a few years but did not enjoy it and quit abruptly, with some speculating that it was due to an unwanted romantic advance toward one of his young male students.
Leaves of Grass
Returning to journalism at age thirty, he began what became his life’s work: Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry written in a distinctly American style using free verse and a cadence based on the Bible. He self-published his book in 1855 and published multiple editions in his lifetime. The book was and is powerful, abandoning traditional verse for free verse poetry. It was also deemed by some to be controversial as they found his repeated sexual imagery content to be offensive. When he presented copies to his family, his own brother said it not worth reading. Although he did not list himself as the author, he did include a now-famous portrait of himself facing the title page, with an open-neck shirt, jaunty hat and one hand on hip. In the body of the text he identified himself as, “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist…” He was, in all respects, a natural man.
O Captain, My Captain
Whitman’s sexual orientation is generally assumed to be homosexual or bisexual. He never married but had several long-term intimate relationships with other men in his lifetime. Whitman achieved international recognition and worked tirelessly to promote his book. He obviously lived during the Civil War and that was a big influence in his life. He travelled to Washington looking for his brother who he had heard had been killed, but was only wounded. He spent time on the battlefields and in hospitals caring for the sick and the wounded. He came to greatly admire Lincoln and was deeply affected by his assassination. His most famous poem, O Captain, My Captain was about Lincoln and he gave many lectures on the president’s life. He suffered serious health problems in his later years, surviving three paralyzing strokes.
America’s National Poet
Walt Whitman answered Emerson’s call for poets to expound the new world of the United States. There is no doubt that he did this powerfully, uniquely and in a highly acclaimed manner. He was considered America’s national poet, at first more by Europeans than by his fellow Americans, at least in his own day. Using free verse, Whitman created a new style of writing that was uniquely American. He used natural voice and diction to imitate the natural flow of thought and feeling. He had a grand vision of speaking for America and explaining what it was all about. He saw and described scenes that leave you feeling like you were also there with him. He was innocent enough to believe that there really was such a job as a national poet.
An Epic to Celebrate America
Whitman was on the forefront of the American literary scene and was well prepared to promote it. His language was uniquely American, not British or European; powerfully American. His language had fewer rules; it was looser, courser, rougher and more promiscuous. He felt he was actively involved in the struggle for democracy with Leaves of Grass. He also said that he hoped his book would heal the nation and even prevent Civil War. He wanted to inspire and stir people with his work. He viewed his book as a true epic. What would an epic be like? It would celebrate America, the American self, the “I.” In fact, he sings of America throughout the book.
The Great Equalizer
Before Leaves of Grass he wrote editorials but he saw that they were mostly ineffective so he created a more profound work through his free-verse writings. He addressed the soul and the psyche of the nation, to create a real sense of community. He threw his book out there with a lot of hope for a nation that would soon divide apart. Whitman wanted his book to be written by the nation and for the nation using his voice. In his preface he says that the poet is the great equalizer and the one who is in balance. He obviously had a great ego and assumed a lot, but believed in his age and his country. He felt that he had a national mission to fulfill because he could see and tell of a world of experience in a way that nobody else could or did. He wanted to preserve the Union, to hold things together and yet maintain our unique identity. The many contradictions and differences of our nation did not bother him. He wanted us to accept them and him and was truly puzzled by those who could not or would not accept either.
Legacy of Walt Whitman
Leaves of Grass is Walt Whitman’s personal literary journey of national significance. His desire was to sing of the new country with a new voice and he felt the time was ripe. There is no doubt that Whitman’s vision and ego helped him produce his masterwork. His profound vision created a tremendous contribution to American literary history. Numerous poets have tried to place themselves in his wake or have reacted violently to him. There is no getting around him. He was a celebrity in his day and is celebrated today. He had disciples that surrounded him in his later years and still has a large following today. But why is he so important? It is because he stirred up such controversy and got people talking. More importantly, he broke the boundaries of poetic form and elevated common people through his portrayals of American life.
A Religious Skeptic
Leaves of Grass had a major impact on the literary world; His work cannot be ignored. His poetry has been set to music and inspired musicians, both classical and popular. Europeans said that you couldn’t really understand America without Walt Whitman. Some modern poets have said that Whitman is not just America’s poet, but he is America. Whitman considered himself to be a messiah-like figure in poetry; so did his admirers. His vagabond lifestyle was adopted by the beat movement as well as by anti-war poets. He took what Emerson and Thoreau started with the transcendentalist movement, thoroughly Americanized it and then set it free to enjoy a new life through his free-verse poetry. His style speaks to many people who think as he did and do not live within the constraints of limitations imposed by moral boundaries of religious America. Though he was born to a Quaker family, it would be more proper to classify Whitman as a man of spirituality and not a man of religion. He as deeply influenced by Deism and denied that any one faith was more important than another. Similar to Benjamin Franklin, who was also a religious skeptic, he embraced all religions equally. And though he accepted all churches, he believed in none. It is safe to say that Whitman’s religion was like his verse: free and easy.
A Mass of Stupid Filth
But it is his forays into eroticism that elicited such strong responses from his critics. They said that his poetry was “a mass of stupid filth” and that Whitman was like a pig “rooting among the rotten garbage of licentious thoughts.” For example, in section 11 of Song of Myself, Whitman warned us that he was going to celebrate himself, get bawdy and lusty and otherwise embrace the passion, pulse and power of life. The 29th bather is a powerful example of how he makes that happen. In section 3 of Song of Myself he had already exposed us to the urge of sex, and now he sprays us with a beach orgy. Section 11 is famously known as the 29th bather, a fantasy that starts from a female narrative and ends with a homoerotic shocker. It caused one reviewer to exclaim that he was guilty of violating “the rules of decorum and propriety prescribed by a Christian civilization.” Another accused him in Latin of homosexual behavior.
While some biographers are certain in their declarations that there was never any evidence of homosexual activity, what is certain is that he used the imagery of raw sexuality liberally throughout Leaves of Grass. “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world…always sex” are found along with scenes of “hugging and loving bedfellows. He takes on an all-knowing and condescending spirit that tells us to forget about “creeds and schools,” religion and education, and just listen to what wisdom he is about to belch forth. With arrogance he states that “what I assume, you shall assume,” as if to say that our views could only possibly be his views. He is going to introduce us to the common laborers of America, the average people who are cheerfully and skillfully working to build the great American dream.
I Celebrate Myself
Throughout his work we will witness numerous vignettes of life in the America of Walt Whitman’s day, not life in halls of congress or places of business, but in homes and gathering places. And through it all, we are to be subjected to the lusty, bawdy, fleshy side of life that Whitman, or his muse, wants us to see, hear and experience. With Walt, we will hear the delicious singing, the “party of young fellows, robust and friendly, singing with mouths open their strong melodious songs.” He is positively giddy. “I celebrate myself, and sing myself… undisguised and naked…mad to be in contact with” the sensual nature of this physical and worldly existence. We will soon be reading biography, sermon and poetic meditation of this muse all lustily embracing the fleshy body as it expresses itself through the life of Whitman.
The 29th Bather
In Leaves of Grass, Walt writes of getting “undisguised and naked,” and sensually urges his readers to “Undrape! You are not guilty to me,” but “stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical.” But these words and phrases are nothing compared to the scene that unfolds in the 29th bather. The young lady lets her imagination take her to the beach to join the crowd of young men, describing the beards of the young men glistening with wet that ran from their long hair, little streams that passed all over their bodies. “An unseen hand also passed over their bodies; it descended tremblingly from their temples and ribs.” And then the action turns decidedly homoerotic as actions are performed on the young men by whom – the unseen 29th bather or by each other? If Whitman intended to shock the sensibilities of his readers, he wildly succeeded. But then, this is nothing compared to sex-soaked erotic content of a more modern classic such as Portnoy’s Complaint, which dwells on the lusty subject of masturbation.
The Good Gray Poet
How this erotic and sexually dissident poet was adopted as America’s national bard and anointed “the Good Gray Poet” is hard to understand. He never did reach the common people but was celebrated by the intellectuals of the day, especially from other countries. Did Whitman presage the view of America as the land of porn? If not, then he certainly did contribute a fair share for his day. The real work in analyzing and appreciating Whitman’s poetry is in looking past the celebration of the natural man and seeing in it the celebration of America, the great land of opportunity and the dream that all can succeed and that anything can be created and promoted. All it takes is the kind of confidence and belief in oneself that Walt Whitman had in abundance. In that respect, Walt Whitman was truly an American genius of a rock-star caliber for his day. If Whitman could successfully promote and sell out every edition of his book each time it went to press, in spite of the moral constraints of his day, just think what we should be able to do today!
Of course I’m not suggesting that we rush out to write a bunch of pornographic prose as he did, but I am saying that, like Whitman, we should celebrate this great nation for the freedoms of expression that we enjoy and that can really be found in no other nation of this world today. And, like Whitman, if we embrace the spirit of controversy and promotion of something unique, as was his free-verse style, then we should be able to reach out to millions of people through the modern leaves of grass – the Internet. Isn’t that what many of today’s bloggers are hoping to accomplish? They are the Walt Whitman’s of our day, bypassing the established norms of book publishing for the new media of the Internet. And they succeed because of their controversial content and endless self-promotion. If only what they promoted was uplifting to the human spirit. Controversial content is what drives the readers to the blogs and websites where they want to express their own opinions in the comments. Walt Whitman knew what would sell and he knew how to sell it. Just think of what he could have done if he lived in the Internet age!
The warning signs outside the theater were ominous: “Adult content not suitable for children.” Looking around as we entered, I had to remember that the college-age students there were not children. That’s hard to do when you have offspring older than most present, including the actors performing the show. Carol and I were there by assignment to see the musical “Rent,” the Tony and Pulitzer award winning rock-opera drama about life in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1980’s. It takes place in the neighborhood known as Alphabet City, an area primarily inhabited by bohemian young people wanting to break into theater, TV or music. Sadly, the area also had high levels of illegal drug activity, violent crime and HIV/AIDS.
Undoubtedly the themes of homosexuality, AIDS, drug addiction and homelessness prompted the warnings about the adult content. The characters include a gay male couple in which both partners have AIDS, an on-again/off-again lesbian couple, and a straight couple in which both partners have AIDS and both have a history of intravenous drug use. It’s not exactly “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” and was written intentionally to shake things up, but also to address the concepts of love, loss and community. Those are the themes that I would like to address in this essay. If we can overcome bigotry and be compassionate towards people living with AIDS for a few moments then we can be uplifted by some beautiful elements of Rent.
I’ll admit I was a little put-off when I read some of the articles and reviews of the play in advance of witnessing the production. I wanted to know more about the story before I saw it. I like to think I’m not homophobic but from what I had read in some reviews, the lifestyle went beyond mere portrayal; it was celebrated, endorsed and flaunted in your face. I didn’t want to see that. I’m old-fashioned in that I believe that some things should be left private, and sexual activity is one of them. However, the production that we saw must have been a tamed-down version because there was only occasional gay kissing and touching, nothing too disturbing. I was more bothered by the decibels of the musicians, which sometimes drowned out the singers.
The songs in Rent are the first of the beautiful and uplifting elements that I noticed. The entire play is a musical. It seemed like there were very few lines spoken that were not actually sung. Even the hilarious little phone messages peppered throughout the play were delightfully sung to us, adding much entertainment to the dramatic production. Who hasn’t heard “Seasons of Love,” especially since it has been playing in some TV commercial lately? Although not particularly uplifting to me, La Vie Boheme was immensely entertaining. Other enjoyable songs included Your Eyes, Goodbye Love, Light My Candle, Tango Maureen, Out Tonight, One Song Glory, I Should Tell You, Take Me Or Leave Me, No Day But Today, and Living in America.
I can’t think of one thing with more universal appeal than the idea of love. Who doesn’t want to be loved? I have met people who have said no when I asked them if they wanted to be happy in life but I have never met someone who said no when asked if they wanted to be loved or at least accepted for who they are. Of the three major themes I saw in the play, the idea of being loved came across the strongest. Although they had a lot of emotional handicaps and baggage, these were people dealing with building relationships. I can’t identify with being a drag queen but when Angel was dying, I found myself shedding a tear for Collins’ loss.
Living with Loss
These people lived with loss every day. That’s why one of the recurring songs was entitled, “No Day but Today.” How they dealt with that loss teaches a lot about the idea of community. They came together in their grief. They comforted one another. They took care of one another the best they could. Mimi was not judged for her drug addiction but was encouraged to live without it and find something better to take its place. Since so many of their friends were dying, they adopted the motto to live for the day and to reach for their dreams one day at a time. How hard it must be to make plans for the future when you are living with a disease like AIDS.
It was love and loss that built their community. They only had each other. Rejected by so many outside their world, they had to give each other strength, and they did. Although the ending was a little hokey with Angel becoming the angel who told Mimi to go back when she was dying, the love that developed between Roger and Mimi was delightful to witness. How can you not love a happy, feel-good ending where the main characters find happiness in each other? Except there’s one big problem – they still have AIDS and will die someday. But then, so will we all. See, it really does have universal appeal. The play mirrors life that someday will end.
After seeing the play, Carol read the script and I read dozens of reviews. I was fascinated by the dichotomy of opinions expressed. It seems that most reviewers either loved it or hated it. One said she had never walked out of a play before in her life but walked out on Rent. She must have had a family member in our audience because a couple in front of us walked out at the first encounter of affection expressed between Angel and Collins. Were they homophobic? In all probability, yes they were. I mean, the music was loud and the show could be confusing if you weren’t paying close attention, but it was obvious that they didn’t like what they were seeing.
Reviews from Viewers
Here’s a quote from one of those reader reviews I found in the NY Times about the time the show was closing after a twelve-year run: “If you want homosexuality and drug addiction rubbed in your face, then this is the play for you. I basically hated it, if you haven’t figured that out yet.” In contrast, “Rent is a fabulous roller-coaster ride of emotion. The characters are extremely real, and so are the troubles they face. The songs are beautiful and the energy and electricity of it is so wonderful that you are a complete moron if you don’t like it. The only reason anyone wouldn’t like this show is if they are homophobic, intolerant, and weak.”
But my favorite had to be, “So let’s see… a group of drug addicted promiscuous squatters are the heroes and the one person who breaks from the group and becomes successful and buys the building (which they live in illegally) is the bad-guy because he wants rent… hhhmmmm… and let’s see, we have loud screeching that we’re supposed to call singing but it’s “cool dude” ’cause the lead is just so hot looking and has the teeny bopper girls squealing in delight. This is a show for the MTV-Put-Upon Generation… pure junk.” Opinions of performances are one thing but this reviewer was obviously passing judgment and commenting on the lifestyle choices.
Part of the impact of the show is the death of the composer and writer, Jonathan Larson, who died of an aortic dissection, believed to have been caused by Marfan syndrome, on the night before the play opened off Broadway. In spite of his death, the show went on. Glowing reviews began to appear. The six-week run sold out immediately. In the months to come, Rent moved to Broadway, won four Tony awards, including the prize for best musical, and Jonathan Larson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, posthumously. The show went on to become one of the longest running productions on Broadway and is now enjoying a second life in local theater.
Rent has had and is still having a social impact. While the play is now a little dated with the use of pay phones, answering machines and clunky old cell phones the size of a brick, it is still attracting younger crowds wherever it plays. Of course, that was probably inevitable in our case, given that our venue was a local community college. Wherever it opens, it is reviewed by the local theater critics. The comments posted on those online reviews demonstrate that some of the same prejudices and bigotry are still alive and well in America today. Rent is a wonderful example of American creativity that reaches to the very heart of our lives through love and loss. I hope our community has changed and become more tolerant in the years since it first opened.
I haven’t included a lot of quotes from the musical, because frankly, they aren’t very deep. For example, here’s one from the song, Light my Candle: “I didn’t recognize you without the handcuffs.” And from Angel, the transvestite, “I’m more of a man than you’ll ever be and more of a woman than you’ll ever get.” From the song Will I, about dying from AIDS: “Will I lose my dignity? Will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” I suppose my favorite has to be “There will always be women in rubber flirting with me…” That last quote is from Maureen, one of the two lesbians. Some of the stuff is really quite funny, if you can just get past the idea that these are people looking for love in unorthodox relationships.
And that is the point of the play and the impact it has had on America. How do we view the lives of those who are not in orthodox relationships? Do we view them as sinners, in need of repentance and salvation, who will suffer in hell because of their poor lifestyle choices? I am confident that there are millions of people who will voice that very opinion without hesitation. Or do we love and accept them, making an effort to help them find happiness and success in life? That is one of the toughest choices in life, especially for those who have family members living in a lifestyle that is contrary to the moral principles that they value. Rent helps us see past the pain and sorrow of rejection and loss of those who live with AIDS and still manage to have hope.
It’s that final scene of hope that I find most uplifting and inspiring about the play. They found hope because they loved and supported each other through their loss and sorrow. I think Jonathan Larson would be pleased to think that his play has helped us to become more loving and supportive of each other, especially those who deal with AIDS on a daily basis. And in the end, the millions he earned posthumously from the play helps others pursue their writing careers.
Note: Carol saw the play with me and shared an excellent review on her blog.
As created by Nathaniel Hawthorne in The Scarlet Letter, the character of Hester Prynne is a powerful woman. She interacts impressively with those around her in the epoch that the story takes place – Puritan America of the 1640’s. If she had lived in the days of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804 – 1864) it is certain that she would also be looked upon as an influential woman of that time. In fact, if she had lived in our day, there is no doubt that she would be a leader among women in our society.
The source of Hester’s power is her moral integrity. Now, that may be a fantastic claim for the main character of a novel that addresses adultery. But I am confident that you will at least understand the thesis, if not agree with it, once the evidence is presented and considered.
We will first review the social structure that prevailed in Puritan America, including the roles of men and women. We will observe how Hester related to the male hierarchy and especially how she dealt with the austere consequences of her choice that were thrust upon her. The strength of Hester’s moral character will become apparent as she remains true to promises made to other key characters in the story. Her power will clearly be made manifest in a few final scenes in which it is obvious that she is the real pillar of the most important relationships in her life.
Hester Prynne rises above the events that mold her life, and demonstrates how embracing her identity and especially her sexuality allow her to be a powerful influence for good among all those who know her. Through Hester, Hawthorne helps us see the personal power of a woman, in this case a woman of deep passion who is forced by a cold society to subdue and master that passion, which is so evident in her youth, beauty and spirit.
Hester Makes Her Appearance
We are introduced to Hester as she comes out of the jail where she had been incarcerated ostensibly for adultery and presumably where she gave birth to her daughter, Pearl a few months previously. She had come to this land ahead of a husband, who was apparently lost at sea. We are not certain if she is a member of the Puritan faith, but it is certain that she now lives among their society. Looking for direction in her time of recent loss, she seeks guidance and comfort from the local minister. Comfort turns to passion and the result is now borne in her arms.
She emerges to “a people amongst whom religion and law are almost identical” (Hawthorne, 45). The crime of adultery could have been punished by death or by public flogging, but in this case, Hester is required to wear a scarlet letter “A” on her bosom as a sign to all of her crime. Being good with the needle, she has made it into a beautiful emblem, and embroidered it with a gold thread.
Some of the people are surprised, but show no sympathy. “At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead,” (Hawthorne 47), proclaims one of the women in the market-place where Hester is brought forth for public ridicule. “This woman has brought shame upon us all and ought to die. Is there not a law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statute-book” (Hawthorne 47).
The magistrates of the community are no more compassionate than the gaggle of gossiping women as they interrogate her publically and once again ask her to reveal the father of the child. They even have the Reverend Dimmesdale implore her with passionate speech to name her lover. Looking directly into his eyes, she refuses and expresses the desire that she “might endure his agony, as well as mine” (Hawthorne 63). This is a clear indication of the moral strength of this woman. She knows what it will do to the minister if she names him. But she is willing to sacrifice herself that he might continue on in his office. That is impressive! But he cannot hide from the torment of his own guilt and shame.
The Long-Lost Husband Appears
A major character in the story makes his appearance in the market place and witnesses what is taking place without revealing who he really is – Hester’s long lost husband who had been delayed by both shipwreck and falling among savages. Hester had recognized him but they did not speak until later when he comes to visit her and the child in the jail. He is a scholar and a chemist and treats the distraught pair that they may be at peace. A conversation ensues in which we come to know that theirs was a loveless marriage. He also asks her to name her lover but she continues to refuse.
He then swears her to secrecy regarding his identity. “I will keep thy secret, as I have his,” (Hawthorne 71) said Hester. And she took the oath. Once again, we see that Hester is a woman of moral integrity as she never reveals who he is until much later in the story and only then after getting his permission. She wonders what his purpose is at the time but it becomes obvious later that he is out for revenge. He promises that he will discover her lover and destroy him, which he proceeds to do by becoming close to him over time.
Hester Learns From Her Punishment
Hester accepts her punishment, wears the scarlet “A,” becomes an outcast from society and yet finds a way to provide for herself and Pearl by her skills with the needle as a seamstress. At one point, hearing talk that the magistrates are considering her fitness as a mother, she goes to the governor to deliver a pair of gloves and to discuss with him the welfare of the child. She is told that she may not see his worship now. “Nevertheless, I will enter,” (Hawthorne 96) she answered as she pushes past the servant and makes her way into the house to find the governor. By this one simple action we sense the dignity and power of this woman. She cannot be deterred when she has a mission to perform.
She has heard aright, they have been considering the child’s welfare and ask her mother what she can do for her. “I can teach my little Pearl what I have learned from this,” (Hawthorne 102) and lays her finger on the scarlet letter. She has obviously already become a wiser woman as she emphasizes the lessons are for Pearl’s good. They address Pearl directly and ask her who made her, hoping to determine if she has learned from her mother some basic Christian doctrine. Pearl replies that she has been plucked by her mother off the wild rose bushes that grew by the prison door.
Hester Defends Herself With Passion
It doesn’t look good for Hester but she passionately defends herself by proclaiming, “God gave me the child! He gave her in requital of all things else which ye had taken from me. She is my happiness—she is my torture, none the less! Pearl keeps me here in life! Pearl punishes me, too! See ye not, she is the scarlet letter, only capable of being loved, and so endowed with a millionfold the power of retribution for my sin? Ye shall not take her! I will die first!” (Hawthorne 104) Wow! What passion!
She then turns to Reverend Dimmesdale and says, “Speak thou for me! Thou wast my pastor, and hadst charge of my soul, and knowest me better than these men can. I will not lose the child! Speak for me! Thou knowest—for thou hast sympathies which these men lack—thou knowest what is in my heart, and what are a mother’s rights, and how much the stronger they are when that mother has but her child and the scarlet letter! Look thou to it! I will not lose the child! Look to it!” (Hawthorne 105)
She knows what she is doing. Here is the father and she knows that he must defend her rights as the mother or risk exposure himself. Once again, the moral courage of Hester shines forth as she courageously defends herself by virtue of her position as a woman and mother, in spite of the control of the male-dominated system. Her influence upon Dimmesdale is obviously very powerful as he is able to convince the governor that Pearl should remain with Hester, for both their sakes. The mission for which Pearl was born has not yet been fulfilled.
Hester gets Permission to Break Her Oath
Space does not permit numerous other examples that demonstrate the power of this woman so we will consider the two most obvious. Let us skip forward to the forest scene where the Reverend Dimmsdale is returning from a visit to a friend. It is Hester’s intention to reveal to her lover the true identity of the man who is seeking to destroy him. As was noted earlier, she obtained permission to break her oath after confronting her husband and demanding that he release her from her bond.
She can no longer stand what her husband has been doing to her lover with his slow torture, both emotional and probably chemical. She convinces the old man with her eloquent and passionate speech that the Reverend needs to know the truth. Relenting to her persuasion, he says “It is our fate. Let the black flower blossom as it may! Now, go thy ways, and deal as thou wilt with yonder man” (Hawthorne 163).
The Famous Forest Encounter
She waits for the Reverend on the forest path. She calls his name and they begin their first private conversation in seven years since the night of their passion. His pain is almost palpable to Hester. He is so miserable because of the lie he has been living for so long. She reveals the true identity of the doctor; that he was once her husband and that he has been taking his revenge out on the Reverend for all these years. She begs his forgiveness. He refuses.
“Oh, Hester Prynne, thou little, little knowest all the horror of this thing! And the shame!—the indelicacy!—the horrible ugliness of this exposure of a sick and guilty heart to the very eye that would gloat over it! Woman, woman, thou art accountable for this!—I cannot forgive thee!” (Hawthorne 183) And then, with the power that only a woman has, and in what is arguably the best scene in the book,
…with sudden and desperate tenderness she threw her arms around him, and pressed his head against her bosom, little caring though his cheek rested on the scarlet letter. He would have released himself, but strove in vain to do so. Hester would not set him free, lest he should look her sternly in the face. All the world had frowned on her—for seven long years had it frowned upon this lonely woman—and still she bore it all, nor ever once turned away her firm, sad eyes. Heaven, likewise, had frowned upon her, and she had not died. But the frown of this pale, weak, sinful, and sorrow-stricken man was what Hester could not bear, and live! (Hawthorne 183)
The Power of a Passionate Woman
He cannot resist the power of this passionate embrace and so forgives her and asks God to forgive them both. Now for only a brief moment in the forest, we are privileged to witness once again the awesome power of this woman as they make plans to leave and go away together to England. “If this be the path to a better life, as Hester would persuade me, I surely give up no fairer prospect by pursuing it! Neither can I any longer live without her companionship; so powerful is she to sustain—so tender to soothe!” (Hawthorne 190) Hester then
undid the clasp that fastened the scarlet letter, and, taking it from her bosom, threw it to a distance among the withered leaves. The mystic token alighted on the hither verge of the stream … The stigma gone, Hester heaved a long, deep sigh, in which the burden of shame and anguish departed from her spirit. O exquisite relief! She had not known the weight until she felt the freedom! By another impulse, she took off the formal cap that confined her hair, and down it fell upon her shoulders, dark and rich, with at once a shadow and a light in its abundance, and imparting the charm of softness to her features. There played around her mouth, and beamed out of her eyes, a radiant and tender smile, that seemed gushing from the very heart of womanhood. A crimson flush was glowing on her cheek, that had been long so pale. Her sex, her youth, and the whole richness of her beauty, came back from what men call the irrevocable past, and clustered themselves with her maiden hope, and a happiness before unknown, within the magic circle of this hour (Hawthorne 191).
This scene is so powerful because it illustrates the influence of one woman upon a man whom she loves. Such was “the bliss of these two spirits! Love, whether newly-born, or aroused from a death-like slumber, must always create a sunshine, filling the heart so full of radiance, that it overflows upon the outward world. Had the forest still kept its gloom, it would have been bright in Hester’s eyes, and bright in Arthur Dimmesdale’s!” (Hawthorne 192) Trite as it may seem, and overused as the phrase may be, Hester’s personal power was the power of love – a love that heals and that binds two souls together. And Hester was blessed with an overabundance of this powerful gift.
We must conclude this essay demonstrating the power of this woman by considering the last scene. After delivering an emotional election-day speech, the minister comes forth from the church and goes to where Hester and Pearl have been waiting for him at the scaffold, the same place where she was publically ridiculed for her crime seven years earlier. He has resolved that he is too sick to live much longer and decides that running away is not the best thing to do. He extended his hand to the woman of the scarlet letter.
“Hester Prynne … in the name of Him, so terrible and so merciful, who gives me grace, at this last moment, to do what—for my own heavy sin and miserable agony—I withheld myself from doing seven years ago, come hither now, and twine thy strength about me! Thy strength, Hester; but let it be guided by the will which God hath granted me! … Come, Hester—come! Support me up yonder scaffold” (Hawthorne 237).
Drawing obvious strength from Hester as she supports him with her arm about him, he makes public confession of his part in the crime of passion that brought forth little Pearl. Speaking in the third person, “He bids you look again at Hester’s scarlet letter! He tells you, that, with all its mysterious horror, it is but the shadow of what he bears on his own breast, and that even this, his own red stigma, is no more than the type of what has seared his inmost heart! (Hawthorne 240) Baring his breast, he shows the multitude the he too bears the mark of his sin, even though it is not described in detail.
“Then, down he sank upon the scaffold! Hester partly raised him, and supported his head against her bosom.” (Hawthorne 240). He acknowledges Pearl as his child and she kisses him. She has been waiting for this day for so long. At last, her earthly father has acknowledged her as his. “A spell was broken … Towards her mother, too, Pearl’s errand as a messenger of anguish was fulfilled” (Hawthorne 240). The minister dies after his confession, now believing that his soul is saved and attributing it to the torture of Hester’s husband and the ignominy of his confession before the people of his crime and in hiding his sin all those years.
Although it seems such a sad and unfulfilling ending, think about what has just happened, all because Hester Prynne endured her punishment with courage and strength of character. She did not give up. She loved Pearl and raised her as best she could. She turned a deplorable and unfair situation into a triumph because of her determination to see that things were set right in the end. She suffered public humiliation and ignominy for seven years while it appeared that the man who was her partner in crime got away, adored by others.
And yet, because of her love for this man, she was able to cause him to confess his crime, acknowledge his child and perhaps, even help to redeem his soul. “Shall we not spend our immortal life together? Surely, surely, we have ransomed one another, with all this woe!” (Hawthorne 241) Nathaniel Hawthorne left us with the dying words of the Reverend expressing doubt that he and Hester could ever be together in the hereafter. “I fear! It may be, that, when we forgot our God—when we violated our reverence each for the other’s soul—it was thenceforth vain to hope that we could meet hereafter, in an everlasting and pure reunion” (Hawthorne 241).
But love knows no bounds, including time and space. Who is to say, if these were real characters, that they couldn’t be together in the world to come, bound by the power of the love demonstrated by Hester Prynne? Hester lived on, quietly, and became something of a legend in the community of Boston. The scarlet letter made her what she became, and, in the end, she grew stronger and more at peace because of her suffering. She continued to wear the scarlet letter to the end of her days, but she wore it as a symbol of her power. This is a power that no man could ever wield. Such a power belonged only to a woman with the courage and strength of moral character like that of Hester Prynne.
Source: Hawthorne, Nathaniel. The Scarlet Letter. 1850.
New York: Barnes and Noble Classics, 2003.
Benjamin Franklin is widely recognized as a great American patriot and founding father of this nation. He wielded a powerful influence in the shaping of this country because of his intelligent, reasonable, pragmatic and practical approach to life. But the real power and vigor of his persuasive abilities came from the ideological principles that he embraced. Because of his tremendous reach and authoritative influence upon our nation, much has been written about the religious views of Benjamin Franklin. It is clear that he embraced different beliefs from colonial religiosity that preceded him. By his own account he was a product of the age of enlightenment and considered himself a Deist. He believed this world was organized by a divine creator.
Some have said that he was not a Christian and others have claimed that he was an atheist, occultist or mystic. However, a careful reading of Franklin’s writings leads us to conclude that he simply did not believe that the organized religions of his time fully represented the omnipotent power, majesty or wisdom of the great Creator. There is no doubt that Franklin was a religious man. His religion just didn’t conform to the orthodox views of his day. He did not participate in public worship services but endorsed and promoted the churches around him with his influence. In many ways, his religion was unique to him, formulated early in his life and refined with age and experience. His emphasis on seeking moral perfection, developing virtues and in doing good to all men constitute the heart and soul of his very practical religion. Clearly, based on the results of his life, he had a great understanding of how religion should work for a man.
One of the best sources to help us understand the religious views of Benjamin Franklin is his own autobiography, mostly written when he was 65 and added to some 13 years later. He wrote that he “never was without some religious principles; I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity, that he made the world, and governed it by his providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished and virtue rewarded either here or hereafter” (McQuade et al 215). That’s quite the creed. Just one month before his death in 1790, he wrote to Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale University, and offered a similar creed. “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing Good to his other Children. That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another Life respecting its Conduct in this” (Franklin Papers v46 p400).
It is obvious that Benjamin Franklin had a strong faith in God as the source of morality and goodness of man. He constantly acknowledged the hand of God in the affairs of men and gave God credit for his happiness and success in life (McQuade et al 185). He was a strong advocate of prayer to God, invoking the blessings of heaven upon his efforts to seek moral perfection. “And conceiving God to be the Fountain of Wisdom, I thought it right and necessary to solicit his Assistance for obtaining it; to this End I form’d the following little Prayer … for daily Use (McQuade et al 219). He then recited the prayer for us. In addition, it is well known that Franklin requested that prayer be a part of the proceedings during a critical impasse of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. “I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?” (Franklin Papers v45 p77) However, his motion for prayer did not carry.
While it is certain that Franklin was no dogmatist, it is just as clear that a driving force in his life was the pursuit of virtue. He wrote extensively about it in his autobiography. In a sense, this search for moral perfection was his religion, and one that he readily admitted was elusive. He considered it a “bold and arduous Project” to develop these virtues which he first enumerated when he was still young. He obviously still felt that it was a worthy enterprise as it wrote about it glowingly in part two of his autobiography, written at age 78. At one time he had hoped to expand his extensive comments about the “Means and Manner of obtaining virtue” into a book. He proposed to call it the Art of Virtue, but his intentions were never fulfilled. However, he left enough thoughts on the subject in his autobiography that many others have used his ideas to better their own lives and some have even written their own books and formulated improvement programs based on his writing. Almost all of Part Two of his autobiography was dedicated to the explanation of how he pursued virtue, the difficulties he encountered in attempting to dedicate these virtues to habit and his satisfaction of seeing his faults diminish.
As he wrote, “But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell short of it, yet I was by the Endevour a better and happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it …” (McQuade et al 220). He shared his list of virtues with his son and encouraged him to also follow their pursuit. The story he relates of how he added the thirteenth virtue of humility to his list has been endearing to readers through the years. “I cannot boast of much Success in acquiring the Reality of this Virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the Appearance of it …” (McQuade et al 222). Although it has been over 200 years since he wrote these words, we get a sense that Franklin was much more humble than he led us to believe. It was this character trait that allowed him to be so persuasive in uniting others around him to his causes. He was not a threat to men and wanted only to unite them in the cause of doing good.
At the end of the Constitutional Convention, after the reading of his impassioned speech in which he used his persuasive powers to urge the delegates to sign the document, he watched in disappointment as some delegates still refused to sign. While the majority was signing it, he watched and commented that it was always difficult for painters to show the difference between the rising sun and the setting sun. He said that during the convention he had often looked at the painted sun on the back of the President’s chair and wondered “…whether it was rising or setting. But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun” (Madison 763). A lady, identified as a Mrs. Powel, asked Dr. Franklin, “Well Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” — ‘A republic,’ replied the Doctor, ‘if you can keep it’” (McHenry 618). Franklin emphasized that the new republic could survive only if the people were virtuous. He is also reported to have said on that occasion that “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
The word virtue to Franklin signified so much more than we may ascribe to it today. He worked his whole life to acquire virtue, as he defined it for us in his autobiography (McQuade et al 216). He described his list of virtues in terms that could be applicable to an individual of any religion or no religious beliefs at all. He did, however, in adding the thirteenth virtue, suggest the path to obtain humility was to imitate Jesus and Socrates. Much is made in modern times of Franklin’s stated opinion of Jesus. From this quote most people draw the conclusion that he was not a Christian: “I think the System of Morals and his Religion as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting Changes, and I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity” (Franklin Papers v46 p400). As he wrote this one month before he died, he said that he would soon find out for himself as to the validity of the claims of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth.
As noted, Franklin considered himself a Deist, although not in the same vein as Thomas Paine who openly mocked Christianity. Franklin made it clear that he did not believe the true Church of Jesus Christ was to be found on the earth at that time. He noted the hypocrisy that he found among some who claimed to be religionists as a major reason for his decision to not attend public worship services. He clearly taught us that true religion means doing good to all men. Indeed, he retired from his business pursuits at age 42 and devoted the second half of his life to that very purpose. While he rejected much of the Puritan dogma of salvation and hell, he very much demonstrated the Puritan faith in God as the wellspring of morality and goodness in men. He believed that part of his purpose in life was to improve himself by hard work, diligence and his own efforts. In other words, he believed that it was up to him to make something of his own life. By almost all accounts, he did so admirably. Benjamin Franklin was by far one of the most admired men at the time of his death as evidenced by the 20,000 people who attended his funeral and all the ministers of the city of Philadelphia who walked arm in arm to his graveside.
By no means should we assume that Franklin perfected his moral character in his mortal life. It is clear that he was unable to adhere to the list of virtues he espoused by his own efforts. At one time he advised us to wary of wine, women, food and the cloth (fine clothes), and yet he was known to indulge in all of them. He drank too much, ate too much (and had gout), flirted and dressed well. Yet, he gave so much to the founding of this nation and was a statesman extraordinaire. Without his efforts, this nation might have been a very different place. He became the powerful and so very influential man that he was not so much by the practice of religious behaviors or religiosity but by the practical application of the virtues that he defined early in his life. His religion served him well and made him the man that he was. He was a reasonable man. He thought things out and let his reasoning powers guide his actions, unhampered by the prevailing religious dogma.
Franklin rejected dogma and much of the religious doctrine of his day. His was a God of ethics, morality and civic virtue. Because of his persuasive skills in helping to craft compromise, he was on occasion known as the prophet of tolerance. His political influence was an extension of his religion, with the intention to do good works and help others to do so. Later in his life he returned to a belief that organized religion could help to meet those aims of doing good. His pragmatic view was that without such organized communities, men will not be motivated to do good things on their own (Isaacson 46). His pragmatic ways also exhibited themselves when he said that he would soon know for himself concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ as he very much believed in an afterlife. In other words, he expected to be able to ask him directly. For a man who was not hobbled by the hand-clasping and soul-searching anxiety of some within the Puritan community, it did not seem to me that he rejected Jesus Christ as some have claimed. He was just waiting for someone to introduce him properly.
It is my view that Franklin’s life was well spent in the service of his fellow man, something that was appreciated during his lifetime and that ensured him a great legacy that lives on today. He did not worry himself about religious arguments that led to fruitless bickering among those who simply did not know how to live their lives in a manner that Jesus taught – to go about doing good things for others. I think Franklin was a wise man in his religious views. He did not offend and encouraged all with his generous contributions to the building of their churches and helping to publish their sermons. I suspect that Franklin was amply rewarded when he entered the afterlife. He was certain that God wanted him to be moral and virtuous. He pursued that life and exhibited it by his actions. It’s too bad that some today are insistent on proclaiming that our founding fathers were not religious men. It is obvious to anyone who studies his life that Franklin was very religious, and in a very real way. We would do well to follow his example and live our religions that way he lived his in service.
McQuade, Donald, et al, eds. The Harper Single Volume American Literature. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 1999
Franklin Papers. The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, digital edition, Yale University.
14 April 2010 http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp
Madison, James. Journal of the Federal Convention, ed. E. H. Scott, p. 763, 1893. Notes at the closing of the Constitutional Convention, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, September 17, 1787.
McHenry, Dr. James. The American Historical Review, vol. 11. New York: 1906.
Isaacson, Walter. Benjamin Franklin – An American Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.