The Ten Commandments 2.0, cont’d: Walt Whitman

Following up on my post about humanist alternatives to the Ten Commandments, here is Walt Whitman (from his 1855 Preface to Leaves of Grass):

This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.

Fantastic. A couple of lines that stand out are “argue not concerning God” and “dismiss whatever insults your own soul,” but a wide and thorough reading of Whitman reveals that he considered all religions inadequate (and hence not worth arguing about) and that, with his capacity for identifying powerfully with every aspect of experience, nothing seemed to insult his soul. “I am large,” he wrote; “I contain multitudes.”

The First Amendment is here (“stand up for the stupid and crazy”) as well as a rejection of blind worship (“take off your hat to nothing known or unknown”) and a call to practice skepticism and challenge authority (“re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book”). Compassion, community, service, democracy, and environmentalism are here as well. And, running through all these lines, a sense of wonder at the sheer fact of existence. What an amazing creed by which to live one’s life!

I originally wanted to write just about this one passage, but looking it up in my edition of Leaves of Grass led me to revisit the whole thing — and I realized, in a way I never did before, how staggeringly good it is. Whitman’s spirituality is complex and hard to pin down, but it’s still absolutely astonishing how deeply his vision resonates with humanism, with a “poetic atheist” view of the cosmos. He’s definitely worth a more in-depth post, which I’ll try to write up soon.

(h/t The Daily Dish)

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Ten Commandments 2.0, cont’d: Walt Whitman

  1. MM

    Whitman was actually a Hicksite Quaker – though he was never recorded as a member in a local meeting due to his homosexuality (Quakers didn’t officially condone homosexuality until the early 1960s) – , and his theology as expressed above, is thoroughly Quaker. The “take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men” is undeniably Quaker, and is a reference to George Fox and the early Quakers.

    https://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1623&context=wwqr

    https://whitmanarchive.org/criticism/current/encyclopedia/entry_620.html

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