A Population Equally Brave

Jennifer Michael Hecht is one of my favorite writers, and in her review of Susan Jacoby’s new book on Robert Ingersoll, she leaves me with this haunting thought:

There have been atheists and religious doubters throughout history, but the ones who remain famous after their deaths tend to have been equally famous for something else as well; otherwise, people most notable for their bravery in the face of religious conservatism have to be celebrated by a population equally brave, and that is often too much to ask.

In order to appreciate certain cultural figures, we need to be, to some degree, worthy of them. We have to be, as a people, closer to greatness ourselves in order to recognize it. A very tall order, isn’t it?

Makes you wonder; who else have we missed?

3 thoughts on “A Population Equally Brave”

  1. It’s a good point, about needing a population equally brave to remember freethinkers. But I think part of the problem can also be attributed to historians. Mostly, they’ve been insiders, so it’s been very hard for them to recognize the role of outsiders in social and cultural change.
    I really enjoyed The Great Agnostic, but I found myself wishing for a little more context. Both in how Ingersoll connected with other issues than secularism, and how he connected with other freethinkers. For example, in my research on Ingersoll’s British contemporary, Charles Bradlaugh, I’ve found a congratulatory letter from Ingersoll. I think we’d get a different idea about the movement if Ingersoll wasn’t always treated as a monolith (this happened in earlier biographies of him, too).
    As for “who else have we missed?” — blatant self promotion here. I’ve just completed a biography of freethinker Dr. Charles Knowlton, who was jailed for writing America’s first birth control book in the 1830s. It’s called An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy, and it’s coming out next week. I’ll send you a review copy, if you want to take a look. More info at freethoughthistory.com.
    –Dan Allosso


      1. Both of those books by Knowlton are available online at both Hathi Trust and the Internet Archive.
        However, I should warn everyone that the image quality is variable. Some copies look better than others.


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