Words of Wisdom from Walt Whitman

27 Nov

Ebon has been hosting a great discussion about the morality of prostitution over at Daylight Atheism. If you haven’t read it yet, check it out. He and his commenters have raised a multitude of interesting points and counter-points about the economics, politics, sociology – and ultimately, the morality – of prostitution. As I read Ebon’s post and the responses, I couldn’t help thinking about Walt Whitman’s beautiful poem, To a Common Prostitute:

BE composed—be at ease with me—I am Walt Whitman, liberal and lusty as Nature;
Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you;
Not till the waters refuse to glisten for you, and the leaves to rustle for you, do my
to glisten and rustle for you.

My girl, I appoint with you an appointment—and I charge you that you make preparation
worthy to meet me,
And I charge you that you be patient and perfect till I come.

Till then, I salute you with a significant look, that you do not forget me.

This poem expresses, far more graciously and eloquently than I ever could, what it means to be a humanist; to reach out and accept another as my equal – without regard to wealth or education or ethnicity – simply because he or she is part and parcel of the world that we both share.

Moreover, my humanist spirit extends beyond the species homo sapiens. All beings on this planet share common roots; all of us share common needs and urges; all of us share common fates. Humankind, as a consequence of our superior intellectual capacity for understanding and controlling events in the world, bears unique responsibility for ensuring, as far as it lies within our power, justice and well-being for all earthly beings. We should not view the world as ours to dominate. It is, rather, ours to conserve and preserve as good stewards, for our generation as well as for those that will follow. Such stewardship begins with rising to Whitman’s challenge and embracing even the lowest and least lovable among us.

“Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you.”


Posted by on November 27, 2007 in humanism, poetry, walt whitman


17 responses to “Words of Wisdom from Walt Whitman

  1. Spanish Inquisitor

    November 27, 2007 at 11:11 pm

    Nice Post. You should submit this to Ebonmuse’s next Humanist Symposium. It would be perfect.

  2. the chaplain

    November 27, 2007 at 11:16 pm

    SI – thanks for the encouragement. I hadn’t thought of submitting it to any of the symposiums (or should I say, symposia?).

  3. Babs

    November 27, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    This was simply beautiful.

  4. John Evo

    November 28, 2007 at 12:23 am

    Very nice, Chaplain. I was taken aback by where you ultimately took the post. But it was spot on. Naturally, I agree with your sentiments for our cousins. We all have a common ancestor. For some of us, that ancestor is just a little more recent.

  5. The Exterminator

    November 28, 2007 at 1:34 am

    chappy, you said, Such stewardship begins with rising to Whitman’s challenge and embracing even the lowest and least lovable among us.

    Sorry, but I refuse to embrace social conservatives. I don’t even like talking to them.

    The rest of your post is very nice. I concur with SI about submitting it to the Humanist Symposium.

  6. athinkingman

    November 28, 2007 at 6:15 am

    I really enjoyed this. Thanks. Your last paragraph made me think. I am new to humanism, and while comfortable and familiar with reaching out to all human beings, I thought the added dimension of your ending was interesting and challenging.

    I am used to saying to my clients: “You are a talented, significant, creative human being.” Perhaps I need to extend that to other creatures: “You are a talented, significant part of life.” Sadly, I doubt that they would understand, but it might do me good.

  7. Lifeguard

    November 28, 2007 at 9:25 am

    Chappy: Thanks for a unique and challenging post and for quoting my favorite poet. Reading Whitman is like having a loving grandfather whispering in your ear. So intimate, you know? He can reduce me to tears.

    I agree with you that we sometimes need to take a step back and realize that even those we have the least in common with, the ones we disagree with most vehemently, are a part of life’s rich tapestry. We don’t have to like them, but we can appreciate and embrace the fact that they express a real human sentiment, regardless of how wrong or misguided we think they are.

    Exterminator: Even if we can’t even listen to them talk!

  8. Lynet

    November 28, 2007 at 1:04 pm

    Ebon’s post made me think of that poem, too. Still, I have to admit that I don’t think of it as “reaching out to the lowest and least lovable”. My interpretation has it that he’s simply refusing to buy into the system that declares her low and unlovable. Which is a very different thing.

  9. the chaplain

    November 28, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    You are correct to point out that Whitman was not a poster boy for the establishment. That’s one of the things I love about him.

    I can’t speak with any voice of authority re: Whitman’s posture in this poem. It’s possible that his position could have included both of our views, or that he leaned more toward one view than the other. If the latter is the case, I don’t know which way he was leaning. It’s quite possible that I read much of my own perspective back into his words.

  10. John Evo

    November 28, 2007 at 8:03 pm

    It’s quite possible that I read much of my own perspective back into his words.

    ain’t that poetry?

  11. phillychief

    November 28, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    The original article was great, but I don’t have the patience right now to go through over 40 comments! I think my time is much better spent reading your post here 40 times. ;)

    Whitman’s smooth, and quite a contrast to say Bukowski.

  12. the chaplain

    November 28, 2007 at 9:48 pm

    Thank you, all, for your kind words.

  13. Lynet

    November 29, 2007 at 2:02 am

    You were so beautifully evenhanded, oh chaplain! And now I’m going to argue for my viewpoint anyway. Hey, we’re atheists, right? Purr…

    Whitman describes himself as being ‘liberal and lusty as nature’, before referring to various aspects of nature as things which give evenhandedly to everyone. I sort of view that as him not judging her in the first place, rather than considering her lowly and reaching out even so. Admittedly, he then refers merely to his words as not refusing to glisten and rustle for anyone — but if it were only his poetry that was evenhanded, why the statement “Be at ease with me”?

    Mind you, there may or may not be an extent to which the description of ‘liberal and lusty as nature’ could be hyperbole, or an aspiration, or a pose. What do you think?

  14. the chaplain

    November 29, 2007 at 8:25 am

    In referring to Whitman’s poem, I said,

    “…what it means to be a humanist; to reach out and accept another as my equal….

    I think that is Whitman doing exactly what you said, accepting her as she is, his equal in humanity, regardless of society’s view of her.

    With regard to my later statement, “…embracing even the lowest and least lovable among us….” I mean that to include two categories of people. One, those that society deems low and unlovable, and two, those that I personally, with my imperfections and unintended prejudices, may regard similarly. It’s a challenge to me and others to rise above social and personal judgments and recognize others for their inherent self-worth. If we extended such grace to the rest of the natural order too, the world would be a much better place in which to live.

  15. Lynet

    November 30, 2007 at 12:40 am

    Ah! My apologies. Our views are apparently very similar with slightly different emphasis. :-)


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