I often see people referring to things online as "inspirational". I find that these things tend to be actions taken by businesses, the rich, or people looking to, in some way curry favour with either party. They're either some sort of socially progressive action taken by one of these parties, or an encomium on the virtues of one's "hustle". As you might expect, regardless of the moral valence of the action itself, these things do not inspire me—in fact, they leave me profoundly unmoved. Adam Smith said it best:
We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous. We see frequently the vices and follies of the powerful much less despised than the poverty and weakness of the innocent…The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.
When it's not that, the inspiration is derived chiefly from someone having struggled to overcome adversity of some kind, which, while often admirable, still leaves me unmoved. "Inspiration" in the way that these people talk of is not a feeling I have often. So I found myself wondering: what do I find inspirational?
I have in my clippings folder a speech by Eugene V. Debs, the American socialist. It was made at his sentencing hearing after he was put on trial under the Sedition Act for opposing the United States' involvement in World War One. I believe it to be, in the words of the journalist Heywood Broun, "one of the most beautiful and moving passages in the English language." It can be read in full here.
Your Honor,years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
I am thinking this morning of the men in the mills and the factories; of the men in the mines and on the railroads. I am thinking of the women who for a paltry wage are compelled to work out their barren lives; of the little children who in this system are robbed of their childhood and in their tender years are seized in the remorseless grasp of Mammon and forced into the industrial dungeons, there to feed the monster machines while they themselves are being starved and stunted, body and soul. I see them dwarfed and diseased and their little lives broken and blasted because in this high noon of Christian civilization money is still so much more important than the flesh and blood of childhood. In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men.
Part of the reason this reaches me in particular might be the religious allusions—I've always been drawn to the Christian Socialist tradition—but even absent that it's still remarkably evocative.
In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity.
Perhaps another reason is that Debs writes (or speaks, I suppose) in sentences even longer than mine.
There are today upwards of sixty millions of Socialists, loyal, devoted adherents to this cause, regardless of nationality, race, creed, color, or sex. They are all making common cause. They are spreading with tireless energy the propaganda of the new social order. They are waiting, watching, and working hopefully through all the hours of the day and the night. They are still in a minority. But they have learned how to be patient and to bide their time. They feel—they know, indeed—that the time is coming, in spite of all opposition, all persecution, when this emancipating gospel will spread among all the peoples, and when this minority will become the triumphant majority and, sweeping into power, inaugurate the greatest social and economic change in history.
A call to action—and an encouragement to struggle through adversity (we know how much I love those).
I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity. The people are awakening. In due time they will and must come to their own.
It ends with the most stirring passage of all:
When the mariner, sailing over tropic seas, looks for relief from his weary watch, he turns his eyes toward the southern cross, burning luridly above the tempest-vexed ocean. As the midnight approaches, the southern cross begins to bend, the whirling worlds change their places, and with starry finger-points the Almighty marks the passage of time upon the dial of the universe, and though no bell may beat the glad tidings, the lookout knows that the midnight is passing and that relief and rest are close at hand.
Heywood Broun went on to say of the speech "If anybody told me that tongues of fire danced upon his shoulders as he spoke, I would believe it..." The last phrase here, is indeed Scriptural—from Psalm 30.
Let the people everywhere take heart of hope, for the cross is bending, the midnight is passing, and joy cometh with the morning.
A fierce denounciation of present injustice; a presentation of the alternative, a bold call to action and a message of hope. All on the basis of a material programme, a collective struggle, all in pursuit of a still-possible change. This, to me, is inspiration. Read the whole thing here.