“The Height to Be Superb Humanity”: A Poet’s Christmas Greeting to a New Democracy

Democracy is the political recognition of the fundamental equality of all human beings. And only human beings who grasp this principle—really grasp it—can make a democratic society work.
Michael Austin
Walt Whitman (1819-1892) thought a lot about what it meant to live in a democratic society. He was born at a time when self-government was a new thing—an exciting experiment whose success was by no means guaranteed. And he lived through the cataclysm of the American Civil War—the one of the most severe tests that any democracy has ever faced.

Almost everything that Whitman wrote was an attempt to understand and explain the deepest principles of democracy. These principles went well beyond social organization. Democracy is the political recognition of the fundamental equality of all human beings. And only human beings who grasp this principle—really grasp it—can make a democratic society work. Democratic government, Whitman understood, required democratic people.

For Whitman, these were sacred things, and he was quite possibly the nineteenth century’s greatest evangelist for democracy. He believed passionately in the fundamental equality of all people, and he wanted everybody to live in a society that recognized it too. This is the context of one of history’s greatest Christmas cards.

In 1889, a Brazilian field marshal named Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca overthrew the highly popular Emperor Dom Pedro II and declared the first Republic of Brazil. On Christmas Day of that year, seventy-year-old Whitman wrote the poem “Christmas Greeting” to welcome Brazil into the family of democratic nations. It is my favorite Christmas poem:

Welcome, Brazilian brotherthy ample place is ready;
A loving hand—a smile from the north—a sunny instant hail!
(Let the future care for itself, where it reveals its troubles, impedimentas,
Ours, ours the present throe, the democratic aim, the acceptance and the faith;)
To thee to-day our reaching arm, our turning neck—
to thee from us the expectant eye,
Thou cluster free! thou brilliant lustrous one! thou, learning well,
The true lesson of a nation’s light in the sky,
(More shining than the Cross, more than the Crown,)
The height to be superb humanity.

It is important that Whitman chose Christmas as the occasion for this poem—even though he wrote it for secular ends. But he intuited, as only poets can, the deep connection between the Christmas message and the requirements of democracy. For Whitman, the best Christmas present that his beloved country could give to Brazil was a shining example of how to be good at democracy. And being good at democracy ultimately requires only one thing: “the height to be superb humanity.”

Whitman understood that ordinary humanity will not do in a democracy. Ordinary people lack the tools to make self-government work. Ordinary human nature is too tribal and petty, too willing to hate what does not resemble itself, too quick to become angry, too slow to forgive, and too willing to set aside hopes and be governed by fears.

But democracy calls us to be better than ordinary. So, too, did the one whose birth we celebrate on Christmas Day. He taught us to reject what was natural, and therefore easy, and to undergo a mighty change of heart. He taught us to seek first the Kingdom of God. And he showed us that the Kingdom of God was within us. And, perhaps most importantly, He taught us that there was no distinction we need to notice between God and other people.

This is why Whitman sent the people of Brazil an invitation to democracy on Christmas Day. For him, Christmas was the perfect time to encourage us to be be superb humanity. This is also what democracy demands.

The power of this message is strengthened by its universality. It is the message of Christ, but it is not a “Christian message.” It is the consistent message of all faiths, and all philosophies worth dedicating a life to. One does not have to adhere to a particular faith, or any faith at all, to follow Whitman’s call. One need only reject ordinariness when it comes to being human.

 

Nota Bene: This essay is a revised version of my 2013 Christmas Message, which also appeared on IVN.