In the Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman articulates – in a single paragraph of ecstatic prose -- an holistic vision of democratic citizenship and personal conduct that still resonates and challenges today. Old Walt tells us what we need to do to be happy, useful, true to ourselves and responsible to others and society -- offering prescriptions that, taken together, read like a secular Ten (or in this case, 13) Commandments.
I’ve broken up the paragraph and numbered each of Whitman’s “commandments” below and invite readers to use them as take off points for reflection and discussion.
“This is what you shall do:
1. Love the earth and sun and the animals,
2. despise riches,
3. give alms to every one that asks,
4. stand up for the stupid and crazy,
5. devote your income and labor to others,
6. hate tyrants,
7. argue not concerning God,
8. have patience and indulgence toward the people,
9. take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men,
10. go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with mothers of families,
11. read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,
12. reexamine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,
13. 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."