The privilege of a sponge

Matthew Harrison Brady: We must not abandon faith! Faith is the most important thing!
Henry Drummond: Then why did God plague us with the capacity to think? Mr. Brady, why do you deny the one faculty of man that raises him above the other creatures of the earth? The power of his brain to reason. What other merit have we? The elephant is larger; the horse is swifter and stronger; the butterfly is far more beautiful; the mosquito is more prolific. Even the simple sponge is more durable. But does a sponge think?
Matthew Harrison Brady: I don’t know. I’m a man, not a sponge!
Henry Drummond: But do you think a sponge thinks?
Matthew Harrison Brady: If the Lord wishes a sponge to think, it thinks!
Henry Drummond: Do you think a man should have the same privilege as a sponge?
Matthew Harrison Brady: Of course!
Henry Drummond: [Gesturing towards the defendant] Then this man wishes to have the same privilege of a sponge, he wishes to think!

The movie Inherit the Wind (about the Scopes evolution trial of 1925), with Spencer Tracy as Henry Drummond, was a film I first saw during a summer constitutional law program. Our professor thought great legal films had something important to teach. Thus we saw The Paper Chase, Anatomy of a Murder, The Verdict, and 12 Angry Men. The best movies about the law are also about human ideals- for at its best the law is human dreams and ambition written in ink.

Inherit the Wind, which was released in 1960, has several legendary courtroom scenes. In the actual Scopes trial, defense attorney Clarence Darrow (who Drummond is in all but name) took the unusual step of calling the prosecuting attorney to the stand- famous orator and presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan; his scientific witnesses were barred from testifying and he had little to work with in forming a defense. The movie thus has an interesting dynamic of a scene that seems made up for film, but is in fact a take on the real exchange, which was fierce and divisive.

Ultimately, Drummond steers the religious fervor of the trial (and the community) into his realm, which values reason, free inquiry, and ideas as the most important aspects of the human species. Dig enough into the quote, you see an interesting idea of where humans are in the larger web of being.

If humans are special, and crafted to be unique, what use is the distinction between humans and monkeys if these intellectual gifts are not used? Humans are slow, small, weak, and few in comparison to the larger living community. What makes us different is that we can weigh ideas, form substantial opinions, turn the abstract into the concrete. To entertain and live off of fundamentalism, in which one view, one source is above all else, is to lose part of our humanity.

Author: AJM

Writer, sociologist, Unitarian Universalist.

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