On the essays shelf:
Mark Twain felt that this long essay was so potentially explosive, and so potentially upsetting to the audience that loved him, that he printed it privately in 1905, in a very small edition. In his prefatory note, Twain wrote:
Every thought in them has been thought (and accepted as unassailable truth) by millions upon millions of men – and concealed, kept private. Why did they not speak out? Because they dreaded (and could not bear) the disapproval of the people around them.
One is hard pressed to imagine Twain being fearful of disapproval, but he was, at least in this case. H.L. Mencken, who admired Mark Twain, above all other writers, wrote about Twain’s essay “What Is Man?” in one of his essays about Twain. It was Mencken who sparked my curiosity to actually read the essay, which is extremely long. And, gotta be honest, it feels longer than it is. I felt like I was reading it for two weeks, and never getting closer to the end of it. It’s a slog! Filled with fascinating ideas, but repeated over and over and over again, until I wanted to pull my hair out. But dammit, I made it through!
It takes the form of a conversation between an old man and a young man, the young man asking the old man questions about life, and the old man answering at length, using examples, and parables, and stories to illustrate his points. It’s Socratic in form. Or maybe it’s more Jesuit in form. Whatever the form, it’s all about questions and answers. The old man challenges the young man’s assumptions about things, from his lofty position of age and experience. He has flat out thought about all of these things in a deeper way. The young man still has ideals about his fellow man, and the old man sets about disabusing him of those ideals. Basically the old man’s point is that man is a machine. Every motivation he has comes from his outer circumstances. He chooses nothing for himself. And any change in opinion he might have over the course of his lifetime is either dictated by a change in his outer circumstances, OR by the fact that he understands that the only motivation that any man has for anything is to get his own approval. The young man balks at this. So does this mean there are no selfless acts of heroism or bravery? The old man says Yes, that’s exactly what it means. The young man argues. The old man shoots him down, with example after example.
Reading this, it is easy to see why Twain hesitated to launch this on his greedy public, who saw in him home-spun comfy wisdom. “What Is Man?” isn’t comfy at all. It’s destabilizing. I can say that as long as it felt to me (and it felt very long), it is the kind of essay that demands engagement. I found myself, from time to time, arguing with the old man, agreeing with the young man, and then being shot down by a really excellent example given by the old man. So on that level it works as a philosophical document: it forces you to engage with its ideas. It’s challenging. I’m not much of an idealist, I read too much about history and war for that, but I do hold on to SOME misty-eyed illusions about people’s motivations. “What Is Man?” challenges that. I think a challenge is always a good thing. If there’s one thing humankind should do more of, it is examine their own motivations and assumptions. And this examination should be done regularly and with rigor.
I ain’t holding my breath for that, though.
The idea that man, even in his most selfless, is behaving because he needs to get his own approval (not the approval of others) is very interesting, and I actually do think it bears out. People don’t like it. Of course. The young man in the essay doesn’t like it. It’s certainly worth thinking about, even if you don’t like it. George Washington wrote in 1779:
Men are very apt to run into extremes; hatred to England may carry some into excessive Confidence in France …; I am heartily disposed to entertain the most favourable sentiments of our new ally and to cherish them in others to a reasonable degree; but it is a maxim founded on the universal experience of mankind, that no nation is to be trusted farther than it is bound by its interest; and no prudent statesman or politician will venture to depart from it.
Such an important concept, and it’s so grown-up that people continue to balk at the idea today, with their childlike belief in government, altruism, the motivations behind everything. You cannot expect a nation to do anything if it does not have an “interest” in it. It’s a “universal experience of mankind”. You cannot expect corporations to do things without some measure of self-interest, and, filtering down, the same is true for individual man.
Now. Nobody likes to hear this. Especially not now, especially not with people who have no concept of history, politics, beyond their own time.
But I think of Washington’s words all the time. Because I’m a geek.
It’s tough stuff, naturally, it’s grown-up stuff, but it certainly helps the world make a little bit of sense. It would be lovely if true altruism existed, but on a statesman level … LOOK OUT for those who claim altruism. They are the most dangerous ones of all! I would say that perhaps the only truly altruistic job there is out there is that of firemen, who aren’t paid enough money to justify doing that job – the only reason to do it is because they believe their fellow man is worth enough to be saved from fires and so they put themselves in harm’s way in order to save those strangers. But even there, I’m sure the old man would shoot me down. Because public approval is part of it, I imagine: who has bad feelings about firemen? Isn’t getting approval from your neighbors part and parcel of why we do what we do? And Twain brings up firemen in the essay. Firemen are compelling examples of all kinds of things, a compelling jumping-off point for conversation.
These are ideas to grapple with, engage with, not declare “Yay” or “Nay” on. One can see why Mencken, a man dismayed by the lack of intellect in his fellow Americans, their “suspicion of ideas”, loved this essay and loved Mark Twain.
In “What Is Man?” Twain’s two characters battle these issues out from every angle: politics, morality, religion, patriotism. What are these things? Do they exist outside of the men who participate in such matters? When someone says they do something out of patriotism, what do they actually mean? Twain’s old man suggests that people do things in order to feel comfortable in their own souls and minds, to get approval from themselves. Even people like saints or religious martyrs or what we would call conscientious objectors. Someone may say “war is wrong” but what is really going on is that he fears his own self would disapprove of him if he went to war … and it is only that inner self we are bound to please.
Taken to its logical extremes, such ideas start to crumble the pillars of American life. Because what he is saying, essential, is that there is no universal standard, there is no universal rule that we all follow blindly, we each follow our own rules according to our own values and principles. It’s a deeply mechanistic and yet also relative philosophical universe Twain lays out here. And so he hesitated before publishing the piece, for years, and when he did publish it, he did so privately and inconspicuously. He didn’t want to deal with the fallout.
Here’s an excerpt. I chose it because it has to do with my dead boyfriend.
The Complete Essays Of Mark Twain, ‘What Is Man?’, by Mark Twain
O.M. … It is your opinion that men’s acts proceed from one central and unchanging and inalterable impulse, or from a variety of impulses?
Y.M. From a variety of impulses – some high and fine and noble, others not. What is your opinion?
O.M. Then there is but one law, one source.
Y.M. That both the noblest impulses and the basest proceed from that one source?
Y.M. Will you put that law into words?
O.M. Yes. This is the law, keep it in your mind. From his cradle to his grave a man never does a single thing which has any FIRST AND FOREMOST object but one – to secure peace of mind, spiritual comfort, for HIMSELF.
Y.M. Come! He never does anything for any one else’s comfort, spiritual or physical?
O.M. No. Except on these distinct terms – that it shall first secure his own spiritual comfort. Otherwise he will not do it.
Y.M. It will be easy to expose the falsity of that proposition.
O.M. For instance?
Y.M. Take that noble passion, love of country, patriotism. A man who loves peace and dreads pain, leaves his pleasant home and his weeping family and marches out to manfully expose himself to hunger, cold, wounds, and death. Is that seeking spiritual comfort?
O.M. He loves peace and dreads pain?
O.M. Then perhaps there is something that he loves more than he loves peace – the approval of his neighbors and the public. And perhaps there is something which he dreads more than he dreads pain – the disapproval of his neighbors and the public. If he is sensitive to shame he will go to the field – not because his spirit will be entirely comfortable there, but because it will be more comfortable there than it would be if he remained at home. He will always do the thing which will bring him the most mental comfort – for that is the sole law of his life. He leaves the weeping family behind; he is sorry to make them uncomfortable, but not sorry enough to sacrifice his own comfort to secure theirs.
Y.M. Do you really believe that mere public opinion could force a timid and peaceful man to -
O.M. Go to war? Yes – public opinion can force some men to do anything.
O.M. Yes – anything.
Y.M. I don’t believe that. Can it force a right-principled man to do a wrong thing?
Y.M. Can it force a kind man to do a cruel thing?
Y.M. Give an instance.
O.M. Alexander Hamilton was a conspicuously high-principled man. He regarded dueling as wrong, and as opposed to the teachings of religion – but in deference to public opinion he fought a duel. He deeply loved his family, but to buy public approval he treacherously deserted them and threw his life away, ungenerously leaving them to lifelong sorrow in order that he might stand well with a foolish world. In the then condition of the public standards of honor he could not have been comfortable with the stigma upon him of having refused to fight. The teachings of religion, his devotion to his family, his kindness of heart, his high principles, all went for nothing when they stood in the way of his spiritual comfort. A man will do anything, no matter what it is, to secure his spiritual comfort; and he can neither be forced nor persuaded to any act which has not that goal for its object. Hamilton’s act was compelled by the inborn necessity of contenting his own spirit; in this it was like all the other acts of his life, and like all the acts of all men’s lives. Do you see where the kernel of the matter lies? A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval. He will secure the largest share possible of that, at all costs, at all sacrifices.
Y.M. A minute ago you said Hamilton fought that duel to get public approval.
O.M. I did. By refusing to fight the duel he would have secured his family’s approval and a large share of his own; but the public approval was more valuable in his eyes than all other approvals put together – in the earth or above it; to secure that would furnish him the most comfort of mind, the most self-approval; so he sacrificed all other values to get it.
Y.M. Some noble souls have refused to fight duels, and have manfully braved the public contempt.
O.M. They acted according to their make. They valued their principles and the approval of their families above the public approval. They took the thing they valued most and let the rest go. They took what would give them the largest share of personal contentment and approval – a man always does. Public opinion cannot force that kind of men to go to the wars. When they go it is for other reasons. Other spirit-contenting reasons.
Y.M. Always spirit-contenting reasons?
O.M. There are no others.
Y.M. When a man sacrifices his life to save a little child from a burning building, what do you call that?
O.M. When he does it, it is the law of his make. He can’t bear to see the child in that peril (a man of different make could), and so he tries to save the child, and loses his life. But he has got what he was after – his own approval.
Y.M. What do you call Love, Hate, Charity, Revenge, Humanity, Magnanimity, Forgiveness?
O.M. Different results of the one Master Impulse: the necessity of securing one’s self-approval. They wear diverse clothes and are subject to diverse moods, but in whatsoever ways they masquerade they are the same person all the time. To change the figure, the compulsion that moves a man – and there is but the one – is the necessity of securing the contentment of his own spirit. When it stops, the man is dead.
Y.M. This is foolishness. Love –
O.M. Why, love is that impulse, that law, in its most uncompromising form. It will squander life and everything else on its object. Not primarily for the object’s sake, but for its own. When its object is happen it is happy – and that is what it is unconsciously after.
Y.M. You do not even except the lofty and gracious passion of mother-love?
O.M. No, it is the absolute slave of that law. The mother will go naked to clothe her child; she will starve that it may have food; suffer torture to save it from pain; die that it may live. She takes a living pleasure in making these sacrifices. She does it for that reward – that self-approval, that contentment, that peace, that comfort. She would do it for your child IF SHE COULD GET THE SAME PAY.
Y.M. This is an infernal philosophy of yours.
O.M. It isn’t a philosophy, it is a fact.
Y.M. Of course you must admit that there are some acts which –
O.M. No. There is no act, large or small, fine or mean, which springs from any motive but the one – the necessity of appeasing and contenting one’s own spirit.
Y.M. The world’s philanthropists –
O.M. I honor them, I uncover my head to them – from habit and training; but they could not know comfort or happiness or self-approval if they did not work and spend for the unfortunate. It makes them happy to see others happy; and so with money and labor they buy what they are after – happiness, self-approval. Why don’t misers do the same thing? Because they can get a thousandfold more happiness by not doing it. There is no other reason. They follow the law of their make.
Y.M. What do you say of duty for duty’s sake?
O.M. That it does not exist. Duties are not performed for duty’s sake, but because their neglect would make the man uncomfortable. A man performs one duty – the duty of contenting his spirit, the duty of making himself agreeable to himself. If he can most satisfyingly perform this sole and only duty by helping his neighbor, he will do it; if he can most satisfyingly perform it by swindling his neighbor, he will do that. But he always looks out for Number One – first; the effects upon others are a secondary matter. Men pretend to self-sacrifices, but this is a thing which, in the ordinary value of the phrase, does not exist and has not existed. A man often honestly thinks he is sacrificing himself merely and solely for some one else, but he is deceived; his bottom impulse is to content a requirement of his nature and training, and thus acquire peace for his soul.
Y.M. Apparently, then all men, both good and bad ones, devote their lives to contenting their consciences?