The Character of Man


Here is something from Mark Twain’s Autobiography which he wrote and dictated in bits and pieces over the course of many years, and completed in December 1909, four months shy of his death on April 21, 1910.  The piece is entitled The Character of Man, which was dictated by Twain on January 23, 1906.

The Character of Man

Concerning Man — he is too large a subject to be treated as a whole; so I will merely discuss a detail or two of him at this time.  I desire to contemplate him from this point of view — this premiss: that he was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn’t served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working himself up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably matter of surprise and regret to the Creator. **** For his history, in all climes, all ages and all circumstances, furnishes oceans and continents of proof that of all the creatures that were made he is the most detestable.  Of the entire brood, he is the only one — the solitary one — that possesses malice.  That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices — the most hateful.  That one thing put him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinae.  He is the only creature that inflicts plain for sport, knowing it to be pain.  But if the cat knows she is inflicting pain when she plays with the frightened mouse, then we must make an exception here; we must grant that in one detail man is the moral peer of the cat.  All creatures kill — there seems to be no exception; but of the whole list, man is the only one that kills for fun; he is the only one that kills in malice, the only one that kills for revenge.  Also — in all the list he is the only creature that has a nasty mind.

Shall he be extolled for his noble qualities, for his gentleness, his sweetness, his amiability, his lovingness, his courage, his devotion, his patience, his fortitude, his prudence, the various charms and graces of his spirit?  The other animals share all these with him, yet are free from the blackness and rottennesses of his character.

****  There are certain sweet-smelling sugar-coated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate.  One of these is, that there is such thing in the world as independence: independence of thought, independence of opinion, independence of action.  Another is, that the world loves to see independence — admires it, applauds it.  Another is, that there is such a thing in this world as toleration — in religion, in politics, and such matters; and with it trains that already mentioned auxiliary lie that toleration is admired, and applauded.  Out of these trunk-lies spring many branch ones: to wit, the lie that not all men are slaves; the lie that men are glad when other men succeed; glad when they prosper; glad to see them reach lofty heights; sorry to see them fall again.  And yet other branch-lies: to wit, that there is heroism in man; that he is not mainly made up of malice and treachery; that he is sometimes not a coward; that there is something about him that ought to be perpetuated — in heaven, or hell, or somewhere.  And these other branch-lies, to wit: that conscience, man’s moral medicine chest, is not only created by the Creator, but is put into man ready-charged with the right and only true and authentic correctives of conduct — and the duplicate chest, with the self-same correctness, unchanged, unmodified, distributed to all nations and all epochs.  And yet one other branch-lie, to wit, that I am I, and you are you; that we are units, individuals, and have natures of our own, instead of being that tail-end of a tape-worm eternity of ancestors extending in linked procession back — and back — and back — to our source in the monkeys, with this so-called individuality of ours a decayed and rancid mush of inherited instincts and teachings derived, atom by atom, stench by stench, from the entire line of that sorry column, and not so much new and original matter in it as you could balance on a needle point and examine under a microscope.  This makes well nigh fantastic the suggestion that there can be such a thing as a personal, original and responsible nature in a man, separable from that in him which is not original, and findable in such quantity as to enable the observer to say, This is a man, not a procession.

*****  Consider that first mentioned lie: that there is such a thing in the world as independence; that it exists in individuals, that it exists in bodies of men.  Surely if anything is proven, by whole oceans and continents of evidence, it is that the quality of independence was almost wholly left out of the human race.  The scattering exceptions to the rule only emphasize it, light it up, make it glare.  The whole population of New England meekly took their turns, for years, in standing up in the railway trains, without so much as a complaint above their breath, till at least these uncounted millions were able to produce exactly one single independent man, who stood to his rights and made the railroad give him a seat.  Statistics and the law of probabilities warrant the assumption that it will take New England forty years to breed his fellow.  There is a law, with a penalty attached, forbidding trains to occupy the Asylum street crossing more than five minutes at a time.  For years people and carriages used to wait there nightly as much as twenty minutes on a stretch while New England trains monopolized that crossing.  I used to hear men use vigorous language about that insolent wrong — but they waited, just the same.

We are discreet sheep; we wait to see how the drove is going; and then go with the drove.  We have two opinions: one private, which we are afraid to express; and another one — the one we use — which we force ourselves to wear to please Mrs. Grundy, until habit makes us comfortable in it, and the custom of defending it presently makes us love it, adore it, and forget how pitifully we came by it.  Look at it in politics.  Look at the candidates whom we loathe, one year, and are afraid to vote against the next; whom we cover with unimaginable filth, one year, and fall down on the public platform and worship, the next — and keep on doing it until the habitual shutting of our eyes to last year’s evidence brings us presently to a sincere and stupid loyalty — a snare invented by designing men for selfish purposes — and which turns voters into chattels, slaves, rabbits; and all the while, their masters, and they themselves are shouting rubbish about liberty, independence, freedom of opinion, freedom of speech, honestly unconscious of the fantastic contradiction; and forgetting or ignoring that their fathers and the churches shouted the same blasphemies a generation earlier when they were closing their doors against the hunted slave, beating his handful of humane defenders with Bible-texts and billies, and pocketing the insults and licking the shoes of his Southern master.

If we would learn what the human race really is, at bottom, we need only observe it in election times.  A Hartford clergyman met me in the street, and spoke of a new nominee — denounced the nomination, in strong, earnest words — words that were refreshing for their independence, their manliness.  He said, “I ought to be proud, perhaps, for this nominee is a relative of mine; on the contrary I am humiliated and disgusted; for I know him intimately — familiarly — and I know that he is an unscrupulous scoundrel, and always has been.”  You should have seen this clergyman preside at a political meeting forty days later; and urge, and plead, and gush — and you should have heard him paint the character of this same nominee.  You would have supposed he was describing the Cid, the Great-heart, and Sir Galahad, and Bayard the Spotless all rolled into one.  Was he sincere?  Yes — by that time; and therein lies the pathos of it all, the hopelessness of it all, when he perceives, by the general drift, that that is the popular thing to do.  Does he believe his lie yet?  Oh, probably not; he has no further use for it.  It was but a passing incident; he spared to it the moment that was its due, then hastened back to the serious business of his life.

And what a paltry poor lie is that one which teaches that independence of action and opinion is prized in men, admired, honored, rewarded.  When a man leaves a political party, he is treated as if the party owned him — as if he were its bond slave, as most party men plainly are — and had stolen himself, gone off with what was not his own.  And he is traduced, derided, despised, held up to public obloquy and loathing.  His character is remorselessly assassinated; no means, however vile, are spared to injure his property and his business.

The preacher who casts a vote for conscience’ sake, runs the risk of starving.  And is rightly served; for he has been teaching a falsity — that men respect and honor independence of thought and action.

Mr. Beecher may be charged with a crime, and his whole following will rise as one man, and stand by him to the bitter end; but who so poor to be his friend when he is charged with casting a vote for conscience’ sake?  Take the editor so charged — take — take anybody.

All the talk about tolerance, in anything or anywhere, is plainly a gentle lie.  It does not exist.  It is in no man’s heart; but it unconsciously and by moss-grown inherited habit, drivels and slobbers from all men’s lips.  Intolerance is everything for one’s self, and nothing for the other person.  The main-spring of man’s nature is just that — selfishness.

Let us skip the other lies, for brevity’s sake.  To consider them would prove nothing, except that man is what he is — loving toward his own, lovable, to his own, — his family, his friends — and otherwise the buzzing, busy, trivial enemy of his race — who tarries his little day, does his little dirt, commends himself to God, and then goes out into the darkness, to return no more, and send no messages back — selfish even in death.

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