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Wednesday June 29, 2022

What is Man?

mark twain

What is Man? is a short essay by the celebrated American author Mark Twain. It was published anonymously in 1906 but received no significant attention. It is a pity though, because the essay contains the author’s own arguments on the character of man and dare we say deserves active scrutiny. We have reproduced an excerpt from the essay, a part that remains scathingly relevant to this day.

Instances in Point

Old Man. Have you given thought to the Gospel of Self—Approval since we talked?

Young Man. I have.

O.M. It was I that moved you to it. That is to say an outside influence moved you to it—not one that originated in your head. Will you try to keep that in mind and not forget it?

Y.M. Yes. Why?

O.M. Because by and by in one of our talks, I wish to further impress upon you that neither you, nor I, nor any man ever originates a thought in his own head. The utterer of a thought always utters a second-hand one.

Y.M. Oh, now—

O.M. Wait. Reserve your remark till we get to that part of our discussion—tomorrow or next day, say. Now, then, have you been considering the proposition that no act is ever born of any but a self-contenting impulse—(primarily). You have sought. What have you found?

Y.M. I have not been very fortunate. I have examined many fine and apparently self-sacrificing deeds in romances and biographies, but—

O.M. Under searching analysis the ostensible self-sacrifice disappeared? It naturally would.

Y.M. But here in this novel is one which seems to promise. In the Adirondack woods is a wage-earner and lay preacher in the lumber-camps who is of noble character and deeply religious. An earnest and practical laborer in the New York slums comes up there on vacation—he is leader of a section of the University Settlement. Holme, the lumberman, is fired with a desire to throw away his excellent worldly prospects and go down and save souls on the East Side. He counts it happiness to make this sacrifice for the glory of God and for the cause of Christ. He resigns his place, makes the sacrifice cheerfully, and goes to the East Side and preaches Christ and Him crucified every day and every night to little groups of half-civilized foreign paupers who scoff at him. But he rejoices in the scoffings, since he is suffering them in the great cause of Christ. You have so filled my mind with suspicions that I was constantly expecting to find a hidden questionable impulse back of all this, but I am thankful to say I have failed. This man saw his duty, and for duty’s sake he sacrificed self and assumed the burden it imposed.

How would speculation do? How would gamble do? Not a solitary soul-capture was sure. He played for a possible thirty-three-hundred-per-cent profit. It was gambling—with his family for “chips.”

O.M. Is that as far as you have read?

Y.M. Yes.

O.M. Let us read further, presently. Meantime, in sacrificing himself—not for the glory of God, primarily, as he imagined, but first to content that exacting and inflexible master within him—did he sacrifice anybody else?

Y.M. How do you mean?

O.M. He relinquished a lucrative post and got mere food and lodging in place of it. Had he dependents?

Y.M. Well—yes.

O.M. In what way and to what extend did his self-sacrifice affect them?

Y.M. He was the support of a superannuated father. He had a young sister with a remarkable voice—he was giving her a musical education, so that her longing to be self-supporting might be gratified. He was furnishing the money to put a young brother through a polytechnic school and satisfy his desire to become a civil engineer.

O.M. The old father’s comforts were now curtailed?

Y.M. Quite seriously. Yes.

O.M. The sister’s music-lessens had to stop?

Y.M. Yes.

O.M. The young brother’s education—well, an extinguishing blight fell upon that happy dream, and he had to go to sawing wood to support the old father, or something like that?

Y.M. It is about what happened. Yes.

O.M. What a handsome job of self-sacrificing he did do! It seems to me that he sacrificed everybody except himself. Haven’t I told you that no man ever sacrifices himself; that there is no instance of it upon record anywhere; and that when a man’s Interior Monarch requires a thing of its slave for either its momentary or its permanent contentment, that thing must and will be furnished and that command obeyed, no matter who may stand in the way and suffer disaster by it? That man ruined his family to please and content his Interior Monarch—

Volume 26 of the Gabriel Wells Definitive Edition of Mark Twain’s works is What Is Man? And Other Essays.

Y.M. And help Christ’s cause.

O.M. Yes—secondly. Not firstly. He thought it was firstly.

Y.M. Very well, have it so, if you will. But it could be that he argued that if he saved a hundred souls in New York—

O.M. The sacrifice of the family would be justified by that great profit upon the—the—what shall we call it?

Y.M. Investment?

O.M. Hardly. How would speculation do? How would gamble do? Not a solitary soul-capture was sure. He played for a possible thirty-three-hundred-per-cent profit. It was gambling—with his family for “chips.” However let us see how the game came out. Maybe we can get on the track of the secret original impulse, the real impulse, that moved him to so nobly self—sacrifice his family in the Savior’s cause under the superstition that he was sacrificing himself. I will read a chapter or so…. Here we have it! It was bound to expose itself sooner or later. He preached to the East-Side rabble a season, then went back to his old dull, obscure life in the lumber-camps “hurt to the heart, his pride humbled.” Why? Were not his efforts acceptable to the Savior, for Whom alone they were made? Dear me, that detail is lost sight of, is not even referred to, the fact that it started out as a motive is entirely forgotten! Then what is the trouble? The authoress quite innocently and unconsciously gives the whole business away. The trouble was this: this man merely preached to the poor; that is not the University Settlement’s way; it deals in larger and better things than that, and it did not enthuse over that crude Salvation-Army eloquence. It was courteous to Holme—but cool. It did not pet him, did not take him to its bosom. “Perished were all his dreams of distinction, the praise and grateful approval—” Of whom? The Savior? No; the Savior is not mentioned. Of whom, then? Of “his fellow-workers.” Why did he want that? Because the Master inside of him wanted it, and would not be content without it. That emphasized sentence quoted above, reveals the secret we have been seeking, the original impulse, the real impulse, which moved the obscure and unappreciated Adirondack lumberman to sacrifice his family and go on that crusade to the East Side—which said original impulse was this, to wit: without knowing it he went there to show a neglected world the large talent that was in him, and rise to distinction. As I have warned you before, no act springs from any but the one law, the one motive. But I pray you, do not accept this law upon my say-so; but diligently examine for yourself. Whenever you read of a self-sacrificing act or hear of one, or of a duty done for duty’s sake, take it to pieces and look for the real motive. It is always there

.Y.M. I do it every day. I cannot help it, now that I have gotten started upon the degrading and exasperating quest. For it is hatefully interesting!—in fact, fascinating is the word. As soon as I come across a golden deed in a book I have to stop and take it apart and examine it, I cannot help myself.

O.M. Have you ever found one that defeated the rule?

we pay that tax knowing it to be unjust and an extortion; yet we go away with a pain at the heart if we think we have been stingy with the poor fellows; and we heartily wish we were back again, so that we could do the right thing, and more than the right thing, the generous thing.

Y.M. No—at least, not yet. But take the case of servant—tipping in Europe. You pay the hotel for service; you owe the servants nothing, yet you pay them besides. Doesn’t that defeat it?

O.M. In what way?

Y.M. You are not obliged to do it, therefore its source is compassion for their ill-paid condition, and—

O.M. Has that custom ever vexed you, annoyed you, irritated you?

Y.M. Well, yes.

O.M. Still you succumbed to it?

Y.M. Of course.

O.M. Why of course?

Y.M. Well, custom is law, in a way, and laws must be submitted to—everybody recognizes it as a duty.

O.M. Then you pay for the irritating tax for duty’s sake?

Y.M. I suppose it amounts to that.

O.M. Then the impulse which moves you to submit to the tax is not all compassion, charity, benevolence?

Y.M. Well—perhaps not.

O.M. Is any of it?

Y.M. I—perhaps I was too hasty in locating its source.

O.M. Perhaps so. In case you ignored the custom would you get prompt and effective service from the servants?

Y.M. Oh, hear yourself talk! Those European servants? Why, you wouldn’t get any at all, to speak of.

O.M. Couldn’t that work as an impulse to move you to pay the tax?

Y.M. I am not denying it.

O.M. Apparently, then, it is a case of for-duty’s-sake with a little self-interest added?

Y.M. Yes, it has the look of it. But here is a point: we pay that tax knowing it to be unjust and an extortion; yet we go away with a pain at the heart if we think we have been stingy with the poor fellows; and we heartily wish we were back again, so that we could do the right thing, and more than the right thing, the generous thing. I think it will be difficult for you to find any thought of self in that impulse.

O.M. I wonder why you should think so. When you find service charged in the hotel bill does it annoy you?

Y.M. No.

O.M. Do you ever complain of the amount of it?

Y.M. No, it would not occur to me.

O.M. The expense, then, is not the annoying detail. It is a fixed charge, and you pay it cheerfully, you pay it without a murmur. When you came to pay the servants, how would you like it if each of the men and maids had a fixed charge?

Y.M. Like it? I should rejoice!

O.M. Even if the fixed tax were a shade more than you had been in the habit of paying in the form of tips?

Y.M. Indeed, yes!

O.M. Very well, then. As I understand it, it isn’t really compassion nor yet duty that moves you to pay the tax, and it isn’t the amount of the tax that annoys you. Yet something annoys you. What is it?

Y.M. Well, the trouble is, you never know what to pay, the tax varies so, all over Europe.

O.M. So you have to guess?

Y.M. There is no other way. So you go on thinking and thinking, and calculating and guessing, and consulting with other people and getting their views; and it spoils your sleep nights, and makes you distraught in the daytime, and while you are pretending to look at the sights you are only guessing and guessing and guessing all the time, and being worried and miserable.

O.M. And all about a debt which you don’t owe and don’t have to pay unless you want to! Strange. What is the purpose of the guessing?

Y.M. To guess out what is right to give them, and not be unfair to any of them.

O.M. It has quite a noble look—taking so much pains and using up so much valuable time in order to be just and fair to a poor servant to whom you owe nothing, but who needs money and is ill paid.

Y.M. I think, myself, that if there is any ungracious motive back of it it will be hard to find.

O.M. How do you know when you have not paid a servant fairly?

Y.M. Why, he is silent; does not thank you. Sometimes he gives you a look that makes you ashamed. You are too proud to rectify your mistake there, with people looking, but afterward you keep on wishing and wishing you had done it. My, the shame and the pain of it! Sometimes you see, by the signs, that you have it just right, and you go away mightily satisfied. Sometimes the man is so effusively thankful that you know you have given him a good deal more than was necessary.

O.M. Necessary? Necessary for what?

Y.M. To content him.

O.M. How do you feel then?

Y.M. Repentant.

O.M. It is my belief that you have not been concerning yourself in guessing out his just dues, but only in ciphering out what would content him. And I think you have a self-deluding reason for that.

Y.M. What was it?

O.M. If you fell short of what he was expecting and wanting, you would get a look which would shame you before folk. That would give you painYou—for you are only working for yourself, not him. If you gave him too much you would be ashamed of yourself for it, and that would give you pain—another case of thinking of yourself, protecting yourself, saving yourself from discomfort. You never think of the servant once—except to guess out how to get his approval. If you get that, you get your own approval, and that is the sole and only thing you are after. The Master inside of you is then satisfied, contented, comfortable; there was no other thing at stake, as a matter of first interest, anywhere in the transaction.

Further Instances

Y.M. Well, to think of it; Self-Sacrifice for others, the grandest thing in man, ruled out! non-existent!

O.M. Are you accusing me of saying that?

Y.M. Why, certainly.

O.M. I haven’t said it.

Y.M. What did you say, then?

O.M. That no man has ever sacrificed himself in the common meaning of that phrase—which is, self-sacrifice for another alone. Men make daily sacrifices for others, but it is for their own sake first. The act must content their own spirit first. The other beneficiaries come second.

Y.M. And the same with duty for duty’s sake?

O.M. Yes. No man performs a duty for mere duty’s sake; the act must content his spirit first. He must feel better for doing the duty than he would for shirking it. Otherwise he will not do it.

Y.M. Take the case of the Berkeley Castle.

O.M. It was a noble duty, greatly performed. Take it to pieces and examine it, if you like.

Y.M. A British troop-ship crowded with soldiers and their wives and children. She struck a rock and began to sink. There was room in the boats for the women and children only. The colonel lined up his regiment on the deck and said “it is our duty to die, that they may be saved.” There was no murmur, no protest. The boats carried away the women and children. When the death-moment was come, the colonel and his officers took their several posts, the men stood at shoulder-arms, and so, as on dress-parade, with their flag flying and the drums beating, they went down, a sacrifice to duty for duty’s sake. Can you view it as other than that?

O.M. It was something as fine as that, as exalted as that. Could you have remained in those ranks and gone down to your death in that unflinching way?

Y.M. Could I? No, I could not.

O.M. Think. Imagine yourself there, with that watery doom creeping higher and higher around you.

Y.M. I can imagine it. I feel all the horror of it. I could not have endured it, I could not have remained in my place. I know it.

O.M. Why?

Y.M. There is no why about it: I know myself, and I know I couldn’t do it.

O.M. But it would be your duty to do it.

Y.M. Yes, I know—but I couldn’t.

O.M. It was more than thousand men, yet not one of them flinched. Some of them must have been born with your temperament; if they could do that great duty for duty’s sake, why not you? Don’t you know that you could go out and gather together a thousand clerks and mechanics and put them on that deck and ask them to die for duty’s sake, and not two dozen of them would stay in the ranks to the end?

Y.M. Yes, I know that.

O.M. But you train them, and put them through a campaign or two; then they would be soldiers; soldiers, with a soldier’s pride, a soldier’s self-respect, a soldier’s ideals. They would have to content a soldier’s spirit then, not a clerk’s, not a mechanic’s. They could not content that spirit by shirking a soldier’s duty, could they?

Y.M. I suppose not.

O.M. Then they would do the duty not for the duty’s sake, but for their own sake—primarily. The duty was just the same, and just as imperative, when they were clerks, mechanics, raw recruits, but they wouldn’t perform it for that. As clerks and mechanics they had other ideals, another spirit to satisfy, and they satisfied it. They had to; it is the law. Training is potent. Training toward higher and higher, and ever higher ideals is worth any man’s thought and labor and diligence.

Y.M. Consider the man who stands by his duty and goes to the stake rather than be recreant to it.

O.M. It is his make and his training. He has to content the spirit that is in him, though it cost him his life. Another man, just as sincerely religious, but of different temperament, will fail of that duty, though recognizing it as a duty, and grieving to be unequal to it: but he must content the spirit that is in him—he cannot help it. He could not perform that duty for duty’s sake, for that would not content his spirit, and the contenting of his spirit must be looked to first. It takes precedence of all other duties.

Y.M. Take the case of a clergyman of stainless private morals who votes for a thief for public office, on his own party’s ticket, and against an honest man on the other ticket.

O.M. He has to content his spirit. He has no public morals; he has no private ones, where his party’s prosperity is at stake. He will always be true to his make and training.


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