Mark Twain: Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, 1906–1910

Who devised the blood? Who devised the wonderful machinery which automatically drives its renewing and refreshing streams through the body, day and night, without assistance or advice from the man? Who devised the man’s mind, whose machinery works automatically, interests itself in what is pleases, regardless of his will or desire, labors all night when it likes, deaf to his appeals for mercy? God devised all these things. I have not made man a machine, God made him a machine. I am merely calling attention to the fact, nothing more. It is wrong to call attention to a fact? Is it a crime?

The last five years of Mark Twain’s life were devoted to religious speculation. Most of his published and unpublished writings from this period focused on two related arguments, both of which are developed most formally in “What is Man?” The first of these is about the lack of human agency (“man as a machine”). The second argument is about the basic self-interest of human and the impossibility of real selflessness. These are essentially related because Twain believed that humans were by nature and design selfish and could not choose to be altruistic. This extends the problem of evil in an interesting way. God is the direct cause of human evil as the creator of a flawed animal.

“What is Man?” was published during Twain’s lifetime, but not under his name. It is presented in the form of an extended dialogue between an old man and a young man. The young man is idealistic and a believer in selflessness, individual merit, and freedom. The old man breaks down all of these concepts by showing that people are machines with set natures, like animals, and do all things out of selfishness. Even the charitable person, who gives his last cent to a poor woman is doing this either for self-satisfaction or for the praise of others. The dialogue ends with the young man pleading to the old man never to publish his ideas, as they will have a horrible effect on human society.

These arguments are very troubling to libertarians, but these are ideas that need to be taken on, especially since people have been making compelling arguments that free will may be a myth. What meaning can liberty have when free will is an illusion? Often these arguments can be used to justify the state, prisons, police, and asylums. We require protection from our fallen nature. The best we can hope for is freedom in the form of amor fati, acceptance and love of fate.

What this argument does give us is a rejection of hero worship and the claim that the wealthy and powerful are somehow worthy or more deserving of their share of the world’s bounty.

Personal merit? No. A brave man does not create his bravery. He is entitled to no personal credit for possessing it. It is born to him. A baby born with a billion dollars—where is the personal merit in that? A baby born with nothing—where is the personal demerit in that? That one is fawned upon, admired, worshiped, by sycophants, the other is neglected and despised—where is the sense in it? (737)

Perhaps in this we can extract a type of argument for socialism, since individual merit does not account for individual success. But it does not see very convincing as an argument for freedom.

A second major late work of Twain’s was not published during his life is “Letters from Earth,” which consists of reports by the devil to God about the progression of his creation. It is largely a restatement of “What is Man?” but adds some mockery of Biblical literalism and the manifestation of religion among the humans. He also adds that people seem to take satisfaction in the reality of the problem of evil.

Then, having thus made the Creator responsible for all those pains and diseases and miseries above enumerated, and which he could have prevented, the gifted Christian blandly calls him Our Father! It is as I tell you. He equips the Creator with every trait that goes to the making of a fiend, and then arrives at the conclusion that a fiend and a father are the same thing. (905)

As with his arguments for political hierarchy, Twain believes that humans prefer to be unfree, not responsible, and controlled.

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Several months ago, I questioned the utility of cynicism when looking at Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. Although Twain is much more thoughtful than Bierce in his lampooning of human nature and human motivations, the result is the same comfortable inaction. Twain is probably aware that he is establishing a self-fulfilling philosophy. By arguing that optimism is an odious immaturity and saying that moral progress is impossible, he justifies inaction and therefore a lack of moral progress. Even if Twain’s cynicism is largely right (at least for humanity since the rise of civilization), his arguments can easily be used to accept the world as it is. While this attitude may have helped give birth to the Duke and the King, it did not create Huck Finn and cannot explain his moral progress and courage.

It seems to me there is little liberty to be gained in attempting to define human nature. Perhaps that is my prejudice as a historian. Even the worst historians can tell you that humans have lived in a great diversity of social structures with a great diversity of values. Mark Twain’s approach in later life, moving from a critique of an expanding and overly optimistic America to a condemnation of all of human, strikes me as rather lazy and without benefit. On this, I am with the young man in “What is Man?”

I will leave this systematic reading of Twain’s works troubled that the same mind that created Huck Finn could leave the world so burdened by cynicism, constantly repeating the argument that man is a selfish machine. I wonder if he had to repeat it so many times to convince himself.

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