on January 8, 2011
This essay was introduced to me through a blog about the philosophical question of 'free will'. At first glance, I thought I was being entertained by another one Twain's latest satires. Instead, I felt like I was engaged in a modern lecture between a seasoned philosophy professor and his most accomplished student.
Through the dialogue, you get a sense that this piece of writing is the epitome of Samuel Clemen's look on life, although debatable. Regardless of how you feel at the end of the essay, if read carefully, you will at least question your own daily motives and perhaps everyone else's that has come before you. I have been trained to thoroughly enjoy this read.
Mark Twain is widely known as a humorist, but there is one very serious book that he wrote, “What is Man?” He held off publishing the book for many years and constantly made changes in it because he felt, correctly, that people would reject his ideas, and he later only released the book in a limited edition of two hundred and fifty copies. When he died in 1910, the New York Tribune wrote an article that focused on the incongruity that the greatest American humorist had such dark seemingly irreligious opinions.
The book contains Mark Twain’s strange concept of life and his view of the inability of people to think and make decisions, a concept we would never had expected from this wise, open-eyed man. He felt that people lack free will and that they act like machines, like animals do.
Twain contended that people do not have free will, cannot control their thoughts, and are not born with a sense of right and wrong. People learn what they learn from outside, and are compelled by their nature to do what they have absorbed no matter what its source, like a machine: “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…. He will always do the thing which will bring him the most mental comfort” only those things he was taught (highlights and italics in Twain’s text).
People, according to Twain, are incapable of developing their own ideas. Their feelings about morality are ideas that they are taught and trained. No one ever utters a thought of his own, but “The utterer of a thought always utters a second-hand one…. It is in his human environment which influences his mind and his feelings, furnishes him his ideals, and sets him on his road and keeps him on it.” Put differently: “man is never anything but what his outside influences have made him. They train him downwards or they train him upwards – but they train him; they are at work upon him all the time,” outside influences mold people and once absorbed make him do what he has been trained to do (italics in original).
Twain adds that beside training, a person’s behavior is influenced by his temperament. Temperament is always present – one has either a hot or cold temperament.
According to Twain, man has no dignities, grandeurs, or sublimities. He is no better than a rat. He is a machine. He acts on habit and instinct, like a cow who heads toward food. He “walks in his sleep, so to speak…. With memory to help, man preserves his observations and reasonings, reflects upon them, adds to them, re-combines them, and so proceeds, stage by stage” but this is exactly what an ant does.
Even a man who rushes into a fire to save a woman does not do so because of free will because people do not have free will. His “temperament, his training, and the daily influences which had molded him made him what he was, compelled him to rescue the old woman and thus save himself – save himself from spiritual pain, from unendurable wretchedness…. He did not make the choice; it was made for him by forces which he could not control” (italics in original).
Put in other words for Twain repeats his idea many times: “Man is a machine, made up of many mechanisms; the moral and mental ones acting automatically in accordance with the impulses of an interior Master who is built out of born-temperament and the accumulation of multitudinous outside influences and trainings; a machine whose one function is to secure the spiritual contentment of the Master, be his desires good or be they evil; a machine whose Will is absolute and must be obeyed, and always is obeyed” (italics and capitalizations in the original).
While Twain did not develop his philosophy from the Bible, people who read the Bible literally and who are convinced that God is involved in everything that happens on earth, and who accept as true the Bible’s statement in Exodus that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he could not change his mind and did the same thing in Samuel to the two sons of the priest Eli, would also believe that people are controlled like puppets.