I have decided to publish Mark Twain’s “What is Man?” essay because I think that it inspires a radical paradigm exercise to even follow. I find it to be an essential piece of philosophy that every thinking man or woman should read through once.
This essay that Twain wrote explores the concept of personal merit, and what we now call intrinsic motivation to a very refined degree. It also digs deep into the idea that maybe the idea of heroes and villains might not be as they appear…
Reading this essay has greatly expanded my appreciation for the influences that I have in life. I think that it will undoubtedly do the same for you. It may even give you the blessing of reviewing a position or two.
In case you would rather listen, I have included the Librivox audio recordings. Be sure to leave your thoughts in the comments.
WHAT IS MAN?
a. Man the Machine. b. Personal Merit
[The Old Man and the Young Man had been conversing. The Old Man had asserted that the human being is merely a machine, and nothing more. The Young Man objected, and asked him to go into particulars and furnish his reasons for his position.]
Old Man. What are the materials of which a steam-engine is made?
Young Man. Iron, steel, brass, white-metal, and so on.
O.M. Where are these found?
Y.M. In the rocks.
O.M. In a pure state?
Y.M. No—in ores.
O.M. Are the metals suddenly deposited in the ores?
Y.M. No—it is the patient work of countless ages.
O.M. You could make the engine out of the rocks themselves?
Y.M. Yes, a brittle one and not valuable.
O.M. You would not require much, of such an engine as that?
Y.M. No—substantially nothing.
O.M. To make a fine and capable engine, how would you proceed?
Y.M. Drive tunnels and shafts into the hills; blast out the iron ore; crush it, smelt it, reduce it to pig-iron; put some of it through the Bessemer process and make steel of it. Mine and treat and combine several metals of which brass is made.
Y.M. Out of the perfected result, build the fine engine.
O.M. You would require much of this one?
Y.M. Oh, indeed yes.
O.M. It could drive lathes, drills, planers, punches, polishers, in a word all the cunning machines of a great factory?
Y.M. It could.
O.M. What could the stone engine do?
Y.M. Drive a sewing-machine, possibly—nothing more, perhaps.
O.M. Men would admire the other engine and rapturously praise it?
O.M. But not the stone one?
O.M. The merits of the metal machine would be far above those of the stone one?
Y.M. Of course.
O.M. Personal merits?
Y.M. Personal merits? How do you mean?
O.M. It would be personally entitled to the credit of its own performance?
Y.M. The engine? Certainly not.
O.M. Why not?
Y.M. Because its performance is not personal. It is the result of the law of construction. It is not a merit that it does the things which it is set to do—it can’t help doing them.
O.M. And it is not a personal demerit in the stone machine that it does so little?
Y.M. Certainly not. It does no more and no less than the law of its make permits and compels it to do. There is nothing personal about it; it cannot choose. In this process of “working up to the matter” is it your idea to work up to the proposition that man and a machine are about the same thing, and that there is no personal merit in the performance of either?
O.M. Yes—but do not be offended; I am meaning no offense. What makes the grand difference between the stone engine and the steel one? Shall we call it training, education? Shall we call the stone engine a savage and the steel one a civilized man? The original rock contained the stuff of which the steel one was built—but along with a lot of sulphur and stone and other obstructing inborn heredities, brought down from the old geologic ages—prejudices, let us call them. Prejudices which nothing within the rock itself had either power to remove or any desire to remove. Will you take note of that phrase?
Y.M. Yes. I have written it down; “Prejudices which nothing within the rock itself had either power to remove or any desire to remove.” Go on.
O.M. Prejudices must be removed by outside influences or not at all. Put that down.
Y.M. Very well; “Must be removed by outside influences or not at all.” Go on.
O.M. The iron’s prejudice against ridding itself of the cumbering rock. To make it more exact, the iron’s absolute indifference as to whether the rock be removed or not. Then comes the outside influence and grinds the rock to powder and sets the ore free. The iron in the ore is still captive. An outside influence smelts it free of the clogging ore. The iron is emancipated iron, now, but indifferent to further progress. An outside influence beguiles it into the Bessemer furnace and refines it into steel of the first quality. It is educated, now—its training is complete. And it has reached its limit. By no possible process can it be educated into gold. Will you set that down?
Y.M. Yes. “Everything has its limit—iron ore cannot be educated into gold.”
O.M. There are gold men, and tin men, and copper men, and leaden men, and steel men, and so on—and each has the limitations of his nature, his heredities, his training, and his environment. You can build engines out of each of these metals, and they will all perform, but you must not require the weak ones to do equal work with the strong ones. In each case, to get the best results, you must free the metal from its obstructing prejudicial ones by education—smelting, refining, and so forth.
Y.M. You have arrived at man, now?
O.M. Yes. Man the machine—man the impersonal engine. Whatsoever a man is, is due to his make, and to the influences brought to bear upon it by his heredities, his habitat, his associations. He is moved, directed, commanded, by exterior influences—solely. He originates nothing, not even a thought.
Y.M. Oh, come! Where did I get my opinion that this which you are talking is all foolishness?
O.M. It is a quite natural opinion—indeed an inevitable opinion—but you did not create the materials out of which it is formed. They are odds and ends of thoughts, impressions, feelings, gathered unconsciously from a thousand books, a thousand conversations, and from streams of thought and feeling which have flowed down into your heart and brain out of the hearts and brains of centuries of ancestors. Personally you did not create even the smallest microscopic fragment of the materials out of which your opinion is made; and personally you cannot claim even the slender merit of putting the borrowed materials together. That was done automatically—by your mental machinery, in strict accordance with the law of that machinery’s construction. And you not only did not make that machinery yourself, but you have not even any command over it.
Y.M. This is too much. You think I could have formed no opinion but that one?
O.M. Spontaneously? No. And you did not form that one; your machinery did it for you—automatically and instantly, without reflection or the need of it.
Y.M. Suppose I had reflected? How then?
O.M. Suppose you try?
Y.M. (After a quarter of an hour.) I have reflected.
O.M. You mean you have tried to change your opinion—as an experiment?
O.M. With success?
Y.M. No. It remains the same; it is impossible to change it.
O.M. I am sorry, but you see, yourself, that your mind is merely a machine, nothing more. You have no command over it, it has no command over itself—it is worked solely from the outside. That is the law of its make; it is the law of all machines.
Y.M. Can’t I ever change one of these automatic opinions?
O.M. No. You can’t yourself, but exterior influences can do it.
Y.M. And exterior ones only?
O.M. Yes—exterior ones only.
Y.M. That position is untenable—I may say ludicrously untenable.
O.M. What makes you think so?
Y.M. I don’t merely think it, I know it. Suppose I resolve to enter upon a course of thought, and study, and reading, with the deliberate purpose of changing that opinion; and suppose I succeed. That is not the work of an exterior impulse, the whole of it is mine and personal; for I originated the project.
O.M. Not a shred of it. It grew out of this talk with me. But for that it would not have occurred to you. No man ever originates anything. All his thoughts, all his impulses, come from the outside.
Y.M. It’s an exasperating subject. The first man had original thoughts, anyway; there was nobody to draw from.
O.M. It is a mistake. Adam’s thoughts came to him from the outside. You have a fear of death. You did not invent that—you got it from outside, from talking and teaching. Adam had no fear of death—none in the world.
Y.M. Yes, he had.
O.M. When he was created?
O.M. When, then?
Y.M. When he was threatened with it.
O.M. Then it came from outside. Adam is quite big enough; let us not try to make a god of him. None but gods have ever had a thought which did not come from the outside. Adam probably had a good head, but it was of no sort of use to him until it was filled up from the outside. He was not able to invent the triflingest little thing with it. He had not a shadow of a notion of the difference between good and evil—he had to get the idea from the outside. Neither he nor Eve was able to originate the idea that it was immodest to go naked; the knowledge came in with the apple from the outside. A man’s brain is so constructed that it can originate nothing whatsoever. It can only use material obtained outside. It is merely a machine; and it works automatically, not by will-power. It has no command over itself, its owner has no command over it.
Y.M. Well, never mind Adam: but certainly Shakespeare’s creations—
O.M. No, you mean Shakespeare’s imitations. Shakespeare created nothing. He correctly observed, and he marvelously painted. He exactly portrayed people whom God had created; but he created none himself. Let us spare him the slander of charging him with trying. Shakespeare could not create. He was a machine, and machines do not create.
Y.M. Where was his excellence, then?
O.M. In this. He was not a sewing-machine, like you and me; he was a Gobelin loom. The threads and the colors came into him from the outside; outside influences, suggestions, experiences (reading, seeing plays, playing plays, borrowing ideas, and so on), framed the patterns in his mind and started up his complex and admirable machinery, and it automatically turned out that pictured and gorgeous fabric which still compels the astonishment of the world. If Shakespeare had been born and bred on a barren and unvisited rock in the ocean his mighty intellect would have had no outside material to work with, and could have invented none; and no outside influences, teachings, moldings, persuasions, inspirations, of a valuable sort, and could have invented none; and so Shakespeare would have produced nothing. In Turkey he would have produced something—something up to the highest limit of Turkish influences, associations, and training. In France he would have produced something better—something up to the highest limit of the French influences and training. In England he rose to the highest limit attainable through the outside helps afforded by that land’s ideals, influences, and training. You and I are but sewing-machines. We must turn out what we can; we must do our endeavor and care nothing at all when the unthinking reproach us for not turning out Gobelins.
Y.M. And so we are mere machines! And machines may not boast, nor feel proud of their performance, nor claim personal merit for it, nor applause and praise. It is an infamous doctrine.
O.M. It isn’t a doctrine, it is merely a fact.
Y.M. I suppose, then, there is no more merit in being brave than in being a coward?
O.M. 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? The one is fawned upon, admired, worshiped, by sycophants, the other is neglected and despised—where is the sense in it?
Y.M. Sometimes a timid man sets himself the task of conquering his cowardice and becoming brave—and succeeds. What do you say to that?
O.M. That it shows the value of training in right directions over training in wrong ones. Inestimably valuable is training, influence, education, in right directions—training one’s self-approbation to elevate its ideals.
Y.M. But as to merit—the personal merit of the victorious coward’s project and achievement?
O.M. There isn’t any. In the world’s view he is a worthier man than he was before, but he didn’t achieve the change—the merit of it is not his.
Y.M. Whose, then?
O.M. His make, and the influences which wrought upon it from the outside.
Y.M. His make?
O.M. To start with, he was not utterly and completely a coward, or the influences would have had nothing to work upon. He was not afraid of a cow, though perhaps of a bull: not afraid of a woman, but afraid of a man. There was something to build upon. There was a seed. No seed, no plant. Did he make that seed himself, or was it born in him? It was no merit of his that the seed was there.
Y.M. Well, anyway, the idea of cultivating it, the resolution to cultivate it, was meritorious, and he originated that.
O.M. He did nothing of the kind. It came whence all impulses, good or bad, come—from outside. If that timid man had lived all his life in a community of human rabbits, had never read of brave deeds, had never heard speak of them, had never heard any one praise them nor express envy of the heroes that had done them, he would have had no more idea of bravery than Adam had of modesty, and it could never by any possibility have occurred to him to resolve to become brave. He could not originate the idea—it had to come to him from the outside. And so, when he heard bravery extolled and cowardice derided, it woke him up. He was ashamed. Perhaps his sweetheart turned up her nose and said, “I am told that you are a coward!” It was not he that turned over the new leaf—she did it for him. He must not strut around in the merit of it —it is not his.
Y.M. But, anyway, he reared the plant after she watered the seed.
O.M. No. Outside influences reared it. At the command—and trembling—he marched out into the field—with other soldiers and in the daytime, not alone and in the dark. He had the influence of example, he drew courage from his comrades’ courage; he was afraid, and wanted to run, but he did not dare; he was afraid to run, with all those soldiers looking on. He was progressing, you see—the moral fear of shame had risen superior to the physical fear of harm. By the end of the campaign experience will have taught him that not all who go into battle get hurt—an outside influence which will be helpful to him; and he will also have learned how sweet it is to be praised for courage and be huzza’d at with tear-choked voices as the war-worn regiment marches past the worshiping multitude with flags flying and the drums beating. After that he will be as securely brave as any veteran in the army—and there will not be a shade nor suggestion of personal merit in it anywhere; it will all have come from the outside. The Victoria Cross breeds more heroes than—
Y.M. Hang it, where is the sense in his becoming brave if he is to get no credit for it?
O.M. Your question will answer itself presently. It involves an important detail of man’s make which we have not yet touched upon.
Y.M. What detail is that?
O.M. The impulse which moves a person to do things—the only impulse that ever moves a person to do a thing.
Y.M. The only one! Is there but one?
O.M. That is all. There is only one.
Y.M. Well, certainly that is a strange enough doctrine. What is the sole impulse that ever moves a person to do a thing?
O.M. The impulse to content his own spirit—the necessity of contenting his own spirit and winning its approval.
Y.M. Oh, come, that won’t do!
O.M. Why won’t it?
Y.M. Because it puts him in the attitude of always looking out for his own comfort and advantage; whereas an unselfish man often does a thing solely for another person’s good when it is a positive disadvantage to himself.
O.M. It is a mistake. The act must do him good, first; otherwise he will not do it. He may think he is doing it solely for the other person’s sake, but it is not so; he is contenting his own spirit first—the other’s person’s benefit has to always take second place.
Y.M. What a fantastic idea! What becomes of self—sacrifice? Please answer me that.
O.M. What is self-sacrifice?
Y.M. The doing good to another person where no shadow nor suggestion of benefit to one’s self can result from it.
Man’s Sole Impulse—the Securing of His Own Approval
Old Man. There have been instances of it—you think?
Young Man. Instances? Millions of them!
O.M. You have not jumped to conclusions? You have examined them—critically?
Y.M. They don’t need it: the acts themselves reveal the golden impulse back of them.
O.M. For instance?
Y.M. Well, then, for instance. Take the case in the book here. The man lives three miles up-town. It is bitter cold, snowing hard, midnight. He is about to enter the horse-car when a gray and ragged old woman, a touching picture of misery, puts out her lean hand and begs for rescue from hunger and death. The man finds that he has a quarter in his pocket, but he does not hesitate: he gives it her and trudges home through the storm. There—it is noble, it is beautiful; its grace is marred by no fleck or blemish or suggestion of self-interest.
O.M. What makes you think that?
Y.M. Pray what else could I think? Do you imagine that there is some other way of looking at it?
O.M. Can you put yourself in the man’s place and tell me what he felt and what he thought?
Y.M. Easily. The sight of that suffering old face pierced his generous heart with a sharp pain. He could not bear it. He could endure the three-mile walk in the storm, but he could not endure the tortures his conscience would suffer if he turned his back and left that poor old creature to perish. He would not have been able to sleep, for thinking of it.
O.M. What was his state of mind on his way home?
Y.M. It was a state of joy which only the self-sacrificer knows. His heart sang, he was unconscious of the storm.
O.M. He felt well?
Y.M. One cannot doubt it.
O.M. Very well. Now let us add up the details and see how much he got for his twenty-five cents. Let us try to find out the real why of his making the investment. In the first place he couldn’t bear the pain which the old suffering face gave him. So he was thinking of his pain—this good man. He must buy a salve for it. If he did not succor the old woman his conscience would torture him all the way home. Thinking of his pain again. He must buy relief for that. If he didn’t relieve the old woman he would not get any sleep. He must buy some sleep—still thinking of himself, you see. Thus, to sum up, he bought himself free of a sharp pain in his heart, he bought himself free of the tortures of a waiting conscience, he bought a whole night’s sleep—all for twenty-five cents! It should make Wall Street ashamed of itself. On his way home his heart was joyful, and it sang—profit on top of profit! The impulse which moved the man to succor the old woman was—first—to content his own spirit; secondly to relieve her sufferings. Is it 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 course—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 those 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.
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, 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 a 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. That 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 happy 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; and 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 miners 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 but 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 it. 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.
O.M. Yes. That is a good enough name for it: Conscience—that independent Sovereign, that insolent absolute Monarch inside of a man who is the man’s Master. There are all kinds of consciences, because there are all kinds of men. You satisfy an assassin’s conscience in one way, a philanthropist’s in another, a miser’s in another, a burglar’s in still another. As a guide or incentive to any authoritatively prescribed line of morals or conduct (leaving training out of the account), a man’s conscience is totally valueless. I know a kind-hearted Kentuckian whose self-approval was lacking—whose conscience was troubling him, to phrase it with exactness—because he had neglected to kill a certain man—a man whom he had never seen. The stranger had killed this man’s friend in a fight, this man’s Kentucky training made it a duty to kill the stranger for it. He neglected his duty—kept dodging it, shirking it, putting it off, and his unrelenting conscience kept persecuting him for this conduct. At last, to get ease of mind, comfort, self-approval, he hunted up the stranger and took his life. It was an immense act of self-sacrifice (as per the usual definition), for he did not want to do it, and he never would have done it if he could have bought a contented spirit and an unworried mind at smaller cost. But we are so made that we will pay anything for that contentment—even another man’s life.
Y.M. You spoke a moment ago of trained consciences. You mean that we are not born with consciences competent to guide us aright?
O.M. If we were, children and savages would know right from wrong, and not have to be taught it.
Y.M. But consciences can be trained?
Y.M. Of course by parents, teachers, the pulpit, and books.
O.M. Yes—they do their share; they do what they can.
Y.M. And the rest is done by—
O.M. Oh, a million unnoticed influences—for good or bad: influences which work without rest during every waking moment of a man’s life, from cradle to grave.
Y.M. You have tabulated these?
O.M. Many of them—yes.
Y.M. Will you read me the result?
O.M. Another time, yes. It would take an hour.
Y.M. A conscience can be trained to shun evil and prefer good?
Y.M. But will it for spirit-contenting reasons only?
O.M. It can’t be trained to do a thing for any other reason. The thing is impossible.
Y.M. There must be a genuinely and utterly self-sacrificing act recorded in human history somewhere.
O.M. You are young. You have many years before you. Search one out.
Y.M. It does seem to me that when a man sees a fellow-being struggling in the water and jumps in at the risk of his life to save him—
O.M. Wait. Describe the man. Describe the fellow-being. State if there is an audience present; or if they are alone.
Y.M. What have these things to do with the splendid act?
O.M. Very much. Shall we suppose, as a beginning, that the two are alone, in a solitary place, at midnight?
Y.M. If you choose.
O.M. And that the fellow-being is the man’s daughter?
Y.M. Well, n-no—make it someone else.
O.M. A filthy, drunken ruffian, then?
Y.M. I see. Circumstances alter cases. I suppose that if there was no audience to observe the act, the man wouldn’t perform it.
O.M. But there is here and there a man who would. People, for instance, like the man who lost his life trying to save the child from the fire; and the man who gave the needy old woman his twenty-five cents and walked home in the storm—there are here and there men like that who would do it. And why? Because they couldn’t bear to see a fellow-being struggling in the water and not jump in and help. It would give them pain. They would save the fellow-being on that account. They wouldn’t do it otherwise. They strictly obey the law which I have been insisting upon. You must remember and always distinguish the people who can’t bear things from people who can. It will throw light upon a number of apparently “self-sacrificing” cases.
Y.M. Oh, dear, it’s all so disgusting.
O.M. Yes. And so true.
Y.M. Come—take the good boy who does things he doesn’t want to do, in order to gratify his mother.
O.M. He does seven-tenths of the act because it gratifies him to gratify his mother. Throw the bulk of advantage the other way and the good boy would not do the act. He must obey the iron law. None can escape it.
Y.M. Well, take the case of a bad boy who—
O.M. You needn’t mention it, it is a waste of time. It is no matter about the bad boy’s act. Whatever it was, he had a spirit-contenting reason for it. Otherwise you have been misinformed, and he didn’t do it.
Y.M. It is very exasperating. A while ago you said that man’s conscience is not a born judge of morals and conduct, but has to be taught and trained. Now I think a conscience can get drowsy and lazy, but I don’t think it can go wrong; if you wake it up—
A Little Story
O.M. I will tell you a little story:
Once upon a time an Infidel was guest in the house of a Christian widow whose little boy was ill and near to death. The Infidel often watched by the bedside and entertained the boy with talk, and he used these opportunities to satisfy a strong longing in his nature—that desire which is in us all to better other people’s condition by having them think as we think. He was successful. But the dying boy, in his last moments, reproached him and said:
“I believed, and was happy in it; you have taken my belief away, and my comfort. Now I have nothing left, and I die miserable; for the things which you have told me do not take the place of that which I have lost.”
And the mother, also, reproached the Infidel, and said:
“My child is forever lost, and my heart is broken. How could you do this cruel thing? We have done you no harm, but only kindness; we made our house your home, you were welcome to all we had, and this is our reward.”
The heart of the Infidel was filled with remorse for what he had done, and he said:
“It was wrong—I see it now; but I was only trying to do him good. In my view he was in error; it seemed my duty to teach him the truth.”
Then the mother said:
“I had taught him, all his little life, what I believed to be the truth, and in his believing faith both of us were happy. Now he is dead,—and lost; and I am miserable. Our faith came down to us through centuries of believing ancestors; what right had you, or any one, to disturb it? Where was your honor, where was your shame?”
Y.M. He was a miscreant, and deserved death!
O.M. He thought so himself, and said so.
Y.M. Ah—you see, his conscience was awakened!
O.M. Yes, his Self-Disapproval was. It pained him to see the mother suffer. He was sorry he had done a thing which brought him pain. It did not occur to him to think of the mother when he was misteaching the boy, for he was absorbed in providing pleasure for himself, then. Providing it by satisfying what he believed to be a call of duty.
Y.M. Call it what you please, it is to me a case of awakened conscience. That awakened conscience could never get itself into that species of trouble again. A cure like that is a permanent cure.
O.M. Pardon—I had not finished the story. We are creatures of outside influences—we originate nothing within. Whenever we take a new line of thought and drift into a new line of belief and action, the impulse is always suggested from the outside. Remorse so preyed upon the Infidel that it dissolved his harshness toward the boy’s religion and made him come to regard it with tolerance, next with kindness, for the boy’s sake and the mother’s. Finally he found himself examining it. From that moment his progress in his new trend was steady and rapid. He became a believing Christian. And now his remorse for having robbed the dying boy of his faith and his salvation was bitterer than ever. It gave him no rest, no peace. He must have rest and peace—it is the law of nature. There seemed but one way to get it; he must devote himself to saving imperiled souls. He became a missionary. He landed in a pagan country ill and helpless. A native widow took him into her humble home and nursed him back to convalescence. Then her young boy was taken hopelessly ill, and the grateful missionary helped her tend him. Here was his first opportunity to repair a part of the wrong done to the other boy by doing a precious service for this one by undermining his foolish faith in his false gods. He was successful. But the dying boy in his last moments reproached him and said:
“I believed, and was happy in it; you have taken my belief away, and my comfort. Now I have nothing left, and I die miserable; for the things which you have told me do not take the place of that which I have lost.”
And the mother, also, reproached the missionary, and said:
“My child is forever lost, and my heart is broken. How could you do this cruel thing? We had done you no harm, but only kindness; we made our house your home, you were welcome to all we had, and this is our reward.”
The heart of the missionary was filled with remorse for what he had done, and he said:
“It was wrong—I see it now; but I was only trying to do him good. In my view he was in error; it seemed my duty to teach him the truth.”
Then the mother said:
“I had taught him, all his little life, what I believed to be the truth, and in his believing faith both of us were happy. Now he is dead—and lost; and I am miserable. Our faith came down to us through centuries of believing ancestors; what right had you, or any one, to disturb it? Where was your honor, where was your shame?”
The missionary’s anguish of remorse and sense of treachery were as bitter and persecuting and unappeasable, now, as they had been in the former case. The story is finished. What is your comment?
Y.M. The man’s conscience is a fool! It was morbid. It didn’t know right from wrong.
O.M. I am not sorry to hear you say that. If you grant that one man’s conscience doesn’t know right from wrong, it is an admission that there are others like it. This single admission pulls down the whole doctrine of infallibility of judgment in consciences. Meantime there is one thing which I ask you to notice.
Y.M. What is that?
O.M. That in both cases the man’s act gave him no spiritual discomfort, and that he was quite satisfied with it and got pleasure out of it. But afterward when it resulted in pain to him, he was sorry. Sorry it had inflicted pain upon the others, but for no reason under the sun except that their pain gave him pain. Our consciences take no notice of pain inflicted upon others until it reaches a point where it gives pain to us. In all cases without exception we are absolutely indifferent to another person’s pain until his sufferings make us uncomfortable. Many an infidel would not have been troubled by that Christian mother’s distress. Don’t you believe that?
Y.M. Yes. You might almost say it of the average infidel, I think.
O.M. And many a missionary, sternly fortified by his sense of duty, would not have been troubled by the pagan mother’s distress—Jesuit missionaries in Canada in the early French times, for instance; see episodes quoted by Parkman.
Y.M. Well, let us adjourn. Where have we arrived?
O.M. At this. That we (mankind) have ticketed ourselves with a number of qualities to which we have given misleading names. Love, Hate, Charity, Compassion, Avarice, Benevolence, and so on. I mean we attach misleading meanings to the names. They are all forms of self-contentment, self-gratification, but the names so disguise them that they distract our attention from the fact. Also we have smuggled a word into the dictionary which ought not to be there at all—Self-Sacrifice. It describes a thing which does not exist. But worst of all, we ignore and never mention the Sole Impulse which dictates and compels a man’s every act: the imperious necessity of securing his own approval, in every emergency and at all costs. To it we owe all that we are. It is our breath, our heart, our blood. It is our only spur, our whip, our goad, our only impelling power; we have no other. Without it we should be mere inert images, corpses; no one would do anything, there would be no progress, the world would stand still. We ought to stand reverently uncovered when the name of that stupendous power is uttered.
Y.M. I am not convinced.
O.M. You will be when you think.
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.
O.M. Is that as far as you have read?
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?
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?
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—
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?
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?
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?
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?
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 pain. You—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.
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.
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.
Young Man. You keep using that word—training. By it do you particularly mean—
Old Man. Study, instruction, lectures, sermons? That is a part of it—but not a large part. I mean all the outside influences. There are a million of them. From the cradle to the grave, during all his waking hours, the human being is under training. In the very first rank of his trainers stands association. It is his human environment which influences his mind and his feelings, furnishes him his ideals, and sets him on his road and keeps him in it. If he leave[s] that road he will find himself shunned by the people whom he most loves and esteems, and whose approval he most values. He is a chameleon; by the law of his nature he takes the color of his place of resort. The influences about him create his preferences, his aversions, his politics, his tastes, his morals, his religion. He creates none of these things for himself. He thinks he does, but that is because he has not examined into the matter. You have seen Presbyterians?
O.M. How did they happen to be Presbyterians and not Congregationalists? And why were the Congregationalists not Baptists, and the Baptists Roman Catholics, and the Roman Catholics Buddhists, and the Buddhists Quakers, and the Quakers Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians Millerites and the Millerites Hindus, and the Hindus Atheists, and the Atheists Spiritualists, and the Spiritualists Agnostics, and the Agnostics Methodists, and the Methodists Confucians, and the Confucians Unitarians, and the Unitarians Mohammedans, and the Mohammedans Salvation Warriors, and the Salvation Warriors Zoroastrians, and the Zoroastrians Christian Scientists, and the Christian Scientists Mormons—and so on?
Y.M. You may answer your question yourself.
O.M. That list of sects is not a record of studies, searchings, seekings after light; it mainly (and sarcastically) indicates what association can do. If you know a man’s nationality you can come within a split hair of guessing the complexion of his religion: English—Protestant; American—ditto; Spaniard, Frenchman, Irishman, Italian, South American—Roman Catholic; Russian—Greek Catholic; Turk—Mohammedan; and so on. And when you know the man’s religious complexion, you know what sort of religious books he reads when he wants some more light, and what sort of books he avoids, lest by accident he get more light than he wants. In America if you know which party-collar a voter wears, you know what his associations are, and how he came by his politics, and which breed of newspaper he reads to get light, and which breed he diligently avoids, and which breed of mass-meetings he attends in order to broaden his political knowledge, and which breed of mass-meetings he doesn’t attend, except to refute its doctrines with brickbats. We are always hearing of people who are around seeking after truth. I have never seen a (permanent) specimen. I think he had never lived. But I have seen several entirely sincere people who thought they were (permanent) Seekers after Truth. They sought diligently, persistently, carefully, cautiously, profoundly, with perfect honesty and nicely adjusted judgment—until they believed that without doubt or question they had found the Truth. That was the end of the search. The man spent the rest of his life hunting up shingles wherewith to protect his Truth from the weather. If he was seeking after political Truth he found it in one or another of the hundred political gospels which govern men in the earth; if he was seeking after the Only True Religion he found it in one or another of the three thousand that are on the market. In any case, when he found the Truth he sought no further; but from that day forth, with his soldering-iron in one hand and his bludgeon in the other he tinkered its leaks and reasoned with objectors. There have been innumerable Temporary Seekers of Truth—have you ever heard of a permanent one? In the very nature of man such a person is impossible. However, to drop back to the text—training: all training is one form or another of outside influence, and association is the largest part of it. A man is never anything but what his outside influences have made him. They train him downward or they train him upward—but they train him; they are at work upon him all the time.
Y.M. Then if he happen by the accidents of life to be evilly placed there is no help for him, according to your notions—he must train downward.
O.M. No help for him? No help for this chameleon? It is a mistake. It is in his chameleonship that his greatest good fortune lies. He has only to change his habitat—his associations. But the impulse to do it must come from the outside —he cannot originate it himself, with that purpose in view. Sometimes a very small and accidental thing can furnish him the initiatory impulse and start him on a new road, with a new idea. The chance remark of a sweetheart, “I hear that you are a coward,” may water a seed that shall sprout and bloom and flourish, and ended in producing a surprising fruitage—in the fields of war. The history of man is full of such accidents. The accident of a broken leg brought a profane and ribald soldier under religious influences and furnished him a new ideal. From that accident sprang the Order of the Jesuits, and it has been shaking thrones, changing policies, and doing other tremendous work for two hundred years—and will go on. The chance reading of a book or of a paragraph in a newspaper can start a man on a new track and make him renounce his old associations and seek new ones that are in sympathy with his new ideal: and the result, for that man, can be an entire change of his way of life.
Y.M. Are you hinting at a scheme of procedure?
O.M. Not a new one—an old one. Old as mankind.
Y.M. What is it?
O.M. Merely the laying of traps for people. Traps baited with initiatory impulses toward high ideals. It is what the tract-distributor does. It is what the missionary does. It is what governments ought to do.
Y.M. Don’t they?
O.M. In one way they do, in another they don’t. They separate the smallpox patients from the healthy people, but in dealing with crime they put the healthy into the pest-house along with the sick. That is to say, they put the beginners in with the confirmed criminals. This would be well if man were naturally inclined to good, but he isn’t, and so association makes the beginners worse than they were when they went into captivity. It is putting a very severe punishment upon the comparatively innocent at times. They hang a man—which is a trifling punishment; this breaks the hearts of his family—which is a heavy one. They comfortably jail and feed a wife-beater, and leave his innocent wife and family to starve.
Y.M. Do you believe in the doctrine that man is equipped with an intuitive perception of good and evil?
O.M. Adam hadn’t it.
Y.M. But has man acquired it since?
O.M. No. I think he has no intuitions of any kind. He gets all his ideas, all his impressions, from the outside. I keep repeating this, in the hope that I may impress it upon you that you will be interested to observe and examine for yourself and see whether it is true or false.
Y.M. Where did you get your own aggravating notions?
O.M. From the outside. I did not invent them. They are gathered from a thousand unknown sources. Mainly unconsciously gathered.
Y.M. Don’t you believe that God could make an inherently honest man?
O.M. Yes, I know He could. I also know that He never did make one.
Y.M. A wiser observer than you has recorded the fact that “an honest man’s the noblest work of God.”
O.M. He didn’t record a fact, he recorded a falsity. It is windy, and sounds well, but it is not true. God makes a man with honest and dishonest possibilities in him and stops there. The man’s associations develop the possibilities—the one set or the other. The result is accordingly an honest man or a dishonest one.
Y.M. And the honest one is not entitled to—
O.M. Praise? No. How often must I tell you that? He is not the architect of his honesty.
Y.M. Now then, I will ask you where there is any sense in training people to lead virtuous lives. What is gained by it?
O.M. The man himself gets large advantages out of it, and that is the main thing—to him. He is not a peril to his neighbors, he is not a damage to them—and so they get an advantage out of his virtues. That is the main thing to them. It can make this life comparatively comfortable to the parties concerned; the neglect of this training can make this life a constant peril and distress to the parties concerned.
Y.M. You have said that training is everything; that training is the man himself, for it makes him what he is.
O.M. I said training and another thing. Let that other thing pass, for the moment. What were you going to say?
Y.M. We have an old servant. She has been with us twenty—two years. Her service used to be faultless, but now she has become very forgetful. We are all fond of her; we all recognize that she cannot help the infirmity which age has brought her; the rest of the family do not scold her for her remissnesses, but at times I do—I can’t seem to control myself. Don’t I try? I do try. Now, then, when I was ready to dress, this morning, no clean clothes had been put out. I lost my temper; I lose it easiest and quickest in the early morning. I rang; and immediately began to warn myself not to show temper, and to be careful and speak gently. I safe-guarded myself most carefully. I even chose the very word I would use: “You’ve forgotten the clean clothes, Jane.” When she appeared in the door I opened my mouth to say that phrase—and out of it, moved by an instant surge of passion which I was not expecting and hadn’t time to put under control, came the hot rebuke, “You’ve forgotten them again!” You say a man always does the thing which will best please his Interior Master. Whence came the impulse to make careful preparation to save the girl the humiliation of a rebuke? Did that come from the Master, who is always primarily concerned about himself?
O.M. Unquestionably. There is no other source for any impulse. Secondarily you made preparation to save the girl, but primarily its object was to save yourself, by contenting the Master.
Y.M. How do you mean?
O.M. Has any member of the family ever implored you to watch your temper and not fly out at the girl?
Y.M. Yes. My mother.
O.M. You love her?
Y.M. Oh, more than that!
O.M. You would always do anything in your power to please her?
Y.M. It is a delight to me to do anything to please her!
O.M. Why? You would do it for pay, solely —for profit. What profit would you expect and certainly receive from the investment?
Y.M. Personally? None. To please her is enough.
O.M. It appears, then, that your object, primarily, wasn’t to save the girl a humiliation, but to please your mother. It also appears that to please your mother gives you a strong pleasure. Is not that the profit which you get out of the investment? Isn’t that the real profits and first profit?
Y.M. Oh, well? Go on.
O.M. In all transactions, the Interior Master looks to it that you get the first profit. Otherwise there is no transaction.
Y.M. Well, then, if I was so anxious to get that profit and so intent upon it, why did I throw it away by losing my temper?
O.M. In order to get another profit which suddenly superseded it in value.
Y.M. Where was it?
O.M. Ambushed behind your born temperament, and waiting for a chance. Your native warm temper suddenly jumped to the front, and for the moment its influence was more powerful than your mother’s, and abolished it. In that instance you were eager to flash out a hot rebuke and enjoy it. You did enjoy it, didn’t you?
Y.M. For—for a quarter of a second. Yes—I did.
O.M. Very well, it is as I have said: the thing which will give you the most pleasure, the most satisfaction, in any moment or fraction of a moment, is the thing you will always do. You must content the Master’s latest whim, whatever it may be.
Y.M. But when the tears came into the old servant’s eyes I could have cut my hand off for what I had done.
O.M. Right. You had humiliated yourself, you see, you had given yourself pain. Nothing is of first importance to a man except results which damage him or profit him—all the rest is secondary. Your Master was displeased with you, although you had obeyed him. He required a prompt repentance; you obeyed again; you had to—there is never any escape from his commands. He is a hard master and fickle; he changes his mind in the fraction of a second, but you must be ready to obey, and you will obey, always. If he requires repentance, you content him, you will always furnish it. He must be nursed, petted, coddled, and kept contented, let the terms be what they may.
Y.M. Training! Oh, what’s the use of it? Didn’t I, and didn’t my mother try to train me up to where I would no longer fly out at that girl?
O.M. Have you never managed to keep back a scolding?
Y.M. Oh, certainly—many times.
O.M. More times this year than last?
Y.M. Yes, a good many more.
O.M. More times last year than the year before?
O.M. There is a large improvement, then, in the two years?
Y.M. Yes, undoubtedly.
O.M. Then your question is answered. You see there is use in training. Keep on. Keeping faithfully on. You are doing well.
Y.M. Will my reform reach perfection?
O.M. It will. Up to your limit.
Y.M. My limit? What do you mean by that?
O.M. You remember that you said that I said training was everything. I corrected you, and said “training and another thing.” That other thing is temperament —that is, the disposition you were born with. You can’t eradicate your disposition nor any rag of it —you can only put a pressure on it and keep it down and quiet. You have a warm temper?
O.M. You will never get rid of it; but by watching it you can keep it down nearly all the time. Its presence is your limit. Your reform will never quite reach perfection, for your temper will beat you now and then, but you come near enough. You have made valuable progress and can make more. There is use in training. Immense use. Presently you will reach a new stage of development, then your progress will be easier; will proceed on a simpler basis, anyway.
O.M. You keep back your scoldings now, to please yourself by pleasing your mother; presently the mere triumphing over your temper will delight your vanity and confer a more delicious pleasure and satisfaction upon you than even the approbation of your mother confers upon you now. You will then labor for yourself directly and at first hand, not by the roundabout way through your mother. It simplifies the matter, and it also strengthens the impulse.
Y.M. Ah, dear! But I sha’n’t ever reach the point where I will spare the girl for her sake primarily, not mine?
O.M. Why—yes. In heaven.
Y.M. (After a reflective pause) Temperament. Well, I see one must allow for temperament. It is a large factor, sure enough. My mother is thoughtful, and not hot-tempered. When I was dressed I went to her room; she was not there; I called, she answered from the bathroom. I heard the water running. I inquired. She answered, without temper, that Jane had forgotten her bath, and she was preparing it herself. I offered to ring, but she said, “No, don’t do that; it would only distress her to be confronted with her lapse, and would be a rebuke; she doesn’t deserve that—she is not to blame for the tricks her memory serves her.” I say—has my mother an Interior Master?—and where was he?
O.M. He was there. There, and looking out for his own peace and pleasure and contentment. The girl’s distress would have pained your mother. Otherwise the girl would have been rung up, distress and all. I know women who would have gotten a No. 1 pleasure out of ringing Jane up—and so they would infallibly have pushed the button and obeyed the law of their make and training, which are the servants of their Interior Masters. It is quite likely that a part of your mother’s forbearance came from training. The good kind of training—whose best and highest function is to see to it that every time it confers a satisfaction upon its pupil a benefit shall fall at second hand upon others.
Y.M. If you were going to condense into an admonition your plan for the general betterment of the race’s condition, how would you word it?
O.M. Diligently train your ideals upward and still upward toward a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbor and the community.
Y.M. Is that a new gospel?
Y.M. It has been taught before?
O.M. For ten thousand years.
Y.M. By whom?
O.M. All the great religions—all the great gospels.
Y.M. Then there is nothing new about it?
O.M. Oh yes, there is. It is candidly stated, this time. That has not been done before.
Y.M. How do you mean?
O.M. Haven’t I put you first, and your neighbor and the community afterward?
Y.M. Well, yes, that is a difference, it is true.
O.M. The difference between straight speaking and crooked; the difference between frankness and shuffling.
O.M. The others offer you a hundred bribes to be good, thus conceding that the Master inside of you must be conciliated and contented first, and that you will do nothing at first hand but for his sake; then they turn square around and require you to do good for other’s sake chiefly; and to do your duty for duty’s sake, chiefly; and to do acts of self–sacrifice. Thus at the outset we all stand upon the same ground—recognition of the supreme and absolute Monarch that resides in man, and we all grovel before him and appeal to him; then those others dodge and shuffle, and face around and unfrankly and inconsistently and illogically change the form of their appeal and direct its persuasions to man’s second-place powers and to powers which have no existence in him, thus advancing them to first place; whereas in my Admonition I stick logically and consistently to the original position: I place the Interior Master’s requirements first, and keep them there.
Y.M. If we grant, for the sake of argument, that your scheme and the other schemes aim at and produce the same result—right living—has yours an advantage over the others?
O.M. One, yes—a large one. It has no concealments, no deceptions. When a man leads a right and valuable life under it he is not deceived as to the real chief motive which impels him to it—in those other cases he is.
Y.M. Is that an advantage? Is it an advantage to live a lofty life for a mean reason? In the other cases he lives the lofty life under the impression that he is living for a lofty reason. Is not that an advantage?
O.M. Perhaps so. The same advantage he might get out of thinking himself a duke, and living a duke’s life and parading in ducal fuss and feathers, when he wasn’t a duke at all, and could find it out if he would only examine the herald’s records.
Y.M. But anyway, he is obliged to do a duke’s part; he puts his hand in his pocket and does his benevolences on as big a scale as he can stand, and that benefits the community.
O.M. He could do that without being a duke.
Y.M. But would he?
O.M. Don’t you see where you are arriving?
O.M. At the standpoint of the other schemes: That it is good morals to let an ignorant duke do showy benevolences for his pride’s sake, a pretty low motive, and go on doing them unwarned, lest if he were made acquainted with the actual motive which prompted them he might shut up his purse and cease to be good?
Y.M. But isn’t it best to leave him in ignorance, as long as he thinks he is doing good for others’ sake?
O.M. Perhaps so. It is the position of the other schemes. They think humbug is good enough morals when the dividend on it is good deeds and handsome conduct.
Y.M. It is my opinion that under your scheme of a man’s doing a good deed for his own sake first-off, instead of first for the good deed’s sake, no man would ever do one.
O.M. Have you committed a benevolence lately?
Y.M. Yes. This morning.
O.M. Give the particulars.
Y.M. The cabin of the old negro woman who used to nurse me when I was a child and who saved my life once at the risk of her own, was burned last night, and she came mourning this morning, and pleading for money to build another one.
O.M. You furnished it?
O.M. You were glad you had the money?
Y.M. Money? I hadn’t. I sold my horse.
O.M. You were glad you had the horse?
Y.M. Of course I was; for if I hadn’t had the horse I should have been incapable, and my mother would have captured the chance to set old Sally up.
O.M. You were cordially glad you were not caught out and incapable?
Y.M. Oh, I just was!
O.M. Now, then—
Y.M. Stop where you are! I know your whole catalog of questions, and I could answer every one of them without your wasting the time to ask them; but I will summarize the whole thing in a single remark: I did the charity knowing it was because the act would give me a splendid pleasure, and because old Sally’s moving gratitude and delight would give me another one; and because the reflection that she would be happy now and out of her trouble would fill me full of happiness. I did the whole thing with my eyes open and recognizing and realizing that I was looking out for my share of the profits first. Now then, I have confessed. Go on.
O.M. I haven’t anything to offer; you have covered the whole ground. Can you have been any more strongly moved to help Sally out of her trouble—could you have done the deed any more eagerly—if you had been under the delusion that you were doing it for her sake and profit only?
Y.M. No! Nothing in the world could have made the impulse which moved me more powerful, more masterful, more thoroughly irresistible. I played the limit!
O.M. Very well. You begin to suspect—and I claim to know —that when a man is a shade more strongly moved to do one of two things or of two dozen things than he is to do any one of the others, he will infallibly do that one thing, be it good or be it evil; and if it be good, not all the beguilements of all the casuistries can increase the strength of the impulse by a single shade or add a shade to the comfort and contentment he will get out of the act.
Y.M. Then you believe that such tendency toward doing good as is in men’s hearts would not be diminished by the removal of the delusion that good deeds are done primarily for the sake of No. 2 instead of for the sake of No. 1?
O.M. That is what I fully believe.
Y.M. Doesn’t it somehow seem to take from the dignity of the deed?
O.M. If there is dignity in falsity, it does. It removes that.
Y.M. What is left for the moralists to do?
O.M. Teach unreservedly what he already teaches with one side of his mouth and takes back with the other: Do right for your own sake, and be happy in knowing that your neighbor will certainly share in the benefits resulting.
Y.M. Repeat your Admonition.
O.M. Diligently train your ideals upward and still upward toward a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon your neighbor and the community.
Y.M. One’s every act proceeds from exterior influences, you think?
Y.M. If I conclude to rob a person, I am not the originator of the idea, but it comes in from the outside? I see him handling money—for instance—and that moves me to the crime?
O.M. That, by itself? Oh, certainly not. It is merely the latest outside influence of a procession of preparatory influences stretching back over a period of years. No single outside influence can make a man do a thing which is at war with his training. The most it can do is to start his mind on a new tract and open it to the reception of new influences—as in the case of Ignatius Loyola. In time these influences can train him to a point where it will be consonant with his new character to yield to the final influence and do that thing. I will put the case in a form which will make my theory clear to you, I think. Here are two ingots of virgin gold. They shall represent a couple of characters which have been refined and perfected in the virtues by years of diligent right training. Suppose you wanted to break down these strong and well-compacted characters—what influence would you bring to bear upon the ingots?
Y.M. Work it out yourself. Proceed.
O.M. Suppose I turn upon one of them a steam-jet during a long succession of hours. Will there be a result?
Y.M. None that I know of.
Y.M. A steam-jet cannot break down such a substance.
O.M. Very well. The steam is an outside influence, but it is ineffective because the gold takes no interest in it. The ingot remains as it was. Suppose we add to the steam some quicksilver in a vaporized condition, and turn the jet upon the ingot, will there be an instantaneous result?
O.M. The quicksilver is an outside influence which gold (by its peculiar nature—say temperament, disposition) cannot be indifferent to. It stirs up the interest of the gold, although we do not perceive it; but a single application of the influence works no damage. Let us continue the application in a steady stream, and call each minute a year. By the end of ten or twenty minutes—ten or twenty years—the little ingot is sodden with quicksilver, its virtues are gone, its character is degraded. At last it is ready to yield to a temptation which it would have taken no notice of, ten or twenty years ago. We will apply that temptation in the form of a pressure of my finger. You note the result?
Y.M. Yes; the ingot has crumbled to sand. I understand, now. It is not the single outside influence that does the work, but only the last one of a long and disintegrating accumulation of them. I see, now, how my single impulse to rob the man is not the one that makes me do it, but only the last one of a preparatory series. You might illustrate with a parable.
O.M. I will. There was once a pair of New England boys—twins. They were alike in good dispositions, feckless morals, and personal appearance. They were the models of the Sunday—school. At fifteen George had the opportunity to go as cabin-boy in a whale-ship, and sailed away for the Pacific. Henry remained at home in the village. At eighteen George was a sailor before the mast, and Henry was teacher of the advanced Bible class. At twenty-two George, through fighting-habits and drinking-habits acquired at sea and in the sailor boarding-houses of the European and Oriental ports, was a common rough in Hong-Kong, and out of a job; and Henry was superintendent of the Sunday-school. At twenty-six George was a wanderer, a tramp, and Henry was pastor of the village church. Then George came home, and was Henry’s guest. One evening a man passed by and turned down the lane, and Henry said, with a pathetic smile, “Without intending me a discomfort, that man is always keeping me reminded of my pinching poverty, for he carries heaps of money about him, and goes by here every evening of his life.” That outside influence —that remark—was enough for George, but it was not the one that made him ambush the man and rob him, it merely represented the eleven years’ accumulation of such influences, and gave birth to the act for which their long gestation had made preparation. It had never entered the head of Henry to rob the man—his ingot had been subjected to clean steam only; but George’s had been subjected to vaporized quicksilver.
More About the Machine
Note.—When Mrs. W. asks how can a millionaire give a single dollar to colleges and museums while one human being is destitute of bread, she has answered her question herself. Her feeling for the poor shows that she has a standard of benevolence; there she has conceded the millionaire’s privilege of having a standard; since she evidently requires him to adopt her standard, she is by that act requiring herself to adopt his. The human being always looks down when he is examining another person’s standard; he never find one that he has to examine by looking up.
The Man-Machine Again
Young Man. You really think man is a mere machine?
Old Man. I do.
Y.M. And that his mind works automatically and is independent of his control—carries on thought on its own hook?
O.M. Yes. It is diligently at work, unceasingly at work, during every waking moment. Have you never tossed about all night, imploring, beseeching, commanding your mind to stop work and let you go to sleep?—you who perhaps imagine that your mind is your servant and must obey your orders, think what you tell it to think, and stop when you tell it to stop. When it chooses to work, there is no way to keep it still for an instant. The brightest man would not be able to supply it with subjects if he had to hunt them up. If it needed the man’s help it would wait for him to give it work when he wakes in the morning.
Y.M. Maybe it does.
O.M. No, it begins right away, before the man gets wide enough awake to give it a suggestion. He may go to sleep saying, “The moment I wake I will think upon such and such a subject,” but he will fail. His mind will be too quick for him; by the time he has become nearly enough awake to be half conscious, he will find that it is already at work upon another subject. Make the experiment and see.
Y.M. At any rate, he can make it stick to a subject if he wants to.
O.M. Not if it find another that suits it better. As a rule it will listen to neither a dull speaker nor a bright one. It refuses all persuasion. The dull speaker wearies it and sends it far away in idle dreams; the bright speaker throws out stimulating ideas which it goes chasing after and is at once unconscious of him and his talk. You cannot keep your mind from wandering, if it wants to; it is master, not you.
After an Interval of Days
O.M. Now, dreams—but we will examine that later. Meantime, did you try commanding your mind to wait for orders from you, and not do any thinking on its own hook?
Y.M. Yes, I commanded it to stand ready to take orders when I should wake in the morning.
O.M. Did it obey?
Y.M. No. It went to thinking of something of its own initiation, without waiting for me. Also—as you suggested—at night I appointed a theme for it to begin on in the morning, and commanded it to begin on that one and no other.
O.M. Did it obey?
O.M. How many times did you try the experiment?
O.M. How many successes did you score?
Y.M. Not one.
O.M. It is as I have said: the mind is independent of the man. He has no control over it; it does as it pleases. It will take up a subject in spite of him; it will stick to it in spite of him; it will throw it aside in spite of him. It is entirely independent of him.
Y.M. Go on. Illustrate.
O.M. Do you know chess?
Y.M. I learned it a week ago.
O.M. Did your mind go on playing the game all night that first night?
Y.M. Don’t mention it!
O.M. It was eagerly, unsatisfiably interested; it rioted in the combinations; you implored it to drop the game and let you get some sleep?
Y.M. Yes. It wouldn’t listen; it played right along. It wore me out and I got up haggard and wretched in the morning.
O.M. At some time or other you have been captivated by a ridiculous rhyme-jingle?
Y.M. Indeed, yes!
“I saw Esau kissing Kate, And she saw I saw Esau; I saw Esau, he saw Kate, And she saw—”
And so on. My mind went mad with joy over it. It repeated it all day and all night for a week in spite of all I could do to stop it, and it seemed to me that I must surely go crazy.
O.M. And the new popular song?
Y.M. Oh yes! “In the Swee-eet By and By”; etc. Yes, the new popular song with the taking melody sings through one’s head day and night, asleep and awake, till one is a wreck. There is no getting the mind to let it alone.
O.M. Yes, asleep as well as awake. The mind is quite independent. It is master. You have nothing to do with it. It is so apart from you that it can conduct its affairs, sing its songs, play its chess, weave its complex and ingeniously constructed dreams, while you sleep. It has no use for your help, no use for your guidance, and never uses either, whether you be asleep or awake. You have imagined that you could originate a thought in your mind, and you have sincerely believed you could do it.
Y.M. Yes, I have had that idea.
O.M. Yet you can’t originate a dream-thought for it to work out, and get it accepted?
O.M. And you can’t dictate its procedure after it has originated a dream-thought for itself?
Y.M. No. No one can do it. Do you think the waking mind and the dream mind are the same machine?
O.M. There is argument for it. We have wild and fantastic day-thoughts? Things that are dream-like?
Y.M. Yes—like Mr. Wells’s man who invented a drug that made him invisible; and like the Arabian tales of the Thousand Nights.
O.M. And there are dreams that are rational, simple, consistent, and unfantastic?
Y.M. Yes. I have dreams that are like that. Dreams that are just like real life; dreams in which there are several persons with distinctly differentiated characters—inventions of my mind and yet strangers to me: a vulgar person; a refined one; a wise person; a fool; a cruel person; a kind and compassionate one; a quarrelsome person; a peacemaker; old persons and young; beautiful girls and homely ones. They talk in character, each preserves his own characteristics. There are vivid fights, vivid and biting insults, vivid love-passages; there are tragedies and comedies, there are griefs that go to one’s heart, there are sayings and doings that make you laugh: indeed, the whole thing is exactly like real life.
O.M. Your dreaming mind originates the scheme, consistently and artistically develops it, and carries the little drama creditably through—all without help or suggestion from you?
O.M. It is argument that it could do the like awake without help or suggestion from you—and I think it does. It is argument that it is the same old mind in both cases, and never needs your help. I think the mind is purely a machine, a thoroughly independent machine, an automatic machine. Have you tried the other experiment which I suggested to you?
Y.M. Which one?
O.M. The one which was to determine how much influence you have over your mind—if any.
Y.M. Yes, and got more or less entertainment out of it. I did as you ordered: I placed two texts before my eyes—one a dull one and barren of interest, the other one full of interest, inflamed with it, white-hot with it. I commanded my mind to busy itself solely with the dull one.
O.M. Did it obey?
Y.M. Well, no, it didn’t. It busied itself with the other one.
O.M. Did you try hard to make it obey?
Y.M. Yes, I did my honest best.
O.M. What was the text which it refused to be interested in or think about?
Y.M. It was this question: If A owes B a dollar and a half, and B owes C two and three-quarter, and C owes A thirty—five cents, and D and A together owe E and B three-sixteenths of—of—I don’t remember the rest, now, but anyway it was wholly uninteresting, and I could not force my mind to stick to it even half a minute at a time; it kept flying off to the other text.
O.M. What was the other text?
Y.M. It is no matter about that.
O.M. But what was it?
Y.M. A photograph.
O.M. Your own?
Y.M. No. It was hers.
O.M. You really made an honest good test. Did you make a second trial?
Y.M. Yes. I commanded my mind to interest itself in the morning paper’s report of the pork-market, and at the same time I reminded it of an experience of mine of sixteen years ago. It refused to consider the pork and gave its whole blazing interest to that ancient incident.
O.M. What was the incident?
Y.M. An armed desperado slapped my face in the presence of twenty spectators. It makes me wild and murderous every time I think of it.
O.M. Good tests, both; very good tests. Did you try my other suggestion?
Y.M. The one which was to prove to me that if I would leave my mind to its own devices it would find things to think about without any of my help, and thus convince me that it was a machine, an automatic machine, set in motion by exterior influences, and as independent of me as it could be if it were in some one else’s skull. Is that the one?
Y.M. I tried it. I was shaving. I had slept well, and my mind was very lively, even gay and frisky. It was reveling in a fantastic and joyful episode of my remote boyhood which had suddenly flashed up in my memory—moved to this by the spectacle of a yellow cat picking its way carefully along the top of the garden wall. The color of this cat brought the bygone cat before me, and I saw her walking along the side-step of the pulpit; saw her walk on to a large sheet of sticky fly-paper and get all her feet involved; saw her struggle and fall down, helpless and dissatisfied, more and more urgent, more and more unreconciled, more and more mutely profane; saw the silent congregation quivering like jelly, and the tears running down their faces. I saw it all. The sight of the tears whisked my mind to a far distant and a sadder scene—in Terra del Fuego—and with Darwin’s eyes I saw a naked great savage hurl his little boy against the rocks for a trifling fault; saw the poor mother gather up her dying child and hug it to her breast and weep, uttering no word. Did my mind stop to mourn with that nude black sister of mine? No—it was far away from that scene in an instant, and was busying itself with an ever-recurring and disagreeable dream of mine. In this dream I always find myself, stripped to my shirt, cringing and dodging about in the midst of a great drawing-room throng of finely dressed ladies and gentlemen, and wondering how I got there. And so on and so on, picture after picture, incident after incident, a drifting panorama of ever-changing, ever-dissolving views manufactured by my mind without any help from me—why, it would take me two hours to merely name the multitude of things my mind tallied off and photographed in fifteen minutes, let alone describe them to you.
O.M. A man’s mind, left free, has no use for his help. But there is one way whereby he can get its help when he desires it.
Y.M. What is that way?
O.M. When your mind is racing along from subject to subject and strikes an inspiring one, open your mouth and begin talking upon that matter—or—take your pen and use that. It will interest your mind and concentrate it, and it will pursue the subject with satisfaction. It will take full charge, and furnish the words itself.
Y.M. But don’t I tell it what to say?
O.M. There are certainly occasions when you haven’t time. The words leap out before you know what is coming.
Y.M. For instance?
O.M. Well, take a “flash of wit”—repartee. Flash is the right word. It is out instantly. There is no time to arrange the words. There is no thinking, no reflecting. Where there is a wit-mechanism it is automatic in its action and needs no help. Where the wit-mechanism is lacking, no amount of study and reflection can manufacture the product.
Y.M. You really think a man originates nothing, creates nothing.
O.M. I do. Men perceive, and their brain-machines automatically combine the things perceived. That is all.
Y.M. The steam-engine?
O.M. It takes fifty men a hundred years to invent it. One meaning of invent is discover. I use the word in that sense. Little by little they discover and apply the multitude of details that go to make the perfect engine. Watt noticed that confined steam was strong enough to lift the lid of the teapot. He didn’t create the idea, he merely discovered the fact; the cat had noticed it a hundred times. From the teapot he evolved the cylinder—from the displaced lid he evolved the piston-rod. To attach something to the piston-rod to be moved by it, was a simple matter—crank and wheel. And so there was a working engine.
One by one, improvements were discovered by men who used their eyes, not their creating powers—for they hadn’t any—and now, after a hundred years the patient contributions of fifty or a hundred observers stand compacted in the wonderful machine which drives the ocean liner.
Y.M. A Shakespearean play?
O.M. The process is the same. The first actor was a savage. He reproduced in his theatrical war-dances, scalp—dances, and so on, incidents which he had seen in real life. A more advanced civilization produced more incidents, more episodes; the actor and the story-teller borrowed them. And so the drama grew, little by little, stage by stage. It is made up of the facts of life, not creations. It took centuries to develop the Greek drama. It borrowed from preceding ages; it lent to the ages that came after. Men observe and combine, that is all. So does a rat.
O.M. He observes a smell, he infers a cheese, he seeks and finds. The astronomer observes this and that; adds his this and that to the this-and-thats of a hundred predecessors, infers an invisible planet, seeks it and finds it. The rat gets into a trap; gets out with trouble; infers that cheese in traps lacks value, and meddles with that trap no more. The astronomer is very proud of his achievement, the rat is proud of his. Yet both are machines; they have done machine work, they have originated nothing, they have no right to be vain; the whole credit belongs to their Maker. They are entitled to no honors, no praises, no monuments when they die, no remembrance. One is a complex and elaborate machine, the other a simple and limited machine, but they are alike in principle, function, and process, and neither of them works otherwise than automatically, and neither of them may righteously claim a personal superiority or a personal dignity above the other.
Y.M. In earned personal dignity, then, and in personal merit for what he does, it follows of necessity that he is on the same level as a rat?
O.M. His brother the rat; yes, that is how it seems to me. Neither of them being entitled to any personal merit for what he does, it follows of necessity that neither of them has a right to arrogate to himself (personally created) superiorities over his brother.
Y.M. Are you determined to go on believing in these insanities? Would you go on believing in them in the face of able arguments backed by collated facts and instances?
O.M. I have been a humble, earnest, and sincere Truth-Seeker.
Y.M. Very well?
O.M. The humble, earnest, and sincere Truth-Seeker is always convertible by such means.
Y.M. I am thankful to God to hear you say this, for now I know that your conversion—
O.M. Wait. You misunderstand. I said I have been a Truth-Seeker.
O.M. I am not that now. Have your forgotten? I told you that there are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; that a permanent one is a human impossibility; that as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further, but gives the rest of his days to hunting junk to patch it and caulk it and prop it with, and make it weather-proof and keep it from caving in on him. Hence the Presbyterian remains a Presbyterian, the Mohammedan a Mohammedan, the Spiritualist a Spiritualist, the Democrat a Democrat, the Republican a Republican, the Monarchist a Monarchist; and if a humble, earnest, and sincere Seeker after Truth should find it in the proposition that the moon is made of green cheese nothing could ever budge him from that position; for he is nothing but an automatic machine, and must obey the laws of his construction.
Y.M. And so—
O.M. Having found the Truth; perceiving that beyond question man has but one moving impulse—the contenting of his own spirit—and is merely a machine and entitled to no personal merit for anything he does, it is not humanly possible for me to seek further. The rest of my days will be spent in patching and painting and puttying and caulking my priceless possession and in looking the other way when an imploring argument or a damaging fact approaches.
1. The Marquess of Worcester had done all of this more than a century earlier.
Instinct and Thought
Young Man. It is odious. Those drunken theories of yours, advanced a while ago—concerning the rat and all that—strip Man bare of all his dignities, grandeurs, sublimities.
Old Man. He hasn’t any to strip—they are shams, stolen clothes. He claims credits which belong solely to his Maker.
Y.M. But you have no right to put him on a level with a rat.
O.M. I don’t—morally. That would not be fair to the rat. The rat is well above him, there.
Y.M. Are you joking?
O.M. No, I am not.
Y.M. Then what do you mean?
O.M. That comes under the head of the Moral Sense. It is a large question. Let us finish with what we are about now, before we take it up.
Y.M. Very well. You have seemed to concede that you place Man and the rat on a level. What is it? The intellectual?
O.M. In form—not a degree.
O.M. I think that the rat’s mind and the man’s mind are the same machine, but of unequal capacities—like yours and Edison’s; like the African pygmy’s and Homer’s; like the Bushman’s and Bismarck’s.
Y.M. How are you going to make that out, when the lower animals have no mental quality but instinct, while man possesses reason?
O.M. What is instinct?
Y.M. It is merely unthinking and mechanical exercise of inherited habit.
O.M. What originated the habit?
Y.M. The first animal started it, its descendants have inherited it.
O.M. How did the first one come to start it?
Y.M. I don’t know; but it didn’t think it out.
O.M. How do you know it didn’t?
Y.M. Well—I have a right to suppose it didn’t, anyway.
O.M. I don’t believe you have. What is thought?
Y.M. I know what you call it: the mechanical and automatic putting together of impressions received from outside, and drawing an inference from them.
O.M. Very good. Now my idea of the meaningless term “instinct” is, that it is merely petrified thought; solidified and made inanimate by habit; thought which was once alive and awake, but is become unconscious—walks in its sleep, so to speak.
Y.M. Illustrate it.
O.M. Take a herd of cows, feeding in a pasture. Their heads are all turned in one direction. They do that instinctively; they gain nothing by it, they have no reason for it, they don’t know why they do it. It is an inherited habit which was originally thought—that is to say, observation of an exterior fact, and a valuable inference drawn from that observation and confirmed by experience. The original wild ox noticed that with the wind in his favor he could smell his enemy in time to escape; then he inferred that it was worth while to keep his nose to the wind. That is the process which man calls reasoning. Man’s thought-machine works just like the other animals’, but it is a better one and more Edisonian. Man, in the ox’s place, would go further, reason wider: he would face part of the herd the other way and protect both front and rear.
Y.M. Did you stay the term instinct is meaningless?
O.M. I think it is a bastard word. I think it confuses us; for as a rule it applies itself to habits and impulses which had a far-off origin in thought, and now and then breaks the rule and applies itself to habits which can hardly claim a thought-origin.
Y.M. Give an instance.
O.M. Well, in putting on trousers a man always inserts the same old leg first—never the other one. There is no advantage in that, and no sense in it. All men do it, yet no man thought it out and adopted it of set purpose, I imagine. But it is a habit which is transmitted, no doubt, and will continue to be transmitted.
Y.M. Can you prove that the habit exists?
O.M. You can prove it, if you doubt. If you will take a man to a clothing-store and watch him try on a dozen pairs of trousers, you will see.
Y.M. The cow illustration is not—
O.M. Sufficient to show that a dumb animal’s mental machine is just the same as a man’s and its reasoning processes the same? I will illustrate further. If you should hand Mr. Edison a box which you caused to fly open by some concealed device he would infer a spring, and would hunt for it and find it. Now an uncle of mine had an old horse who used to get into the closed lot where the corn-crib was and dishonestly take the corn. I got the punishment myself, as it was supposed that I had heedlessly failed to insert the wooden pin which kept the gate closed. These persistent punishments fatigued me; they also caused me to infer the existence of a culprit, somewhere; so I hid myself and watched the gate. Presently the horse came and pulled the pin out with his teeth and went in. Nobody taught him that; he had observed—then thought it out for himself. His process did not differ from Edison’s; he put this and that together and drew an inference—and the peg, too; but I made him sweat for it.
Y.M. It has something of the seeming of thought about it. Still it is not very elaborate. Enlarge.
O.M. Suppose Mr. Edison has been enjoying some one’s hospitalities. He comes again by and by, and the house is vacant. He infers that his host has moved. A while afterward, in another town, he sees the man enter a house; he infers that that is the new home, and follows to inquire. Here, now, is the experience of a gull, as related by a naturalist. The scene is a Scotch fishing village where the gulls were kindly treated. This particular gull visited a cottage; was fed; came next day and was fed again; came into the house, next time, and ate with the family; kept on doing this almost daily, thereafter. But, once the gull was away on a journey for a few days, and when it returned the house was vacant. Its friends had removed to a village three miles distant. Several months later it saw the head of the family on the street there, followed him home, entered the house without excuse or apology, and became a daily guest again. Gulls do not rank high mentally, but this one had memory and the reasoning faculty, you see, and applied them Edisonially.
Y.M. Yet it was not an Edison and couldn’t be developed into one.
O.M. Perhaps not. Could you?
Y.M. That is neither here nor there. Go on.
O.M. If Edison were in trouble and a stranger helped him out of it and next day he got into the same difficulty again, he would infer the wise thing to do in case he knew the stranger’s address. Here is a case of a bird and a stranger as related by a naturalist. An Englishman saw a bird flying around about his dog’s head, down in the grounds, and uttering cries of distress. He went there to see about it. The dog had a young bird in his mouth—unhurt. The gentleman rescued it and put it on a bush and brought the dog away. Early the next morning the mother bird came for the gentleman, who was sitting on his veranda, and by its maneuvers persuaded him to follow it to a distant part of the grounds—flying a little way in front of him and waiting for him to catch up, and so on; and keeping to the winding path, too, instead of flying the near way across lots. The distance covered was four hundred yards. The same dog was the culprit; he had the young bird again, and once more he had to give it up. Now the mother bird had reasoned it all out: since the stranger had helped her once, she inferred that he would do it again; she knew where to find him, and she went upon her errand with confidence. Her mental processes were what Edison’s would have been. She put this and that together—and that is all that thought is —and out of them built her logical arrangement of inferences. Edison couldn’t have done it any better himself.
Y.M. Do you believe that many of the dumb animals can think?
O.M. Yes—the elephant, the monkey, the horse, the dog, the parrot, the macaw, the mocking-bird, and many others. The elephant whose mate fell into a pit, and who dumped dirt and rubbish into the pit till bottom was raised high enough to enable the captive to step out, was equipped with the reasoning quality. I conceive that all animals that can learn things through teaching and drilling have to know how to observe, and put this and that together and draw an inference—the process of thinking. Could you teach an idiot the manual of arms, and to advance, retreat, and go through complex field maneuvers at the word of command?
Y.M. Not if he were a thorough idiot.
O.M. Well, canary-birds can learn all that; dogs and elephants learn all sorts of wonderful things. They must surely be able to notice, and to put things together, and say to themselves, “I get the idea, now: when I do so and so, as per order, I am praised and fed; when I do differently I am punished.” Fleas can be taught nearly anything that a Congressman can.
Y.M. Granting, then, that dumb animals are able to think upon a low plane, is there any that can think upon a high one? Is there one that is well up toward man?
O.M. Yes. As a thinker and planner the ant is the equal of any savage race of men; as a self-educated specialist in several arts she is the superior of any savage race of men; and in one or two high mental qualities she is above the reach of any man, savage or civilized!
Y.M. Oh, come! you are abolishing the intellectual frontier which separates man and beast.
O.M. I beg your pardon. One cannot abolish what does not exist.
Y.M. You are not in earnest, I hope. You cannot mean to seriously say there is no such frontier.
O.M. I do say it seriously. The instances of the horse, the gull, the mother bird, and the elephant show that those creatures put their this’s and thats together just as Edison would have done it and drew the same inferences that he would have drawn. Their mental machinery was just like his, also its manner of working. Their equipment was as inferior to the Strasburg clock, but that is the only difference—there is no frontier.
Y.M. It looks exasperatingly true; and is distinctly offensive. It elevates the dumb beasts to—to—
O.M. Let us drop that lying phrase, and call them the Unrevealed Creatures; so far as we can know, there is no such thing as a dumb beast.
Y.M. On what grounds do you make that assertion?
O.M. On quite simple ones. “Dumb” beast suggests an animal that has no thought-machinery, no understanding, no speech, no way of communicating what is in its mind. We know that a hen has speech. We cannot understand everything she says, but we easily learn two or three of her phrases. We know when she is saying, “I have laid an egg”; we know when she is saying to the chicks, “Run here, dears, I’ve found a worm”; we know what she is saying when she voices a warning: “Quick! hurry! gather yourselves under mamma, there’s a hawk coming!” We understand the cat when she stretches herself out, purring with affection and contentment and lifts up a soft voice and says, “Come, kitties, supper’s ready”; we understand her when she goes mourning about and says, “Where can they be? They are lost. Won’t you help me hunt for them?” and we understand the disreputable Tom when he challenges at midnight from his shed, “You come over here, you product of immoral commerce, and I’ll make your fur fly!” We understand a few of a dog’s phrases and we learn to understand a few of the remarks and gestures of any bird or other animal that we domesticate and observe. The clearness and exactness of the few of the hen’s speeches which we understand is argument that she can communicate to her kind a hundred things which we cannot comprehend—in a word, that she can converse. And this argument is also applicable in the case of others of the great army of the Unrevealed. It is just like man’s vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions. Now as to the ant—
Y.M. Yes, go back to the ant, the creature that—as you seem to think—sweeps away the last vestige of an intellectual frontier between man and the Unrevealed.
O.M. That is what she surely does. In all his history the aboriginal Australian never thought out a house for himself and built it. The ant is an amazing architect. She is a wee little creature, but she builds a strong and enduring house eight feet high—a house which is as large in proportion to her size as is the largest capitol or cathedral in the world compared to man’s size. No savage race has produced architects who could approach the ant in genius or culture. No civilized race has produced architects who could plan a house better for the uses proposed than can hers. Her house contains a throne-room; nurseries for her young; granaries; apartments for her soldiers, her workers, etc.; and they and the multifarious halls and corridors which communicate with them are arranged and distributed with an educated and experienced eye for convenience and adaptability.
Y.M. That could be mere instinct.
O.M. It would elevate the savage if he had it. But let us look further before we decide. The ant has soldiers—battalions, regiments, armies; and they have their appointed captains and generals, who lead them to battle.
Y.M. That could be instinct, too.
O.M. We will look still further. The ant has a system of government; it is well planned, elaborate, and is well carried on.
Y.M. Instinct again.
O.M. She has crowds of slaves, and is a hard and unjust employer of forced labor.
O.M. She has cows, and milks them.
Y.M. Instinct, of course.
O.M. In Texas she lays out a farm twelve feet square, plants it, weeds it, cultivates it, gathers the crop and stores it away.
Y.M. Instinct, all the same.
O.M. The ant discriminates between friend and stranger. Sir John Lubbock took ants from two different nests, made them drunk with whiskey and laid them, unconscious, by one of the nests, near some water. Ants from the nest came and examined and discussed these disgraced creatures, then carried their friends home and threw the strangers overboard. Sir John repeated the experiment a number of times. For a time the sober ants did as they had done at first—carried their friends home and threw the strangers overboard. But finally they lost patience, seeing that their reformatory efforts went for nothing, and threw both friends and strangers overboard. Come—is this instinct, or is it thoughtful and intelligent discussion of a thing new—absolutely new—to their experience; with a verdict arrived at, sentence passed, and judgment executed? Is it instinct?—thought petrified by ages of habit—or isn’t it brand-new thought, inspired by the new occasion, the new circumstances?
Y.M. I have to concede it. It was not a result of habit; it has all the look of reflection, thought, putting this and that together, as you phrase it. I believe it was thought.
O.M. I will give you another instance of thought. Franklin had a cup of sugar on a table in his room. The ants got at it. He tried several preventives; and ants rose superior to them. Finally he contrived one which shut off access—probably set the table’s legs in pans of water, or drew a circle of tar around the cup, I don’t remember. At any rate, he watched to see what they would do. They tried various schemes—failures, every one. The ants were badly puzzled. Finally they held a consultation, discussed the problem, arrived at a decision—and this time they beat that great philosopher. They formed in procession, cross the floor, climbed the wall, marched across the ceiling to a point just over the cup, then one by one they let go and fell down into it! Was that instinct—thought petrified by ages of inherited habit?
Y.M. No, I don’t believe it was. I believe it was a newly reasoned scheme to meet a new emergency.
O.M. Very well. You have conceded the reasoning power in two instances. I come now to a mental detail wherein the ant is a long way the superior of any human being. Sir John Lubbock proved by many experiments that an ant knows a stranger ant of her own species in a moment, even when the stranger is disguised—with paint. Also he proved that an ant knows every individual in her hive of five hundred thousand souls. Also, after a year’s absence one of the five hundred thousand she will straightway recognize the returned absentee and grace the recognition with an affectionate welcome. How are these recognitions made? Not by color, for painted ants were recognized. Not by smell, for ants that had been dipped in chloroform were recognized. Not by speech and not by antennae signs nor contacts, for the drunken and motionless ants were recognized and the friend discriminated from the stranger. The ants were all of the same species, therefore the friends had to be recognized by form and feature—friends who formed part of a hive of five hundred thousand! Has any man a memory for form and feature approaching that?
Y.M. Certainly not.
O.M. Franklin’s ants and Lubbuck’s ants show fine capacities of putting this and that together in new and untried emergencies and deducting smart conclusions from the combinations—a man’s mental process exactly. With memory to help, man preserves his observations and reasonings, reflects upon them, adds to them, recombines, and so proceeds, stage by stage, to far results—from the teakettle to the ocean greyhound’s complex engine; from personal labor to slave labor; from wigwam to palace; from the capricious chase to agriculture and stored food; from nomadic life to stable government and concentrated authority; from incoherent hordes to massed armies. The ant has observation, the reasoning faculty, and the preserving adjunct of a prodigious memory; she has duplicated man’s development and the essential features of his civilization, and you call it all instinct!
Y.M. Perhaps I lacked the reasoning faculty myself.
O.M. Well, don’t tell anybody, and don’t do it again.
Y.M. We have come a good way. As a result—as I understand it—I am required to concede that there is absolutely no intellectual frontier separating Man and the Unrevealed Creatures?
O.M. That is what you are required to concede. There is no such frontier—there is no way to get around that. Man has a finer and more capable machine in him than those others, but it is the same machine and works in the same way. And neither he nor those others can command the machine—it is strictly automatic, independent of control, works when it pleases, and when it doesn’t please, it can’t be forced.
Y.M. Then man and the other animals are all alike, as to mental machinery, and there isn’t any difference of any stupendous magnitude between them, except in quality, not in kind.
O.M. That is about the state of it—intellectuality. There are pronounced limitations on both sides. We can’t learn to understand much of their language, but the dog, the elephant, etc., learn to understand a very great deal of ours. To that extent they are our superiors. On the other hand, they can’t learn reading, writing, etc., nor any of our fine and high things, and there we have a large advantage over them.
Y.M. Very well, let them have what they’ve got, and welcome; there is still a wall, and a lofty one. They haven’t got the Moral Sense; we have it, and it lifts us immeasurably above them.
O.M. What makes you think that?
Y.M. Now look here—let’s call a halt. I have stood the other infamies and insanities and that is enough; I am not going to have man and the other animals put on the same level morally.
O.M. I wasn’t going to hoist man up to that.
Y.M. This is too much! I think it is not right to jest about such things.
O.M. I am not jesting, I am merely reflecting a plain and simple truth—and without uncharitableness. The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot. It is my belief that this position is not assailable.
Y.M. What is your opinion regarding Free Will?
O.M. That there is no such thing. Did the man possess it who gave the old woman his last shilling and trudged home in the storm?
Y.M. He had the choice between succoring the old woman and leaving her to suffer. Isn’t it so?
O.M. Yes, there was a choice to be made, between bodily comfort on the one hand and the comfort of the spirit on the other. The body made a strong appeal, of course—the body would be quite sure to do that; the spirit made a counter appeal. A choice had to be made between the two appeals, and was made. Who or what determined that choice?
Y.M. Any one but you would say that the man determined it, and that in doing it he exercised Free Will.
O.M. We are constantly assured that every man is endowed with Free Will, and that he can and must exercise it where he is offered a choice between good conduct and less-good conduct. Yet we clearly saw that in that man’s case he really had no Free Will: his temperament, his training, and the daily influences which had molded him and 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. Free Will has always existed in words, but it stops there, I think—stops short of fact. I would not use those words—Free Will—but others.
Y.M. What others?
O.M. Free Choice.
Y.M. What is the difference?
O.M. The one implies untrammeled power to act as you please, the other implies nothing beyond a mere mental process: the critical ability to determine which of two things is nearest right and just.
Y.M. Make the difference clear, please.
O.M. The mind can freely select, choose, point out the right and just one—its function stops there. It can go no further in the matter. It has no authority to say that the right one shall be acted upon and the wrong one discarded. That authority is in other hands.
Y.M. The man’s?
O.M. In the machine which stands for him. In his born disposition and the character which has been built around it by training and environment.
Y.M. It will act upon the right one of the two?
O.M. It will do as it pleases in the matter. George Washington’s machine would act upon the right one; Pizarro would act upon the wrong one.
Y.M. Then as I understand it a bad man’s mental machinery calmly and judicially points out which of two things is right and just—
O.M. Yes, and his moral machinery will freely act upon the one or the other, according to its make, and be quite indifferent to the mind’s feeling concerning the matter—that is, would be, if the mind had any feelings; which it hasn’t. It is merely a thermometer: it registers the heat and the cold, and cares not a farthing about either.
Y.M. Then we must not claim that if a man knows which of two things is right he is absolutely bound to do that thing?
O.M. His temperament and training will decide what he shall do, and he will do it; he cannot help himself, he has no authority over the matter. Wasn’t it right for David to go out and slay Goliath?
O.M. Then it would have been equally right for any one else to do it?
O.M. Then it would have been right for a born coward to attempt it?
Y.M. It would—yes.
O.M. You know that no born coward ever would have attempted it, don’t you?
O.M. You know that a born coward’s make and temperament would be an absolute and insurmountable bar to his ever essaying such a thing, don’t you?
Y.M. Yes, I know it.
O.M. He clearly perceives that it would be right to try it?
O.M. His mind has Free Choice in determining that it would be right to try it?
O.M. Then if by reason of his inborn cowardice he simply can not essay it, what becomes of his Free Will? Where is his Free Will? Why claim that he has Free Will when the plain facts show that he hasn’t? Why contend that because he and David see the right alike, both must act alike? Why impose the same laws upon goat and lion?
Y.M. There is really no such thing as Free Will?
O.M. It is what I think. There is will. But it has nothing to do with intellectual perceptions of right and wrong, and is not under their command. David’s temperament and training had Will, and it was a compulsory force; David had to obey its decrees, he had no choice. The coward’s temperament and training possess Will, and it is compulsory; it commands him to avoid danger, and he obeys, he has no choice. But neither the Davids nor the cowards possess Free Will—will that may do the right or do the wrong, as their mental verdict shall decide.
Not Two Values, But Only One
Y.M. There is one thing which bothers me: I can’t tell where you draw the line between material covetousness and spiritual covetousness.
O.M. I don’t draw any.
Y.M. How do you mean?
O.M. There is no such thing as material covetousness. All covetousness is spiritual.
Y.M. All longings, desires, ambitions spiritual, never material?
O.M. Yes. The Master in you requires that in all cases you shall content his spirit —that alone. He never requires anything else, he never interests himself in any other matter.
Y.M. Ah, come! When he covets somebody’s money—isn’t that rather distinctly material and gross?
O.M. No. The money is merely a symbol—it represents in visible and concrete form a spiritual desire. Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment.
Y.M. Please particularize.
O.M. Very well. Maybe the thing longed for is a new hat. You get it and your vanity is pleased, your spirit contented. Suppose your friends deride the hat, make fun of it: at once it loses its value; you are ashamed of it, you put it out of your sight, you never want to see it again.
Y.M. I think I see. Go on.
O.M. It is the same hat, isn’t it? It is in no way altered. But it wasn’t the hat you wanted, but only what it stood for—a something to please and content your spirit. When it failed of that, the whole of its value was gone. There are no material values; there are only spiritual ones. You will hunt in vain for a material value that is actual, real—there is no such thing. The only value it possesses, for even a moment, is the spiritual value back of it: remove that end and it is at once worthless—like the hat.
Y.M. Can you extend that to money?
O.M. Yes. It is merely a symbol, it has no material value; you think you desire it for its own sake, but it is not so. You desire it for the spiritual content it will bring; if it fail of that, you discover that its value is gone. There is that pathetic tale of the man who labored like a slave, unresting, unsatisfied, until he had accumulated a fortune, and was happy over it, jubilant about it; then in a single week a pestilence swept away all whom he held dear and left him desolate. His money’s value was gone. He realized that his joy in it came not from the money itself, but from the spiritual contentment he got out of his family’s enjoyment of the pleasures and delights it lavished upon them. Money has no material value; if you remove its spiritual value nothing is left but dross. It is so with all things, little or big, majestic or trivial—there are no exceptions. Crowns, scepters, pennies, paste jewels, village notoriety, world-wide fame—they are all the same, they have no material value: while they content the spirit they are precious, when this fails they are worthless.
A Difficult Question
Y.M. You keep me confused and perplexed all the time by your elusive terminology. Sometimes you divide a man up into two or three separate personalities, each with authorities, jurisdictions, and responsibilities of its own, and when he is in that condition I can’t grasp it. Now when I speak of a man, he is the whole thing in one, and easy to hold and contemplate.
O.M. That is pleasant and convenient, if true. When you speak of “my body” who is the “my”?
Y.M. It is the “me.”
O.M. The body is a property then, and the Me owns it. Who is the Me?
Y.M. The Me is the whole thing; it is a common property; an undivided ownership, vested in the whole entity.
O.M. If the Me admires a rainbow, is it the whole Me that admires it, including the hair, hands, heels, and all?
Y.M. Certainly not. It is my mind that admires it.
O.M. So you divide the Me yourself. Everybody does; everybody must. What, then, definitely, is the Me?
Y.M. I think it must consist of just those two parts—the body and the mind.
O.M. You think so? If you say “I believe the world is round,” who is the “I” that is speaking?
Y.M. The mind.
O.M. If you say “I grieve for the loss of my father,” who is the “I”?
Y.M. The mind.
O.M. Is the mind exercising an intellectual function when it examines and accepts the evidence that the world is round?
O.M. Is it exercising an intellectual function when it grieves for the loss of your father?
Y.M. That is not cerebration, brain-work, it is a matter of feeling.
O.M. Then its source is not in your mind, but in your moral territory?
Y.M. I have to grant it.
O.M. Is your mind a part of your physical equipment?
Y.M. No. It is independent of it; it is spiritual.
O.M. Being spiritual, it cannot be affected by physical influences?
O.M. Does the mind remain sober with the body is drunk?
O.M. There is a physical effect present, then?
Y.M. It looks like it.
O.M. A cracked skull has resulted in a crazy mind. Why should it happen if the mind is spiritual, and independent of physical influences?
Y.M. Well—I don’t know.
O.M. When you have a pain in your foot, how do you know it?
Y.M. I feel it.
O.M. But you do not feel it until a nerve reports the hurt to the brain. Yet the brain is the seat of the mind, is it not?
Y.M. I think so.
O.M. But isn’t spiritual enough to learn what is happening in the outskirts without the help of the physical messenger? You perceive that the question of who or what the Me is, is not a simple one at all. You say “I admire the rainbow,” and “I believe the world is round,” and in these cases we find that the Me is not speaking, but only the mental part. You say, “I grieve,” and again the Me is not all speaking, but only the moral part. You say the mind is wholly spiritual; then you say “I have a pain” and find that this time the Me is mental and spiritual combined. We all use the “I” in this indeterminate fashion, there is no help for it. We imagine a Master and King over what you call The Whole Thing, and we speak of him as “I,” but when we try to define him we find we cannot do it. The intellect and the feelings can act quite independently of each other; we recognize that, and we look around for a Ruler who is master over both, and can serve as a definite and indisputable “I,” and enable us to know what we mean and who or what we are talking about when we use that pronoun, but we have to give it up and confess that we cannot find him. To me, 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 an 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.
Y.M. Maybe the Me is the Soul?
O.M. Maybe it is. What is the Soul?
Y.M. I don’t know.
O.M. Neither does any one else.
The Master Passion
Y.M. What is the Master?—or, in common speech, the Conscience? Explain it.
O.M. It is that mysterious autocrat, lodged in a man, which compels the man to content its desires. It may be called the Master Passion—the hunger for Self-Approval.
Y.M. Where is its seat?
O.M. In man’s moral constitution.
Y.M. Are its commands for the man’s good?
O.M. It is indifferent to the man’s good; it never concerns itself about anything but the satisfying of its own desires. It can be trained to prefer things which will be for the man’s good, but it will prefer them only because they will content it better than other things would.
Y.M. Then even when it is trained to high ideals it is still looking out for its own contentment, and not for the man’s good.
O.M. True. Trained or untrained, it cares nothing for the man’s good, and never concerns itself about it.
Y.M. It seems to be an immoral force seated in the man’s moral constitution.
O.M. It is a colorless force seated in the man’s moral constitution. Let us call it an instinct—a blind, unreasoning instinct, which cannot and does not distinguish between good morals and bad ones, and cares nothing for results to the man provided its own contentment be secured; and it will always secure that.
Y.M. It seeks money, and it probably considers that that is an advantage for the man?
O.M. It is not always seeking money, it is not always seeking power, nor office, nor any other material advantage. In all cases it seeks a spiritual contentment, let the means be what they may. Its desires are determined by the man’s temperament—and it is lord over that. Temperament, Conscience, Susceptibility, Spiritual Appetite, are, in fact, the same thing. Have you ever heard of a person who cared nothing for money?
Y.M. Yes. A scholar who would not leave his garret and his books to take a place in a business house at a large salary.
O.M. He had to satisfy his master—that is to say, his temperament, his Spiritual Appetite—and it preferred books to money. Are there other cases?
Y.M. Yes, the hermit.
O.M. It is a good instance. The hermit endures solitude, hunger, cold, and manifold perils, to content his autocrat, who prefers these things, and prayer and contemplation, to money or to any show or luxury that money can buy. Are there others?
Y.M. Yes. The artist, the poet, the scientist.
O.M. Their autocrat prefers the deep pleasures of these occupations, either well paid or ill paid, to any others in the market, at any price. You realize that the Master Passion—the contentment of the spirit—concerns itself with many things besides so-called material advantage, material prosperity, cash, and all that?
Y.M. I think I must concede it.
O.M. I believe you must. There are perhaps as many Temperaments that would refuse the burdens and vexations and distinctions of public office as there are that hunger after them. The one set of Temperaments seek the contentment of the spirit, and that alone; and this is exactly the case with the other set. Neither set seeks anything but the contentment of the spirit. If the one is sordid, both are sordid; and equally so, since the end in view is precisely the same in both cases. And in both cases Temperament decides the preference—and Temperament is born, not made.
O.M. You have been taking a holiday?
Y.M. Yes; a mountain tramp covering a week. Are you ready to talk?
O.M. Quite ready. What shall we begin with?
Y.M. Well, lying abed resting up, two days and nights, I have thought over all these talks, and passed them carefully in review. With this result: that… that… are you intending to publish your notions about Man some day?
O.M. Now and then, in these past twenty years, the Master inside of me has half-intended to order me to set them to paper and publish them. Do I have to tell you why the order has remained unissued, or can you explain so simple a thing without my help?
Y.M. By your doctrine, it is simplicity itself: outside influences moved your interior Master to give the order; stronger outside influences deterred him. Without the outside influences, neither of these impulses could ever have been born, since a person’s brain is incapable or originating an idea within itself.
O.M. Correct. Go on.
Y.M. The matter of publishing or withholding is still in your Master’s hands. If some day an outside influence shall determine him to publish, he will give the order, and it will be obeyed.
O.M. That is correct. Well?
Y.M. Upon reflection I have arrived at the conviction that the publication of your doctrines would be harmful. Do you pardon me?
O.M. Pardon you? You have done nothing. You are an instrument—a speaking-trumpet. Speaking-trumpets are not responsible for what is said through them. Outside influences—in the form of lifelong teachings, trainings, notions, prejudices, and other second-hand importations—have persuaded the Master within you that the publication of these doctrines would be harmful. Very well, this is quite natural, and was to be expected; in fact, was inevitable. Go on; for the sake of ease and convenience, stick to habit: speak in the first person, and tell me what your Master thinks about it.
Y.M. Well, to begin: it is a desolating doctrine; it is not inspiring, enthusing, uplifting. It takes the glory out of man, it takes the pride out of him, it takes the heroism out of him, it denies him all personal credit, all applause; it not only degrades him to a machine, but allows him no control over the machine; makes a mere coffee-mill of him, and neither permits him to supply the coffee nor turn the crank, his sole and piteously humble function being to grind coarse or fine, according to his make, outside impulses doing the rest.
O.M. It is correctly stated. Tell me—what do men admire most in each other?
Y.M. Intellect, courage, majesty of build, beauty of countenance, charity, benevolence, magnanimity, kindliness, heroism, and—and—
O.M. I would not go any further. These are elementals. Virtue, fortitude, holiness, truthfulness, loyalty, high ideals—these, and all the related qualities that are named in the dictionary, are made of the elementals, by blendings, combinations, and shadings of the elementals, just as one makes green by blending blue and yellow, and makes several shades and tints of red by modifying the elemental red. There are several elemental colors; they are all in the rainbow; out of them we manufacture and name fifty shades of them. You have named the elementals of the human rainbow, and also one blend —heroism, which is made out of courage and magnanimity. Very well, then; which of these elements does the possessor of it manufacture for himself? Is it intellect?
Y.M. He is born with it.
O.M. Is it courage?
Y.M. No. He is born with it.
O.M. Is it majesty of build, beauty of countenance?
Y.M. No. They are birthrights.
O.M. Take those others—the elemental moral qualities—charity, benevolence, magnanimity, kindliness; fruitful seeds, out of which spring, through cultivation by outside influences, all the manifold blends and combinations of virtues named in the dictionaries: does man manufacture any of those seeds, or are they all born in him?
Y.M. Born in him.
O.M. Who manufactures them, then?
O.M. Where does the credit of it belong?
Y.M. To God.
O.M. And the glory of which you spoke, and the applause?
Y.M. To God.
O.M. Then it is you who degrade man. You make him claim glory, praise, flattery, for every valuable thing he possesses—borrowed finery, the whole of it; no rag of it earned by himself, not a detail of it produced by his own labor. You make man a humbug; have I done worse by him?
Y.M. You have made a machine of him.
O.M. Who devised that cunning and beautiful mechanism, a man’s hand?
O.M. Who devised the law by which it automatically hammers out of a piano an elaborate piece of music, without error, while the man is thinking about something else, or talking to a friend?
O.M. 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 it pleases, regardless of its 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. Is it wrong to call attention to the fact? Is it a crime?
Y.M. I think it is wrong to expose a fact when harm can come of it.
O.M. Go on.
Y.M. Look at the matter as it stands now. Man has been taught that he is the supreme marvel of the Creation; he believes it; in all the ages he has never doubted it, whether he was a naked savage, or clothed in purple and fine linen, and civilized. This has made his heart buoyant, his life cheery. His pride in himself, his sincere admiration of himself, his joy in what he supposed were his own and unassisted achievements, and his exultation over the praise and applause which they evoked—these have exalted him, enthused him, ambitioned him to higher and higher flights; in a word, made his life worth the living. But by your scheme, all this is abolished; he is degraded to a machine, he is a nobody, his noble prides wither to mere vanities; let him strive as he may, he can never be any better than his humblest and stupidest neighbor; he would never be cheerful again, his life would not be worth the living.
O.M. You really think that?
Y.M. I certainly do.
O.M. Have you ever seen me uncheerful, unhappy.
O.M. Well, I believe these things. Why have they not made me unhappy?
Y.M. Oh, well—temperament, of course! You never let that escape from your scheme.
O.M. That is correct. If a man is born with an unhappy temperament, nothing can make him happy; if he is born with a happy temperament, nothing can make him unhappy.
Y.M. What—not even a degrading and heart-chilling system of beliefs?
O.M. Beliefs? Mere beliefs? Mere convictions? They are powerless. They strive in vain against inborn temperament.
Y.M. I can’t believe that, and I don’t.
O.M. Now you are speaking hastily. It shows that you have not studiously examined the facts. Of all your intimates, which one is the happiest? Isn’t it Burgess?
O.M. And which one is the unhappiest? Henry Adams?
Y.M. Without a question!
O.M. I know them well. They are extremes, abnormals; their temperaments are as opposite as the poles. Their life-histories are about alike—but look at the results! Their ages are about the same—about around fifty. Burgess had always been buoyant, hopeful, happy; Adams has always been cheerless, hopeless, despondent. As young fellows both tried country journalism—and failed. Burgess didn’t seem to mind it; Adams couldn’t smile, he could only mourn and groan over what had happened and torture himself with vain regrets for not having done so and so instead of so and so—then he would have succeeded. They tried the law—and failed. Burgess remained happy—because he couldn’t help it. Adams was wretched—because he couldn’t help it. From that day to this, those two men have gone on trying things and failing: Burgess has come out happy and cheerful every time; Adams the reverse. And we do absolutely know that these men’s inborn temperaments have remained unchanged through all the vicissitudes of their material affairs. Let us see how it is with their immaterials. Both have been zealous Democrats; both have been zealous Republicans; both have been zealous Mugwumps. Burgess has always found happiness and Adams unhappiness in these several political beliefs and in their migrations out of them. Both of these men have been Presbyterians, Universalists, Methodists, Catholics—then Presbyterians again, then Methodists again. Burgess has always found rest in these excursions, and Adams unrest. They are trying Christian Science, now, with the customary result, the inevitable result. No political or religious belief can make Burgess unhappy or the other man happy. I assure you it is purely a matter of temperament. Beliefs are acquirements, temperaments are born; beliefs are subject to change, nothing whatever can change temperament.
Y.M. You have instanced extreme temperaments.
O.M. Yes, the half-dozen others are modifications of the extremes. But the law is the same. Where the temperament is two-thirds happy, or two-thirds unhappy, no political or religious beliefs can change the proportions. The vast majority of temperaments are pretty equally balanced; the intensities are absent, and this enables a nation to learn to accommodate itself to its political and religious circumstances and like them, be satisfied with them, at last prefer them. Nations do not think, they only feel. They get their feelings at second hand through their temperaments, not their brains. A nation can be brought—by force of circumstances, not argument—to reconcile itself to any kind of government or religion that can be devised; in time it will fit itself to the required conditions; later, it will prefer them and will fiercely fight for them. As instances, you have all history: the Greeks, the Romans, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Russians, the Germans, the French, the English, the Spaniards, the Americans, the South Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Hindus, the Turks—a thousand wild and tame religions, every kind of government that can be thought of, from tiger to house-cat, each nation knowing it has the only true religion and the only sane system of government, each despising all the others, each an ass and not suspecting it, each proud of its fancied supremacy, each perfectly sure it is the pet of God, each without undoubting confidence summoning Him to take command in time of war, each surprised when He goes over to the enemy, but by habit able to excuse it and resume compliments—in a word, the whole human race content, always content, persistently content, indestructibly content, happy, thankful, proud, no matter what its religion is, nor whether its master be tiger or house-cat. Am I stating facts? You know I am. Is the human race cheerful? You know it is. Considering what it can stand, and be happy, you do me too much honor when you think that I can place before it a system of plain cold facts that can take the cheerfulness out of it. Nothing can do that. Everything has been tried. Without success. I beg you not to be troubled.
This concludes the essay. Please let me know your thoughts in the conversation below. I would love to get deep on this topic for anyone who is game.
Thanks for reading,
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