The Character of Man
Excerpt from a Short Essay
in Mark Twain's Autobiography
Concerning Man — he is too large a subject to be treated as a whole; so I will merely discuss a detail or two of him at this time.
I desire to contemplate him from this point of view—this premise: that he was not made for any useful purpose, for the reason that he hasn't served any; that he was most likely not even made intentionally; and that his working himself up out of the oyster bed to his present position was probably a matter of surprise and regret to the Creator.
For his history, in all climes, all ages and all circumstances, furnishes oceans and continents of proof that of all the creatures that were made he is the most detestable Of the entire brood he is the only one — the solitary one — that possesses malice.
That is the basest of all instincts, passions, vices—the most hateful. That one thing puts him below the rats, the grubs, the trichinae. He is the only creature that inflicts pain for sport, knowing it to be pain. But if the cat knows she is inflicting pain when she plays with the frightened mouse, then we must make an exception here; we must grant that in one detail man is the moral peer of the cat.
All creatures kill — there seems to be no exception; but of the whole list, man is the only one that kills for fun; he is the only one that kills in malice, the only one that kills for revenge. Also, he is the only creature that has a nasty mind.
Shall he be extolled for his noble qualities, for his gentleness, his sweetness, his amiability, his lovingness, his courage, his devotion, his patience, his fortitude, his prudence, the various charms and graces of his spirit. The other animals share all these with him, yet are free from the blacknesses and rottennesses of his character.
There are certain sweet-smelling sugar-coated lies current in the world which all politic men have apparently tacitly conspired together to support and perpetuate One of these is, that there is such a thing in the world as independence: independence of thought, independence of opinion, independence of action. Another is, that the world loves to see independence — admires it, applauds it. Another is, that there is such a thing in the world as toleration — in religion, in politics, and such matters; and with it trains that already mentioned auxiliary lie that toleration is admired and applauded.
Out of these trunk-lies spring many branch ones: to wit, the lie that not all men are slaves: the lie that men are glad when other men succeed; glad when they prosper; glad to see them reach lofty heights; sorry to see them fall again. And yet other branch lies: to wit, that there is heroism in man; that he is not mainly made up of malice and treachery; that he is sometimes not a coward; that there is something about him that ought to be perpetuated — in heaven, or hell, or somewhere.
And these other branch lies, to wit: that conscience, man's moral medicine chest, is not only created by the Creator, but is put into man ready charged with the right and only true and authentic correctives of conduct — and the duplicate chest, with the self-same correctives, unchanged, unmodified, distributed to all nations and all epochs.
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