What Is Man? and Other Essays

Contents:
Author: Mark Twain

II

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?

O.M. Yes.

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?

Y.M. Yes.

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. ANYTHING?

O.M. Yes—anything.

Y.M. I don’t believe that. Can it force a right-principled man to do a wrong thing?

O.M. Yes.

Y.M. Can it force a kind man to do a cruel thing?

O.M. Yes.

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 IS 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?

O.M. Yes.

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?

O.M. Yes.

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 AWAKENED1!

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.

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Chicago: Mark Twain, "II," What Is Man? and Other Essays, ed. Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937 and trans. Townsend, R.S. in What Is Man? and Other Essays (New York: A. L. Burt Company, 1916), Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2018, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9CB1YDI9M6BSBT.

MLA: Twain, Mark. "II." What Is Man? and Other Essays, edited by Paine, Albert Bigelow, 1861-1937, and translated by Townsend, R.S., in What Is Man? and Other Essays, Vol. 22, New York, A. L. Burt Company, 1916, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2018. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9CB1YDI9M6BSBT.

Harvard: Twain, M, 'II' in What Is Man? and Other Essays, ed. and trans. . cited in 1916, What Is Man? and Other Essays, A. L. Burt Company, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2018, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=D9CB1YDI9M6BSBT.