Archive for November 2001

Mark Twain on How To Live

November 27, 2001

Mark Twain was a philosopher as well as a writer, as is reflected in his writing. He used famous characters like Huckleberry Finn and tiny ones like a grizzled Old Man to explain and proliferate his opinion of life. Before he died, however, he accidentally proved the incompletion of his philosophy when he researched a girl who broke all his rules and the death of another girl exposed his lack of preparation for suffering. In the face of these rebuttals, it seems Twain did not change one iota of his thinking. Mark Twain believed that people, molded by their genetics and environment, should live life with complete honesty and to the fullest extent possible. He did not change his opinions even after they were challenged and defeated by personal experiences.

Twain believed that if a man endeavors to live honestly, he must first understand his nature, as, according to the Old Man who represents him in his essay “What is Man?” “a man leads a right and valuable life when he is not deceived as to the real chief motive which impels him to it” (“What is Man?” 367). Man’s mind, he said, is a machine; it processes and organizes information from the outside world, but cannot create any ideas or opinions by itself (337-338). Twain also said, “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” (365). Man cannot actively change his personality, either, and can only be as happy and successful as his personality allows (365-366).

Twain believed that this happiness only stems from pleasing self (343-346). “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” (343). All supposed altruisms stem from the desire to satisfy another extension of self, the conscience, the “insolent absolute Monarch” (347) that masks its desires as “doing the right thing”.

According to Twain, the conscience does not intuitively discern moral right from wrong at all; rather, it is a barometer whose values reflect those of the environment surrounding it. This is evidenced in Huckleberry Finn’s struggles with his own conscience, which tempts him to betray his friend Jim under the guise of doing the right thing (The Adventures 108-110, 240-242). By changing the environment, a man changes his conscience and, thus, his conditions for happiness (“What is Man?” 360). Therefore, “diligently train your ideals upward and still upward towards a summit where you will find your chiefest pleasure in conduct which, while contenting you, will be sure to confer benefits upon the neighborhood and community” (370). By keeping the people who love you happy, you are pleased yourself (363-364).

Twain believed that as long as man is living to please himself, he ought to do it as much as possible, saying, “Let us endeavor to live that when we die even the undertaker will be sorry” (Wisdom). This is embodied in the title character of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is happiest when romping down the Mississippi River and doing whatever pleases him. When he is on the shore, doing what other people tell him to do, Huck is unhappy and unsatisfied. “We said there warn’t no home like a raft, after all. Other places do seem so cramped up and smothery, but a raft don’t. You feel mighty free and easy and comfortable on a raft” (The Adventures 139).

Though Twain believed his philosophy was ironclad, he found a clear exception to his rule during his research of Saint Joan of Arc. Joan, “exhaustively equipped with ignorance” (Saint Joan of Arc XXX), led France to independence from Britain in the Hundred Years War in “the briefest epoch-making military career known to history” (XXX). After capture by an English bishop, she withstood a “dreary and hideous captivity” (XXX); at her trial, she defeated the greatest legal minds of France with the “marvelous intuitions of her alert and penetrating mind” even though the case was lost before she entered the courtroom (XXX). After her conviction, she “went to her martyrdom with the peace of God in her tired heart, and on her lips endearing words and loving prayers for the cur she had crowned and the nation of ingrates she had saved” (XXX). Twain was astounded by Joan and called her the “Riddle of the Ages” (XXX). She demolished his belief that humans are made by their environment and disposition alone; of this, he said:

We can comprehend how she could be born with these great qualities, but we cannot comprehend how they became immediately usable and effective without the developing forces of a sympathetic atmosphere and the training which comes of teaching, study, practice – years of practice – and the crowning and perfecting help of a thousand mistakes. (XXX)

In effect, “It is beyond us. All the rules fail in the girl’s case” (XXX).

Even Joan of Arc could not rattle Twain from his beliefs, however, and he apparently clung to his faith in genetics and environment. As the Old Man in “What is Man?” said, “I have been a Truth-Seeker…I am not that now…a permanent one is a human impossibility…as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further” (“What is Man?” 379).

This intellectual stagnancy proved to be a mistake. In “What is Man?”, Twain never mentioned how to deal with suffering, and he apparently never wrote much on the subject. On Christmas Eve 1909, his youngest daughter, Jean, suffered an accidental death while in the bathtub (Twain, “The Death of Jean” 485). She was the second of his daughters to die prematurely, and his wife had died years before (486-488). Twain was devastated by this new loss. “Possibly I know now what the soldier feels when a bullet crashes through his heart,” he wrote (486). Two days after her death, he gave the essay “The Death of Jean” to his biographer and said it was to be the final chapter of his life’s story. Four months later, Twain was dead (485). The suffering was too much for him.

Mark Twain knew he was living only for himself and endeavored to experience as much as possibly along the way. He created his own way of living and tried to convince others of it through his writing. When his belief in the nature of man was foiled and his failure to address suffering was punished, he stubbornly adhered to his convictions. Mark Twain is a truly fascinating example of a man.