From Mark Twain’s “What is Man?”

MarkTwain

There have been innumerable Temporary Seekers after 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 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 ideal. 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 end 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.

… 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.

And nearly a century later, the well-known American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his new book ” The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” paraphrased in scientific jargon, what Samuel Clamens formulated so eloquently in prose. I quote from the Boston Review:

“Experiments repeatedly show that we all believe what we want, regardless of reasons.” (see – http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.5/george_scialabba_jonathan_haidt_richard_sennett_conservatism_morality.php )

In a nutshell – we are all biased and prejudiced to the utmost end. Some of us know it and some do not.

By an accident, I stumbled later today on another recently published piece on our glorious ability of deceiving ourselves and others. (- see the full article here – http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/108156/deceptions) Here goes another bulky quotation:

“SELF-DECEPTION is everywhere. There is rampant self-inflation—80 percent of school children, to provide another example, place themselves in the top half of students in leadership ability—but there are other kinds, too. “Confirmation bias” is one: we are all much more likely to seize upon facts that chime with our views and disregard—to the point of not seeing them—those that challenge them. Forms of self-deception occur also in situations of “us” and “them”: randomly divide a room of people into two groups, say “Reds” and “Blues,” and see how quickly bad traits are generalized to the out-group while good traits are imputed to the “ins.” If a “Red” steps on your “Blue” toes, for example, you are more likely to say “he is an inconsiderate person,” whereas if it was a fellow teammate you would simply report that “he stepped on my toes.”

False personal narratives are another example. For years Joseph Ellis, a historian of the American founding, told his students that he had been a war hero with the 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam when in fact he had been a graduate student at Yale and then a professor of history at West Point. Ellis was caught and apologized; but most of us constantly create fictional narratives about ourselves and think nothing of it. Indeed, much of self-deception is unconscious.

Building castles of sand and flattering ourselves of our great importance (in the context of an unimaginably large universe) and intelligence are the characteristics we share with ants and fishes, dogs and foxes and other living creatures who have found a living space under the sun. We are born arrogant solipsists. Everything moves around us. And we feel, i might add, quite legitimately, that we are at the center of attention anywhere we go.

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1 Comment

October 11, 2012 · 3:08 pm

One response to “From Mark Twain’s “What is Man?”

  1. Love this, and others.
    For “humour” Twain and Poe are “brillant” stars.
    And..do not forgive, Osca, Oscar Wilde.

    Thanks and have a good timne.

    Delia M.M

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