Take it or leave it.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017


I just got finished reading Mark Twain's story What is Man? (1906), which like most of the stuff I read is available for free on Kindle. This shortish story is about free will and, as I call it, the virtues of selfishness. The story itself takes the form of a Platonic dialogue between an old man and a young man. The old man serves as a stand-in for Socrates. He asks revealing questions and dispenses wisdom and witticisms. The young man is the skeptic who by the end of the discussion is dragged kicking and screaming over to the old man's irrefutable side. Which is this: "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."

(And it is always self-serving.)

The old man contends that people may make sacrifices in their daily lives, but it is always for their own sake first. Making even the most sparklingly altruistic act selfish to the bone. Even when we expose ourselves to "a worthy cause" and bear suffering, excessive toil and bodily discomfort for the sake of other people's benefit, we do this not to make the world a better place but because making the world a better place makes us feel good. Indeed we feel better for doing our duty than if we shirked it. Otherwise we would not do the things that we do.

And so I put the book down right there in the middle of that passage and trudged out into the garden. Since last week's wind, which reached gusts of 20 mph, I had been watching the leaves on the side of the house by the shed pile high enough to accommodate a bevy of rats, or brood or litter, or whatever a group of rodents is called. Of course nobody noticed this but me. Because I have no visitors, and even when people come over they don't frequent that area of the property. The world would be no worse if I allowed said pile to rise even higher. But I was being zapped by pangs of conscience while reading Twain's prose, each time I let a glance escape the page to wander into the yard. And even though I had determined to spend the entire day relaxing, as in free from physical cares, the guilt was more than my brain could bear. Three hours later, begrimed and with two trash bins filled to the brim with refuse, I was back in bed. Why did I exhaust myself? Because I could not have done otherwise! Why? Well, as I read about man: "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 the matter." And I have no preference for a mess.

When I examine my own life I find Twain's words to be true. Every pursuit of mine has come courtesy of prior exposure. Every thought is influenced, indeed birthed, by other thoughts that came before. So then it would seem that parents should be like my mother and expose their children to as many stimuli in the form of camps and classes et al as possible, to expand the consciousness and enlarge the frame of reference, and so their children don't run roughshod all over the house. Perhaps to a point, beyond which lies confusion and inertia. And me spending all day in bed.

Ask yourself: If you practice a religion, where did you get it? What political party do you endorse and why? What is your philosophy of life and who engendered it? Sometimes you may not know, because as Twain states, often our greatest influences are "gathered from a thousand unknown sources." Many of them are unconscious. And though we think our thoughts originate in our own heads, they are always from the outside.

Everything you do is done to please the "Interior Master," 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. This Interior Master can be the ego, which serves the senses, or the higher self, which loves others as itself. Which of the two dominates within you all depends on your level of evolution, spiritually speaking. Which is why Twain has his old man urge that the young one "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."

This is the essence of all the world's major religions. To train yourself to serve others, knowing that as your consciousness develops you will see there is really no good and bad in the absolute sense. You will have transcended such distinctions, but your body will be in the habit of being nice.

After the old man has systematically dismantled cherished notions such as the virtues of altruism and the blameworthiness of heinous crimes, the young man is at his wits' end, for he thinks this world view rather depressing. He calls it "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 that heroism out of him, it denies him all the personal credit, all applause; it not only degrades him to a machine, but allows him no control over the machine."

Of note, Rene Descartes, a philosopher who lived hundreds of years before Twain, argued that animals were mere automatons or machines and denied the existence of the soul as a substance separate from their bodies. Twain must have known about this, and since humans are also animals, he makes them also machines, made of flesh and blood and bone and sinews (though he doesn't use these terms) and fashioned out of genes and experiences.

The old man tells the young man that his doctrine can't be so desolate, because he believes it, and yet is always happy. Why is he not sad? Because he doesn't have a sad temperament. And if you are born to be cheerful, nothing can make you unhappy for long, least of all what you believe. For: "Beliefs are acquirements, temperaments are born. Beliefs are subject to change, nothing whatever can change temperament."

Speaking of beliefs, the notion that temperament is set at birth and really doesn't change is a compelling one. We must ask what determines temperament. Possibly genes in part, with other factors at play. More on this in a bit.

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