Book Review: What Is Man? – By Mark Twain


marktwainwhatismanLetter Published by Mark Twain in 1906, What Is Man is a book indicative of its time, and if nothing else serves very well to demonstrate the popular ideas present during the turn of the previous century.

The text takes the form of a dialogue between two characters, the Old Man and the Young Man. The theme of the conversation revolves around psychological egoism – the idea that every human action is motivated by self-interest (even in apparent altruism), which can be seen loosely in the form of social exchange theory (that human relations and actions are based in a cost-benefit analysis). The Old Man in Twain’s work takes this psychological egoism to the extreme and the entirety of the text consists of him attempting to persuade the Young Man that humans are merely machines on the grounds that everything which determines that self-interest comes from the outside.

Twain’s argument isn’t particularly difficult to follow: “From his cradel 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.”

When one objects, citing an example of an instance where somebody does something somebody else in which they get nothing in return, Twain would posit that it is the satisfaction of doing something for somebody else, or seeing somebody else happy, that is the return – that this satisfaction is merely another form of personal gain which the individual may place over and above other more literal forms of personal gain.

Twain couples this notion with his second argument, that: “A man’s brain is so constructed that it can originate nothing whatever. It can only use material obtained outside” in order to conclude “It is merely a machine; and it works automatically, not by will power. It has no command over itself, its owner has no command over it.”

Since Twain’s system places man in the realm of machine, the Young Man questions how one is to overcome vices. The solution for Twain is training: “That it shows the value of training in right directions over training in wrong ones. Inestimably valuable is training, influence, education, in right directions – training one’s self-approbation to elevate its ideals.”

Twain’s conclusion is to point out that, being a machine, that man deserves no credit or glory for any good that he does, but that the glory belongs to the one who created him: God.

Memorable Quotes:

-“Whatsoever man is, is due to his make, and to the influences brought to bear upon his heredities, his habit, his associations. He is moved, directed, commanded, by exterior influences – solely. He originates nothing, not even a thought… None but gods have every had a thought which did not come from the outside.”

-“I told you that there are none but temporary Truth-Seekers; that a permanent one is a human impossibility; that as soon as the Seeker finds what he is thoroughly convinced is the Truth, he seeks no further, but gives the rest of his days to hunting junk to patch it and caulk it and prop it with, and make it weather-proof and keep it from caving in on him.

-“O.M. Where does the credit of it belong?
Y.M. To God
O.M. And the glory of which you spoke, and the applause?
Y.M. To God.
O.M. Then it is YOU who degrade man. You make him claim glory, praise, flattery, for every valuable thing he possesses – BORROWED finery, the whole of it; no rage of it earned by himself, not a detail of it produced by his own labor. YOU make man a humbug; have I done worse by him?”

Specific Criticisms

There are a variety of things which can be critiqued in Twain’s work.

1) Although he says that one needs to train “one’s self-approbation to elevate its ideals” his system gives no basis by which to determine these ideals, which actions are better than others. He acknowledges God, but his acknowledgement doesn’t show God having any standard and gives no reason not to simply conclude that “what is is best.”

Along these same lines, if everybody is getting self-satisfaction through their actions, what is the point of ‘elevating ideals’? One would presume that the goal is to create a greater surplus of satisfaction, but that argument is never made.

2) Building off of the last point, similar to how the question of a standard simply isn’t addressed, the obvious objection in the vein of theodicy is similarly not addressed. Twain takes the glory away from man by saying that every man is simply acting out the functions God instilled in him, and in this way he brings down man off his pedestal. What he fails to mention is that at the same time he is bringing God down off of his pedestal as well in that he offers no solution to the problem of evil – not only does he offer no solution, but he seemingly makes God the author of evil as well as good. Afterall, if God deserves the credit for all of man’s positive action on the basis that man is merely a machine doing what God made it to do, then God also deserves credit for all of man’s negative action on the same basis. Twain offers no solution to this, indeed, he doesn’t even mention it.

3) After making his thesis that there are no perpetual truth-seekers Twain makes that comment that: Hence the Presbyterian remains a Presbyterian, the Mohammedan a Mohammedan, the Spiritualist a Spiritualist, the Democrat a Democrat, the Republican a Republican, the monarchist a Monarchist; and if a humble, earnest, and sincere Seeker after Truth should find it in the proposition that the moon is made of green cheese nothing could ever budge him from that position…”

This is just quite simply contrary to the fact, and even contrary to Twain’s own system. “Man as machine” offers no basis for his immutability of belief at any point, but actually just the opposite. Since in Twain’s system Man is completely developed by influences outside himself, one may never posit that a new influence might come along which completely changes even the most hardened individuals mind.

4) The basic argument again is that ‘a man never does a single thing which has any foremost object but to secure peace of mind for himself’. Whenever a seemingly altruistic example is raised as an objection Twain simply posits that there is some other selfish motivation at work which is the foremost object – for instance, satisfaction of having helped somebody.

While this does point out how the individual always gains something or some peace of mind through every action, there is never reason given to positively posit this as the primary object.

What seems to be even more to the point with this particular problem is that the psychological egoist put what constitutes self-satisfaction in the absolute broadest of parameters possible, which makes it amount to little more than “people only do those things that they want to” where any achievement of ‘want’ is self-satisfactory. This makes the argument a near-truism.

5) In asserting that “[the Brain] is merely a machine; and it works automatically, not by will power. It has no command over itself, its owner has no command over it.” Twain is neglecting to factor in the faculties of the mind, such as judgement and imagination, and their role in discerning between and filtering the“outside material”.

Furthermore, to separate the operations of the Brain from it’s owner’s command is to utter a contradiction in terms by creating a dichotomy between one thing and itself. Even if man is a machine the owner still has command, it would simply be the case that that command is automated.


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