A Cynic Looks at Life by Ambrose Bierce


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Page 1

I know of no savage custom or habit of thought which has not its mate
in civilized countries. For every mischievous or absurd practice of the
natural man I can name you one of ours that is essentially the same. And
nearly every custom of our barbarian ancestors in historic times
persists in some form today. We make ourselves look formidable in
battle--for that matter, we fight. Our women paint their faces. We feel
it obligatory to dress more or less alike, inventing the most ingenious
reasons for doing so and actually despising and persecuting those who do
not care to conform. Almost within the memory of living persons bearded
men were stoned in the streets; and a clergyman in New York who wore his
beard as Christ wore his, was put into jail and variously persecuted
till he died.

Civilization does not, I think, make the race any better. It makes men
know more: and if knowledge makes them happy it is useful and desirable.
The one purpose of every sane human being is to be happy. No one can
have any other motive than that. There is no such thing as
unselfishness. We perform the most "generous" and "self-sacrificing"
acts because we should be unhappy if we did not. We move on lines of
least reluctance. Whatever tends to increase the beggarly sum of human
happiness is worth having; nothing else has any value.

The cant of civilization fatigues. Civilization, is a fine and beautiful
structure. It is as picturesque as a Gothic cathedral, but it is built
upon the bones and cemented with the blood of those whose part in all
its pomp is that and nothing more. It cannot be reared in the
ungenerous tropics, for there the people will not contribute their
blood and bones. The proposition that the average American workingman or
European peasant is "better off" than the South Sea islander, lolling
under a palm and drunk with over-eating, will not bear a moment's
examination. It is we scholars and gentlemen that are better off.

It is admitted that the South Sea islander in a state of nature is
overmuch addicted to the practice of eating human flesh; but concerning
that I submit: first, that he likes it; second, that those who supply it
are mostly dead. It is upon his enemies that he feeds, and these he
would kill anyhow, as we do ours. In civilized, enlightened and
Christian countries, where cannibalism has not yet established itself,
wars are as frequent and destructive as among the maneaters. The
untitled savage knows at least why he goes killing, whereas our private
soldier is commonly in black ignorance of the apparent cause of
quarrel--of the actual cause, always. Their shares in the fruits of
victory are about equal, for the chief takes all the dead, the general
all the glory.


II

Transplanted institutions grow slowly; civilization can not be put into
a ship and carried across an ocean. The history of this country is a
sequence of illustrations of these truths. It was settled by civilized
men and women from civilized countries, yet after two and a half
centuries, with unbroken communication with the mother systems, it is
still imperfectly civilized. In learning and letters, in art and the
science of government, America is but a faint and stammering echo of
Europe.

For nearly all that is good in our American civilization we
are indebted to the Old World; the errors and mischiefs are of our own
creation. We have originated little, because there is little to
originate, but we have unconsciously reproduced many of the discredited
systems of former ages and other countries--receiving them at second
hand, but making them ours by the sheer strength and immobility of the
national belief in their novelty. Novelty! Why, it is not possible to
make an experiment in government, in art, in literature, in sociology,
or in morals, that has not been made over, and over, and over again.

The glories of England are our glories. She can achieve nothing that our
fathers did not help to make possible to her. The learning, the power,
the refinement of a great nation, are not the growth of a century, but
of many centuries; each generation builds upon the work of the
preceding. For untold ages our ancestors wrought to rear that "reverend
pile," the civilization of England. And shall we now try to belittle the
mighty structure because other though kindred hands are laying the top
courses while we have elected to found a new tower in another land? The
American eulogist of civilization who is not proud of his heritage in
England's glory is unworthy to enjoy his lesser heritage in the lesser
glory of his own country.

The English, are undoubtedly our intellectual superiors; and as the
virtues are solely the product of intelligence and cultivation--a rogue
being only a dunce considered from another point of view--they are our
moral superiors likewise. Why should they not be? Theirs is a land, not
of ugly schoolhouses grudgingly erected, containing schools supported by
such niggardly tax levies as a sparse and hard-handed population will
consent to pay, but of ancient institutions splendidly endowed by the
state and by centuries of private benefaction. As a means of dispensing
formulated ignorance our boasted public school system is not without
merit; it spreads out education sufficiently thin to give everyone
enough to make him a more competent fool than he would have been without
it; but to compare it with that which is not the creature of legislation
acting with malice aforethought, but the unnoted out-growth of ages, is
to be ridiculous. It is like comparing the laid-out town of a western
prairie, its right-angled streets, prim cottages, and wooden a-b-c
shops, with the grand old town of Oxford, topped with the clustered
domes and towers of its twenty-odd great colleges, the very names of
many of whose founders have perished from human record, as have the
chronicles of the times in which they lived.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Mon 20th May 2019, 18:51