What Is Man? Paperback – 12 Jul 2010
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From the Back Cover
Mark Twain's skeptical assessment of free will, and determinism, religious belief, and the nature of humanity. He put off publishing it for 25 years, and then released it anonymously in a limited edition of 250 copies. The book takes the form of a Socratic dialogue between a romantic young idealist and an elderly cynic, who debate such issues as whether personal merit is meaningless given how our environment shapes who we are, and whether man has any impulse other than pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain.
About the Author
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) was born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. In 1839 the Clemens family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River where young Sam experienced the excitement and colorful sights of the waterfront. Like many authors of his day he had little formal education. His education came from the print shops and newspaper offices where he worked as a youth. He first wrote under the pen name, "Mark Twain" (meaning "two fathoms" in riverboat-talk) in 1863. "Twain" wrote his first popular story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in 1865. He continued to travel as a correspondent for various newspapers and in 1869 his travel letters from Europe were collected into the popular book, "The Innocents Abroad." Encouraged by his success Twain married Olivia Langdon and settled down in Hartford, Connecticut to his most productive years as a writer. Between 1873 and 1889 he wrote seven novels including his Mississippi River books as well as The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889). As Twain's life and career progressed he became increasingly pessimistic, losing much of the humorous, cocky tone of his earlier years. More and more of his work expressed the gloomy view that all human motives are ultimately selfish. Even so Twain is best remembered as a humorist who used his sharp wit and comic exaggeration to attack the false pride and self-importance he saw in humanity.
Top Customer Reviews
The book is devoted entirely to the explicit thesis that man is a machine. Twain doesn't present the usual materialist reasons for that belief - not for him the reductive materialism of Hobbes, La Mettrie, Diderot, d'Holbach, Buchner and Haeckel. Instead he appears to draw solely on his own experience of himself and others in daily life. Thus he believes that man is essentially a machine constructed to decide and act in ways that maximise its feeling of ease. We are, as it were, 'conscience machines', our actions being decided by our inbuilt need to attain a state of easy conscience.
You can find this idea presented in Hobbes, and Twain draws the same conclusion as Hobbes that all assessments of moral worth are thereby rendered meaningless. To me the book is valuable for being a very clear, passionate expression of this idea - with which I disagree profoundly - and which I have sometimes heard presented by people I know. Given that our acts of altruisim sometimes are tainted by selfish motives, there is perhaps a tendency in us to proceed along these lines. We need to maintain a mature, honest balance in the face of this potential cynicism, which Twain fails completely to do in this book.
The style of the book is also interesting.Read more ›