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What is Man? A New Point of View From Mark Twain

Mark Twain, real name Samuel Clemens, is an American writer who has written many renown novels including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

In his lifetime, he had a lot of time to reflect on philosophical questions and write on them. One of his books in which he questions the identity of humankind is titled What Is Man?, in which he compares man to machines and suggests that men are actually machines.

It might sound strange at first. How are humans machines? We have feelings, thoughts, and ideas. Well, in this book, Mark Twain proves us wrong. Let’s take a quick look at the life story of Mark Twain and dive into this thought provoking book.

The Life of Mark Twain

Mark Twain, born on November 30th, 1835, was John Marshall and Jane Lampton Clemens’ sixth child. Because he was born two months early, he was in poor health for the first ten years of his life. He reflected on most of his childhood memories (good and bad ones) in his books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Old Times on the Mississippi. Despite his poor health, he had a good time playing with his friends and living in Hannibal, by the Mississippi river.

However, all sweet memories come with dark ones. Clemens’s sister died when he was only four years old. He then lost his brother and father. He lived through two major epidemics: measles and cholera. In January 1845, he watched a man die on the street after he was shot by a local. This incident contributed to his writings on the shootings in his book Huckleberry Finn.

In 1847, his father died and he had to work while continuing his education. Once he finished his education, he went on to try different ways to earn money. It was not until he was 37 years old that he realized he enjoyed literature. However, he did not start writing right away. When his older brother, Orion, started publishing a newspaper, Clemens would occasionally publish some letters. He started writing articles that sometimes appeared in New York papers. He would sometimes write political statements, and as a result, get into heated arguments. Therefore, he quit his journalism career for a while and went on to go mining.

During that time, he wrote his first little story titled Jim Smiley and His Jumping Frog and realized he had a passion for writing. He went back to his journalism career and started writing novels. In his lifetime, he wrote more than 28 books and became a well known author. He mostly wrote novels inspired by his childhood memories but also philosophical books and some short stories. He later died in 1910 due to a heart disease.

Now let’s take a look at his famous philosophical book, What is man?. Considering his experiences in life, the rather dark theories in this book are not so surprising. The book was first published in 1906.

What Is Man?

The plot is based on a set of dialogues between a young and an old man. The old man is trying to convince the young man that humans are nothing more than machines that only live by certain laws. He starts off by talking about the concept of ‘personal value’. He asks the young man the difference between big machines that are used in factories and a tiny sewing machine. You would not expect a sewing machine to be as useful as a large machine that is used for difficult and complex tasks. However, even though the two machines were built from different materials and for different purposes, the big machine will always be more appreciated. Just like these types of machinery, humans are formed based on their genetic structure, education, and environment. They live in certain ways and do things differently because of these outer factors. However, they are classed as qualified, talented, smart, dumb, pretty, poor, or rich. Some are more valued over others but in reality everyone is just the result of outside factors, and humans are not able to create anything, not even ideas. Yes, ideas. How?

Genetically, you are affected by your ancestors' thinking and feelings. Everything you do, you think about, is affected by the environment, the things you read, the and conversations you have. You get every idea and every thought as a result of these factors and therefore you cannot say that you are the one making anything. According to the old man, it is just the mechanics in your brain using already existing information from these different sources, not creating new ones, to produce something that you call yours.

This is the core argument that he proposes to the young man who has difficulty believing him. Even though what he is saying is true, it is hard to believe that nothing we do, none of our thoughts are ours. He then goes on to talk about the most important law of the human machine, “Humans have no other purpose than to satisfy their own desires.” This is most definitely true. But he goes further on to say that there is nothing called self devotion. No one can ever put someone else's desires or needs before their own.

When you hand a dollar off to a homeless person on the street, you do not really think about what their life is going to be like, or what they are going to do with the money. Even if you do, you will probably forget about it a minute later and focus on your own problems instead.

Twain argues that the main reason you just gave that person cash is to make yourself feel good, to feel like you are a good person who is able and willing to help someone else. When you tip a waiter or waitress at a restaurant, you often do not tip them because you are concerned about their financial circumstances; you tip them because if you do not, they could get mad at you and those around will think that you are a selfish person.

The old man states in any circumstance at which one person helps another, whether that be in books, stories, movies or real life, the first person to benefit from that situation is the person that is helping. He gives several examples throughout the book to support these two major arguments in hopes of convincing the young man.

This philosophical piece by Mark Twain is certainly true in a lot of aspects, causing us to consider the dark intentions of humankind. It is with this book and many other articles and short stories that he is being recognized as a philosophical writer alongside a famous author.

Work Cited:

Mark Twain - What Is Man?

Accessed: 19 October, 2022.

Mark Twain, Encyclopædia Britannica

Accessed: 19 October, 2022.

Complete List of Mark Twain Books, Hooked To Books

Accessed: 18 October, 2022.

What Is Man? (Twain essay), Wikipedia

Accessed: 17 October, 2022.



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