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Ambrose Bierce was an American editorialist, journalist, short story writer, fabulist, and satirist. He wrote the short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" and compiled a satirical lexicon, The Devil's Dictionary.Collection of 20 Works of Ambrose BierceA Cynic Looks at LifeA Son of the Gods and A Horseman in the SkyAn Occurrence at Owl Creek BridgeBlack Beetles in AmberCan Such Things BeCobwebs From an Empty SkullFantastic FablesPresent at a Hanging and Other Ghost StoriesShapes of ClayThe Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce Vol.IThe Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol.IIThe Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce Vol.VIIIThe Damned ThingThe Devil's DictionaryThe Fiends DelightThe Letters of Ambrose BierceThe Monk and The Hangman's DaughterThe Parenticide ClubThe Shadow On The Dial, and Other EssaysWrite It Right
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The Premium Complete Collection of Ambrose Bierce
Detailed biography of Ambrose Bierce
A Cynic Looks at Life
A Son of the Gods and A Horseman in the Sky
An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
Black Beetles in Amber
Can Such Things Be
Cobwebs From an Empty Skull
Present at a Hanging and Other Ghost Stories
Shapes of Clay
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce Vol.I
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol.II
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce Vol.VIII
The Damned Thing
The Devil's Dictionary
The Fiends Delight
The Letters of Ambrose Bierce
The Monk and The Hangman's Daughter
The Parenticide Club
The Shadow On The Dial, and Other Essays
Write It Right
Detailed Biography of Ambrose Bierce
Ambrose Bierce is considered one of the great American writers, ranked with Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was renowned for his wit and his wide literary talents, encompassing satire, horror, literary criticism, and journalism.
Bierce was born on June 24, 1842 to Marcus Aurelius Bierce and Laura Sherwood Bierce. He was the tenth of thirteen children, all of whom received names beginning with the letter A. Though never close to his family, their extensive library did ignite the spark of literary ambition in the young Bierce.
At the age of fifteen, he became a printer's devil at a small Ohio newspaper. He later joined the Union army during the Civil War, participating in a large number of battles and gaining first-hand experience of the horrors of war, a theme that would emerge in his later writing. He was seriously wounded in the head during the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864, and suffered from complications from this wound for the rest of his life.
He married Mary Ellen "Mollie" Day in 1871, and the couple had three children: Day, Leigh, and Helen. Two of the children died before Bierce, Day from suicide and Leigh from pneumonia. Bierce and his wife divorced in 1904.
Well-known for his biting political analysis and satire, especially as exemplified in The Devil's Dictionary (a dictionary offering new and sarcastic definitions of common terms), Bierce also wrote a succession of eerie stories set mostly in the American frontier from 1888 and 1901. These proved foundational for later horror writers, including HP Lovecraft and Stephen King.
The official date of Bierce's death is unknown. In 1913, he traveled to Mexico during the revolution in order to see the situation on the ground for himself. He is said to have traveled with Pancho Villa's army to the city of Chihuahua. Perhaps fittingly for a writer famous for his eerie stories and shocking twists, his last letter concluded, "As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination."
His most famous short story, "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," in which a captured Civil War solider hallucinates that he has traveled through time, has been adapted in various mediums, including as a television episode of The Twilight Zone. Many of his short stories have been made into short films or episodes of ongoing television series.
A CYNIC LOOKS AT LIFE
The question "Does civilization civilize?" is a fine example of petitio principii, and decides itself in the affirmative; for civilization must needs do that from the doing of which it has its name. But it is not necessary to suppose that he who propounds is either unconscious of his lapse in logic or desirous of digging a pitfall for the feet of those who discuss; I take it he simply wishes to put the matter in an impressive way, and relies upon a certain degree of intelligence in the interpretation.
Concerning uncivilized peoples we know but little except what we are told by travelers--who, speaking generally, can know very little but the fact of uncivilization, as shown in externals and irrelevances, and are moreover, greatly given to lying. From the savages we hear very little. Judging them in all things by our own standards in default of a knowledge of theirs, we necessarily condemn, disparage and belittle. One thing that civilization certainly has not done is to make us intelligent enough to understand that the contrary of a virtue is not necessarily a vice. Because, as a rule, we have but one wife and several mistresses each it is not certain that polygamy is everywhere--nor, for that matter, anywhere--either wrong or inexpedient. Because the brutality of the civilized slave owners and dealers created a conquering sentiment against slavery it is not intelligent to assume that slavery is a maleficent thing amongst Oriental peoples (for example) where the slave is not oppressed. Some of these same Orientals whom we are pleased to term half-civilized have no regard for truth. "Takest thou me for a Christian dog," said one of them, "that I should be the slave of my word?" So far as I can perceive, the "Christian dog" is no more the slave of his word than the True Believer, and I think the savage--allowing for the fact that his inveracity has dominion over fewer things--as great a liar as either of them. For my part, I do not know what, in all circumstances, is right or wrong; but I know that, if right, it is at least stupid, to judge an uncivilized people by the standards of morality and intelligence set up by civilized ones. Life in civilized countries is so complex that men there have more ways to be good than savages have, and more to be bad; more to be happy, and more to be miserable. And in each way to be good or bad, their generally superior knowledge--their knowledge of more things--enables them to commit greater excesses than the savage can. The civilized philanthropist wreaks upon his fellows a ranker philanthropy, the civilized rascal a sturdier rascality. And--splendid triumph of enlightenment!--the two characters are, in civilization, frequently combined in one person.
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.
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.
It is not only that we have had to "subdue the wilderness"; our educational conditions are adverse otherwise. Our political system is unfavorable. Our fortunes, accumulated in one generation, are dispersed in the next. If it takes three generations to make a gentleman one will not make a thinker. Instruction is acquired, but capacity for instruction is transmitted. The brain that is to contain a trained intellect is not the result of a haphazard marriage between a clown and a wench, nor does it get its tractable tissues from a hard-headed farmer and a soft-headed milliner. If you confess the importance of race and pedigree in a horse and a dog how dare you deny it in a man?
I do not hold that the political and social system that creates an aristocracy of leisure is the best possible kind of human organization; I perceive its disadvantages clearly enough. But I do hold that a system under which most important public trusts, political and professional, civil and military ecclesiastical and secular, are held by educated men--that is, men of trained faculties and disciplined judgment--is not an altogether faulty system.
It is a universal human weakness to disparage the knowledge that we do not ourselves possess, but it is only my own beloved country that can justly boast herself the last refuge and asylum of the impotents and incapables who deny the advantage of all knowledge whatsoever. It was an American senator who declared that he had devoted a couple of weeks to the study of finance, and found the accepted authorities all wrong. It was another American senator who, confronted with certain hostile facts in the history of another country, proposed "to brush away all facts, and argue the question on consideration of plain common sense."
Republican institutions have this disadvantage: by incessant changes in the personnel of government--to say nothing of the manner of men that ignorant constituencies elect; and all constituencies are ignorant--we attain to no fixed principles and standards. There is no such thing here as a science of politics, because it is not to any one's interest to make politics the study of his life. Nothing is settled; no truth finds general acceptance. What we do one year we undo the next, and do over again the year following. Our energy is wasted in, and our prosperity suffers from, experiments endlessly repeated.
Every patriot believes his country better than any other country. Now, they cannot all be the best; indeed, only one can be the best, and it follows that the patriots of all the others have suffered themselves to be misled by a mere sentiment into blind unreason. In its active manifestation--it is fond of killing--patriotism would be well if it were simply defensive; but it is also aggressive, and the same feeling that prompts us to strike for our altars and our fires impels us over the border to quench the fires and overturn the altars of our neighbors. It is all very pretty and spirited, what the poets tell us about Thermopylæ, but there was as much patriotism at one end of that pass as there was at the other.
Patriotism deliberately and with folly aforethought subordinates the interests of a whole to the interests of a part. Worse still, the fraction so favored is determined by an accident of birth or residence. The Western hoodlum who cuts the tail from a Chinaman's nowl, and would cut the nowl from the body, if he dared, is simply a patriot with a logical mind, having the courage of his opinions. Patriotism is fierce as a fever, pitiless as the grave and blind as a stone.
There are two ways of clarifying liquids--ebullition and precipitation; one forces the impurities to the surface as scum, the other sends them to the bottom as dregs. The former is the more offensive, and that seems to be our way; but neither is useful if the impurities are merely separated but not removed. We are told with tiresome iteration that our social and political systems are clarifying; but when is the skimmer to appear? If the purpose of free institutions is good government where is the good government?--when may it be expected to begin?--how is it to come about? Systems of government have no sanctity; they are practical means to a simple end--the public welfare; worthy of no respect if they fail of its accomplishment. The tree is known by its fruit. Ours is bearing crab-apples. If the body politic is constitutionally diseased, as I verily believe; if the disorder inheres in the system; there is no remedy. The fever must burn itself out, and then Nature will do the rest. One does not prescribe what time alone can administer. We have put our criminals and dunces into power; do we suppose they will efface themselves? Will they restore to us the power of governing _them_? They must have their way and go their length. The natural and immemorial sequence is: tyranny, insurrection, combat. In combat everything that wears a sword has a chance--even the right. History does not forbid us to hope. But it forbids us to rely upon numbers; they will be against us. If history teaches anything worth learning it teaches that the majority of mankind is neither good nor wise. When government is founded upon the public conscience and the public intelligence the stability of states is a dream.
In that moment of time that is covered by historical records we have abundant evidence that each generation has believed itself wiser and better than any of its predecessors; that each people has believed itself to have the secret of national perpetuity. In support of this universal delusion there is nothing to be said; the desolate places of the earth cry out against it. Vestiges of obliterated civilizations cover the earth; no savage but has camped upon the sites of proud and populous cities; no desert but has heard the statesman's boast of national stability. Our nation, our laws, our history--all shall go down to everlasting oblivion with the others, and by the same road. But I submit that we are traveling it with needless haste.
It can be spared--this Jonah's gourd civilization of ours. We have hardly the rudiments of a true one; compared with the splendors of which we catch dim glimpses in the fading past, ours are as an illumination of tallow candles. We know no more than the ancients; we only know other things, but nothing in which is an assurance of perpetuity, and little that is truly wisdom. Our vaunted elixir vitae is the art of printing. What good will that do when posterity, struck by the inevitable intellectual blight, shall have ceased to read what is printed? Our libraries will become its stables, our books its fuel.
Ours is a civilization that might be heard from afar in space as a scolding and a riot; a civilization in which the race has so differentiated as to have no longer a community of interest and feeling; which shows as a ripe result of the principles underlying it a reasonless and rascally feud between rich and poor; in which one is offered a choice (if one have the means to take it) between American plutocracy and European militocracy, with an imminent chance of renouncing either for a stultocratic republic with a headsman in the presidential chair and every laundress in exile.
I have not a "solution" to the "labor problem." I have only a story. Many and many years ago lived a man who was so good and wise that none in all the world was so good and wise as he. He was one of those few whose goodness and wisdom are such that after some time has passed their foolish fellowmen begin to think them gods and treasure their words as divine law; and by millions they are worshiped through centuries of time. Amongst the utterances of this man was one command--not a new nor perfect one--which has seemed to his adorers so preeminently wise that they have given it a name by which it is known over half the world. One of the sovereign virtues of this famous law is its simplicity, which is such that all hearing must understand; and obedience is so easy that any nation refusing is unfit to exist except in the turbulence and adversity that will surely come to it. When a people would avert want and strife, or, having them, would restore plenty and peace, this noble commandment offers the only means--all other plans for safety or relief are as vain as dreams, as empty as the crooning of hags. And behold, here is it: "All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."
What! you unappeasable rich, coining the sweat and blood of your workmen into drachmas, understanding the law of supply and demand as mandatory and justifying your cruel greed by the senseless dictum that "business is business"; you lazy workmen, railing at the capitalist by whose desertion, when you have frightened away his capital, you starve--rioting and shedding blood and torturing and poisoning by way of answer to exaction and by way of exaction; you foul anarchists, applauding with untidy palms when one of your coward kind hurls a bomb amongst powerless and helpless women and children; you imbecile politicians with a plague of remedial legislation for the irremediable; you writers and thinkers unread in history, with as many "solutions to the labor problem" as there are among you those who can not coherently define it--do you really think yourselves wiser than Jesus of Nazareth? Do you seriously suppose yourselves competent to amend his plan for dealing with evils besetting nations and souls? Have you the effrontery to believe that those who spurn his Golden Rule you can bind to obedience of an act entitled an act to amend an act? Bah! you fatigue the spirit. Go get ye to your scoundrel lockouts, your villain strikes, your blacklisting, your boycotting, your speeching, marching and maundering; but if ye do not to others as ye would that they do to you it shall occur, and that right soon, that ye be drowned in your own blood and your pick-pocket civilization quenched as a star that falls into the sea.
THE GIFT O' GAB
A book entitled Forensic Eloquence, by Mr. John Goss, appears to have for purpose to teach the young idea how to spout, and that purpose, I dare say, it will accomplish if something is not done to prevent. I know nothing of the matter myself, a strong distaste for forensic eloquence, or eloquence of any kind implying a man mounted on his legs and doing all the talking, having averted me from its study. The training of the youth of this country to utterance of themselves after that fashion I should regard as a disaster of magnitude. So far as I know it, forensic eloquence is the art of saying things in such a way as to make them pass for more than they are worth. Employed in matters of importance (and for other employment it were hardly worth acquiring) it is mischievous because dishonest and misleading. In the public service Truth toils best when not clad in cloth-of-gold and bedaubed with fine lace. If eloquence does not beget action it is valueless; but action which results from the passions, sentiments and emotions is less likely to be wise than that which comes of a persuaded judgment. For that reason I cannot help thinking that the influence of Bismarck in German politics was more wholesome than is that of Mr. John Temple Graves.
For eloquence _per se_--considered merely as an art of pleasing--I entertain something of the respect evoked by success; for it always pleases at least the speaker. It is to speech what an ornate style is to writing--good and pleasant enough in its time and place and, like pie-crust and the evening girl, destitute of any basis in common sense. Forensic eloquence, on the contrary, has an all too sufficient foundation in reason and the order of things: it promotes the ambition of tricksters and advances the fortunes of rogues. For I take it that the Ciceros, the Mirabeaus, the Burkes, the O'Connells, the Patrick Henrys and the rest of them--pets of the text-bookers and scourges of youth--belong in either the one category or the other, or in both. Anyhow I find it impossible to think of them as highminded men and right-forth statesmen--with their actors' tricks, their devices of the countenance, inventions of gesture and other cunning expedients having nothing to do with the matter in hand. Extinction of the orator I hold to be the most beneficent possibility of evolution. If Mr. Goss has done anything to retard that blessed time when the Bourke Cockrans shall cease from troubling and the weary be at rest he is an enemy of his race.
"What!" exclaims the thoughtless reader--I have but one--"are not the great forensic speeches by the world's famous orators good reading? Considering them merely as literature do you not derive a high and refining pleasure from them?" I do not: I find them turgid and tumid no end. They are bad reading, though they may have been good hearing. In order to enjoy them one must have in memory what, indeed, one is seldom permitted to forget: that they were addressed to the ear; and in imagination one must hold some shadowy simulacrum of the orator himself, uttering his work. These conditions being fulfilled there remains for application to the matter of the discourse too little attention to get much good of it, and the total effect is confusion. Literature by which the reader is compelled to bear in mind the producer and the circumstances under which it was produced can be spared.
It is not always on remote islands peopled with pagans that great disasters occur, as memory witnesseth. Nor are the forces of nature inadequate to production of a fiercer throe than any that we have known. The situation is this: we are tied by the feet to a fragile shell imperfectly confining a force powerful enough under favoring conditions, to burst it asunder and set the fragments wallowing and grinding together in liquid flame, in the blind fury of a readjustment. Nay, it needs no such stupendous cataclysm to depeople this uneasy orb. Let but a square mile be blown out of the bottom of the sea, or a great rift open there. Is it to be supposed that we would be unaffected in the altered conditions generated by a contest between the ocean and the earth's molten core? These fatalities are not only possible but in the highest degree probable. It is probable, indeed, that they have occurred over and over again, effacing all the more highly organized forms of life, and compelling the slow march of evolution to begin anew. Slow? On the stage of Eternity the passing of races--the entrances and exits of Life--are incidents in a brisk and lively drama, following one another with confusing rapidity.
Mankind has not found it practicable to abandon and avoid those places where the forces of nature have been most malign. The track, of the Western tornado is speedily repeopled. San Francisco is still populous, despite its earthquake, Galveston despite its storm, and even the courts of Lisbon are not kept by the lion and the lizard. In the Peruvian village straight downward into whose streets the crew of a United States warship once looked from the crest of a wave that stranded her a half mile inland are heard the tinkle of the guitar and the voices of children at play. There are people living at Herculaneum and Pompeii. On the slopes about Catania the goatherd endures with what courage he may the trembling of the ground beneath his feet as old Enceladus again turns over on his other side. As the Hoang-Ho goes back inside its banks after fertilizing its contiguity with hydrate of China-man the living agriculturist follows the receding wave, sets up his habitation beneath the broken embankment, and again the Valley of the Gone Away blossoms as the rose, its people diving with Death.
This matter can not be amended: the race exposes itself to peril because it can do no otherwise. In all the world there is no city of refuge--no temple in which to take sanctuary, clinging to the horns of the altar--no "place apart" where, like hunted deer, we can hope to elude the baying pack of Nature's malevolences. The dead-line is drawn at the gate of life: Man crosses it at birth. His advent is a challenge to the entire pack--earthquake, storm, fire, flood, drought, heat, cold, wild beasts, venomous reptiles, noxious insects, bacilli, spectacular plague and velvet-footed household disease--all are fierce and tireless in pursuit. Dodge, turn and double how he can, there's no eluding them; soon or late some of them have him by the throat and his spirit returns to the God who gave it--and gave them.
We are told that this earth was made for our inhabiting. Our dearly beloved brethren in the faith, our spiritual guides, philosophers and friends of the pulpit, never tire of pointing out the goodness of God in giving us so excellent a place to live in and commending the admirable adaptation of all things to our needs.
What a fine world it is, to be sure--a darling little world, "so suited to the needs of man." A globe of liquid fire, straining within a shell relatively no thicker than that of an egg--a shell constantly cracking and in momentary danger of going all to pieces! Three-fourths of this delectable field of human activity are covered with an element in which we can not breathe, and which swallows us by myriads:
With moldering bones the deep is white From the frozen zones to the tropic bright.
Of the other one-fourth more than one-half is uninhabitable by reason of climate. On the remaining one-eighth we pass a comfortless and precarious existence in disputed occupancy with countless ministers of death and pain--pass it in fighting for it, tooth and nail, a hopeless battle in which we are foredoomed to defeat. Everywhere death, terror, lamentation and the laughter that is more terrible than tears--the fury and despair of a race hanging on to life by the tips of its fingers. And the prize for which we strive, "to have and to hold"--what is it? A thing that is neither enjoyed while had, or missed when lost. So worthless it is, so unsatisfying, so inadequate to purpose, so false to hope and at its best so brief, that for consolation and compensation we set up fantastic faiths of an aftertime in a better world from which no confirming whisper has ever reached us across the void. Heaven is a prophecy uttered by the lips of despair, but Hell is an inference from analogy.
THE DEATH PENALTY
"Down with the gallows!" is a cry not unfamiliar in America. There is always a movement afoot to make odious the just principle; of "a life for a life"--to represent it as "a relic of barbarism," "a usurpation of the divine authority," and the rest of it. The law making murder punishable by death is as purely a measure of self-defense as is the display of a pistol to one diligently endeavoring to kill without provocation. It is in precisely the same sense an admonition, a warning to abstain from crime. Society says by that law: "If you kill one of us you die," just as by display of the pistol the individual whose life is attacked says: "Desist or be shot." To be effective the warning in either case must be more than an idle threat. Even the most unearthly reasoner among the anti-hanging unfortunates would hardly expect to frighten away an assassin who knew the pistol to be unloaded. Of course these queer illogicianscan not be made to understand that their position commits them to absolute non-resistance to any kind of aggression; and that is fortunate for the rest of us, for if as Christians they frankly and consistently took that ground we should be under the miserable necessity of respecting them.
We have good reason to hold that the horrible prevalence of murder in this country is due to the fact that we do not execute our laws--that the death penalty is threatened but not inflicted--that the pistol is not loaded. In civilized countries where there is enough respect for the laws to administer them, there is enough to obey them. While man still has as much of the ancestral brute as his skin can hold without cracking we shall have thieves and demagogues and anarchists and assassins and persons with a private system of lexicography who define murder as disease and hanging as murder, but in all this welter of crime and stupidity are areas where human life is comparatively secure against the human hand. It is at least a significant coincidence that in these the death penalty for murder is fairly well enforced by judges who do not derive any part of their authority from those for whose restraint and punishment they hold it. Against the life of one guiltless person the lives of ten thousand murderers count for nothing; their hanging is a public good, without reference to the crimes that disclose their deserts. If we could discover them by other signs than their bloody deeds they should be hanged anyhow. Unfortunately we must have a death as evidence. The scientist who will tell us how to recognize the potential assassin, and persuade us to kill him, will be the greatest benefactor of his century.
What would these enemies of the gibbet have--these lineal descendants of the drunken mobs that hooted the hangman at Tyburn Tree; this progeny of criminals, which has so defiled with the mud of its animosity the noble office of public, executioner that even "in this enlightened age" he shirks his high duty, entrusting it to a hidden or unnamed subordinate? If murder is unjust of what importance is it whether its punishment by death be just or not?--nobody needs to incur it. Men are not drafted for the death penalty; they volunteer. "Then it is not deterrent," mutters the gentleman whose rude forefather hooted the hangman. Well, as to that, the law which is to accomplish more than a part of its purpose must be awaited with great patience. Every murder proves that hanging is not altogether deterrent; every hanging, that it is somewhat deterrent--it deters the person hanged. A man's first murder is his crime, his second is ours.
The socialists, it seems, believe with Alphonse Karr, in the expediency of abolishing the death penalty; but apparently they do not hold, with him, that the assassins should begin. They want the state to begin, believing that the magnanimous example will effect a change of heart in those about to murder. This, I take it, is the meaning of their assertion that death penalties have not the deterring influence that imprisonment for life carries. In this they obviously err: death deters at least the person who suffers it--he commits no more murder; whereas the assassin who is imprisoned for life and immune from further punishment may with impunity kill his keeper or whomsoever he may be able to get at. Even as matters now are, incessant vigilance is required to prevent convicts in prison from murdering their attendants and one another. How would it be if the "life-termer" were assured against any additional inconvenience for braining a guard occasionally, or strangling a chaplain now and then? A penitentiary may be described as a place of punishment and reward; and under the system proposed, the difference in desirableness between a sentence and an appointment would be virtually effaced. To overcome this objection a life sentence would have to mean solitary confinement, and that means insanity. Is that what these gentlemen propose to substitute for death?
The death penalty, say these amiables and futilitarians, creates blood-thirstiness in the unthinking masses and defeats its own ends--is itself a cause of murder, not a check. These gentlemen are themselves of "the unthinking masses"--they do not know how to think. Let them try to trace and lucidly expound the chain of motives lying between the knowledge that a murderer has been hanged and the wish to commit a murder. How, precisely, does the one beget the other? By what unearthly process of reasoning does a man turning away from the gallows persuade himself that it is expedient to incur the danger of hanging? Let us have pointed out to us the several steps in that remarkable mental progress. Obviously, the thing is absurd; one might as reasonably say that contemplation of a pitted face will make a man wish to go and catch smallpox, or the spectacle of an amputated limb on the scrap-heap of a hospital tempt him to cut off his arm or renounce his leg.
"An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," say the opponents of the death penalty, "is not justice; it is revenge and unworthy of a Christian civilization." It is exact justice: nobody can think of anything more accurately just than such punishments would be, whatever the motive in awarding them. Unfortunately such a system is not practicable, but he who denies its justice must deny also the justice of a bushel of corn for a bushel of corn, a dollar for a dollar, service for service. We can not undertake by such clumsy means as laws and courts to do to the criminal exactly "what he has done to his victim, but to demand a life for a life is simple, practicable, expedient and (therefore) right.
"Taking the life of a murderer does not restore the life he took, therefore it is a most illogical punishment. Two wrongs do not make a right."
Here's richness! Hanging an assassin is illogical because it does not restore the life of his victim; incarceration is logical; therefore, incarceration does--_quod, erat demonstrandum._
Two wrongs certainly do not make a right, but the veritable thing in dispute is whether taking the life of a life-taker is a wrong. So naked and unashamed an example of petitio principii would disgrace a debater in a pinafore. And these wonder-mongers have the effrontery to babble of "logic"! Why, if one of them were to meet a syllogism in a lonely road he would run away in a hundred and fifty directions as hard as ever he could hoof it. One is almost ashamed to dispute with such intellectual cloutlings.
Whatever an individual may rightly do to protect himself society may rightly do to protect him, for he is a part of itself. If he may rightly take life in defending himself society may rightly take life in defending him. If society may rightly take life in defending him it may rightly threaten to take it. Having rightly and mercifully threatened to take it, it not only rightly may take it, but expediently must.
The law of a life for a life does not altogether prevent murder. No law can altogether prevent any form of crime, nor is it desirable that it should. Doubtless God could so have created us that our sense of right and justice could have existed without contemplation of injustice and wrong; as doubtless he could so have created us that we could have felt compassion without a knowledge of suffering; but he did not. Constituted as we are, we can know good only by contrast with evil. Our sense of sin is what our virtues feed upon; in the thin air of universal morality the altar-fires of honor and the beacons of conscience could not be kept alight. A community without crime would be a community without warm and elevated sentiments--without the sense of justice, without generosity, without courage, without mercy, without magnanimity--a community of small, smug souls, uninteresting to God and uncoveted by the Devil. We can have, and do have, too much crime, no doubt; what the wholesome proportion is none can tell. Just now we are running a good deal to murder, but he who can gravely attribute that phenomenon, or any part of it, to infliction of the death penalty, instead of to virtual immunity from any penalty at all, is justly entitled to the innocent satisfaction that comes of being a simpleton.
The New Woman is against the death penalty, naturally, for she is hot and hardy in the conviction that whatever is is wrong. She has visited this world in order to straighten things about a bit, and is in distress lest the number of things be insufficient to her need. The matter is important variously; not least so in its relation to the new heaven and the new earth that are to be the outcome of woman suffrage. There can be no doubt that the vast majority of women have sentimental objections to the death penalty that quite outweigh such practical considerations in its favor as they can be persuaded to comprehend. Aided by the minority of men afflicted by the same mental malady, they will indubitably effect its abolition in the first lustrum of their political "equality." The New Woman will scarcely feel the seat of power warm beneath her before giving to the assassin's "unhand me, villain!" the authority of law. So we shall make again the old experiment, discredited by a thousand failures, of preventing crime by tenderness to caught criminals. And the criminal uncaught will treat us to a quantity and quality of crime notably augmented by the Christian spirit of the new _régime_.
As to painless execution, the simple and practical way to make them both just and expedient is the adoption by murderers of a system of painless assassinations. Until this is done there seems to be no call to renounce the wholesome discomfort of the style of executions endeared to us by memories and associations of the tenderest character. There is, I fancy, a shaping notion in the observant mind that the penologists and their allies have gone about as far as they can safely be permitted to go in the direction of a softer suasion of the criminal nature toward good behavior. The modern prison has become a rather more comfortable habitation than the dangerous classes are accustomed to at home. Modern prison life has in their eyes something of the charm and glamor of an ideal existence, like that in the Happy Valley from which Rasselas had the folly to escape. Whatever advantages to the public may be secured by abating the rigors of imprisonment and inconveniences incident to execution, there is this objection: it makes them less deterrent. Let the penologers and philanthropers have their way and even hanging might be made so pleasant and withal so interesting a social distinction that it would deter nobody but the person hanged. Adopt the euthanasian method of electricity, asphyxia by smothering in rose-leaves, or slow poisoning with rich food, and the death penalty may come to be regarded as the object of a noble ambition to the bon vivant, and the rising young suicide may go and kill somebody else instead of himself, in order to receive from the public executioner a happier dispatch than his own 'prentice hand can assure him.
But the advocates of agreeable pains and penalties tell us that in the darker ages, when cruel and degrading punishment was the rule, and was freely inflicted for every light infraction of the law, crime was more common than it is now; and in this they appear to be right. But one and all, they overlook a fact equally obvious and vastly significant, that the intellectual, moral and social condition of the masses was very low. Crime was more common because ignorance was more common, poverty was more common, sins of authority, and therefore hatred of authority, were more common. The world of even a century ago was a different world from the world of today, and a vastly more uncomfortable one. The popular adage to the contrary notwithstanding, human nature was not by a long cut the same then that it is now. In the very ancient time of that early English king, George III, when women were burned at the stake in public for various offenses and men were hanged for "coining" and children for theft, and in the still remoter period (circa 1530), when prisoners were boiled in several waters, divers sorts of criminals were disemboweled and some are thought to have undergone the peine forte et dure of cold-pressing (an infliction which the pen of Hugo has since made popular--in literature)--in these wicked old days crime flourished, not because of the law's severity, but in spite of it. It is possible that our law-making ancestors understood the situation as it then was a trifle better than we can understand it on the hither side of this gulf of years, and that they were not the reasonless barbarians that we think them to have been. And if they were, what must have been the unreason and barbarity of the criminal element with which they had to deal?
I am far from thinking that severity of punishment can have the same restraining effect as probability of some punishment being inflicted; but if mildness of penalty is to be superadded to difficulty of conviction, and both are to be mounted upon laxity in detection, the pile will be complete indeed. There is a peculiar fitness, perhaps, in the fact that all these pleas for comfortable punishment should be urged at a time when there appears to be a general disposition to inflict no punishment at all. There are, however, still a few old-fashioned persons who hold it obvious that one who is ambitious to break the laws of his country will not with so light a heart and so airy an indifference incur the peril of a harsh penalty as he will the chance of one more nearly resembling that which he would himself select.
After lying for more than a century dead I was revived, dowered with a new body, and restored to society. The first thing of interest that I observed was an enormous building, covering a square mile of ground. It was surrounded on all sides by a high, strong wall of hewn stone upon which armed sentinels paced to and fro. In one face of the wall was a single gate of massive iron, strongly guarded. While admiring the Cyclopean architecture of the "reverend pile" I was accosted by a man in uniform, evidently the warden, with a cheerful salutation.
"Colonel," I said, "pray tell me what is this building."
"This," said he, "is the new state penitentiary. It is one of twelve, all alike."
"You surprise me," I replied. "Surely the criminal element must have increased enormously."
"Yes, indeed," he assented; "under the Reform _régime_, which began in your day, crime became so powerful, bold and fierce that arrests were no longer possible and the prisons then in existence were soon overcrowded. The state was compelled to erect others of greater capacity."
"But, Colonel," I protested, "if the criminals were too bold and powerful to be taken into custody, of what use are the prisons? And how are they crowded?"
He fixed upon me a look that I could not fail to interpret as expressing a doubt of my sanity. "What!" he said, "is it possible that the modern penology is unknown to you? Do you suppose we practice the antiquated and ineffective method of shutting up the rascals? Sir, the growth of the criminal element has, as I said, compelled the erection of more and larger prisons. We have enough to hold comfortably all the honest men and women of the state. Within these protecting walls they carry on all the necessary vocations of life excepting commerce. That is necessarily in the hands of the rogues, as before."
"Venerated representative of Reform," I exclaimed, wringing his hand with effusion, "you are Knowledge, you are History, you are the Higher Education! We must talk further. Come, let us enter this benign edifice; you shall show me your dominion and instruct me in the rules. You shall propose me as an inmate."
I walked rapidly to the gate. When challenged by the sentinel, I turned to summon my instructor. He was nowhere visible. I turned again to look at the prison. Nothing was there: desolate and forbidding, as about the broken statue of Ozymandias.
The lone and level sands stretched far away.
The desire for life everlasting has commonly been affirmed to be universal--at least that is the view taken by those unacquainted with Oriental faiths and with Oriental character. Those of us whose knowledge is a trifle wider are not prepared to say that the desire is universal nor even general.
If the devout Buddhist, for example, wishes to "live always," he has not succeeded in very clearly formulating the desire. The sort of thing that he is pleased to hope for is not what we should call life, and not what many of us would care for.
When a man says that everybody has "a horror of annihilation," we may be very sure that he has not many opportunities for observation, or that he has not availed himself of all that he has. Most persons go to sleep rather gladly, yet sleep is virtual annihilation while it lasts; and if it should last forever the sleeper would be no worse off after a million years of it than after an hour of it. There are minds sufficiently logical to think of it that way, and to them annihilation is not a disagreeable thing to contemplate and expect.
In this matter of immortality, people's beliefs appear to go along with their wishes. The man who is content with annihilation thinks he will get it; those that want immortality are pretty sure they are immortal; and that is a very comfortable allotment of faiths. The few of us that are left unprovided for are those who do not bother themselves much about the matter, one way or another.
The question of human immortality is the most momentous that the mind is capable of conceiving. If it is a fact that the dead live all other facts are in comparison trivial and without interest. The prospect of obtaining certain knowledge with regard to this stupendous matter is not encouraging. In all countries but those in barbarism the powers of the profoundest and most penetrating intelligences have been ceaselessly addressed to the task of glimpsing a life beyond this life; yet today no one can truly say that he knows. It is as much a matter of faith as ever it was.
Our modern Christian nations profess a passionate hope and belief in another world, yet the most popular writer and speaker of his time, the man whose lectures drew the largest audiences, the work of whose pen brought him the highest rewards, was he who most strenuously strove to destroy the ground of that hope and unsettle the foundations of that belief.
The famous and popular Frenchman, Professor of Spectacular Astronomy, Camille Flammarion, affirms immortality because he has talked with departed souls who said that it was true. Yes, monsieur, but surely you know the rule about hearsay evidence. We Anglo-Saxons are very particular about that.
M. Flammarion says:
"I don't repudiate the presumptive arguments of schoolmen. I merely supplement them with something positive. For instance, if you assumed the existence of God this argument of the scholastics is a good one. God has implanted in all men the desire of perfect happiness. This desire cannot be satisfied in our lives here. If there were not another life wherein to satisfy it then God would be a declever.Voila tout."
There is more: the desire of perfect happiness does not imply immortality, even if there is a God, for
(1) God may not have implanted it, but merely suffers it to exist, as he suffers sin to exist, the desire of wealth, the desire to live longer than we do in this world. It is not held that God implanted all the desires of the human heart. Then /why hold that he implanted that of perfect happiness?
(2) Even if he did--even, if a divinely implanted desire entail its own gratification--even if it cannot be gratified in this life--that does not imply immortality. It implies only another life long enough for its gratification just once. An eternity of gratification is not a logical inference from it.
(3) Perhaps God is "a deceiver" who knows that he is not? Assumption of the existence of a God is one thing; assumption of the existence of a God who is honorable and candid according to our conception of honor and candor is another.
(4) There may be an honorable and candid God. He may have implanted in us the desire of perfect happiness. It may be--it is--impossible to gratify that desire in this life. Still, another life is not implied, for God may not have intended us to draw the inference that he is going to gratify it. If omniscient and omnipotent, God must be held to have intended whatever occurs, but no such God is assumed in M. Flammarion's illustration, and it may be that God's knowledge and power are limited, or that one of them is limited.
M. Flammarion is a learned, if somewhat theatrical, astronomer. He has a tremendous imagination, which naturally is more at home in the marvelous and catastrophic than in the orderly regions of familiar phenomena. To him the heavens are an immense pyrotechnicon and he is the master of the show and sets off the fireworks. But he knows nothing of logic, which is the science of straight thinking, and his views of things have therefore no value; they are nebulous.
Nothing is clearer than that our pre-existence is a dream, having absolutely no basis in anything that we know or can hope to know. Of after-existence there is said to be evidence, or rather testimony, in assurances of those who are in present enjoyment of it--if it is enjoyable. Whether this testimony has actually been given--and it is the only testimony worth a moment's consideration--is a disputed point. Many persons living this life profess to have received it. But nobody professes, or ever has professed, to have received a communication of any kind from one in actual experience of the fore-life. "The souls as yet ungarmented," if such there are, are dumb to question. The Land beyond the Grave has been, if not observed, yet often and variously described: if not explored and surveyed, yet carefully charted. From among so many accounts of it that we have, he must be fastidious indeed who cannot be suited. But of the Fatherland that spreads before the cradle--the great Heretofore, wherein we all dwelt if we are to dwell in the Hereafter, we have no account. Nobody professes knowledge of that. No testimony reaches our ears of flesh concerning its topographical or other features; no one has been so enterprising as to wrest from its actual inhabitants any particulars of their character and appearance. And among educated experts and professional proponents of worlds to be there is a general denial of its existence.
I am of their way of thinking about that. The fact that we have no recollection of a former life is entirely conclusive of the matter. To have lived an unrecollected life is impossible and unthinkable, for there would be nothing to connect the new life with the old--no thread of continuity--nothing that persisted from the one life to the other. The later birth would be that of another person, an altogether different being, unrelated to the first--a new John Smith succeeding to the late Tom Jones.
Let us not be misled here by a false analogy. Today I may get a thwack o' the mazzard which will give me an intervening season of unconsciousness between yesterday and to-morrow. Thereafter I may live to a green old age with no recollection of anything that I knew, or did, or was before the accident; yet I shall be the same person, for between the old life and the new there will be a nexus, a thread of continuity, something spanning the gulf from the one state to the other, and the same in both--namely, my body with its habits, capacities and powers. That is I; that identifies me to others as my former self--authenticates and credentials me as the person that incurred the cranial mischance, dislodging memory.
But when death occurs all is dislodged if memory is; for between two merely mental or spiritual existences memory is the only nexus conceivable; consciousness of identity is the only identity. To live again without memory of having lived before is to live another. Re-existence without recollection is absurd. There is nothing to re-exist.
What I should like to know is, how "the enlargement of woman's sphere" by her entrance into various activities of commercial, professional and industrial life benefits the sex. It may please Helen Gougar and satisfy her sense of logical accuracy to say, as she does: "We women must work in order to fill the places left vacant by liquor-drinking men." But who filled these places before? Did they remain vacant, or were there then disappointed applicants, as now? If my memory serves, there has been no time in the period that it covers when the supply of workers--abstemious male workers--was not in excess of the demand. That it has always been so is sufficiently attested by the universally inadequate wage rate.
Employers seldom fail, and never for long, to get all the workmen they need. The field into which women have put their sickles was already overcrowded with reapers. Whatever employment women have obtained has been got by displacing men--who would otherwise be supporting women.; Where is the general advantage? We may shout "high tariff," "combination of capital," "demonetization of silver," and what not, but if searching for the cause of augmented poverty and crime, "industrial discontent" and the tramp evil, instead of dogmatically expounding it, we should take some account of this enormous, sudden addition to the number of workers seeking work. If any one thinks that within the brief period of a generation the visible supply of labor can be enormously augmented without profoundly affecting the stability of things and disastrously touching the interests of wage-workers let no rude voice dispel his dream of such maleficent agencies as his slumbrous understanding may joy to affirm. And let our Widows of Ashurunlung themselves in advocacy of quack remedies for evils of which themselves are cause; it remains true that when the contention of two lions for one bone is exacerbated by the accession of a lioness the squabble is not composable by stirring up some bears in the cage adjacent.
Indubitably a woman is under no obligation to sacrifice herself to the good of her sex by foregoing needed employment in the hope that it may fall to a man gifted with dependent women. Nevertheless our congratulations are more intelligent when bestowed upon her individual head than when sifted into the hair of all Eve's daughters. This is a world of complexities, in which the lines of interest are so intertangled as frequently to transgress that of sex; and one ambitious to help but half the race may profitably know that every effort to that end provokes a counterbalancing mischief. The "enlargement of woman's opportunities" has benefited individual women. It has not benefited the sex as a whole, and has distinctly damaged the race. The mind that can not discern a score of great and irreparable general evils distinctly traceable to "emancipation of woman" is as impregnable to the light as a toad in a rock.
A marked demerit of the new order of things--the _régime_ of female commercial service--is that its main advantage accrues, not to the race, not to the sex, not to the class, not to the individual woman, but to the person of least need and worth--the male employer. (Female employers in any considerable number there will not be, but those that we have could give the male ones profitable instruction in grinding the faces of their employes.) This constant increase of the army of labor--always and everywhere too large for the work in sight--by accession of a new contingent of natural oppressibles makes the very teeth of old Munniglut thrill with a poignant delight. It brings in that situation known as two laborers seeking one job--and one of them a person whose bones he can easily grind to make his bread; and Munniglut is a miller of skill and experience, dusted all over with the evidence of his useful craft. When Heaven has assisted the Daughters of Hope to open to women a new "avenue of opportunities" the first to enter and walk therein, like God in the Garden of Eden, is the good Mr. Munniglut, contentedly smoothing the folds out of the superior slope of his paunch, exuding the peculiar aroma of his oleaginous personality and larding the new roadway with the overflow of a righteousness stimulated to action by relish of his own identity. And ever thereafter the subtle suggestion of a fat philistinism lingers along that path of progress like an assertion of a possessory right.
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