The Gospel According To Saint Ambrose

TRUTH,n. An ingenious compound of desirability and appearance…
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911

Many scholars and other well-read folks speak of Twain and Mencken as America’s sharpest skewers of government, institutions, hypocrites, the corrupt, the devout, and the dim-witted…

And surely, they’re one kind of correct or another in that assessment.

But for my money, the brilliant and paradoxical Ambrose Bierce will always be the heavyweight champion of American polemicists.

To me, “Bitter Bierce” is the patron saint of that cardinal virtue, cynicism; his Devil’s Dictionary one of the most piercing works of generalized dissent ever written.

Bierce’s Dictionary hits home where more direct, noble-minded, or allegorical works of satire may fall short due to its expert use of two devastatingly effective tools…

A format we’re all programmed to accept as true (the dictionary entry) – and acerbic humor, truth’s uglier and smarter Siamese twin.

No one I’ve ever encountered wields both the hammer of truth and the rapier of wit as effectively as Bierce. I defy you to read just these few Devil’s Dictionary entries below without crying – either from paroxysms of laughter…

Or because you’ve been shockingly reminded of just how far removed we all are in this Brave New i-World from the bare-bones truth of the way things really are.

Though Bierce’s Dictionary covers all manner of topics – leaving no institution’s pillars un-crumbled and no sacred cows un-roasted – the “definitions” I’ve selected today are, by and large, applicable to the thing I love to hate most of all: Government.

Never has there been a more appropriate time for someone to hammer into us all that “the truth” isn’t what government, the media, or even Webster’s says it is…

Rather, it’s what’s expedient and advantageous in the real world of human-to-human, citizen-to-sovereign, and state-to-state interaction.

I think “Saint Ambrose” is the perfect one to remind us of this distinction – and that cynicism and dissent may be more vital to the survival of the United States of America now than at any other point since our nation drew its first breath.

So here’s just small portion of what Bierce has to say on the subject in The Devil’s Dictionary – see how much of modern-day America you recognize in most of these words. I’ve cut some of the entries for brevity, but their essences are intact…

  • ALLIANCE,n. In international politics, the union of two thieves who have their hands so deeply inserted in each other’s pockets that they cannot separately plunder a third.
  • AMNESTY,n. The state’s magnanimity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.

(Hmmm. No wonder we barely prosecute or deport illegal aliens.)

  • BOUNDARY,n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
  • CAPITAL,n. The seat of misgovernment.
  • CONSERVATIVE,n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
  • DEBT,n. An ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver.
  • DIPLOMACY,n. The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.
  • ECONOMY,n. Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford.
  • ELECTOR,n. One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man’s choice.
  • EXECUTIVE,n. An officer of the Government, whose duty it is to enforce the wishes of the legislative power until such time as the judicial department shall be pleased to pronounce them invalid and of no effect.
  • GUNPOWDER,n. An agency employed by civilized nations for the settlement of disputes which might become troublesome if left unadjusted.
  • HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
  • HOUSELESS,adj. Having paid all taxes on household goods.
  • INFLUENCE,n. In politics, a visionary quo given in exchange for a substantial quid.
  • JUSTICE,n. A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.
  • LIBERTY,n. One of Imagination’s most precious possessions.
  • MONEY,n. A blessing that is of no advantage to us excepting when we part with it. An evidence of culture and a passport to polite society.
  • OPPOSITION,n. In politics the party that prevents the Government from running amuck by hamstringing it.
  • OUT-OF-DOORS,n. That part of one’s environment upon which no government has been able to collect taxes.
  • PATRIOT,n. One to whom the interests of a part seem superior to those of the whole. The dupe of statesmen and the tool of conquerors.

(These next two are priceless – they should be bronzed somewhere important for all to see…)

  • PEACE,n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.
  • POLITICS,n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
  • PREROGATIVE,n. A sovereign’s right to do wrong.
  • QUORUM,n. A sufficient number of members of a deliberative body to have their own way and their own way of having it.
  • RESIGN,v.t. To renounce an honor for an advantage.

(When’s Anthony Weiner’s million-dollar tell-all book coming out, I wonder?)

  • REVOLUTION,n. In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.
  • VOTE,n. The instrument and symbol of a freeman’s power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
  • WAR,n. A by-product of the arts of peace.

See what I mean? These are so accurate in their essences they could’ve easily been written yesterday – yet were first compiled and published as part of The Devil’s Dictionary exactly 100 years ago, in 1911…

When you see it laid out in the clarity of Bierce’s biting “definitions,” it’s incredible how little government and the American system has changed in a century, isn’t it?

The only problem with Bierce’s timelessly accurate assessment of what the underpinnings of government and society really are is that they make the self-deluded (in other words, everyone) want to jump from the nearest bridge.

That’s because the most cardinal of truths is this: The truth is ugly, and it hurts.

Many can’t forgive (or more accurately, stomach) Bierce for his unflagging willingness to call a spade a spade – others can’t help but love him for his ability to do exactly that with so vicious and crystalline a wit. I’m of this second camp, and have been since the day I first read Bierce.

And if these few excerpted “definitions” from The Devil’s Dictionary have given you a fresh glimpse of the sausage-making machine behind the government curtain, jarred your expectations of The System, of even just given you a hearty guffaw or two…

Stay tuned for the second installment of this two-part series. If you think Bitter Bierce’s take on sovereign Government is harsh – wait ’til you hear what he thinks about education, medicine, marriage, love, friendship, Wall Street, religion, morality, birth, death, and life in general.

It’s pure Ambrosia for the cynical soul…

Yours Truly (once again),

Jim Amrhein

Jim Amrhein was one of the charter editors of Whiskey & Gunpowder, and contributed 68 incendiary articles from 2005 – 2008. He penned some of the most commented-upon and oft-reprinted stories ever to appear in these pages. You’ll be hearing more from Jim soon – he’ll be serving as the daily “roving reporter” at Agora Financial’s upcoming Wealth Symposium in Vancouver…

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