The Gospel of Saint Ambrose Part II
BIRTH,n. The first and direst of all disasters.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911
In the first installment of this two-part series, I entertained you – quite fittingly, I thought, for its 100th anniversary – with the acerbic hilarity of some of the more state-skewering entries from Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary…
To me, many of these “definitions” are actually closer to being truly definitive of their corresponding terms than anything you’d find in an actual dictionary.
For instance, the latest version of the online dictionary I use most often defines “cynic” principally as:
Cynic (noun): A person who believes that people are motivated purely by self-interest rather than acting for honorable or unselfish reasons…
However, to my way of thinking, this “objective” definition falls far short of the clinical (or cynical) reality.
Evidence abounds in government, the markets, medicine, the courts, religion, the media, sports, education, marriage, friendships, and everywhere else of rampant selfishness. By and large, people really are motivated by self-interest – it’s central to our survival, bred into our very DNA.
Through the lens of the real, Bierce’s definition of “cynic” is the more accurate one:
CYNIC,n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be…
That’s because his definition (which includes himself as a prototypical example) speaks not to whether people are selfish or not – but to how a society wholly comprised of selfish people regard those who point out their hypocrisy…
According to Bierce, a cynic is one who’s held in contempt by society (a blackguard) for seeing it as it really is: A corrupt place ruled by the self-interested.
Like I said, dead-nuts accurate under a thin veil of humor…
Just like his Devil’s Dictionary take on other institutions fundamental to a “civilized” society. Things like schooling:
ACADEME, n. An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught.
ACADEMY,n. [from ACADEME] A modern school where football is taught.
EDUCATION,n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
LEARNING,n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.
And medicine – a deserving target if there ever was one…
FORGETFULNESS,n. A gift of God bestowed upon doctors in compensation for their destitution of conscience.
GOUT,n. A physician’s name for the rheumatism of a rich patient.
MEDICINE,n. A stone flung down the Bowery to kill a dog in Broadway.
PHYSICIAN,n. One upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well.
PRESCRIPTION,n. A physician’s guess at what will best prolong the situation with least harm to the patient.
Let’s not forget morality and religion – those sacred cows few ever deign to joust with in print…
CLERGYMAN,n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.
FAITH,n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
IMPIETY,n. Your irreverence toward my deity.
INFIDEL, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.
MORAL,adj. Conforming to a local and mutable standard of right. Having the quality of general expediency.
PRAY,v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
RELIGION,n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
RESPONSIBILITY,n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one’s neighbor.
SCRIPTURES, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.
(I suppose now is the time to add the disclaimer: The views of this column are not necessarily the views of Whiskey & Gunpowder, its publishers, contributors, etc. Although some – like Bierce’s thoughts on money, commerce and business – no doubt are, to one degree or another…)
COMMERCE,n. A kind of transaction in which A plunders from B the goods of C, and for compensation B picks the pocket of D of money belonging to E.
CORPORATION,n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
FINANCE,n. The art or science of managing revenues and resources for the best advantage of the manager.
(Are you paying attention, Goldman-Sachs?)
INSURANCE,n. An ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table.
LABOR,n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
PIRACY,n. Commerce without its folly-swaddles, just as God made it.
RICH,adj. Holding in trust and subject to an accounting the property of the indolent, the incompetent, the unthrifty, the envious and the luckless.
WALL STREET, n. A symbol for sin for every devil to rebuke.
Some of Bierce’s most hilariously devilish “definitions” apply to that hallowed ground, the law…
LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law.
(Because like almost any of the lawyers in Congress can tell you, one must know the law if one is to break it to his own benefit.)
LITIGANT,n. A person about to give up his skin for the hope of retaining his bones.
TRIAL,n. A formal inquiry designed to prove and put upon record the blameless characters of judges, advocates and jurors.
RETALIATION,n. The natural rock upon which is reared the Temple of Law.
But for all of his venom loosed on society’s institutions in The Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce saves some of the most potent for everyday life and relationships. I won’t list any of them here, but they’re pricelessly vicious and undeniably true…
If you’re a fan of the ugly truth and timeless, sardonic wit, you simply must pick up a copy of The Devil’s Dictionary for yourself – and for each of your like-minded friends. I’m fortunate enough to have the 2004 edition illustrated by the one-of-a-kind Ralph Steadman (of Hunter S. Thompson fame), but there are others out there.
However, by now you must be wondering why anyone would want to subject himself to the miserable, “nothing matters” vision of Ambrose Bierce anyway…
There’s a very good reason, and it’s this: If more of us were sharp-eyed, acid-tongued, outspoken cynics instead of rose-colored-glasses-wearing, social media addicted Kool-Aid gulpers, America might not be as screwed as she is right now.
The incredible hubris and hypocrisy in our government got that way over the last 200 years because we bought into the vaunted notion that they were doing what they did “for the people”…
Instead of for themselves – which is human nature, like it or not.
We let things like debt spending, entitlements, welfare programs, lax border security, and endless regulation get the better of our wallets, property, and rights because we believed it when our leaders told us they were “doing it all for us”…
While they feathered their own nests and saddled America’s children with the bill.
In other words, if more of us had been cynics like Ambrose Bierce – and as such, more keenly able to spot the egregious self-interest of those we’ve elected – we could have done more to stop the damage they’ve done to our republic.
Bierce himself single-handedly defeated one of the most shamelessly corrupt bills ever put before Congress, in fact. It was 1896 when advocates for numerous railroad giants slipped a bill in front of Congress without public notice or hearings…
The nature of that bill: An exemption on repayment of tens of millions of dollars borrowed from the U.S. government for the construction of the transcontinental railway. Dispatched by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, Bierce traveled to Washington, investigated the deal, and penned a series of such scathing editorials on the subject that the plot was exposed and the bill roundly defeated.
We forget, we Americans, what power we wield. Not just with our pens – but with our dollars, our votes, our choices, and our passion.
And the reason we forget is that we’re all hopeless deceived, distracted, deluded, or doped-up to be able to clearly see when others are acting egregiously in their own self-interest in dire conflict with our own…
Ambrose Bierce and his Devil’s Dictionary remind us of the need to be more cynical for the sake of our own survival – and he does it better than anyone else can, or ever has. And the price he paid for it in life was surely one of loneliness. From the Dictionary:
FRIENDLESS, adj. Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.
I, for one, salute Ambrose Bierce as friend, wherever he is. His disappearance at age 71 remains a mystery.
My only hope is that however he went, it was doing something for himself – in his own interest – rather than in trying to add to the incredible service he rendered to this nation and the world with the simple, cynical truth.
Very Truly Yours,
P.S. Thanks again, Whiskey-ers, for the chance to spend some time and share some thoughts with you all once again. I hope you’ve enjoyed my fond look back at one of history’s greatest polemicists. And I look forward to keeping you abreast of the exciting goings-on at Agora Financial’s “Fight or Flight” Wealth Symposium in Vancouver, the last week of July. Talk to you then… J.A.