Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Mark Twain on the Motive for Dueling

Mark Twain on honor and dueling from What is Man? The essay presents a dialog between a naive, idealistic Young Man (Y.M.) and a perceptive, cynical Old Man (O.M.).
Y.M. Do you really believe that mere public opinion could force a timid and peaceful man to-- 
O.M. Go to war? Yes--public opinion can force some men to do ANYTHING.


O.M. Yes--anything.

Y.M. I don't believe that. Can it force a right-principled man to do a wrong thing?

O.M. Yes.

Y.M. Can it force a kind man to do a cruel thing?

O.M. Yes.

Y.M. Give an instance.

O.M. Alexander Hamilton was a conspicuously high-principled man. He regarded dueling as wrong, and as opposed to the teachings of religion--but in deference to PUBLIC OPINION he fought a duel. He deeply loved his family, but to buy public approval he treacherously deserted them and threw his life away, ungenerously leaving them to lifelong sorrow in order that he might stand well with a foolish world. In the then condition of the public standards of honor he could not have been comfortable with the stigma upon him of having refused to fight. The teachings of religion, his devotion to his family, his kindness of heart, his high principles, all went for nothing when they stood in the way of his spiritual comfort. A man will do ANYTHING, no matter what it is, TO SECURE HIS SPIRITUAL COMFORT; and he can neither be forced nor persuaded to any act which has not that goal for its object. Hamilton's act was compelled by the inborn necessity of contenting his own spirit; in this it was like all the other acts of his life, and like all the acts of all men's lives. Do you see where the kernel of the matter lies? A man cannot be comfortable without HIS OWN approval. He will secure the largest share possible of that, at all costs, all sacrifices.

Y.M. A minute ago you said Hamilton fought that duel to get PUBLIC approval.

O.M. I did. By refusing to fight the duel he would have secured his family's approval and a large share of his own; but the public approval was more valuable in his eyes than all other approvals put together--in the earth or above it; to secure that would furnish him the MOST comfort of mind, the most SELF- approval; so he sacrificed all other values to get it.

Y.M. Some noble souls have refused to fight duels, and have manfully braved the public contempt.

O.M. They acted ACCORDING TO THEIR MAKE. They valued their principles and the approval of their families ABOVE the public approval. They took the thing they valued MOST and let the rest go. They took what would give them the LARGEST share of PERSONAL CONTENTMENT AND APPROVAL--a man ALWAYS does.

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