A Reference Book for Life
We live in a cynical age. People talk about it like it’s a bad thing.
To be cynical is simply to be suspicious of sentimentality and high-mindedness, and to be cautious of not putting too much wide-eyed innocent credence into anything.
If we live in an age of cynicism, what came before? Some idyllic era of innocence, I guess. According to various opinions, America either lost its innocence with the death of Buddy Holly, the assassination of JFK, the escalation of the Vietnam War, the Quiz Show scam, Watergate, or with the Milli Vanilli lip-synching scandal. Take your pick.
We really are suckers for sentiment. For such a young country made up all kinds of nationalities, with a government based on Enlightenment ideals, you’d think we’d be the last to buy into bromides. But we do.
From time to time, voices sprout up and speak out against the simplistic dribble being fed to us. These days, I’m not exactly sure who those voices are—but in the 18th century, when sentimentality and high-mindedness were at their height, there were Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.
You’ve no doubt heard of the former, but maybe not the latter. Ambrose Bierce was a journalist and fiction writer. His most famous work, however, is a reference book: something called The Devil’s Dictionary.
The Devil’s Dictionary is pretty much what the title implies—a collection of cynical definitions of well-known words. It’s the kind of book you can pick up and put down at any time, leaf through and pore over whatever catches your eye. It’s actually the perfect book to keep on top of the toilet.
Here are a few entries from The Devil’s Dictionary:
HAPPINESS, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
IMMIGRANT, n. An unenlightened person who thinks one country better than another.
NOISE, n. A stench in the ear. Undomesticated music. The chief product and authenticating sign of civilization.
PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
As you can see, whatever has gathered the air of respectability in our culture is fair game for Bierce. Public morals, personal ideals, political paradigms, time-honored virtues—all of them feel the bite of his wit.
A common target of Bierce is, of course, religion:
PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
REDEMPTION, n. Deliverance of sinners from the penalty of their sin, through their murder of the deity against whom they sinned. The doctrine of Redemption is the fundamental mystery of our holy religion, and whoso believeth in it shall not perish, but have everlasting life in which to try to understand it.
And another target is the target of cynics the world over, politics:
CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.
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.
Love and marriage cannot escape unscathed, either:
BRIDE, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.
FIDELITY, n. A virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed.
INTIMACY, n. A relation into which fools are providentially drawn for their mutual destruction.
Many of the definitions are simply funny, some a tad amusing, while others are quite profound—pulling the rug out from under Common Sense:
ACCIDENT, n. An inevitable occurrence due to the action of immutable natural laws.
JEALOUS, adj. Unduly concerned about the preservation of that which can be lost only if not worth keeping.
SELFISH, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.
Bierce himself was an interesting character. A Civil War veteran-turned-journalist, he worked for one of William Randolph Heart’s first papers. He had a daughter and two sons, and both of his sons died before him—one by his own hand, the other of alcoholism.
Trying to get a firsthand look at the Mexican Revolution in 1914, Bierce disappeared somewhere in Mexico. His remains were never found.
Maybe that’s the way he would have wanted it:
FUNERAL, n. A pageant whereby we attest our respect for the dead by enriching the undertaker, and strengthen our grief by an expenditure that deepens our groans and doubles our tears.
Ambrose Bierce is dead. Long live cynicism.