Mark Twain on God

From: Keith B Miller (
Date: Thu Feb 21 2002 - 11:02:32 EST

  • Next message: Adrian Teo: "RE: Darwinism/Compassion"

    I received this on another list serve. I think that this essay shows the
    failure of a natural theology. It is unable to deal adequately with issues
    of theodicy ("problem of evil"). It is significant, I think that it was
    over just this issue that Darwin stumbled.


    >Thoughts of God
    >by Mark Twain
    >from Fables of Man
    >Mark Twain Papers Series
    >University of California Press
    >HOW OFTEN we are moved to admit the intelligence exhibited in both
    >the designing and the execution of some of His works. Take the fly,
    >for instance. The planning of the fly was an application of pure
    >intelligence, morals not being concerned. Not one of us could have
    >planned the fly, not one of us could have constructed him; and no one
    >would have considered it wise to try, except under an assumed name.
    >It is believed by some that the fly was introduced to meet a
    >long-felt want. In the course of ages, for some reason or other,
    >there have been millions of these persons, but out of this vast
    >multitude there has not been one who has been willing to explain what
    >the want was. At least satisfactorily. A few have explained that
    >there was need of a creature to remove disease-breeding garbage; but
    >these being then asked to explain what long-felt want the
    >disease-breeding garbage was introduced to supply, they have not been
    >willing to undertake the contract.
    >There is much inconsistency concerning the fly. In all the ages he
    >has not had a friend, there has never been a person in the earth who
    >could have been persuaded to intervene between him and extermination;
    >yet billions of persons have excused the Hand that made him -- and
    >this without a blush. Would they have excused a Man in the same
    >circumstances, a man positively known to have invented the fly? On
    >the contrary. For the credit of the race let us believe it would have
    >been all day with that man. Would persons consider it just to
    >reprobate in a child, with its undeveloped morals, a scandal which
    >they would overlook in the Pope?
    >When we reflect that the fly was as not invented for pastime, but in
    >the way of business; that he was not flung off in a heedless moment
    >and with no object in view but to pass the time, but was the fruit of
    >long and pains-taking labor and calculation, and with a definite and
    >far-reaching, purpose in view; that his character and conduct were
    >planned out with cold deliberation, that his career was foreseen and
    >fore-ordered, and that there was no want which he could supply, we
    >are hopelessly puzzled, we cannot understand the moral lapse that was
    >able to render possible the conceiving and the consummation of this
    >squalid and malevolent creature.
    >Let us try to think the unthinkable: let us try to imagine a Man of a
    >sort willing to invent the fly; that is to say, a man destitute of
    >feeling; a man willing to wantonly torture and harass and persecute
    >myriads of creatures who had never done him any harm and could not if
    >they wanted to, and -- the majority of them -- poor dumb things not
    >even aware of his existence. In a word, let us try to imagine a man
    >with so singular and so lumbering a code of morals as this: that it
    >is fair and right to send afflictions upon the just -- upon the
    >unoffending as well as upon the offending, without discrimination.
    >If we can imagine such a man, that is the man that could invent the
    >fly, and send him out on his mission and furnish him his orders:
    >"Depart into the uttermost corners of the earth, and diligently do
    >your appointed work. Persecute the sick child; settle upon its eyes,
    >its face, its hands, and gnaw and pester and sting; worry and fret
    >and madden the worn and tired mother who watches by the child, and
    >who humbly prays for mercy and relief with the pathetic faith of the
    >deceived and the unteachable. Settle upon the soldier's festering
    >wounds in field and hospital and drive him frantic while he also
    >prays, and betweentimes curses, with none to listen but you, Fly, who
    >get all the petting and all the protection, without even praying for
    >it. Harry and persecute the forlorn and forsaken wretch who is
    >perishing of the plague, and in his terror and despair praying; bite,
    >sting, feed upon his ulcers, dabble your feet in his rotten blood,
    >gum them thick with plague-germs -- feet cunningly designed and
    >perfected for this function ages ago in the beginning -- carry this
    >freight to a hundred tables, among the just and the unjust. the high
    >and the low, and walk over the food and gaum it with filth and death.
    >Visit all; allow no man peace till he get it in the grave; visit and
    >afflict the hard-worked and unoffending horse, mule, ox, ass, pester
    >the patient cow, and all the kindly animals that labor without fair
    >reward here and perish without hope of it hereafter; spare no
    >creature, wild or tame; but wheresoever you find one, make his life a
    >misery, treat him as the innocent deserve; and so please Me and
    >increase My glory Who made the fly.
    >We hear much about His patience and forbearance and long-suffering;
    >we hear nothing about our own, which much exceeds it. We hear much
    >about His mercy and kindness and goodness -- in words -- the words of
    >His Book and of His pulpit -- and the meek multitude is content with
    >this evidence, such as it is, seeking no further; but whoso searcheth
    >after a concreted sample of it will in time acquire fatigue. There
    >being no instances of it. For what are gilded as mercies are not in
    >any recorded case more than mere common justices, and due -- due
    >without thanks or compliment. To rescue without personal risk a
    >cripple from a burning house is not a mercy, it is a mere commonplace
    >duty; anybody would do it that could. And not by proxy, either --
    >delegating the work but confiscating the credit for it. If men
    >neglected "God's poor" and "God's stricken and helpless ones" as He
    >does, what would become of them? The answer is to be found in those
    >dark lands where man follows His example and turns his indifferent
    >back upon them: they get no help at all; they cry, and plead and pray
    >in vain, they linger and suffer, and miserably die. If you will look
    >at the matter rationally and without prejudice, the proper place to
    >hunt for the facts of His mercy, is not where man does the mercies
    >and He collects the praise, but in those regions where He has the
    >field to Himself.
    >It is plain that there is one moral law for heaven and another for
    >the earth. The pulpit assures us that wherever we see suffering and
    >sorrow which we can relieve and do not do it, we sin, heavily. There
    >was never yet a case of suffering or sorrow which God could not
    >relieve. Does He sin, then? If He is the Source of Morals He does --
    >certainly nothing can be plainer than that, you will admit. Surely
    >the Source of law cannot violate law and stand unsmirched; surely the
    >judge upon the bench cannot forbid crime and then revel in it himself
    >unreproached. Nevertheless we have this curious spectacle: daily the
    >trained parrot in the pulpit gravely delivers himself of these
    >ironies, which he has acquired at second-hand and adopted without
    >examination, to a trained congregation which accepts them without
    >examination, and neither the speaker nor the hearer laughs at
    >himself. It does seem as if we ought to be humble when we are at a
    >bench-show, and not put on airs of intellectual superiority there.

    Keith B. Miller
    Department of Geology
    Kansas State University
    Manhattan, KS 66506

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Thu Feb 21 2002 - 11:57:51 EST