CYNIC, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic’s eyes to improve his vision.
One hundred and five years ago, in 1906, a book written by the infamous curmudgeon Ambrose Bierce was published as The Cynic’s Word Book. It was Bierce’s preference that the book — a collection of satirical definitions which he had written for various newspapers “in a desultory way at long intervals” from 1881 to 1906 — be called The Devil’s Dictionary, but publishers had always been nervous about the anti-religious implications of the title. In 1906, American bookshelves were flooded with “a score of ‘cynic’ books — The Cynic’s This, The Cynic’s That, The Cynic’s t’Other,” to name a few. As far as those other “cynic” books were concerned, Bierce added, “most” were “merely stupid, though some of them added the distinction of silliness. Among them, they brought the word ’cynic’ into disfavor so deep that any book bearing it was discredited in advance of publication.” As Bierce wrote his definitions for various newspapers columns over the years, they had appeared under a variety of names: The Cynic’s Dictionary, The Demon’s Dictionary, The Cynic’s Word Book. But no title was ever as satisfying as the one he finally demanded. One hundred years ago, in 1911, Bierce got his wish when the work was published as The Devil’s Dictionary.
On the surface, it’s not clear why cynicism was such a popular attitude in those years padding the front and back ends of the turn of the century. It was decades past the Civil War and years before the First World War. America had started to become comfortable in her role as a country that was powerful but not so powerful as to shoulder the burden of being a real global force. Progress was fast becoming the new religion, giving Americans a sense of excitement about their place in the universe. Americans put on wonderful exhibitions about their own wonderful inventions — light bulbs, remote control technology, the telephone, the Ferris wheel — while not yet feeling the full invasion of technology and amusement that would define the 20th century.
Yet with all this optimism came a sense of unease. It had been a while since Americans, as a whole, had felt anything to be at stake. Americans were brought together socially by the Civil War and light bulbs, but they were also becoming unmoored from the traditions that once gave them a sense of community. Cynicism became another diversion. It was a way to discuss the growing emptiness of American life and the coming disorientation of modernity with an easy hilarity — cynicism for cynicism’s sake.
It was to Bierce’s annoyance that he found himself persistently and flagrantly plagiarized by all those lesser writers out there trying to make their livings as cynics. No doubt, Bierce’s writings were smarter and funnier than the stupid, distinctively silly cynic books of his time. He was a satirist of the first order. But Bierce was angered by these people because he saw himself as no mere humorist, no dandy wit seeking cheap titters from parlor rooms. Rather, Bierce saw himself as a voice of authority and a harbinger of truth. No one was safe from his verbal blitz. It’s amazing that any newspaper ever employed Ambrose Bierce, who readily showered his bile on anyone and anything in society he deemed hypocritical — which was just about everyone and everything. The Devil’s Dictionary was an attack on politics, philosophy, the aristocracy. For example, a POLITICIAN was:
An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared. When he wriggles he mistakes the agitation of his tail for the trembling of the edifice. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.
While a LORD was “In American society, an English tourist above the state of a costermonger…. sometimes used, also, as a title of the Supreme Being.” He defined a MONAD as a little gentleman destined to evolve into “a German philosopher of the first class,” not to be confused with the MICROBE, “an entirely distinct species.” LOVE was “A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder,” while HATRED was a “sentiment appropriate to the occasion of another’s superiority.” Even the medium of The Devil’s Dictionary itself was an excuse for a quip:
DICTIONARY, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic.
Though Bierce was quick to add:
This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.
Just as devastating were his, shall we call them, metaphysical critiques. Bierce had no patience for those who acted badly in the name of faith. For his part, Bierce claimed to have no religious convictions, only that he cared “a good deal for truth, reason, and fair play.” (You can tell a lot about a man’s metaphysics when he classifies GOOD as an adjective instead of a noun.) Bierce defined WORSHIP as “Homo Creator’s testimony to the sound construction and fine finish of Deus Creatus. A popular form of abjection, having an element of pride.” FAITH was “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.” His definition of WRATH implicated everyone from priests to kings to worshipers:
WRATH, n. Anger of a superior quality and degree, appropriate to exalted characters and momentous occasions; as, “the wrath of God,” “the day of wrath,” etc. Amongst the ancients the wrath of kings was deemed sacred, for it could usually command the agency of some god for its fit manifestation, as could also that of a priest…. God is now Love, and a director of the census performs his work without apprehension of disaster.
Cynicism, for Bierce, was not just an attitude; it was his life force. It’s ironic then that The Devil’s Dictionary is seen today primarily as a delightful little book of irreverent (if now anachronistic) witticisms. This is entirely Bierce’s fault. In life and in art, Bierce made it his prerogative to present himself as a Class A misanthropic know-it-all. Much of the real sensitivity and even anguish that produced The Devil’s Dictionary is obscured by an intentional ironic distance. By the time The Devil’s Dictionary was published, Bierce was 69. He had made a career as a curmudgeon, a writer with a big personality who always kept distance between himself and his public. He was famous for his motto “nothing matters” and was known as “Bitter Bierce.” Even his popular short stories, based on his experiences of the Civil War (see the classic “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”) were never autobiographical, never meant to bring readers closer to the man. He publicly attacked friends, employers, and of course, other writers. (Bierce had a literary run-in with Oscar Wilde once after the latter declared satire to be “as sterile as it is shameful, and as impotent as it is insolent.” Bierce responded in print with a torrent of insults, calling Wilde “a gawky gowk,” a “dunghill he-hen.” and the “littlest and looniest of a brotherhood of simpletons” who had “the divine effrontery to link his name with those of Swindburne, Rosetti and Morris.”) How could someone who addressed his book to “those…enlightened souls who prefer dry wines to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humor and clean English to slang” be taken all that seriously, especially by 21st-century readers? Today, The Devil’s Dictionary comes off as smart but smug. Who was Ambrose Bierce to pronounce such judgments on humanity?
HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.
Despite his attempts to obscure it, Bierce’s autobiography is key to understanding The Devil’s Dictionary. Ambrose Bierce was born in what his biographer Roy Morris calls the “ramshackle religious community of Horse Creek Cave, Ohio.” The site of Bierce’s childhood, writes Morris, was “a hotbed of revivalist frenzy, full of spirit-rappers, tongue-talkers, stump-shouters, and psalm-singers.” His parents (“unwashed savages,” Bierce once called them) were very poor and very pious. They ran a large household of 13 children, none of whom Bierce ever felt close to. In this milieu, the sensitive and serious Bierce was lost, and his sadness translated quickly to bitterness. Even as a child, the passion Bierce had for the Truth outweighed his sympathy for human weakness. As a child, Bierce once asked his mother to verify the existence of Santa Claus. Of course there is a Santa Claus, his mother assured him. But Bierce was soon to discover, as all children will, the horrible reality. It was this, Bierce said years later, that cemented the deep and irreparable betrayal of his mother: “I proceeded forthwith to detest my deceiver with all my little might and main.”
Yet inside the Bierce home was a secret treasure — his father’s library, said to be the largest in the county. It was here that the Bierce family’s 10th child found refuge. (“A man of considerable scholarship,” Bierce once called his father in a contradictory turn. “All that I have,” he said, “I owe to his books.”) In this complicated household, Bierce experienced profoundly the tensions between religion and reason, truth and fiction, knowledge and faith. Lacking any sense of belonging, he became rebellious, idealistic, and angry. He resented his upbringing; resented the angry hollers of the self-appointed men of God that designed sermons to terrify little boys; resented living in small-minded, small-town America; resented the poverty and the convention.
Bierce began adulthood early. At the age of 15, he left the family farm to work as a “printer’s devil” for an abolitionist newspaper, and throughout his teens supported himself through odd jobs he thought beneath him. But the event that would most define the young Bierce was the Civil War, which began when he was 19. Bierce immediately enlisted, “sufficiently zealous for Freedom” and with a youthful excitement for the romance of war. What he saw instead was evil. Unlike many other writers of his day, who would write eloquently of the war at arm’s length, Bierce was a real soldier and lived the soldier’s horror. Any last shreds of idealism he may have had about the goodness of humanity were buried at Philippi and Shiloh. Later, in between his more satirical newspaper columns, Bierce continued again and again to put his demons into words:
Dead horses were everywhere; a few disabled caissons, or limbers, reclining on one elbow, as it were; ammunition wagons standing disconsolate behind four or six sprawling mules. Men? There were men enough; all dead apparently, except one, who lay near where I had halted my platoon to await the slower movement of the line — a Federal sergeant, variously hurt, who had been a fine giant in his time. He lay face upward, taking in his breath in convulsive, rattling snorts, and blowing it out in sputters of froth which crawled creamily down his cheeks, piling itself alongside his neck and ears. A bullet had clipped a groove in his skull, above the temple; from this the brain protruded in bosses, dropping off in flakes and strings. I had not previously known one could get on, even in this unsatisfactory fashion, with so little brain. One of my men whom I knew for a womanish fellow, asked if he should put his bayonet through him. Inexpressibly shocked by the cold-blooded proposal, I told him I thought not; it was unusual, and too many were looking.
—from “What I Saw of Shiloh” (1862)
These stories, though, were just never quite as popular as his satire.
Bierce himself was badly wounded in the war. He received honors for heroism (contrary to the character in the above story, for rescuing a wounded soldier in battle). But his injuries, physical and otherwise, would plague Bierce for the rest of his life. And though he just made it out of the war alive, one gets the feeling he wished he hadn’t.
Demons haunted Bierce’s personal life, too. He married and bore three children, yet felt oppressed by conventions of family life. Bierce would spend long cold stretches of time away from his wife Mollie, feeling her to be an unsuitable match. In 1888, Bierce found a stack of love letters addressed to Mollie from a stranger and accused her (falsely) of infidelity. He abandoned her after 17 years of marriage, cutting her off as abruptly as he had his mother years before. In letters, he referred to Mollie as “wife” and “Mrs. B.” In 1904, he filed for divorce; Mollie died alone the next year, before the proceedings could go through. Even so, he once told his daughter that Mollie was the only woman he ever loved. Bierce would also witness the death of both his sons. The eldest, Day, was shot in a gunfight over his fiancé, who had left him for another; the second son, Leigh, died of pneumonia related to alcoholism.
MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.
Bierce’s definition of CYNIC as “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be” is easily dismissed as the rant of a self-important curmudgeon. This is a grave misunderstanding. As much as anyone, Bierce saw things as they really were and knew that there had to be another way. He had seen America in the depths of hell, had seen love from the bottom of a pit. He had shaken hands with greedy governors and jaded journalists, saw how men and women could abuse each other in the name of freedom and justice and altruism. For all its humor, The Devil’s Dictionary is a damnation of human hypocrisy, avarice, and selfishness. No one gets out clean — not even Bierce. For whom better to spread the word of evil than the Devil himself, the author of Bierce’s eponymous work? The Devil’s Dictionary is a memoir of a man who knew all about selfishness and hypocrisy, a man who had seen hell. No wonder Bierce was adamant about the title. This was no The Cynic’s t’Other. This was a dictionary of the Devil.
There’s a connection between the Devil and the word that goes back to the original Greek diábolos, which means “slanderer” or “accuser.” Bierce knew all too well the demons that lurk in our language. He wrote that the cynic sees things as they are, but also wrote that they ought to be otherwise. This is another way of saying that the cynical writer’s role is to bring the message of goodness. For only a writer who had known evil could channel virtue from the arms of the Devil and bring it back to humans. Bierce attacked goodness precisely because he believed in it, not because he didn’t. He attacked faith because he had lost it. It’s notable that a definition for God is missing from The Devil’s Dictionary. It’s as if Bierce was saying, anyone who wants to know about God should read the Bible, but anyone who wants to know humanity should read this.
SATAN, n. One of the Creator’s lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes. Being instated as an archangel, Satan made himself multifariously objectionable and was finally expelled from Heaven. Halfway in his descent he paused, bent his head in thought a moment and at last went back. “There is one favor that I should like to ask,” said he.
“Man, I understand, is about to be created. He will need laws.”
“What, wretch! you his appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with hatred of his soul — you ask for the right to make his laws?”
“Pardon; what I have to ask is that he be permitted to make them himself.”
It was so ordered.
The archetypal Cynic is a 5th-century Greek fellow named Diogenes. He wasn’t the only Cynic philosopher and he wasn’t the first. But Diogenes’ practice of Cynicism was so extreme, and so full of anecdotes about his eccentric behavior, that he came to define what we think of as classical Cynicism. Diogenes made fun of Alexander the Great and sabotaged the lectures of Plato. He was reported to dwell in a tub and live on a diet of onions. Diogenes is famous for stalking the streets of Athens carrying a lantern in the daytime, searching for an honest man (and infamous for masturbating in the marketplace). Diogenes, however, was no showboat. At the heart of Cynic philosophy was the message that virtue could only come through wisdom and self-sufficiency. The Cynic must be free of influence — wealth, power, fame, as well as social convention. In his antics, Diogenes was taking the word of Cynicism to its logical conclusion.
In this, Bierce walked in Diogenes’ shoes. See, for instance, how Bierce’s definition for SATAN fits comfortably with this tirade against the Greeks attributed to Diogenes:
…to all appearances you are men, you are apes at heart. You pretend to everything, but know nothing…. in contriving laws for yourselves you have allotted to yourselves the greatest and most pervasive delusion that issues from them, and you admit them as witnesses to your ingrained evil.
That people needed laws in the first place was evidence enough of their fundamental lack of virtue. The Cynic, then, has no allegiances, no state, no home, for excellence cannot be attained when one pledges allegiance to institutions and traditions. Bierce, too, gave in to the dissolution of his family, his home, his allegiance to his country, his allegiance to anything save an impossibly high standard of moral virtue, which even he could not achieve. In the end, his rejection of the world was to the later detriment of his writing and, more important, his life, which ended as lonely as it began.
Two years after the publication of The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce disappeared and never returned. He had gone on another one of his truth-seeking missions. Legend has it he traveled to Mexico and got caught up in Pancho Villa’s revolution after making a tour of his old Civil War battlegrounds. Some say he met his end by firing squad, others say by his own hand. All we know is that, whatever he saw, Bierce never made it back to share the news.
Nobody knows what really happened to Bierce, but his definition of Heaven gives us a clue as to where Bierce might have hoped he’d end up.
HEAVEN, n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.
For Ambrose Bierce, this would have been Heaven indeed. • 26 September 2011