Mark Twain and Philosophy ed. by Alan H. Goldman
The conversation between philosophy and literature is interesting and often insightful even if it sometimes can be a difficult straddle. When I submitted what was ultimately published as The Pluralistic Philosophy of Stephen Crane (1993), the editor of the first press returned my manuscript saying it was “insufficiently literary”; a second press said, in effect, the opposite. So Goldman and his colleagues are to be commended for an insightful volume of fifteen essays that embraces both poles of the philosophy-literature dialogue.
Goldman’s collection begins with a reprinting of Jonathan Bennett’s seminal and probing examination of “The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn.” Bennett’s piece has sparked lots of controversy and interesting comment—it also has had legs. It first appeared in Philosophy some forty plus years ago! [End Page 174] Part one of Goldman’s volume is made up of Bennett’s essay along with four tightly-argued analyses/critiques of Bennett’s position. These essays in Part I of the volume are the most “philosophical” of the whole volume.
For the four responses to Bennett the nub of the matter comes down to whether weakness of will does or does not explain Huck’s decision to protect Jim from the two men hunting runaway slaves. On Bennett’s account Huck’s heartfelt sympathy for Jim simply overrides an imperative of conscience that was sanctioned by the official morality of slave-owning in rural Missouri. And so acting out of bad faith, “I tried . . . but I warn’t man enough—hadn’t the spunk of a rabbit,” he resigned himself to go to Hell. Goldman’s response, “Huckleberry Finn and Moral Motivation” argues that instead of irrationally caving in, Finn’s decisions are quite rational: “his reasons for helping Jim are stronger than his reason for turning him in and returning him to slavery . . . so his action is courageous as opposed to weak-willed.” Robert Fudge’s “‘Sympathy, Principles and Conscience’: Getting to the Heart of Huck Finn’s Moral Praiseworthiness,” concurs also finding Huck’s decisions rational. Michael Lyons’ “Huckleberry Finn’s Struggle between Sympathy and Moral Principle Reconsidered” first spends several pages summarizing Bennett’s position which he then recasts into two formal syllogisms, one for “the stronger argument” and the other for “the adjusted argument.” Lyon’s informal precis is more helpful—what is to be gained from Huckleberry Finn is that the natural rather than “the societal nurtured morality” best elucidates what Mark Twain accomplices in his exploration into the workings of conscience in chapters 16 and 31 of the novel. Kristina Gehrman’s “Twain’s Last Laugh” argues that Jim is the book’s moral exemplar. He is “the only just, kind, and morally mature person in the world of the novel.” In her focus on Jim instead of Huck, Gehrman casts Twain as Socrates’ fellow ironist and a gadfly seeking to stir up a sluggish society’s tolerance of slavery and racism.
The ten essays in the remainder of the volume are decidedly more reader-friendly for the non-philosopher. These chapters are generally more dis-cursive than analytical and appear to be aimed at audiences who may be unfamiliar with many of Twain’s later writings. Namely, Twain’s tracts that express his humorous, but also acidic and cynical views on religion, the afterlife, morality, and the situation of “the damned human race.”
In Craig Vasey’s “The Gospel According to Mark (Twain)” and James M. McLachlan, “Mark Twain and the Problem of Evil” take Twain’s writings at face value, never mind that his views are routinely “blasphemous, sarcastic and mocking.” In Vasey’s piece we hear from Twain’s spokesperson Satan, who marvels at God’s exceedingly difficult, even absurd demands: “God creates humans of such a nature that are curious and then orders them not to follow their nature.” Beyond that Satan wonders why Adam and Eve (and [End Page 175] their children forever after) are not given a second chance for such “a trifling offense.” Vasey’s chapter nicely summarizes Satan’s “Letters from the Earth,” including the particulars surrounding the fact that while Twain wrote them in 1909, they were suppressed until 1962. McLachlan offers a trenchant analysis of Twain’s unflinching expose of the problem of evil. Though philosophers have usually seen it as an abstract logical problem—evil as evidence for the non-existence of God—Twain, in the face of his family’s long-suffering bouts of illness and pain, developed a “conception of God [which] resembles more a cosmic tyrant than a loving parent.” In McLachlan words, “Twain concludes that God cannot be omnipotent, omniscient and not be held responsible for the evils and suffering of countless creatures.”
The next two pieces examine two concerns important to Twain, the ethics of lying and vivisection. James Edwin Mahon’s “The Noble Art of Lying” explores Twain’s writings which Mahon deems to be “an important contribution to the philosophical discussion of lying.” However, Twain’s position is extreme, even beyond idealistic, for he counts all those who fail to “volunteer, unbidden, exactly what they are thinking” as guilty of a lie of omission. Setting aside this moral scrupulosity, Mahon’s essay offers helpful analyses on the territory between “pleasing lies and brutal truths.” Emily E. Van Dette’s “Twain’s Critique of Human Exceptionalism” provides a clear and informative discussion both on the issue itself and also on Twain’s deeply-felt objections to vivisection. Twain’s campaign to curb unnecessary animal suffering is straightforward. When one acknowledges that pain=pain and recognizes that humans are animals, it is clear that serious moral difficulties attend to causing animal pain to promote human health and happiness.
The volume’s next section explores the range of rhetorical and stylistic strategies that Twain marshalled in his critique of religion. Chris A. Kramer’s “Mark Twain’s Serious Humor and That Peculiar Institution: Christianity,” survey his use of “scorching irony” to puncture Christianity’s “arrogance” and “presumed sense of certitude.” Likewise, Dale Jacquette’s “Socratic Irony in Twain’s Skeptical Religious Jeremiads” surveys Twain’s caustic and Socratic deflation of religion’s dogmatic claims. Jacquette gleefully recounts how displays of holy relics and exhibits of fragments of the “True Cross” (sufficient “to build a good-sized schooner with enough left over to crucify the crew”) were scams much too tempting for Twain to pass up.
The volume’s final section is composed of three essays that exhibit Twain’s familiarity with and use of classical philosophical figures: Diogenes (Brian Earl Johnson), the Epicureans (Jennifer Baker) and Nietzsche and Hume (Frank Boardman). The fourth essay in this section by Jeffery Dueck, “Making the Heart Grow Fonder” uses the thought of a near-contemporary of Twain, Cambridge aesthetician Edward Bullough, whose 1912 article “‘Psychic [End Page 176] Distance’ as a Factor in Art and as an Aesthetic Principle” investigated differences between how we apprehend reality in common sense, everyday life, and practical situations and those occasions when we appreciate its aesthetic dimensions. Dueck’s essay offers interesting insights into Twain’s famous and fascinating passages wherein he describes the dissimilarities between his “reading” the river to pilot a paddle-wheeler and the beautiful scenes that the boat’s paying passengers enjoy.
In his introduction Goldman writes, “this volume, of course, does not exhaust the philosophical insight of Mark Twain.” Still, he and his fourteen colleagues wrestle with a wide-range of issues. This volume makes a valuable contribution to Twain studies and, in the bargain, to the interchange between philosophy and literature. Above all, it is a reminder, if we needed one, of our sheer pleasure when we read Twain.