We Just Keep Making the Same Old Mistakes and Using the Same Old Arguments—As One of Mark Twain’s Most Brilliant Stories Warns Us

As hard as I try, I can’t keep Mark Twain’s posthumously published story, The Mysterious Stranger, off my mind for very long these days. That’s because I keep reading the daily newspaper.

Twain’s story was published posthumously because he thought it might get him hung from the nearest tree if he were alive when it appeared. As you’ll see shortly, he did have reason to be concerned about self-preservation.

Set in a sleepy Austrian village in 1590, it starred three boys and a handsome, young, mysterious stranger who said his name was Philip Traum. He claimed to be a magician. The boys wanted tricks, and Traum did some impressive ones. But none so impressive as making the boys invisible and showing them interesting sights. By now, the visitor had the boys’ confidence, and he told them he was really an angel, and his real name was Satan.

This is where the story of Philip Traum and the daily headlines in my newspaper keep coinciding.

For example, the headline for today’s lead story on the front page of The New York Times read, “Torture Alleged at Ministry Site Outside Baghdad.” The story alleges a litany of gruesome sins against humanity.

In Twain’s story, Traum took his invisible boys to visit a ghastly torture chamber. The story’s narrator couldn’t stand it for long. “It was a brutal thing,” he told Satan on the way home.

“No,” Satan replied. “It was a human thing….No brute ever does a cruel thing. When a brute inflicts pain, he does it innocently; he does not inflict pain for the pleasure of inflicting it—only man does that.”

Next, Satan takes his young charges to the stoning and hanging of a nice old woman, believed to be a witch. The boys are horrified but do nothing. Satan reads their mind and laughs. He observed that there were 68 people looking on as the woman was killed, and 62 of them “had no more desire to throw a stone than you had.”

The problem, said Satan, is that people are really sheep. He continued:

“Look at you in war—what muttons you are, and how ridiculous! There has never been a just one, never an honorable one—on the part of the instigator of the war. The loud little handful as usual will shout for the war….Next, the statesmen will invent cheap lies, putting the blame upon the nation that is attacked, and every man will be glad of those conscience-soothing falsities, and will diligently study them, and refuse to examine any refutations of them, and thus, he will by and by convince himself that the war is just and will thank God for the better sleep he enjoys after this process of grotesque self-deception.”

No need, I’m sure, to point out what headlines this quote calls to mind.

And then there was this observation by Twain’s Philip Traum (nee Satan) about the standard God of Christendom:

“A God who could make good children as easily as bad, yet preferred to make bad ones, who could have made every one of them happy, yet never made a single happy one; who made them prize their bitter life, yet stingily cut it short; who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned, yet required his other children to earn it; who gave his angels painless lives, yet cursed his other children with biting miseries and maladies of mind and body ….”

Well, you know Mark Twain. There’s a lot more. But if you ever accuse my mind of immediately thinking of the inventors of the intelligent design idea when I read the quote immediately above, I’ll immediately suggest that you’ve lost yours.

Because I’m not running a posthumous blog here!

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