It’s Already BEEN SAID!
The Wit & Wisdom of Mark Twain
It is better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.”
“Clothes make the man.
Naked people have little or no influence in society.”
Mark Twain once attended a dinner party at which the subject of heaven and hell was raised. Throughout the heated discussion Twain said nothing.
Finally, the hostess asked, “Why haven’t you said something, Mr. Clemens?
Surely you must have an opinion on this subject.”
“Madam, you must excuse me,” Mark Twain replied. “I am silent because of dire necessity. I have friends in both places.”
“Chastity—it can be carried too far.”
“There has never been an uninteresting life. Such a thing is an impossibility.
Inside of the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy, a tragedy.”
“The radical of one century is the conservative of the next.
The radical invents the views. When he has worn them
out the conservative adopts them.”
“[Mark Twainj was the first American of world rank to write in a genuinely colloquial and native American .
—H. L. Mencken
T his sparkling anthology of Mark Twain’s most trenchant remarks has been culled from his books, speeches, letters, and conversations. The sayings are as fresh today as when he first wrote them, and represent Twain at his wittiest and best .
The following are a few samples from the collection:
“We have nine children—half boys and half girls.”
A classic is something that everybody wants to have read but nobody wants to read.”
•‘Make money and the whole world will conspire to call you a gentleman.”
“Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”
Alex Ayres, while in college, was the editor of
the Harvard Lampoon , the nation’s oldest
humor magazine. He is senior editor and part
owner of Running Times, and his epigrams
have even appeared in FORBES.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery” is a command which makes no distinction between the following persons. They are all required to obey it: children at birth. Children in the cradle . School children. Youths and maidens . Fresh adults. Older ones. Men and women of 40. Of 50 . Of 60 . Of 70 . Of 80 . Of 90. Of 100. The command does not distribute its burden equally, and cannot. It is not hard upon the three sets of children.
By temperament, which is the real law of God, many men are goats and can’t help committing adultery when they get a chance; whereas there are numbers of men who, by temperament, can keep their purity and let an opportunity go by if the woman lacks in attractiveness.
By trying, we can easily learn to endure adversity.
Another man’s, I mean.
It all began with Adam. He was the first man to tell a joke—or a lie. “How lucky Adam was,” Mark Twain wrote enviously in his notebook in 1867. “He knew when he said a good thing, nobody had said it before.”
Adam was not alone in the Garden of Eden, however, and does not deserve all the credit; much is due to Eve, the first woman, and Satan, the first consultant.
Adam was but human—this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.
The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.
It was ever thus, all through my life: whenever I have diverged from custom and principle and uttered a truth, the rule has been that the hearer hadn’t strength of mind to believe it.
Never tell the truth to people who are not worthy of it.
An injurious truth has no merit over an injurious lie. Neither should ever be uttered.
There have been innumerable Temporary Seekers after the Truth—
have you ever heard of a permanent one?
Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.
Mark Twain once visited a friend named Anson Burlingame in Hawaii.
Burlingame suggested they go for a walk, and when Twain hesitated, Burlingame declared, “But there is a scriptural command for you to go.”
“If you can quote one, I’ll obey,” said Mark Twain.
Burlingame offered this biblical injunction: “If any man require thee to walk a mile, go with him twain.” Twain went with him.
I was a fresh, new journalist, and needed a nom de guerre; so I confiscated the ancient mariner’s discarded one, “Mark Twain,” and have done my best to make it remain what it was in his hands—a sign and symbol and warrant that whatever is found in its company may be gambled on as being the petrified truth.
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
-—Innocents Abroad, 1869,
It liberalizes the Vandal to travel. You never saw a bigoted, opinionated, stubborn, narrow-minded, self-conceited, almighty mean man in your life but he had stuck in one place ever since he was born and thought God made the world and dyspepsia and bile for his especial comfort.
—“American Vandal Abroad,” speech, 1868
“An old saying of mine has been misquoted,” Mark Twain said at a New York banquet in 1906. “I didn’t say: ‘When in doubt, tell the truth.’ What I did say was: ‘When you are in doubt, tell the truth.’ When I am in doubt, I use more sagacity.”
If you tell the truth you don’t have to remember anything.
Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to stick to possibilities.
My own luck has been curious all my literary life; I never could tell a lie that anyone would doubt, nor a truth that anybody would believe.
Against a diseased imagination, demonstration goes for nothing.
You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.
When a man goes back to look at the house of his childhood, it has always shrunk: there is no instance of such a house being as big as the picture in memory and imagination calls for.
It’s a blessed thing to have an imagination that can always make you satisfied, no matter how you are fixed.
There is a Moral Sense, and there is an Immoral Sense. History shows us that the Moral Sense enables us to perceive morality and how to avoid it, and that the Immoral Sense enables us to perceive immorality and how to enjoy it.
Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens were divided on the question of immortality. The author’s dual personality encompassed both the skeptic and the believer, with the result that he made contradictory statements on the subject.
When he discussed immortality with Christians, he usually took the skeptic’s point of view, for he relished the role of devil’s advocate.
He often argued the issue with the preacher Henry Ward Beecher and Mrs. Beecher. One day, Mrs. Beecher found some thin-layered leaves of stone in her garden, and knowing Mark Twain’s interest in geology, she showed them to him.
He resolved to write an agreement with her on those timeless leaves, to be set aside until the ages should settle the question of immortality. He wrote:
If you prove right and I prove wrong,
A million years from now,
In language plain and frank and strong,
My error I’ll avow
To your dear waking face.
If I prove right, by God His grace,
Full sorry I shall be,
For in that solitude no trace
There’ll be of you and me.
A million years, 0 patient stone,
You’ve waited for this message.
Deliver it a million hence;
(Survivor pays expressage.)
It is at our mother’s knee that we acquire our noblest and truest and highest ideals, but there is seldom any money in them.
I would rather have my ignorance than another man’s knowledge,
because I have got so much more of it.
His ignorance covered the whole earth like a blanket, and there was hardly a hole in it anywhere.
The ignorant are afraid to betray surprise or admiration . . . they think it ill manners.
We never knew an ignorant person yet but was prejudiced.
That is just the way with some people. They get down on a thing when they don’t know nothing about it.
Satan is a recurring character in Mark Twain’s works.
Sometimes he is called Satan by name, as in “The Mysterious Stranger” and
“Letters from th e Earth.” In other stories, such as “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg” or “The War Prayer,” the Satanic character is simply an
unidentified “stranger,” often one who speaks with a darkly prophetic voice.
Mark Twain made Satan a spokesman for the “other side,” giving voice to the doubts and despair of the human being in conflict, telling the unpleasant truths that
people do not want to hear.
“I have always felt friendly toward Satan,” wrote Mark Twain in his autobiography. “Of course that is ancestral; it must be in the blood, for I could not have originated it.”
Mark Twain discusses Satan at length in an 1899 essay about prejudice, “Concerning the Jews.” He sees Satan as the eternal victim of prejudice, superstition and slander.
“I have no special regard for Satan; but I can at least claim that I have no prejudice against him. It may even be that I lean a little his way, on account of his not having a fair show,” declares Mark Twain. “All religions issue bibles against him, and say the most injurious things about him, but we never hear his side.”
Perhaps Satan is not guilty, after all. Perhaps Satan is merely the scapegoat of our own evil. “Of course Satan has some kind of a case, it goes without saying. It may be a poor one, but that is nothing; that can be said about any of us.”
Satan never got a fair trial, Mark Twain reminds us. “We have none but the evidence for the prosecution, and yet we have rendered the verdict. To my mind, this is irregular. It is un-English . It is un-American ; it is French.”
Twain vowed to look into Satan’s case, along with Shakespeare’s, in the afterlife. “As soon as I can get at the facts I will undertake his rehabilitation myself,” he promised, “if I can find an unpolitical publisher.”
In the meantime, Satan deserves a little more respect . “We may not pay him reverence, for that would be indiscreet, but we can at least respect his talents . A person who has for untold centuries maintained the imposing position of spiritual head of four-fifths of the human race, and political head of the whole of it, must be granted the possession of executive abilities of the loftiest order.”
Satan hasn’t even a single salaried helper; the Opposition employs a million.
But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner that needed it most?
There ain’t no way to find out why a snorer can’t hear himself snore.
Scientists have odious manners, except when you prop up their theory; then you can borrow money of them.
Mark Twain was sometimes cynical about public officials, as when he offered this definition: “Public servants: Persons chosen by the people to distribute the graft.”
But beneath his gruff disenchantment with the politicians of his time lay a deep love of democracy and a profound desire to preserve American liberty against all types of encroachments . He preferred the vices of democracy to the crimes of monarchy and despotism. “There never was a throne which did not represent a crime,” he wrote. “Despotism is not merely a bad form of government, it is the worst form that is possible.”
Although it was Mark Twain who invented the term “New Deal,” which is associated with an expanded role of government, he nevertheless warned against the unchecked growth of Big Government: “The mania for giving the Government power to meddle with the private affairs of cities or citizens is likely to cause endless trouble.”
He urged Americans to exercise their power to vote and “make unhampered choice and bless Heaven that they live in a free land where no form of despotism can ever intrude.”
Mark Twain was proud to be an American and contended that the American government, with all its flaws and follies, was the best and fairest ever devised. “I think I can say, and say with pride,” he declared in a Fourth of July speech in 1873, “that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”
In statesmanship get the formalities right, never mind about the moralities.
That’s the difference between governments and individuals. Governments don’t care, individuals do.
“Our Country, right or wrong..... .“ Have you not perceived that that phrase is an insult to the nation? .... . . Only when a republic’s life is in danger should a man uphold his government when it is in the wrong. There is no other time. This republic’s life is not in peril.
No country can be well governed unless its citizens as a body keep religiously before their minds that they are the guardians of the law, and that the law officers are only the machinery for its execution, nothing more.
GRANT, ULYSSES S.
In 1880, Ulysses S. Grant came to Hartford to speak, and Mark Twain was delegated to make an introductory speech of welcome to the former President. “Your country stands ready from this day forth to testify her measureless love and pride and gratitude toward you,” Twain pledged from the podium, “in every conceivable inexpensive way.”
Grant was a grim-faced man who did not laugh often or easily, but on hearing the word “inexpensive,” he broke up completely, and laughed until his eyes filled with tears.
Half of the results of a good intention are evil;
half the results of an evil intention are good.
Such tendency toward doing good as is in men’s hearts would not be diminished by the removal of the delusion that good deeds are primarily for the sake of No. 2 instead of for the sake of No. 1.
To be good is noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble.
There is a lot to say in her favor, but the other is more interesting.
Mark Twain is credited with having coined the term “gossip column.”
Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of .proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.
What is the most rigorous law of our being? Growth.
No smallest atom of our moral, mental, or physical structure can stand still a year . It grows---—it must grow; nothing can prevent it.
In the early 1900s, when the elderly Mark Twain was living in New York City, he received many visitors who came to pay their respects to an American sage. One time, a lady caller asked if she could kiss his hand . Twain’s companion, Albert Bigelow Paine, was nonplussed, but the old author graciously accepted the kiss with complete dignity.
“How God must love you!” exclaimed the lady as she was leaving.
“I hope so,” replied Twain gently. After she had departed, he turned to Paine and said wistfully, “I guess she hasn’t heard of our strained relations.”
Mark Twain was not the heretical atheist he was sometimes accused of being. He believed in God, but not the orthodox God of religious tradition. He wrote in his private notebook in 1898,
“The Being who to me is the real God is the One who
created this majestic universe and rules it. He is the
only originator, the only originator of thoughts; thoughts
suggested from within, not from without. . .... .
He is the only creator. He is the perfect artisan, the
Mark Twain believed that to know God was to know Nature. The ways of God are the ways of Nature and can be observed in the natural world. In the introduction to Letters from the Earth, he affirmed his doctrine that divine law is natural law: “Natural Law is the LAW OF GOD—interchangeable names for one and the same thing.”
I believe that our Heavenly Father invented Man because he was disappointed in the monkey.
There are many scapegoats for our blunders,
but the most popular one is Providence.
We have infinite trouble in solving man-made mysteries; it is only when we set out to discover the secret of God that our difficulties disappear.
Who gave his angels eternal happiness unearned,
yet required his other children to earn it?
A street in Constantinople is a picture which one ought to see once —not oftener.
Athens by moonlight! The prophet that thought the splendors of the New Jerusalem were revealed to him surely saw this instead!
Overhead the stately columns, majestic still in their ruin . . . under foot the dreaming city . . . in the distance the silver sea.
One Sunday morning, after attending church services in Hartford, Mark Twain approached Dr. Doane, the minister, and said jovially, “I enjoyed your service this morning, doctor. I welcomed it like an old friend. In fact, I have at home a book containing every word of it.”
The minister was indignant. “You have not!”
“Yes, I have,” insisted Twain.
“I would like to see it!” said Dr. Doane, huffily.
“I will send it to you,” promised Mark Twain.
The following day, a messenger delivered to the Reverend Doane a copy of an unabridged dictionary.
The exercise of an extraordinary gift is the supremest pleasure in life.
The lowest intellect, like the highest, possesses a skill of some kind and takes a keen pleasure in testing it, proving it, perfecting it.
Riding aloft on a mountain of fragrant hay. This is the earliest form of the human pleasure excursion, and for utter joy and perfect contentment it stands alone in a man’s three score years and ten; all that come after it have flaws, but this has none.
When Mark Twain took over as editor of the Buffalo Express in
1869, he wrote an editorial in which he made a solemn pledge to the readers: “I shall not write any poetry unless I conceive a spite against the subscribers.”
Mark Twain often criticized corrupt politicians, lamenting the low morals of public officials. “It’s so hard to find men of a so high type of morals,” he said , “that they’ll slay bought.
Pessimist: The optimist who didn’t arrive.
The man who is a pessimist before 48 knows too much;
if he is an optimist after it, he knows too little.
He has been a doctor a year now, and has had two patients—---not three, I think; yes, it was three. I attended their funerals.
An honest man in politics
shines more than he would elsewhere.
Mark Twain was once engaged by a Mormon in a debate on polygamy. The Mormon did most of the talking as he spared no argument in defense of the practice. Finally, he invoked the Bible: “I’ll wager you can’t cite a single passage in the Bible which forbids polygamy!”
“Sure I can,” replied Mark Twain. “‘No man can serve two masters.
During the preceding night an ambushed savage had sent a bullet through the pony-rider’s jacket, but he had ridden on, just the same, because pony-riders were not allowed to stop and inquire into such things unless killed
Everybody’s private motto: It’s bette r to be popular than right.
If to be interesting is to be uncommonplace, it is becoming a question, with me, if there are any commonplace people.
They talk to me about themselves, and about each other. Thus I get the entire man—four fifths of him from himself and the other fifth from the others. I find that no man discloses the completing fifth himself.
I know all those people. I have friendly, social, and criminal relations with the whole lot of them.
In my experience hard-hearted people are very rare everywhere.
The more you join in with people in their joys and their sorrows, the more nearer and dearer they come to be to you. .... . But it is sorrow and trouble that brings you the nearest.
The Germans are exceedingly fond of Rhine wines; they are put up in tall, slender bottles, and are considered a pleasant beverage. One tells them from vinegar by the label.
At a Christmas party, a young lady was introduced to Mark Twain and, feeling obligated to discuss literary matters, she asked him if he thought a book was the most useful gift one could give.
His answer was not what she expected. “Yes, but of course it depends on the book. A big leather-bound volume makes an ideal razor-strap. A thin book is useful to stick under a table with a broken caster to steady it. A large, flat atlas can be used to cover a window with a broken pane . And a thick, old-fashioned heavy book with a clasp is the finest thing in the world to throw at a noisy cat.”
Philosophers dispute whether it is the promise of what she will be . .. . that makes her attractive, the undeveloped maidenhood, or the natural, careless sweetness of childhood.
They say God made man in his effigy. I don’t know about that, but I’m quite sure that he put a lot of divinity into the American girl.
The first time I ever saw St. Louis, I could have bought it for six million dollars, and it was the mistake of my life that I did not do it.
If any man has just, merciful and kindly instincts he would be a gentleman, for he would need nothing else in the world.
He was a gentleman all over; and so was his family. He was well born, as the saying is, and that’s worth as much in a man as it is in a horse.
Mark Twain had a terrible time learning how to speak German, and ultimately he decided it was the fault of the German language. His brain rebelled against the unreasonable demands of “the language which enables a man to travel all day in one sentence without changing cars.”
“I can understand German as well as the maniac that invented it,” said Twain, “but I talk it best through an interpreter.”
One time during a visit to Germany with his friend the Reverend Joe Twichell, Twain was talking about some rather private matters to Twichell within earshot of some Germans, and Twichell became nervous about it.
“Speak in German, Mark,” urged Twichell. “Some of these people may understand English.”
I was trying to explain to St. Peter, and was doing it in the German tongue, because I didn’t want to be too explicit.
Greatness may be classed as the ability to win recognition.
One of the proofs of the immortality of the soul is that myriads have believed in it. They have also believed the world was flat.
I have never seen what to me seemed an atom of proof that there is a future life. And yet—I am strongly inclined to expect one.
Don’t part with your illusions. When they are gone you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.
Salt Lake City was healthy—an extremely healthy city. They declared there was only one physician in the place and he was arrested every week regularly and held to answer under the vagrant act for having “no visible means of support.”
In his old age, when his traveling days were done, Mark Twain declined an invitation to return to San Francisco for a reunion. He sent this tactful letter of regrets:
“1 have done more for San Francisco than any
other of its old residents. Since I left there, it has
increased in population fully 300,000 . I could have
done more--—I could have gone earlier--—it was
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