The stranger had killed this man's friend in a fight, this man's Kentucky training made it a duty to kill the stranger for it. He neglected his duty--kept dodging it, shirking it, putting it off, and his unrelenting conscience kept persecuting him for this conduct. At last, to get ease of mind, comfort, self-approval, he hunted up the stranger and took his life. It was an immense act of SELF- SACRIFICE (as per the usual definition), for he did not want to do it, and he never would have done it if he could have bought a contented spirit and an unworried mind at smaller cost. But we are so made that we will pay ANYTHING for that contentment--even another man's life.

Y.M. You spoke a moment ago of TRAINED consciences. You mean that we are not BORN with consciences competent to guide us aright?

O.M. If we were, children and savages would know right from wrong, and not have to be taught it.

Y.M. But consciences can be TRAINED?

O.M. Yes.

Y.M. Of course by parents, teachers, the pulpit, and books.

O.M. Yes--they do their share; they do what they can.

Y.M. And the rest is done by--

O.M. Oh, a million unnoticed influences--for good or bad: influences which work without rest during every waking moment of a man's life, from cradle to grave.

Y.M. You have tabulated these?

O.M. Many of them--yes.

Y.M. Will you read me the result?

O.M. Another time, yes. It would take an hour.

Y.M. A conscience can be trained to shun evil and prefer good?

O.M. Yes.

Y.M. But will it for spirit-contenting reasons only?

O.M. It CAN'T be trained to do a thing for any OTHER reason. The thing is impossible.

Y.M. There MUST be a genuinely and utterly self-sacrificing act recorded in human history somewhere.

O.M. You are young. You have many years before you. Search one out.

Y.M. It does seem to me that when a man sees a fellow-being struggling in the water and jumps in at the risk of his life to save him--

O.M. Wait. Describe the MAN. Describe the FELLOW-BEING. State if there is an AUDIENCE present; or if they are ALONE.

Y.M. What have these things to do with the splendid act?

O.M. Very much. Shall we suppose, as a beginning, that the two are alone, in a solitary place, at midnight?

Y.M. If you choose.

O.M. And that the fellow-being is the man's daughter?

Y.M. Well, n-no--make it someone else.

O.M. A filthy, drunken ruffian, then?

Y.M. I see. Circumstances alter cases. I suppose that if there was no audience to observe the act, the man wouldn't perform it.

O.M. But there is here and there a man who WOULD. People, for instance, like the man who lost his life trying to save the child from the fire; and the man who gave the needy old woman his twenty-five cents and walked home in the storm--there are here and there men like that who would do it. And why? Because they couldn't BEAR to see a fellow-being struggling in the water and not jump in and help. It would give THEM pain. They would save the fellow-being on that account. THEY WOULDN'T DO IT OTHERWISE. They strictly obey the law which I have been insisting upon. You must remember and always distinguish the people who CAN'T BEAR things from people who CAN. It will throw light upon a number of apparently "self-sacrificing" cases.

Y.M. Oh, dear, it's all so disgusting.

O.M. Yes. And so true.

Y.M. Come--take the good boy who does things he doesn't want to do, in order to gratify his mother.

O.M. He does seven-tenths of the act because it gratifies HIM to gratify his mother. Throw the bulk of advantage the other way and the good boy would not do the act. He MUST obey the iron law. None can escape it.

Y.M. Well, take the case of a bad boy who--

O.M. You needn't mention it, it is a waste of time. It is no matter about the bad boy's act. Whatever it was, he had a spirit-contenting reason for it. Otherwise you have been misinformed, and he didn't do it.

Y.M. It is very exasperating. A while ago you said that man's conscience is not a born judge of morals and conduct, but has to be taught and trained.

What is Man? and Other Essays of Mark Twain Page 09

Mark Twain

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