Ambrose Bierce’s Pro-Freedom Cynicism
The friends of freedom must recognize the verbal charades that sway people to surrender their rights and liberties. The political establishment and its media allies are continually abusing the English language to lull people into submission.
From pupils being required to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each school day to adults being endlessly hectored to vote, Americans are injected with demands for obedience almost from womb to tomb. It is not enough to obey: Americans are supposedly obliged to view the current regime as the incarnation of “the will of the people.”
Journalist and author Ambrose Bierce offered a barrage of antidotes to this servile claptrap. Many people are familiar with Bierce’s definition of cynic — “a blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” But Bierce’s writing had a much sharper political edge than is usually recognized nowadays.
H.L. Mencken commented that Ambrose Bierce was the “one genuine wit” that America had produced as of the early 1900s. Mencken summarized Bierce’s career:
Doomed to live in a country in which, by God’s will, honesty is rare and courage is still rarer and honor is almost unknown…. he fell upon the mountebanks, great and small, in a Berserker fury, thus to sooth and secure his own integrity. That integrity, as far as I can make out, was never betrayed by compromise. Right or wrong, he always stuck to the truth as he saw it.
A berserker of truth
Few American writers have punctured more political pretenses than Ambrose Bierce. Bierce was a Union officer in the Civil War and almost died from his wounds at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in 1864. His short stories offered a joltingly realistic view of the pervasive death and folly in almost every battle.
Bierce’s biggest contribution to starkly perceiving political reality was The Devil’s Dictionary, first published in 1911. Mencken said that book contained “some of the most devastating epigrams ever written.” Bierce offered plenty of piercing insights that can be profitably studied by today’s friends of freedom.
Bierce defined “politics” as “a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” His definition of “politician” was more scathing: “An eel in the fundamental mud upon which the superstructure of organized society is reared…. As compared with the statesman, he suffers the disadvantage of being alive.” He defined “sorcery” as “the ancient prototype and forerunner of political influence.” Similarly, he defined “degradation” as “one of the stages of moral and social progress from private station to political preferment.”
Bierce’s definition of “freedom” was sounder than that offered by most political philosophers: “Exemption from the stress of authority in a beggarly half dozen of restraint’s infinite multitude of methods.” Bierce followed that definition with a brief poem:
Freedom screams whenever monarchs meet,
And parliaments as well,
To bind the chains about her feet
And toll her knell.
And when the sovereign people cast
The votes they cannot spell,
Upon the pestilential
Article from LewRockwell