Ambrose Bierce, a unique and mysterious American writer, an agnostic and the patron saint of cynics, was born on this day in 1842.
Bierce was a journalist and short-story writer, primarily. He is best-known for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Kurt Vonnegut called the greatest American short story, and for “The Devil’s Dictionary.”
Two of Bierce’s three sons died before he did, one by suicide and the other by pneumonia brought on by his alcoholism. The event that might have wounded Bierce the deepest, however, was the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), in which he fought for the Union side as a first lieutenant. The horror of war was a preoccupation of his in his later writings.
In his “Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce wrote: “Inhumanity, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity.”
And what about religion, that could bring men together?
Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable…Religions are conclusions for which the facts of nature supply no major premises.”
We’re assuming you include Christianity?
“Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin…Camels and Christians receive their burdens kneeling.”
There’s nothing to the Bible, then?
“Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.”
You don’t think there can be genuinely religious people?
“Clergyman, n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.”
Or genuine faith?
“Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”
Prayer is useless, then, in your view?
“Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.”
Well, then, how about theology?
“Theology is a thing of unreason altogether, an edifice of assumption and dreams, a superstructure without a substructure.”
Don’t people have to have something to look up to?
“Piety, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.”
“Reverence, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.”
“Impiety, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.”
We will assume you’re a non-believer? How does it feel to be called a heathen?
“Heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something he can see and feel.”
No one knows how, or where, Bierce died. It was apparently his wish to slip away unnoticed. The man whose motto was “Nothing matters” is still remembered, a fact that would have amused him. In “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Bierce wrote:
“Immortality: A toy which people cry for/And on their knees apply for/Dispute, contend and lie for/ And if allowed/Would be right proud/Eternally to die for.”