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Go to the Index of 120 Philosophers Squared

Ambrose Bierce (1843-1913) was known to his friends as Bitter Bierce. He was an American philosopher of biting sarcasm, and eventually he got murdered for poking into the Mexican revolution where he wasn’t wanted.

Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce, the philosopher of bitterness

Quotes of Ambrose Bierce from the net: An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and Other Stories, The Devil’s Dictionary, Ghost Stories,

“Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum — “I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;” is as close a statement to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.”

“Brain: an apparatus with which we think we think.”

“MIND, n. A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.”

“All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusion is called a philosopher.”

“Philosophy – A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.”

“Politics, n. Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles.”

“TRUTHFUL, adj. Dumb and illiterate.”

“Self-evident, adj. Evident to one’s self and to nobody else.”

“Absurdity, n.: A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.”

“Academe, n.: An ancient school where morality and philosophy were taught. Academy, n.: A modern school where football is taught.”

“Dawn: When men of reason go to bed.”

“Erudition – dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull”

“Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.”

“Learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.”

“NIHILIST, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoi. The leader of the school is Tolstoi.”

“Optimist – A proponent of the doctrine that black is white.”

“ABSTAINER, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure.”

“Diplomacy, n.: The patriotic art of lying for one’s country.”

“Revolution – In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment.”

“Peace: A period of cheating between two periods of fighting.”

“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

“War: A by-product of the arts of peace.”

“Riot – A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.”

“Prejudice is a vagrant opinion without visible means of support.”

“History – An account mostly false, of events unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.”

“Impiety, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.”

“Inhumanity, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity.”

“Patience – A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.”

“Happiness: an agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.”

“Be as decent as you can. Don’t believe without evidence. Treat things divine with marked respect — don’t have anything to do with them. Do not trust humanity without collateral security; it will play you some scurvy trick. Remember that it hurts no one to be treated as an enemy entitled to respect until he shall prove himself a friend worthy of affection. Cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And, finally, most important of all, endeavor to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.”

“In our civilization, and under our republican form of government, intelligence is so highly honored that it is rewarded by exemption from the cares of office.”

“Democracy is four wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.”

“Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the unknowable.”

“Debt is an ingenious substitute for the chain and whip of the slave-driver. ”

“Bore, n.: A person who talks when you wish him to listen.”

Positive, adj.: Mistaken at the top of one’s voice.”

Mad, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence.”

“ABNORMAL, adj. Not conforming to standards in matters of thought and conduct. To be independent is to be abnormal, to be abnormal is to be detested.

“The covers of this book are too far apart.”

“Opportunity: A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.”

“Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage.”

“Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”

“Heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.”

“Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.”

“There is nothing new under the sun but there are lots of old things we don’t know.”

“PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”

“Optimism, n. The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong. It is held with greatest tenacity by those most accustomed to the mischance of falling into adversity, and is most acceptably expounded with disproof – an intellectual disorder, yielding to no treatment but death. It is hereditary, but fortunately not contagious.”

“Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are not as they ought to be.”

“There are 4 kinds of Homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.”

“Humanity, n. The human race, collectively, exclusive of the anthropoid poets.”

“MAN, n. An animal so lost in rapturous contemplation of what he thinks he is as to overlook what he indubitably ought to be. His chief occupation is extermination of other animals and his own species, which, however, multiplies with such insistent rapidity as to infest the whole habitable earth and Canada.”

“Good-bye — if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican stone wall and shot to rags please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia.”

Shortly after writing that “Good-bye” Ambrose disappeared, while visiting the revolutionary armies in Mexico, where he was presumably writing news articles about them for the San Francisco Chronicle. My small experience with the Chronicle’s reporters is that they pretend to be friends, but publish miserably distorted stuff about the reality we, the reportees, were forced to live with. Here in America we tolerate this and consider it a protected freedom. In most places and particularly in revolutionary situations it is considered traitorous and both spies and reporters are  put up against stone walls and shot to rags. Bierce obviously knew this and his death might properly be called a revolutionary assisted suicide.

If Bitter Bierce were kicking around today he would seek out jobs like the TV Comedy Central reporters Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert now hold. That would be Bierce’s ideal job. I hope Jon, who departed last week for the Middle East for three months to make a movie, fares better than Bierce did when he was in a revolutionary environment. Jon will probably embroil himself in some very dangerous situations. The stated intent of the movie he is directing will probably be very unpopular with the people of the region he is portraying.

Bierce’s dictionary definition – “Heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something that he can see and feel.” – is what the natural philosophers have, for two millennium, been attempting to become; that is, someone who understands the world because he can get predictable and accurate behavior from what he sees and feels using his senses and from the experiments he performs with his instruments. Most of philosophy is still wrangling with the more obscure verbal aspects of psychological and moral human problems, which using their methods could have been answered as well by the Classic Romans. I prefer physically testable methods, so I suppose I am a heathen.

Science is the knowable aspect of philosophy.