Of Mutts and Misanthropes (or, A Brief Reply to Mencken and Karamazov)

By Jin-yeong Yi

Wilhelm Busch - Arthur Schopenhauer

“Humans are weak, always have to act contrary to what they really want, and they have also destroyed an entire planet. In short, they don’t live in allegiance with themselves and I will always hate my own race.”

—Vidar Vaaer, interview with deathmetal.org

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”

—Albert Einstein

“Man is a rope, tied between beast and overman—a rope over an abyss … what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

As our political, ethnic, religious, and environmental conflicts come to a head, the question is raised with seemingly increased frequency: is humanity worth the trouble in the first place? There are a fair number of those who do not think so. Some, like Pentti Linkola, call for eugenics and genocide. Others, like Arthur Schopenhauer 150 years ago and the Church of Euthanasia today, call for extinction altogether.

About 93 years ago, H. L. Mencken, apparently not content with skewering individuals and groups, turned the sharp blade of his pen onto the species as a whole:

As animals go, even in so limited a space as our world, man is botched and ridiculous. Few other brutes are so stupid, so docile or so cowardly. The commonest yellow dog has far sharper senses and is infinitely more courageous, not to say more honest and dependable. The ants and the bees are more intelligent and ingenious; they manage their government with vastly less quarrelling, wastefulness and imbecility; the worship of cads and poltroons is unknown among them. The lion is more beautiful, more dignified, more majestic. The antelope is swifter and more graceful. The ordinary house-cat is cleaner. The horse, foamed by labor, has a better smell. The gorilla is kinder to his children and more faithful to his wife. The ox and the ass are more industrious and patient. But most of all, man is deficient in courage, perhaps the noblest quality of them all. He is not only mortally afraid of all other animals of his own weight, or half his weight—save a few that he has debased by inbreeding—he is even mortally afraid of his own kind—and not only of their fists and hooves, but even of their snickers.

Moreover, man is also a physical weakling—the most fragile and ridiculous creature in all creation. No other animal is so defectively adapted to its environment. The human infant, as it comes into the world, is so puny that if it were neglected for two days running it would infallibly perish, and this congenital infirmity, though more or less concealed later on, persists until death. Man is ill far more than any other animal, both in his savage state and under civilization. He has more different diseases and he suffers from them oftener. He is more easily exhausted and injured. He dies more horribly, and sooner. Practically all the other higher vertebrates, at least in their wild state, live longer and retain their faculties to a greater age. Here even the anthropoid apes are far beyond their human cousins. An orang-outang marries at the age of seven or eight, raises a family of seventy or eighty children, and is still as hale and hearty at eighty-five as a Seventh Day Adventist at forty-five.

All the amazing errors and incompetencies of the Creator reach their climax in man. As a piece of mechanism he is the worst of them all; put beside him, even a mullet or a staphylococcus is a sound and efficient machine. He has the worst kidneys known to comparative zoology, and the worst lungs, and the worst heart. His eye, considering the work it is called upon to do, is less efficient than the eye of an earth-worm; an optical instrument maker who made an instrument so intolerably unfit for its work would starve to death. Alone of all animals, terrestrial, celestial or marine, man is unfit to go abroad in the world he inhabits. He must clothe himself, protect himself, swathe himself, armor himself. He is eternally in the position of a turtle born without a shell, a hog without a snout, a fish without scales or fins. Deprived of his heavy and cumbersome trappings, he is defenseless against even flies. In a state of nature he hasn’t even a tail to switch them off.

We now come to man’s one point of superiority: he has a soul. This is what sets him off from all other animals, and makes him, in a way, their master. The exact nature of this soul has been in dispute for thousands of years, but regarding its function it is possible to speak with some accuracy. That function is to bring man into direct contact with God, to make him aware of God, above all, to make him resemble God. Well, consider the colossal failure of the device! If we assume that man actually does resemble God, then we are forced into the impossible theory that God is a coward, an idiot and a bounder. And if we assume that man, after all these years, does not resemble God, then it appears at once that the human soul is as inefficient a machine as the human liver or tonsil, and that man would probably be better off, as the chimpanzee undoubtedly is better off, without it.

Such, indeed, is the case. The only practical effect of having a soul is that it fills man with anthropomorphic and anthropocentric vanities—in brief, with the cocky superstitions that make him disgusting. He struts and plumes himself because he has this soul—and overlooks the fact that it doesn’t work. Thus he is the supreme imbecile of creation, the reductio ad absurdum of animated nature. He is like a cow who believed that she could jump over the moon, and ordered her whole life upon that theory. He is like a bull-frog boasting eternally of fighting lions, and flying over the Matterhorn, and swimming the Hellespont. And yet this is the poor brute we are asked to venerate as a gem in the forehead of the cosmos! This is the worm we are asked to defend as liege lord of the earth—with all its millions of braver, nobler, decenter quadrupeds—its superb lions, its lithe and gallant leopards, its imperial elephants, its honest dogs, its courageous rats! This is the insect we are besought, at infinite trouble, labor and expense, to reproduce![1]

He has a point. In terms of living creatures, what many would call the worst of what this earth has to offer consists of humans. As Ivan observes in The Brothers Karamazov,

“People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it.”

Ivan goes on to deliver a startling inversion of Genesis 1:27:

“I think if the devil doesn’t exist, but man has created him, he has created him in his own image and likeness.”

Anton LaVey elaborates:

“Satan represents man as just another animal, sometimes better, more often worse than those that walk on all-fours, who, because of his ‘divine spiritual and intellectual development,’ has become the most vicious animal of all!”[2]

Indeed. What other known species is capable of bigotry, sadism, organized crime, systematic torture, warfare, and nuclear holocausts? By the same token, however, I’d argue that the best of what this corner of the universe has to offer also consists of humans. As far as I know, no quadrupedal species—even the wise elephant—is capable of composing sublime symphonies, playing the piano or violin, constructing complex languages, discovering mathematical formulae, delivering stirring speeches, creating marvelous paintings and sculptures, writing eloquent poetry and prose, or building great edifices.

As wonderful as they are, the speechless animals can only go so far in either direction, because they lack one thing that humans have, which is a singularly profound potential for greatness. Depending on how you look at it, humanity’s potential for “bad” is matched by its potential for “good.” Among animals, humanity is capable of the lowest ugliness and ignobleness, but by the same token, it is also capable of the highest beauty and nobleness. It is precisely because of this unique potential that humans can screw up as badly as they do, but also achieve wonders that other species cannot dream of, let alone achieve. And I don’t know about you, but in choosing a mate, I’d take the average Jill over the most handsome and loyal lioness, bitch, cow, sheep, chicken, or rat any day.

If humankind has created the devil in its own image and likeness, it is equally true to say that humankind has done the same with God.

“What is worth loving? The potential of humanity, the power of reason, the comfort of another’s love, the pursuit of knowledge and truth, the beauty and joy of human experience, and the nearly unlimited power of the human will to endure almost any hardship or solve almost any problem. And that is just the short list. How many wonderful people do we know, or could we know if we sought them out, who are worth loving—loving merely for the fact that we wished there were more of them in the world, and the fact that they give us a reason to life? Even when I look at something magnificent in nature—the stars, the wilds, the physique of a sea lion, the beauty of a nebula—I think to myself ‘How fantastic!’ How pointless that beauty would be if I didn’t notice and appreciate it. How valuable I am because I can.”

—Richard Carrier, Sense and Goodness Without God

“Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapour, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavour, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

—Blaise Pascal, Pensées

Notes

[1] Smart Set, August 1919. Quoted from H. L. Mencken on Religion, edited by S. T. Joshi.

[2] The Satanic Bible by Anton LaVey

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