Before he became the larger-than-life author and humorist Mark Twain, he was Samuel L Clemens from Missouri. He went through many different jobs before becoming famous, including a riverboat pilot on the great Mississippi. This later inspired some of his most famous works, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Unlike many authors ‘ who tend to gain fame after their deaths ‘ Twain was a celebrity in his day. He was well known as a lecturer, writer, and colloquial philosopher.
‘Education: that which reveals to the wise, and conceals from the stupid, the vast limits of their knowledge.’
Twain points out that the true accumulation of knowledge only opens up many more questions to the student, many of which will never be truly answered. The student who believes the accumulation of knowledge will allow them to know anything is ultimately a fool.
‘I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.’
Twain presents a stark contrast between two concepts that are commonly considered to be one in the same. Schooling does not give a person an education or understanding of the world. Only living can truly educate.
‘Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.’
Though this can be taken literally, Twain is referring to the creation of a persona. Twain himself was born Samuel Clemens, yet the public knew him as Mark Twain the cynic and humorist. It was his ‘clothes’ that allowed him to gain influence in the public. Here, he encourages those who desire celebrity and influence to do the same.
‘Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear ‘ not absence of fear.’
Society honors the brave, but no one thinks themselves brace because fear always exists. However, the brave are simply those who know how to move their fears to the back of their minds. No person is fearless.
‘Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.’
A higher truth wrapped in a healthy dose of practical advice, in typical Mark Twain style. Acknowledging your faults is not just good for self-growth, but to let those around you know that you are aware of them. If you openly acknowledge your flaws, then people cannot use them against you.
‘I was gratified to be able to answer properly. I said ‘I don’t know.”
Admitting that you don’t know an answer to a question is not only honest, but also a sign of vulnerability. In some senses, ‘I don’t know’ is the universal answer to every question. Some of Twain’s nihilism creeps into this wise quote.
‘Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.’
Life is full of terrible, annoying things that can really weigh a person down with anger and stress. By approaching these things with a sense of humor, you can take some of that weight off your back and just smile. If you learn to laugh about the big things, then you can let life simply roll off your back. Twain certainly tried to do this throughout his life.
‘I have spent most of my life worrying about things that have never happened.’
The mind is a place filled with loud voices telling you every possible thing that can go wrong in your life. Here Twain gives us a much-needed reminder that the majority of the worries you have are completely needless. If you worry less, then perhaps you can do more without useless hindrances and stress.
‘In his private heart no man respects himself.’
Even the strongest and most confident person ultimately has self-doubt. There is no person that does not constantly second guess himself or herself, no matter how self-assured they may seem. This seems to be a theme in many of Twain’s quotes.
‘If all men knew what each said of the other, there would not be four friends in the world.’
Every person is judgmental to a degree and every person has a number of opinions about the people populating their life. If many of these thoughts were to be expressed, no one would like each other. Through this funny and slightly sad scenario, Twain reminds us that in order to keep friends, it is best to keep our more aggressive opinions about friends and family to ourselves.
‘I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.’
Most big opportunities seem unimportant or even frivolous initially, but you never know what could open doors for you. Never waste your potential and never let a possible opportunity slip by, even if it may not seem like a big deal at the time.
‘If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.’
Twain’s cynical social commentary makes a cautionary statement about the way people treat one another. Though it is noble to help other people climb to the top, you may not receive gratitude in return. In fact, the person you helped may ultimately hurt you in the end, so be prepared. If only people were as benevolent as their pets.
‘In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.’
Opinions about religion and politics are often expressed loudly, but many of them are forged from secondhand sources or plain misinformation. Be informed about the issues and always be open to a dialogue. The more you reexamine and challenge your own beliefs the better off you will be.
‘It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.’
This is Twain’s snappy, tongue-and-cheek way to saying ‘Don’t speak unless you know what you’re talking about.’ The silent may not express an opinion, but at least it won’t be a stupid one. This is especially useful advise for any sort of social gathering where the subjects of politics or religion may arise.
‘Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.’
As cynical and scathing as Twain could be at times, ultimately this seemed to be his life philosophy. Of all the people on the world to be happy for death, it would be the man who makes his living off of corpses. When the undertaker is sad to see you pass on, then you know you have had a good ride through life. It certainly seems that Twain lived out this quote.