Ambrose Bierce

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Absurdity, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.

Ambrose Gwinnett Bierce (June 24, 1842 – date of death uncertain; probably December 1913 or early 1914) was an American satirist, critic, short story writer, editor and journalist. He is perhaps most famous for his serialized mock lexicon, The Devil's Dictionary, in which, over the years, he scathed American culture and accepted wisdom by pointing out alternate, more practical definitions for common words.

Quotes[edit]

Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
Idiot, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling.
  • Study Herod, madame, study Herod.
    • When asked about how to rear obnoxious children by an irritating interviewer.[1]
  • Mark how my fame rings out from zone to zone:
    A thousand critics shouting: "He's unknown!"
    • Couplet
  • The fact that boys are allowed to exist at all is evidence of remarkable Christian forbearance among men--were it not for a mawkish humanitarianism, coupled with imperfect digestive powers, we should devour our young, as Nature intended.
    • Town Crier column in the San Francisco News-Letter (c. 1870)
  • Peyton Fahrquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.
  • True, more than a half of the green graves in the Grafton cemetery are marked "Unknown," and sometimes it occurs that one thinks of the contradiction involved in "honoring the memory" of him of whom no memory remains to honor; but the attempt seems to do no great harm to the living, even to the logical.
    • A Bivouac of the Dead, The New York American, November 22, 1903

What I Saw At Shiloh (1881)[edit]

Bierce's first published reminiscence of the Civil War, the work is separated into parts demarcated by Roman numerals.
  • This is a simple story of a battle; such a tale as may be told by a soldier who is no writer to a reader who is no soldier.
    • I
  • An army's bravest men are its cowards. The death which they would not meet at the hands of the enemy they will meet at the hands of their officers, with never a flinching.
    • V
  • Hidden in hollows and behind clumps of rank brambles were large tents, dimly lighted with candles, but looking comfortable. The kind of comfort they supplied was indicated by pairs of men entering and reappearing, bearing litters; by low moans from within and by long rows of dead with covered faces outside. These tents were constantly receiving the wounded, yet were never full; they were continually ejecting the dead, yet were never empty. It was as if the helpless had been carried in and murdered, that they might not hamper those whose business it was to fall to-morrow.
    • V
  • I suppose the country lying between Corinth and Pittsburg Landing could boast a few inhabitants other than alligators. What manner of people they were it is impossible to say, inasmuch as the fighting dispersed, or possibly exterminated them; perhaps in merely classing them as non-saurian I shall describe them with sufficient particularity and at the same time avert from myself the natural suspicion attaching to a writer who points out to persons who do not know him the peculiarities of persons whom he does not know. One thing, however, I hope I may without offense affirm of these swamp-dwellers--they were pious. To what deity their veneration was given--whether, like the Egyptians, they worshiped the crocodile, or, like other Americans, adored themselves, I do not presume to guess. But whoever, or whatever, may have been the divinity whose ends they shaped, unto Him, or It, they had builded a temple. This humble edifice, centrally situated in the heart of a solitude, and conveniently accessible to the supersylvan crow, had been christened Shiloh Chapel, whence the name of the battle.
    • VI
  • Riven and torn with cannon-shot, the trunks of the trees protruded bunches of splinters like hands, the fingers above the wound interlacing with those below.
    • VII

The Devil's Dictionary (1911)[edit]

First published for letters A-L as The Cynic's Word Book (1906)
Ocean, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.
Zeus, n. The chief of Grecian gods, adored by the Romans as Jupiter and by the modern Americans as God, Gold, Mob and Dog. Some explorers who have touched upon the shores of America, and one who professes to have penetrated a considerable distance to the interior, have thought that these four names stand for as many distinct deities, but in his monumental work on Surviving Faiths, Frumpp insists that the natives are monotheists, each having no other god than himself, whom he worships under many sacred names.
  • Absent, adj. Peculiarly exposed to the tooth of detraction; vilifed; hopelessly in the wrong; superseded in the consideration and affection of another.
  • To men a man is but a mind. Who cares
    What face he carries or what form he wears?
    But woman's body is the woman. O,
    Stay thou, my sweetheart, and do never go,
    But heed the warning words the sage hath said:
    A woman absent is a woman dead.
  • Abstainer, n. A weak person who yields to the temptation of denying himself a pleasure. A total abstainer is one who abstains from everything but abstention, and especially from inactivity in the affairs of others.
  • Absurdity, n. A statement or belief manifestly inconsistent with one's own opinion.
  • Accord, n. Harmony.
  • Accordion, n. An instrument in harmony with the sentiments of an assassin.
  • Acquaintance, n. A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not well enough to lend to. A degree of friendship called slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous
  • Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.
  • Advice, n. The smallest current coin.
  • Alone, adj. In bad company.
  • Amnesty, n. The state’s magnaminity to those offenders whom it would be too expensive to punish.
  • Apologize, v. To lay the foundation for a future offense.
  • Bacchus, n. A convenient deity invented by the ancients as an excuse for getting drunk.
  • Back, n. That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity.
  • Barometer, n. An ingenious instrument which indicates what kind of weather we are having.
  • Birth, n. The first and direst of all disasters.
  • Bore, n. A person who talks when you wish him to listen.
  • Boundary, n. In political geography, an imaginary line between two nations, separating the imaginary rights of one from the imaginary rights of the other.
  • Brain, n. An apparatus with which we think that we think... 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.
  • Bride, n. A woman with a fine prospect of happiness behind her.
  • Cabbage, n. A familiar kitchen-garden vegetable about as large and wise as a man's head.
  • Callous, adj. Gifted with great fortitude to bear the evils afflicting another.
  • Cannon, n. An instrument employed in the rectification of national boundaries.
  • Cartesian, adj. Relating to Descartes, a famous philosopher, author of the celebrated dictum, Cogito ergo sum -- whereby he was pleased to suppose he demonstrated the reality of human existence. The dictum might be improved, however, thus: Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum -- "I think that I think, therefore I think that I am;" as close an approach to certainty as any philosopher has yet made.
  • Cat, n. A soft, indestructible automaton provided by nature to be kicked when things go wrong in the domestic circle.
  • 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 so long as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.
  • Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.
  • Clarionet, n. An instrument of torture operated by a person with cotton in his ears. There are two instruments that are worse than a clarionet -- two clarionets.
  • Congratulation, n. The civility of envy.
  • Conservative, n. A statesman enamored of existing evils, as opposed to a Liberal, who wants to replace them with others.
  • Corporation, n. An ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility.
  • Cynic, n. A blackguard whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be. Hence the custom among the Scythians of plucking out a cynic's eyes to improve his vision.
  • Dawn, n. The time when men of reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh.
  • Defenceless, adj. Unable to attack.
  • Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.
  • Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one's country.
  • Education, n. That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding.
  • Egotist, n. A person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.
  • Electricity, n. The cause of all natural phenomena not known to be caused by something else. It is the same thing as lightning, and its famous attempt to strike Dr. Franklin is one of the most picturesque incidents in that great and good man's career.
  • Erudition, n. Dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull.
  • Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.
  • Freebooter, n. A conqueror in a small way of business, whose annexations lack of the sanctifying merit of magnitude.
  • Freemasons, n. An order with secret rites, grotesque ceremonies and fantastic costumes, which, originating in the reign of Charles II, among working artisans of London, has been joined successively by the dead of past centuries in unbroken retrogression until now it embraces all the generations of man on the hither side of Adam and is drumming up distinguished recruits among the pre-Creational inhabitants of Chaos and Formless Void. The order was founded at different times by Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Cyrus, Solomon, Zoroaster, Confucius, Thothmes, and Buddha. Its emblems and symbols have been found in the Catacombs of Paris and Rome, on the stones of the Parthenon and the Chinese Great Wall, among the temples of Karnak and Palmyra and in the Egyptian Pyramids — always by a Freemason.
  • Friendless, adj. Having no favors to bestow. Destitute of fortune. Addicted to utterance of truth and common sense.
  • Genealogy, n. An account of one's descent from an ancestor who did not particularly care to trace his own.
  • Generous, adj. Originally this word meant noble by birth and was rightly applied to a great multitude of persons. It now means noble by nature and is taking a bit of a rest.
  • Happiness, n. An agreeable sensation arising from contemplating the misery of another.
  • Heaven, n. A place where the wicked cease from troubling you with talk of their personal affairs, and the good listen with attention while you expound your own.
  • Helpmate, n. A wife, or bitter half.
  • Hers, pron. His.
  • Idiot, n. A member of a large and powerful tribe whose influence in human affairs has always been dominant and controlling. The Idiot's activity is not confined to any special field of thought or action, but "pervades and regulates the whole." He has the last word in everything; his decision is unappealable. He sets the fashions and opinion of taste, dictates the limitations of speech and circumscribes conduct with a dead-line.
  • Incompossible, adj. Unable to exist if something else exists. Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman's poetry and God's mercy to man.
  • Infancy, n. The period of our lives when, according to Wordsworth, 'Heaven lies about us.' The world begins lying about us pretty soon afterward.
  • In'ards, n. pl. The stomach, heart, soul, and other bowels.
  • Insurrection, n. An unsuccessful revolution. Disaffection's failure to substitute misrule for bad government.
  • Justice, n. A commodity which in a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.
  • Kilt, n. A costume sometimes worn by Scotchmen [sic] in America and Americans in Scotland.
  • Land, n. A part of the earth's surface, considered as property. The theory that land is property subject to private ownership and control is the foundation of modern society, and is eminently worthy of the superstructure. Carried to its logical conclusion, it means that some have the right to prevent others from living; for the right to own implies the right exclusively to occupy; and in fact laws of trespass are enacted wherever property in land is recognized. It follows that if the whole area of terra firma is owned by A, B and C, there will be no place for D, E, F and G to be born, or, born as trespassers, to exist.
  • Laughter, n. An interior convulsion, producing a distortion of the features and accompanied by inarticulate noises. It is infectious and, though intermittent, incurable.
  • Learning, n. The kind of ignorance distinguishing the studious.
  • Liberty, n. One of imagination's most precious possessions.
  • Logic, n. The art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.
  • Love, n. A temporary insanity curable by marriage or by removal of the patient from the influences under which he incurred the disorder. This disease is prevalent only among civilized races living under artificial conditions; barbarous nations breathing pure air and eating simple food enjoy immunity from its ravages. It is sometimes fatal, but more frequently to the physician than to the patient.
  • Mad, adj. Affected with a high degree of intellectual independence; not conforming to standards of thought, speech, and action derived by the conformants from study of themselves; at odds with the majority; in short, unusual. It is noteworthy that persons are pronounced mad by officials destitute of evidence that they themselves are sane.
  • Marriage, n. The state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress and two slaves, making in all, two.
  • Mayonnaise, n. One of the sauces that serve the French in place of a state religion.
  • Monday, n. In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.
  • Neighbor, n. One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient.
  • Non-combatant, n. A dead Quaker.
  • Ocean, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man — who has no gills.
  • Once, adj. Enough.
  • Opportunity, n. A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.
  • Opposition, n. In politics the party that prevents the Government from running amok by hamstringing it.
  • Optimist, n. A proponent of the doctrine that black is white.
  • Past, n. That part of Eternity with some small fraction of which we have a slight and regrettable acquaintance. A moving line called the Present parts it from an imaginary period known as the Future. These two grand divisions of Eternity, of which the one is continually effacing the other, are entirely unlike. The one is dark with sorrow and disappointment, the other bright with prosperity and joy. The Past is the region of sobs, the Future is the realm of song. In the one crouches Memory, clad in sackcloth and ashes, mumbling penitential prayer; in the sunshine of the other Hope flies with a free wing, beckoning to temples of success and bowers of ease. Yet the Past is the Future of yesterday, the Future is the Past of to-morrow. They are one--the knowledge and the dream.
  • Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
  • Philosophy, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
  • Pig, n. An animal (Porcus omnivorus) closely allied to the human race by the splendor and vivacity of its appetite, which, however, is inferior in scope, for it sticks at pig.
  • Politeness , n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.
  • Politics, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.
  • Positive, adj. Mistaken at the top of one's voice.
  • Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
  • Prejudice, n. A vagrant opinion without visible means of support.
  • Quotation, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another. The words erroneously repeated.
  • Rational, adj. Devoid of all delusions save those of observation, experience and reflection.
  • Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.
  • Resign, v. To renounce an honor for an advantage. To renounce an advantage for a greater advantage.
  • Revelation, n. A famous book in which St. John the Divine concealed all that he knew. The revealing is done by the commentators, who know nothing.
  • Road, n. A strip of land along which one may pass from where it is too tiresome to be to where it is futile to go.
  • Sabbath, n. A weekly festival having its origin in the fact that God made the world in six days and was arrested on the seventh.
  • Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.
  • Selfish, adj. Devoid of consideration for the selfishness of others.
  • Success, n. The one unpardonable sin against one's fellows.
  • Twice, adv. Once too often.
  • Un-American, adj. Wicked, intolerable, heathenish.
  • Virtues, n. pl. Certain abstentions.
  • Vote, v. The instrument and symbol of a freeman's power to make a fool of himself and a wreck of his country.
  • White, adj. and n. Black.
  • Witch, n. (1) An ugly and repulsive old woman, in a wicked league with the devil. (2) A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the devil.
  • Year, n. A period of three hundred and sixty-five disappointments.
  • Youth, n. The Period of Possibility, when Archimedes finds a fulcrum, Cassandra has a following and seven cities compete for the honor of endowing a living Homer.
  • Zeal, n. A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl.
  • Zeus, n. The chief of Grecian gods, adored by the Romans as Jupiter and by the modern Americans as God, Gold, Mob and Dog. Some explorers who have touched upon the shores of America, and one who professes to have penetrated a considerable distance to the interior, have thought that these four names stand for as many distinct deities, but in his monumental work on Surviving Faiths, Frumpp insists that the natives are monotheists, each having no other god than himself, whom he worships under many sacred names.

Epigrams[edit]

Page numbers refer to The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Vol. 8 (1911), § "Epigrams" (p. 343 ff.). Individual epigrams first appeared elsewhere.
  • Woman would be more charming if one could fall into her arms without falling into her hands.
  • You are not permitted to kill a woman who has wronged you, but nothing forbids you to reflect that she is growing older every minute. You are avenged 1440 times a day.
  • Self-denial is indulgence of a propensity to forego.
    • Sometimes quoted with the spelling "forgo", but Bierce used "forego" in his 1911 Collected Works
  • To Dogmatism the Spirit of Inquiry is the same as the Spirit of Evil.
    • p. 343
  • There was never a genius who was not thought a fool until he disclosed himself; whereas he is a fool then only.
    • p. 345
  • Strive not for singularity in dress; Fools have the more and men of sense the less. To look original is not worth while, But be in mind a little out of style.
    • p. 345
  • To be comic is merely to be playful, but wit is a serious matter. To laugh at it is to confess that you do not understand.
    • p. 346
  • If you would be accounted great by your contemporaries, be not too much greater than they.
    • p. 346
  • O proud philanthropist, your hope is vain
    To get by giving what you lost by gain.
    • p. 349. Previously appeared in "Small Contributions", Cosmopolitan, Vol. 42, No. 6 (April 1907) p. 695.
  • "There's no free will," says the philosopher; "To hang is most unjust."
    "There is no free will," assents the officer; "We hang because we must."
    • p. 350
  • The game of discontent has its rules, and he who disregards them cheats. It is not permitted to you to wish to add another's advantages or possessions to your own; you are permitted only to wish to be another.
    • p. 352
  • If you want to read a perfect book there is only one way: write it.
    • p. 353
  • When lost in a forest go always down hill. When lost in a philosophy or doctrine go upward.
    • p. 354
  • We submit to the majority because we have to. But we are not compelled to call our attitude of subjection a posture of respect.
    • p. 354
  • A popular author is one who writes what the people think. Genius invites them to think something else.
    • p. 356
  • The virtues chose Modesty to be their queen.
    "I did not know that I was a virtue," she said. "Why did you not choose Innocence?"
    "Because of her ignorance," they replied. "She knows nothing but that she is a virtue."
    • p. 358
  • The only distinction that democracies reward is a high degree of conformity.
    • p. 358
  • Slang is the speech of him who robs the literary garbage carts on their way to the dumps.
    • p. 358
  • The palmist looks at the wrinkles made by closing the hand and says they signify character. The philosopher reads character by what the hand most loves to close upon.
    • p. 360
  • The money-getter who pleads his love of work has a lame defense, for love of work at money-getting is a lower taste than love of money.
    • p. 361
  • A man is the sum of his ancestors; to reform him you must begin with a dead ape and work downward through a million graves. He is like the lower end of a suspended chain; you can sway him slightly to the right or the left, but remove your hand and he falls into line with the other links.
    • p. 363
  • He who thinks with difficulty believes with alacrity.
    • p. 363
  • Along the road of life are many pleasure resorts, but think not that by tarrying in them you will take more days to the journey. The day of your arrival is already recorded.
    • p. 364
  • The most offensive egotist is he that fears to say "I" and "me." "It will probably rain "—that is dogmatic. "I think it will rain"—that is natural and modest. Montaigne is the most delightful of essayists because so great is his humility that he does not think it important that we see not Montaigne. He so forgets himself that he employs no artifice to make us forget him.
    • p. 364
  • Convictions are variable; to be always consistent is to be sometimes dishonest.
    • p. 367
  • The most intolerant advocate is he who is trying to convince himself.
    • p. 367
  • The poor man's price of admittance to the favor of the rich is his self-respect.
    • p. 368
  • All are lunatics, but he who can analyze his delusion is called a philosopher.
    • p. 369
  • Slang is a foul pool at which every dunce fills his bucket, and then sets up as a fountain.
    • p. 369
  • Happiness is lost by criticizing it; sorrow by accepting it.
    • p. 371
  • When prosperous the fool trembles for the evil that is to come; in adversity the philosopher smiles for the good that he has had.
    • p. 371
  • Age, with his eyes in the back of his head, thinks it wisdom to see the bogs through which he has floundered.
    • pp. 372-373
  • Wisdom is known only by contrasting it with folly; by shadow only we perceive that all visible objects are not flat. Yet Philanthropos would abolish evil!
    • p. 373
  • To the eye of failure success is an accident.
    • p. 373
  • While you have a future do not live too much in contemplation of your past: unless you are content to walk backward the mirror is a poor guide.
    • p. 374

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