1590 | Eseldorf


Mark Twain confronts Satan.

When we arrived at the jail, Father Peter was parading pompously up and down and delivering commands to this and that and the other constable or jailer and calling them Grand Chamberlain, and Prince This and Prince That, and Admiral of the Fleet, Field Marshal in Command, and all such fustian, and was as happy as a bird. He thought he was emperor!

At last, being persuaded to go home, the old man marched in imposing state; and when the crowds along the way saw how it gratified him to be hurrahed at, they humored him to the top of his desire, and he responded with condescending bows and gracious smiles and often stretched out a hand and said, “Bless you, my people!”

As pitiful a sight as ever I saw.

On my road home, I came upon Satan and reproached him with deceiving me. He was not embarrassed, but said quite simply and composedly, “Ah, you mistake; it was the truth. I said he would be happy the rest of his days, and he will, for he will always think he is the emperor, and his pride in it and his joy in it will endure to the end. He is now, and will remain, the one utterly happy person in this empire.”

“But the method of it, Satan, the method! Couldn’t you have done it without depriving him of his reason?”

It was difficult to irritate Satan, but that accomplished it.

“What an ass you are!” he said. “Are you so unobservant as not to have found out that sanity and happiness are an impossible combination? No sane man can be happy, for to him life is real, and he sees what a fearful thing it is. Only the mad can be happy, and not many of those. The few that imagine themselves kings or gods are happy, the rest are no happier than the sane. Of course, no man is entirely in his right mind at any time, but I have been referring to the extreme cases. I have taken from this man that trumpery thing which the race regards as a mind; I have replaced his tin life with a silver-gilt fiction; you see the result—and you criticize! I said I would make him permanently happy, and I have done it. I have made him happy by the only means possible to his race—and you are not satisfied!” He heaved a discouraged sigh and said, “It seems to me that this race is hard to please.”

There it was, you see. He didn’t seem to know any way to do a person a favor except by killing him or making a lunatic out of him. I apologized as well as I could, but privately I did not think much of his processes—at that time.

Satan was accustomed to say that our race lived a life of continuous and uninterrupted self-deception. It duped itself from cradle to grave with shams and delusions which it mistook for realities, and this made its entire life a sham. Of the score of fine qualities which it imagined it had and was vain of, it really possessed hardly one. It regarded itself as gold, and was only brass.


Mark Twain

From The Mysterious Stranger. This critique of religion remained unfinished at the time of Twain’s death in 1910; his literary executor made heavy edits and added a final chapter six years later. Elsewhere in the text, the satanic figure, sometimes called No. 44, tells the boys of Eseldorf that only one civilization in world history “ever invented any sweeping and adequate way to kill people,” and he foretells a time when “it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christian.” Less than twenty years after Twain wrote these words, World War I began.