The Guy Quote – Ambrose Bierce

Famously cynical, withering in his criticism, survivor – and hero – of more than one deadly battle, Ambrose Bierce was an American journalist, short story writer and satirist. In 1913, by then an elderly man, he also famously, mysteriously, disappeared.

He’s perhaps most famous for his short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and for his satirical lexicon The Devil’s Dictionary, while his motto “nothing matters” earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce”.

Born in 1842 to parents who, though poor, instilled in him a love for books and for writing, he was the tenth of thirteen children (each of whose name began with ‘A’- in order of birth they were Abigail, Amelia, Ann, Addison, Aurelius, Augustus, Almeda, Andrew, Albert, Ambrose, Arthur, Adelia, and Aurelia. He left home at 15 to work on an Ohio newspaper.

He fought for the Union from the outset of the American Civil War. As well as fighting in “the first battle” at Philippi and rescuing, under fire, a wounded comrade at Rich Mountain, he fought at the Battle of Shiloh in 1862 – a terrifying experience he later drew on for short stories and his memoir. In 1864, he sustained a bad head wound. He was, in short, no wallflower.

Even if you put his war experience – and the trouble his wounds caused him later in life – to one side, he had reason enough to be cantankerous and sardonic. Married in 1871, he separated from his wife in 1888 when he found letters to her from an admirer. The following year, his son Day was shot dead in a brawl over a woman. Two years after that, his remaining son Leigh died from pneumonia brought about by alcoholism.

By the time he was married, however, he was already a prolific and successful writer. As well as writing for newspapers and periodicals both in the US and in England, he wrote ghost stories, short stories, war stories, poems…you name it. All with a very pure, economical style. The Devil’s Dictionary is still quoted a lot today (and probably will be below, too).

In 1913, at the age of 71, he set off for Mexico to see the Pancho Villa revolution for himself. He wrote the following letters to his niece before he left, and was never heard from again.

Dear Lora,

I go away tomorrow for a long time, so this is only to say good-bye. I think there is nothing else worth saying; therefore you will naturally expect a long letter. What an intolerable world this would be if we said nothing but what is worth saying! And did nothing foolish — like going into Mexico and South America.

I’m hoping that you will go to the mine soon. You must hunger and thirst for the mountains — Carlt [her husband, Carlton] likewise. So do I. Civilization be dinged! — It is the mountains and the desert for me.

Good-by — 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 his life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar stairs. To be a Gringo in Mexico — ah, that is euthanasia!

With love to Carlt, affectionately yours,

Ambrose

Lora received another short letter from Bierce on November 6 of that same year, reporting that he was in Laredo, Texas. The letter concluded: “I shall not be here long enough to hear from you, and don’t know where I shall be next. Guess it doesn’t matter much. Adios, Ambrose.”

Doubt, indulged and cherished, is in danger of becoming denial; but if honest, and bent on thorough investigation, it may soon lead to full establishment of the truth.

Immortality: A toy which people cry for, And on their knees apply for, Dispute, contend and lie for, And if allowed Would be right proud Eternally to die for.

I believe we shall come to care about people less and less. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It’s one of the curses of London.

“Peyton Fahrquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge.”
From An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

A person who doubts himself is like a man who would enlist in the ranks of his enemies and bear arms agains himself. He makes his failure certain by himself being the first person to be convinced of it.

War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.

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

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

Dawn: When men of reason go to bed.

Philosophy: A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

Twice: Once too often.

Christian, n.: one who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor.

All are lunatics, but he who can analyse his delusion is called a philosopher.

Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.

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

We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.

Marriage, n: the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.

Impiety. Your irreverence toward my deity.

The small part of ignorance that we arrange and classify we give the name of knowledge.

What this country needs what every country needs occasionally is a good hard bloody war to revive the vice of patriotism on which its existence as a nation depends.

There are four kinds of Homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy.

To apologize is to lay the foundation for a future offense.

When you doubt, abstain.

Who never doubted, never half believed. Where doubt is, there truth is – it is her shadow.

To be positive is to be mistaken at the top of one’s voice.

Sweater, n.: garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.

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

Death is not the end. There remains the litigation over the estate.

Success is the one unpardonable sin against our fellows.

Day, n. A period of twenty-four hours, mostly misspent.

Edible, adj.: Good to eat, and wholesome to digest, as a worm to a toad, a toad to a snake, a snake to a pig, a pig to a man, and a man to a worm.

The best thing to do with the best things in life is to give them up.

Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum (I think that I think, therefore I think that I am.)

Love: A temporary insanity curable by marriage.

Corporation: An ingenious device for obtaining profit without individual responsibility.

The covers of this book are too far apart.

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.

The gambling known as business looks with austere disfavor upon the business known as gambling.

An egotist is a person of low taste – more interested in himself than in me.

Miss, n. A title with which we brand unmarried women to indicate they are in the market. Miss, Misses (Mrs.) and Mister (Mr.) are the three most distinctly disagreeable words in the language, in sound and sense. Two are corruptions of Mistress, the other of Master. In the general abolition of social titles in this our country they miraculously escaped to plague us. If we must have them let us be consistent and give one to the unmarried man. I venture to suggest Mush, abbreviated to Mh.

Infidel, n. In New York, one who does not believe in the Christian religion; in Constantinople, one who does.

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.

Peace in international affairs: a period of cheating between periods of fighting.

It is evident that skepticism, while it makes no actual change in man, always makes him feel better.

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.

Lawsuit: A machine which you go into as a pig and come out of as a sausage.

Sabbath – a weekly festival having its origin in the fact that God made the world in six days and was arrested on the seventh.

Hippogriff, n. An animal (now extinct) which was half horse and half griffin. The griffin was itself a compound creature, half lion and half eagle. The hippogriff was actually, therefore, only one-quarter eagle, which is two dollars and fifty cents in gold. The study of zoology is full of surprises.

Plagiarism, n. A literary coincidence compounded of a discreditable priority and an honorable subsequence.

Marriage, n: the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making in all, two.

Mark how my fame rings out from zone to zone:
A thousand critics shouting: “He’s unknown!”

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.

Woman would be more charming if one could fall into her arms without falling into her hands.


Find out lots more about Bierce by following the links at the bottom of this page.

If you liked this piece, there’s a load more of The Guy Quote articles here.

Tip of the hat and a thankyewverymuch to Olly Figg, who suggested Bierce in the first place.

One response to “The Guy Quote – Ambrose Bierce

  1. FYI: Bierce never said “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.” This comes from Dr. Craig Warren with the Bierce project at Penn State. http://www.ambrosebierce.org/

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