The Curmudgeon Philosopher and What Ails Him

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/August 10, 1903

“HAVE I seen the proposal to transport Plymouth Rock about the country for a show?” said the Curmudgeon Philosopher.

“Yes. In the morning papers, one of which I had the bad luck to pick up while at breakfast. Hate the morning papers!”

The Timorous Reporter signified his regret.

“I hope it will not be done,” continued the Curmudgeon Philosopher, ignoring the apology. “In the first place, the Rock is devoid of authenticity. It is indubitably a rock, and it is at Plymouth, but its connection with the landing of the Pilgrims was supplied by imagination. That is all right; by imagination we demonstrate our superiority to the novelists. Historians and scientists are credentialed by imagination; through imagination the philosopher attains to a knowledge of the meaning and message of things. Without imagination we should be as the magazine poets that perish.”

With obvious satisfaction in his character as cynic the Curmudgeon Philosopher executed a long, bright, smile, distinctly Opperian. “The main objection to this project of toting Pilgrim Rock about the country to draw the homage of patriots is that it will give a new impetus to fetish worship. That form of religion has already been greatly encouraged and promoted by the several ‘progresses’ of the ‘Lib- erty Bell.’”

The Timorous Reporter asked what fetish worship might have the hardihood to be. “Fetish worship,” replied the Curmudgeon Philosopher, “is the most primitive of religion. It is the form that belief in the supernatural takes in our lowest stage of intellectual development—the adoration of material objects. A stone or a tree supposed to possess supernatural powers of good or evil, or to have some peculiar sanctity, is a true fetish. Idolatry and the worship of living things are not uncommonly confounded with fetish worship, but in reality are another and higher form of religion, belonging to a more advanced culture.”

The Reporter edged himself nearer to an open door and ventured to express a conviction that a crude and primitive religion like fetish worship could have no devotees among so enlightened and cultivated a people as ours.

“Sir,” thundered the Adversary of Presumption, turning a delicate purple, “races are like individuals; along with the vices and virtues of maturity they have those of infancy. No people ever is sufficiently civilized and enlightened to have laid aside any of its early superstitions and absurdities. To these it adds better things. It overwrites its primitive ideas with ideas less crude and reasonless; but nothing has been effaced. The latest text of the palimpsest is most in evidence, but all is there, and, to a keen enough observation, legible. Did you never see a whole concourse of moderns uncover to a flag?”

The reporter confessed that those whom he had seen performing this religious rite were mostly moderns.

“”They will say when detected,” continued the oracle, “that what they uncover to is not the flag, but the sentiment that it represents. If ingenious enough the idolater would make the same defence. So would the shagpated chap that prostrates himself before the sacred moo-goo tree. We have seen bands of children taught to march about a cracked bell, throw flowers upon it, sing hymns to it. If this new project is carried out we shall see them made to do homage to a stone. True, the stone weighs five tons.”

Proud of his generosity in making so great a concession the Curmudgeon Philosopher looked over the top of his spectacles for the applause that came not to his hope. The Reporter had fallen asleep.



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