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Directory of Mark Twain's maxims, quotations, and various opinions:



Harper's Civilization
Photo courtesy of
Dave Thomson


The only very marked difference between the average civilized man and the average savage is that the one is gilded and the other is painted.
- Mark Twain's Notebook

Civilization is a limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.
- More Maxims of Mark, Johnson, 1927

I have been reading the morning paper. I do it every morning--knowing well that I shall find in it the usual depravities and basenesses and hypocrisies and cruelties that make up civilization, and cause me to put in the rest of the day pleading for the damnation of the human race. I cannot seem to get my prayers answered, yet I do not despair.
- Letter to William Dean Howells, 2 April 4 1899

There is a great difference between feeding parties to wild beasts and stirring up their finer feelings in an inquisition. One is the system of degraded barbarians, the other of enlightened civilized people.
- The Innocents Abroad

Would it not be prudent to get our civilization tools together, and see how much stock is left on hand in the way of Glass Beads and Theology, and Maxim Guns and Hymn Books, and Trade Gin and Torches of Progress and Enlightenment (patent adjustable ones, good to fire villages with, upon occasion), and balance the books, and arrive at the profit and loss, so that we may intelligently decide whether to continue the business or sellout the property and start a new Civilization Scheme on the proceeds.
- "To the Person Sitting in Darkness"

Is it, perhaps, possible that there are two kinds of Civilization--one for home consumption and one for the heathen market?
- "To the Person Sitting in Darkness"

There is no salvation for us but to adopt Civilization and lift ourselves down to its level.
- "To the Person sitting in Darkness"

There are many humorous things in the world; among them, the white man's notion that he less savage than the other savages.
- Following the Equator

Every civilization carries the seeds of its own destruction, and the same cycle shows in them all. The Republic is born, flourishes, decays into plutocracy, and is captured by the shoemaker whom the mercenaries and millionaires make into a king. The people invent their oppressors, and the oppressors serve the function for which they are invented.
- Mark Twain in Eruption

The peoples furthest from civilization are the ones where equality between man and woman are furthest apart--and we consider this one of the signs of savagery.
- Notebook, 1895

My idea of our civilization is that it is a shoddy, poor thing and full of cruelties, vanities, arrogances, meannesses and hypocricies. As for the word, I hate the sound of it, for it conveys a lie; & as for the thing itself, I wish it was in hell, where it belongs.
- Letter to Joseph Twichell, 27 January 1900


What is a civilization, rightly considered? Morally, it is the evil passions repressed, the level of conduct raised; spiritually, idols cast down, God enthroned; materially, bread and fair treatment for the greatest number. That is the common formula, the common definition; everybody accepts it and is satisfied with it.

Our civilization is wonderful, in certain spectacular and meretricious ways; wonderful in scientific marvels and inventive miracles; wonderful in material inflation, which it calls advancement, progress, and other pet names; wonderful in its spying-out of the deep secrets of Nature and its vanquishment of her stubborn laws; wonderful in its extraordinary financial and commerical achievements; wonderful in its hunger for money, and in its indifference as to how it is acquired; wonderful in the hitherto undreamed-of magnitude of its private fortunes and the prodigal fashion in which they are given away to institutions devoted to the public culture; wonderful in its exhibitions of poverty; wonderful in the surprises which it gets out of that great new birth, Organization, the latest and most potent creation and miracle-worker of the commercialized intellect, as applied in transportation systems, in manufactures, in systems of communication, in news-gathering, book-publishing, journalism; in protecting labor; in oppressing labor; in herding the national parties and keeping the sheep docile and usable; in closing the public service against brains and character; in electing purchasable legislatures, blatherskite Congresses, and city governments which rob the town and sell municipal protection to gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, and professional seducers for cash. It is a civilization which has destroyed the simplicity and repose of life; replaced its contentment, its poetry, its soft romance-dreams and visions with the money-fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambitions, and the sleep which does not refresh; it has invented a thousand useless luxuries, and turned them into necessities; it has created a thousand vicious appetites and satisfies none of them; it has dethroned God and set up a shekel in His place.
- "Papers of the Adam Family"


If you will notice, there is seldom a telegram in a paper which fails to show up one or more members & beneficiaries of our Civilization as promenading with his shirt-tail up & the rest of his regalia in the wash.
- Letter to William Dean Howells, 26 January 1900

Civilization largely consists in hiding human nature. When the barbarian learns to hide it we account him enlightened.
- quoted in I Remember by Opie Read, 1930

Illustration from first edition of LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI

How solemn and beautiful is the thought that the earliest pioneer of civilization, the van-leader of civilization, is never the steamboat, never the railroad, never the newspaper, never the Sabbath-school, never the missionary -- but always whiskey! Such is the case. Look history over; you will see. The missionary comes after the whiskey -- I mean he arrives after the whiskey has arrived; next comes the poor immigrant, with ax and hoe and rifle; next, the trader; next, the miscellaneous rush; next, the gambler, the desperado, the highwayman, and all their kindred in sin of both sexes; and next, the smart chap who has bought up an old grant that covers all the land; this brings the lawyer tribe; the vigilance committee brings the undertaker. All these interests bring the newspaper; the newspaper starts up politics and a railroad; all hands turn to and build a church and a jail -- and behold! civilization is established forever in the land. But whiskey, you see, was the van-leader in this beneficent work. It always is. It was like a foreigner -- and excusable in a foreigner -- to be ignorant of this great truth, and wander off into astronomy to borrow a symbol. But if he had been conversant with the facts, he would have said: Westward the Jug of Empire takes its way.
- Life on the Mississippi

I believe that many a person has examined man with a microscope in every age of the world; has found that he did not even resemble the creature he pretended to be; has perceived that a civilization not proper matter for derision has always been and must always remain impossible to him -- and has put away his microscope and kept his mouth shut. Perhaps because the microscopist (besides having an influential wife) was built like the rest of the human race -- ninety-nine parts of him being moral cowardice. ... civilization are not realities, but only dreams; dreams of the mind, not of the heart, and therefore fictitious, and perishable; that they have never affected the heart and therefore have no valuable progress; that the heart remains today what it always was, as intimacy with any existing savage tribe shall show. Indeed the average of the human 'brain' is not a shade higher today than it was in Egyptian times ten thousand years ago.
- Letter to Carl Thalbitzer, 26 November 1902. Reprinted in Harper's Magazine, December 2009.


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