Satan’s Treasures, Jean Delville,1895
From The Smart Set:
There’s a connection between the Devil and the word that goes back to the original Greek diábolos, which means “slanderer” or “accuser.” Bierce knew all too well the demons that lurk in our language. He wrote that the cynic sees things as they are, but also wrote that they ought to be otherwise. This is another way of saying that the cynical writer’s role is to bring the message of goodness. For only a writer who had known evil could channel virtue from the arms of the Devil and bring it back to humans. Bierce attacked goodness precisely because he believed in it, not because he didn’t. He attacked faith because he had lost it. It’s notable that a definition for God is missing from The Devil’s Dictionary. It’s as if Bierce was saying, anyone who wants to know about God should read the Bible, but anyone who wants to know humanity should read this.
SATAN, n. One of the Creator’s lamentable mistakes, repented in sashcloth and axes. Being instated as an archangel, Satan made himself multifariously objectionable and was finally expelled from Heaven. Halfway in his descent he paused, bent his head in thought a moment and at last went back. “There is one favor that I should like to ask,” said he.
“Man, I understand, is about to be created. He will need laws.”
“What, wretch! you his appointed adversary, charged from the dawn of eternity with hatred of his soul — you ask for the right to make his laws?”
“Pardon; what I have to ask is that he be permitted to make them himself.”
It was so ordered.
The archetypal Cynic is a 5th-century Greek fellow named Diogenes. He wasn’t the only Cynic philosopher and he wasn’t the first. But Diogenes’ practice of Cynicism was so extreme, and so full of anecdotes about his eccentric behavior, that he came to define what we think of as classical Cynicism. Diogenes made fun of Alexander the Great and sabotaged the lectures of Plato. He was reported to dwell in a tub and live on a diet of onions. Diogenes is famous for stalking the streets of Athens carrying a lantern in the daytime, searching for an honest man (and infamous for masturbating in the marketplace). Diogenes, however, was no showboat. At the heart of Cynic philosophy was the message that virtue could only come through wisdom and self-sufficiency. The Cynic must be free of influence — wealth, power, fame, as well as social convention. In his antics, Diogenes was taking the word of Cynicism to its logical conclusion.
Diogenes, Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1860
In this, Bierce walked in Diogenes’ shoes. See, for instance, how Bierce’s definition for SATAN fits comfortably with this tirade against the Greeks attributed to Diogenes:
…to all appearances you are men, you are apes at heart. You pretend to everything, but know nothing…. in contriving laws for yourselves you have allotted to yourselves the greatest and most pervasive delusion that issues from them, and you admit them as witnesses to your ingrained evil.
That people needed laws in the first place was evidence enough of their fundamental lack of virtue. The Cynic, then, has no allegiances, no state, no home, for excellence cannot be attained when one pledges allegiance to institutions and traditions. Bierce, too, gave in to the dissolution of his family, his home, his allegiance to his country, his allegiance to anything save an impossibly high standard of moral virtue, which even he could not achieve. In the end, his rejection of the world was to the later detriment of his writing and, more important, his life, which ended as lonely as it began.
Two years after the publication of The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce disappeared and never returned. He had gone on another one of his truth-seeking missions. Legend has it he traveled to Mexico and got caught up in Pancho Villa’s revolution after making a tour of his old Civil War battlegrounds. Some say he met his end by firing squad, others say by his own hand. All we know is that, whatever he saw, Bierce never made it back to share the news.