In the essay “The Lowest Animal” Mark Twain paints a picture sarcastically of humans being inferior to every animal except for Frenchmen. Twain exhibits his mastery of humoristic writing. There are three themes that are used throughout the essay: religion, differences between higher and lower animals, and the ability of humans to encompass morality.
First, Twain explains the role of religion in the lives of humans. He describes a certain point in history where religion has been destructive. The first instance is a clash between Catholics and Protestants. He says “The Roman Catholics, by previous concert, sprang a surprise upon the unprepared and unsuspecting Protestants, and butchered them by thousands-both sexes and all ages.” (1247). He continues, “At Rome the Pope and the Church gave public thanks to God when the happy news came.” (1247). He tries to display the brutality religion represented at that certain point in history. Later on he says, “He is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself, and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.” (1250).
He shows the hypocrisy that religion can possibly play. In the last paragraph, he shifts gears and explains the human characteristic of intellectuality and religion which all higher animals seem to lack. He says “Even when he himself has imagined a heaven, he has never made provision in it for intellectual joys.” (1253). He depicts the fallacy of humans having the ability to reason and think yet they yearn for a hereafter which is void of such. Twain attacked religion because to him it seemed hypocritical, and illogical.
Second, he uses the scientific method to differentiate his observations of the higher and lower animals. This thematic element is used abundantly but only a few will be described. First, he explains the differences in fighting. He says, “The higher animals engage in individual fights, but never in organized masses.” (1250). He again dips into violence which was spoken about in the previous paragraph. But now he tries to show the difference between the two types of animals. Next, he experiments with the higher animals by putting them in cages. He had read about an eral that “killed seventy-two of those great animals” (1248) and “left the seventy-one to rot.” (1248). Then he decided to observe the differences between eral and an anaconda. He says, “I caused seven young calves to be turned into the anaconda’s cage” (1249) and it “crushed one of them and swallowed it, then lay back satisfied.” (1249).
This illustrates how animals only kill for needs, but humans kill for no apparent reason. Lastly, he continues with the theme of the cage. He says, “In the course of two days I was able to ad a fox, a goose, a squirrel, and some doves. Finally a monkey. They lived together in a peace; even affectionately.” (1251). He then put various lower animals in another cage to observe the differences. He put, “A Turk from Constantinople; a Greek Christian from Crete; an Armenian; a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas; a Buddhist from China; a Brahman from Benares.” (1251). He came back two days later and “the cage of Higher Animals was all right, but in the other there was but a chaos of gory odds” (1251) and “not a specimen left alive.” (1251). One can discern the needless killings humans can indulge in. Throughout this theme the contrast of lower and higher animals becomes evident.
Third, humans have only one superior trait, according to Twain. Yet they are unable to utilize it properly, and because of this they are still considered the lower animal. This trait is a human’s ability to perceive morality. There are a couple of instances where he speaks about the moral sense. First, he compares a human and a cat. He says, “cats are loose in their morals, but not consciously so. Man in his descent from the cat, has brought the cat’s looseness with him but has left the unconsciousness’ behind-the saving grace which excuses the cat.” (1249).
He distinguishes that a Human has the ability to choose, but a cat does not. The other instance takes up a good portion of the essay. He expresses about the moral sense: “the ability to distinguish good from evil; and with necessarily, the ability to do evil; for there can be no evil act without the presence of consciousness of it in the doer of it.” (1252). He once again explains that humans have a choice while the higher animals do not. Therefore, humans are still the lower animal because of the choice to do evil.
In this essay Twain illustrated the worst angles of humans. He challenged the notion that there was “an accent of man” rather sarcastically tries to depict a “decent of man.” Throughout the essay he chooses some of the most ethically appalling traits humans have, or an atrocity that humans have done or potentially could do. These three themes summed the essay up: religious hypocrisy, inferiority of humans to other animals, and the ability of humans to know what’s wrong yet still commit evil.
Ferster, Judith. Arguing Through Literature. Boston: Higher Education, 2002.
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