The False Bravado of “Philosophy”

One of Ambrose Bierce’s best stories about the Civil War is “Parker Adderson, Philosopher.” In it, a Union spy is caught behind Confederate lines at night. He is taken to the Confederate general who questions him. In their interview, the soldier shows his wit and disdain for death (and fear), which intriques the general. The conversation is marked by one theme, the condemned soldier outsmarting the general’s compassionate but stern regard for the seriousness of the sentence he is obligated to hand down.

“Good God man! do you mean to go to your death with nothing but jokes upon your lips? Do you know that this is a serious matter?

“How can I know that? I have never been dead in all my life. I have heard that death is a serious matter, but never from any of those who have experienced it.”

The general quietly listens, considers the man’s points but still finds them terrifying.

“Death is horrible!”

“It was horrible to our savage ancestors because they had not enough intelligence to dissociate the idea of consciousness from the idea of the physical forms in which it is manifested–as even a lower order of intelligence, that of the monkey, for example, may be unable to imagine a house without inhabitants and seeing a ruined hut fancies a suffering occupent.”

Just then the stormy weather outside abates, and the general orders that the sentence be imposed that night, by firing squad, rather than waiting for the gallows to be built in the morning. The solider, unprepared for this turn of events, breaks down. “But General, I beg–I implore you, I am to hang!…Spies are hanged; I have rights under military law!” It’s no use. So he struggles, grabs an unguarded knife, and mortally wounds the general before being led away.

At the end the soldier meets his death whimpering before the firing squad, begging to be spared. The general, dying a few hours later, dies solemnly, saying only “I suppose this must be death.”

I like this story because of the twist. As you read it, you mark down the wise words of the soldier–finding them perfect reminders about the smallness of life and an example for how to think about death. The words may as well have come from Cato or Socrates. Parker Adderson truly is, as the title states, a philosopher.

Only like most “philosophers” he soon let’s us down when it comes to practice. He may not have been a coward in the face of grave threats–and that’s admirable and rare–but when those threats become realities his edifice crumbled. At the same time, the General, who was honest with the solider about not wanting to die and urged him to make things right before his sentence was imposed, was, when he himself faced with the same sentence, clearheaded and calm.

Behind laconic wit lies one of two things: compensatory horseshit or profound confidence and bravery. It is important to know which. Remember, all the preparation and philosophy and clever sayings in the world are no guarantee strength under duress. In fact, it may foreshadow the opposite. Why? Because they lead us to think it will not be so hard. That armed with logic or facts, we will not be afraid and regress. And this is true for things a lot less terrifying than death. (We feel proud and smart telling kids “it get’s better,” but how do you handle bullies in your adult life? Your heart races, you get flustered, you feel like quitting your job and running away.)

It’s important to remember that the Spartans, (the Lacedaemonians who the laconic style is named after) hated philosophers. They hated how easily they could say one thing and do another. To them, quips weren’t quips. They meant something. It was the expression of years of training, tradition and obligation. They were efficient, not condescending. Words were never a substitute for action. It was never about making a rhetorical point. For every Spartan whose rejoinder was passed down through history, there were a thousand more who simply performed, making even less of a show than the general in the story.

We must keep that in mind as we do our reading and make our way. That the real show is never the words–no matter how impressive or true or clever they are–and it’s no shame to be mocked and laughed at by those who are skilled at wordplay, so long as you best them when it comes time to face your own test.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.