“A Man of Principle”

During a shower of rain the Keeper of a Zoölogical garden observed a Man of Principle crouching beneath the belly of the ostrich, which had drawn itself up to its full height to sleep.

‘Why, my dear sir,’ said the Keeper, ‘if you fear to get wet you’d better creep into the pouch of yonder female kangaroo — the Saltatrix mackintosha — for if that ostrich wakes he will kick you to death in a moment!’

‘I can’t help that,’ the Man of Principle replied, with that lofty scorn of practical considerations distinguishing his species. ‘He may kick me to death if he wish, but until he does he shall give me shelter from the storm. He has swallowed my umbrella.’

— Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables, 1899


Excerpt from a letter by Lt. James Simmen, 5th Battalion, 60th Infantry (Mechanized), in Vietnam, to his brother Vern, a parish priest:

You’d be surprised how similar killing is to hunting. I know I’m after souls, but I get all excited when I see a VC, just like when I see a deer. I go ape firing at him. It isn’t that I’m so crazy. I think a man who freezes killing a man would freeze killing a deer. I’m not perverted, crazy, or anything else. Civilians think such thinking is crazy, but it’s no big deal. He runs, you fire. You hunt so I think you’d feel the same way. It isn’t all that horrifying.

When you see a man laughing about it, remember he talks the same about killing a deer. Of course, revenge has a part in wanting him just like you want a deer for a trophy and meat. I know I’m not nuts. If I killed a man in the U.S., everyone would stare. Last night I killed and everyone has been patting me on the back, including the battalion commander. What do you think?

That’s from Bernard Edelman’s Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (2002). In The Fate of a Nation (1975), Hugh Rankin quotes Pvt. Joseph Plumb Martin describing an experience at the Battle of Monmouth, June 28, 1778:

When within about five rods of the rear of the retreating foe, I could distinguish everything about them, they were retreating in line, though in some disorder; I singled out a man and took my aim directly between his shoulders (they were divested of their packs,) he was a good mark, being a broad shouldered fellow; what became of him I know not, the fire and smoke hid him from my sight; one thing I know, that is, I took as deliberate aim at him as ever I did in my life. But after all, I hope I did not kill him, although I intended to at the time.

A few months after his Vietnam experience, Simmen wrote, “[I] feel kind of ashamed of the way I’ve thought and acted over here. I realize that I’ve actually enjoyed some of the things I’ve done which would be repulsive to a healthy mind. … When one starts to enjoy the sickness of war, he is sick.”

A Place for Everything

Letter to the Times, Jan. 3, 2002:

Sir, A friend had four trays labelled ‘In’, ‘Out’, ‘Pending’ and ‘Too Difficult’. The last was to store items which solved themselves if left long enough. They either became out of date and could be ignored, or were dealt with by some smart aleck trying to prove how clever he was.

I’ve tried it. It works.

Yours sincerely,

Edwin Entecott
Nuneaton, Warwickshire


Joining an Inuit hunting party in Greenland in 1910, Danish explorer Peter Freuchen was pleased to receive several hundred pounds of meat because he’d thrust a harpoon into a walrus. When he thanked the primary hunter, the man looked at him and said nothing. Back at camp he told Freuchen:

Up in our country we are human! And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. If I get something today you may get it tomorrow. Some men never kill anything because they are seldom lucky or they may not be able to run or row as fast as others. Therefore they would feel unhappy to have to be thankful to their fellows all the time. And it would not be fun for the big hunter to feel that other men were constantly humbled by him. Then his pleasure would die. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves, and by whips one makes dogs.

Freuchen wrote, “I have come to understand the truth of his words. The polar Eskimos were a free people when we met them.”

(Peter Freuchen, Adventures in the Arctic, 1960.)

Worldly Wisdom

Proverbs from around the world:

  • Gray hair is a sign of age, not wisdom. (Greek)
  • A smiling face is half the meal. (Latvia)
  • Fear has big eyes. (Russia)
  • Adversity makes a man wise, not rich. (Romania)
  • The child tells what is in the house. (Albania)
  • Love makes time pass; time makes love pass. (France)
  • The seeds of the day are best planted in the first hour. (Dutch)
  • It is easier to criticize art than to create it. (Spain)
  • A house does not rest upon the ground, but upon a woman. (Mexico)
  • All fear is bondage. (England)
  • Nature is better than a middling doctor. (China)
  • The miles are longer at night. (German)
  • Respect is given to wealth, not to men. (Lebanon)
  • If everyone swept in front of his house, the whole town would be clean. (Poland)
  • Even the handsome are divorced. (Egypt)

“With art and knavery we live through half the year,” the Italians say. “With knavery and art we live through the other.”

Not Available

Since ethicists are trained to reason explicitly about morality, we might expect them to behave particularly well. For example, we might hope they’d return library books on time. In 2009, University of California philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel examined the philosophy collections at 32 academic libraries. He found that contemporary ethics books were 25 percent more likely to be missing than non-ethics books in philosophy. Relatively obscure ethics books, which presumably are more likely to be borrowed by specialists, were almost 50 percent more likely to be missing.

“If these data are representative,” he concluded, “a philosophy book not on the shelf is anywhere from 25% to 150% more likely to be missing if it is an ethics book than if it is not.”

(Eric Schwitzgebel, “Do Ethicists Steal More Books?”, Philosophical Psychology 22:6 [December 2009], 711-725.)


An odd little detail: In Debt, anthropologist David Graeber mentions that Auguste Comte founded a Religion of Humanity “replete with vestments where all the buttons were on the back (so they couldn’t be put on without the help of others).”

I find this mentioned also by philosopher John Gray, but I haven’t been able to confirm it.

11/16/2023 UPDATE: Reader Fabienne Gallaire very helpfully found some more details. Comte was a disciple of the political theorist Henri de Saint-Simon, who had envisioned a religion of reason in which scientists formed the clergy. This article mentions “le fameux costume tricolore, incluant le gilet boutonné dans le dos”; here’s the costume (worn by Barthélemy-Prosper Enfantin, who helped to propound “Saint-Simonianism” after Saint-Simon’s death in 1825), and here’s the robe in particular. I find a bit more in Christine Gruwez’s 2011 book Walking With Your Time:

In his last work, published in 1825 — Nouveau Christianisme — Saint Simon describes, right up to the smallest detail, the practices of this new religion, dress code included. … John Gray mentions here the bizarre detail of a specific moment when the ‘priest robe’ that went with this new religion was designed in such a way that all the buttons were at the back of the robe, thus making it impossible to dress and undress by oneself. The purpose was that one had to do nothing but appeal to the help of his fellow man, whereby solidarity was the message. It was not unusual for this display of solidarity to take place on the public road, which led to all sorts of amusing scenes. The garment was prohibited in the end by police decree.

(Thanks, Fabienne.)

New Markets

Yale economist Paul Krugman published a curious paper in 2010: “The Theory of Interstellar Trade”:

This paper extends interplanetary trade theory to an interstellar setting. It is chiefly concerned with the following question: how should interest charges on goods in transit be computed when the goods travel at close to the speed of light? This is a problem because the time taken in transit will appear less to an observer travelling with the goods than to a stationary observer. A solution is derived from economic theory, and two useless but true theorems are proved.

He added, “While the subject of this paper is silly, the analysis actually does make sense. This paper, then, is a serious analysis of a ridiculous subject, which is of course the opposite of what is usual in economics.”

(Paul Krugman, “The Theory of Interstellar Trade,” Economic Inquiry 48:4 [October 2010], 1119-1123. See The Telltale Mart.)


Preparing a time capsule in 1939, the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company asked Albert Einstein to compose a message for the people of AD 6939. He sent this:

Our time is rich in inventive minds, the inventions of which could facilitate our lives considerably. We are crossing the seas by power and utilize power also in order to relieve humanity from all tiring muscular work. We have learned to fly and we are able to send messages and news without any difficulty over the entire world through electric waves.

However, the production and distribution of commodities is entirely unorganized so that everybody must live in fear of being eliminated from the economic cycle, in this way suffering for the want of everything. Furthermore, people living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason any one who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror. This is due to the fact that the intelligence & character of the masses are incomparably lower than the intelligence and character of the few who produce some thing valuable for the community.

I trust that posterity will read these statements with a feeling of proud and justified superiority.

The message was recorded on microfilm and resides 50 feet below Flushing Meadows–Corona Park in New York City.

(“Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy,” 1939.)


Letter to the Times, Oct. 23, 2001:

Sir, As a schoolboy in the 1940s I heard the late Sir Robert Wood, Principal of the (then) University College of Southampton, proclaim at a school speech day:

‘The advantage of a classical education is that it teaches you to do without the money it makes you unable to acquire.’

Yours faithfully,

Bill Kirkman
Willingham, Cambridge