Idiots of the 33rd degree

Mark Twain was incensed.

In his moment of rage, he lashed out.

He started by calling the object of his ire “without a doubt the most ignorant person now alive on the planet.”

Then added he was “an idiot of the 33rd degree.”

He concluded by saying the person was a “scion of an ancestral procession of idiots stretching back to the Missing Link” for good measure.

What was he so mad about?

He received a pamphlet advertising “The Elixir of Life,” which claimed to heal all sorts of maladies including diphtheria, meningitis and heart disease.

Having lost a daughter, son and wife to these illnesses, he had no patience for snake oil salesmen peddling false hope for profit.

He wanted to say something while he was holding onto this righteous anger, so he immediately dictated a short but scathing letter. Even then, he knew the feeling would pass.

“A few moments from now my resentment will have faded and passed and I shall probably even be praying for you,” he wrote.

But in the meantime, he said he wished for the “patent medicine assassin” to drink his own poison and “enter swiftly into damnation.”

I came across this letter in Letters of Note, a book that includes original copies of letters that are historic, humorous, odd, uplifting, inspiring, powerful, joyful and angry. (Thanks Gail Boenning for the tip.)

Mark Twain wasn’t the only author who let his emotions get the best of him. Kurt Vonnegut wrote a lengthy letter to the South Dakota school board head who threw his books into the school furnace. He seemed not just angry, but personally hurt.

Again: you have insulted me, and I am a good citizen, and I am very real,” Vonnegut wrote in conclusion.

Vonnegut wrote this letter in 1973. Twain wrote the above missive in 1905.

Reading these letters decades later, I’m reminded of today. People calling each other idiots. People reminding others that they are “very real” humans (and not a bot!). People struggling to reach out to and get through to people they vehemently disagree with (Vonnegut never received a reply).

These letters are the Twitter replies and Facebook comments of their day, displaying the full range of human emotions, for better or worse.

The vast majority of the letters of note aren’t angry. As E.B. White noted, we have control over our narratives “spoken silently or aloud, handwritten or typed” that “write the scripts of our lives.”

Still, the angry letters stand out because of the way our brains are wired for outrage. And I identify with them, like Vonnegut and Twain, like anyone who has despaired over the ignorance they’ve seen posted on the Internet.

This person is so wrong!! What can I do about it?? I must write something!

via xkcd

But despite how much we talk about the divisiveness of our era, it’s been going on for awhile. Technology (and handwriting) changes but human nature tends to stay about the same.

Fad diets advertised on the bottom of news stories are today’s Elixir of Life pamphlets. Troll farms spreading disinformation and in-fighting are today’s book burnings.

I don’t know if that makes feel better or worse. But it makes me more sure that, to some degree, we’ve always been idiots of the 33rd degree.

Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity:

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store