What Is Man?

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For the essay written by Martin Luther King, see What Is Man? (Martin Luther King, Jr. essay).

"What Is Man?", published by Mark Twain in 1906, is a dialogue between a Young Man and an Old Man regarding the nature of man. The title refers to Psalm 8-4,[citation needed] which begins "what is man, that you are mindful of him...".

It involves ideas of destiny and free will, as well as of psychological egoism. The Old Man asserts that the human being is merely a machine, and nothing more. The Young Man objects, and asks him to go into particulars and furnish his reasons for his position.

The work appears to be a genuine and earnest debate of his opinions about human nature, rather than satirical. Twain held views similar to that of the Old Man prior to writing "What is Man?". However, he seems to have varied in his opinions of human freedom.[1]

It was published anonymously in 1906 and received such little attention Twain claimed to have regretted its publication. After his death in 1910, the New-York Tribune published a feature on it. Criticism at that time focused on its dark and antireligious nature. [2]

Isaac Asimov apparently had in mind this story when he wrote "... That Thou Art Mindful of Him",[3] since Asimov's title is from the same Bible verse, and two of Asimov's robots debate the same subject.[citation needed]


  1. ^ Twain, Mark (author), Paul Baender (editor). What Is Man? and Other Philosophical Writings, 1973, UCP, ISBN 978-0-520-01621-7, Introduction, p. 4 ff
  2. ^ J. R. LeMaster, James Darrell Wilson, Christie Graves Hamric. (authors) "The Mark Twain Encyclopedia" 1993, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 082407212X, 9780824072124, p. 784
  3. ^ in Asimov, Isaac. The Bicentennial Man and Other Stories, Doubleday, 1976

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