Cobwebs from an Empty Skull, by Ambrose Bierce

Brief Seasons of Intellectual Dissipation.


FOOL. — I have a question for you.

PHILOSOPHER. — I have a number of them for myself. Do you happen to have heard that a fool can ask more questions in a breath than a philosopher can answer in a life?

F. — I happen to have heard that in such a case the one is as great a fool as the other.

PH. — Then there is no distinction between folly and philosophy?

F. — Don’t lay the flattering unction to your soul. The province of folly is to ask unanswerable questions. It is the function of philosophy to answer them.

PH. — Admirable fool!

F. — Am I? Pray tell me the meaning of “a fool.”

PH. — Commonly he has none.

F. — I mean  —

PH. — Then in this case he has one.

F. — I lick thy boots! But what does Solomon indicate by the word fool? That is what I mean.

PH. — Let us then congratulate Solomon upon the agreement between the views of you two. However, I twig your intent: he means a wicked sinner; and of all forms of folly there is none so great as wicked sinning. For goodness is, in the end, more conducive to personal happiness — which is the sole aim of man.

F. — Hath virtue no better excuse than this?

PH. — Possibly; philosophy is not omniscience.

F. — Instructed I sit at thy feet!

PH. — Unwilling to instruct, I stand on my head.

FOOL. — You say personal happiness is the sole aim of man.

PHILOSOPHER. — Then it is.

F. — But this is much disputed.

PH. — There is much personal happiness in disputation.

F. — Socrates  —

PH. — Hold! I detest foreigners.

F. — Wisdom, they say, is of no country.

PH. — Of none that I have seen.

FOOL. — Let us return to our subject — the sole aim of mankind. Crack me these nuts. (1) The man, never weary of well-doing, who endures a life of privation for the good of his fellow-creatures?

PHILOSOPHER. — Does he feel remorse in so doing? or does the rascal rather like it?

F. —(2) He, then, who, famishing himself, parts his loaf with a beggar?

PH. — There are people who prefer benevolence to bread.

F. — Ah! De gustibus

PH. — Shut up!

F. — Well, (3) how of him who goes joyfully to martyrdom?

PH. — He goes joyfully.

F. — And yet  —

PH. — Did you ever converse with a good man going to the stake?

F. — I never saw a good man going to the stake.

PH. — Unhappy pupil! you were born some centuries too early.

FOOL. — You say you detest foreigners. Why?

PHILOSOPHER. — Because I am human.

F. — But so are they.

PH. — Excellent fool! I thank thee for the better reason.

PHILOSOPHER. — I have been thinking of the pocopo.

FOOL. — Is it open to the public?

PH. — The pocopo is a small animal of North America, chiefly remarkable for singularity of diet. It subsists solely upon a single article of food.

F. — What is that?

PH. — Other pocopos. Unable to obtain this, their natural sustenance, a great number of pocopos die annually of starvation. Their death leaves fewer mouths to feed, and by consequence their race is rapidly multiplying.

F. — From whom had you this?

PH. — A professor of political economy.

F. — I bend in reverence! What made you think of the pocopo?

PH. — Speaking of man.

F. — If you did not wish to think of the pocopo, and speaking of man would make you think of it, you would not speak of man, would you?

PH. — Certainly not.

F. — Why not?

PH. — I do not know.

F. — Excellent philosopher!

FOOL. — I have attentively considered your teachings. They may be full of wisdom; they are certainly out of taste.

PHILOSOPHER. — Whose taste?

F. — Why, that of people of culture.

PH. — Do any of these people chance to have a taste for intoxication, tobacco, hard hats, false hair, the nude ballet, and over-feeding?

F. — Possibly; but in intellectual matters you must confess their taste is correct.

PH. — Why must I?

F. — They say so themselves.

PHILOSOPHER. — I have been thinking why a dolt is called a donkey.

FOOL. — I had thought philosophy concerned itself with a less personal class of questions; but why is it?

PH. — The essential quality of a dolt is stupidity.

F. — Mine ears are drunken!

PH. — The essential quality of an ass is asininity.

F. — Divine philosophy!

PH. — As commonly employed, “stupidity” and “asininity” are convertible terms.

F. — That I, unworthy, should have lived to see this day!


FOOL. — If I were a doctor  —

DOCTOR. — I should endeavour to be a fool.

F. — You would fail; folly is not easily achieved.

D. — True; man is overworked.

F. — Let him take a pill.

D. — If he like. I would not.

F. — You are too frank: take a fool’s advice.

D. — Thank thee for the nastier prescription.

FOOL. — I have a friend who  —

DOCTOR. — Stands in great need of my assistance. Absence of excitement, gentle restraint, a hard bed, simple diet — that will straighten him out.

F. — I’ll give thee sixpence to let me touch the hem of thy garment!

D. — What of your friend?

F. — He is a gentleman.

D. — Then he is dead!

F. — Just so: he is “straightened out”— he took your prescription.

D. — All but the “simple diet.”

F. — He is himself the diet.

D. — How simple!

FOOL. — Believe you a man retains his intellect after decapitation?

DOCTOR. — It is possible that he acquires it?

F. — Much good it does him.

D. — Why not — as compensation? He is at some disadvantage in other respects.

F. — For example?

D. — He is in a false position.

FOOL. — What is the most satisfactory disease?

DOCTOR. — Paralysis of the thoracic duct.

F. — I am not familiar with it.

D. — It does not encourage familiarity. Paralysis of the thoracic duct enables the patient to accept as many invitations to dinner as he can secure, without danger of spoiling his appetite.

F. — But how long does his appetite last?

D. — That depends. Always a trifle longer than he does.

F. — The portion that survives him —?

D. — Goes to swell the Mighty Gastric Passion which lurks darkly Outside, yawning to swallow up material creation!

F. — Pitch it a biscuit.

FOOL. — You attend a patient. He gets well. Good! How do you tell whether his recovery is because of your treatment or in spite of it?

DOCTOR. — I never do tell.

F. — I mean how do you know?

D. — I take the opinion of a person interested in the question: I ask a fool.

F. — How does the patient know?

D. — The fool asks me.

F. — Amiable instructor! How shall I reward thee?

D. — Eat a cucumber cut up in shilling claret.

DOCTOR. — The relation between a patient and his disease is the same as that which obtains between the two wooden weather-prophets of a Dutch clock. When the disease goes off, the patient goes on; when the disease goes on, the patient goes off.

FOOL. — A pauper conceit. Their relations, then, are not of the most cordial character.

D. — One’s relations — except the poorer sort — seldom are.

F. — My tympanum is smitten with pleasant peltings of wisdom! I ’ll lay you ten to one you cannot tell me the present condition of your last patient.

D. — Done!

F. — You have won the wager.

FOOL. — I once read the report of an actual conversation upon a scientific subject between a fool and a physician.

DOCTOR. — Indeed! That sort of conversation commonly takes place between fools only.

F. — The reporter had chosen to confound orthography: he spelt fool “phool,” and physician “fysician.” What the fool said was, therefore, preceded by “PH;” the remarks of the physician were indicated by the letter “F.”

D. — This must have been very confusing.

F. — It was. But no one discovered that any liberties had been taken with orthography.

D. — You tumour!

FOOL. — Suppose you had amongst your menials an ailing oyster?

DOCTOR. — Oysters do not ail.

F. — I have heard that the pearl is the result of a disease.

D. — Whether a functional derangement producing a valuable gem can be properly termed, or treated as, a disease, is open to honest doubt.

F. — Then in the case supposed you would not favour excision of the abnormal part?

D. — Yes; I would remove the oyster.

F. — But if the pearl were growing very rapidly this operation would not be immediately advisable.

D. — That would depend upon the symptomatic diagnosis.

F. — Beast! Give me air!

DOCTOR. — I have been thinking  —

FOOL. —(Liar!)

D. — That you “come out” rather well for a fool.

Can it be that I have been entertaining an angel unawares?

F. — Dismiss the apprehension: I am as great a fool as yourself. But there is a way by which in future you may resolve a similar doubt.

D. — Explain.

F. — Speak to your guest of symptomatic diagnosis. If he is an angel, he will not resent it.


SOLDIER (reading from “Napier“). —“Who would not rather be buried by an army upon the field of battle than by a sexton in a church-yard!”

FOOL. — I give it up.

S. — I am not aware that any one has asked you for an opinion.

F. — I am not aware that I have given one: there is a happiness yet in store for you.

S. — I will revel in anticipation.

F. — You must revel somehow; without revelry there would be no soldiering.

S. — Idiot.

F. — I beg your pardon: I had thought your profession had at least taught you to call people by their proper titles. In the service of mankind I hold the rank of Fool.

S. — What, ho! without there! Let the trumpets sound!

F. — I beg you will not.

S. — True; you beg: I will not.

F. — But why rob when stealing is more honourable?

S. — Consider the competition.

FOOL. — Sir Cut-throat, how many orphans have you made to-day?

SOLDIER. — The devil an orphan! Have you a family?

F. — Put up your iron; I am the last of my race.

S. — How? No more fools?

F. — Not one, so help me! They have all gone to the wars.

S. — And why, pray, have you not enlisted?

F. — I should be no fool if I knew.

FOOL. — You are somewhat indebted to me.

SOLDIER. — I do not acknowledge your claim. Let us submit the matter to arbitration.

F. — The only arbiter whose decision you respect is on your own side.

S. — You allude to my sword, the most impartial of weapons: it cuts both ways.

F. — And each way is peculiarly objectionable to your opponent.

S. — But for what am I indebted to you?

F. — For existence: the prevalence of me has made you possible.

S. — The benefit is not conspicuous; were it not for your quarrels, I should enjoy a quantity of elegant leisure.

F. — As a clodhopper.

S. — I should at least hop my clods in a humble and Christian spirit; and if some other fellow did did not so hop his —! I say no more.

F. — You have said enough; there would be war.

SOLDIER. — Why wear a cap and bells?

FOOL. — I hasten to crave pardon, and if spared will at once exchange them.

S. — For what?

F. — A helmet and feather.

S. — G “hang a calf-skin on those recreant limbs.”

F. —’T is only wisdom should be bound in calf.

S. — Why?

F. — Because wisdom is the veal of which folly is the matured beef.

S. — Then folly should be garbed in cow-skin?

F. — Aye, that it might the more speedily appear for what it is — the naked truth.

S. — How should it?

F. — You would soon strip off its hide to make harness and trappings withal. No one thinks how much conquerors owe to cows.

FOOL. — Tell me, hero, what is strategy?

SOLDIER. — The art of laying two knives against one throat.

F. — And what are tactics?

S. — The art of driving them home.

F. — Supermundane lexicographer!

S. — I’ll bust thy crust! (Attempts to draw his sword, gets it between his legs, and falls along.)

F. (from a distance)— Shall I summon an army, or a sexton? And will you have it of bronze, or marble?

FOOL. — When you have gained a great victory, how much of the glory goes to the horse whose back you bestrode?

SOLDIER. — Nonsense! A horse cannot appreciate glory; he prefers corn.

F. — And this you call non-appreciation! But listen. (Reads) “During the Crusades, a part of the armament of a Turkish ship was two hundred serpents.” In the pursuit of glory you are at least not above employing humble auxiliaries. These be curious allies.

S. — What stuff a fool may talk! No true soldier would pit a serpent against a brave enemy. These worms were sailors.

F. — A nice distinction, truly! Did you ever, my most acute professor of vivisection, employ your trenchant blade in the splitting of hairs?

S. — I have split masses of them.

FOOL. — Speaking of the Crusades: at the siege of Acre, when a part of the wall had been thrown down by the Christians, the Pisans rushed into the breach, but the greater part of their army being at dinner, they were bloodily repulsed.

SOLDIER. — You appear to have a minute acquaintance with military history.

F. — Yes — being a fool. But was it not a sin and a shame that those feeders should not stir from their porridge to succour their suffering comrades?

S. — Pray why should a man neglect his business to oblige a friend?

F. — But they might have taken and sacked the city.

S. — The selfish gluttons!

SOLDIER. — Your presumption grows intolerable; I’ll hold no further parley with thee.

FOOL. —“Herculean gentleman, I dread thy drubs; pity the lifted whites of both my eyes!”

S. — Then speak no more of the things you do but imperfectly understand.

F. — Such censorship would doom all tongues to silence. But show me wherein my knowledge is deficient.

S. — What is an abattis?

F. — Rubbish placed in front of a fort, to keep the rubbish outside from getting at the rubbish inside.

S. — Egad! I’ll part thy hair!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51