Clarence Darrow is best known for being an American lawyer involved in some of the most famous trials of the 20th century (Scopes, Leopold & Loeb). What's less known is that he was a pessimist of the highest order, who believed life was a mistake and consciousness a burden. He frequently participated in debates with other well-known public figures on philosophical matters (often on a Sunday, now those were the days!).
Below are some addresses of the full debates. The top one contains links to a number of other philosophical contretemps he had during his life.
To provide a feast for the dark senses, I've compiled a collection of some of his juiciest observations below. Enjoy!
Darrow-Foster Debate 1917 ”Is Life worth Living?”
Consciousness was born in pain and struggle. If the machine had
been running easily and automatically, everything would have
been all right, and there would have been no consciousness.
But, it was born because something was wrong. And it lives
through pain and struggle, and it dies in the end, and that is
all; death is the only relief from pain and struggle.
What is life? Pleasant tnoments? Yes. But from the
time the infant is twisted with his first stomach-ache, up to the
time of the death agony, pain is always present, and pretty
much the only time you are happy is when you are released
from pain; then you soon get bored.
What is life, anyway? For that is a practical question.
What is it that we should prize it so highly? Do any of you
dare tell the truth to yourselves? There is not a person in this
audience that dares tell himself the truth about life.
want to live your lives over, any of you! Would 1 want to?
Would anybody want to? There might be vagrant parts of
my life. strong sensations, pleasant memories. But barring
those, the time I would want to live over, would be the time 1
was asleep-that is the time I was dead-that is all. And
every weary person comes home at night happy in the thought
that he can sleep. And if he cannot sleep without it, he takes
dope to make him sleep, because forgetfulness is the best of all.
As we reach out and ask ourselves questions, understand
the futility of all of it, feel our own pain and the suffering of
our fellowmen, see life as life really is, then we are unhappy
and must be unhappy forever.
“Is life worth living?” 1920 Starr – Darrow
Work is good because it brings non-existence,
and that non-existence is the most tolerable of all the forms
of matter in life. There is no other answer to hard work.
And I know of almost no one who has studied the philosophy
of life but does not finally come up with the proposition that
the only thing that makes life tolerable, is hard work, so
you don't know^ you are living. So, I characterize hard work
as dope for life.
that if you got a certain amount of earth and heat and water—
if they were resolved into the simple elements—given these
elements in certain proportions under certain conditions, life
will develop, just as maggots will in a cheese. Does that
prove it is worth while? I cannot see it. It does not prove
it in any meaning of the words worth while. If it does prove
it, then everything is equally worth while, and the living man
is no more a part of nature than the corpse. And the well
man is no more a part of nature than the sick man. The
pleasurable emotion is no more a part of nature than the
painful emotion. The fact that it is here simply proves it is
here, that is all.
When I look back over
life, with the many pains 1 have suffered that happened, and
the many more 1 have suffered that did not happen, the
greatest satisfaction that 1 find in any of it is when I am
asleep. And, intellectually, I feel it will be the best thing
that can happen to me—to go to sleep again.
Life to me is a joke. That is the way I get by.
It is an awful joke.
"Foundations of Belief.
"Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach
us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the Heavendescended
heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident,
his story a brief and transitory episode in the life of one
of the meanest of the planets. Of the combination of causes
which first converted a dead organic compound into the living
progenitors of humanity, science indeed as yet knows nothing.
It is enough that from such beginnings famine, disease, and
mutual slaughter, fit nurses of the future lords of creation,
have gradually evolved, after infinite travail, a race with conscience
enough to feel that it is vile, and intelligence enough
to know that it is insignificant. We survey the past, and see
that its history is of blood and tears, of helpless blundering,
of wild revolt, of stupid acquiescence, of empty aspirations.
We sound the future, and learn that after a period, long compared
with the individual life, but short indeed compared with
the divisions of time open to our investigation, the energies
of our system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed,
and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the
race which for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go
down into the pit, and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy
consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a
long space broken the' contented silence of the universe, will
be at rest. Matter will know^ itself no longer. "Imperishable
monuments" and "immortal deeds," death itself, and love
stronger than death, will be as though they had never been.
Nor will anything that is be better or be worse for all that the
labour, genius, devotion, and suffering of men have striven
through countless generations to effect."
Darrow-Starr Is Civilisation a Failure?
Civilization carries with it the germs of its own destruction,
and its physical destruction and its mental destruction, because
it is too far away from life. This is not a new question.
This is not a new civilization. Farther back than human history
can go-and there have been civilizations perhaps as
great as this at least-as far back as history can tell, there
have been civilizations which were most likely the equal of
this, that were the equal of this in every way that we can
measure the usefulness or the happinness of man. This world
even within historical times has been swept over and over
with civilizations which have grown and flourished and decayed,
and gone back to the primitive again.
Our civilization is just like the rest. To me, human life
is one great succession of barbarism, or savagery, of civilization,
of decay, back to barbarism and savagery, and again
on the to civilization and back. One thing after
another. But we people like every other people of the world,
live in the present, live for today, close our eyes to the past
and never dream of the future. We believe that this civilization
is the only civilization the world has ever seen; and
if it is going upward it will go on and on and on until man will
have a brain as tall as a flag pole. He can live on ideals,
although everybody knows that ideals do not go with civilization!
An intelligence test of nearly two
million boys between twenty and thirty, twenty being the age
put down in the test as being the time when the faculties are
perhaps the most alert. Not a test of knowledge, but a test
of intelligence and, coming from the great mass of young men
of the United States, between twenty and thirty. This test
shows that of our intelligent young men of America of those
between twenty and thirty, ten per cent average ten years of
age. That is the moron age. Fifteen per cent average eleven
years of age. Twenty-five per cent of all of them, thirteen
and a half years of age. Seventy per cent of all of them, of
all the young men of America, run below fourteen years of
age. Now, that is what we get out of civilization.
First, there is no evidence that the brain
power of civilized man is any better than the brain power of
the barbarous man. I think perhaps Professor Starr will agree
with me on that. If he can think of enough other things to
say I am sure he will agree with me on that. The brain power
is very poor and very weak. They are living on the verge
of want; they have no education; they could get along pretty
well with an easy life; they could get along in a land that was
not civilized; they could live in tribes where people live simple
and close to Nature. But, around these people is built the
environment of civilization, an environment which sends a
great mass of them to jail, to the insane asylums, and to institutions;
an environment that is too strong for the ordinary
man, no matter whether he is savage or civilized; and they are
decaying, and decaying fast.
We have reared a monster which we call civilization:
which leaves the great mass of men entirely unfitted for the
structure we have built; and they wander around blindly in
this dizzy maze until they destroy what there is and go back;
go back to the barbarism from whence they came; and we
go over the old, old weary round again. The great mass of
men are like the great mass of animals, of whom they are
a part. They must live close to life; they must live close to
Nature. Civilization cannot possibly maintain itself. I am
not obsessed of the human race. Perhaps the best thing that
could happen to it would be to die. But, it is not going to
die; that is the trouble with it.
Let me see what civilization does for the human race.
Build a high stone wall, north and south across Chicago, and
fence in about a mile adjoining the lake-that puts all of us
swells in that pen where we ought to be-and in two hundred
years, if we had no contact with the outside world, nobody
would be alive. They cannot produce life and they cannot
sustain life, and life comes from the primitive peoples who
are near Nature, who are near the source of supplies; from
those primitive peoples who come to us from other countries.
from those who have not been infected and destroyed by this
wonderful civilization which is the glory of everybody who
does not think about it!
Life cannot be sustained except through the primitive, and
the trouble with civilization-one trouble-it will not even
destroy life, because there will always be left enough of the
uncivilized to take up life where civilization throws it down,
and carry it on. Life is everlastingly being preserved by the
primitive people of the world and going over the same old
The idea that
some evolutionists believe in-I don't know why-that insistent
in life itself is beneficience; which is another religious
idea, for beneficience implies consciousness, and the evolutionist
of the Ingersoll type, has imply taken God out of
the skies and put him into man and now you can see how
and what he looks Eike. Both of them are utterly unscientific;
purely religious; have no basis in fact; and cannot be proven
by any of the experiences of human life!
live together in masses. Well, now, let us see about it.
The ability to live together in masses. Why in masses? I
am inclined to think that a great city is the most striking
evidence of disease that civilization has furnished. Why
should the human race live together in masses? They are
drawn together because the ideal of civilization is money.
And this ideal is responsible for every really great city on
the face of the earth today. And, it is destroying itself.
Why isn't the more primitive life of man, where he lived'
further apart and roamed a greater area, a more natural state
of man, and after all, a happier state for the great mass of
men who live upon the earth? Now what is our ability to
live together in masses? And is it a success or failure? How
do we do it? Why, I will tdl you how we do it. Take
Chicago, New York or London. Now about three per cent
have nearly all there is; they have most of all the lands, and
the wealth and the accumulated stores that the labor of the
- world gives; and they live together in manses, how? Why,
by hiring lawyers and policemen! By building jails; by keeping
the masses at bay by main force and by fear. And do you
suppose a civilization like this could rest, except through fear?
Not for a moment. Do you suppose two or three per cent
of the human beings of civilized communities could own everything
there is and see the great majority livinq close to want
and still live together in masses, except by the club and by
the jail? Is that a success?
No such condition of gross inequality, of hopeless brutality,
can be pointed to, I believe, amongst the uncivilized peoples
of the earth. The gross inequality and injustice which civilization
has given to the world is preserved as distinctions were
preserved in barbarism, by the club and by fear. And the
preachers and the teachers and the lawyers would never think
that they had created a civilization where a man could go to
sleep at night unless a policeman was etanding outside his
door with a club. Now, that is our civilization. And this
handful of civilized people who are the owners of civilization
and the dictators of life and of liberty, are kept alive by an
army of doctors, examining their blood, making tests, hunting
germs, vaccinating them for smallpox, for diptheria, taking
out appendix, adenoids, and pulling out whatever teeth
they have left. Everything to keep this bunch alive. Why,
look at the mass of lawyers, doctors, -policemen, jailers, newspapermen,
that are called in to aid to keep up this civilization!
Where men do not live together in masses because they know
the art of living together in masses; but where the chief pursuit
is some form of robbery, and -overreaching and where
men are held together by force and nothing else. Is it a
success! I will have to go to the dictionary and see if I can
find a new definition of success.
The Story of My Life
I am inclined to believe that the most satisfactory part of life is the time spent in sleep, when one is utterly oblivious to existence; next best is when one is so absorbed in activities that one is altogether unmindful of self.
I am satisfied that no one with a moderate amount of intelligence can tolerate life, if he looks it squarely in the face, without welcoming whatever soothes and solaces, and makes one forget.
Nothing is so cruel, so wanton, so unfeeling as Nature; she moves with the weight of a glacier carrying everything before her. In the eyes of Nature, neither man nor any of the other animals mean anything whatever. The rock-ribbed mountains, the
tempestuous sea, the scorching desert, the myriad weeds and insects and wild beasts that infest the earth, and the noblest man, are all one. Each and all are helpless against the cruelty and immutability of the resistless processes of Nature.
Whichever way man may look upon the earth, he is oppressed with the suffering incident to life. It would almost seem as though the earth had been created with malignity and hatred. If we look at what we are pleased to call the lower animals, we behold a universal carnage. We speak of the seemingly peaceful woods, but we need only look beneath the surface to be horrified by the misery of that underworld. Hidden in the grass and watching for its prey is the crawling snake which swiftly darts upon the toad or mouse and gradually swallows it alive; the hapless animal is crushed by the jaws and covered with slime, to be slowly digested in furnishing a meal. The snake knows nothing about sin or pain inflicted upon another; he automatically grabs insects and mice and frogs to preserve his life. The spider carefully weaves his web to catch the unwary fly, winds him into the fatal net until paralyzed and helpless, then drinks his blood and leaves him an empty shell. The hawk swoops down and snatches a chicken and carries it to its nest to feed its young. The wolf pounces on the lamb and tears it to shreds. The cat watches at the hole of the mouse until the mouse cautiously comes out, then with seeming fiendish glee he plays with it until tired of the game, then crunches it to death in his jaws. The beasts of the jungle roam by day and night to find their prey; the lion is endowed with strength of limb and fang to destroy and devour almost any animal that it can surprise or overtake. There is no place in the woods or air or sea where all life is not a carnage of death in terror and agony. Each animal is a hunter, and in turn is hunted, by day and night. No landscape is so beautiful or day so balmy but the cry of suffering and sacrifice rends the air. When night settles down over the earth the slaughter is not abated. Some creatures see best at night, and the outcry of the dying and terrified is always on the wind. Almost all animals meet death by violence and through the most agonizing pain. With the whole animal creation there is nothing like a peaceful death. Nowhere in nature is there the slightest evidence of kindness, of consideration, or a feeling for the suffering and the weak, except in the narrow circle of brief family life.
Man furnishes no exception to the rule. He seems to add the treachery and deceit that the other animals in the main do not practice, to all the other cruelties that move his life. Man has made himself master of the animal world and he uses his power to serve only his own ends. Man, at least, kills helpless animals for the pleasure of killing, alone.
for man himself there is little joy. Every child that is born upon the earth arrives through the agony of the mother. From childhood on, the life is full of pain and disappointment and sorrow. From beginning to end it is the prey of disease and misery; not a child is born that is not subject to disease. Parents, family, friends, and acquaintances, one after another die, and leave us bereft. The noble and the ignoble life meets the same fate. Nature knows nothing about right and wrong, good and evil, pleasure and pain; she simply acts. She creates a beautiful woman, and places a cancer on her cheek. She may create an idealist, and kill him with a germ. She creates a fine mind, and then burdens it with a deformed body. And she will create a fine body, apparently for no use whatever. She may destroy the most wonderful life when its work has just commenced. She may scatter tubercular germs broadcast throughout the world. She seemingly works with no method, plan or purpose. She knows no mercy nor goodness. Nothing is so cruel and abandoned as Nature. To call her tender or charitable is a travesty upon words and a stultification of intellect. No one can suggest these obvious facts without being told that he is not competent to judge Nature and the God behind Nature. If we must not judge God as evil, then we cannot judge God as good. In all the other affairs of life, man never hesitates to classify and judge, but when it comes to passing on life, and the responsibility of life, he is told that it must be good, although the opinion beggars reason and intelligence and is a denial of both.
Intellectually, I am satisfied that life is a serious burden, which no thinking, humane person would wantonly inflict on some one else.