Corn-pone Opinions

Black PreacherOver fifty years ago, my grandfather shared some words of wisdom that are as relevant today as they were when I first heard them. And they were, “Dickie, you’ve got to read and reread Mark Twain’s ‘Corn-pone Opinions’ until you got it down pat.” This was a short, 1901 essay which I will paraphrase as follows:

As a boy of fifteen, Samuel Clemens had an acquaintance he was very fond of – a delightful young black man named Jerry – a slave – who had the daily habit of preaching sermons from the top of his master’s woodpile. He imitated the pulpit style of the clergymen of his day, and did it well. One of Jerry’s favorite texts was, “You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell what his ‘pinions is.”

It seems that the black philosopher’s idea was that a man is not independent, and cannot afford views which might interfere with his bread and butter. If he was to prosper, he had to train with the majority; in matters like politics and religion, he had to think and feel with the bulk of his neighbors, or suffer damage in his social standing. In other words, he had to restrict himself to corn-pone opinions – at least on the surface. He must get his opinions from other people; he must reason out none for himself; he must have no first-hand views.

Mark Twain thought Jerry was right, in the main, but he did not go far enough. It was Twain’s belief that a man conforms to the majority view of his locality by calculation and intention; that a coldly-thought-out and independent verdict upon a fashion in clothes, or manners, or literature, or politics, or religion is a most rare thing – if indeed it ever existed. Basic human instinct moved one to conformity. It is man’s nature to conform; it is a force which not many can successfully resist. The cause is the inborn requirement of self-approval. And its source is the approval of other people.

We get our notions and habits and opinions from outside influences; we don’t study them. We are creatures of outside influences; as a rule we do not think, we only imitate.

The outside influences are always pouring in upon us, and we are always obeying their orders and accepting their verdicts. Morals, religions, politics, get their following from surrounding influences and atmospheres, almost entirely; not from study, not from thinking.

Why are Catholics, Catholics; Baptists, Baptists; Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jehovah’s Witnesses; Republicans, Republicans; and Democrats, Democrats? Mark Twain believed it is a matter of association and sympathy, not reasoning and examination, that hardly a man in the world has an opinion upon religion or politics which he got otherwise than through his associations and sympathies. Broadly speaking, there is nothing but corn-pone opinions. And broadly speaking, corn-pone stands for self-approval.

Men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently. They arrive at convictions, but they are drawn from a partial view of the matter in hand which is of no particular value.

We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking. Its name is Public Opinion. It is held in reverence. It settles everything. Some think it’s the Voice of God.

Now I don’t know if my awareness of corn-pone opinions is why I have no religious affiliation or why I can’t join a political party. But I’m not ashamed to admit that a lot of what I believe, I learned from Mark Twain. Like he said, “The trouble with the world is not that people know so little, but that they know so many things that ain’t so.”

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