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Unlikely Contributions to Life Philosophy

Unlikely Contributions to Life Philosophy

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This forum, like the previous discussions in this series, will offer you the opportunity to consider how the unlikely or speculative aspects of a work contribute in particularly important ways to its meaning and broader purpose. The figure of the robot in R. U. R. makes possible a number of different approaches to this question.

This forum will also potentially serve as a kind of pre-draft exercise that you could use for one of the remaining high-stakes writing assignments. Contrasting the idea of life philosophy in R. U. R. and “Moxon’s Master” will be one of the options you’ll have for 

the Five-Paragraph Writing Exercise

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, which will be due early in Module 12. If you don’t use it for that assignment, you could consider using it for the Signature Assignment since R. U. R.’s life philosophy is normative in that it imbues its message with moral purpose.  

Forum Instructions

In this module’s micro lecture, we saw one route that life philosophy can take. “Moxon’s Master” raises ontological questions about the concept of life. But vitalism, even a vitalist materialism, is but one form that life philosophy can take. Perhaps more recognizably, life philosophy can take up the question of the good life. In literary fiction ,this version of life philosophy most often focuses on the individual since certain forms of the novel (say, for example, the Bildungsroman) are particularly well suited for imagining and valuing the trajectory of a person’s life. Nevertheless, R. U. R., as a work of dystopian fiction, epitomizes, as a kind of negative example, the way that literature can also explore what makes for the good life of a collective. It’s speculative aspects are undoubtedly central to the way that it thinks through this question. 

Answer the following questions:

How does the centering of R. U. R.’s narrative around the figure of the robot contribute to the work’s life philosophy? In other words, why does Čapek build his reflection on the conditions of life in modern industrial society around this unlikely figure? How does his use (perhaps, invention) of this type of science fiction narrative (the sentient robot story) make possible a certain kind of thinking about how best to arrange collective life that wouldn’t be available in a fully realist work? (Other things to consider: While you could certainly focus on how the robots are directly depicted (e.g. their actions and speeches), you are also welcome to discuss how they are represented in the speech of the humans in the play, especially before the revolution. You could also speculate as to what the robots are supposed to emblematize in the actual lifeworld of the early twentieth-century West. They seem to symbolize or figure different things in different places within the play. Finally, you may want to reflect on the relationship between eudaimonia (happiness/flourshing) and ethics in R. U. R. as it pertains to role of the robots within the play.)

Please Order Your Post in the Following Way:

1. Open your comment, if you aren’t the first to post in your group, by relating it to at least one preceding post using the argumentative twist technique. Make a claim about how the figure of the robot, either as directly depicted or as the subject of the human characters’ speech, helps to present the play’s life philosophy. (1-2 sentences)

2. Anchor your claim in a discussion of at least one concrete and specific narrative or textual detail. (1-3 sentences)

3. Supply reasoning that supports your claim. In other words, explain how the narrative or textual details that you cite confirm your claim, that is, serve as evidence. (Ideally, you’ll either offer evidence that no one in your group has previously addressed or you will offer a different take on evidence previously mentioned.) (1-3 sentences)

Additional Instructions:

· Be sure to write with clarity and collegiality (i.e. be respectful of those who have a different opinion)

· Length: Your post should be at minimum 150 words.

· Format: You will post your comment directly in the appropriate discussion forum, so use the default formatting (font type, etc.) for the discussion board.

· Citations: Use

 MLA in-text citations (Links to an external site.)

 for textual evidence that refers to the page numbers in the assigned editions of the standalone texts or the PDF/Word documents posted to Canvas. If you cite a different edition or another source, include an MLA Works Cited at the end of your post. 

The Library of America • Story of the Week
From Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Dictionary, Tales, & Memoirs
(The Library of America, 2011), pages 252–61.
First published in the April 16, 1899, issue of the San Francisco Examiner
and collected in the 1910 edition of Can Such Things Be?
Moxon’s Master
a mbrose bierce

Are you serious?—do you really believe that a machine thinks?”

I got no immediate reply; Moxon was apparently intent upon the coals in the grate, touching them deftly here and there with the fre-poker till they signifed a sense of his attention by a brighter glow. For several weeks I had been observing
in him a growing habit of delay in answering even the most
trivial of commonplace questions. His air, however, was that of
preoccupation rather than deliberation: one might have said
that he had “something on his mind.”
Presently he said:
“What is a ‘machine’? The word has been variously defned.
Here is one definition from a popular dictionary: ‘Any instru-
ment or organization by which power is applied and made ef-
fective, or a desired efect produced.’ Well, then, is not a man a
machine? And you will admit that he thinks—or thinks he
“If you do not wish to answer my question,” I said, rather
testily, “why not say so?—all that you say is mere evasion. You
know well enough that when I say ‘machine’ I do not mean a
man, but something that man has made and controls.”
“When it does not control him,” he said, rising abruptly and
looking out of a window, whence nothing was visible in the
blackness of a stormy night. A moment later he turned about
and with a smile said: “I beg your pardon; I had no thought of
evasion. I considered the dictionary man’s unconscious testi-
mony suggestive and worth something in the discussion. I can
give your question a direct answer easily enough: I do believe
that a machine thinks about the work that it is doing.”
That was direct enough, certainly. It was not altogether
pleasing, for it tended to confrm a sad suspicion that Moxon’s
devotion to study and work in his machine-shop had not been
good for him. I knew, for one thing, that he sufered from in-
somnia, and that is no light afiction. Had it afected his mind?
His reply to my question seemed to me then evidence that it
had; perhaps I should think diferently about it now. I was
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253 m oxo n ’ s m a s t e r
younger then, and among the blessings that are not denied to
youth is ignorance. Incited by that great stimulant to contro-
versy, I said:
“And what, pray, does it think with—in the absence of a
The reply, coming with less than his customary delay, took
his favorite form of counter-interrogation:
“With what does a plant think—in the absence of a brain?”
“Ah, plants also belong to the philosopher class! I should be
pleased to know some of their conclusions; you may omit the
“Perhaps,” he replied, apparently unafected by my foolish
irony, “you may be able to infer their convictions from their
acts. I will spare you the familiar examples of the sensitive mi-
mosa, the several insectivorous fowers and those whose sta-
mens bend down and shake their pollen upon the entering bee
in order that he may fertilize their distant mates. But observe
this. In an open spot in my garden I planted a climbing vine.
When it was barely above the surface I set a stake into the soil
a yard away. The vine at once made for it, but as it was about
to reach it after several days I removed it a few feet. The vine at
once altered its course, making an acute angle, and again made
for the stake. This manœuvre was repeated several times, but
fnally, as if discouraged, the vine abandoned the pursuit and
ignoring further attempts to divert it traveled to a small tree,
further away, which it climbed.
“Roots of the eucalyptus will prolong themselves incredibly
in search of moisture. A well-known horticulturist relates that
one entered an old drain pipe and followed it until it came to a
break, where a section of the pipe had been removed to make
way for a stone wall that had been built across its course. The
root left the drain and followed the wall until it found an
opening where a stone had fallen out. It crept through and
following the other side of the wall back to the drain, entered
the unexplored part and resumed its journey.”
“And all this?”
“Can you miss the signifcance of it? It shows the conscious-
ness of plants. It proves that they think.”
“Even if it did—what then? We were speaking, not of plants,
but of machines. They may be composed partly of wood—wood

254 c a n s u c h t h i ng s be ?
that has no longer vitality—or wholly of metal. Is thought an
attribute also of the mineral kingdom?”
“How else do you explain the phenomena, for example, of
“I do not explain them.”
“Because you cannot without afrming what you wish to
deny, namely, intelligent cooperation among the constituent
elements of the crystals. When soldiers form lines, or hollow
squares, you call it reason. When wild geese in fight take the
form of a letter V you say instinct. When the homogeneous
atoms of a mineral, moving freely in solution, arrange them-
selves into shapes mathematically perfect, or particles of frozen
moisture into the symmetrical and beautiful forms of snow-
fakes, you have nothing to say. You have not even invented a
name to conceal your heroic unreason.”
Moxon was speaking with unusual animation and earnest-
ness. As he paused I heard in an adjoining room known to me
as his “machine-shop,” which no one but himself was permit-
ted to enter, a singular thumping sound, as of some one pound-
ing upon a table with an open hand. Moxon heard it at the
same moment and, visibly agitated, rose and hurriedly passed
into the room whence it came. I thought it odd that any one
else should be in there, and my interest in my friend—with
doubtless a touch of unwarrantable curiosity—led me to listen
intently, though, I am happy to say, not at the keyhole. There
were confused sounds, as of a struggle or scufe; the foor
shook. I distinctly heard hard breathing and a hoarse whisper
which said “Damn you!” Then all was silent, and presently
Moxon reappeared and said, with a rather sorry smile:
“Pardon me for leaving you so abruptly. I have a machine in
there that lost its temper and cut up rough.”
Fixing my eyes steadily upon his left cheek, which was tra-
versed by four parallel excoriations showing blood, I said:
“How would it do to trim its nails?”
I could have spared myself the jest; he gave it no attention,
but seated himself in the chair that he had left and resumed the
interrupted monologue as if nothing had occurred:
“Doubtless you do not hold with those (I need not name
them to a man of your reading) who have taught that all matter
is sentient, that every atom is a living, feeling, conscious being.

255 m oxo n ’ s m a s t e r
I do. There is no such thing as dead, inert matter: it is all alive;
all instinct with force, actual and potential; all sensitive to the
same forces in its environment and susceptible to the conta-
gion of higher and subtler ones residing in such superior or-
ganisms as it may be brought into relation with, as those of
man when he is fashioning it into an instrument of his will. It
absorbs something of his intelligence and purpose—more of
them in proportion to the complexity of the resulting machine
and that of its work.
“Do you happen to recall Herbert Spencer’s defnition of
‘Life’? I read it thirty years ago. He may have altered it after-
ward, for anything I know, but in all that time I have been
unable to think of a single word that could proftably be
changed or added or removed. It seems to me not only the
best defnition, but the only possible one.
“ ‘Life,’ he says, ‘is a defnite combination of heterogeneous
changes, both simultaneous and successive, in correspondence
with external coexistences and sequences.’ ”
“That defnes the phenomenon,” I said, “but gives no hint
of its cause.”
“That,” he replied, “is all that any defnition can do. As Mill
points out, we know nothing of cause except as an antecedent
—nothing of efect except as a consequent. Of certain phe-
nomena, one never occurs without another, which is dissimilar:
the frst in point of time we call cause, the second, efect. One
who had many times seen a rabbit pursued by a dog, and had
never seen rabbits and dogs otherwise, would think the rabbit
the cause of the dog.
“But I fear,” he added, laughing naturally enough, “that my
rabbit is leading me a long way from the track of my legitimate
quarry: I’m indulging in the pleasure of the chase for its own
sake. What I want you to observe is that in Herbert Spencer’s
defnition of ‘life’ the activity of a machine is included—there
is nothing in the defnition that is not applicable to it. Accord-
ing to this sharpest of observers and deepest of thinkers, if a
man during his period of activity is alive, so is a machine when
in operation. As an inventor and constructor of machines I
know that to be true.”
Moxon was silent for a long time, gazing absently into the
fre. It was growing late and I thought it time to be going, but

256 c a n s u c h t h i ng s be ?
somehow I did not like the notion of leaving him in that iso-
lated house, all alone except for the presence of some person
of whose nature my conjectures could go no further than that
it was unfriendly, perhaps malign. Leaning toward him and
looking earnestly into his eyes while making a motion with my
hand through the door of his workshop, I said:
“Moxon, whom have you in there?”
Somewhat to my surprise he laughed lightly and answered
without hesitation:
“Nobody; the incident that you have in mind was caused by
my folly in leaving a machine in action with nothing to act
upon, while I undertook the interminable task of enlightening
your understanding. Do you happen to know that Conscious-
ness is the creature of Rhythm?”
“O bother them both!” I replied, rising and laying hold of
my overcoat. “I’m going to wish you good night; and I’ll add
the hope that the machine which you inadvertently left in ac-
tion will have her gloves on the next time you think it needful
to stop her.”
Without waiting to observe the efect of my shot I left the
Rain was falling, and the darkness was intense. In the sky
beyond the crest of a hill toward which I groped my way along
precarious plank sidewalks and across miry, unpaved streets I
could see the faint glow of the city’s lights, but behind me
nothing was visible but a single window of Moxon’s house. It
glowed with what seemed to me a mysterious and fateful
meaning. I knew it was an uncurtained aperture in my friend’s
“machine-shop,” and I had little doubt that he had resumed
the studies interrupted by his duties as my instructor in me-
chanical consciousness and the fatherhood of Rhythm. Odd,
and in some degree humorous, as his convictions seemed to
me at that time, I could not wholly divest myself of the feeling
that they had some tragic relation to his life and character—
perhaps to his destiny—although I no longer entertained the
notion that they were the vagaries of a disordered mind. What-
ever might be thought of his views, his exposition of them was
too logical for that. Over and over, his last words came back to
me: “Consciousness is the creature of Rhythm.” Bald and terse
as the statement was, I now found it infnitely alluring. At each

257 m oxo n ’ s m a s t e r
recurrence it broadened in meaning and deepened in sugges-
tion. Why, here, (I thought) is something upon which to found
a philosophy. If consciousness is the product of rhythm all
things are conscious, for all have motion, and all motion is
rhythmic. I wondered if Moxon knew the signifcance and
breadth of his thought—the scope of this momentous general-
ization; or had he arrived at his philosophic faith by the tortu-
ous and uncertain road of observation?
That faith was then new to me, and all Moxon’s expounding
had failed to make me a convert; but now it seemed as if a
great light shone about me, like that which fell upon Saul of
Tarsus; and out there in the storm and darkness and solitude I
experienced what Lewes calls “The endless variety and excite-
ment of philosophic thought.” I exulted in a new sense of knowl-
edge, a new pride of reason. My feet seemed hardly to touch
the earth; it was as if I were uplifted and borne through the air
by invisible wings.
Yielding to an impulse to seek further light from him whom
I now recognized as my master and guide, I had unconsciously
turned about, and almost before I was aware of having done so
found myself again at Moxon’s door. I was drenched with rain,
but felt no discomfort. Unable in my excitement to fnd the
doorbell I instinctively tried the knob. It turned and, entering,
I mounted the stairs to the room that I had so recently left. All
was dark and silent; Moxon, as I had supposed, was in the ad-
joining room—the “machine-shop.” Groping along the wall
until I found the communicating door I knocked loudly several
times, but got no response, which I attributed to the uproar
outside, for the wind was blowing a gale and dashing the rain
against the thin walls in sheets. The drumming upon the shingle
roof spanning the unceiled room was loud and incessant.
I had never been invited into the machine-shop—had, in-
deed, been denied admittance, as had all others, with one ex-
ception, a skilled metal worker, of whom no one knew anything
except that his name was Haley and his habit silence. But in my
spiritual exaltation, discretion and civility were alike forgotten
and I opened the door. What I saw took all philosophical
speculation out of me in short order.
Moxon sat facing me at the farther side of a small table upon
which a single candle made all the light that was in the room.

258 c a n s u c h t h i ng s be ?
Opposite him, his back toward me, sat another person. On the
table between the two was a chessboard; the men were playing.
I knew little of chess, but as only a few pieces were on the
board it was obvious that the game was near its close. Moxon
was intensely interested—not so much, it seemed to me, in the
game as in his antagonist, upon whom he had fxed so intent a
look that, standing though I did directly in the line of his vi-
sion, I was altogether unobserved. His face was ghastly white,
and his eyes glittered like diamonds. Of his antagonist I had
only a back view, but that was sufcient; I should not have
cared to see his face.
He was apparently not more than fve feet in height, with
proportions suggesting those of a gorilla—a tremendous breadth
of shoulders, thick, short neck and broad, squat head, which
had a tangled growth of black hair and was topped with a
crimson fez. A tunic of the same color, belted tightly to the
waist, reached the seat—apparently a box—upon which he sat;
his legs and feet were not seen. His left forearm appeared to
rest in his lap; he moved his pieces with his right hand, which
seemed disproportionately long.
I had shrunk back and now stood a little to one side of the
doorway and in shadow. If Moxon had looked farther than the
face of his opponent he could have observed nothing now,
except that the door was open. Something forbade me either
to enter or to retire, a feeling—I know not how it came—that
I was in the presence of an imminent tragedy and might serve
my friend by remaining. With a scarcely conscious rebellion
against the indelicacy of the act I remained.
The play was rapid. Moxon hardly glanced at the board be-
fore making his moves, and to my unskilled eye seemed to
move the piece most convenient to his hand, his motions in
doing so being quick, nervous and lacking in precision. The
response of his antagonist, while equally prompt in the incep-
tion, was made with a slow, uniform, mechanical and, I
thought, somewhat theatrical movement of the arm, that was a
sore trial to my patience. There was something unearthly about
it all, and I caught myself shuddering. But I was wet and cold.
Two or three times after moving a piece the stranger slightly
inclined his head, and each time I observed that Moxon shifted
his king. All at once the thought came to me that the man was

259 m oxo n ’ s m a s t e r
dumb. And then that he was a machine—an automaton chess-
player! Then I remembered that Moxon had once spoken to
me of having invented such a piece of mechanism, though I
did not understand that it had actually been constructed. Was
all his talk about the consciousness and intelligence of machines
merely a prelude to eventual exhibition of this device—only a
trick to intensify the efect of its mechanical action upon me in
my ignorance of its secret?
A fne end, this, of all my intellectual transports—my “end-
less variety and excitement of philosophic thought!” I was
about to retire in disgust when something occurred to hold
my curiosity. I observed a shrug of the thing’s great shoulders,
as if it were irritated: and so natural was this—so entirely
human—that in my new view of the matter it startled me. Nor
was that all, for a moment later it struck the table sharply with
its clenched hand. At that gesture Moxon seemed even more
startled than I: he pushed his chair a little backward, as in
Presently Moxon, whose play it was, raised his hand high
above the board, pounced upon one of his pieces like a spar-
row-hawk and with the exclamation “checkmate!” rose quickly
to his feet and stepped behind his chair. The automaton sat
The wind had now gone down, but I heard, at lessening in-
tervals and progressively louder, the rumble and roll of thun-
der. In the pauses between I now became conscious of a low
humming or buzzing which, like the thunder, grew momen-
tarily louder and more distinct. It seemed to come from the
body of the automaton, and was unmistakably a whirring of
wheels. It gave me the impression of a disordered mechanism
which had escaped the repressive and regulating action of some
controlling part—an efect such as might be expected if a pawl
should be jostled from the teeth of a ratchet-wheel. But before
I had time for much conjecture as to its nature my attention
was taken by the strange motions of the automaton itself. A
slight but continuous convulsion appeared to have possession
of it. In body and head it shook like a man with palsy or an
ague chill, and the motion augmented every moment until the
entire fgure was in violent agitation. Suddenly it sprang to
its feet and with a movement almost too quick for the eye to

260 c a n s u c h t h i ng s be ?
follow shot forward across table and chair, with both arms
thrust forth to their full length—the posture and lunge of a
diver. Moxon tried to throw himself backward out of reach,
but he was too late: I saw the horrible thing’s hands close upon
his throat, his own clutch its wrists. Then the table was over-
turned, the candle thrown to the foor and extinguished, and
all was black dark. But the noise of the struggle was dreadfully
distinct, and most terrible of all were the raucous, squawking
sounds made by the strangled man’s eforts to breathe. Guided
by the infernal hubbub, I sprang to the rescue of my friend,
but had hardly taken a stride in the darkness when the whole
room blazed with a blinding white light that burned into my
brain and heart and memory a vivid picture of the combatants
on the foor, Moxon underneath, his throat still in the clutch
of those iron hands, his head forced backward, his eyes pro-
truding, his mouth wide open and his tongue thrust out; and
—horrible contrast!—upon the painted face of his assassin an
expression of tranquil and profound thought, as in the solu-
tion of a problem in chess! This I observed, then all was black-
ness and silence.
Three days later I recovered consciousness in a hospital. As
the memory of that tragic night slowly evolved in my ailing
brain I recognized in my attendant Moxon’s confdential work-
man, Haley. Responding to a look he approached, smiling.
“Tell me about it,” I managed to say, faintly—“all about it.”
“Certainly,” he said; “you were carried unconscious from a
burning house—Moxon’s. Nobody knows how you came to
be there. You may have to do a little explaining. The origin of
the fre is a bit mysterious, too. My own notion is that the
house was struck by lightning.”
“And Moxon?”
“Buried yesterday—what was left of him.”
Apparently this reticent person could unfold himself on oc-
casion. When imparting shocking intelligence to the sick he
was afable enough. After some moments of the keenest mental
sufering I ventured to ask another question:
“Who rescued me?”
“Well, if that interests you—I did.”
“Thank you, Mr. Haley, and may God bless you for it. Did

261 m oxo n ’ s m a s t e r
you rescue, also, that charming product of your skill, the au-
tomaton chess-player that murdered its inventor?”
The man was silent a long time, looking away from me.
Presently he turned and gravely said:
“Do you know that?”
“I do,” I replied; “I saw it done.”
That was many years ago. If asked to-day I should answer
less confdently.

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