The Confidence Man

by Herman Melville

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Does The Confidence Man portray education as a right and necessary for morality?

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The Confidence Man: His Masquerade is an 1857 social and satirical novel written by American novelist and poet Herman Melville. It is the author’s last novel and tells the story of several con men who are sailing down the Mississippi River on a riverboat and are constantly scamming other people and each other and selling their “confidence.” Essentially, the novel is an allegorical and ironic representation of the “unscrupulous” American society and culture.

The Confidence Man explores a myriad of social and political themes like identity, morality, ethics, religion, social and financial status, trust, truth, dis(honesty), and the complexity of human nature. Aside from these themes, Melville analyzes the meaning and the importance of education as well. Numerous philosophical confrontations and debates arise between many of the main and supporting characters, on several occasions and on various subjects; in order to win these disputes, and survive in this cruel and ruthless society, one has to be well-read, well-educated, and merciless. However, Melville argues that not everything is as black and white as it seems.

His opinion on formal, traditional education is hard to determine, as some of his most intelligent characters turn out to be immoral and unethical manipulators, and some of the less-educated characters turn out to be much more honorable and virtuous. He suggests that experience is probably a much more authentic source of knowledge than education and reason, but at the same time, he contends that it is not always safe or wise to constantly rely on it.

If reason be judge, no writer has produced such inconsistent characters as nature herself has. It must call for no small sagacity in a reader unerringly to discriminate in a novel between the inconsistencies of conception and those of life as elsewhere. Experience is the only guide here; but as no one man can be coextensive with what is, it may be unwise in every case to rest upon it.

Thus, whether Melville considers education a right, a necessity, or a privilege is a question that cannot have a definite answer. He does, however, imply that education can fundamentally change and affect a person’s nature and influence their moral compass. He indirectly theorizes that experience and social pressure are detrimental when it comes to making moral or ethical decisions, which might mean that he does believe that education is necessary for morality to flourish; if you get a good formal and (more importantly) moral education, you will have a better chance of learning about life’s real values; if you get a bad formal and moral education, you’ll end up being a slave to your own vices and stupidity.

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