h. l. mencken Quotes

H. L. Mencken Quotes

Birth Date: 1880-09-12 (Sunday, September 12th, 1880)
Date of Death: 1956-01-29 (Sunday, January 29th, 1956)

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Quotes

    • Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
    • Of all escape mechanisms, death is the most efficient.
    • Progress: The process whereby the human race has got rid of whiskers, the vermiform appendix and God.
    • Truth would quickly cease to be stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it.
    • Explanations exist: they have existed for all times, for there is always an easy solution to every problem - neat, plausible and wrong.
    • Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.
    • It was morality that burned the books of the ancient sages, and morality that halted the free inquiry of the Golden Age and substituted for it the credulous imbecility of the Age of Faith. It was a fixed moral code and a fixed theology which robbed the human race of a thousand years by wasting them upon alchemy, heretic-burning, witchcraft and sacerdotalism.
    • School teachers, taking them by and large, are probably the most ignorant and stupid class of men in the whole group of mental workers.
    • Philadelphia is the most pecksniffian of American cities, and thus probably leads the world.
    • All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.
    • Off goes the head of the king, and tyranny gives way to freedom. The change seems abysmal. Then, bit by bit, the face of freedom hardens, and by and by it is the old face of tyranny. Then another cycle, and another. But under the play of all these opposites there is something fundamental and permanent - the basic delusion that men may be governed and yet be free.
    • It is the dull man who is always sure, and the sure man who is always dull.
    • When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental - men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost... All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre - the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.' The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.
    • To sum up: 1. The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute. 2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. 3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.
    • If, after I depart this vale, you ever remember me and have thought to please my ghost, forgive some sinner and wink your eye at some homely girl.
    • To be happy one must be (a) well fed, unhounded by sordid cares, at ease in Zion, (b) full of comfortable feeling of superiority to the masses of one's fellow men, and (c) delicately and unceasingly amused according to one's taste. It is my contention that, if this definition be accepted, there is no country in the world wherein a man constituted as I am - a man of my peculiar weakness, vanities, appetites, and aversions - can be so happy as he can be in the United States.
    • The fact is that the average man's love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty - and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.
    • The difference between a moral man and a man of honor is that the latter regrets a discreditable act, even when it has worked and he has not been caught.
    • The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe - that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
    • What is any political campaign save a concerted effort to turn out a set of politicians who are admittedly bad and put in a set who are thought to be better. The former assumption, I believe is always sound; the latter is just as certainly false. For if experience teaches us anything at all it teaches us this: that a good politician, under democracy, is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.
    • Suppose two-thirds of the members of the national House of Representatives were dumped into the Washington garbage incinerator tomorrow, what would we lose to offset our gain of their salaries and the salaries of their parasites?
    • The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line. The objection to it is not that it is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking in sense.
    • I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind - that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overborne by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
    • When A annoys or injures B on the pretense of saving or improving X, A is a scoundrel.
    • It is [a politician's] business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths. His ear is ever close to the ground.
    • Public opinion, in its raw state, gushes out in the immemorial form of the mob's fear. It is piped into central factories, and there it is flavoured and coloured and put into cans.
    • To a clergyman lying under a vow of chastity any act of sex is immoral, but his abhorrence of it naturally increases in proportion as it looks safe and is correspondingly tempting. As a prudent man, he is not much disturbed by incitations which carry their obvious and certain penalties; what shakes him is the enticement bare of any probable secular retribution. Ergo, the worst and damndest indulgence is that which goes unwhipped. So he teaches that it is no sin for a woman to bear a child to a drunken and worthless husband, even though she may believe with sound reason that it will be diseased and miserable all its life, but if she resorts to any mechanical or chemical device, however harmless, to prevent its birth, she is doomed by his penology to roast in Hell forever, along with the assassin of orphans and the scoundrel who forgets his Easter duty.
    • The virulence of the national appetite for bogus revelation.
    • To the man with an ear for verbal delicacies - the man who searches painfully for the perfect word, and puts the way of saying a thing above the thing said - there is in writing the constant joy of sudden discovery, of happy accident.
    • Poverty is a soft pedal upon the branches of human activity, not excepting the spiritual.
    • Time is the great legalizer, even in the field of morals.
    • The public...demands certainties...But there are no certainties.
    • All successful newspapers are ceaselessly querulous and bellicose. They never defend anyone or anything if they can help it; if the job is forced on them, they tackle it by denouncing someone or something else.
    • The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable. No virtuous man - that is, virtuous in the Y.M.C.A. sense - has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a book worth reading.
    • To be in love is merely to be in a state of perpetual anesthesia - to mistake an ordinary young man for a Greek god or an ordinary young woman for a goddess.
    • There are no mute, inglorious Miltons, save in the hallucinations of poets. The one sound test of Milton is that he functions as a Milton.
    • Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.
    • Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.
    • The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.
    • Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable.
    • A man full of faith is simply one who has lost (or never had) the capacity for clear and realistic thought. He is not a mere ass; he is actually ill. Worse, he is incurable, for disappointment, being essentially an objective phenomenon, cannot permanently affect his subjective infirmity. His faith takes on the virulence of a chronic infection. What he usually says, in substance, is this: 'Let us trust in God, who has always fooled us in the past.
    • The professor must be an obscurantist or he is nothing; he has a special and unmatchable talent for dullness, his central aim is not to expose the truth clearly, but to exhibit his profundity, his esotericity - in brief to stagger sophomores and other professors.
    • Nature abhors a moron.
    • The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.
    • Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.
    • Immorality is the morality of those who are having a better time. You will never convince the average farmer's mare that the late Maud S. was not dreadfully immoral.
    • An idealist is one who, on noticing that roses smell better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.
    • A celebrity is one who is known to many persons he is glad he doesn't know.
    • Platitude - An idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.
    • Remorse - Regret that one waited so long to do it.
    • Self-respect - The secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious.
    • Truth - Something somehow discreditable to someone.
    • We are here and it is now: further than that, all human knowledge is moonshine.
    • Historian - An unsuccessful novelist.
    • Christian - One who is willing to serve three Gods, but draws the line at one wife.
    • The New Deal began, like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flop-houses and disturbing the peace.
    • Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.
    • Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.
    • The theory seems to be that so long as a man is a failure he is one of God's chillun, but that as soon as he has any luck he owes it to the Devil.
    • Judge - A law student who marks his own examination-papers.
    • Jury - A group of twelve men who, having lied to the judge about their hearing, health and business engagements, have failed to fool him.
    • Lawyer - One who protects us against robbers by taking away the temptation.
    • Jealousy is the theory that some other fellow has just as little taste.
    • Wealth - Any income that is at least $100 more a year than the income of one's wife's sister's husband.
    • Misogynist - A man who hates women as much as women hate one another.
    • A man may be a fool and not know it - but not if he is married.
    • Bachelors know more about women than married men. If they didn't they'd be married, too.
    • Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.
    • In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for. As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican.
    • Theology - An effort to explain the unknowable by putting it into terms of the not worth knowing.
    • Creator - A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.
    • Sunday - A day given over by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell.
    • A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.
    • Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends.
    • Q: If you find so much that is unworthy of reverence in the United States, then why do you live here? A: Why do men go to zoos?
    • We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart.
    • I have often argued that a poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child. I begin to suspect that there may be some truth in it.
    • My guess is that well over eighty per cent of the human race goes through life without ever having a single original thought. That is to say, they never think anything that has not been thought before, and by thousands. A society made up of individuals who were all capable of original thought would probably be unendurable. The pressure of ideas would simply drive it frantic. The normal human society is very little troubled by them. Whenever a new one appears the average man displays signs of dismay and resentment, The only way he can take in such a new idea is by translating it crudely into terms of more familiar ideas. That translation is one of the chief functions of politicians, not to mention journalists. They devote themselves largely to debasing the ideas launched by their betters. This debasement is intellectually reprehensible, but probably necessary to carry on the business of the world.
    • Human life is basically a comedy. Even its tragedies often seem comic to the spectator, and not infrequently they actually have comic touches to the victim. Happiness probably consists largely in the capacity to detect and relish them. A man who can laugh, if only at himself, is never really miserable.
    • No government is ever really in favor of so-called civil rights. It always tries to whittle them down. They are preserved under all governments, insofar as they survive at all, by special classes of fanatics, often highly dubious.
    • God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos: He will set them above their betters.
    • Equality before the law is probably forever inattainable. It is a noble ideal, but it can never be realized, for what men value in this world is not rights but privileges.
    • There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.
    • It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.
    • The more noisy Negro leaders, by depicting all whites as natural and implacable enemies to their race, have done it a great disservice. Large numbers of whites who were formerly very friendly to it, and willing to go to great lengths to help it, are now resentful and suspicious.
    • Why assume so glibly that the God who presumably created the universe is still running it? It is certainly perfectly conceivable that He may have finished it and then turned it over to lesser gods to operate. In the same way many human institutions are turned over to grossly inferior men. This is true, for example, of most universities, and of all great newspapers.
    • The highfalutin aims of democracy, whether real or imaginary, are always assumed to be identical with its achievements. This, of course, is sheer hallucination. Not one of those aims, not even the aim of giving every adult a vote, has been realized. It has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good.
    • Science, at bottom, is really anti-intellectual. It always distrusts pure reason, and demands the production of objective fact.
    • Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on 'I am not too sure.'
    • Do [English Teachers] believe that the aim of teaching English is to increase the exact and beautiful use of the language? Or that it is to inculcate and augment patriotism? Or that it is to diminish sorrow in the home? Or that it has some other end, cultural, economic, or military? [...] ...it was [English teachers'] verdict by a solemn referendum that the principal objective in teaching English was to make good spellers, and that after that came the breeding of good capitalizers. [...] ...pedagogy in the United States is fast descending to the estate of a childish necromancy, and that the worst idiots, even among pedagogues, are the teachers of English. It is positively dreadful to think that the young of the American species are exposed day in and day out to the contamination of such dark minds. What can be expected of education that is carried on in the very sewers of the intellect? How can morons teach anything that is worth knowing?
    • A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.
    • A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.
    • Mencken's [very widely attributed, as yet unsourced] pat response to all angry letters:
    • A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker.
    • A sandwich made up of two thick and tasteless chunks of Kriegsbrot with a couple of excellent sardines between.
    • After all, all he did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations.
    • Capitalism undoubtedly has certain boils and blotches upon it, but has it as many as government? Has it as many as marriage? Has it as many as religion? I doubt it. It is the only basic institution of modern man that shows any genuine health and vigor.
    • Demagogue: One who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.
    • Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.
    • Democracy is the pathetic belief in the wisdom of collective ignorance.
    • Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.
    • Firmness in decision is often merely a form of stupidity. It indicates an inability to think the same thing out twice.
    • Hanging one scoundrel, it appears, does not deter the next. Well, what of it? The first one is at least disposed of.
    • I detest converts almost as much as I do missionaries.
    • Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable.
    • It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
    • It is inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.
    • It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. That would be an extension of pragmatism beyond endurance. Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence. The defense of religion is full of such logical imbecilities.
    • It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law...that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts.
    • Liberals have many tails and chase them all.
    • Life may not be exactly pleasant, but it is at least not dull. Heave yourself into Hell today, and you may miss, tomorrow or next day, another Scopes trial, or another War to End War, or perchance a rich and buxom widow with all her first husband's clothes. There are always more Hardings hatching. I advocate hanging on as long as possible.
    • Life without sex might be safer but it would be unbearably dull.
    • Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.
    • Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
    • Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution.
    • Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.
    • No government, of its own motion, will increase its own weakness, for that would mean to acquiesce in its own destruction ... governments, whatever their pretensions otherwise, try to preserve themselves by holding the individual down ... Government itself, indeed, may be reasonably defined as a conspiracy against him. Its one permanent aim, whatever its form, is to hobble him sufficiently to maintain itself.
    • No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.
    • No one in this world, so far as I know - and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me - has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.
    • Of all the classes of men, I dislike most those who make their livings by talking - actors, clergymen, politicians, pedagogues, and so on. All of them participate in the shallow false pretenses of the actor who is their archetype. It is almost impossible to imagine a talker who sticks to the facts. Carried away by the sound of his own voice and the applause of the groundlings, he makes inevitably the jump from logic to mere rhetoric.
    • One seldom discovers a true believer that is worth knowing.
    • Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all other philosophers are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.
    • Religion deserves no more respect than a pile of garbage.
    • Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them.
    • Sunday School: A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents.
    • Suppose two-thirds of the members of the national House of Representatives were dumped into the Washington garbage incinerator tomorrow, what would we lose to offset our gain of their salaries and the salaries of their parasites?
    • That Americans, in the mass, have anything properly described as keen wits is surely far from self-evident. On the contrary, it seems likely that, if anything, they lie below the civilised norm.
    • The argument that capital punishment degrades the state is moonshine, for if that were true then it would degrade the state to send men to war... The state, in truth, is degraded in its very nature: a few butcheries cannot do it any further damage.
    • The believing mind is externally impervious to evidence. The most that can be accomplished with it is to induce it to substitute one delusion for another. It rejects all overt evidence as wicked...
    • The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.
    • The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea for a better one; the essence of theology is that it holds its truths to be eternal and immutable. To be sure, theology is always yielding a little to the progress of knowledge, and only a Holy Roller in the mountains of Tennessee would dare to preach today what the popes preached in the thirteenth century.
    • The essential dilemma of education is to be found in the fact that the sort of man (or woman) who knows a given subject sufficiently well to teach it is usually unwilling to do so.
    • The fact that I have no remedy for all the sorrows of the world is no reason for my accepting yours. It simply supports the strong probability that yours is a fake.
    • The more a man dreams, the less he believes.
    • The trouble with Communism is the Communists, just as the trouble with Christianity is the Christians.
    • The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.
    • The verdict of a jury is the a priori opinion of that juror who smokes the worst cigars.
    • The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of the truth - that error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.
    • Those who can - do. Those who can't - teach.
    • 'Tis more blessed to give than to receive; for example, wedding presents.
    • Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right... The United States has never developed an aristocracy really disinterested or an intelligentsia really intelligent. Its history is simply a record of vacillations between two gangs of frauds.
    • When the government is robbed, the worst that happens is that certain rogues and loafers have less money to play with than they had before.
    • Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.
    • When the water reaches the upper deck, follow the rats.
    • h. l. mencken

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