American Protective Lg.

[The following is from H.L. Mencken’s Prejudices: Third Series, 1922, pp. 133-145, first printed in the New Republic, Sept. 29, 1920, pp. 118-120, and is described by the author as being from his “private archaeology”, dealing with his reflections on the growth of military ribbonalia, and what purposes this phenomena may serve, even in civilian ranks.]

Star-Spangled Men

…What I propose is a variety of the Distinguished Service Medal for civilians, closed to the military and with badges of different colors and areas, to mark off varying services to democracy. Let it run, like the Japanese Paulownia, from high to low—the lowest class for the patriot who sacrificed only time, money and a few nights’ sleep; the highest for the great martyr who hung his country’s altar with his dignity, his decency and his sacred honor. For Elmer and his nervous insomnia, a simple rosette, with an iron badge bearing the national motto, “Safety First”; for the university president who prohibited the teaching of the enemy language in his learned grove, heaved the works of Goethe out of the university library, cashiered every professor unwilling to support Woodrow for the first vacancy in the Trinity, took to the stump for the National Security League,(6), and made two hundred speeches in moving picture theaters—for this giant of loyal endeavor let no 100 per cent. American speak of anything less than the grand cross of the order, with a gold badge in stained glass, a baldric of the national colors, a violet plug hat with a sunburst on the side, the privelege of the floor of Congress, and a pension of $10,000 a year. After all, the cost would not be excessive; there are not many of them. Such prodigies of patriotism are possible only to rare and gifted men. For the grand cordons of the order, e.g., college professors who spied upon and reported the seditions of their associates, state presidents of the American Protective League,(7), alien property custodians, judges whose sentences of conscientious objectors mounted to more than 50,000 years, members of George Creel’s herd of 2,000 American historians, the authors of the Sisson documents, (8), etc.—pensions of $10 a day would be enough, with silver badges and no plug hats. For the lower ranks, bronze badges and the legal right to the title of “The Hon.,” already every true American’s by courtesy.” …

* * * * *

(6) A band of patriots which made a deafening uproar in the 1914-1918 era. Its fronts were Elihu Root and Alton B. Parker.

(7) An organization of amateur detectives working under the agis of the Department of Justice. In 1917 its operatives reported that I was an intimate associate and agent of “the German nonster, Nietsky,” and I was solemnly investigated. But I was a cunning fellow in those days and full of a malicious humor, so I notonly managed to throw of the charge but even to write the report upon myself. I need not say that it gave me a clean bill of health—and I still have a carbon to prove it. As a general rule the American Protective League confined itself to easier victims. Its specialty was harassing German waiters.

(8) Creel served as chairman of what was called the Committee on Public Information from 1917 to 1919. Its chief business was to propagate the official doctrine as to the causes and issues of the war. To that end Creel recruited his horde of college historians and they solemnly certified to the truth of everything that emanated from Washington and London. The Sisson documents were supposed to show a sinister conspiracy of the Russian Communists, but what the specifications were I forget. Creel’s committed was also in charge of newspaper censorship during the war.

* * * * *

Now, who’s got the documentation showing Sadler’s association with the American Protective League, and/or with George Creel? The description “amateur detective working under the agis of the Department of Justice” sounds suspiciously familiar to a biographical admission I have heard or read, possibly from Sprunger or Kulieke. Such “prodigies of patriotism” should not go unnoted!

The Calamity of Appomattox

by H.L. Mencken

[From the American Mercury, Sept., 1930, pp. 29-31]

No American historian, so far as I know, has ever tried to work out the probable consequences if Grant instead of Lee had been on the hot spot at Appamattox. How long would the victorious Confederacy have endured? Could it have surmounted the difficulties inherent in the doctrine of States’ Rights, so often inconvenient and even paralyzing to it during the war? Could it have remedied its plain economic deficiencies, and become a self-sustaining nation? How would it have protected itself against such war heroes as Beauregard and Longstreet, Joe Wheeler and Nathan D. Forrest? And what would have been its relations to the United States, socially, economically, spiritually and politically?

I am inclined, on all these counts, to be optimistic. The chief evils in the Federal victory lay in the fact, from which we still suffer abominably, that it was a victory of what we now call Babbitts over what used to be called gentlemen. I am not arguing here, of course, that the whole Confederate army was composed of gentlemen; on the contrary, it was chiefly made up, like the Federal army, of innocent and unwashed peasants, and not a few of them got into its corps of officers. But the impulse behind it, as everyone knows, was essentially aristocratic, and that aristocratic impulse would have fashioned the Confederacy if the fortunes of war had run the other way. Whatever the defects of the new commonwealth below the Potomac, it would have at least been a commonwealth founded upon a concept of human inequality, and with a superior minority at the helm. It might not have produced any more Washingtons, Madisons, Jeffersons, Calhouns and Randolphs of Roanoke, but it would certainly not have yielded itself to the Heflins, Caraways, Bilbos and Tillmans.

The rise of such bounders was a natural and inevitable consequence of the military disaster. That disaster left the Southern gentry deflated and almost helpless. Thousands of the best young men among them had been killed, and thousands of those who survived came North. They commonly did well in the North, and were good citizens. My own native town of Baltimore was greatly enriched by their immigration, both culturally and materially; if it is less corrupt today than most other large American cities, then the credit belongs largely to Virginians, many of whom arrived with no baggage save good manners and empty bellies. Back home they were sorely missed. First the carpetbaggers ravaged the land, and then it fell into the hands of the native white trash, already so poor that war and Reconstruction could not make them any poorer. When things began to improve they seized whatever was seizable, and their heirs and assigns, now poor no longer, hold it to this day. A raw plutocracy owns and operates the New South, with no challenge save from a proletariat, white and black, that is still three-fourths peasant, and hence too stupid to be dangerous. The aristocracy is almost extinct, at least as a force in government. It may survive in backwaters and on puerile levels, but of the men who run the South today, and represent it at Washington, not 5%, by any Southern standard, are gentlemen.

If the war had gone with the Confederates no such vermin would be in the saddle, nor would there be any sign below the Potomac of their chief contributions to American Kultur—Ku Kluxry, political ecclesiasticism, nigger-baiting, and the more homicidal variety of wowserism. Such things might have arisen in America, but they would not have arisen in the South. The old aristocracy, however degenerate it might have become, would have at least retained sufficient decency to see to that. New Orleans, today, would still be a highly charming and civilized (if perhaps somewhat zymotic) city, with a touch of Paris and another of Port Said. Charleston, which evn now sprouts lady authors, would also sprout political philosophers. The University of Virginia would be what Jefferson intended it to be, and no shouting Methodist would haunt its campus. Richmond would be, not the dull suburb of nothing that it is now, but a beautiful and consoling second-rate capital, comparable to Budapest, Brussels, Stockholm or The Hague. And all of us, with the Middle West pumping its revolting silo juices into the East and West alike, would be making frequent leaps over the Potomac, to drink the sound red wine there and breathe the free air.

My guess is that the two Republics would be getting on pretty amicably. Perhaps they’d have come to terms as early as 1898, and fought the Spanish-American War together. In 1917 the confiding North might have gone out to save the world for democracy, but the South, vaccinated against both Wall Street and the Liberal whim-wham, would have kept aloof—and maybe rolled up a couple of billions of profit from the holy crusade. It would probably be far richer today, independent, than it is with the clutch of the Yankee mortgage-shark still on its collar. It would be getting and using his money just the same, but his toll would be less. As things stand, he not only exploits the South economically; he also pollutes and debases it spiritually. It suffers damnably from low wages, but it suffers even more from the Chamber of Commerce metaphysic.

No doubt the Confederates, victorious, would have abolished slavery by the middle of the 80s. They were headed that way before the war, and the more sagacious of them were all in favor of it. But they were in favor of it on sound economic grounds, and not on the brummagem moral grounds which persuaded the North. The difference here is immense. In human history a moral victory is always a disaster, for it debauches and degrades both the victor and the vanquished. The triumph of sin in 1865 would have stimulated and helped to civilize both sides.

Today the way out looks painful and hazardous. Civilization in the United States survives only in the big cities, and many of them—notably Boston and Philadelphia—seem to be sliding down to the cow country level. No doubt this standardization will go on until a few of the more resolute towns, headed by New York, take to open revolt, and try to break out of the Union. Already, indeed, it is talked of. But it will be hard to accomplish, for the tradition that the Union is indissoluble is now firmly established. If it had been broken in 1865, life would be far pleasanter today for every American of any noticable decency. There are, to be sure, advantages in Union for everyone, but it must be manifest that they are greatest for the worst kinds of people. All the benefit that a New Yorker gets out of Kansas is no more than what he might get out of Saskatchewan, the Argentine pampas, or Siberia. But New York to a Kansan is not only a place where he may get drunk, look at dirty shows and buy bogus antiques; it is also a place where he may enforce his dunghill ideas upon his betters.

[From the introduction to “A Second Mencken Chrestomathy”, edited and intro by Terry Teachout, pp. xx-xxiii.]

At first glance, the exact nature of this appeal is baffling. It’s temptingly easy to treat Mencken as a period piece, a controversialist whose battles were won long ago and whose work has survived simply because it is so well writen. But wonderful as his prose style is (and no finer prose has been written by an American), this explanation will not do. If good writing were enough to keep polemics alive, Mencken’s Monday Articles on the ins and outs of Baltimore politics would be as widely read as “In Memorian: W.J.B.” or “The Sahara of the Bozart.” In fact, Mencken’s best journalism was concerned less with battles than with wars. At the heart of his critique of American life, for example, is his hatred of “the whole Puritan scheme of things, with its gross and nauseating hypocrisies, its idiotic theologies, its moral obsessions, its pervasive Philistinism,” all of which he firmly believed to be intrinsic to the American national character. Theologies (and ideologies, their secular brethren) come and go, but the conceptions of human nature from which they spring are forever with us…

Much of what Mencken has to say is, of course, entirely predictable. He is the apostle of common sense,and of a realism so hard as to be hopelessly ill suited to the prevailing softness of our own Age of Sensitivity.

Whatever the disorder in question, man’s irremediable stupidity was Mencken’s universal diagnosis, the horse-laugh his preferred antidote.

Those who take offense easily are, now as ever, unlikely to find him anything other than offensive. This is particularly true of earnest believers in what he liked to call “the uplift.” Anyone who spends his days grubbing for solutions to notoriously intractable social problems can have little in common with the cold-eyed skeptic who wrote in the first issue of the American Mercury: “The Editors have heard no Voice from the burning bush. They will not cry up and offer for sale any sovereign balm, whether political, economic or aesthetic, for all the sorrows of the world … The world, as they see it, is down with at least a score of painful diseases, all of them chronic and incurable.”

Even those who find Mencken’s philosophy tonic are likely to shrink from some of its specific applications. His hardness too often shades into outright brutality; he is almost always simplistic, and very often demonstrably wrong on factual matters. Yet the substance of his opinions has surprisingly little to do with the pleasure we take in his way of expressing them. He once called poetry “a comforting piece of fiction set to more or less lascivious music,” a sentiment echoed elsewhere in this volume. ("Walt Whitman was the greatest of American poets, and for a plain reason: he got furthest from the obvious facts. What he had to say was almost never true.") One might just as well speak of Mencken’s own poetic quality. Writing in great unbroken arcs of gusto, he briskly sweeps the reader along from one outrageous assertion to the next…

But to dismiss Mencken as a pure stylist, a Wodehouse-like juggler of shiny metaphors, is to ignore the fact that his attitude toward life is the point of his work. This attitude, as has often been remarked, is profoundly bleak: few American writers have had a stronger sense of the futility of man’s earthly existence. Yet there is nothing lugubrious about Mencken’s tragic sense of life. Perhaps the most revealing selection in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy is the Monday Article he wrote on the death of Albert Hildebrandt, one of his oldest friends: “The universe is run idiotically, and its only certain product is sorrow. But there are yet men who, by their generally pleasant spirits, by their extraordinary capacity for making and keeping friends, yet manage to cheat, in some measure, the common destiny of mankind, doomed like the beasts to perish.” What was true of Hildebrandt was doubly true of his distinguished obituarist, whose habitual reply to the idiocies of the universe was a sardonic grin. “We live in a land of abounding quackeries,” he once said, “and if we do not learn how to laugh we succumb to the melancholy disease which afflicts the race of viewers-with-alarm.” This is the ultimate source of Mencken’s abiding appeal: “He achieves his effect,” Joseph Epstein has rightly and beautifully said, “through the magical transfer of joie de vivre.” The man who can look into the abyss and laugh is rare enough; when he can also make his readers laugh along with him, it matters little whether he was right or wrong about capital punishment or the novels of Henry James.

In the end, H. L. Mencken’s writing, like that of all the great essayists, is valuable not so much for what it has to say (undeniably compelling though that often is) as for what it tells us about the character of the man who said it. “The goods that a writer produces,” he wrote in My Life as Author and Editor, “can never be impersonal; his character gets into them as certainly as it gets into the work of any other creative artist, and he must be prepared to endure investigation of it, and speculation upon it, and even gossip about it.” Surely Mencken’s own character got into every word he wrote, and it is writ large on every page of this book: witty and abrasive, self-confident and self-contradictory, sometimes maddening, often engaging, always inimitable.

[to paraphrase the above, what I now find valuable about the UB is not so much for what it has to say (undeniably compelling though that often is) as for what it tells us about the character of the men who put it together.]

"I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints" (Billy Joel), or with the “uplifters"!

The argument by design

The theological argument by design, made popular in the English-speaking countries by William Paley, is very far from convincing. The creator it adumbrates shows only a limited intelligence compared to His supposed masterpiece, man, and all save a few of His inventions are inimical to life on earth rather than beneficial. There is nothing among them that is at once as ingenious, as simple and as admirably adapted to its uses as the wheel. I pass over the vastly more complicated inventions of the modern era, many of them enormously superior to, say, the mammalian heart. And I also pass over the relatively crude contrivances of this Creator in the aesthetic field, wherein He has been far surpassed by man, as, for example, for adroitness of design, for complexity or for beauty, the sounds of an orchestra. Of the irrationality and wastefulness of the whole natural process it is hardly necessary to speak. Nothing made by man resembles it here, save only government. It is hence no wonder that the overwhelming majority of men, at all times and everywhere, have inclined toward the belief that government is of divine origin.

--H.L. Mencken (Minority Report, 1956)


In what passes as the popular mind, words, like the ideas they represent, become formalized, fossilized, and emptied of intelligible significance. This is especially (though surely not exclusively) true in America, where all thinking tends to become cant and all language a sort of meaningless slang—a mere exchange of what the philologists call counter-words, i.e., worn out rubber stamps. Thus, the concept “aristocrat” tends to become -- and has, in fact, already become—extremely narrowed, and with it the meaning of the word. What it connotes, intrinsically, is simply the “best" type of man—that is, the man whose aspirations are directed to the achievement of what is rare and difficult, and not to the achievement of what is easy and mean—the man, in brief, whose capacities differ positively from those of the average man, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively, and whose activity is spent in doing what the average man is unable to do or afraid to do. But in the United States aristocrat has become almost indistinguishable from loafer.


By an inferior man I mean one who knows nothing that is not known to every adult, who can do nothing that could not be learned by anyone in a few weeks, and who meanly admires mean things.

—H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks)

… A genuine aristocracy is grounded upon very much different principles. Its first and most salient character is its interior security, and the chief visible evidence of that security is the freedom that goes with it—not only freedom in act, the divine right of the aristocrat to do what he jolly well pleases, so long as he does not violate the primary guarantees and obligations of his class, but also and more importantly freedom in thought, the liberty to try and err, the right to be his own man. It is the instinct of a true aristocracy, not to punish eccentricity by expulsion, but to throw a mantle of protection about it—to safeguard it from the suspicions and resentments of the lower orders. Those lower orders are inert, timid, inhospitable to ideas, hostile to changes, faithful to a few maudlin superstitions. All progress goes on on the higher levels. It is there that salient personalities, made secure by artificial immunities, may oscillate most widely from the normal track. It is within that entrenched fold, out of reach of the immemorial certainties of the mob, that extraordinary men of the lower orders may find their city of refuge, and breathe a clear air. This, indeed, is at once the hall-mark and the justification of an aristocracy—that it is beyond responsibility to the general masses of men, and hence superior to both their degraded longings and their no less degraded aversions. It is nothing if not autonomous, curious, venturesome, courageous, and everything if it is. It is the custodian of the qualities that make for change and experiment; it is the class that organizes danger to the service of the race; it pays for its high prerogatives by standing in the forefront of the fray.

No such aristocracy, it must be plain, is now on view in the United States. The makings of one were visible in the Virgirnia of the later eighteenth century, but with Jefferson and Washington the promise died. In New England, it seems to me, there was never any aristocracy, either in being or in nascency: there was only a theocracy that degenerated very quickly into a plutocracy on the one hand, and a caste of sterile Gelehrten on the other—the passion for God splitting into a lust for dollars and a weakness for mere words. Despite the common notion to the contrary—a notion generated by confusing literacy with intelligence—New England has never shown the slightest sign of a genuine enthusiasm for ideas. It began its history as a slaughter-house of ideas, and it is to-day not easily distinguishable from a cold-storage plant. Its celebrated adventures in mysticism, once apparently so bold and significant, are now seen to have been little more than an elaborate hocus-pocus—respectable Unitarians shocking the peasantry and scaring the horned cattle in the fields by masquerading in the robes of Rosicrucians. The ideas that it embraced in those austere and far-off days were stale, and when it had finished with them they were dead. …

… The sect of professional idealists has so far dwindled that it has ceased to be of any importance, even as an opposition. When the plutocracy is challenged now, it is challenged by the proletariat.

Well, what is on view in New England is on view in all other parts of the nation, sometimes with ameliorations, but usually with the colors merely exaggerated. What one beholds, sweeping the eye over the land, is a culture that, like the national literature, is in three layers—the plutocracy on top, a vast mass of undifferentiated human blanks at the bottom, and a forlorn intelligentisia gasping out a precarious life between. I need not set out at any length, I hope, the intellectual deficiencies of the plutocracy -- its utter failure to show anything even remotely resembling the makings of an aristocracy. It is badly educated, it is stupid, it is full of low- caste superstitions and indignations, it is without decent traditions or informing vision; above all, it is extraordinarily lacking in the most elemental independence and courage. Out of this class comes the grotesque fashionable society of our big towns, already described. Imagine a horde of peasants incredibly enriched and with almost infinite power thrust into their hands, and you will have a fair picture of its habitual state of mind. It shows all the stigmata of inferiority—moral certainty, cruelty, suspicion of ideas, fear. Never did it function more revealingly than in the late pogrom against the so-called Reds, i.e., against humorless idealists who, like Andrew Jackson, took the platitudes of democracy quite seriously. The machinery brought to bear upon these feeble and scattered fanatics would have almost sufficed to repel an invasion by the united powers of Europe. They were hunted out of their sweat-shops and coffee-houses as if they were so many Carranzas or Ludendorffs, dragged to jail to the tooting of horns, arraigned before quaking judges on unintelligible charges, condemned to defend themselves, torn from their dependent families, herded into prison-ships, and then finally dumped in a snow waste, to be rescued and fed by the Bolsheviki. And what was the theory at the bottom of all these astounding proceedings? So far as it can be reduced to comprehensible terms it was much less a theory than a fear—a shivering, idiotic, discreditable fear of a mere banshee—an overpowering, paralyzing dread that some extra-eloquent Red, permitted to emit his balderdash unwhipped, might eventually convert a couple of courageous men, and that the courageous men, filled with indignation against the plutocracy, might take to the highroad, burn down a nail-factory or two, and slit the throat of some virtuous profiteer. In order to lay this fear, in order to ease the jangled nerves of the American successors to the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns, all the constitutional guarantees of the citizen were suspended, the statute- books were burdened with laws that surpass anything heard of in the Austria of Maria Theresa, the country was handed over to a frenzied mob of detectives, informers and agents provocateurs—and the Reds departed laughing loudly, and were hailed by the Bolsheviki as innocents escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane.

Obviously, it is out of reason to look for any hospitality to ideas in a class so extravagantly fearful of even the most palpably absurd of them. Its philosophy is firmly grounded upon the thesis that the existing order must stand forever free from attack, and not only from attack, but also from mere academic criticism, and its very ethics are as firmly grounded upon the thesis that every attempt at any such criticism is a proof of moral turpitude. Within its own ranks, protected by what may be regarded as the privelege of the order, there is nothing to take the place of this criticism…

* * * * *


Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and qualities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g. theologians and metaphysicians. Thus their speculations tend almost inevitably to depart from the field of true science, which is that of precise observation, and to become mere soaring empyrean. The process works backward, too. That is to say, their reports of what they pretend actually to see are often very unreliable. It is thus no wonder that, of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology. Nor is it remarkable that, in the popular belief, most astronomers end by losing their minds.


Of all Christain dogmas, perhaps the most absurd is that of the Atonement, for it not only certifies to the impotence of God but also to His lack of common sense. If He is actually all-wise and all-powerful then He might have rescued man from sin by devices much simpler and more rational than the sorry one of engaging in fornication with a young peasant girl, and then commissioning the ensuing love-child to save the world. And if He is intelligent, He would have chosen a far more likely scene for the business than an obscure corner of the Roman empire, among a people of no influence or importance. Why not Rome itself? Why was not Jesus sent there, instead of being confined to the back alleys of Palestine? His followers, after his execution, must have asked themselves something like this question, for they proceeded at once upon the missionary journeys that He had never undertaken Himself. Their success was only moderate, for they were men of despised castes, and the doctrine they preached was quickly corrupted by borrowings from the various other cults of the time and from their own ignorant speculations. Indeed, the whole machinery of propaganda was managed so clumsily that Christianity prevailed at last by a series of political accidents, none of them having anything to do with its fundamental truth. Even so, the overwhelming majority of human beings remained unaffected by it, and it was more than a thousand years before so many as half of them had heard of it. During all this time, by Christian theory, they remained plunged in the sins that Jesus was sent to obliterate, and countless multitudes of them must have gone to Hell. To this day there are many millions still in that outer darkness, including all the Moslem nations, all the great peoples of Asia, and nearly all the savages on earth. Certainly, it would be impossible to imagine a more inept and ineffective scheme for saving humanity. It was badly planned, its execution was left mainly to extremely stupid men, and it failed to reach all save a minute minority of the men and women it was designed for. I can think of no reformer, not clearly insane, who has managed his propaganda so badly.

Meditation on Meditation

by H. L. Mencken

[From “Ad Imaginem Dei Creavit Illum”, Prejudices: Third Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1922), pp. 125-128.]

Man’s capacity for abstract thought, which most other mammals seem to lack, has undoubtedly given him his present mastery of the land surface of the earth — a mastery disputed only by several hundred species of microscopic organisms. It is responsible for his feeling of superiority, and under that feeling there is undoubtedly a certain measure of reality, at least within narrow limits. But what is too often overlooked is that the capacity to perform an act is by no means synonymous with its salubrious exercise. The simple fact is that most of man’s thinking is stupid, pointless, and injurious to him. Of all animals, indeed, he seems the least capable of arriving at accurate judgments in the matters that most desperately affect his welfare. Try to imagine a rat, in the realm of rat ideas, arriving at a notion as violently in comtempt of plausibility as the notion, say, of Swedenborgianism, or that of homeopathy, or that of infant damnation, or that of mental telepathy. Try to think of a congretation of educated rats gravely listening to such disgusting intellectual rubbish as was in the public bulls of Dr. Woodrow Wilson. Man’s natural instinct, in fact, is never toward what is sound and true; it is toward what is specious and false. Let any great nation of modern times be confronted by two conflicting propositions, the one grounded upon the utmost probability and reasonableness and the other upon the most glaring error, and it will almost invariably embrace the latter. It is so in politics, which consists wholly of a succession of unintelligent crazes, many of them so idiotic that they exist only as battle-cries and shibboleths and are not reducible to logical statement at all. It is so in religion, which, like poetry, is simply a concerted effort to deny the most obvious realities. It is so in nearly every field of thought. The ideas that conquer the race most rapidly and arouse the wildest enthusiasm and are held most tenaciously are precisely the ideas that are most insane. This has been true since the first “advanced” gorilla put on underwear, cultivated a frown and began his first lecture tour in the first chautauqua, and it will be so until the high gods, tired of the farce at last, obliterate the race with one great, final blast of fire, mustard gas and streptcocci.

No doubt the imagination of man is to blame for this singular weakness. That imagination, I daresay, is what gave him his first lift above his fellow primates. It enabled him to visualize a condition of existence better than that he was experiencing, and bit by bit he was able to give the picture a certain crude reality. Even to-day he keeps on going ahead in the same manner. That is, he thinks of something that he would like to be or to get, something appreciably better than what he is or has, and then, by the laboriious, costly method of trial and error, he gradually moves toward it. In the process he is often severely punished for his discontent with God’s ordinances. He mashes his thumb, he skins his shin; he stumbles and falls; the prize he reaches out for blows up in his hands. But bit by bit he moves on, or, at all events, his heirs and assigns move on. Bit by bit he smooths the path beneath his remaining leg, and achieves pretty toys for his remaining hand to play with, and accumulates delights for his remaining ear and eye.

Alas, he is not content with this slow and sanguinary progress! Always he looks further and further ahead. Always he imagines things just over the sky-line. This body of imaginings constitutes his stock of sweet beliefs, his corpus of high faiths and confidences—in brief, his burden of errors. And that burden of errors is what distinguishes man, even above his capacity for tears, his talents as a liar, his excessive hypocrisy and poltroonery, from all the other orders of mammalia. Man is the yokel par excellence, the booby unmatchable, the king dupe of the cosmos. He is chronically and unescapably deceived, not only by the other animals and by the delusive face of nature herself, but also and more particularly by himself—by his incomparable talent for searching out and embracing what is false, and for overlooking and denying what is true.


--H.L. Mencken
["The American: His Morals”, Smart Set, July 1913, p. 88]
[Mencken’s father was part owner of a Baltimore professional baseball team in the 1880s.]

[It stimulates] a childish and orgiastic local pride, a typical American weakness, and … it offers an admirable escape for that bad sportsmanship and savage bloodthirst which appear in all the rest of the American’s diversions. An American crowd does not go to a … [ball] game to see a fair and honest contest, but to see the visiting club walloped and humiliated. If the home club can’t achieve the walloping unaided, the crowd helps—usually by means no worse than mocking and reviling, but sometimes with fists and beer bottles. And if, even then, the home club is drubbed, it becomes the butt itself, and is lambasted even more brutally than the visitors. The thirst of the crowd is for victims, and if it can’t get them in one way it will get them in another.

On Being an American

by H.L. Mencken
(from Prejudices, Third Series)


All the while I have been forgetting the third of my reasons for remaining so faithful a citizen of the Federation, despite all the lascivious inducements from expatriates to follow them beyond the seas, and all the surly suggestions from patriots that I succumb. It is the reason which grows out of my mediaeval but unashamed taste for the bizarre and indelicate, my congenital weakness for comedy of the grosser varieties. The United States, to my eye, is incomparably the greatest show on earth. It is a show which avoids diligently all the kinds of clowning which tire me most quickly—for example, royal ceremonials, the tedious hocus-pocus of haut politique, the taking of politics seriously — and lays chief stress upon the kinds which delight me unceasingly—for example, the ribald combats of demagogues, the exquisitely ingenious operations of master rogues, the pursuit of witches and heretics, the desperate struggles of inferior men to claw their way into Heaven. We have clowns in constant practice among us who are as far above the clowns of any other great state as a Jack Dempsey is above a paralytic—and not a few dozen or score of them, but whole droves and herds. Human enterprises which, in all other Christian countries, are resigned despairingly to an incurable dullness—things that seem devoid of exhilirating amusement, by their very nature—are here lifted to such vast heights of buffoonery that contemplating them strains the midriff almost to breaking. I cite an example: the worship of God. Everywhere else on earth it is carried on in a solemn and dispiriting manner; in England, of course, the bishops are obscene, but the average man seldom gets a fair chance to laugh at them and enjoy them. Now come home. Here we not only have bishops who are enormously more obscene than even the most gifted of the English bishops; we have also a huge force of lesser specialists in ecclesiastical mountebankery—tin-horn Loyolas, Savonarolas and Xaviers of a hundred fantastic rites, each performing untiringly and each full of a grotesque and illimitable whimsicality. Every American town, however small, has one of its own: a holy clerk with so fine a talent for introducing the arts of jazz into the salvation of the damned that his performance takes on all the gaudiness of a four-ring circus, and the bald announcement that he will raid Hell on such and such a night is enough to empty all the town blind-pigs and bordellos and pack his sanctuary to the doors. And to aid him and inspire him there are travelling experts to whom he stands in the relation of a wart to the Matterhorn—stupendous masters of theological imbecility, contrivers of doctrines utterly preposterous, heirs to the Joseph Smith, Mother Eddy and John Alexander Dowie tradition—Bryan, Sunday, and their like. These are the eminences of the American Sacred College. I delight in them. Their proceedings make me a happier American.

Turn, now, to politics. Consider, for example, a campaign for the Presidency. Would it be possible to imagine anything more uproariously idiotic — a deafening, nerve-wracking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Harlequin and Sganarelle, Gobbo and Dr. Cook—the unspeakable, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable? I defy any one to match it elsewhere on this earth. In other lands, at worst, there are at least intelligible issues, coherent ideas, salient personalities. Somebody says something, and somebody replies. But what did Harding say in 1920, and what did Cox reply? Who was Harding, anyhow, and who was Cox? Here, having perfected democracy, we lift the whole combat to symbolism, to transcendentalism, to metaphysics. Here we load a pair of palpably tin cannon with blank cartridges charged with talcum power, and so let fly. Here one may howl over the show without any uneasy reminder that it is serious, and that some one may be hurt. I hold that this elevation of politics to the plane of undiluted comedy is peculiarly American, that no-where else on this disreputable ball has the art of the sham-battle been developed to such fineness…

… Here politics is purged of all menace, all sinister quality, all genuine significance, and stuffed with such gorgeous humors, such inordinate farce that one comes to the end of a campaign with one’s ribs loose, and ready for "King Lear,” or a hanging, or a course of medical journals.

But feeling better for the laugh. Ridi si sapis, said Martial. Mirth is necessary to wisdom, to comfort, above all to happiness. Well, here is the land of mirth, as Germany is the land of metaphysics and France is the land of fornication. Here the buffoonery never stops. What could be more delightful than the endless struggle of the Puritan to make the joy of the minority unlawful and impossible? The effort is itself a greater joy to one standing on the side-lines than any or all of the carnal joys it combats. Always, when I contemplate an uplifter at his hopeless business, I recall a scene in an old- time burlesque show, witnessed for hire in my days as a dramatic critic. A chorus girl executed a fall upon the stage, and Rudolph Krausemeyer, the Swiss comdeian, rushed to her aid. As he stooped painfully to succor her, Irving Rabinovitz, the Zionist comedian, fetched him a fearful clout across the cofferdam with a slap-stick. So the uplifter, the soul-saver, the Americanizer, striving to make the Republic fit for Y.M.C.A. secretaries. He is the eternal American, ever moved by the best of intentions, ever running a la Krausemeyer to the rescue of virtue, and ever getting his pantaloons fanned by the Devil. I am naturally sinful, and such spectacles caress me. If the slap-stick were a sash-weight, the show would be cruel, and I’d probably complain to the Polizei. As it is, I know that the uplifter is not really hurt, but simply shocked. The blow, in fact, does him good, for it helps get him into Heaven, as exegetes prove from Matthew v, 11: Hereux serez-vous, lorsqu’on vous outragera, qu’on vous persecutera, and so on. As for me, it makes me a more contented man, and hence a better citizen. One man prefers the Republic because it pays better wages than Bulgaria. Another because it has laws to keep him sober and his daughter chaste. Another because the Woolworth Building is higher than the cathedral at Chartres. Another because, living here, he can read the New York Evening Journal. Another because there is a warrant out for him somewhere else. Me, I like it because it amuses me to my taste. I never get tired of the show. It is worth every cent it costs.

That cost, it seems to me is very moderate. Taxes in the United States are not actually high. I figure, for example, that my private share of the expense of maintaining the Hon. Mr. Harding in the White House this year will work out to less than 80 cents. Try to think of better sport for the money: in New York it has been estimated that it costs $8 to get comfortably tight, and $17.50, on an average, to pinch a girl’s arm. The United States Senate will cost me perhaps $11 for the year, but against that expense set the subscription price of the Congressional Record, about $15, which, as a journalist, I receive for nothing. For $4 less than nothing I am thus entertained as Solomon never was by his hooch dancers. Col. George Brinton McClellan Harvey costs me but 25 cents a year; I get Nicholas Murray Butler free. Finally, there is young Teddy Roosevelt, the naval expert. Teddy costs me, as I work it out, about 11 cents a year, or less than a cent a month. More, he entertains me doubly for the money, first as a naval expert, and secondly as a walking attentat upon democracy, a devastating proof that there is nothing, after all, in that superstition. We Americans subscribe to the doctrine of human equality—and the Rooseveltii reduce it to an absurdity as brilliantly as the sons of Veit Bach. Where is your equal opportunity now? Here in this Eden of clowns, with the highest rewards of clowning theoretically open to every poor boy—here in the very citadel of democracy we found and cherish a clown dynasty!

[Various selections from Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks, 1956.]


In the field of practical morals popular judgments are often sounder than those of the self-appointed experts. These experts seldom show any talent for the art and mystery they undertake to profess; on the contrary, nine-tenths of them are obvious quacks. They are responsible for all the idiotic moral reforms and innovations that come and go, afflicting decent people. And they are the main, and often the only advocates of moral ideas that have begun to wear out, and deserve to be scrapped. The effort to put down birth control, led by Catholic theologians but with a certain amount of support from Protestant colleagues, offers a shining case in point. The more the heat is applied to them, the more Catholic women seem to resort to the devices of the Devil, on sale in every drugstore. Many of these women are genuinely pious, but into their piety there has been introduced an unhappy doubt, perhaps only half formulated. It is a doubt about the professional competence of their moral guides and commanders. They have not only begun to view the curious fiats of bishops and archbishops with a growing indifference; they have also begun to toy with the suspicion that even the Pope, on occasion, may be all wet. His first anathemas against contraception were plain and unqualified, but of late he has begun to hedge prudently, and it is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry. This concession is a significant admission that the original position of the moral theologians was untenable. In other words, it is an admission that they were wrong about a capital problem of their trade—and that the persons they sought to teach were right.


by H.L. Mencken


What was behind that consuming hatred? At first I thought that it was mere evangelical passion. Evangelical Christianity, as everyone knows, is founded upon hate, as the Christianity of Christ was founded upon love. But even evangelical Christians occasionally loose their belts and belch amicably; I have known some who, off duty, were very benignant. …

One day it dawned on me that Bryan, after all, was an evangelical Christain only by sort of afterthought—that his career in this world, and the glories thereof, had actually come to an end before he ever began whooping for Genesis. So I came to this conclusion: that what really moved him was a lust for revenge. The men of the cities had destroyed him and made a mock of him; now he would lead the yokels against them. Various facts clicked into the theory, and I hold it still. The hatred in the old man’s burning eyes was not for the enemies of God; it was for the enemies of Bryan.

Thus he fought his last fight, eager only for blood. It quickly became frenzied and preposterous, and after that pathetic. All sense departed from him. He bit right and left, like a dog with rabies. He descended into demagogy so dreadful that his very associates blushed. His one yearning was to keep his yokels heated up—to lead his forlorn mob against the foe. That foe, alas, refused to be alarmed. It insisted upon seeing the battle as a comedy. Even Darrow, who knew better, occasionally yielded to the prevailing spirit. Finally, he lured poor Bryan into a folly almost incredible.

I allude to his astounding argument against the notion that man is a mammal. I am glad I heard it, for otherwise I’d never believe it. There stood the man who had been thrice a candidate for the Presidency of the Republic—and once, I believe, elected—there he stood in the glare of the world, uttering stuff that a boy of eight would laugh at! The artful Darrow led him on: he repeated it, ranted for it, bellowed it in his cracked voice. A tragedy, indeed! He came into life a hero, a Galahad, in bright and shining armor. Now he was passing out a pathetic fool. …


… Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest. His career brought him into contact with the first men of his time; he preferred the company of rustic ignoramuses. It was hard to believe, watching him at Dayton, that he had traveled, that he had been received in civilized societies, that he had been a high officer of state. He seemed only a poor clod like those around him, deluded by a childish theology, full of an almost pathological hatred of all learning, all human dignity, all beauty, all fine and noble things. He was a peasant come home to the dung-pile. Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.

(The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 27, 1925)

"Well, let us not laugh. The believing mind is a curious thing. It must absorb its endless rations of balderdash, or perish."

--H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks)


Casuistry has got a bad name in the world, mainly, I suppose, because of the dubious uses to which it was put during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries by some of its Jesuit practitioners. But it really is a very useful art, and its influence upon the thinking of mankind has probably been much more beneficial than deleterious. Some of the most valuable liberties of the modern age were attained by the use of adept casuistry. It was impossible to argue for them openly, but they could be supported effectively by the tricks invented by theological casuists. The legal fictions that broke down the old rigidity of English law had the same origin. It is a pity that American law is not developing more of them.

The True Immortal

by H.L. Mencken

(From the Smart Set, Oct., 1919, pp. 84-85)
If, in the course of long years, the great masses of the plain people gradually lose their old faiths, it is only to fill the gaps with new faiths that restate the old ones in new terms. Nothing, in fact, could be more commonplace than the observation that the crazes which periodically ravage the proletariat are, in the main, no more than distorted echoes of delusions cherished centuries ago. The fundamental religious ideas of the lower orders of Christendom have not changed materially in 2,000 years, and they were old when they were first borrowed from the heathen of Asia Minor and Northern Africa. The Iowa Methodist of today, imagining him able to understand them at all, would be able to accept the tenets of Augustine without changing more than a few accents and punctuation marks. Every Sunday his raucous ecclesiastics batter his ears with diluted and debased filches from “De Civitate Dei,” and almost every article of his practical ethics may be found clearly stated in the eminent bishop’s Ninety-third Epistle. And so in politics. The Bolsheviki of today not only poll-parrot the balderdash of the French demagogues of 1789; they also mouth what was gospel to every bete blonde in the Teutonic forests of the Fifth Century.

Truth shifts and changes like a cataract of diamonds; its aspect is never precisely the same at two successive instants. But error flows down the channel of history like some great stream of lava or infinitely lethargic glacier. It is the one relatively fixed thing in a world of chaos. It is, perhaps, the one thing that gives human society the stability needed to save it from the wreck that ever menaces. Without their dreams men would have fallen upon and devoured one another long ago—and yet every dream is an illusion, and every illusion a falsehood.

… This frank acceptance and tolerance of the Old Adam is one of the chief sources of the Church’s strength, and probably explains more plausibly than anything else its long prosperity in the world. It is spared thereby those moral witch-hunts that have so often disrupted the Protestant sects, it is aided in keeping down the nuisance of spiritual pride, and it is given a firm grip upon the lowly, who are as conscious of their lack of saintliness as they are of their lack of wealth, and are naturally grateful to a vast, lordly and mysterious organization which condescends to them politely, and makes them comfortable. The whip it cracks over them is barbed with the fear of Hell, but the cracking is done with infinite discretion, and a fine understanding of psychology as she blows in the lower IQ brackets. Upon the superior minority -- never large—the Church makes play with other weapons, some of them of a great subtlety, but the rank and file are policed by fear alone, and its only administrative reinforcement is a very simple system of obligations and taboos. Make your Easter duty. Avoid meat on Friday. Keep Lent. Marry only in the Church. Bring your babies for baptism promptly, and have plenty of them. Be respectful to your spiritual superiors. Give to the Church’s poor. Read no forbidden books. For the rest, do as well as you can, considering the feeble strength that Yahweh hath granted you—and trust Holy Church, which is wise and merciful, to save you somehow from Hell.


by H.L. Mencken

[H.L. Mencken, Treatise on Right and Wrong, Knopf, (1934), pp. 254-255.]

The mob, having heard Christ, turned against him, and applauded his crucifixion. His theological ideas were too logical and too plausible for it, and his ethical ideas were enormously too austere. What it yearned for was the old comfortable balderdash under a new and gaudy name, and that is precisely what Paul offered it.

[Notes on Democracy, 1926, pp. 66-67]

Christ, we are told, preached no complicated mysteries and demanded no pedantic allegiance. He knew nothing of transubstantiation, or of reserved sacraments, or of the adoration of the saints, or of the vestments controversy. He was even somewhat vague about original sin. Alive today, could He qualify as a bishop? He could not. Even the Salvation Army would put Him on probation, at least until He had mastered the cornet. Even the Christian Scientists would bar Him from their auctionblock, at least until He had got a morning coat and paid cash for a copy of “Science and Health.” What would the Congregatio Sancti Officii say of His theology? What would the Methodist Board of Temperance, Prohibition and Public Morals say of His ethics? What would Monsignor Manning say of His patriotism, or of His economic views, or of His probable opinion of the great spiritual filling-station on Morningside Heights? What these high authorities would say, I venture, would be a plenty.

(American Mercury, Editorial, May, 1928, p. 25)

[Baltimore Evening Sun, June 29, 1925]

"Such obscenities as the forthcoming trial of the Tennessee evolutionist, if they serve no other purpose, at least call attention dramatically to the fact that enlightenment, among mankind, is very narrowly dispersed. It is common to assume that human progress affects everyone--that even the dullest man, in these bright days, knows more than any man of, say, the Eighteenth Century, and is far more civilized. This assumption is quite erroneous. The men of the educated minority, no doubt, know more than their predecessors, and of some of them, perhaps, it may be said that they are more civilized--though I should not like to be put to giving names--but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are precisely where the mob was at the dawn of history. They are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little of anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge.

"Such immortal vermin, true enough, get their share of the fruits of human progress, and so they may be said, in a way, to have their part in it. The most ignorant man, when he is ill, may enjoy whatever boons and usufructs modern medicine may offer--that is, provided he is too poor to choose his own doctor. He is free, if he wants to, to take a bath. The literature of the world is at his disposal in public libraries. He may look at worlds of art. He may hear good music. He has at hand a thousand devices for making life less wearisome and more tolerable: the telephone, railroads, bichloride tablets, newspapers, sewers, correspondence schools, delicatessen. But he had no more to do with bringing these things into the world than the horned cattle in the fields, and he does no more to increase them today than the birds in the air.

"On the contrary, he is generally against them, and sometimes with immense violence. Every step in human progress, from the first feeble stirings in the abyss of time, has been oppressed by the great majority of men. Every valuable thing that has been added to the store of man’s possessions has been derided by them when it was new, and destroyed by them when they had the power. They have fought every new truth ever heard of, and they have killed every truth- seeker who got into their hands.

"The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters. They mirror very accurately his congenital hatred of knowledge, his bitter enmity to the man who knows more than he does, and so gets more out of life. Certainly it cannot have gone unnoticed that their membership is recruited, in the overwhelming main, from the lower orders--that no man of any education or other human dignity belongs to them. What they propose to do, at botttom and in brief, is to make the superior man infamous--by mere abuse if it is sufficient, and if it is not, then by law.

"Such organizations, of course, must have leaders; there must be men in them whose ignorance and imbecility are measurably less abject than the ignorance and imbecility of the average. These super-Chandala often attain to a considerable power, especially in the Democratic states. Their followers trust them and look up to them; sometimes, when the pack is on the loose, it is necessary to conciliate them. But their puissance cannot conceal their incurrable inferiority. They belong to the mob as surely as their dupes, and the thing that animates them is precisely the mob’s hatred of superiority. Whatever lies above the level of their comprehension is of the devil. A glass of wine delights civilized men; them themselves, drinking it, would get drunk. Ergo, wine must be prohibited. The hypothesis of evolution is credited by all men of education’; they themselves can’t understand it. Ergo, its teaching must be put down.

"This simple fact explains such phenomena as the Tennessee buffoonery. Nothing else can. We must think of human progress, not as of something going on in the race in general, but as of something going on in a small minority, perpetually beleaguered in a few walled towns. Now and then the horde of barbarians outside breaks through, and we have an armed effort to halt the process. That is, we have a Reformation, a French Revolution, a war for democracy, a Great Awakening. The minority is decimated and driven to cover. But a few survive--and a few are enough to carry on.

"The inferior man’s reasons for hating knowledge are not hard to discern. He hates it because it is complex--because it puts an unbearable burden upon his meager capacity for taking in ideas. Thus his search is for shortcuts. Their aim is to make the unintelligible simple, and even obvious. So on what seem to be higher levels. No man who has not had a long and arduous education can understand even the most concepts of modern pathology. But even a hind at the plow can grasp the theory of chiropractic in two lessons. Hence the vast popularity of chiropractic among the submerged--and of osteopathy, Christian Science and other such quackeries with it. They are idiotic, but they are simple--and every man prefers what he can understand to what puzzles and dismays him.

"The popularity of Fundamentalism among the inferior orders of men is explicable in exactly the same way. The cosmogonies that educated men toy with are all inordinately complex. To comprehend their veriest outlines requires an immense stock of knowledge, and a habit of thought. It would be as vain to try to teach to peasants of to the city proletariat as it would be to try to teach them to streptococci. But the cosmogony of Genesis is so simple that even a yokel can grasp it. It is set forth in a few phrases. It offers, to an ignorant man, the irrestibile reasonableness of the nonsensical. So he accepts it with loud hosannas, and has one more excuse for hating his betters.

"Politics and the fine arts repeat the story. The issues that the former throw up are often so complex that, in the present state of human knowledge, they must remain impenetrable, even to the most enlightened men. How much easier to follow a mountebank with a shibboleth--a Coolidge, a Wilson, or a Roosevelt! The arts, like the sciences, demand special training, often very difficult. But in jazz there are simple rhythms, comprehensible even to savages.

"What all this amounts to is that the human race is divided into two sharply differentiated and mutually antagonistic classes, almost two genera--a small minority that plays with ideas and is capable of taking them in, and the vast majority that finds them painful, and is thus arrayed against them, and against all who have traffic with them. The intellectual heritage of the race belongs to the minority, and to the minority only. The majority has no more to do with it than it has to do with ecclesiastic politics on Mars. In so far as that heritage is apprehended, it is viewed with enmity. But in the main it is not apprehended at all.

"That is why Beethoven survives. Of the 110,000,000 so-called human beings now who live in the United States, flogged and crazed by Coolidge, Rotary, the Ku Klux and the newspapers, it is probable that at least 108,000,000 have never heard of him at all. To these immortals, made in God’s image, one of the greatest artists the human race has ever produced is not even a name. So far as they are concerned he might as well have died at birth. The gorgeous and incomparable beauties that he created are nothing to them. They get no value out of the fact that he existed. They are completely unaware of what he did in the world, and would not be interested if they were told.

"The fact saves good Ludwig’s bacon. His music survives because it lies outside the plane of popular apprehension, like the colors beyond violet and the concept of honor. If it could be brought within range, it would at once arouse hostility. Its complexity would challenge; its lace of moral purpose would affright. Soon there would be a movement to put it down, and Baptist clergymen would rage the land denouncing it, and in the end some poor musician, taken in the un- American act of playing it, would be put on trial before a jury of Ku Kluxers, and railroaded to the calaboose.”

Mencken on Tolerance & Combat

Aftermath by H.L. Mencken (written September 14, 1925—The Baltimore Evening Sun)

THE Liberals, in their continuing discussion of the late trial of the infidel Scopes at Dayton, Tenn., run true to form. That is to say, they show all their habitual lack of humor and all their customary furtive weakness for the delusions of Homo neanderthalensis. I point to two of their most enlightened organs: the eminent New York World and the gifted New Republic. The World is displeased with Mr. Darrow because, in his appalling cross-examination of the mountebank Bryan, he did some violence to the theological superstitions that millions of Americans cherish. The New Republic denounces him because he addressed himself, not to “the people of Tennessee” but to the whole country, and because he should have permitted “local lawyers” to assume “the most conspicuous position in the trial."

Once more, alas, I find myself unable to follow the best Liberal thought. What the World’s contention amounts to, at bottom, is simply the doctrine that a man engaged in combat with superstition should be very polite to superstition. This, I fear, is nonsense. The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Is it, perchance, cherished by persons who should know better? Then their folly should be brought out into the light of day, and exhibited there in all its hideousness until they flee from it, hiding their heads in shame.

True enough, even a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred. He has no right to preach them without challenge. Did Darrow, in the course of his dreadful bombardment of Bryan, drop a few shells, incidentally, into measurably cleaner camps? Then let the garrisons of those camps look to their defenses. They are free to shoot back. But they can’t disarm their enemy.


The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceiveably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man’s attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act. Bryan went there in a hero’s shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense. He came out a wrecked and preposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs. Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

— from The Impossible H.L. Mencken: A Selection of His Best Newspaper Stories, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, Anchor Books, 1991, pp. 608-610.

[Letter from H. L. Mencken to Marion Bloom, Pratt Library]

April 16th, 1915

Dear Marionne,

Away with your croaking about the futility of life! That it is meaningless I grant you, but surely not futile. So long as there is the joy of a job well done—whether an epic, a fried egg or a murder—there will be plenty of excuse for remaining alive. The gods seem to have us by the coccyx—but now and then we jump away and give them the larf! This is happiness.

Tuesday, Yours, M.

I sent you a second copy of the Smart Set last night.

Crowd Psychology

--H.L. Mencken [Smart Set, “The Anatomy of Ochlocracy”, February, 1921, pp. 139-140.]

The crowd phenomena of peace times are more durable and more important.

Moreover, they are grounded upon precisely the same psychological fact [as war is]. The first of these facts is that an individual, when he joins a crowd, whether of life-long Democrats, Methodists or professors, sacrifices his private judgment in order to partake of the power and security that membership gives him. The second is that the crowd con- fines its aims to one or two simple objects, and that it holds itself together by cherishing the delusion that they are all-important and pressing for attainment. The third is that its primary motive is almost always fear … this fear, of course, is seldom plainly stated; it is almost always concealed beneath a profession of altruism. But the profession need not deceive us. A crowd is quite incapable of altruism. The most it is capable of is to help A, to whom it is indifferent, in order to hurt B, whom it fears and hates.

Note for an Honest Autobiography

by H.L. Mencken
(From the Baltimore Evening Sun, June 12, 1922)

On blue, hyperacid days the suspicion often seizes me that most of my favorite notions are nonsensical—worse, that some of them are probably downright insane. It is a sad pleasure to examine them thus at leisure, and pick out the flaws in them. What is left is little save a pile of platitudes -- the apple-cores of meditation. Well, who is better off? I know of no one, though neither do I know of anyone who admits it. A few propositions, perhaps, are immutably true, e.g., that no man can hold his head under water half an hour and live, that the average Congressman is a moron, that Johah swallowed the whale. The rest is mere illusion, folly, egomania.

Nevertheless, it comforts me to think that, in one respect at least, I am superior to my chief opponents. That is in the respect that, in the main, my ideas are unpopular, and hence not profitable. No one can reasonably allege that I emit them in order to gain political office, or to get an honorary degree from the Ohio Wesleyan University, or to acquire the Legion d’honneur. This may seem a small thing, but it is at least something, especially in an American. Practically all the other men that I know try to capitalize their doctrines in some way or other. Who ever heard of an uplifter who was not looking for a job? Or, at all events, some one to finance his crusade? No one finances mine, such as it is. No one ever will.

The Cult of Hope

by H.L. Mencken From Prejudices: Second Series, 1920, pp. 211-218

Of all the sentimental errors that reign and rage in this incomparable Republic, the worst is that which confuses the function of criticism, whether aesthetic, political or social, with the function of reform. Almost invariably it takes the form of a protest: “The fellow condemns without offering anything better. Why tear down without building up?” So snivel the sweet ones: so wags the national tongue. The messianic delusion becomes a sort of universal murrain. It is impossible to get an audience for an idea that is not "constructive"—i.e., that is not glib, and uplifting, and full of hope, and hence capable of tickling the emotions by leaping the intermediate barrier of intelligence.

In this protest and demand, of course, there is nothing but the babbling of men who mistake their feelings for thoughts. The truth is that criticism, if it were confined to the proposing of alternative schemes, would quickly cease to have any force or utility at all, for in the overwhelming majority of instances no alternative scheme of any intelligibility is imaginable, and the whole object of the critical process is to demonstrate it. The poet, if the victim is a poet, is simply one as bare of gifts as a herring is of fur: no conceivable suggestion will ever make him write actual poetry. And the plan of reform, in politics, sociology or what not, is simply beyond the pale of reason; no change in it or improvement of it will ever make it acheive the impossible. Here, precisely, is what is the matter with most of the notions that go floating about the country, particularly in the field of governmental reform. The trouble with them is not only that they won’t and don’t work; the trouble with them, more importantly, is that the thing they propose to accomplish is intrinsically, or at all events most probably, beyond accomplishment. That is to say, the problem they are ostensibly designed to solve is a problem that is insoluble. To tackle them with a proof of that insolubility, or even with a colorable argument of it, is sound criticism; to tackle them with another solution that is quite as bad, or even worse, is to pick the pocket of one knocked down by an automobile.

Unluckily, it is difficult for the American mind to grasp the concept of insolubility. Thousands of poor dolts keep on trying to square the circle; other thousands keep pegging away at perpetual motion. The number of persons so afflicted is far greater than the records of the Patent Office show, for beyond the circle of frankly insane enterprise there lie circles of more and more plausible enterprise, and finally we come to a circle which embraces the great majority of human beings. These are the optimists and chronic hopers of the world, the believers in men, ideas and things. It is the settled habit of such folk to give ear to whatever is comforting; it is their settled faith that whatever is desirable will come to pass. A caressing confidence—but one, unfortunately, that is not borne out by human experience. The fact is that some of the things that men and women have desired most ardently for thousands of years are not nearer realization today than they were in the time of Rameses, and that there is not the slightest reason for believing that they will lose their coyness on any near tomorrow. Plans for hurrying them on have been tried since the beginning; plans for forcing them overnight are in copious and antagonistic operation today; and yet they continue to hold off and elude us, and the chances are that they will keep on holding off and eluding us until the angels get tired of the show, and the whole earth is set off like a gigantic bomb, or drowned, like a sick cat, between two buckets.

Turn, for example, to the sex problem. There is no half-baked ecclesiastic, bawling in his galvanized-iron temple on a suburban lot, who doesn’t know precisely how it ought to be dealt with. There is no fantoddish old suffragette, sworn to get her revenge on man, who hasn’t a sovereign remedy for it. There is not a shyster of a district attorney, ambitious for higher office, who doesn’t offer to dispose of it in a few weeks, given only enough help from the city editors. And yet, by the same token, there is not a man who has honestly studied it and pondered it, bringing sound information to the business, and understanding of its inner difficulties and a clean and analytical mind, who doesn’t believe and hasn’t stated publicly that it is intrinsically and eternally insoluble. For example, Hevelock Ellis. His remedy is simply a denial of all remedies. He admits that the disease is bad, but he shows that the medicine is infinitely worse, and so he proposes going back to the plain disease, and advocates bearing it with philosophy, as we bear colds in the head, marriage, the noises of the city, bad cooking and the certainty of death. Man is inherently vile—but he is never so vile as when he is trying to disguise and deny his vileness. No prostitute was ever so costly to a community as a prowling and obscene vice crusader, or as the dubious legislator or prosecuting officer who jumps at such swine pipe.

[Selected dead cats from H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) (from A Mencken Chrestomathy, Vintage, 1982]

The Scientist (1919)

The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagen idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.

The Physician

Hygiene is the corruption of medicine by morality. It is impossible to find a hygienist who does not debase his theory of the healthful with a theory of the virtuous. The whole hygienic art, indeed, resolves itself into an ethical exhortation. This brings it, at the end, into diametrical conflict with medicine proper. The true aim of medicine is not to make men virtuous; it is to safeguard and rescue them from the consequences of their vices. The physician does not preach repentance; he offers absolution.

The Philosopher (1927)

There is no record in human history of a happy philosopher: they exist only in romantic legend. Many of them have committed suicide; many others have turned their children out of doors and beaten their wives. And no wonder. If you want to find out how a philosopher feels when he is engaged in the practise of his profession, go to the nearest zoo and watch a chimpanzee at the wearying and hopeless job of chasing fleas. Both suffer damnably, and neither can win.

The Iconoclast (1924)

The iconoclast proves enough when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing—that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The liberation of the human mind has been best 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 a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms.

The Slave (1924)

Don’t tell me what delusion he entertains regarding God, or what mountebank he follows in politics, or what he springs from, or what he submits to from his wife. Simply tell me how he makes his living. It is the safest and surest of all known tests. A man who gets his board and lodging on this ball in an ignominnious way is inevitably an ignominious man.

The Feminine Mind

A man’s women folk, whatever their outward show of respect for his merit and authority, always regard him secretly as an ass, and with something akin to pity. His most gaudy sayings and doings seldom deceive them; they see the actual man within, and know him for a shallow and pathetic fellow. In this fact, perhaps, lies one of the best proofs of feminine intelligence, or, as the common phrase makes it, feminine intuition. The marks of that so-called intuition are simply a sharp and accurate perception of reality, a habitual immunity to emotional enchantment, a relentless capacity for distinguishing clearly between the appearance and the substance. The appearance, in the normal family circle, is a hero, a magnifico, a demi-god. The substance is a poor mountebank.

… Neither sex, without some fertilization of the complementary characters of the other, is capable of the highest reaches of human endeavor. Man, without a saving touch of woman in him, is too doltish, too naive and romantic, too easily deluded and lulled to sleep by his imagination to be anything above a cavalryman, a theologian, or a corporation director. And woman, without some trace of that divine innocence which is masculine, is too harshly the realist for those vast projections of the fancy which lie at the heart of what we call genius. The wholly manly man lacks the wit necessary to give objective form to his soaring and secret dreams, and the wholly womanly woman is apt to be too cynical a creature to dream at all.

The Declaration of Independence

A piece of platitudinous poetry comparable to “The Psalm of Life" or Hamlet’s soliloquy, has seized such a powerful hold upon the imagination of the world’s largest civilized nation that it corrupts and conditions the whole of the national thinking. … So potent among us is a mere string of sonorous phrases, a piece of windy flapdoodle, a rhapsody almost empty of intelligible meaning, and probably composed under the influence of ethyl alcohol. And yet, as I say, it is more powerful than a million swords. It looms larger than the massive fact of Gettysburg. It is worth more than the whole Civil War. The man who loosed it upon posterity has left it a vaster heritage than the man who invented baseball.

--H.L. Mencken [Smart Set, “Critics of More or Less Badness”, November, 1914, pp. 153-154.] From The Diary of H. L. Mencken, edited by Charles A. Fecher, Vintage, New York (1989).

Baltimore, November 2, 1944.

It is astonishing how little the war impinges on me. I am, of course, rooked like everyone else by excessive taxes, and now and then some eatable that I like is unprocurable (or procurable only by giving up an enormous number of ration points); but in general I am hardly affected by the great effort to save humanity and ruin the United States. So far, no one that I know has been killed in the war, or even injured, and I find it hard to pump up any interest in the tall talk in the newspapers every day. … Their correspondence from the various fronts seldom undertakes to tell precisely what is going on: it is simply rooting for the home team. I long ago gave up protesting against it. Paul Patterson not only believes that it is what the readers of the Sun want; he also swallows most of it himself. I have some doubt myself that anything better would be feasible. If any effort were made to report the war objectively and truthfully there would be a public sensation, and a great deal more denunciation than approval. The American people are now wholly at the mercy of demagogues, and it would take a revolution to liberate and disillusion them. I see no sign of any such revolution, either in the immediate future or within the next generation. When the soldiers come home it will become infamous to doubt—and dangerous to life and limb. (pp. 334-335).

Baltimore, January 29,1945.

My heart symptoms continue and tend to grow worse. Night before last I had the worst spell so far. I awoke from a disturbed and idiotic dream with a sense of smothering, and lay awake the better part of an hour. My pulse was but 72 and my heart was beating strongly, but there was a general feeling of considerable discomfort, with a sense of impending collapse. It interests me to note how little the fear of death is present at such times. It ought to be there, but it simply isn’t. I like in bed trying to figure out whether I should call to August for help and go to hospital, but I always decide against it, and gradually fall asleep. My last thoughts are of my business affairs, now in pretty good shape. … I have no affairs in progress that could not be wound up quickly. I am sorry that I’ll probably not be able to finish some of the projects I have long had in mind … But I do not mourn over these things, and my days are fairly placid and contented, though it irks me to be unable to work and for the first time in my life I am experiencing boredom. Maybe there will be some improvement later on, and I may be able to return to my desk, but it seems unlikely. Looking back over a life of hard work, I find that my only regret is that I didn’t work even harder. But this is somewhat absurd: I have actually worked hard enough. There is very little to show for it, but considering my bad start and rather meagre opportunities, I have at least accomplished something. I am only sorry that I’ll probably not live long enough to take advantage of the reaction from the present war—if, indeed, there is ever any reaction. Sometimes I doubt it. The American people seem to be committed to mountebanks for ever more. (pp. 351-352).

(From H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy, Knopf, 1926)

Democracy and Liberty

The Will to Peace

Whenever the liberties of Homo vulgaris are invaded and made a mock of in a gross and contemptuous manner, … there are always observers who marvel that he bears the outrage with so little murmuring. Such observers only display their unfamiliarity with the elements of democratic science. The truth is that the common man’s love of liberty, like his love of sense, justice and truth, is almost wholly imaginary. As I have argued, he is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it. Liberty is not a thing for such as he. He cannot enjoy it rationally himself, and he can think of it in others only as something to be taken away from them. It is, when it becomes a reality, the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority of men, like knowledge, courage and honour. A special sort of man is needed to understand it, nay, to stand it—and he is inevitably an outlaw in democratic societies. The average man doesn’t want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.

… What the common man longs for in this world, before and above all his other longings, is the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace—the peace of a trusty in a well-managed penitentiary. He is willing to sacrifice everything else to it. He puts it above his dignity and he puts it above his pride. Above all, he puts it above his liberty. The fact, perhaps, explains his veneration for policemen, in all the forms they take—his belief that there is a mysterious sanctity in law, however absurd it may be in fact. A policeman is a charlatan who offers, in return for obedience, to protect him (a) from his superiors, (b) from his equals, and (c) from himself. This last service, under democracy, is commonly the most esteemed of them all. In the United States, at least theoretically, it is the only thing that keeps ice-wagon drivers, Y.M.C.A. secretaries, insurance collectors and other such human camels from smoking opium, ruining themselves in the night clubs, and going to Palm Beach with Follies girls. It is a democratic invention.

Here, though the common man is deceived, he starts from a sound premiss: to wit, that liberty is something too hot for his hands—or, as Nietzsche put it, too cold for his spine. Worse, he sees in it something that is a weapon against him in the hands of his enemy, the man of superior kidney. Be true to your nature, and follow its teachings: this Emersonian counsel, it must be manifest, offers an embarassing support to every variety of droit de seigneur. The history of democracy is a history of efforts to force successive minorities to be untrue to their nature. Democracy, in fact, stands in greater peril of the free spirit than any sort of despotism ever heard of. The despot, at least, is always safe in one respect: his own belief in himself cannot be shaken. But democracies may be demoralized and run amok, and so they are in vast dread of heresy, as a Sunday-school superintendent is in dread of scarlet women, light wines and beer, and the unreadable works of Charles Darwin. It would be unimaginable for a democracy to submit serenely to such gross dissents as Frederick the Great not only permitted, but even encouraged. Once the mob is on the loose, there is no holding it. So the subversive minority must be reduced to impotence; the heretic must be put down. (pp. 147-150)

The Democrat as Moralist

Liberty gone, there remains the majestic phenomenon of democratic law. A glance at it is sufficient to show the identity of democracy and Puritanism. The two, indeed, are but different facets of the same gem. In the psyche they are one. For both get their primal essence out of the inferior man’s fear and hatred of his betters, born of his observation that, for all his fine theories, they are stronger and of more courage than he is, and that as they go through this dreadful world they have a far better time. Thus envy comes in; if you overlook it you will never understand Puritanism. It is not, of course, a speciality of democratic man. It is the common possession of all men of the ignoble and incompetent sort, at all times and everywhere. But it is only under democracy that it is liberated; it is only under democracy that it becomes the philosophy of the state. … The day after a successful revolution is a blue day for the late autocrat, but it is also a blue day for every other superior man. The murder of Lavoisier was a phenomenon quite as significant as the murder of Louis XVI. We need no scientists in France, shouted MM. of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Wat Tyler, four centuries before, reduced it to an even greater frankness and simplicity: he hanged every man who confessed to being able to read and write.

Democracy, as a political scheme, may be defined as a device for releasing this hatred born of envy, and for giving it the force and dignity of law. Tyler, in the end, was dispatched by Walworth; under democracy he becomes almost the ideal Good Man. It is very difficult to disentangle the political ideas of this anthropoid Good Man from his theological ideas: they constantly overlap and coalesce, and the democratic state, despite the contrary example of France, almost always shows a strong tendency to be also a Puritan state. Puritan legislation, especially in the field of public law, is a thing of many grandiose pretensions and a few simple and ignoble realities. The Puritan, discussing it voluptuously, always tries to convince himself (and the rest of us) that it is grounded upon altruistic and evangelical motives—that its aim is to work the other fellow’s benefit against the other fellow’s will. Such is the theory behind Prohibition, comstockery, vice crusading, and all its other familiar devices of oppression. … (pp. 152-155).

… The Puritan, once his mainly imaginary triumphs over the flesh and the devil are forgotten, always turns out to be a poor stick of a man—in brief, a natural democrat. His triumphs in the field of government are as illusory as his triumphs as metaphysician and artist. No Puritan has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a poem worth reading — and I am not forgetting John Milton, who was not a Puritan at all, but a libertarian, which is the exact opposite. The whole Puritan literature is comprised in “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Even in the department wherein the Puritan is most proud of himself, i.e., that of moral legislation, he has done only second and third rate work. His fine schemes for bringing his betters down to his own depressing level always turn out badly. In the whole history of human law-making there is no record of a failure worse than that of Prohibition in the United States. … (p. 157)

It must be plain that this process of law-making by orgy, with fanatics supplying the motive-power and unconsciouable knaves steering the machine, is bound to fill the statute-books with enactments that have no rational use or value save that of serving as instruments of psychopathological persecution and private revenge. This is found to be thecase, in fact, in almost every American State. The grotesque anti-syndicalist laws of California, the anti-evolution laws of Tennessee and Mississippi, and the acts for the enforcement of Prohibition in Ohio and Indiana are typical. They involve gross invasions of the most elementary rights of the free citizen, but they are popular with the mob because they have a virtuous smack and provide it with an endless succession of barbarous but thrilling shows. … (pp. 159-160)

For such foul and pestiferous proceedings, of course, moral excuses are always offered. The district attorney is an altruist whose one dream is Law Enforcement; he cannot be terrified by the power of money; he is the spokesman of the virtuous masses against the godless and abominable classes. The same buncombe issues from the Prohibitionists, comstocks, hunters of Bolshevists, and other such frauds. Its hollowness is constantly revealed. The Prohibitionists, when they foisted their brummagem cure-all upon the country under cover of the war hysteria, gave out that their advocacy of it was based upon a Christian yearning to abate drunkenness, and so abolish crime, poverty and disease. They preached a millennium, and no doubt convinced hundreds and thousands of naive and sentimental persons, not themselves Puritans, nor even democrats. That millennium, as everyone knows, has failed to come in. Not only are crime, poverty and disease undiminished, but drunkennes itself, if the police statistics are to be believed, has greatly increased. The land rocks with the scandal. Prohibiition has made the use of alcohol devilish and even fashionable, and so vastly augmented the numbers of users. The young of both sexes, mainly innocent of the cup under license, now take to it almost unanimously. In brief, Prohibition has not only failed to work the benefits that its proponents promised in 1917; it has brought in so many new evils that even the mob has turned against it. But do the Prohibitionists admit the fact frankly, and repudiate their original nonsense? They do not. On the contrary, they keep on demanding more and worse enforcement statutes—that is to say, more and worse devices for harassing and persecuting their opponents. The more obvious the failure becomes, the more shamelessly they exhibit their genuine motives. …(pp. 162-163)

Danger to Democracy

I believe, and have often argued, that the battle of ideas should be international—that it is idiotic to expect any one country to offer hospitality to every imaginable sort of man. I do not fit into the United States very well. My skepticism is intolerably offensive to the normal American man; only the man under strong foreign influence sees anything in it save a gross immoraltiy … if the notions of the right-thinkers are correct, then such stuff as mine … ought to be put down by law … free speech is too dangerous to a democaracy. [Letter (NYPL); to Burton Rascoe, Chicago Tribune, 1920.]


Democracy is the theory that intelligence is dangerous. It assumes that no idea can be safe until those who can’t understand it have approved it. [S.S.; Pertinent and Impertinent, by Owen Hatteras (pseudonym); June, 1913, p. 57.]


The theory that two theives will steal less than one. [ibid., p.58]


Democracy is the liberty of the have-nots. Its aim is to destroy the liberty of the haves. [S.S.; Origins; November, 1922, p. 47.]


… [I]f democracy has any genuine merit, if it shows any virtue that all other forms of government lack, it is the merit and virtue of being continuously amusing, of offering the plain people a ribald and endless show. This merit I certainly do not decry. It is valuable, and deserves praise. For government, in its essence, is a harsh and oppressive thing, and unless some glamor can be thrown about it, of the mysterious, the melodramatic or the comic, it tends to be unbearable. [A.M.; Editorial; September, 1924, p. 33.]


Here is tragedy—and here is America. For the curse of the country, as well of all democracies, is precisely the fact that it treats its best men as enemies. The aim of our society, if it may be said to have an aim, is to iron them out. The ideal American, in the public sense, is a respectable vacuum. ["More Tips for Novelists”, in the Chicago Tribune; May 2, 1926.]


[I]t is one of the peculiar intellectual accompaniments of democracy that the concept of the insoluble becomes unfashionable—nay, almost infamous. To lack a remedy is to lack the very license to discuss disease. The causes of this are to be sought, without question, in the nature of democracy itself. It came into the world as as cure-all, and it remains primarily a cure-all to this day. ["The Future of Democracy” in Notes on Democracy (1926), pp. 195-196.]

Democracy is Puritanism

Liberty gone, there remains the majestic phenomenon of democratic law. A glance at it is sufficient to show the identity of democracy and Puritanism. The two, indeed, are but different facets of the same gem. … Both get their primal essence out of the inferior man’s fear and hatred of his betters … thus envy comes in; if you overlook it you will never understand democracy, and you will never understand Puritanism. It is not, of course, a specialty of democratic man. It is the common possession of all men of the ignoble and incompetent sort, at all times and everywhere. But it is only under democracy that it is liberated; it is only under democracy that it becomes the philosophy of the state. ["The Democrat as Moralist” in Notes on Democracy (1926), pp. 152-153.]

Democratic Dream

The difference between the mob and the plutocracy is, after all, very slight. They run to common concepts of the true and the good, and are largely identical in personnel. The gap separating a banker and a labor leader is infinitely less than the gap separating either from a Washington. Neither has any coherent concept of the common weal; to both government is simply a device for promoting their own fortunes. No restraint of tradition and obligation lies upon either. In brief, they are alike democrats. [A.M., “Kultur in the Republic”, October, 1927, p. 257.]

Democratic Ideas

It was Americans who invented the curious doctrine that there is a body of doctrine in every department of thought that every good citizen is in duty bound to accept and cherish; it was Americans who invented the right-thinker. … In the face of this singular passion for conformity, this dread of novelty and originality, it is obvious that the man of vigorous mind and stout convictions is gradually shouldered out of public life. He may slide into office once or twice, but soon or late he is bound to be held up, examined and incontinently kicked out. This leaves the field to the intellectual jelly-fish and inner tubes. ["Bayard vs. Lionheart” in the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920.]

Democratic Utopia

How, in spite of the incurable imbecility of the great masses of men, are we to get a reasonable measure of common sense and decency into the conduct of the world? The Liberal answer (much more clearly stated by H.G. Wells in "The Outline of History” than by Mr. Walter Lippmann in … "Public Opinion” is, in essence, simply a variant of the old democratic answer: by spreading enlightenment, by democratizing information, by combatting what is adjudged to be false by what is adjudged to be true. But this scheme, however persuasively it may be set forth, invariably goes to wreck upon two or three immovable facts. One is the fact that a safe majority of the men and women in every modern society are congenitally uneducable, save within very narrow limits—that it is no more possible to teach them what every voter theoretically should know than it is to teach a chimpanzee to play the viol da gamba. Another is the fact that the same safe majority, far from having any natural yearning to acquire this undescribed body of truth, has a natural and apparently incurable distrust of it … A third (and it is more important than either of the other two) is that there exists no body of teachers in Christendom capable of teaching the truth, even supposing it to be known … The inevitable tendency of pedagogy … is to preserve and propagate the lies that happen to be currently respectable, which is to say, that happen to be salubrious to the current masters of the mob. [S.S., “Demagoguery as Art and Science”, April, 1922, pp. 138-139.]


Once a year we reaffirm the doctrine that all men are free and equal. All the rest of the twelvemonth we devote our energies to proving that they are not. ["Men Versus the Man"; 1910, p. 152.]

First Amendment

The purport, though not the letter, of its first two strophes is that every free-born Americano shall stand clear of ecclesiastical domination, and be at liberty to serve, dodge or bamboozle Omnipotence by whatever devices appeal to his taste, or his lack of it. As the common phrase has it, church and state are separate in the Federal Union, with the province of each plainly marked out, and each forbidden to invade the province of the other. But in the common phrase, as usual, there is only wind. The fact is that the United States, save for a short while in its infancy, while the primal infidels survived, has always diluted democracy with theocracy. Practially all our political campaigns have resolved themselves into witch-hunts by the consecrated, and all our wars have been fought to hymn tunes. It remains so to this day, despite the murrain of jazz and gin. [A.M.; Editorial; October, 1928, p. 156.]

A Free People

Liberty in itself, to be sure, cannot bring in the millenium. It cannot abolish the inherent weaknesses of man—an animal but lately escaped from the jungle. It cannot take the place of intelligence, courage, honor. But the free man is at least able to be intelligent, courageous and honorable if the makings are in him. Nothing stands in the way of his highest functioning. He may go as far as nature intended him to go, and maybe a step or two beyond. Free, he may still be dull, timorous and untrustworthy. He may be shiftless and worthless. But it will not be against his will; it will not be in spite of himself. Free, he will be able to make the most of every virtue that is actually in him, and he will live and die under the kind of government he wants and deserves. ["Why Liberty?”, in the Chicago Tribune; January 30, 1927.]

Happy Democracy

I have seen many theoretical objections to democracy, and sometimes urge them with such heat that it probably goes beyond the bound of sound taste, but I am thoroughly convinced, nonetheless, that the democratic nations are happier than any other. The United States today, indeed, is probably the happiest the world has ever seen. Taxes are high, but they are still well within the means of the taxpayer: he could pay twice as much and still survive. The laws are innumerable and idiotic, but only prisoners in the penitentiaries and persons under religious vows ever obey they. The country is governed by rogues, but there is no general dislike of rogues: on the contrary, they are esteemed and envied. Best of all, the people have the pleasant feeling that they can make improvements at any time they want to—… in other words, they are happy. Democrats are always happy. Democracy is a sort of laughing gas. It will not cure anything, perhaps, but it unquestionably stops the pain. [A.M.; “The Master Illusion”, March, 1925, p. 319.]

The Huckster

[A] right which every huckster, as one of the Common People, indubitably possesses, and which no city ordinance or police fiat can ever take away from him … is his sacred right to make a nuisance of himself—a right which every American citizen cherishes as the one unmistakable symbol of his superiority to all loathsome foreigners. ["The Free Lance” in the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 3, 1911.]

HR (From H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy, Knopf, 1926)


Democracy itself becomes a substitute for the old religion, and the antithesis of it: the Ku Kluxers, though their reasoning may be faulty, are not far off the facts in their conclusion that Holy Church is its enemy. It shows all the magical potency of the great systems of faith. It has the power to enchant and disarm; it is not vulnerable to logical attack. … It is impossible, by any device known to philosophers, to meet doctrines of that sort; they obviously lie outside the range of logical ideas. There is, in the human mind, a natural taste for such hocus-pocus. It greatly simplifies the process of ratiocination, which is unbearably painful to the great majority of men. What dulls and baffles the teeth may be got down conveniently by an heroic gulp. … Democracy is shot through with this delight in the incredible, this banal mysticism. One cannot discuss it without colliding with preposterous postulates, all of them cherished like authentic hairs from the whiskers of Moses himself. I have alluded to its touching acceptance of the faith that progress is illimitable and ordained of God—that every human problem, in the very nature of things, may be solved. There are corrollaries that are even more naive. One, for example, is to the general effect that optimism is a virtue in itself—that there is a mysterious merit in being hopeful and of glad heart, even in the presence of adverse and immovable facts. This curious notion turns the glittering wheels of Rotary, and is the motive power of the politial New Thoughters called Liberals. … The man who hopes absurdly, it appears, is in some fantastic and gaseous manner a better citizen than the man who detects and exposes the truth. Bear this sweet democratic axiom clearly in mind. It is, fundamentally, what is the matter with the United States. (pp. 197-200)

Divine Revelation

by H.L. Mencken

… Catholic authority … argues that even revelation can have no validity save it be supported by evidence. … And so we arrive, perhaps, at an understanding of the process whereby Catholic moralists have come to reject certain of the plain instructions of Holy Writ, e.g., against taking interest, eating shellfish, and suffering witches to live, and to invent and credit to Omnipotence others that are plainly not in it, e.g., against slavery, the patria potestas, suicide, contraception and divorce. Their general position seems to be that though God undoubtedly made a revelation it was incomplete, and in some parts ill-advised, and that it is thus subject to enlightened revision.

(from Treatise on Right and Wrong; 1934, p. 59.) From “The Critical Process” (1921)

"Truth, indeed, is something that is believed in completely only by persons who have never tried personally to pursue it to its fastnesses and grab it by the tail. It is the adoration of second-rate men—men who always received it as second-hand. Pedagogues believe in immutable truths and spend their lives trying to determine them and propagate them; the intellectual progress of man consists largely of a concerted effort to block and destroy their enterprise. 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. In whole departments of human inquiry it seems to me quite unlikely that the truth ever will be discovered. Nevertheless, the rubber-stamp thinking of the world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth—that error and truth are simply opposites. 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. This is the whole history of the intellect in brief. The average man of today does not believe in precisely the same imbecilities that the Greek of the Fourth Century before Christ believed in, but the things that he does believe in are often quite as idiotic.”

On Eugenics

by H.L. Mencken (from The Chicago Tribune, May 15, 1927.)

THE MORE I plow through the literature confected by the eugenists and their allies, the birth controllers, the more I am convinced that their great cause is mainly blather. Somehow, what they write so indignantly always reminds me of the music of certain of the so-called moderns, who wander around in a maze of tonalities without landing anywhere. In none of their books have I ever found a clear definition of the superiority they talk about so copiously. At one time they seem to identify it with high intelligence. At another time with character, i.e., moral stability, and yet another time with mere fame, i.e., luck. Was Napoleon I a superior man, as I am privately inclined to believe, along with many of the eugenists? Then so was Aaron Burr, if in less measure. Was Paul of Tarsus? Then so was Brigham Young. Were the Gracchi? Then so were Karl Marx and William Jennings Bryan.

This matter of superiority, indeed, presents cruel and ineradicable difficulties. If it is made to run with service to the human race the eugenist is soon mired, for many men held to be highly useful are obviously second rate, and leave third rate progeny behind them; for example, Gen. Grant. And if it is made to run with mere intellectual brilliance and originality the troubles that loom up are just as serious, for men of that rare quality are generally felt to be dangerous, and sometimes they undoubtedly are. The case of Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche is in point. I suppose that no rational person today, not even an uncured Liberty Loan orator or dollar a year man, would argue seriously that Nietzsche was inferior. On the contrary, his extraordinary gifts are unanimously admitted. But what of his value to the human race? And what of his eugenic fitness?

It is not easy to answer these questions. Nietzsche, in fact, preached a gospel that, to most human beings, is unbearable, and it will probably remain unbearable for centuries to come. Its adoption by Dr. Coolidge, by and with the advice and consent of the senate, would plunge this republic into dreadful woe. And Nietzshce himself was a chronic invalid who died insane—the sort of wreck who, had he lived into our time, would have been a customer of chiropractors. Worse, he suffered from a malady of a scandalous nature, and of evil effects upon the sufferer’s offspring. Was it good or bad luck for the world, eugenically speaking, that he was a bachelor?

But their vagueness about the exact nature of superiority is not the only thing that corrupts the fine fury of the eugenists. Even more dismaying is their gratuitous assumption that all of the socially useful and laudable qualities (whatever they may be) are the exclusive possession of one class of men, and that the other classes lack them altogether. This is plainly not true. All that may be truthfully said of such qualities is that they appear rather more frequently in one class than in another. But they are rare in all classes, and the difference in the frequency of their occurrence between this class and that one is not very great, and of little genuine importance.

If all the biologists in the United States were hanged tomorrow (as has been proposed by the Mississippi clergy) and their children with them, we’d probably still have a sufficiency of biologists in the next generation. There might not be as many as we have today, but there would be enough. They would come out of the families of bricklayers and politicians, bootleggers and bond salesmen. Some of them, indeed, might even come out of the families of Mississippi ecclesiastics. For the supply of such men, like the supply of synthetic gin, always tends to run with the demand. Whenever the supply is short the demand almost automatically augments it.

Every one knows that this is true on the lower levels. Before baseball was invented there were no Ty Cobbs and Babe Ruths; now they appear in an apparently endless series. Before the Wright brothers made their flight there were no men skilled at aviation; now there are multitudes of highly competent experts. The eugenists forget that the same thing happens on the higher levels. Whenever the world has stood in absolute need of a genius he has appeared. And though it is true that he has usually come out of the better half of humanity, it is also true that he has sometimes come out of the worst half. Beethoven was the grandson of a cook and the son of a drunkard, and Lincoln’s forebears for many generations were nobodies.

The fact is that the difference between the better sort of human beings and the lesser sort, biologically speaking, is very slight. There may be, at the very top, a small class of people whose blood is preponderantly superior and distinguished, and there may be, at the bottom, another class whose blood is almost wholly debased, but both are very small. The folks between are all pretty much alike. The baron has a great deal of peasant blood in him and the peasant has some blood that is blue. The natural sinfulness of man is enough to make sure of that. No man in this world can ever be quite certain that he is the actual great-great-grandson of the great-great-grandfather whose memory he venerates.

Thus when the relatively superior and distinguished class ceases to be fecund (a phenomenon now visible everywhere in the world) natural selection comes to the rescue by selecting out and promoting individuals from the classses below. These individuals are probably just as sound in blood as any one in the class they enter. Their sound blood has been concealed, perhaps for generations, but it has been there all the time. If Abraham Lincoln’s ancestry were known with any certainty it would probably be found to run back to manifestly able and distinguished men. There are many more such hidden family trees in the folk.

The eugenists simply overlook them. They are also singularly blind to many familiar biological phenomena—for example, the appearance of mutations or sports. It is not likely that a commonplace family will produce a genius, but nevertheless it is by no means impossible: the thing has probably happened more than once. They forget, too, the influence of environment in human society. Mere environment, to be sure, cannot produce a genius, but it can certainly help him enormously after he is born. If a potential Wagner were born to a Greek bootblack in Toledo, O., tomorrow, the chances of his coming to fruition and fame would be at least even. But if he were born an Arab in the Libyan desert or to a fundamentalist in Rhea county, Tenn., the chances are that he would be a total loss.

The eugenists constantly make the false assumption that a healthy degree of human progress demands a large supply of first rate men. Here they succumb to the modern craze for mass production. Because a hundred policemen, or garbage men, or bootleggers are manifestly better than one, they conclude absurdly that a hundred Beethovens would be better than one. But this is not true. The actual value of a genius often lies in his singularity. If there had been a hundred Beethovens the music of all of them would be very little known today, and so its civilizing effect would be appreciably less than it is.

The number of first rate men necessary to make a high civilization is really very small. If the United States could produce one Shakespeare or Newton or Bach or Michelangelo of Vesalius a century it would be doing better than any nation has ever done in history. Such culture as we have is due to a group of men so small that all of them alive at one time could be hauled in a single Pullman train. Once I went through Who’s Who in America, hunting for the really first rate men among its 27,000 names—that is, for the men who had really done something unique and difficult, and of value to the human race. I found 200. The rest of the 27,000 were simply respectable blanks.

An overproduction of geniuses, indeed, would be very dangerous, for though they make for progress they also tend to disturb the peace. Imagine a country housing 100 head of Aristotles! It would be as unhappy as a city housing 100 head of Jesse Jameses. Even quasi-geniuses are a great burden upon society. There are in the United States today 1,500 professional philosophers—that is, men who make their living at the trade. The country would be far better off if all save two or three of them were driving taxicabs or serving with the Rum Fleet.

The Executive Secretary

by H.L. Mencken (From Prejudices: A Selection, James T. Farrell, ed.)

Some time ago, encountering an eminent bishop of my acquaintance, I found him suffering from a bad cold and what used to be called the vapors. The cause of his dual disorder soon became manifest. He was smarting under the slings and arrows of executive secretaries. By virtue of his lofty and transcendental office, he was naturally a man of wide influence in the land, and so they tried to enlist his interest in their multitudinous and often nefarious schemes. Every morning at 8 o’clock, just as he was rolling over for a last brief dream of Heaven, he was dragged to the telephone to hear their eloquent and lascivious night-letters, and there, on unlucky days, he stood for as much as half an hour, with his episcopal feet bare, and rage gradually mounting in his episcopal heart. Thus, on a cold morning, he had caught his cold, and thus he had acquired his bad humor.

This holy man, normally a most amiable fellow, told me that he believed the number of executive secretaries in the United States was increasing at the rate of at least a thousand a week. He said that he knew of 30,000 in the field of Christian and moral endeavor alone. There were, he told me, 8000 more engaged in running various pacifist societies, and more than 10,000 operating organizations for the detection and scotching of Bolsheviki. He estimated that the average number of dues-paying members behind each one did not run beyond half a dozen. Nine-tenths of them, he said, were supported by two or three well-heeled fanatics. These fanatics, mainly retired Babbitts and their wives, longed to make a noise in the world, and so escape oblivion. It was the essence of the executive secretary’s art and mystery to show them how to do it. Chiefly it was done by discovering bugaboos and giving chase to them. But secondarily it was done by hauling poor ecclesiastics out of bed on frosty mornings, and making them listen to endless night-letters about the woes of the Armenians, the need of intensive missionary effort in Siam, the plot of Moscow to set up soviets in Lowell, Mass., the high ideals of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the absolute necessity of deeper waterways from the Lakes to the Atlantic.

The executive secretary is relatively new in the world. Like his colleague in well-paid good works, the Y.M.C.A. secretary, he has come into being since the Civil War. Compared to him, his predecessor of ante-bellum days was an amateur and and idiot. That predecessor had no comfortable office in a gaudy skyscraper, he got no lavish salary, and he had no juicy expense-account. On the contrary, he paid his own way, and especially when he worked for Abolition, which was usually, he sometimes had to take a beating into the bargain. The executive secretary of to-day, as Perlmutter would say, is something else again. He belongs to the order of live wires. He speaks the language of up-and-coming men, and is not sparing with it at the sessions of Rotary and Kiwanis. In origin, not uncommonly a shady and unsuccessful newspaper reporter or a press-agent out of a job, he quickly becomes, by virtue of his craft, a Man of Vision. The cause that he represents for cash in hand is not merely virtuous; it is, nine times out of ten, divinely inspired. If it fails, then civilization will also fail, and the heroic doings at Chateau Thierry and Hog Island will have been in vain.

It is a good job that he has—far better than legging it on the street for some gorilla of a city editor—far, far better than traversing the sticks ahead of a No. 4 company. There is no need to get up at 7 A.M. and there is no need to fume and strain after getting up. Once three or four—or maybe even only one or two—easy marks with sound bank accounts have been snared, the new “national"—or perhaps it is “international" association is on its legs, and all that remains is to have brilliant statiionery printed, put in an amiable and sightly stenographer, and begin deluging bishops, editors and the gullible generally with literature. The executive secretary, if he has any literary passion in him, may prepare this literature himself, but more often he employs experts to do it. Once a year he launches a drive. But it is only for publicity. The original suckers pay the freight. When they wear out the executive secretary starts a new "international” association.

Such sharks now swarm in every American city. The office-buildings are full of them. Their prosperity depends very largely upon the singular complaisance of the newspapers. The average American managing editor went through so dreadful a bath of propaganda during the late war, and was so thoroughly convinced that resisting it was a form of treason, that he is now almost unable to detect it from genuine news…

I suggest this plan as a means of cutting down the present baleful activity of executive secretaries, but I am not so optimistic as to believe that it could conceivably dispose of them altogether. In the higher ranks of the profession are gentlemen so skillful that they no longer send out press-matter: they make actual news. To that aristocracy belong the adept executive secretaries who run such organizations as the Anti-Saloon League. These masters of the art do not beg for good-will in newspaper offices: they thrive upon ill-will quite as well as upon good-will. How are they to be got rid of? I am sure I don’t know. In all probability the American people are doomed to suffer them forever, as they seem to be doomed to suffer Prohibition agents, revivalists, the radio and Congress.

Christian Evidences

Theologians are well aware, deep down in their hearts, that faith alone is not sufficient to make even half-wits believe in their mumbo jumbo; they sense a need to sweeten the dose with such testimony as would convince a judge and jury. The result of their labours in that direction, continued through many centuries, has been only to reduce human reason to the quaking and malarious thing that it is today … gradually broken down all the natural barriers between fact and fiction, sense and nonsense,and converted logic into a weapon that mauls the truth far more than it defends it.

H.L. Mencken, Treatise on the Gods, 1930, pp. 311-312.

The Anatomy of Ochlocracy

H.L. Mencken

… The crowd phenomena of peace times are more durable and more important. Moreover, they are grounded upon precisely the same psychological facts. The first of these facts is that an individual, when he joins a crowd, whether of life-long Democrats, Methodists or professors, sacrifices his private judgment in order to partake of the power and security that membership gives him. The second is that the crowd confines its aims to one or two simple objects, and that it holds itself together by cherishing the delusion that they are all-important and pressing for attainment. The third is that its primary motive is almost always fear, or, as Mr. Martin puts it, hate. This fear, of course, is seldom plainly stated; it is almost always concealed beneath a profession of altruism. But the profession need not deceive us. A crowd is quite incapable of altruism. The most it is capable of is to help A, to whom it is indifferent, in order to hurt B, whom it fears and hates. Beyond that it cannot go. Altruism, like honor, is the exclusive possession of individuals—and of very few individuals.

For years past I have devoted odd moments to the study of the uplifters who rage in These States—the Prohibitionists, vice crusaders, book censors, Blue Sunday advocates and other such fauna. I know a great many of them, and have had rather unusual opportunities to examine them. All of them profess to be altruists, and yet all of them, at bottom, are animated by fear. Consider, for example, the old fellows who specialize in sexual suppressions—campaigns against short skirts, peek-a-boo waists, bedroom farces, dancing, spooning in the parks, naughty literature, nude statuary, and so on. Ostensibly, what they propose to do is to save the young—especially, in Comstock’s phrase, "females of immature mind.” Actually, their purpose is to save themselves. In other words, they are men severly menaced by the slightest sexual provocation—men of abnormal and often bizarre eroticism—men in constant dread that they will not be able to police themselves. To you or to me, normal men, it is difficult to understand their horror of the most banal indelicacy. The spectacle of a nude statue has no more effect on me than the spectacle of a beer-keg. When a fat woman shows me her legs, I am not filled with designs for stealing her from her husband; I am filled with thanks to God that she has a husband, and that he is watchful. …

… These men, seeking each other for support and consolation, constitute a crowd, and it functions exactly like any other crowd. That is to say, it functions orgiastically, emotionally, furiously, without rhyme or reason -- above all, without honesty or honor. As Mr. Martin shows, democracy tends to become indistinguishable from government by an endless series of just such crowds. Sometimes two of them come into collision, and while they fight it out the rest of us are at peace. But more often they help one another, as the Anti-Saloon League crowd is now helping the Blue Sunday crowd. Then their imbecile schemes to make the world better—i.e.,to make it safer for the sick and unfit—are embodied in draconian statutes, and the rest of us, refusing quite properly to obey such statutes, are converted into outlaws. More and more every civilized man in the United States tends to become an outlaw. More and more it becomes virtually impossible for any man of decent instincts and tastes to live in the Republic without provoking the devastating wrath of one or more of its feral and predatory crowds. As democracy is perfected—by direct primaries, the initiative and referendum, the recall, and so on—it is increasingly easy for mobs recruited from the lowest depths to put their fears into laws in this manner. The story related in William Graham Sumner’s famous essay, “The Forgotten Man,” is thus endlessly repeated. In order to save one mob from drinking itself to death I am forbidden to refresh myself with a Seidel of beer or a glass of wine. In order to curb another mob’s pathological lubricity I am forbidden to read books or to look at certain pictures. In order to sooth the consciences of yet another mob, forever tortured by thoughts of hell-fire, I am compelled to spend one day of every week in the fashion of a prisoner in a house of correction. The Forgotten Man is the peaceable man, the well-disposed man, the man of self-respect and dignity, the man healthy in mind an body. He is the arch-butt, the eternal enemy of democracy. …

(Smart Set, February, 1921) Sundry Ideas—The Attitude at Death by H.L. Mencken (The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Boston: Luce and Company, 1913)

The Attitude at Death—Nietzsche rejects entirely that pious belief in signs and portents which sees a significance in death-bed confessions and "dying words.” The average man, he says, dies pretty much as he as lived, and in this Dr. Osler (3) and other unusually competent and accurate obsservers agree with him. When the dying man exhibits unusual emotions or expresses ideas out of tune with his known creed, the explanation is to be found in the fact that, toward the time of death the mind commonly gives way and the customary processes of thought are disordered. “The way in which a man thinks of death, in the full bloom of his life and strength, is certainly a good index of his general character and habits of mind, but at the hour of death itself his attitutde is of little importance or significance. The exhaustion of the last hours—especially when an old man is dying—the irregular or insufficient nourishment of the brain, the occasional spasms of severe physical pain, the horror and novelty of the whole situation, the atavistic return of early impressions and superstitions, and the feeling that death is a thing unutterably vast and important and that bridges of an awful kind are about to be crossed—all of these things make it irrational to accept a man’s attitude at death as an indication of his character during life. Moreover, it is not true that a dying man is more honest than a man in full vigor. On the contrary, almost every dying man is led, by the solemnity of those at his bedside, and by their restrained or flowing torrents of tears, to conscious or unconscious conceit and make-believe. He becomes, in brief, an actor in a comedy. … No doubt the seriousness with which every dying man is treated has given many a poor devil his only moment of real triumph and enjoyment. He is, ipso facto, the star of the play, and so he is indemnified for a life of privation and subservience.” (1) (pp. 228-229.)

3. “Science and Immortaility,” New York, 1904. 1. "Menschliches allzu Menschliches,” II, &88. Sundry Ideas — Death by H.L. Mencken (The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Boston: Luce and Company), 1913)

Death.—It is Schopenhauer’s argument in his essay “On Suicide,” that the possibility of easy and painless self-destruction is the only thing that constantly and considerably ameliorates the horror of human life. Suicide is a means of escape from the world and its tortures—and therefore it is good. It is an ever-present refuge for the weak, the weary and the hopeless. It is, in Pliny’s phrase, “the greatest of all blessings which Nature gives to man,” and one which even God himself lacks, for "he could not compass his own death, if he willed to die.” In all of this exaltation of surrender, of course, there is nothing whatever in common with the dionysian philosophy of defiance. Nietzsche’s teaching is all in the other direction. He urges, not surrender, but battle; not flight, but war to the end. His curse falls upon those “preachers of death” who counsel "an abandonment of life"—whether this abandonment be partial, as in asceticism, or actual, as in suicide. And yet Zarathustra sings the song of "free death” and says that the higher man must learn “to die at the right time.” Herein an inconsistency appears, but it is on the surface only. Schopenhauer regards suicide as a means of escape, Nietzsche sees it as a means of good riddance. It is time to die, says Zarathustra, when the purpose of life ceases to be attainable—when the fighter breaks his sword arm or falls into his enemy’s hands. And it is time to die, too, when the purpose of life is attained—when the fighter triumphs and sees before him no more worlds to conquer. “He who hath a goal and an heir wisheth death to come at the right time for goal and heir.” One who has “waxed too old for victories,” one who is “yellow and wrinkled,” one with a "toothless mouth"—for such an one a certain and speedy death. The earth has no room for cumberers and pensioneers. For them the highest of duties is the payment of nature’s debt, that there may be more room for those still able to wield a sword and bear a burden in the heat of the day. The best death is that which comes in battle “at the moment of victory;” the second best is death in battle in the hour of defeat. “Would that a storm came,” sings Zarathustra, “to shake from the tree of life all those apples that are putrid and gnawed by worms. It is cowardice that maketh them stick to their branches"—cowardice which makes them afraid to die. But there is another cowardice which makes men afraid to live, and this is the cowardice of the Schopenhauerean pessimist. Nietzsche has no patience with it. To him a too early death seems as abominable as a death postponed too long. "Too early died that Jew whom the preachers of slow death revere. Would that he had remained in the desert and far away from the good and just! Perhaps he would have learned how to live and how to love the earth—and even how to laugh. He died too early. He himself would have revoked his doctrine, had he reached mine age!"(1) Therefore Nietzsche pleads for an intelligent regulation of death. One must not die too soon and one must not die too late. "Natural death,” he says, “is destitute of rationality. It is really _ir_rational death, for the pitiable substance of the shell determines how long the kernel shall exist. The pining, sottish prison-warder decides the hour at which his noble prisoner is to die. … The enlightened regulation and control of death belongs to the morality of the future. At present religion makes it seem immoral, for religion presupposes that when the time for death comes, God gives the command."(2) (pp. 226-228).

1. “Also sprach Zarathustra,” I. 2. “Menschliches allzu menschliches,” III, &18. Sundry Ideas—God by H.L. Mencken (The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Boston, Luce and Company, 1913)

God—"A god who is omniscient and omnipotent and yet neglects to make his wishes and intentions certainly known to his creatures—certainly this is not a god of goodness. One who for thousands of years has allowed the countless scruples and doubts of men to afflict them and yet holds out terrible consequences for involuntary errors—certainly this is not a god of justice. Is he not a cruel god if he knows the truth and yet looks down upon millions miserably searching for it? Perhaps he is good, but is unable to communicate with his creatures more intelligibly. Perhaps he is wanting in intelligence -- or in eloquence. So much the worse! For, in that case, he may be mistaken in what he calls the truth. He may, indeed, be a brother to the ’poor, duped devils’ below him. If so, must he not suffer agonies on seeing his creatures, in their struggle for knowledge of him, submit to tortures for all eternity? Must it not strike him with grief to realize that he cannot advise them or help them, except by uncertain and ambiguous signs? … All religions bear traces of the fact that they arose during the intellectual immaturity of the human race — before it had learned the obligation to speak the truth. Not one of them makes it the duty of its god to be truthful and understandable in his communications with man."(1) (pp.232-233)

1. “Morgenrote,” &91.

Sundry Ideas—Priestcraft by H.L. Mencken (The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Boston, Luce and Company, 1913)

Priestcraft—So long as man feels capable of taking care of himself he has no need of priests to intercede for him with the deity. Efficiency is proverbially identified with impiety: it is only when the devil is sick that the devil a monk would be. Therefore “the priest must be regarded as the saviour, shepherd and advocate of the sick. … It is his providence to rule over the sufferers. …” In order that he may understand them and appeal to them he must be sick himself, and to attain this end there is the device of asceticism. The purpose of asceticism, as we have seen, is to make a man voluntarily destroy his own efficiency. But the priest must have a certain strength, nevertheless, for he must inspire both confidence and dread in his charges, and must be able to defend them—against whom? “Undoubtedly against the sound and strong. … He must be the natural adversary and despiser of all barbarous, impetuous, unbridled , fierce, violent, beast-of-prey healthiness and power.” Thus he must fashion himself into a new sort of fighter—"a new zoological terror, in which the polar bear, the nimble and cool tiger and the fox are blended into a unity as attractive as it is awe-inspiring.” He appears in the midst of the strong as “the herald and mouthpiece of mysterious powers, with the determination to sow upon the soil, whenever and wherever possible, the seeds of suffering, dissension and contradiction. … Undoubtedly he brings balms and balsams with him, but he must first inflict the wound, before he may act as physician. … It is only the unpleasantness of disease that is combated by him—not the cause, not the disease itself!” He dispenses, not specifics, but narcotics. He brings surcease from sorrow, not by showing men how to attain the happiness of efficiency, but by teaching them that their sufferings have been laid upon them by a god who will one day repay them with bliss illimitable. (pp. 231-232.)

Sundry Ideas—Science by H.L. Mencken (The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Boston: Luce and Company), 1913)

Science—The object of all science is to keep us from drawing wrong inferences—from jumping to conclusions. Thus it stands utterly opposed to all faith and is essentially iconoclastic and skeptical. “The wonderful in science is the reverse of the wonderful in juggling. The juggler tries to make us see a very simple relation between things which, in point of fact, have no relation at all. The scientist, on the contrary, compels us to abandon our belief in simple causalities and to see the enormous complexity of phenomena. The simplest things, indeed, are extremely complex—a fact which will never cease to make us wonder.” The effect of science is to show the absurdity of attempting to reach perfect happiness and the impossibility of experiencing utter woe. “The gulf between the highest pitch of happiness and the lowest depth of misery has been created by imaginary things."(1) That is to say, the heights of religious exaltation and the depths of religious fear and trembling are alike creatures of our own myth-making. There is no such thing as perfect and infinite bliss in heaven and there is no such thing as eternal damnation in hell. Hereafter our highest happiness must be less than that of the martyrs who saw the heavenly gates opening for them, and our worst woe must be less than that of those medieval sinners who died shrieking and trembling and with the scent of brimstone in their noses. “This space is being reduced further and further by science, just as through science we have learned to make the earth occupy less and less space in the universe, until it now seems infinitely small and our whole solar system appears as a mere point.” (2) (pp. 236-237).

1. Morgenrote, &6.
2. Morgenrote, &7.

Forgotten Men

by H. L. Mencken From the American Mercury, March, 1928, pp. 280-282

Happy nations, said Cesare Bonesano Beccaria, have no history. Nor, it appears, have intelligent men; at all events, they are seldom remembered generally, and almost never with respect. All the great heroes of the human race have preached things palpably not true, and practised things palpably full of folly. Their imbecilities, surviving, constitute the massed wisdom of Homo sapiens, lord of the lion and the whale, the elephant and the wolf, though not, as yet, of the gnat and the fly, the cockroach and the rat. So surviving, these august imbecilities conceal the high probability that, when they were new, they must have been challenged sharply by doubting and dare-devil men—that sober reason must have revolted against them contemporaneously, as it does today. But of that revolt, in most cases, nothing is known. The penalty of intelligence is oblivion.

Consider, for example, the case of those ancient Jews whose banal speculations about the origin of things still afflict the whole of Christendom, to say nothing of Islam. Is it possible to believe that, in the glorious Eighth and Ninth Centuries B.C., all Jews swallowed that preposterous rubbish — that the race was completely devoid of intelligent men, and new nothing of an enlightened public opinion? I find it hard to go so far. The Jews, at that time, had already proved that they were the best of the desert tribes, and by long odds, and they were fast moving to the front as city folks, i.e., as civilized men. Yet the only Jewish document that comes down to us from that great day is part of the Book of Genesis, a farrago of nonsense so wholly absurd that even Sunday-school scholars have to be threatened with Hell to make them accept it. The kind of mind it reveals is the kind one encounters today among New York wash-room attendants, Mississippi newspaper editors, and Tennessee judges. It is barely above the level of observation and ratiocination of a bright young jackass.

Are we to assume that this appalling mind was the best Jewish mind of the time—that Genesis represents the finest flowering of the Jewish national genius? To ask the question is to answer it. The Jews, you may rest assured, were not unanimously of such low mental visibility. There were enlightened men among them as well as sorcerers and theologians. They had shrewd and sophisticated fellows who were to Moses and the other patriarchs as Thomas Henry Huxley was to Gladstone. They had lost and happy souls who laughed at Genesis quite as loudly the day it was released as it is laughed at today by the current damned. But of these illuminati not a word survives in the records of the Jews. Of their animadversions upon Moses’s highfalutin tosh—and no doubt those animadversions were searching and devastating—we lack even so much as the report of a report. Thus all we know today of the probably brilliant and enterprising intellectual life of the ante-Exile Jews is contained in a compilation of balderdash by certain of their politicians and ecclesiastics. It is as if their descendants of our own time were to be measured by the sonorous rumble-bumble of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Otto H. Kahn. It is as if the American civilization we sweat and prosper under were to go down into history in terms of Calvin Coolidge, Henry Ford and Arthur Brisbane.

Well, why not? Those, perhaps, are the precise terms in which it is to go down. On second thought, I change perhaps into no doubt. What has happened invariably in the past will keep on happening to the end of the chapter. Certainly we can’t expect to escape the fate of Greece and Rome—and both Greece and Rome are chiefly remembered today (and venerated by the learned and unintelligent) by the records of their second- and third-rate men. Is it seriously argued that Plato was the most enlightened Greek of his age? Then it may be argued with equal plausibility that Upton Sinclair has been the most enlightened American of this one. Item by item the two match: as political scientists, as professors of esthetics, as experts on the natural processes. In some ways, true enough, Plato was clearly superior to Sinclair: for one thing, he was better versed in the jargon of metaphysics, heavenly maid—which is to say, in the jargon of organized nonsense. But I think that no one will undertake to deny that Sinclair beats him on the pharmacology of alcohol, on the evils of voluptuousness, and on the electronic vibrations of the late Dr. Albert Abrams.

Plato survives today as one of the major glories of Greece. Put upon oath in a court of law, more specialists in dead ideas would probably rate him as the greatest Greek of them all. But you may be sure that there were Athenians in his own day who, dropping in to hear his Message, carried away a different notion. Some of them were very bright fellows, and privy to the philosophical arcana. They had heard all the champions, and had their private views. I suggest somewhat diffidently that there were ideas in the Republic and the Laws that made them retire to the nearby wine-shops to snigger. But no one remembers those immune Athenians today, nor the hard-boiled fellows who guffawed at the court of Philip of Macedon. The world recalls only Plato.

Here, I sincerely hope, I shall not be mistaken for one who seeks to cry that great man down. On the contrary, I venerate him. There is implicit in his writings, though not often explicit, the operation of an intellect of a superior order. Whatever may be said against him, he at least refrained from ratifying the political, theological and epistemelogical notions that were current in his time. He was no Athenian Rotarian, but his very intelligence made him remember, when he got up before his customers, that it was necessary to adapt his speculations to their capacities and prejudices. Like Woodrow Wilson in a later age, he had a weakness for oratory, and got himself enmeshed in its snares. Some of his principal works are no more than reports of his harangues, and the heat in them singes the sense. He suffered, as all reflective men must suffer, from the fact that what is put into words for the general ear can never come within even the remotest reach of what is pondered in the privacy of the study or praying-room.

The case of Abraham Lincoln immediately recalls itself. He was, I believe, one of the most intelligent men ever heard of in his realm—but he was also a politican, and, in his last years, President of the Federal Union. The fact worked an immemorial cruelty upon him when he visited the battlefield of Gettysburg, on November 19, 1863. One may easily imagine the reflections that the scene and the occasion must have inspired in so sagacious and unconventional a man—at all events, one may imagine the more obvious of them. They were, it is highly probable, of an extremely acrid and unpleasant nature. Before him stretched row upon row of new-made graves; around him ranged the gaunt cinders of a witless and abominable war. The thought must have occurred to him at once that --

But before him there also stretched an acre or two of faces—the faces of dull Pennsylvania peasants from the adjacent farms, with here and there the jowls of a Philadelphia politician gleaming in the pale Winter sunlight. It was too cold that day to his badly-cushioned bones for a long speech, and the audience would have been mortally offended by a good one. So old Abe put away his reflections, and launched into the tried and sure-fire stuff. Once started, the furor loquendi dragged him on. Abandoning the simple and crystal-clear English of his considered utterance, he stood a sentence on its head, and made a pretty parlor ornament of it. Proceeding, he described the causes and nature of war in terms of the current army press bureau. Finally, he launched a sonorous, meaningless epigram, and sat down. There was immense applause. The Pennsylvania oafs were delighted. And the speech remains in all the shool-books to this day.

Lincoln had too much humor in him to leave a diary, and so we do not know what he thought of it the day following, or a month later, or a year. But it is safe to assume, I believe, that he vacillated often between laughing at it sourly and hanging himself. For he was far too intelligent to believe in any such Kiwanian bombast. He could no more have taken it seriously than he took the strutting of Mr. Secretary Seward seriously, or the cerebral steam-pressure of General Grant. He knew it, you may be sure, for what it was. He was simply doomed, like many another good man before and after him, to keep his soundest and loftiest thoughts to himself. Just as Plato had to adapt his most penetrating and revolutionary thoughts to the tastes and comprehension of the sophomores assembled to hear him, so Lincoln had to content himself, on a great occasion, with ideas comprehensible to Pennsylvania Dunkards, which is to say, to persons to whom genuine ideas were not comprehensible at all. Knowing their theological principles, he knew that, in the political field, they grazed only on pansies.

Nor is this all. The highest flights of human intellect are not only inordinately offensive to the overwhelming majority of men; they are also, at least in large part, incapable of reduction to words. Thus the best thought of the human race does not appear in its written records. What is set down in orderly and seemly sentences, even today, always has some flavor in it of the stilted rubbish that the Sumerian kings used to engrave upon their tombs. The current cliches get into it inevitably; it is never quite honest. Complete honesty, intellectually, seldom expresses itself in formal words: its agents of notification are rather winks and sniggers, hip flasks and dead cats. The language was not made for it. Reading Shakespeare, a man of penetrating intelligence, one frequently observes him trying to put a really novel and apposite thought into words—and falling helplessly into mere sound and fury, signifying nothing. The groundlings pulled him and the deficiencies of human speech pushed him. The result is many a magnificent salvo of nonsense, vastly esteemed by the persons who esteem that sort of thing.

I propose no remedy. In fact, I am convinced that no remedy is possible, or even imaginable. The human race seems doomed to run, intellectually, on its lowest gear. Sound ideas, when by chance they become articulate, annoy it and terrify it; it prefers the sempiternal slobber.

The Forward-Looker

by H. L. Mencken (1922)

When the history of the late years in America is written, I suspect that their grandest, gaudiest gifts to Kultur will be found in the incomparable twins: the right-thinker and the forward-looker. No other nation can match them, at any weight. The right-thinker is privy to all God’s wishes, and even whims; the forward-looker is the heir to all His promises to the righteous. The former is never wrong; the latter is never despairing. Sometimes the two are amalgamated into one man, and we have a Bryan, a Wilson, a Dr. Frank Crane. But more often there is a division: the forward-looker thinks wrong, and the right-thinker looks backward. I give you Upton Sinclair and Nicholas Murray Butler as examples. …

On the whole, as a neutral in such matters, I prefer the forward-looker to the right-thinker, if only because he shows more courage and originality. It takes nothing save lack of humor to believe what Butler, or Ochs, or Bishop Manning believes, but it takes long practice and a considerable natural gift to get down the beliefs of Sinclair. I remember with great joy the magazine that he used to issue during the war. … Once I had got into the swing of the Sinclair monthly I found that I could dispense with at least twenty other journals of the uplift. When he abandoned it I had to subscribe for them anew, and the gravel has stuck in my craw ever since.

In the first volume of his personal philosophy, “The Book of Life: Mind and Body,” he is estopped from displaying whole categories of his ideas, for his subject is not man the political and economic machine, but man and mammal. Nevertheless, his characteristic hospitality to new revelations is abundantly visible. What does the mind suggest? The mind suggests its dark and fascinating functions and powers, some of them very recent. There is, for example, psychoanalysis. There is mental telepathy. There is crystal-gazing. There is double personality. Out of each springs a scheme for the uplift of the race—in each there is something for a forward-looker to get his teeth into. And if mind, then why not also spirit? Here even a forward-looker may hesitate; here, in fact, Sinclair himself hesitates. The whole field of spiritism is barred to him by his theological heterodoxy; if he admits that man has an immortal soul, he may also have to admit that the soul can suffer in hell. Thus even forward-looking may turn upon and devour itself. But if the meadow wherein spooks and poltergeists disport is closed, it is at least possible to peep over the fence. Sinclair sees materializations in dark rooms, under red, satanic lights. He is, perhaps, not yet convinced, but he is looking pretty hard. Let a ghostly hand reach out and grab him, and he will be over the fence! …

The book is written with great confidence and address, and has a good deal of shrewdness mixed with its credulities; few licensed medical practitioners could give you better advice. But it is less interesting than its author, or, indeed, than forward-lookers in general. Of all the known orders of men they fascinate me the most. I spend whole days reading their pronunciamentos, and am an expert in the ebb and flow of their singularly bizarre ideas. As I have said, I have never encountered one who believed in but one sure cure for all the sorrows of the world, and let it go at that. Nay, even the most timorous of them gives his full faith and credit to at least two. …

I have a wide acquaintance among such sad, mad, glad folks, and know some of them very well. It is my belief that the majority of them are absolutely honest — that they believe as fully in their baroque gospels as I believe in the dishonesty of politicians—that their myriad and amazing faiths sit upon them as heavily as the fear of hell sits upon a Methodist deacon who has degraded the vestry-room to carnal uses. All that may be justly said against them is that they are chronically full of hope, and hence chronically uneasy and indignant—that they belong to the less sinful and comfortable of the two grand divisions of the human race. Call them the tender-minded, as the late William James used to do, and you have pretty well described them. They are, on the one hand, pathologically sensitive to the sorrows of the world, and, on the other hand, pathologically susceptible to the eloquence of quacks. What seems to lie in all of them is the doctrine that evils so vast as those they see about them must and will be laid—that it would be an insult to a just God to think of them as permanent and irremediable. This notion, I believe, is at the bottom of much of the current pathetic faith in Prohibition. The thing itself is obviously a colossal failure—that is, when viewed calmly and realistically. It has not only not cured the rum evil in the United States; it has plainly made that evil five times as bad as it ever was before. But to confess that bald fact would be to break the forward-looking heart: it simply refuses to harbor the concept of the incurable. And so, being debarred by the legal machinery that supports Prohibition from going back to any more feasible scheme of relief, it cherishes the sorry faith that somehow, in some vague and incomprehensible way, Prohibition will yet work. When the truth becomes so horribly evident that even forward-lookers are daunted, then some new quack will arise to fool them again, with some new and worse scheme of super-Prohibition. It is their destiny to wobble thus endlessly between quack and quack. One pulls them by the right arm and one by the left arm. A third is at their coat-tail pockets, and a fourth beckons them over the hill.

(from Prejudices: Third Series, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1922), pp. 213-220.)

The Forward-Looker

by H. L. Mencken (1922)

… The eager forward-looker is exactly like the man with hay-fever, or arthritis, or nervous dyspepsia, or diabetes. It takes time to try each successive remedy—to search it out, to take it to observe its effects, to hope, to doubt, to shelve it. Before the process is completed another is offered; new ones are always waiting before their predecessors have been discarded. Here, perhaps, we get a glimpse of the causes behind the protean appetite of the true forward-looker—his virtuoisty in credulity. He is in all stages simultaneously—just getting over the initiative and referendum, beginning to have doubts about the short ballot, making ready for a horse doctor’s dose of the single tax, and comtemplating an experimental drought of Socialism tomorrow.

What is to be done for him? How is he to be cured of his great thirst for sure-cures that do not cure, and converted into a contented and careless backward-looker, peacefully snoozing beneath his fig tree while the oppressed bawl for succor in forty abandoned lands, and injustice stalks the world, and taxes mount higher and higher, and poor working-girls are sold into white slavery, and Prohibition fails to prohibit, and cocaine is hawked openly, and jazz drags millions down the primrose way, and the trusts own the legislatures of all Christendom, and judges go to dinner with millionaires, and Europe prepares for another war, and children of four and five yers work as stevedores and locomotive firemen, and guinea pigs and dogs are vivisected, and Polish immigrant women have more children every year, and divorces multiply, and materialism rages, and the devil runs the cosmos? What is to be done to save the forward-looker from his torturing imaginations, and set him in paths of happy dalliance? Answer: nothing. He was born that way, as men are born with hare lips or bad livers, and he will remain that way until the angels summon him to eternal rest. Destiny has laid upon him the burden of seeing unescapably what had better not be looked at, of believing what isn’t so. There is no way to help him. He must suffer vicariously for the carnal ease of the rest of us. He must die daily that we may live in peace, corrupt and contented.

(from Prejudices: Third Series, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1922), pp. 225-226.)

God’s Will

I am a great deal less interested in speculations about God’s will than in specific news about man’s rascality.

H.L. Mencken (from Smart Set; January, 1918, p. 141.) Government of Laws

[A] government of laws … is a mere phantasm of political theorists; the thing is always found, on inspection, to be really a government of men. In the United States, it seems to me, the tendency is for such men to come increasingly from the class of professional uplifters.

H.L. Mencken [Essay in Pedagogy; in “Prejudices: Fifth Series"’ 1926, p. 231.] Government

[Americans hold to] the concept -— that government is something that is superior to and quite distinct from all other human institutions—that it is … a transcendental organism composed of aloof and impersonal powers, devoid wholly of self interest and not to be measured by merely human standards. One hears it spoken of, not uncommonly, as one hears the law of gravitation and the grace of God spoken of—as if its acts had no human motive in them and stood clearly above human fallibility … [T]he government at Washington is no more impersonal than the cloak and suit business is impersonal. It is operated by precisely the same sort of men, and to almost the same ends.

H.L. Mencken [A.M.; Editorial; June, 1924, p. 282.]

Notes On Government===================by H. L. Mencken (from The Chicago Tribune, January 10, 1926.)

ALL THE GREAT boons and usufructs that, in the advance notices, were to have flowed out of prohibition have apparently gone a-glimmering, and even the professional prohibitionists on dark days doubt their reality. But there is one benefit issuing from the attempt to enforce the Volstead act that has genuine substance, and so, though it was un-premeditated, it ought not to be overlooked. In brief, it is this: that the American people have been cured of their old superstitious reverence for law—that they have even got rid of some of their old faith in government. Is the change deplorable? Then it is better to be foolish than to be wise.

The light began to dawn, I believe, at the precise moment when the prohibitionists ceased arguing that prohibition would cure all the sorrows of the world, and began arguing that it ought to be submitted to simply because it was the law—in other words, at the moment when they introduced the doctrine of law enforcement. That doctrine, it soon became obvious, had little foundation in logic; it was almost purely mystical. What it amounted to was a denial that the citizens of a free state had any natural and inalienable rights at all. If, by whatever chicanerey, a law was passed ordering them to cut off their children’s ears, then they were bound to obey. If, by the same chicanery, a law was passed forbidding them to wash the same ears, they were equally bound to obey.

It needed little gift for ratiocination to penetrate to the absurdity of this doctrine. Or to grasp the fact of its extreme antiquity. Even a moron could see it was simply the ancient dogma of the king’s divine right in a new false face. It could not be disentangled from the concept of the citizen as a mere subject. Above him stood an occult something called the government, a force distinct from the people and superior to them. Did the people, under democracy, create it and give it the breath of life? Then, once created, it was nevertheless distinct from them and superior to them. They were forbidden to resist it. By the more extreme prohibitionists they were forbidden even to denounce it.

I incline to believe that these disagreeable facts, gradually oozing into the communal mind, did far more to undermine prohibition and bring it to its present parlous estate than any of its objective failures, disastrous though they plainly were. The plain people suddenly began to see that a vast machine for oppressing them had been fabricated, and that once it got into full working order they would have a dreadful time escaping from it. More, they began to look behind the machine to the force operating it—that is, to the potent and inscrutable power called the government. And what they saw was simply a gang of men—men exactly like themselves—men, in many cases, inferior to themselves.

The resultant disillusion was probably unpleasant, but it would be going too far, I think, to call it insalubrious. At one harsh wrench the American people got rid of one of their oldest superstitions—one of the cardinal articles of their national vodooism—to wit, the notion that government is an abstract, an impersonal force, a thing of laws. It is no such thing, and never has been. Government is a thing of men—and under democracy of men palpably inferior and ignominious. Knowing this is very useful. It was not knowing it that exposed the people of America to prohibition.

A long time must elapse, of course, before the lesson soaks in. When no antidote is within reach, the frantic patient is apt to swallow more of the same poison. In the same way the subjects of this great empire, cozened by mountebanks, turn to fresh mountebanks for relief. But they have at least come to suspect that they face mountebanks, and not heroes. The old haloes fall off. Governmnet reveals itself, not as a benign and supermortal power, devoted disinterestedly to the public good, but as a mere camorra of rogues and vagabonds, devoted wholly to their own advantage. On one side stands the dry congressman, wet inside and eager to be wetter. On the other stands the prohibition agent, with his hand out. And in the center stands the ermined judge, judicially tearing up the bill of rights to roll cigarettes.

Such is governmnet, scientifically viewed. Such are the evangelists of law enforcement. I preach no holy war against them. I know of no way, in fact, to get rid of them. But it seems to me there is great advantage in seeing them, at last, exactly as they are—that it is a good and valuable thing to pull them out of their old disguises. Suppose we can’t get rid of them at all, now or hereafter? Soit! But we may at least avoid the disastrous error of mistaking them for benefactors. We may at least cease mistaking their witless and oppressive orders for divine commands.

Do I exaggerate the stupidity and obliquity of these gentlemen? I think not. Turn to the governors of the American states: there are forty-eight of them. How many show any genuine competence and professional dignity, any honest desire to perform their duties honestly and well, any actual courage, independence and integrity? Certainly not a dozen. Well, then, how many are at the other end of the scale—how many are limber and ignoble Jenkinses, willing and eager to do anything to hold their jobs, to get better jobs—how many have been wet once, became dry, and are now getting damp again? Certainly twice as many. And what will you find in the middle? You will find vacuums, nonentities, blobs.

Turn to the national house of representatives. It consists of nearly 500 men. Of them perhaps forty are of such dignity that it may be said of them they cannot be bought—not even with votes. What of the rest? They are absolutely indistinguishable, gathered in plenary session, from a convention of garage keepers. They leap at the word of command, peering this way and that. When there is no command they lie docilely, like dogs upon a hearth rug. It makes little difference where the command comes from: if it is sharp enough, they leap.

The chamber of these abject ciphers is the shrine of government among us. Their absurd proceedings, sufficiently prolonged, result in the enactment of what is called law, and that law we are asked to revere as something almost sacred. Flouting it is not only a breach of decorum; it is an act of treason. If, run amok by fanatics, they decided that we should all wear green neckties, it would become a patriotic duty to wear green neckties. If, run back by other fanatics, they banned green and prescribed red, we should have to change to red.

But isn’t law necessary? Of course, it is: who denies it? But it is necessary only when it is necessary. The rest is only insult and oppression, and the citizen is under no more obligation to submit to it than he is to submit to any other insult or oppression. Say I am ill and send for a doctor. He prescribes a dose of Glauber’s salts, and I take it without question, for the general experience of man is in favor of it. Moreover, I believe the doctor to be an honest man. But suppose he prescribed, in addition to the Glauber’s salts, ten grains of strychnine, a pound of tenpenny nails, and a quart of ground glass? And suppose he pulled out a revolver and ordered me to get his prescription down on penalty of death, and then, having me conveniently stuck up, proceeded to empty my pockets?

This, under the name of government, is what goes on every day. We need laws for certain essential purposes, and we select men to make them for us. Sufficiently urged, they do it. But then they go on to enterprises of their own. They make laws that rob us, laws that annoy and oppress us, laws that deprive us of capital and inalienable rights. They do all this, not mistakenly, but for their private advantage. They forget your business and mine completely, and devote themselves gloriously to their own. And then they try to convince us that what is theirs is really ours—and order us to jail when we protest.

Law enforcement? Go tell it to the marines!

Scions of Bogus Nobility========================by H.L. Mencken . . .

Jake was a man of more modest pretensions: the most he ever alleged was that his father had been, at one and the same time, a Confederate general, a French nobleman, and a graduate of both Oxford and Cambridge. Unlike Jones, who was very abstemious, Jake was a lusher; indeed, there was a period, say from 1899 to 1902, when he was probably the ranking lusher of the whole region between the Mason & Dixon Line and the James river. He was magnificently ombibulous, drinking anything that contained ethyl alcohol, whatever its flavor or provenance. By day he would sustain himself as court reporter mainly by resorting to the hand-set whiskey that the printers guzzled at night, and in the evening he would always drop in at Frank Junker’s saloon for the session of the Stevedore’s Club, with its diligent unloading of schooners of beer. But whenever anything else offered, he got it down, giving thanks to God. Once I saw him drink a quart of apricot brandy at a sitting, and at other times I watched him as he dispatched Angostura, Fernet Branca and Boonekamp bitters by the goblet, all without chasers.

Jake was a tall, sturdy and even herculean fellow, with the wide, confident mouth of a carp or orator, but there came eventually a time when his heroic physique went back on him, and the young doctors at the City Hospital took him on as an out-patient and laboratory animal. So far as I could make out they could never agree on a diagnosis. One held that there was nothing wrong with him save a gastrtis so acute that the lining of his stomach had turned to a kind of asphalt, and another that he was in the last stages of cirrhosis of the liver. There were others who voted for Bright’s disease, cholelithiasis and scurvy, and a larval psychiatrist held out for paresis, for he had noted in his court work that it frequently afflicted distinguished members of the bar. One night he was reciting his symptoms in Junker’s when Joe, the cop on the beat, dropped in for his hourly shot of rye, and stood listening in uncomfortable fascination. Finally Joe gave a shiver, and burst out with “Goddam if I don’t believe I got the same goddam thing.” Jake glared at him for half a minute with singeing scorn, and then replied:

"So you have got paresis, too, have you? A cop with paresis? Well, of all the infernal impertinance ever heard of on earth! What ails you, Joe, is jim-jams_. In order to have paresis you have to have brains_."

Whatever it was that afflicted Jake, it presently threw him, and he had to be sent to St. Agnes’ Hospital, which then specialized in treating the wounded garrsion-troops of the Baltimore barrooms. The lower floor of the institution, called Hogan’s Alley, was always full of them, and Jake found many old friends there, including a rich theatre manager who came down with mania a` potu twice a year, and always celebrated his cure by giving the good sisters who ran the place some elegant present—one year a port cochere, the next year a new boiler for their heating plant, the third a stained-glass window for their chapel, and so on. There were iron bars on the windows of Hogan’s Alley and the inmates lived under rigid discipline, which included complete abstention from alcohol, but they were allowed visitors, were fed upon hearty victuals, and in general led a very easy life.

Jake had a girl known to the boys as the Battleship—a vast, rangy creature built on his own scale, with broad shoulders and billowing bosoms of a Wagnerian contralto. She came to see him one evening as in duty bound—and an hour later the gentlemen of Hogan’s Alley were all full of liquor and cutting wild capers. The sisters, after quieting them, made a search for the source of their supply, but could not find it. Two days later the Battleship made another call—and Hogan’s Alley had another too-cheerful night. When it happened a third time the sisters put two and two together, the Battleship was barred from the place, and Jake himself was requested to find some other asylum. They never learned the technic of the smuggling, but Jake himself later revealed it. The Battleship, on each visit, had stowed two quarts of rye between the huge hemispheres of her bosom, and then slipped them quietly to the idol of her dreams, who disposed of them at a dollar a big drink.

Jake’s expulsion turned out to be a great stroke of luck for him. The institution he transferred to was a suburban drink-cure run by an enlightened medico who, after curing him, put him to work as a capper in the downtown saloons. All Jake had to do was to keep a sharp lookout for gentlemen showing the first signs of delerium tremens, and report their names to the medico, who thereupon alarmed their families, and usually got them as patients. Jake had comfortable quarters over the dead-house of the drink-cure, and a liberal expense-account. For two or three years he led the life of Riley, and was much envied by all the other boozers of Baltimore. Then, one morning, he dropped dead in a barroom, and was given a neat Odd Fellows funeral by the medico. Some time later a Herald reporter digging up a story at the Health Department happened upon Jake’s death certificate. It showed that he was born in Philadelphia, that his father’s name was something on the order of Schultz, Schmidt or Kraus, and that he had been baptized Emil.

from Newspaper Days: 1899 - 1906, Volume Two of Mencken’s Autobiography, Johns Hopkins (1996), pp. 245-248.

Holy Writ

by H.L. Mencken (from The Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1926)

PURSUING, of late, advanced researches into theological pathology, I have had the sad duty of reading certain “new,” “modern," "American,” and “idiomatic” translations of the New Testament, including those of the Rev. MM. Weymouth, Moffatt, Goodspeed, and Ballantine. All of these translators, I believe, are pious and righteous men, and every one of them undertook his task with the sole object of making Holy Writ more intelligible to the plain people, and hence more persuasive and precious. But I can only report profesionally as a theologian that all of them, in my judgment, will go to hell for their pains.

And richly deserve the singeings there in store for them. For all they accomplish, in putting the original Greek into familiar English, is to put it into English so flabby and preposterous that all the beauty is gone out of it. Consider, for example, the sonorous and magnificent line in the Lord’s Prayer — thus in the authorized version: “Give us this day our daily bread.” Well, this is what it becomes in the Weymouth version: “Give us today our bread for the day.” And this in the Goodspeed version: "Give us today bread for the day.” And this in the Ballantine version: “Our bread for the coming day give us today.” And this in the Moffatt version: “Give us today our bread for the morrow."

Could vandalism go further? It is almost like arranging Schubert’s serenade as a waltz for the bagpipes. All the loveliness is squeezed out of the line. Its ancient charm and eloquence vanish into thin air: it ceases to be a prayer and becomes a mere demand. And is there any compensating gain in clarity? Is an error in the authorized version rectified? Certainly not. As a matter of fact, the four experts simply introduce confusion and obfuscation into what was formerly crystal clear. Two of them make it appear that the bread asked for is wanted at once; the other two say that it will not be needed until tomorrow.

I turn to the book of John, and to an episode that most latter day preachers of the Word delicately avoid: the episode of the woman taken in adultery. It is unpleasant reading for vice crusaders, prohibitionists, and other such wowsers, for it sets forth, in succinct and highly dramatic form, the basic principles of the Christianity actually preached by Christ. You recall, no doubt, the great speech that confounds the scribes and Pharisees, eager to put the woman to death: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” But perhaps you have forgotten the superb dialogue that follows, between Christ and the woman—the most stupendous scene in all drama, sacred or profane. I quote it from the authorized version:

When Jesus had lifted up Himself, and saw none but the woman, He said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? Hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee; go, and sin no more.

Well, what do the modernizers make of this austere and colossal beauty, this masterpiece of simple and lovely English, as it was of Greek? Goodspeed, more discreet than the rest, omits it altogether: I can’t find it in his version of John. But Weymouth tackles it boldly, and with this almost unbelievable result:

Then standing up, Jesus spoke to her. “Woman,” He said, "Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Sir," she replied. “And I do not condemn you either,” said Jesus. “Go and from this time do not sin any more.”

Imagine it! “No one, Sir"! And “do not sin any more"! But Ballantine, as impossible as it may seem, is still worse:

Jesus raised himself up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one sentenced you?” She said, “No one, Sir.” Jesus said, "Neither do I sentence you. Go. From now on sin no more."

And Moffatt, with a herculean effort, manages to be worse than Ballantine: Raising Himself, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Sir.” Jesus said, "Neither do I; be off, and never sin again.”

Give your eye to that “be off.” And then ask yourself if a million centuries in hell will be enough for that translator!

All of these dreadful perversions of incomparable beauty, as I have already said, are full of good intentions: they show enough, indeed, to pave hell from the Torquemada monument to the Avenue of the Revivalists. What ails them is simply a gross misunderstanding, on the part of their rev. perpetrators, of the nature of religious feeling. These worthy gentlemen all seem to think that it is a product of ratiocination—that it arises out of logic and evidence, like the belief, say, that two and two make four. It does nothing of the sort. It begins, not as a series of ideas, but as a mystery, and it remains a mystery to the end. Religion is most potent to sway the mind, indeed, when the evidences of its objective truth are most vague and unconvincing—when it is apprehended, not as fact at all, but as sheer poetry, the very negation of fact.

The success of Christianity in the world, I believe, is due largely, if not chiefly, to the unmatchable beauty, as poetry, of its sacred books. It is hard to think of any other oriental religion that is not logically more plausible and persuasive, but no one of them has a sacred leterature even remotely to be compared, for simple loveliness, to that of the decadent Judaism which, alone among them, has conquered the west. There are single Psalms that have ten times more beauty in them than the whole literature of Brahminism, ancient and modern, in the story of the Christ Child there is more poetry than was ever heard of in Greece and Rome. It is precisely this profound and disarming poetry, this irresistibly beautiful evocation of the unattainable and ever to be desired, that give Christianity its continued strength in the modern world, despite the gradual destruction of two-thirds of its objective evidences.

Poetry does not fetch a man by convincing him; it fetches him by robbing him of the wish to be convinced—by lulling the censor within him and so giving free rein to his deepest emotions. Few Americans of the present day, I take it — that is, few of the more enlightened sort—accept the story of the Christ Child in all literalness. It violates their notions of the probable; in part, at least, it seems to them to be plainly fanciful. But that man must be a dull clod indeed who is not moved by it, and never catches himself wishing a bit wistfully that such things could really be. It is, of all the stories ever devised by man, enormously the most beautiful. Whoever reduced it to words, conquered, by that stroke, the whole civilized world.

But poetry is a fragile flower, and will not bear transplanting. Forced into the harsh forms of prose all its charm is gone; it becomes siimply nonsense. This is true of great poetry as well as of poetry that is not great, as every fresh attempt at a prose translation of the Odyssey bears witness. It is preeminently true of the poetry which makes up the sacred books of Christianity. Try it with any of the Psalms, with the Sermon on the Mount, with the story of the Nativity, with the roaring strophes of Revelation. The thing becomes, in the speech of every day, a mere absurdity. It is not only not moving; it is, only too often, perilously close to being laughable.

So all such “modern” versions of the New Testament as those of MM. Goodspeed, Ballantine, Moffatt, and Weymouth are bound to be botches. They reduce the narrative to a series of syllogisms, and so make it banal. The fundamentalists, in their different way, do the same violence upon it. Trying to make it literal and impeccable, like a stock report, they succeed only in making it preposterous.

Holy Writ

by H. L. Mencken (from the Smart Set, October 1923)

Whoever it was who translated the Bible into excellent French prose is chiefly responsible for the collapse of Christianity in France. Contrariwise, the men who put the Bible into archaic, sonorous and often unintelligible English gave Christianity a new lease of life wherever English is spoken. They did their work at a time of great theological blather and turmoil, when men of all sorts, even the least intelligent, were beginning to take a vast and unhealthy interest in exegetics and apologetics. They were far too shrewd to feed this disconcerting thirst for ideas with a Bible in plain English; the language they used was deliberately artificial even when it was new. They thus dispersed the mob by appealing to its emotions, as a mother quiets a baby by crooning to it. The Bible that they produced was so beautiful that the great majority of men, in the face of it, could not fix their minds upon the ideas in it. To this day it has enchanted the English-speaking peoples so effectively that, in the main, they remain Christians, at least sentimentally. Paine has assaulted them, Darwin and Huxley have assaulted them, and a multitude of other merchants of facts have assaulted them, but they still remember the twenty-third Psalm when the doctor begins to shake his head, they are still moved beyond compare (though not, alas, to acts!) by the Sermon on the Mount, and they still turn once a year from their sordid and degrading labors to immerse themselves unashamed in the story of the manger. It is not much, but it is something. I do not admire the general run of American Bible-searchers -- Methodists, United Brethren, Baptists, and such vermin. But try to imagine what the average low-browed Methodist would be if he were not a Methodist but an atheist!

The Latin Church, which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism, but a poem. It is accused by Protestant dervishes of withholding the Bible from the people. To some extent this is true; to the same extent the church is wise; again to the same extent it is prosperous. Its toying with ideas, in the main, have been confined to its clergy, and they have commonly reduced the business to a harmless play of technicalities—the awful concepts of Heaven and Hell brought down to the level of a dispute of doctors in long gowns, eager only to dazzle other doctors. Its greatest theologians remain unknown to 99% of its adherents. Rome, indeed, has not only preserved the original poetry in Christianity; it has also made capital additions to that poetry—for example, the poetry of the saints, of Mary, and of the liturgy itself. A solemn high mass must be a thousand times as impressive, to a man with any genuine religious sense in him, as the most powerful sermon ever roared under the big-top by a Presbyterian auctioneer of God. In the face of such overwhelming beauty it is not necessary to belabor the faithful with logic; they are better convinced by letting them alone.

Preaching is not an essential part of the Latin ceremonial. It was very little employed in the early church, and I am convinced that good effects would flow from abandoning it today, or, at all events, reducing it to a few sentences, more or less formal. In the United States the Latin brethren have been seduced by the example of the Protestants, who commonly transform an act of worship into a puerile intellectual exercise; instead of approaching God in fear and wonder these Protestants settle back in their pews, cross their legs, and listen to an ignoramus try to prove that he is a better theologian than the Pope. This folly the Romans now slide into. Their clergy begin to grow argumentative, doctrinaire, ridiculous. It is a pity. A bishop in his robes, playing his part in the solemn ceremonial of the mass, is a dignified spectacle, even though he may sweat freely; the same bishop, bawling against Darwin half an hour later, is seen to be simply an elderly Irishman with a bald head, the son of a respectable saloon-keeper in South Bend, Ind. Let the reverend fathers go back to Bach. If they keep on spoiling poetry and spouting ideas, the day will come when some extra-bombastic deacon will astound humanity and insult God by proposing to translate the liturgy into American, that all the faithful may be convinced by it.


It was the function of these passionate sentimentalists to find hope and Promise … in the end … [Idealism] converted itself bravely into the doctrine that there is a mystical virtue in optimism, even in the face of massive proofs that it is unjustified. That is to say, the man who hopes absurdly is, in some mysterious manner, a better citizen than the man who detects and exposes the hard truth. … bear this doctrine clearly in mind. It is, fundamentally, what is the matter with the United States.

H.L. Mencken [S.S.; The Idealist; April, 1922, p. 44.] Immune by H.L. Mencken (From the American Mercury, March 1930, p. 289)

The most curious social convention of the great age in which we live is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. Its evil effects must be plain enough to everyone. All it accomplishes is (a) to throw a veil of sanctity about ideas that violate every intellectual decency, and (b) to make every theologian a sort of chartered libertine. No doubt it is mainly to blame for the appalling slowness with which really sound notions make their way in the world. The minute a new one is launched, in whatever fields, some imbecile of a theologian is certain to fall upon it, seeking to put it down. The most effective way to defend it, of course, would be to fall upon the theologian, for the only really workable defense, in polemics as in war, is a vigorous offensive. But convention frowns upon that device as indecent, and so theologians continue their assault upon sense without much resistance, and the enlightenment is unpleasantly delayed.

There is, in fact, nothing about religious opinions that entitles them to any more respect than other opinions get. On the contrary, they tend to be noticeably silly. If you doubt it, then ask any pious fellow of your acquaintance to put what he believes into the form of an affidavit,and see how it reads…. “I, John Doe, being duly sworn, do say that I believe that, at death, I shall turn into a vertebrate without substance, having neither weight, extent nor mass, but with all the intellectual powers and bodily sensations of an ordinary mammal; … and that, for the high crime and misdemeanor of having kissed my sister-in-law behind the door, with evil intent, I shall be boiled in molten sulphur for one billion calendar years.” Or, “I, Mary Roe, having the fear of Hell before me, do solemnly affirm and declare that I believe it was right, just, lawful and decent for the Lord God Jehovah, seeing certain little children of Beth-el laugh at Elisha’s bald head, to send a she-bear from the wood, and to instruct, incite, induce and command it to tear forty-two of them to pieces.” Or, "I, the Right Rev. _____ _____, Bishop of _____, D.D., L.L.D., do honestly, faithfully and on my honor as a man and a priest, declare that I believe that Jonah swallowed the whale,” or vice versa_, as the case may be.

No, there is nothing notably dignified about religious ideas. They run, rather, to a peculiarly puerile and tedious kind of nonsense. At their best, they are borrowed from metaphysicians, which is to say, from men who devote their lives to proving that twice two is not always or necessarily four. At their worst, they smell of spiritualism and fortune-telling. Nor is there any visible virtue in the men who merchant them professionally. Few theologians know anything that is worth knowing, even about theology, and not many of them are honest. One may forgive a Communist of a Single Taxer on the ground that there is something the matter with his ductless glands, and that a Winter in the south of France would relieve him. But the average theologian is a hearty, red-faced, well-fed fellow with no discernible excuse in pathology. He disseminates his blather, not innocently, like a philosopher, but maliciously, like a politician. In a well-organized world he would be on the stone-pile. But in the world as it exists we are asked to listen to him, not only politely, but even reverently, and with our mouths open.

The Democratic State

[from Notes on Democracy, 1926, by H. L. Mencken]

The American people, true enough, are sheep. Worse, they are donkeys. Yet worse, to borrow from their own dialect, they are goats. They are thus constantly bamboozled and exploited by small minorities of their own number, by determined and ambitious individuals, and even by exterior groups. The business of victimizing them is a lucrative profession, an exact science, and a delicate and lofty art. It has its masters and its quacks. Its lowest reward is a seat in Congress or a job as a Prohibition agent, i.e., a licensed blackleg; its highest reward is immortality. The adept practitioner is not only rewarded; he is also thanked. The victims delight in his ministrations, as an hypochondriacal woman delights in the flayings of the surgeon. But all the while they have the means in their hands to halt the obscenity whenever it becomes intolerable, and now and then, raised transiently to a sort of intelligence, they do put a stop to it. There are no legal or other bars to the free functioning of their will, once it emerges into consciousness, save only such bars as they themselves have erected, and these they may remove whenever they so desire. … (pp. 78-79)

… They know what they want when they actually want it, and if they want it badly enough they get it. What they want principally are safety and security. They want to be delivered from the bugaboos that ride them. They want to be soothed with mellifluous words. They want heroes to worship. They want the rough entertainment suitable to their simple minds. All of these things they want so badly that they are willing to sacrifice everything else in order to get them. The science of politics under democracy consists in trading with them, i.e., in hoodwinking and swindling them. In return for what they want, or for the mere appearance of what they want, they yield up what the politician wants, and what the enterprising minorities behind him want. The bargaining is conducted to the tune of affecting rhetoric, with music by the choir, but it is as simple and sordid at bottom as the sale of a mule. It lies quite outside the bounds of honour, and even of common decency. It is a combat between jackals and jackasses. It is the master transaction of democratic states. (p. 98).

Meditations on the Campaign

August 25, 1924 by H.L. Mencken . . .

On the other rampart stands Dr. LaFollette, obviously a genuine leader, even to the eye of his bitterest enemies. No one has ever accused LaFollette of following anyone. He has always been in the forefront of the fray, alike when the going was good, as in Wisconsin when he mowed down the Babbitts, and in Washington during the war, when his foes tried to dispose of him, American fashion, by hitting him below the belt. LaFollette is so gaudily the leader that he is followed by thousands who are hot against him. The sheer force of his personality drags along the whole pack of visionaries. His own cellar contains relatively few jugs of peruna, but he is so thrilling that his guests willingly bring their own.

If all these guests could agree upon one brand LaFollette would carry twenty-five States, including Illinois and New York. But they simply can’t. For Progressives are like Christians in this: that they hate one another far more than they hate the heathen. The devil doesn’t have to fight the Catholics: he leaves the business to the Ku Klux, i.e., to the Methodists and Baptists. Just so the Progressives devour one another, to the delight and edification of the Babbitts…

from On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe, by H.L. Mencken (1956) Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 103.

H.L. Mencken on Laws Public Sanction of Law.

If history shows anything at all, it shows that laws which have not the sanction of an overwhelming majority of a community are not and can not be enforced; and the promises and practices of politicians do not alter the situation. [Unimportant: in the Baltimore Evening Sun, July 17, 1928.] Regulating Minorities]

The strange American ardor for passing laws, the insane belief in regulation and punishment, plays into the hands of the reformers, most of them quacks themselves. Their efforts, even when honest, seldom accomplish any appreciable good. The Harrison Act, despite its cruel provisions, has not diminished drug addiction in the slightest. The Mormons, after years of persecution, are still Mormons, and one of them is now a power in the Senate. Socialism in the United States was not laid by the Espionage Act; it was laid by the fact that the socialists, during the war, got their fair share of the loot. Nor was the stately progress of osteopathy and chiropractic halted by the early efforts to put them down. Oppressive laws do not destroy minorities; they simply make bootleggers. [A.M.; Editorial; May, 1924, p. 26.]

Breathing Space August 4, 1924 by H.L. Mencken

[From On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (1956), by H.L. Mencken. Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 87 1994]

What is to be said of Dr. Davis? [Democratic presidential candidate nominated as a compromise on 103rd ballot] His press-agents, it appears, lay stress on two things: that he is highly intellectual, a man who reads books, and that he is a very successful lawyer. The two merits, alas, do not often go together, nor is there any evidence that either is of much public value in a President. The last reader of books who sat in the White House got the United States into a ruinous war, increased the public debt by $25,000,000,000, destroyed the Bill of Rights, and filled the Government service with such strange fowl as Bryan, Lansing, Palmer, Burleson and Colonel House. This bookworm was also a lawyer, though a bad one.

Dr. Davis is said to be a good one. But is there any reason to believe that, among lawyers, the best are much better than the worst? I can find none. All the extravagance and incompetence of our present Government is due, in the main, to lawyers, and, in part at least, to good ones. They are responsible for nine-tenths of the useless and vicious laws that now clutter the statute-books, and for all the evils that go with the vain attempts to enforce them. Every Federal judge is a lawyer. So are most Congressmen. Every invasion of the plain rights of the citizen has a lawyer behind it. If all lawyers were hanged tomorrow, and their bones sold to a mah jong factory, we’d all be freer and safer, and our taxes would be reduced by almost half.

H.L. Mencken (from H.L.Mencken’s Notebooks) "Martyrs” by H.L. Mencken. First printed in the Smart Set, April, 1922, pp. 45-46.

The loss of faith, to many minds, involves a stupendous upset—indeed, that upset goes so far in some cases that it results in something hard to distinguish from temporary insanity. It takes a long while for a naturally trustful person to reconcile himself to the idea that after all God will not help him. He feels like a child thrown among wolves. For this reason I have always been chary about attempting to shake religious faith. It seems to me that the gain to truth that it involves is trivial when set beside the damage to the individual. To be sure, he is also improved, but he is almost wrecked in the process.

"History,” says Henry Ford, “is bunk.” I inscribe myself among those who dissent from this doctrine; nevertheless, I am often hauled up, in reading history, by a feeling that I am among unrealities. In particular, that feeling comes over me when I read about the religious wars of the past -- wars in which thousands of men, women and children were butchered on account of puerile and unintelligible disputes over transubstantiation, the atonement, and other such metaphysical banshees. It does not surprise me that the majority murdered the minority; the majority, even today, does it whenever it is possible. What I can’t understand is that the minority went voluntarily to the slaughter. Even in the worst persecutions known to history—say, for example, those of the Jews of Spain—it was always possible for a given member of the minority to save his hide by giving public assent to the religious notions of the majority. A Jew who was willing to be baptized, in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella, was practically unmolested; his descendants today are 100% Spaniards. Well, then, why did so many Jews refuse? Why did so many prefer to be robbed, exiled, and sometimes murdered?

The answer given by philosophical historians is that they were a noble people, and preferred death to heresy. But this merely begs the question. Is it actually noble to cling to a religious idea so tenaciously? Certainly it doesn’t seem so to me. After all, no human being really knows anything about the exalted matters with which all religions deal. The most he can do is match his private guess against the guesses of his fellow-men. For any man to say absolutely, in such a field, that this or that is wholly and irrefragably true and this or that is utterly false is simply to talk nonsense. Personally, I have never encountered a religious idea—and I do not except even the idea of the existence of God—that was instantly and unchallengeably convincing, as, say, the Copernican astronomy is instantly and unchallengeably convincing. But neither have I ever encountered a religious idea that could be dismissed off-hand as palpably and indubitably false. In even the worst nonsense of such theological mountebanks as Brigham Young and Mrs. Eddy, there is always enough lingering plausibility, or, at all events, possibility, to give the judicious pause. Whatever the weight of the probabilities against it, it nevertheless may be true that man, on his decease, turns into a gaseous vertebrate, and that this vertebrate, if its human larva has engaged in embezzlement, bootlegging, profanity or adultery on this earth, will be boiled for a million years in a cauldron of pitch. My private inclination, due to my defective upbringing, is to doubt it, and to set down any one who believes it as an ass, but it must be plain that I have no means of disproving it.

In view of this uncertainty it seems to me sheer vanity for any man to hold his religious views too firmly, or to submit to any inconvenience on account of them. It is far better, if they happen to offend, to conceal them discreetly, or to change them amiably as the delusions of the majority change. My own views in this department, being wholly skeptical and tolerant, are obnoxious to the subscribers to practically all other views; even atheists sometimes denounce me. At the moment, by an accident of American political history, these dissenters from my theology are forbidden to punish me for not agreeing with them. But at any succeeding moment some group or other among them may seize such power and proceed against me in the immemorial mannner. If it ever happens, I give notice here and now that I shall get converted to their nonsense instantly, and so retire to safety with my right thumb laid against my nose and my fingers waving like wheat in the wind. I’d do it even today, if there were any practical advantage in it. Offer me a box of good Havana cigars, and I engage to submit to baptism by any rite ever heard of, provided it does not expose my gothic nakedness. Make it ten boxes, and I’ll agree to be both baptized and confirmed.

Under the Elms by H.L. Mencken

What keeps a reflective and skeptical man alive? In large part, I suspect, it is this sense of humor. But in addition there is curiosity. Human existence is always irrational and often painful, but in the last analysis it remains interesting. One wants to know what is going to happen tomorrow. Will the lady in the mauve frock be more amiable than she is today? Such questions keep human beings alive. If the future were known, every intelligent man would kill himself at once, and the Republic would be peopled wholly by morons. Perhaps we are really moving toward that consummation now.


The native output of fallacy and sentimentality, in fact, is not enough to satisfy the stupendous craving of the mob unleashed; there must needs be a constant importation of aberrant fancies of other peoples. Let a new messiah leap up with a new message in any part of the world, and at once there is a response … The list … begins with preposterous Indian swamis and yoghis … and it ends with … the Signorina Montessori of the magical Method.

H.L. Mencken [Joseph Conrad; in “A Book of Prefaces"; 1917, pp. 22-23.] Misc. Mencken On Truth From Damn! A Book of Calumny_, 1918, p. 53

The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived. Huxley laughed the devils out of the Gadarene swine. Not the laws of the United States but the mother-in-law joke brought the Mormons to surrender. Not the horror of it but the absurdity of it killed the doctrine of infant damnation. But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth. How loudly the barber-surgeons laughed at Huxley—and how vainly! What clown ever brought down the house like Galileo? Or Columbus? Or Darwin? … They are laughing at Nietzsche yet …

For the Defense Written for the Associated Pres, for use in my obituary, Nov. 20, 1940

Having lived all my life in a country swarming with messiahs, I have been mistaken, perhaps quite naturally, for one myself, especially by the others. It would be hard to imagine anything more preposterous. I am, in fact, the complete anti-Messiah, and detest converts almost as much as I detest missionaries. My writings, such as they are, have had only one purpose: to attain for H. L. Mencken that feeling of tension relieved and function achieved which a cow enjoys on giving milk. Further than that, I have had no interest in the matter whatsoever. It has never given me any satisfaction to encounter one who said my notions had pleased him. My preference has always been for people with notions of their own. I have believed all my life in free thought and free speech—up to and including the utmost limits of the endurable.

Coda From the Baltimore Evening Sun_, June 12, 1922

When I mount the scaffold at last these will be my farewell words to the sheriff: Say what you will against me when I am gone, but don’t forget to add, in common justice, that I was never converted to anything.

H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks)


It is never possible for a metaphysician to state his ideas in plain English. Those ideas, with few exceptions, are inherently nonsensical, and he is forced to formulate them in a vague and unintellibible jargon. Of late some of the stars of the faculty have taken to putting them into mathematical formulae. They thus become completely incomprehensible to the layman, and gain the additional merit of being incomprehensible also to most other metaphysicians.


Every religion is largely grounded on common sense, or, at all events, on what passes as such among theologians. We are asked to believe in Christianity on precisely the same considerations offered for believing in democracy. All the rest of it—revelation, the metaphysics borrowed from the Greeks, and so on—is mere excresence. The theologians always put heavy stress on what they call natural religion—that is, they argue that belief in their balderdash is made mandatory by common observation and experience, which is to say, by common sense. No known religion depends for its authority on revelation alone. It is always appealing to the evidence of the eyes, ears and nose, and many Christian divines argue quite seriously that Christianity might be proved without any resort to revelation at all. Even revelation itself is often supported by an appeal to common sense. An example is offered by the standard argument in favor of the infallibility of the popes. It is based almost wholly on the contention that Jesus could not conceivably have trusted His church to a hierarchy of frauds. The Twelve Apostles were His appointees, and the line of Popes comes down to us from the Twelve Apostles. This argument is surely not to be sniffed at. It has, indeed a very considerable plausibility. The one defect in it is that its primary postulate—that Jesus was a god—has no support in the known facts, and seems silly to a rational man.


It is a folly to argue that the truth of a religion depends upon objective evidence. Christianity might still be true even if the Bible were a proved forgery and the Pope an admitted swindler. The Catholic theologians are smart enough to see this point, and so admit that there have been Popes who were evil characters and are probably in Hell. Religion is simply a cosmology at bottom — a theory of the nature and operations of the universe. It appears in a man simply because man is the only animal, so far as we know, who can ponder his situation. The idea of immortality is not necesary to religion, but the idea that man is in some way related to higher powers is.


Experience is a poor guide to man, and is seldom followed. A man really learns little by it, for it is narrowly limited in range. What does a faithful husband know of women, or a faithful wife of men? The generalizations of such persons are always inaccurate. What really teaches man is not experience, but observation. It is observation that enables him to make use of the vastly greater experience of other men, of men taken in the mass. He learns by noting what happens to them. Confined to what happens to himself, he labors eternally under an insufficiency of data.


Metaphysics is a refuge for men who have a strong desire to appear learned and profound but have nothing worth hearing to say. Their speculations have helped mankind hardly more than those of the astrologers. What we regard as good in metaphysics is really psychology: the rest is only blah. Ordinarily, it does not even produce good phrases, but is dull and witless. The accumulated body of philosophical speculation is hopelessly self-contradictory. It is not a system at all, but simply a quarreling congeries of systems. The thing that makes philosophers respected is not actually their profundity, but simply their obscurity. They translate vague and dubious ideas into high-sounding words, and their dupes assume, as they assume themselves, that the resulting obfuscation is a contribution to knowledge.

by H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks) Militant Morality

[T]he new will to power, working in the true Puritan as in the mere religious sportsman, stimulated him into a campaign of repression and punishment perhaps unequalled in the history of the world, and developed an art of militant morality as complex in technique and as rich in professors as the elder art of iniquity. … Differing widely in their targets these various Puritan enterprises had one character in common: they were all efforts to combat immorality with the weapons designed for crime. In each of them there was a visible effort to erect the individual’s offence against himself into an offence against society. Beneath all of them was the dubious principle … that it is competent for the community to limit and condition the private acts of its members, and with it the inevitable corollary that there are some members of the community who have a special talent for such legislation, and that their arbitrary fiats are, and of a right ought to be, binding upon all.

H.L. Mencken ["Puritanism as a Literary Force” in A Book of Prefaces (1917), pp. 240-242.]

Misc. Mencken On Truth From Damn! A Book of Calumny, 1918, p. 53

The final test of truth is ridicule. Very few dogmas have ever faced it and survived. Huxley laughed the devils out of the Gadarene swine. Not the laws of the United States but the mother-in-law joke brought the Mormons to surrender. Not the horror of it but the absurdity of it killed the doctrine of infant damnation. But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth. How loudly the barber-surgeons laughed at Huxley—and how vainly! What clown ever brought down the house like Galileo? Or Columbus? Or Darwin? … They are laughing at Nietzsche yet …

Moral Reformers

[A] moral reformer is a creature peculiar to relatively civilized societies; among savages he would be recognized instantly for the public enemy that he is, and disposed out of hand. He is, of course, profoundly immoral at bottom, and even a kind of criminal. He appeared in perfect flower in John Calvin, in the New England witch- hunters, and again in John Brown. During the Prohibition madness in the United States he flourished in great numbers … his motives lie in freudian depths, and his altruism is palpably sham. In his more extreme forms he is hard to distinguish from downright insane. … Nor is the moral virtuoso much more prepossessing when he takes the devil’s side, and howls for license instead of restraint.

H.L. Mencken [Its State Today, 3.; in “Treatise on Right and Wrong"; 1934, pp. 299-300.]

The Poet and his Art - III music01.hlm -------------------------— by H. L. Mencken . . .

… The Greeks who built the Parthenon knew no more about music than a hog knows of predestination; they were almost as ignorant in that department as the modern Iowans or New Yorkers. It was not, indeed, until the Renaissance that music as we know it appeared in the world, and it was not until less than two centuries ago that it reached a high development. In Shakespeare’s day music was just getting upon its legs in England; in Goethe’s day it was just coming to full flower in Germany; in France and America it is still in the savage state. It is thus the youngest of the arts, and the most difficult, and hence the noblest. Any sane young man of twenty-two can write an acceptable sonnet, or design a habitable house or draw a horse that will not be mistaken for an automobile, but before he may write even a bad string quartet he must go through a long and arduous training, just as he must strive for years before he may write prose that is instantly recognizable as prose, and not as a string of mere words.

(from Prejudices: Third Series, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1922), pp. 163-164.) “Toward a Realistic Aesthetic” by H.L. Mencken Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924) . . .

To return to music, it must be plain that it is enormously handicapped as an art by the mere fact that its technique is so frightfully difficult. I do not refer, of course, to the technique of the musical executant, but to that of the composer. Any literate man can master the technique of poetry in ten days, and that of the drama—despite all the solemn hocus-pocus of the professors who presume to teach it—in three weeks, but not even the greatest genius could do sound work in the sonata form without years of preparation. To write a good string quartette is not merely an act of creation, like writing a love song; it is also an act of applied science, like cutting out a set of tonsils. I know of no other art that demands so elaborate a professional training. Perhaps the one which comes nearest to it is architecture—that is, modern archi- tecture. As the Greeks practised it, it was relatively simple, for they used simple materials and avoided all delicate problems of stress and strain, and they were thus able to keep their whole attention upon pure design. But the modern architect, with his complex mathematical and mechanical problems, must be an engineer before he is an artist, and the sort of engineering that he must master bristles with technical snares and conundrums. The serious musician is in even worse case. Before he may write at all he must take in and coordinate a body of technical knowledge that is almost as great as the outfit of an astronomer. I say that all this constitutes a handicap on the art of music. What I mean is that it scares off many men who have sound musical ideas and would make good composers, but who have no natural talent or taste for the technical groundwork. For one Schubert who overcomes the handicap by sheer genius there must be dozens who are repelled and discouraged. There is another, and perhaps even worse disadvantage. The potential Schuberts flee in alarm, but the Professor Sawdusts march in bravely. That is to say, music is hard for musicians, but easy for pedants, grinds and examination-passers. Its constant invasion by a hollow formalism is the result. It offers an inviting playground to the bombastic jackass whose delight it is to astonish the bourgeoisie with insane feats of virtuoisty. (pp. 246-248)

The American by H.L. Mencken

… It seems to me that this necessity is responsible for one of the characters that observers often note in the average American, to wit, the character of orthodoxy, of eager conformity—in brief, the fear to give offense. “More than any other people,” said Wendell Phillips one blue day, “we Americans are afraid of one another.” The saying seems harsh. It goes counter to the national delusion of uncompromising independence and limitless personal freedom. It wars upon the national vanity. But all the same there is a good deal of truth in it.

What is often mistaken for an independent spirit, in dealing with the national traits, is not more than a habit of crying with the pack. The American is not a joiner for nothing. He joins something, whether it be a political party, a church or a tin-pot fraternal order, because joining makes him a part of something larger and safer than he is—because it gives him chance to work off his steam within prudent limits. Beyond lie the national taboos. Beyond lies true independence—and the heavy penalties that go therewith. Once over the border, and the whole pack is on the heretic.

* * *

The taboos that I have mentioned are extraordinarily harsh and numerous. They stand around nearly every subject that is genuinely important to man; they hedge in free opinion and experimentation on all sides. Consider, for example, the matter of religion. It is debated freely and furiously in almost every country in the world save the United States. Here the debate, save it keep to the superficial, is frowned upon. Let an individual uncover the fundamentals of the thing, and he is denounced as a disturber of the public peace. Let a journal cut loose and at once an effort is made to bar it from the mails. The result is that all religions are equally safeguarded against criticism, and that all of them lose vitality. We protect the status quo, and so make steady war upon revision and improvement.

Nor is our political discussion much more free and thorough. It concerns itself, in the overwhelming main, with non-essentials; time and again the two chief parties of the country, warring over details, have come so close together that it has been almost impossible to distinguish them. Whenever a stray heretic essays to grapple with essentials he finds himself denounced for his contumacy. Thus the discussion of the capital problem of industrial organization, in so far as it has gon on at all, has gone on under the surface, and almost furtively. Now, suddenly bursting out in wartime, it takes on an aspect of the sinister, and causes justifiable alarm. That alarm might have been avoided by threshing out the thing in the days of peace.

Behind all this timorousness, of course, there is a sound discretion. With a population made up of widely various and often highly antagonistic elements, many of them without political experience, the dangers of a too free gabbling needn’t be pointed out. But at the same time it would be useless to deny the disadvantages of the current system of taboos. It tends to substitute mere complacency for alertness and information. It gives a false importance to the occasional rebel. It sets up a peace that is full of dynamite.

(The New York Evening Mail, May 3, 1918)


The more noisy Negro leaders, by depicting all whites as natural and implacable enemies totheir 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. The effort to purge the movies, the stage, the radio and the comic-strips of the old-time Negro types has worked the same evil. The Negro comic character may have engendered a certain amount of amiable disdain among whites, but he certainly did not produce dislike. We do not hate people we laugh at and with. His chief effect upon white thinking, in fact, was to spread the idea that Negroes as a class are very amiable folk, with a great deal of pawky shrewdness. This was to their advantage in race relations. But when the last Amos ’n’ Andy programme is suppressed the Negro, ceasing to be a charming clown, will become a menacing stranger, and his lot will be a good deal less comfortable than it used to be.


The Negroes, unlike all other oppressed races, never dream of their homeland. Every proposal that they return to Africa is opposed by the overwhelming majority of them, and with the indignation proper to an insult. They are more free in Brazil and Cuba than they will ever be in the United States, and in such all-Negro countries as Haiti and Liberia they should have excellent chances to shine, but it is rare, indeed, for one of them to migrate. This may be lack of public spirit, but on the other hand it may be intelligence. The case of the Jews throws some light upon the subject. Only the smarter sort of Jews are really well-off in Palestine, and even so they are not nearly so well-off as the smarter sort of Jews in New York.


One of the things that makes a Negro unpleasant to white folk is the fact that he suffers from their injustice. He is thus a standing rebuke to them, and they try to put him out of their minds. The easiest way to do so is to insist that he keep his place. The Jew suffers from the same cause, but to a much less extent.

H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks)

Mencken on Nietzsche:

"… Wagner was an artist, and not a philosopher. Right or wrong, Christianity was beautiful, and as a thing of beauty it called aloud to him. To Nietzsche beauty seemed a mere phase of truth.

"It was during this period of preliminary skirmishing that Nietzsche’s ultimate philosophy began to formulate itself. He saw clearly that there was something radically wrong with the German culture of his day—that many things esteemed right and holy were, in reality, unspeakable, and that many things under the ban of church and state were far from wrong in themselves. He saw, too, that there had grown up a false logic and that its taint was upon the whole of contemporary thought. Men maintained propositions plainly erroneous and excused themselves by the plea that ideals were greater than actualities. The race was subscribing to one thing and practicing another. Christianity was official, but not a single real Christian was to be found in all Christendom. Thousands bowed down to men and ideas that they despised and denounced things that every sane man knew were necessary and inevitable. The result was a flavor of dishonesty and hypocrisy in human affairs. In the abstract the laws—of the church, the state and society—were looked upon as impeccable, but every man, in so far as they bore upon him personally, tried his best to evade them."

from Friedrich Nietzsche, by H.L. Mencken, (Boston: Luce and Company, 1913), pp. 34-35.)

Various selections from Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (1956).


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.


All moral systems are grounded in the last analysis upon a scale of values. It is what men esteem that determines their conduct. Unfortunately, the values set up by the Christian system are largely false ones, and many of them are palpably so. They had worth to the primitive peoples among whom they arose, but their worth to modern man is sometimes zero. In fact, some of them are plainly not only worthless, but also dangerous—indeed, a few verge upon the suicidal. Mankind, to be sure, has learned to get around them in daily conduct, but nevertheless they are still whooped up by moral authority. Their survival is responsible for a large part of the moral uncertainly now prevailing. Every bright young man quickly learns that the moral mandates he is taught by his official elders are largely nonsensical. It is impossible to defend them in logic, and he can’t help observing that many of them are not followed in practise. Nothing is more likely to promote what is commonly called immorality than the discovery that fundamental moral values are false.


The United States has not only failed to produce a genuine aristocracy; it has also failed to produce an indigenous intelligentsia. The so-called intellectuals of the country are simply weather-vanes blown constantly by foreign winds, usually but not always English. . . The New Deal fetched them by brigades, divisions and army corps, and without wasting on them more than a few rounds of blank cartridges. They were all ripe, in 1930, for any sort of revelation, however bogus. The post-war disillusion of the 1920’s was simply too much for them to bear. They were psychologically incapable of grasping the concept of the irremediable. They believed as a cardinal article of faith that there was a remedy at hand for every conceivable public ill, just as the herbalists of the Middle Ages believed that there was a cure in the fields or woods for every disease of man. They were thus in a mood to swallow any dose that quacks ventured to prescribe, and were already half convinced before the New Dealers began to function. It was, indeed, instructive and at the same time pathetic to see them leaping for every new remedy recommended, even before the quacks had decided just what it would cure…

Not many men can grasp the concept of the irremediable, or take in the fact that what happens in the world is only seldom modified by human volition. Most men even go beyond believing in volition; they actually hold that there is some mystical potency in mere faith. The resultant fallacies are innumerable, and only too painfully familiar. Uncle Julius has come down with cancer and the doctors have given him up; ergo, we must try chiropractic, or Christian Science, else we be accused (and in our own eyes, convicted) of abandoning him to his doom. From this nonsense flows a very common corrollary, to wit, that quack remedies must be somehow better than rational ones, since they at least promise to cure. The belief in such promises is the great curse of man. More than anything else, it impedes the progress of the race. Its chief beneficiaries are all enemies to mankind.


In the field of practical morals popular judgments are often sounder than those of the self-appointed experts. These experts seldom show any talent for the art and mystery they undertake to profess; on the contrary, nine-tenths of them are obvious quacks. They are responsible for all the idiotic moral reforms and innovations that come and go, afflicting decent people. And they are the main, and often the only advocates of moral ideas that have begun to wear out, and deserve to be scrapped. The effort to put down birth control, led by Catholic theologians but with a certain amount of support from Protestant colleagues, offers a shining case in point. The more the heat is applied to them, the more Catholic women seem to resort to the devices of the Devil, on sale in every drugstore. Many of these women are genuinely pious, but into their piety there has been introduced an unhappy doubt, perhaps only half formulated. It is a doubt about the professional competence of their moral guides and commanders. They have not only begun to view the curious fiats of bishops and archbishops with a growing indifference; they have also begun to toy with the suspicion that even the Pope, on occasion, may be all wet. His first anathemas against contraception were plain and unqualified, but of late he has begun to hedge prudently, and it is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry. This concession is a significant admission that the original position of the moral theologians was untenable. In other words, it is an admission that they were wrong about a capital problem of their trade—and that the persons they sought to teach were right.


The capacity of humans to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than that of any other animals. Some of their most esteemed inventions have no other apparent purpose, for example, the dinner party of more than two, the epic poem, and the science of metaphysics.


Religious people constantly make the mistake of assuming that the non-religious man is always actively hostile to the faith. This is certainly not true. The militant atheist, as a matter of act, is commonly a man who is actually religious at bottom, and very often he ends his career on the bosom of Holy Church, or as a Christian Scientist. The average unbeliever simply does not care a damn. Religion amuses him faintly, as any other superstition amuses him, but it does not excite him. The number of such indifferent persons is much larger than is commonly assumed. They are not organized, and hence make no public pother, but they exist in immense hordes, and offer a steadily increasing menace to all forms of Christianity. It has little to fear from Communists and other such raucous enemies, for what they believe in is plainly quite as absurd as what Christians believe in. Active enmity, in fact, commonly prospers it. But disdain is something else again.


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.


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.


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 Nature of Faith” by H. L. Mencken From “High and Ghostly Matters”, Prejudices: Fourth Series, 1924, pp. 65-76. First printed in the American Mercury, Jan. 1924, pp. 75-76.

Many years ago, when I was more reckless intellectually than I am today, I proposed the application of Haeckel’s biogenetic law—to wit, that the history of the individual rehearses the history of the species—to the domain of ideas. So applied, it leads to some superficially startling but probably quite sound conclusions, for example, that an adult poet is simply an individual in a state of arrested development—in brief, a sort of moron. Just as all of us, in utero, pass through a stage in which we are tadpoles, and almost indistinguishable from the tadpoles which afterward become frogs, so all of us pass through a stage, in our nonage, when we are poets. A youth of seventeen who is not a poet is simply a donkey: his development has been arrested even anterior to that of the tadpole. But a man of fifty who still writes poetry is either an unfortunate who has never developed, intellectually, beyond his teens, or a conscious buffoon who pretends to be something that he isn’t—something far younger and juicier than he actually is.

At adolescence large numbers of individuals, and maybe even most, have similar attacks of piety, but that is only saying that their powers of perception, at that age, outrun their knowledge. They observe the tangled and terrifying phenomena of life, but cannot account for them. Later on, unless their development is arrested, they gradually emerge from that romantic and spookish fog, just as they emerge from the hallucinations of poetry. I speak here, of course, of individuals genuinely capable of education—always a small minority. If, as the Army tests of concsripts showed, nearly 50 per cent. of American adult males never get beyond the mental development of a twelve-year-old child, then it must be obvious that a much smaller number get beyond the mental development of a youth at the end of his teens. I put that number, at a venture, at 10 per cent. The remaining 90 per cent. never quite free themselves from religious superstitions. They may no longer believe it is an act of God every time an individual catches a cold, or sprains his ankle, or cuts himself shaving, but they are pretty sure to see some trace of divine intervention in it if he is struck by lightning, or hanged, or afflicted with leprosy or syphilis.

All modern religions are based, at least on their logical side, on this notion that there are higher powers which observe the doings of man and constantly take a hand in them, and in the fold of Christianity, which is a good deal more sentimental than any other major religion, the concept of interest and intervention is associated with a concept of benevelolence. In other words, it is believed that God is predominantly good. No true Christian can tolerate the idea that God ever deliberately and wantonly injures him, or could conceivably wish him ill. The slings and arrows that he suffers, he believes, are brought down upon him by his own ignorance and contoumacy. Unhappily, this doctrine of the goodness of God does not fit into what we know of the nature and operations of the cosmos today; it is a survival from a day of universal ignorance. All science is simply a great massing of proofs that God, if He exists, is really neither good nor bad, but simply indifferent—an infinite Force carrying on the operation of unintelligible processes without the slightest regard, either one way or the other, for the comfort, safety and happiness of man.

Why, then, does this belief survive? Largely, I am convinced, because it is supported by that other hoary relic from the adolescence of the race, to wit, the weakness for poetry. The Jews fastened their religion upon the Western world, not because it was more reasonable than the religions of their contemporaries—as a matter of fact, it was vastly less reasonable than many of them—but because it was far more poetical. The poetry in it was what fetched the decaying Romans, and after them the barbarians of the North; not the so-called Christian evidences. No better has ever been written. It is so powerful in its effects that even men who reject its content in toto are more or less susceptible. One hesitates to flout it on purely esthetic grounds; however dubious it may be in doctrine, it is nevertheless almost perfect in form, and so even the most violent atheist tends to respect it, just as he respects a beautiful but deadly toadstool. For no man, of course, ever quite gets over poetry. He may seem to have recovered from it, just as he may seem to have recovered from the measles of his school-days, but exact observation teaches us that no such recovery is ever quite perfect; there always remains a scar, a weakness and a memory.

Now, there is a reason for maintaining that the taste for poetry, in the process of human development, marks a stage measurably later than the stage of religion. Savages so little cultured that they know no more of poetry than a cow have elaborate and often very ingenious theologies. If this be true, then it follows that the individual, as he rehearses the life of the species, is apt to carry his taste for poetry further along than he carries his religion -- that if his development is arrested at any stage before complete intellectual maturity that arrest is far more likely to leave hallucinations. Thus, taking men in the mass, there are more natural victims of the former than of the latter—and here is where the artfulness of the ancient Jews does its execution. It holds countless thousands to the faith who are actually against the faith, and the weakness with which it holds them is their weakness for poetry, i.e., for the beautiful but untrue. Put into plain, harsh words most of the articles they are asked to believe would revolt them, but put into sonorous dithyrambs the same articles fascinate and overwhelm them.

This persistence of the weakness for poetry explains the curious growth of ritualism in an age of skepticism. Almost every day theology gets another blow from science. So badly has it been battered during the past century, indeed, that educated men now give it little more credence than they give to sorcery, its ancient ally. But squeezing out the logical nonsense does no damage to the poetry; on the contrary, it frees, and, in a sense, dignifies the poetry. Thus there is a constant movement of Christians, and particularly of newly-intellectual Christians, from the more literal varieties of Christian faith to the more poetical varieties. The normal idiot, in the United States, is born a Methodist or a Baptist, but when he begins to lay by money he and his wife tend to go over to the American outhouse of the Church of England, which is not only more fashionable but also less revolting to the higher cerebral centers. His daughter, when she emerges from the finishing-school, is very High Church; his grand-daughter, if the family keeps its securities, may go the whole hog by embracing Rome.

In view of all this, I am convinced that the Christian church as a going concern, is quite safe from danger in the United States, despite the rapid growth of agnosticism. The theology it merchants is full of childish and disgusting absurdities; practically all the other religions of civilized and semi- civilized man are more plausible. But all of these religions, including Moslemism, contain the fatal defect that they appeal primarily to the reason. Christinity will survive not only Modernism but also Fundamentalism, a much more difficult business. It will survive because it makes its first and foremost appeal to that moony sense of the poetic which lingers in all men -- to that elemental sentimentality which, in men of arrested mental development, which is to say, in the average men of Christendom, passes for the passion to seek and know beauty.

(The reader fetched by this argument will find more to his taste in my Treatise on the Gods, second edition, 1946, pp. 286-89.)

from A Mencken Chrestomathy, H.L. Mencken, Vintage Books, 1982, pp. 69-72.

"Joseph Conrad was moved by that necessity to write romances; Mozart was moved to write music; poets are moved to write poetry; critics are moved to write criticism. The form is nothing; the only important thing is the motive power, and it is the same in all cases. It is the pressing yearning of nearly every man who has actual ideas in him to empty them upon the world, to hammer them into plausible and ingratiating shapes, to compel the attention and respect of his equals, to lord it over his inferiors. So seen, the critic becomes a far more transparent and agreeable fellow than ever he was in the discourses of the psychologists who sought to make him a mere appraiser in an intellectual customs house, a gauger in a distillery of the spirit, a just and infallible judge upon the comic bench. Such offices, in point of fact, never fit him. He always bulges over their confines. When he is thus labeled and estimated, it inevitably turns out that the critic under examination is a very bad one, or no critic at all.

"But when he is thought of, not as pedagogue, but as artist, then he begins to take on reality, and, what is more, dignity. Carlyle was surely no just and infallible judge; on the contrary, he was full of prejudices, biles, naivetes, humors. Yet he is read, consulted, attended to. Macaulay was unfair, inaccurate, fanciful, lyrical—yet his essays live. Arnold had his faults too, and so did Sainte-Beuve, and so did Goethe, and so did many another of that line—and yet they are remembered today, and all the learned and conscientious critics of their time, laboriously concerned with the precise intent of the artists under review, and passionately determined to set it forth, with god-like care and to relate it exactly to this or that great steam of ideas—all these pedants are forgotten. What saved Carlyle, Macaulay and company is as plain as day. They were first-rate artists. They could make the thing charming, and that is always a million times more important than making it true.

"Truth, indeed, is something that is believed in completely only by persons who have never tried personally to pursue it to its fastnesses and grab it by the tail. It is the adoration of second-rate men—men who always received it as second-hand. Pedagogues believe in immutable truths and spend their lives trying to determine them and propagate them; the intellectual progress of man consists largely of a concerted effort to block and destroy their enterprise. 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. In whole departments of human inquiry it seems to me quite unlikely that the truth ever will be discovered. Nevertheless, the rubber-stamp thinking of the world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth—that error and truth are simply opposites. 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. This is the whole history of the intellect in brief. The average man of today does not believe in precisely the same imbecilities that the Greek of the Fourth Century before Christ believed in, but the things that he does believe in are often quite as idiotic.”

Oratory=======by H.L. Mencken from the American Mercury Dec., 1924

The theory that the ancient Greeks and Romans were men of a vast and ineffable superiority runs aground on the fact that they were great admirers of oratory. No other art was so assiduously practised among them. Today we venerate the architects and dramatists of Greece far more than we venerate its orators, but the Greeks themselves put the orators first, and in consequence much better records of them are preserved today. But oratory, as a matter of fact, is the lowest of all the arts. Where is it most respected? Among savages, in and out of civilization. The yokels of the open spaces flock by the thousand to hear imbeciles yawp and heave; the city proletariat goes to political meetings and glues its ears to radio every night. But what genuinely civilized man would turn out to hear even the champion orator of the country? Dozens of the most eminent professors of the art show off their tricks every day in the United States Senate. Yet the galleries of the Senate, save when news goes out that some Senator is stewed and about to make an ass of himself, are occupied by Negroes who have come in to get warm and hand-holding bridal couples from rural North Carolina and West Virginia.

The Poet and his Art poetry1.hlm ------------------— by H. L. Mencken

… Poetry that is all music is obviously relatively rare, for only a poet who is also a natural musician can write it, and natural musicians are much rarer in the world than poets. Ordinary poetry, average poetry, thus depends in part upon its ideational material, and perhaps even chiefly. It is the idea expressed in a poem, and not the mellifluousness of the words used to express it, that arrests and enchants the average connoisseur. …

It was another American, this time Prof. Dr. F.C. Prescott, of Cornell University, who first gave scientific attention to the intellectual content of poetry. His book is called “Poetry and Dreams.” Its virtue lies in the fact that it rejects all the customary mystical and romantic definitions of poetry, and seeks to account for the thing in straightforward psychological terms. Poetry, says Prescott, is simply the verbal materialization of a day-dream, the statement of a Freudian wish, an attempt to satisfy a subconscious longing by saying that it is satisfied. In brief, poetry represents imagination’s bold effort to escape from the cold and clammy facts that hedge us in—to soothe the wrinkled and fevered brow with beautiful balderdash. On the precise nature of this beautiful balderdash you can get all in the information you need by openint at random the nearest book of verse. The ideas you will find in it may be divided into two main deivisions. The first consists of denials of objective facts; the second of denials of subjective facts. Specimen of the first:

God’s in His heaven, All’s well with the world.

Specimen of the second:

I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.

It is my contention that all poetry (forgetting, for the moment, its possible merit as mere sound) may be resolved into either the one or the other of these frightful imbecilities—that its essential character lies in its bold flouting of what every reflective adult knows to be the truth. The poet, imagining him to be sincere, is simply one who disposes of all the horrors of life on this earth, and of all the difficulties presented by his own inner weaknesses no less, by the childish device of denying them. Is it a well-known fact that love is an emotion that is almost as perishable as eggs—that it is biologically impossible for a given male to yearn for a given female more than a few brief years? Then the poet disposes of it by assuring his girl that he will nevertheless love her forever—more, by pledging his word of honor that he believes that she will love him forever. Is it equally notorious that there is no such thing as justice in the world—that the good are tortured insanely and the evil go free and prosper? Then the poet composes a piece crediting God with a mysterious and unintelligible theory of jurisprudence, whereby the torture of the good is a sort of favor conferred upon them for their goodness. …

from Prejudices: Third Series, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1922), pp. 153-155.) The Poet and his Art - III poetry2.hlm -------------------------— by H. L. Mencken

One of the things to remember here … is that a man’s conscious desires are not always identical with his subconscious longings; in fact, the two are ofteh directly antithetical. No doubt the real man lies in the depths of the subconscious, like a carp lurking in mud. His conscious personality is largely a product of his environment—the reaction of his subconscious to the prevailing notions of what is meet and seemly. Here, of course, I wander into platitude, for the news that all men are frauds was already stale in the days of Hammurabi. The ingenious Freud simply translated the fact into pathological terms, added a bedroom scene, and so laid the foundations for his psychoanalysis. Incidentally, it has always seemed to me that Freud made a curious mistake when he brought sex into the foreground of his new magic. He was, of course, quite right when he set up the doctrine that, in civilized societies, sex impulses were more apt to be suppressed than any other natural impulses, and that the subconscious thus tended to be crowded with their ghosts. But in considering sex impulses, he forgot sex imaginings. Digging out, by painful cross-examination in a darkened room, some startling tale of carnality in his patient’s past, he committed the incredible folly of assuming it to be literally true. More often than not, I believe, it was a mere piece of boasting, a materialization of desire—in brief, a poem. It is astonishing that this possibility never occurred to the venerable professor; it is more astonishing that it has never occurred to any of his disciples. He should have psychoanalyzed a few poets instead of wasting all his time upon psychopathic women with sclerotic husbands. He would have dredged amazing things out of their subconsciouses, heroic as well as amorous. Imagine the billions of Boers, Germans, Irishmen and Hindus that Kipling would have confessed to killing!

But here I get into morbid anatomy, and had better haul up. What I started out to say was that a man’s preferences in poetry constitute an excellent means of estimating his inner cravings and credulities. The music disarms his critical sense, and he confesses to cherishing ideas that he would repudiate with indignation if they were put into plain words. I say he cherishes those ideas. Maybe he simply tolerates them unwillingly; maybe they are no mroe than inescapable heritages from his barbarous ancestors, like his vermiform appendix. Think of the poems you like, and you will come upon many such intellectual fossils—ideas that you by no means subscribe to openly, but that nevertheless give you a strange joy. I put myself on the block as Exhibit A. There is my delight in Lizette Woodworth Reese’s sonnet, “Tears." Nothing could do more violence to my conscious beliefs. Put into prose, the doctrine in the poem would exasperate and even enrage me. There is no man in Christendom who is less a Christian than I am. But here the dead hand grabs me by the ear. My ancestors were converted to Christianity in the year 1535, and remained of that faith until near the middle of the eighteenth century. Observe, now, the load I carry; more than two hundred years of Christianity, and perhaps a thousand years (maybe even two, or three thousand years) of worship of heathen gods before that—at least twelve hundred years of uninterrupted belief in the immortaility of the soul. Is it any wonder that, betrayed by the incomparable music of Miss Reese’s Anglo-Saxon monosyllables, my conscious faith is lulled to sleep, thus giving my subconscious a chance to wallow in its immemorial superstition?

(from Prejudices: Third Series, Alfred A. Knopf, New York (1922), pp. 157-160.) “On Human Progress” by H. L. Mencken (from the Chicago Tribune, April 17, 1927)

THOUGH WE LIVE in what is regarded as a go-getting and up-and-coming age, with novelties announced every day and a great deal of yelling and snorting always going on, it must be obvious that human progress, like every other sort of biological progress, continues to proceed at a very leisurely pace. Is the United States senate appreciably superior to the Roman senate, either in learning or in integrity? Is Dr. Frank Crane actually a profounder philosopher than Socrates? Is the religion on tap in the anti-evolution belt any better than the religion practiced and believed in the Teutoburger Wald? Can a modern Kansan leap higher, or run faster, or drink harder, or spell better, or die with greater style and finish than an ancient Assyrian?

It is highly improbable. In fact, it is plainly not so. Nevertheless, it would be idle to deny that progress has been made, and doubly idle to deny that it has been sound and abiding. The governments in vogue in the world today, though they are certainly still far from perfect, are a great deal better than anything ever heard of in the world of the Ptolemies, or even in the world of Elizabeth. They are still inordinately extravagant, incompetent, and corrupt, and they are still run mainly by inferior men. But it is at least less difficult than it used to be to keep those inferior men within bounds. A certain fear of consequences has got into them; they step a bit more softly than their predecessors. Do they yet plunge the human race, at intervals, into insane and disastrous wars? Then it is not as often as aforetime.

It is, indeed, the average man, the plain citizen, who has got the most out of human progress. He is safer than he used to be, and by the same token he is cleaner and fatter. In the genuinely civilized countries famine no longer menaces him, save in time of war. His meals are secure, even when his immortal soul is in danger. Wild beasts no longer devour him; he cannot be butchered save by a long process and with the consent of his fellows; he is no longer haunted by ghosts and demons; plagues seldom alarm him.

I say that he is no longer haunted by ghosts and demons. This is not saying, of course, that he has ceased to believe in them. I think it would be quite safe to guess, indeed, that at least 90 per cent of the people of the United States still have some sort of belief in supernatural powers, especially those of an inimical character. Not many Americans encountering an angel or an archangel up a dark alley would fail to emit low whistles of astonishment and incredulity; but nine-tenths of them, seeing a ghost, would grant its bona fides instanter. It is the theory of every religious sect in good repute among us that a man, on dying continues to exist, and it is the theory of all save the Unitarians and Universalists that there are such things as demons, and that, under easily imaginable conditions, they may work evil.

This belief in supernatural agencies, I am convinced, will survive in the world for long ages—so long, indeed, as the destiny and agonies of man remain unintelligible, which will probably be forever. It is simply impossible for the human mind to imagine an effect without a cause, and to all save an inconsiderable minority of men a cause is indistinguishable from an intent. Thus the major mysteries will continue to be ascribed to the will of God, and the minor mysteries, many of them of such a character that it would be hard to think of a dignified God having any hand in them, will be blamed upon demons of various tribes.

The notion that the belief in witches has died out on earth is a great mistake. The number of Americans who actually disbelieve in them is probably as small as the number who actually disbelieve in democracy, and no doubt it is made up of much the same individuals. They are the natural skeptics of the race, and, taken as a whole, they are a somewhat unpleasant party. The rest of humanity, as the phrase goes, is more open minded. Its belief in evil spirits and their human allies is not, to be sure, an ever present ingredient of its thought, like its belief in its current Coolidges, Lenins, and Mussolinis; but it is always ready to grant their existence on proof—and that proof need not be very massive.

But even in this department there has been some progress since the days of the Babylonian empire, though we must resort to subtleties to describe it. Let me put it in these terms: that the ancient human belief in spooks and demons, though it has not been obliterated, has at least been made unfashionable. In other words, it has been converted from a public vice into a secret vice, and thus, by the moral theory prevailing in the world, has been rendered less discreditable than it used to be. There was a time when any man who believed in withches or ghosts said so openly, and was respected accordingly. But now he keeps it quiet, as he keeps quiet, say, the fact that he sleeps in his underwear, reads the serials in the tabloid papers, is afraid to walk under a ladder, or loves his wife.

This has been the main effect of skepticism in the world, working over long ages: that it has become gauche and embarassing to admit certain indubitable facts. Their unpopularity is due not to their destruction or abandonment but simply to the forensic talent of the skeptics, a bombastic and tyrannical sect of men, with a great deal of cruelty concealed in their so-called love of truth. It is not altruism that moves them to their assaults upon what other men hold to be precious; it is something no more than a yearning to make those other men leap. The fundamentalists of Tennessee are thus right in denouncing Clarence Darrow. Mr. Darrow, I have no doubt, loves the truth—but it is with a passion comparable to that a man has for an amiable maiden aunt. When he went to Tennessee he went on safari, which is a Hindu word signifying the chase.

The skeptics, pursuing this immemorial sport, have driven certain congenital beliefs of the human race under cover, and made them furtive and apologetic. When they tackled the belief in witches, two or three hundred years ago, it was as respectable as going to church; now it is so dubious that those who continue to cherish it keep the fact to themselves. In the course of time, perhaps, they will reduce the belief in democracy to the same disrepute, but I don’t think they will ever obliterate it.

However, there is no call to deplore this essential failure of skepticism, for so long as it succeeds on the surface it succeeds for all practical intents and purposes. Human progress is never complete, but only partial: the upper level moves much faster than any below it. We see before us, even in this year of the enlightenment, how vigorously the larger masses of mankind resist accepting the veriest commonplace of scientific knowledge. What every schoolboy is supposed to know, as he knows that the world is round and that the sun rises in the east, is actually forbidden by law in two American states.

What is too often overlooked is that even Christianity, after two millenniums of ostensible acceptance by all the more civilized nations of the west, is still but imperfectly assimilated by nine Christians out of ten. Certainly no one would argue seriously that its ethical principles are anywhere put into practice in the world today; even its chief spokesmen abandon them at the first temptation, as in time of public war or when they are themselves engaged in controversy with other spokesmen. The old pagan ethics have been driven under cover by an assault comparable to that made by the skeptics, but they are still there, and they crop up whenever the band begins to play, or there is a dollar to be made. So on the theological side. The lofty and somewhat tenuous mysticism of Christianity is nowhere converted into an actual way of life, save by small groups of odd persons; on the lower levels, though it is official, it has little reality. When the test comes it always turns out that the majority of men actually believe in something far more elemental. The hell they fear goes back to Pleistocene times, and so do the demons. And the God they profess to venerate is hard to distinguish from the Grand Juju worshipped in the swamps of the Congo.

The Holy War ----------— by H.L. Mencken

The fact that the enforcement of Prohibition entails a host of oppressions and injustices—that it puts a premium upon the lowest sort of spying, affords an easy livelihood to hordes of professional scoundrels, subjects thousands of decent men to the worst sort of blackmail, violates the theoretical sanctity of domicile, and makes for bitter and relentless enmities, — this fact is now adduced by its ever-hopeful foes as an argument for the abandonment of the whole disgusting crusade. By it they expect to convert even a large minority of the drys, apparently on the theory that the latter got converted emotionally and hastily, and that an appeal to their sense of justice and fair-dealing will debamboozle them.

No hope could be more vain. What all the current optimists overlook is that the illogical and indefensible persecutions certain to occur in increasing number under the Prohibition Amendment constitute the chief cause of its popularity among the sort of men who are in favor of it. The typical Prohibitionist, in other words, is a man full of religious excitement, with the usual sadistic overtones. He delights in persecution for its own sake. He likes to see the other fellow jump and to hear him yell. This thirst is horribly visible in all the salient mad mullahs of the land—that is, in all the genuine leaders of American culture. Such skillful boob-bumpers as the Rev. Dr. Billy Sunday know what that culture is; they know what the crowd wants. Thus they convert the preaching of the alleged Word of God into a rough-and-tumble pursuit of definite sinners—saloon-keepers, prostitutes, Sabbath-breakers, believers in the Darwinian hypothesis, German exegetes, hand-books, poker-players, adulterers, cigarette-smokers, users of profanity. It is the chase that heats up the great mob of Methodists, not the Word. And the fact that the chase is unjust only tickles them the more, for to do injustice with impunity is a sign of power, and power is the thing that the inferior man always craves most violently.

Every time the papers print another account of a Prohibitionist agent murdering a man who resists him, or searching some woman’s underwear, or raiding a Vanderbilt yacht, or blackmailing a Legislature, or committing some other such inordinate and anti-social act, they simply make a thousand more votes for Prohibition. It is precisely that sort of enter- tainmanet that makes Prohibition popular with the boobery. It is precisely because it is unjust, imbecile, arbitrary and tyrannical that they are so hot for it. The incidental violation of even the inferior man’s liberty is not sufficient to empty him of delight in the chase. The victims reported in the newspapers are commonly his superiors; he thus gets the immemorial democratic satisfaction out of their discomfiture. Besides, he has no great rage for liberty himself. He is always willing to surrender it at demand. The most popular man under a democracy is not the most democratic man, but the most despotic man. The common folk delight in the exactions of such a man. They like him to boss them. Their natural gait is the goose-step.

It was predicted by romantics that the arrival of Prohibition would see the American workingman in revolt against its tyranny, with mills idle and industry paralyzed. Certain boozy labor leaders even went so far as to threaten a general strike. No such strike, of course, materialized. Not a single American workingman uttered a sound. The only protests heard of came from a few barbarous foreigners, and these malcontents were quickly beaten into submission by the Polizei. In a week or two all the reserve stocks of beer were exhausted, and every jug of authentic hard liquor was emptied. Since then, save for the ghastly messes that he has brewed behind locked doors, the American workingman has been dry. Worse, he has also been silent. Not a sound has come out of him. … But his liver is full of bile? He nourishes an intolerable grievance? He will get his revenge, soon or late, at the polls? All moonshine! He will do nothing of the sort. He will actually do what he always does—that is, he will make a virtue of his necessity, and straightaway begin believing that he likes Prohibition, that it is doing him a lot of good, that he wouldn’t be without it if he could. This is the habitual process of thought of inferior men, at all times and everywhere. This is the sturdy common sense of the plain people.

Prejudices: Second Series (Alfred A. Knopf, 1920), pp. 219-222. "Optimist vs. Optimist” by H.L. Mencken, Prejudices: Fourth Series (New York: Knopf, 1924) …

But what of the state of public opinion today? Isn’t it a fact that hundreds of thousands of persons who were in favor of Prohibition in 1919 are now so disgusted by its colossal failure that they have turned violently against it? I doubt it. I know of no such person. I know of a great many persons who, though they voted for Prohibition when they had the chance, or, at all events, foavored it, now guzzle like actors and policemen, but I believe that substantially all of them, if the thing were put up to them tomorrow, would be for it again. Whoever believes that they have changed heart is a very poor student of the Puritan psyche. What a Puritan advocates and what he does have no necessary connection. The late Anthony Comstock was a diligent collector of dirty books, and used to entertain favored callers by exhibiting his worst specimens to them. Nevertheless, Comstock was honestly in favor of suppressing such books, and would have gone to the extreme length of giving up his own recreation if he had ever been convinced that it would have helped the cause. To the Puritan, indeed, moral obligation is something quite outside personal conduct, and has very little contact with it. He may be, in private, an extremely gross and porcine fellow, and he frequently is, but that fact doesn’t diminish his veneration for his ethical ideal in the slightest. Brought to the mark, he always sticks to the ideal, however absurdly his conduct clashes with it. As everyone knows, he is rather more prone than most other men to commit fornication, particularly in its more sordid and degrading forms; nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine him advocating any relaxation of the prevailing sexual taboos, however beneficial it would be. Again, as everyone also knows, he is very apt, when he drinks at all, to make a hog of himself, for the amiable drinking customs of civilized men are beyond him; nevertheless, it is impossible to imagine him admitting specifically that any man has a right to drink at all. This last fact explains something that often puzzles foreign observers: the relative smallness and impotence of anti-Prohibition organizations in America, despite the great amount of gabbling against Prohibition that goes on. It is due to the Puritan’s fear of appearing on the side of the devil. He will drink in private, but he will not defend the practise in public.

It thus seems to me that so long as Puritanism remains the dominant philosophy in America—and certainly it shows no sign of relaxing its hold upon the low-caste Anglo-Saxon majority—it will be quite hopeless to look for an abandonment of Prohibition, or even for any relaxation of its extravagant and probably unconstitutional excessses. But for precisely the same reason it seems to me to be very unlikely that Prohibition will ever be enforced, or, indeed, that any honest effort will ever be made to enforce it. For the Puritan’s enthusiasm for the moral law is always grounded, at least in large part, upon a keen realization that it is, after all, only an ideal -- that it may be evaded whenever the temptation grows strong enough—that he himself may evade it, readily and safely. Like every other man, he likes to kick up now and then, and forget his holiest principles. He achieves this kicking up by sinning. When drinking was perfectly lawful, he got no pleasure out of it and so tried to put it down, but now that it is against the law he delights in it, and so long as he delights in it he will keep on doing it. If the Seventh Commandment were repealed tomorrow, military marriages would decrease 95 per cent. in rural America, and the great hotels at Atlantic City would be given over to the bats and owls. Let us, therefore, neither delude ourselves nor get into sweats of Puritan-like fear. Prohibition officers will continue to beat the land for stills and bribes until you and I are long gone and forgotten, and bootleggers will continue to elude them. No genuinely wet President will be elected, save by accident, in our time, and no President will ever be able to enforce Prohibition. Respect for the Constitution will be heard of in every campaign, and then it will be forgotten for four years more. It will give candidates something to talk about, but it will not give the rest of us anything to worry about. (pp. 164-167).

The Impending Combat May 28, 1928 by H. L. Mencken

All the political seers and sorcerers seem to be agreed that the coming Presidential campaign will be full of bitterness, and that most of it will be caused by religion. I count Prohibition as a part of religion, for it has surely become so in the United States. The Prohibitionists, seeing all their other arguments destroyed by the logic of events, have fallen back upon the mystical doctrine that God is somehow on their side, and that opposing them thus takes on the character of blasphemy. …

… For religion is the greatest inspirer of hatred the world has ever seen, and it shows no sign of losing that character in its old age. Every effort to make the warring sects like down together has failed. They quarrel incessantly, and they will keep on quarreling to the end of the chapter.

Why this should be so I don’t know, but it seems to be. The enmities set up by nationalism are as nothing compared to those set up by religion. A few hours after the formal conclusion of a bloody war the soldiers of the opposing armies are friends, and only those who stayed at home keep up the bawling. But when religion gets into a difference it is fought out to the death, and there is never any treaty of peace. Consider again, Prohibition. It used to be discussed good-humoredly, and the two sides kept up a certain show of politeness to each other. Even such violent partisans as Carrie Nation were viewed tolerantly. But the moment the Baptist and Methodist pastors began taking jobs with the Anti-Saloon League the contest became a bloody riot, and now it has come to such a pass that murder is a daily incident of it. Naturally, it is wets (and innocents) who are being murdered, for the pastors are on the side of the drys.

(from On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe, by H.L. Mencken (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 158-160). “The Genealogy of Etiquette” by H. L. Mencken from Prejudices: First Series (Alfred A. Knopf, 1919)

Barring sociology (which is yet, of course, scarcely a science at all, but rather a monkeyshine which happens to pay, like play-acting or theology), psychology is the youngest of the sciences, and hence chiefly guesswork, empiricism, hocus-pocus, poppycock. On the one hand, there are still enormous gaps in its data, so that the determination of its simplest principles remains difficult, not to say impossible; and on the other hand, the very hollowness and nebulosity of it, particularly around its edges, encourages a horde of quacks to invade it, sophisticate it and make nonsense of it. Worse, this state of affairs tends to such confusion of effort and direction that the quack and the honest inquirer are often found in the same man. It is, indeed, a commonplace to encounter a professor who spends his days in the laborious accumulation of psychological statistics, sticking pins into babies and platting upon a chart the ebb and flow of their yells, and his nights chasing poltergeists and other such celestial fauna over the hurdles of a spiritualist’s atelier, or gazing into a crystal in the privacy of his own chamber. The Binet test and the buncombe of mesmerism are alike the children of what we roughly denominate psychology, and perhaps of equal legitimacy. Even so ingenious and competent an investigator as Prof. Dr. Sigmund Freud, who has told us a lot that is of the first importance about the materials and machinery of thought, has also told us a lot that is trivial and dubious. The essential doctrines of Freudism, no doubt, come clost to the truth, but many of Freud’s remoter deductions are far more scandalous than sound, and many of the professed Freudians, both American and European, have grease-paint on their noses and bladders in their hands and are otherwise quite indistinguishable from evangelists and circus clowns.

In this condition of the science it is no wonder that we find it wasting its chief force upon problems that are petty and idle when they are not downright and palpably insoluble, and passing over problems that are of immediate concern to all of us, and that might be quite readily solved, or, at any rate, considerably illuminated, by an intelligent study of the data already available. After all, not many of us care a hoot whether Sir Oliver Lodge and the Indian chief Wok-a-wok-a-mok are happy in heaven, for not many of us have any hope or desire to meet them there. Nor are we greatly excited by the discovery that, of twenty-five freshmen who are hit with clubs, 17 3/4 will say "Ouch!” and 22 1/5 will say “Damn!"; nor by a table showing that 38.2 per centum of all men accused of homicide confess when locked up with the carcasses of their victims, including 23.4 per centum who are innocent; nor by plans and specifications, by Cagliostro out of Lucrezia Borgia, for teaching poor, Godforsaken school children to write before they can read and to multiply before they can add; nor by endless disputes between half-witted pundits as to the precise difference between perception and cognition; nor by even longer feuds, between pundits even crazier, over free will, the subconscious, the endo-neurium, the functions of the corpora quadrigemina, and the meaning of dreams in which one is pursued by hyenas, process-servers or grass-widows.

Nay; we do not bubble with rejoicing when such fruits of psychological deep-down-diving and much-mud-upbringing researches are laid before us, for after all they do not offer us any nourishment, there is nothing in them to engage our teeth, they fail to make life more comprehensible, and hence more bearable. What we yearn to know something about is the process whereby the ideas of everyday are engendered in the skulls of those about us, to the end that we may pursue a straighter and a safer course through the muddle that is life. Why do the great majority of Presbyterians (and, for that matter, of Baptists, Episcopalians, and Swedenborgians as well) regard it as unlucky to meet a black cat and lucky to find a pin? What are the logical steps behind the theory that it is indecent to eat peas with a knife? By what process does an otherwise sane man arrive at the conclusion that he will go to hell unless he is baptized by total immersion in water? What causes men to be faithful to their wives: habit, fear, poverty, lack of imagination, lack of enterprise, stupidity, religion? What is the psychological basis of commercial morality? What is the true nature of the vague pooling of desires that Rousseau called the social contract? Why does an American regard it as scandalous to wear dress clothes at a funeral, and a Frenchman regard it as equally scandalous not to wear them? Why is it that men trust one another so readily, and women trust one another so seldom? Why are we all so greatly affected by statements that we know are not true?—e.g. in Lincoln’s Gettysburg speech, the Declaration of Independence and the CIII Psalm. What is the origin of the so-called double standard of morality? Why are women forbidden to take off their hats in church? What is happiness? Intelligence? Sin? Courage? Virtue? Beauty?

All of these are questions of interest and importance to all of us, for their solution would materially improve the accuracy of our outlook upon the world, and with it our mastery of our environment, but the psychologists, busily engaged in chasing their tails, leave them unanswered, and, in most cases, even unasked. The late William James, more acute than the general, saw how precious little was known about the psychological inwardness of religion, and to the illumination of this darkness he addressed himself in his book, "The Varieties of Religious Experience.” But life being short and science long, he got little beyond the statement of the problem and the marshalling of the grosser evidence—and even at this business he allowed himself to be constantly interrupted by spooks, hobgoblins, seventh sons of seventh sons and other such characteristic pets of psychologists. In the same way one Gustav Le Bon, a Frenchman, undertook a psychological study of the crowd mind—and then blew up. Add the investigations of Freud and his school, chiefly into abnormal states of mind, and those of Lombroso and his school, chiefly quackish and for the yellow journals, and the idle romancing of such inquirers as Prof. Dr. Thorstein Veblen, and you have exhausted the list of contributions to what may be called practical and everyday psychology. The rev. professors, I daresay, have been doing some useful plowing and planting. All of their meticulous pin-sticking and measuring and chart-making, in the course of time, will enable their successors to approach the real problems of mind with more assurance than is now possible, and perhaps help to their solution. But in the meantime the public and social utility of psychology remains very small, for it is still unable to differentiate accurately between the true and the false, or to give us any effective protection against the fallacies, superstitions, crazes and hysterias which rage in the world.

In this emergency it is not only permissible but even laudable for the amateur to sniff inquiringly through the psychological pasture, essaying modestly to uproot things that the myopic (or, perhaps more accurately, hyper-metropic) professionals have overlooked…

H.L. Mencken on Puritanism & Ideas Exchange of Ideas -----------------

[Y]ou may find displayed … the throttling influence of an ever alert and bellicose Puritanism, not only in our grand literature, but also in our petit literature, our minor poetry, even in our humor. The Puritan’s utter lack of aesthetic sense, his distrust of all romantic emotion, his unmatchable intolerance of opposition, his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views, his savage cruelty of attack, his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution—these things have put an almost unbearable burden upon the exchange of ideas in the United States, and particularly upon that form of it which involves playing with them for the mere game’s sake. [Puritanism as a Literary Force; in “A Book of Prefaces"; 1917, pp. 201-202.]

Exact, Undulating Style ---------------------—

Down … with the donkeys who mount soap-boxes and essay to read morals into life, to make it logical and mathematical, to rationalize it, to explain it. The thing is not to be rationalized and explained at all— that is the eternal charm of it. It is to be admired, experimented with, toyed with, wondered at. Itself a supreme adventure, it is the spring and end of all other adventures, especially of the ever-entrancing adventure of ideas. … [S.S.; March, 1919, p. 143. Review of “Beyond Life,” by James Branch Cabell (McBride).]

(from H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy (Knopf, 1926) Democracy and Liberty -------------------— _Where Puritanism Fails_ . . .

It is difficult, indeed for democracy to reconcile itself to what may be called common decency. By this common decency I mean the habit, in the individual, of viewing with tolerance and charity the acts and ideas of other individuals—the habit which makes a man a reliable friend, a generous opponent, and a good citizen. The democrat, despite his strong opinion to the contrary, is seldom a good citizen. In that sense, as in most others, he falls distressfully short. His eagerness to bring all his fellow citizens, and especially all those who are superior to him, into accord with his own dull and docile way of thinking, and to force it upon them when they resist, leads him inevitably into acts of unfairness, oppression and dishonour which, if all men were alike guilty of them, would quickly break down that mutual trust and confidence upon which the very structure of civilized society rests. …

This irreconcilable antagonism between democratic Puritanism and common decency is probably responsible for the uneasiness and unhappiness that are so marked in American life, despite the great material prosperity of the United States. Theoretically, the American people should be happier than any other; actually, they are probably the least happy in Christendom. The trouble with them is that they do not trust one another—and without mutual trust there can be no ease, and no genuine happiness. What avails it for a man to have money in the bank and a Ford in his garage if he knows that his neighbors on both sides are watching him through knotholes, and that the pastor of the tabernacle down the road is planning to have him sent to jail? The thing that makes life charming is not money, but the society of our fellow men, and the thing that draws us toward our fellow men is not admiration for their inner virtues, their hard striving to live according to the light that is in them, but admiration for their outer graces and decencies—in brief, confidence that they will always act generously and understandingly in their intercourse with us. We must trust men before we may enjoy them. Manifestly, it is impossible to put any such trust in a Puritan. With the best intentions in the world he cannot rid himself of the delusion that his duty to save us from our sins—i.e., from the non-Puritanical acts that we delight in—is paramount to his duty to let us be happy in our own way. Thus he is unable to be tolerant, and with tolerance goes magnanimity. A Puritan cannot be magnanimous. He is constitutionally unable to grasp the notion that it is better to be decent than to be steadfast, or even than to be just. So with the democrat, who is simply a Puritan doubly damned. When the late Dr. Wilson, confronted by the case of poor old silly Debs, decided instantly that Debs must remain in jail, he acted as a true democrat and a perfect Puritan. The impulse to be magnanimous, to forgive and forget, to be kindly and generous toward a misguided and harmless old man, was overcome by the harsh Puritan compulsion to observe the letter of the law at all costs. Every Puritan is a lawyer, and so is every democrat. (pp. 172-175)

(from H.L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy (Knopf, 1926) Last Words

I have alluded somewhat vaguely to the merits of democracy. One of them is quite obvious: it is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true—and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their incurable romanticism. They turn, in all the great emergencies of life, to the ancient promises, transparently false but immensely comforting, and of all these ancient promises there is note more comforting than the one to the effect that the lowly shall inherit the earth. It is at the bottom of the dominant religious system of the modern world, and it is at the bottom of the dominant political system. The latter, which is democracy, gives it an even higher credit and authority than the former, which is Christianity. More, democracy gives it a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world—that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power--which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters--which is what makes United States Senators, fortune-tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done--which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.

All these forms of happiness, of course, are illusory. They don’t last. The democrat, leaping into the air to flap his wings and praise God, is for ever coming down with a thump. The seeds of his disaster, as I have shown, lie in his own stupidity: he can never get rid of the naive delusion--so beautifully Christian!--that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow. But there are seeds, too, in the very nature of things: a promise, after all, is only a promise, even when it is supported by divine revelation, and the chances against its fulfilment may be put into a depressing mathematical formula. Here the irony that lies under all human aspiration shows itself: the quest for happiness, as always, brings only _un_happiness in the end. But saying that is merely saying that the true charm of democracy is not for the democrat but for the spectator. That spectator, it seems to me, is favoured with a show of the first cut and calibre. Try to imagine anything more heroically absurd! What grotesque false pretences! What a parade of obvious imbecilities! What a welter of fraud! But is fraud unamusing? Then I retire forthwith as a psychologist. The fraud of democracy, I contend, is more amusing than any other--more amusing even, and by miles, than the fraud of religion. Go into your praying-chamber and give sober thought to any of the more characteristic democratic inventions: say, Law Enforcement. Or to any of the typical democratic prophets: say, the late Archangel Bryan. If you don’t come out paled and palsied by mirth then you will not laugh on the Last Day itself, when Presbyterians step out of the grave like chicks from the egg, and wings blossom from their scapulae, and they leap into interstellar space with roars of joy.

I have spoken hitherto of the possibility that democracy may be a self-limiting disease, like measles. It is, perhaps, something more: it is self-devouring. One cannot observe it objectively without being impressed by its curious distrust of itself--its apparently ineradicable tendency to abandon its whole philosophy at the first sign of strain. I need not point to what happens invariably in democratic states when the national safety is menaced. All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions, convert themselves, by a process as simple as taking a deep breath, into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity. Lincoln, Roosevelt and Wilson come instantly to mind: Jackson and Cleveland are in the background, waiting to be recalled. Nor is this process confined to times of alarm and terror: it is going on day in and day out. Democracy always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves. I have rehearsed some of its operations against liberty, the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic. It not only wars upon the thing itself; it even wars upon mere academic advocacy of it. I offer the spectacle of Americans jailed for reading the Bill of Rights as perhaps the most gaudily humorous ever witnessed in the modern world. Try to imagine monarchy jailing subjects for maintaining the divine right of Kings! Or Christianity damning a believer for arguing that Jesus Christ was the Son of God! This last, perhaps, has been done: anything is possible in that direction. But under democracy the remotest and most fantastic possibility is a commonplace of every day. All the axioms resolve themselves into thundering paradoxes, many amounting to downright contradictions in terms. The mob is competent to rule the rest of us--but it must be rigorously policed itself. There is a government, not of men, but of laws--but men are set upon benches to decide finally what the law is and may be. The highest function of the citizen is to serve the state--but the first assumption that meets him, when he essays to discharge it, is an assumption of his disingenuousness and dishonour. Is that assumption commonly sound? Then the farce only grows the more glorious.

I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies of laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself--that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilirating. But I am, it may be, a somewhat malicious man: my sympathies, when it comes to suckers, tend to be coy. What I can’t make out is how any man can believe in democracy who feels for and with them, and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat? (pp. 206-212)


"… a man who once reaches the point of examining religions as psychological phenomena, without regard to their ostensible authority, always ends by rejecting all of them."

H.L. Mencken 118

Either Jesus arose from the dead or he didn’t. If He did, then Christianity becomes plausible; if He did not, then it is sheer nonsense.

. . .

If a man can’t believe that Jesus arose from the dead he should say so frankly and have done. It is not only foolish but also dishonest for him to pretend to accept all the implications of Christianity without admitting the basic postulate.

H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks) from The Diary of H.L. Mencken, edited by Charles A. Fecher, Vintage, 1989. Baltimore, Md. May 1, 1939 …

On Sunday Betty Hanes invited Dr. Joseph Banks Rhine (1) and his wife to lunch. Rhine is one of the professors of psychology at Duke, and the author of a book, “New Frontiers of the Mind,” that has aroused a great deal of interest among the credulous. It purports to present evidence of thought transference. I read the book when it came out in 1937, and came to the conclusion that Rhine’s statistics were highly unreliable. After two hours of talk with him, I was more than ever conviced. He is a rustic looking fellow, with deep-set, coal black eyes, very slow-spoken and apparently somewhat slow in mind. The more I listened to his exposition the less I was impressed. Hanes, who hardly knew him, came to the same conclusion.

Rhine is the problem child of Duke. He gets more publicity than any other professor in the academic department, but most of the scientificoes regard it as excessively bad advertising for the university. This is especially true in the medical school, where no one has the slightest belief in mental telepathy. Unfortunately, it seems to be impossible to get rid of Rhine. No other university wants him, and he is very comfortable at Duke. He has managed to get together a considerable amount of money for his so-called investigations, and is still reaching out for more. They are so worthless that they have been hailed as masterly by Upton Sinclair.(2) Rhine apparently has a good deal of respect for Sinclair. When I told him that Sinclair was the worst jackass I had ever met on this earth he was plainly not pleased.

His wife seemed to be much more intelligent than he. She is a native of Ohio, and apparently of German origin, as Rhine seems to be himself. I noticed that while he was expounding his ideas she sat regarding him in silence, and with a quizzical smile. My guess is that she knows the answers, but is too discreet to utter them. I have often noticed the same look among the wives of quacks and enthusiasts. Women in general seem to me to be appreciably more intelligent than men. A great many of them suffer in silence from the imbecilities of their husbands. I daresay that poor Sara occasionally shouldered her share of this burden.


1. Dr. Joseph B. Rhine (1895-1980), professor of psychology at Duke. His New Frontiers of the Mind, which virtually introduced the term "extrasensory perception” to the language, caused enormous controversy when it was published in 1937, and the echoes of it have not entirely died down to this day. In the Monday Article for December 6, 1937, entitled “Every Man His Own Radio,” Mencken described Rhine’s experiments at some length and then went on: “Well, what is in it? Is it really a discovery, or is it only hooey? I am sorry to have to report, after giving Professor Rhine’s exposition hard and prayerful study, that I can find nothing but the latter. The whole thing seems to me to be on all fours, intellectually speaking, with spiritualism, osteopathy, and the theology of the Holy Rollers."

2. Upton Sinclair (1878-1968), Baltimore-born novelist and social critic. His best-known book is The Jungle (1906), a realistic account of life in the Chicago stockyards. For many years he and Mencken carried on a correspondence which, on Mencken’s side at least, was humorously critical of everything Sinclair believed in and stood for.

The Root of Religion from Damn! A Book of Calumny, (1918) by H.L. Mencken, p. 90

The idea of liberal truth crept into religion relatively late: it is the invention of lawyers, priests and cheese-mongers. The idea of mystery long preceded it, and at the heart of that idea of mystery was an idea of beauty -- that is, an idea that this or that view of the celestial and infernal process presented a satisfying picture of form, rhythm and organization. Once this view was adopted as satisfying, its professional interpreters and their dupes sought to reinforce it by declaring it true. The same flow of reasoning is familiar on lower planes. The average man does not get pleasure out of an idea because he thinks it true; he thinks it true because he gets pleasure out of it.

The Voter’s Dilemma

by H.L. Mencken. November 3, 1924 . . .

[From H.L. Mencken On Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), pp. 117-122.]

For if the campaign has developed anything at all, it has developed the fact that the hon. gentleman [Calvin Coolidge], for all the high encomiums lavished upon him, is at bottom simply a cheap and trashy fellow, deficient in sense and almost devoid of any notion of honor—in brief, a dreadful little cad. I doubt that any man of dignity, even among his most ardent supporters, has any respect for him as a man. His friends are all ninth-raters like himself. Even in the trade of politics, until the martyrdom of the illustrious Harding heaved him into the White House, he was regarded not as a leader, but as a docile camp-follower. He remains essentially a camp-follower today. He will be safe, but he will be ignoble.

Those who support him because of his safeness tend to forget, I fear, the rest of it. They inevitably wriggle themselves into the position of contending that nothing else matters. It is, I believe, a dangerous doctrine. The four years of Coolidge will be four years of puerile and putrid politics. The very worst elements in the Republican party, already corrupt beyond redemption, will be in the saddle, and full of intelligent self-interest. It will be a debauch of grab. And it will be followed by a revolt that will make the cautious radicalism of Dr. LaFollette appear almost like the gospel of Rotary. Let the friends of safety paste that in their hats. They are trying to put out a fire by squirting gasoline upon it. …

There remains then, the Wisconsin Red [LaFollette], with his pockets stuffed with Soviet gold. I shall vote for him unhesitatingly, and for a plain reason: he is the best man in the running, as a man. There is no ring in his nose. Nobody owns him. Nobody bosses him. Nobody even advises him. Right or wrong, he has stood on his own bottom, firmly and resolutely, since the day he was first heard of in politics, battling for his ideas in good weather and bad, facing great odds gladly, going against his followers as well as with his followers, taking his own line always and sticking to it with superb courage and resolution.

Suppose all Americans were like LaFollette? What a country it would be! No more depressing goose-stepping. No more gorillas in hysterical herds. No more trimming and trembling. Does it matter what his ideas are? Personally, I am against four-fifths of them, but what are the odds? They are, at worst, better than the ignominous platitudes of Coolidge. They are better than the evasions of Davis. Roosevelt subscribed to most of them, and yet the country survived. Whatever may be said against them, there is at least no concealment about them. LaFollette states them plainly. You may fancy them or you may dislike them, but you can’t get away from the fact that they are whooped by a man who, as politicians go among us, is almost miraculously frank, courageous, honest and first-rate.

The older I grow the less I esteem mere ideas. In politics, particularly, they are transient and unimportant. To classify men by examining them is to go back to the stupid days of conscientious Republicans and life-long Democrats. Let us leave such imbecilities to Ku Kluxers, Fundamentalists and readers of the New York Tribune. There are only men who have character and men who lack it. LaFollette has it. There is no shaking or alarming him. He is devoid of caution, policy, timidity, baseness—all immemorial qualities of the politician. He is tremendous when he is right, and he is even more tremendous when he is wrong.

The argument against him seems to follow two lines: that he is a red radical and in secret communiion with the Russians, and that he was against the late war and refused to support it. The first allegation is chiefly voiced by the Hon. Mr. Dawes, a man wholly devoid of honor. It is met by the plain fact that all the American communists are opposed to LaFollette and denounce him with great bitterness. The second charge is well-grounded. LaFollette not only voted as a Senator, against American participation in the war; he also refused flatly to change his views when he failed to prevent it.

What followed is well remembered. While the uproar lasted he was practically barred from the Senate Chamber. His colleagues, eager to escape contamination, avoided him; he was reviled from end to end of the country; all the poopularity and influence he had built up by years of struggle vanished almost completely. Try to imagine any other American politician in that situation. How long would it have taken him to grab a flag and begin howling with the pack? How much would his beliefs and principles have weighed against the complete collapse of his career? I attempt no answer. I simply point to the other Senators who had been, before the declaration of war, in the same boat.

But LaFollette stuck. The stink-bombs burst around him, but still he stuck. The work of his whole life went to pieces, but still he stuck. Weak friends deserted him and old enemies prepared to finish him, but still he stuck. There is no record that he hedged an inch. No accusation, however outrageous, daunted him. No threat of disaster, personal or political, wabbled him for an instant. From beginning to end of those brave and intelligent days he held fast to his convictions, simply, tenaciously, and like a man.

I repeat my question: Suppose all Americans were like him? In particular, suppose all politicians among us were like him? Suppose trimming went out of fashion, and there were an end of skulkers, dodgers and safe men? It is too much, perhaps, to hope for, even to dream of. LaFollette will be defeated tomorrow, as he deserves to be defeated in a land of goose-steppers and rubber-stamps. The robes of Washington and Lincoln will be draped about a man who plays the game according to the American rules.

From Minority Report


One reads constantly, in the writings of such latter-day Pascals and Butlers as Millikan and Eddington, that science has failed as a guide of mankind -- that there is a thirst in the human psyche which it cannot assuage. This is simply pious nonsense. It may be true that for many men, and perhaps even for the overwhelming majority of men, but it is certainly not true for all. I offer myself as an example. To me the scientific point of view is completely satisfying, and it has been so as long as I can remember. Not once in this life have I ever been inclined to seek a rock and a refuge elsewhere. It leaves a good many dark spots in the universe, to be sure, but not a hundredth time as many as theology. We may trust it, soon or late, to throw light upon many of them, and those that remain dark will be beyond illumination by any other agency. It also fails on occasion to console, but so does theology; indeed, I am convinced that man, in the last analysis, is intrinsically inconsolable. All that Eddington and Millikan achieve, when they attempt their preposterous reconciliation of science and theology, is to prove that they themselves, for all their technical skill, are scientists only by trade, not by conviction. They practice science diligently and to some effect, but only in the insensate way in which Blind Tom played the piano. The dead hand is on them, and they can’t get rid of a congenital credulity. Science, to them, remains a bit strange and shocking. They are somewhat in the position of a Christian clergyman who finds himself unable to purge himself of a suspicion that Johah, after all, probably did not swallow the whale.


The effort to reconcile science and religion is almost always made, not by theologians, but by scientists unable to shake off altogether the piety absorbed with their mothers’ milk. The theologians, with no such dualism addling their wits, are smart enough to see that the two things are implacably and eternally antagonistic, and that any attempt to thrust them into one bag is bound to result in one swallowing the other. The scientists who undertake this miscegenation always end by succumbing to religion; after a Millikan has been discoursing five minutes it becomes apparent that he is speaking in the character of a Christian Sunday-school scholar, not of a scientist. The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea, however fundamental it may seem to be, 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, but this yielding is always done grudgingly, and thus lingers a good while behind the event. So far as I am aware even the most liberal theologian of today still gags at scientific concepts that were already commonplaces in my school days. Thus such a thing as a truly enlightened Christian is hard to imagine. Either he is enlightened or he is Christian, and the louder he protests that he is the former the more apparent it becomes that he is really the latter. A Catholic priest who devotes himself to seismology or some other such safe science may become a competent technician and hence a useful man, but it is ridiculous to call him a scientist so long as he still believes in the virgin birth, the atonement or transubstantiation. It is, to be sure, possible to imagine any of these dogmas being true, but only at the cost of heaving all science overboard as rubbish. The priest’s reasons for believing in them is not only not scientific; it is violently anti-scientific. Here he is exactly on all fours with a believer in fortune-telling, Christian Science or chiropractic.

H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks) HLM on Science & Religion from H.L. Mencken’s Treatise on the Gods (1930):

"… Science, we are told, has become a religion on its own account, with a theology like any other. Its axioms are derided as mere articles of faith, and its leaders as no more than bogus John the Baptists, howling in a spiritual wilderness.

"The sharpness of the current attack, after a period of relative quiescence, is due to two things. The first is the extraordinarily rapid accumulation of scientific knowledge since 1859, leaving the primary assumptions of religion more and more untenable, and making their defenders more an more desperate. The second is the vast proliferation of democracy in all the more advanced nations, giving every enemy of intelligence a new reservoir of power. Just as medieval kings played the peasants against the nobles, so the reigning theologians and other obscurantists play the mob against the enlightened minority. Even so, of course, they are not sufficiently strong to extirpate the scientific spirit altogether, for the mob itself begins to be somewhat suspicious of them, but they are at least strong enough to put up a tremendous fight, and to spread a certain uneasiness among the less resolute sort of educated men. This last fact accounts for a phenomenon that adds something to the gayety of life in the democracy-ridden English-speaking countries: the effort of certain alarmed and conciliatory scientists to prove that exact knowledge and theological dogma are not actually at odds—in the common phrase, to reconcile science and religion. Ostensibly, that effort is based upon a modest sense of the limitations of the human mind—upon an humble and hence highly laudable readiness to admit that many of the great problems of being and becoming remain unsolved, and must probably go unsolved forever. But actually there is something else.

H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks)


"In part, I suspect, it is simply cowardice—a disinclination to provoke formidable and unscrupulous antagonists too far—a craven yearning for the cheaper sort of popularity. But in part it is also due to inner turmoils, congenital doubts. One must not forget that the free opportunity which prevails in democratic societies carries certain inevitable pains and penalties with it—that the sweet privelege of offering a hand up to the worthy young man from below may be accompanied by the bitter discovery that he is not quite fitted by nature to live comfortably on the higher level. This difficulty is frequently visible in the field of politics: everyone can recall Presidents who carried the appetites and attitudes of the village grocery-store or the small-town lodge of Elks into the White House. What is too often forgotten is that it exists also in the grove of Athene. Even a cursory examination should be sufficient to reveal plenty of evidences of it—eminent economists who never learn decent table manners, distinguished physicists who turn to spiritualism in their old age, celebrated surgeons who believe in Prohibition, palmistry or the Single Tax, big-wigs of other faculties who can never quite rid themselves of the Methodism they learned at their mothers’ knees. Such prodigies are not uncommon in the more democratic countries, and they are naturally in the forefront of the effort to reconcile science and religion. They must be endured patiently, and with them the damage they do to the intellectual decencies. It is too much, indeed, to ask a man bred in a country parsonage and educated at a backwoods denominational college to get rid of his infantile dreads and superstitions altogether, even after a year at Gottingen and a long and useful career in the laboratory. But to be polite to such unhappy amphibians is one thing, and to take their incurable piety seriously is quite another…” (pp. 300-303).

"… The only real way to reconcile science and religion is to set up something that is not science and something that is not religion. This is done with great earnestness by Robert A. Millikan, A. S. Eddington and other such hopeful men—all of them bred so deeply in the faith that they have been unable to shake it off in their later years, despite their training in scientific method and their creditable professional use of it. The thing that Millikan describes as Christianity is simply a vague sort of good will to men: it has little more objective reality in the world than abstract justice or the love of God. And the thing that he describes as science is so halting and timorous that it is quite as unreal. The notion that science does not concern itself with origins and causes—that it leaves that field to theology or metaphysics, and confines itself to mere effects—this notion is surely quite unsound. If it could, science would explain the origin of life on earth at once — and there is every reason to believe that it will do so on some not too remote tomorrow. To argue that the gaps in knowledge which still confront the seeker must be filled, not by patient inquiry, but by intuition or revelation, is simply to give ignorance a gratuitous and preposterous dignity. When a man so indulges himself it is only to confess that, to that extent at least, he is not a scientist at all, but a theologian. This is precisely what Millikan, Eddington and their like come to. They reconcile science and religion by the sorry device of admitting, however cautiously, that the latter is somehow superior to the former, and is thus entitled to all territories that remain unoccupied. All they really prove is that a man may be a competent astronomer or physicist and yet no scientist, just as Blind Tom was a competent pianist without being a musician.

"Nor is there any more validity in the position of that other school of reconcilers (it is led at the moment by J. Arthur Thomson, the English zoologist, but really goes back to Max Muller), which teaches that science and religion address themselves to quite different faculties, the former to the intellect and the latter to the emotions, and that they are thus independent, and equally entitled to respect. Here, unfortunately, the psychology is very dubious. It must be manifest that even the most instinctive of emotions, in adult human beings, owes something to the intellect, and it must be equally manifest that no intellectual process can ever be wholly devoid of an emotional element. So much, indeed, is a commonplace to every schoolboy: the Freudian gospel has carried it, along with a great deal of racy nonsense, from end to end of the world. The evidence of the emotions, save in cases where it has strong objective support, is really no evidence at all, for every recognizable emotion has its opposite, and if one points one way then another points the other way. Thus the familiar argument that there is an instinctive desire for immortality, and that this desire proves it to be a fact, becomes puerile when it is recalled that there is also a powerful and widespread fear of annihilation, and that this fear, on the same principle, proves that there is nothing beyond the grave. Such childish “proofs” are typically theological, and they remain theological even when they are adduced by men who like to flatter themselves by believing that they are scientific gents." (pp. 306-309).


There is no possibility whatsoever of reconciling science and theology, at least in Christendom. Either Jesus arose from the dead or he didn’t. If He did, then Christianity becomes plausible; if He did not, then it is sheer nonsense. I defy any genuine scientist to say that he believes in the Resurrection, or indeed in any other cardinal dogma of the Christian system. They are all grounded upon statements of fact that are intrinsically incredible. Those so-called scientists who profess to accept them are not scientists at all -- for example, the late Howard A. Kelly. Kelly was simply an extraordinarily skillful and successful virtuoso of technic, comparable to a champion golfer or buck-and-wing dancer. He made a few more or less useful contributions to surgical mechanics, but so far as I know he had made none whatever to the science of medicine. Nicholas W. Alter, who used to be his pathologist, once told me that he was a complete dud at the microscope. Alter swore, in fact, that Kelly couldn’t distinguish between a section of sarcoma and a slice of beefsteak.

The current revolt against the so-called liberal theology is perfectly sound. That theology is nothing save an excuse and an evasion. It reduces both science and theology to the ridiculous. If a man can’t believe that Jesus arose from the dead he should say so frankly and have done. It is not only foolish but also dishonest for him to pretend to accept all the implications of Christianity without admitting the basic postulate. In this field the Catholic Church, as usual, has been enormously more intelligent than the Protestant. It has rejected so-called Modernism in toto and refuses any compromise with it. The Protestants’ attempts to compromise have simply made Protestantism ludicrous. No man of any intellectual dignity can accept it, or even discuss it seriously. The only really respectable Protestants are the Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are also palpable idiots, and so Christianity gains nothing by their adherence—in fact, it is gravely injured by their adherence, just as spiritualism would be made preposterous, even if it were not so intrinsically, by the frowsy old imbeciles who believe in it.

First Steps in Divinity

by H.L. Mencken

[From Happy Days: 1880-1892 (Knopf, 1936; Johns Hopkins, 1996), pp. 185-188.]

A little while later the good doctor [Rev. Sylvanus Stall, D.D.*] quit pastoring to take the editorship of a church paper, with dashes into book-writing on the side. His first two or three books had such depressing titles as “Methods of Church Work,” “Five-Minute Object Sermons” and “Bible Selections For Daily Devotion,” and appear to have scored only succeses of esteem. But in 1897, long after I had escaped his former Sunday-school and almost forgotten him, he brought out a little volume called “What a Young Boy Ought to Know,” and thereafter he began rolling up money with such velocity that when he died in 1915 he was probably the richest Lutheran pastor, at least in the earned brackets, that the Republic has ever seen. For that little volume founded the great science of sex hygiene, which eventually developed into a major American industry, with thousands of practitioners and a technic become as complicated as that of bridge or chess.

He wrote all its official texts for male seekers—"What a Young Man Ought to Know,” “What a Young Husband Ought to Know,” “What a Man of Forty-five Ought to Know,” and so on—and he inspired, copy-read and published all its texts for females, beginning with “What a Young Girl Ought to Know” and ending, I suppose, with “What a Decent Grandmother Ought to Forget.” Indeed, he held the field unchallenged until the explosion of the Freud ammunition-dump of horrors, and by that time he was so well heeled that he could afford to laugh ha-ha. He left his money, I believe, to a college for training missionaries to the sexually misinformed and underpriveleged, but where it is located I don’t know and don’t care.

Of the theology he radiated in his Baltimore days I retain precisely nothing. There was, in fact, little expounding of doctrine in his Sunday-school; the instruction, in so far as there was any at all, was predominantly ethical, and had as its chief apparent aim the discouragement of murder, robbery, counterfeiting, embezzlement and other such serious crimes, none of which occurred in the student body in my time. Those were the cradle days of religious pedagogy, and the teachers confined themselvese mainly to expounding the week’s International Sunday-school Lesson, and trying to induce their pupils to memorize the Golden Text. Inasmuch as I could never memorize anything, I failed regularly. But there was no penalty for failure, and it was hardly remarked, for virtually all the other boys in my class failed too.

Tiring of this puerile futility, I began to agitate for my release at the age of ten, and finally escaped when I went into long pants. My father, it turned out, had not underestimated the potency of his evil influence: it left me an infidel as he was, and as his father had been before him. My grandfather died too soon to have much direct influence on me, but I must have inherited something of his attitude of mind, which was one of large tolerance in theological matters. No male of the Mencken family, within the period that my memory covers, ever took religion seriously enough to be indignant about it. There were no converts from faith among us, and hence no bigots or fanatics. To this day I have a distrust of such fallen-aways, and when one of them writes in to say that some monograph of mine has aided him in throwing off the pox of Genesis my rejoicing over the news is very mild indeed.


* The pastor of the church in those days was the Rev. Sylvanus Stall, D.D., a tall, gaunt Pennsylvanian with a sandy beard and melancholy voice. I find on investigation that he was precisely forty years old in 1887, but he seemed to my brother and me to be as ancient as Abraham. He looked at first glance like a standard-model Class B Protestant ecclesiastic, but there was much more to him than met the eye. One Sunday morning in 1889 or thereabout he showed up in Sunday-school with a strange contraption under his arm. Rapping for order, he announced that it was a newly invented machine that could talk like a human being, and not only talk but even sing. Then he instructed us to sing his favorite hymn, which was “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” We bawled it dutifully, and he explained that the machine would now bawl it back. "But not,” he went on, “as loudly as you did. Listen carefully, and you will hear it clearly enough. The sound of the machine is very faint, but it is also very penetrating.” So he turned it on, and we heard a phonograph for the first time. Ah, that it had been the last!

[From The Diary of H. L. Mencken, edited by Charles A. Fecher, Vintage, New York (1989).]

Baltimore, June 1, 1945.

I had James T. Farrell, the novelist, to lunch at the Maryland Club yesterday, along with his brother, Dr. John A. Farrell, psychiatrist on the staff of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, Washington. Farrell is 41 and his brother looks to be considerably younger. Farrell has done some novels of excellent merit, all of them dealing with the poor Irish among whom he was brought up in Chicago, but he is not very good company, and I see him very seldom. There was a time when he was a Communist, but he seems to have recanted, for the Reds now denounce him violently. …

The medical Farrell turned out to be a believer in the mental cause of mental diseases. He was full of tales of sailors and marines in his care, driven crazy by the horrors of service in the South Seas. One of them, he said, came home with such an advanced case of jitters that he leaped upon a table and began to cry every time he heard and airplane. Such evidence, to me at least, proves only that this poor fellow was crazy before he was drafted. The examining psychiatrists, if they were even half competent, would have screened him out. Thousands of men who have gone through precisely the same experiences remain completely sane. But it is hard to find a psychiatrist intelligent enough to think of this elemental fact. My guess is that most recruits to psychiatry are young medicoes who crave quick and easy jobs, and realize that they are unfit for anything better. An asylum doctor has a good livelihood assured for life, no matter how little he may know and learn. I asked Farrell what treatment was prescribed for such pathents as the one mentioned, but he was very vague in his answer. Apparently they are left to themselves. If they get well, psychiatry has achieved another triumph; if not, it is God’s will.(pp. 368-369)


Skepticism offers man the soundest of working philosophies, but it certainly does not make for happiness. The happiness of any given skeptic is always to be found,not in his doubts, but in his surviving delusions. Every member of the order has a plentiful stock of them, though he may not know it and invariably denies it. If he cherishes no other, he at least cherishes the delusion that there is one woman on earth who is an exception to all his doubts and dubieties about women in general. He may not go so far as to say he has encountered her, but he nevertheless believes that she exists, or, at worst, that she can be imagined.

H.L. Mencken (from H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks) “The Tight-Rope” by H. L. Mencken From the Baltimore Evening Sun, May 9, 1927 . . .

Is the skeptic ever happy, in the sense that a man who believes that God is watching over him is happy? Privately, I often doubt it. Here the pious seem to have a certain bulge on the doubters. Immersed in their faith, they enjoy a quiet contentment that is certainly never apparent to a man of restless, inquisitive, questioning mind. The happiest people in the world, accepting this definition of happiness, are probably Christian Scientists—that is, until they come down with appendicitis or gall-stones. But there is a kind of satisfaction that is quite as attractive, to certain rugged types of men, as this somewhat cow-like form of contentment. It is related to the latter just as the satisfaction of a soldier on active duty is related to the satisfaction of a man securely at home. The man at home is quite safe, and the soldier runs a considerable risk of being killed or wounded. But who will argue that the man at home, on the whole, is happier than the soldier—that is, assuming that the soldier is a volunteer? The one is tightly comfortable, and hence happy. But the other, though in grave peril, is happy too—and I am inclined to think that his happiness is often of a palpably superior variety.

So with the skeptic. His doubts, if they are real, undoubtedly tend to make him uneasy, and hence unhappy, for they play upon themselves quite as much as upon the certainties of the other fellow. What comforts him, in the long run, I suppose, is his pride in his capacity to face them. He is not wobbled and alarmed, like my correspondent; he gets a positive thrill out of being uneasy, as the soldier gets a thrill out of being in danger. Is this thrill equal, as a maker of anything rationally describable as happiness, to the comfort and security of the man of faith? Ask me an easier question! Is a blonde lovelier than a brunette? Is Dunkles better than Helles? Is Los Angeles the worst town in America, or only next to the worst? The skeptic, asked the original question, will say yes: the believer will say no. There you have it.

The Supreme Comedy H.L. Mencken (from Appendix on a Tender Theme, Prejudices: Second Series, 1920, pp. 244-245)

Marriage, at best is full of a sour and inescapable comedy, but it never reaches the highest peaks of the ludicrous save when efforts are made to escape its terms—that is, when efforts are made to loosen its bounds, and so ameliorate and denaturize it. All projects to reform it by converting it into a free union of free individuals are inherently absurd. The thing is, at bottom, the most rigid of existing conventionalities, and the only way to conceal the fact and so make it bearable is to submit to it philosophically. The effect of every revolt is merely to make the bonds galling, and, what is worse, obvious. Who are happy in marriage? Those with so little imagination that they cannot picture a better state, and those so shrewd that they prefer quiet slavery to hopeless rebellion.

Under the Elms by H.L. Mencken

[From the Trenton, N.J., Sunday Times, April 3, 1927. Early in 1927 several suicides were reported from college campuses, and the newspapers played them up in a melodramatic manner and tried to show that there was an epidemic. In this they were supported by various alarmed pedagogues, one of whom, Dr. John Martin Thomas, president of Rutgers, told the Times that the cause was “too much Mencken.” The Times asked me to comment on this, and I sent in the following. Thomas, a Presbyterian pastor turned pedagogue, was president of Rutgers from 1925 to 1930. He resigned to enter the insurance business.]

I see nothing mysterious about these suicides. The impulse to self- destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational process. Every intelligent student, at some time or other during his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sensible to die than to go on living. I was myself spared the intellectual humiliations of a college education, but during my late teens, with the enlightening gradually dawning within me, I more than once concluded that death was preferable to life. At that age the sense of humor is in a low state. Later on, by the mysterious working of God’s providence, it usually recovers.

What keeps a reflective and skeptical man alive? In large part, I suspect, it is this sense of humor. But in addition there is curiosity. Human existence is always irrational and often painful, but in the last analysis it remains interesting. One wants to know what is going to happen tomorrow. Will the lady in the mauve frock be more amiable than she is today? Such questions keep human beings alive. If the future were known, every intelligent man would kill himself at once, and the Republic would be peopled wholly by morons. Perhaps we are really moving toward that consummation now.

I hope no one will be upset and alarmed by the fact that various bishops, college presidents, Rotary lecturers and other such professional damned fools are breaking into print with high-falutin discussions of the alleged wave of student suicides. Such men, it must be manifest, seldom deal with realities. Their whole lives are devoted to inventing bugaboos, and then laying them. Like the news editors, they will tire of this bogus wave after a while, and go yelling after some other phantasm. Meanwhile, the world will go staggering on. Their notions are never to be taken seriously. Their one visible function on earth is to stand as living proofs that education is by no means synonymous with intelligence.

What I’d like to see, if it could be arranged, would be a wave of suicides among college presidents. I’d be delighted to supply the pistols, knives, ropes, poisons and other necessary tools. Going further, I’d be delighted to load the pistols, hone the knives, and tie the hangman’s knots. A college student, leaping uninvited into the arms of God, pleases only himself. But a college president, doing the same thing, would give keen and permanent joy to great multitudes of persons. I drop the idea, and pass on.

H.L. Mencken, Minority Report (1956)


"Of all the classes of men, I dislike the 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. His success is judged by the favor of his inferiors, or at all events of persons supposed to be his inferiors, and for that sort of thing I have no taste. If he is intelligent at all, which happens occasionally, he must be well aware that this favor is irrational and almost certainly transient. He is admired for his worst qualities, and he cannot count upon being admired for long. A good part of my time, in my earlier days, was spent listening to speeches of one sort or another, and to watching their makers glow under the ensuing clapper- clawing. I was always sorry for such men, for I soon observed that the applause of today was almost invariably followed by the indifference of tomorrow.”


Religion, of course, does make some men better, and perhaps even many men. There can be no doubt of it. But making them better by filling their poor heads with grotesque nonsense is an irrational and wasteful process, and the harm it does greatly outweighs the good. If men could be made better—or even only happier—by teaching them that two and two make five there would be plenty of fools to advocate that method, but it would remain anti-social none the less. If the theologians could only agree on their doctrines their unanimity might have some evidential value, just as the agreement of all politicians that the first duty of the citizen is to obey them and admire them has some evidential value. It may not be true, but it is at least undisputed by all save a small fraction of heretics, which is certainly something. Fortunately for common sense, the theologians are never able to agree. Even within the sects, and under the more rigid discipline, there is constant wrangling, as, for example, between the Jesuits and the Dominicans. Thus the cocksureness of one outfit is cancelled out by the ribald denial of all the rest, and rational men are able to consign the whole gang to statistics and the Devil.


The so-called Philosophy of India has found its natural home in Los Angeles, the capital of American idiots. Nowhere else, so far as I know, is there any body of theosophists left, and nowhere else has there ever been any substantial following for Yogi. All the quacks who advertise to teach Yogi in twenty lessons for $2, and all the high priests of the other varieties of Indian balderdash have their headquarters in Los Angeles, which is also the Rome of the American Rosicrucians.

"… Rome had become the sewer of theology, as the United States threatens to become today. All the streams of superstition ran into it, and all the streams of sacerdotal fraud…"

[From Treatise on the Gods, 1930, pp. 97-98]

The Test

by H.L. Mencken

Don’t ask what delusion he entertains regarding God, or what mountebank he follows in politics, or what he springs from, or what he submits to from his wife. Simply ask how he makes his living. It is the safest and surest of all known tests. A man who gets his board and lodging on this ball in an ignominious way is inevitably an ignominious man.

[From Prejudices: Fourth Series (New York: Knopf,1924), p. 200)

"The Tight-Rope” by H. L. Mencken From the Baltimore Evening Sun, May 9, 1927

In this department, by God’s grace, my own conscience is perfectly clear -- perhaps my one plausible boast as a moral agent: I have never consciously tried to convert anyone to anything. Like any other man bawling from a public stamp I have occasionally made a convert; in fact, in seasons when my embouchure has been good I have made a great many. But not deliberately, not with any satisfaction. Next to a missionary, a convert is the most abhorrent shape I can imagine. I dislike persons who change their basic ideas, and I dislike them when they change them for good reasons quite as much as when they change them for bad ones. A convert to a good idea is simply a man who confesses that he was formerly an ass—and is probably one still. When such a man favors me with a certificate that my eloquence has shaken him I feel about him precisely as I’d feel if he told me that he had started (or stopped) beating his wife on my recommendation. No: it is not pleasant to come into contact with such flabby souls, so lacking in character and self-respect. Their existence embitters the life of every man who deals in ideas. The hard-boiled fellows are far more agreeable, no matter what their concrete notions. Some of those who appear to depart the farthest from the elements of sense are the most charming, for example, certain varieties of evangelical pastors. I have known many such pastors, and esteemed not a few of them. But only, I should add, the relatively unsuccessful, who seldom if ever achieved the public nuisance known as saving a soul. They believed their depressing rubbish firmly, but they did not press it upon either their inferiors or their superiors. They were not wowsers.

Unluckily, there are very few such pastors in the average Christian community, especially in the United States. The great majority, forgetting their office of conducting worship, devote themselves mainly to harassing persons who do not care to join them. This harassing is bad enough when it fails of its purpose; when it succeeds its consequence is simply an increase in the sum of human degradation, publicly displayed. It is well known that natural believers are always suspicious of converts. No wonder. For precisely the same reason sober automobilists are suspicious of drunken drivers, and Prohibition agents of Prohibitionists.

Is the skeptic ever happy, in the sense that a man who believes that God is watching over him is happy? Privately, I often doubt it. Here the pious seem to have a certain bulge on the doubters. Immersed in their faith, they enjoy a quiet contentment that is certainly never apparent to a man of restless, inquisitive, questioning mind. The happiest people in the world, accepting this definition of happiness, are probably Christian Scientists—that is, until they come down with appendicitis or gall-stones. But there is a kind of satisfaction that is quite as attractive, to certain rugged types of men, as this somewhat cow-like form of contentment. It is related to the latter just as the satisfaction of a soldier on active duty is related to the satisfaction of a man securely at home. The man at home is quite safe, and the soldier runs a considerable risk of being killed or wounded. But who will argue that the man at home, on the whole, is happier than the soldier—that is, assuming that the soldier is a volunteer? The one is tightly comfortable, and hence happy. But the other, though in grave peril, is happy too—and I am inclined to think that his happiness is often of a palpably superior variety.

So with the skeptic. His doubts, if they are real, undoubtedly tend to make him uneasy, and hence unhappy, for they play upon themselves quite as much as upon the certainties of the other fellow. What comforts him, in the long run, I suppose, is his pride in his capacity to face them. He is not wobbled and alarmed, like my correspondent; he gets a positive thrill out of being uneasy, as the soldier gets a thrill out of being in danger. Is this thrill equal, as a maker of anything rationally describable as happiness, to the comfort and security of the man of faith? Ask me an easier question! Is a blonde lovelier than a brunette? Is Dunkles better than Helles? Is Los Angeles the worst town in America, or only next to the worst? The skeptic, asked the original question, will say yes: the believer will say no. There you have it.

[A review of The Pathway of Life, by Leo Tolstoy; New York, 1920 by H.L. Mencken (From the Smart Set, May 1920, pp. 142-43.]

Leo Tolstoy’s “The Pathway of Life” is precisely the sort of book that one might imagine the great Russian chautauquan keeping by his bedside, to be resorted to for solace whenever nightmares awakened him and the sorrows of the world gnawed his liver. That is to say, it is a huge compendium of ethical and theological mush, partly of Tolstoy himself and partly by other sages. The ideas running through it are those of the average Methodist evangelist of the Iowa backwoods. The one and only duty of man is to please God; all other duties are illusory and of the devil. So far, so good. But how is one to determine what is pleasing to God? Here the venerable bosh-monger is far from clear, but one may at least guess at his general answer. Whatever is unpleasant to man is pleasant to God. The test is the natural instinct of man. If there arises within one’s dark recesses a hot desire to do this or that, then it is the paramount duty of a Christian to avoid doing this or that. And if, on the contrary, one cherishes an abhorrence of the business, then one must tackle it forthwith, all the time shouting “Hallelujah!” A simple enough religion, surely—simple, satisfying and idiotic. No wonder Tolstoy is the hero of Russian muzhiks and American Socialists.

The old rat-trap had a bold spirit: he never tried to evade the necessary implications of his doctrine. For example, consider the matter of sex. Tolstoy believed and taught that passion was unqualifiedly evil—that it was a sin against the Holy Ghost to cast a friendly eye upon a pretty girl, or even upon one’s lawful wife. His disciples, poll-parroting this imbecile idea, quickly got into difficulties. What it inevitably led to was the advocacy of race suicide upon a colossal scale. No passion, no Stammhalter. But Tolstoy himself never bucked at this dilemma. Instead he boldly seized both horns, took a long breath, and emerged with the doctrine that the human race should be, must be, and of a right ought to be exterminated. Here I had better leave him. His notions begin to seduce me …

[From Newspaper Days: 1899 - 1906, v. 2 of Mencken’s Autobiography (Johns Hopkins, 1996) , pp. 89-91).]

All these studies and recreations were very pleasant, but my time was running short, so I shoved back to Port Antonio to find a ship for home. I learned at once that a Norwegian tramp of about the size and speed of the Ely would be clearing in a few days, and I booked passage at once. The next day was a Sunday, and I resoved to spend it sitting on the veranda of the old Titchfield Hotel, listening to the gabble of the supercargoes, plantation overseers and English remittance men who then constituted the society of the place. They started off after breakfast with a series of magnificent tales of love, trading and carnage, for it was not often that they encountered a new listener who was really eager to listen. But suddenly, in the midst of a hair-raising anecdote about cannibalism in Haiti, two of them rose quietly and faded away, and then two more followed, and then three, and in half a minute I was alone with the raconteur, an Irishman who claimed to be the son of a Spanish duke. Finally, even he made off at a quick sneak, and I looked behind me anxiously, almost expecting to see a crocodile bearing down, or even a shark. But all I could find was an old man with a long white beard, buttoned up in a black frock coat of the vintage of 1880. He looked harmless enough, certainly, but I was soon to learn that he was the most dangerous carnivore on the island, for what he packed was a messianic delusion.

In brief, he was tortured by a libido to save the souls of carnal wayfarers, and in order to feed and furnish it he maintained at his own expense a Methodist chapel down in the town. The cost was no burden to him, for he had come to Jamaica back in the first days of the banana business, and picked up plenty of easy money. Now his whole time was given over to his missionarying, and every Sunday morning he swooped down on the Titchfield veranda and tried to round up the damned assembled there. As I learned afterward, only strangers somewhat gone in liquor ever succumbed to him, and when they got back from his services they always reported a terrible experience. Being sober at the time, I resisted, and inasmuch as I was already something of an amateur theologian, and hence familiar with all the classical grips and grapples, I resisted to some effect. But I am glad to testify today, after so many years, that never in this life have I gone to the mat with a tougher evangelist. He beat any Christian Scientist ever heard of, or any Presbyterian, however ferocious, or any foot-wash Baptist. I have been tackled in my day by virtuosi ranging from mitred abbots to the kitchen police of the Salvation Army, but never have I had to fight harder to preserve my doctrinal chastity. Over and over again the old boy got to my chin or midriff with scriptural texts that had the impact of a mule’s hoof, and when he turned from upbraiding to cajolery, and began to argue that my sufferings in Hell would be upon his head, I almost threw up the sponge. Indeed, if it had not been for the audience lying in wait (I could hear it panting behind the jalousies), I’d have gone down to his gospel mill with him, if only to get rid of him, but as it was I was in honor bound to resist, and in the end he gave up in despair, and shuffled off down the path to the town. The loafers, when they sneaked back, stood me a communal drink, and I surely needed it. Some years later, on returning to Port Antonio, I was told that the old man had got himself into a wilder and wilder lather as his years advanced, and that he finally prayed himself to death.

"Travail”, by H.L. Mencken From the Baltimore Evening Sun, Oct. 8, 1928

Today the old pedagogy has gone out, and a new and complicated science has taken its place. Unluckily, it is largely the confectiion of imbeciles, and so the unhappiness of the young continues. In the whole realm of human learning there is no faculty more fantastically incompetent than that of pedagogy. If you doubt it, go read the pedagogical journals. Better still, send for an armful of the theses that Kandidaten write and publish when they go up for their Ph. D.’s. Nothing worse is to be found in the literature of astrology, scientific salesmanship, or Christian Science. But the poor schoolma’ams, in order to get on in their trade, must make shift to study it, and even to master it. No wonder their dreams are of lawful domestic love, even with the curse of cooking thrown in.

The school-children of today are exposed to this cataract of puerility from the time they escape from the kindergarten until the time they escape into college or wage-slavery. Are their lives happy? Ask yourself if you would be happy if you had to listen six or seven hours a day to speeches by spiritualists and Seventh Day Adventists. It must be dreadful for a bright child to submit to such vivisection, and its discomforts are surely not ameliorated by the fact that the poor ma’am is suffering too. It is no longer sufficient that she love her art and practice it diligently. She must also sweat through Summer-school every year, damning her luck and boldly laying on more and more rouge. In the end her mind is a black abyss of graphs and formulae, by bogus statistics out of snide psychology, and she is no more fit to teach than an adding machine.

There should be more sympathy for school-children. The idea that they are happy is of a piece with the idea that the lobster in the pot is happy. They are, in more ways than one, the worst and most pathetic victims of the complex of inanities and cruelties called civilization. The human race is so stupid that it has never managed to teach them its necessary tricks and delusions in a painless and pleasant manner. The cats and dogs do better by their young, and so, in fact, do savages. All that is taught to the end of grammar school could be imparted to an intelligent child, by genuinely scientific methods, in two years and without any cruelty worse than that involved in pulling a tooth. But now it takes nine years, and in a long series of laparotomies without anesthetics.

Is anything really valuable ever learned at school? I sometimes doubt it. Moreover, many wiser men doubt it, though they commonly make an exception of reading and writing. The ma’am, they say, can teach her customers to read and write: afterward, whatever they learn they pick up themselves. I go further. I believe that even in the matter of reading and writing children commonly teach themselves, or one another. The ma’am may show them how to learn, and make them want to do so, but she seldom actually teaches them. She is too busy making out reports, passing examinations, and trying to find out what the innumerable super-gogues who beset her desire her to do and say. She is as unhappy as her charges, and hates learning quite as bitterly.

I suggest hanging all the professors of pedagogy, arming the ma’am with a rattan, and turning her loose. Back to Bach! The new pedagogy has got so complicated that it often forgets the pupil altogether, just as the new medicine often forgets the patient. It is driving the poor ma’ams crazy, and converting the children into laboratory animals. I believe that the old sing-song system, with an occasional fanning of the posterior, was better. At all events, it was simpler. One could grasp it without graphs.

Truth shifts and changes like a cataract of diamonds; its aspect is never precisely the same at two successive instants. But error flows down the channel of history like some great stream of lava or infinitely lethargic glacier. It is the one relatively fixed thing in a world of chaos. It is, perhaps, the one thing that gives human society the stability needed to save it from the wreck that ever menaces. Without their dreams men would have fallen upon and devoured one another long ago—and yet every dream is an illusion, and every illusion a falsehood.

H.L. Mencken (Smart Set, Oct. 1919) from My Life As Author and Editor, by H.L. Mencken, edited by Johathan Yardley, Vintage (1992).

Bloodgood fitted into the Holt family admirably, for all of its members were uplifters of one sort or another. The son by the old man’s first marriage, Roland, was a promoter of arty theatrical performances in New York; the eldest daughter, Winifred, devoted herself to succoring and harassing the blind; the younger daughter, Mrs. Bloodgood, was a do-gooder in general practice, and the old man himself whooped up not only simplified spelling and spiritualism, but also various other crazes. Only the young son of his second marriage, Eliot, showed any sign of normalcy—and Eliot was a drunkard.

… Thus history repeated itself almost literatim, and Alfred Harcourt, despite his intelligence, added one more stone to the massive pile of proof that human beings learn nothing by experience. …

… My basic point of view, of course, went back to my early teens, and has never changed in any essential during the half century since. … I emerged into sentience with an almost instinctive distrust of all schemes of revolution and reform. They were, to me, only signs and symptoms of a fundamental hallucination, to wit, the hallucination that human nature could be changed by passing statutes and preaching gospels—that natural law could be repealed by taking thought.

… Even as a boy I never had any belief in religion, and even as a youth I never went through the Socialist green sickness that was then almost universal. I was against Bryan the moment I heard of him, and my interest in Roosevelt 1 was always born of delight in the mountebank, not of belief in the prophet. As I have recorded in Newspaper Days, my first adventures as a reporter convinced me that the uplift in all its branches was only buncombe. … Competence, indeed, was my chief admiration, then as now, and next to competence I put what is called being a good soldier—that is, not whining. For the rest, I inclined toward my father’s Chinese doctrine that the first of positive duties was to keep one’s engagements. (pp. 31-34)

Veritas Odium Parit

by H.L. Mencken

[From Prejudices: Fourth Series (New York: Knopf, 1924), pp. 198-199.]

An old human delusion, largely fostered by theologians, is the one to the effect that truth has a mysterious medicinal power—that its propagation makes the world better and man happier . . . et cognoscetis veritatem, et veritas liberabit vos. But is this so-called truth about truth true? It is not. The truth, nine times out of ten, is extremely disturbing and uncomfortable; if it is not grossly discreditable to someone it is apt to be painfully amazing to everyone. The masses of men are thus wise to hold it in suspicion, as they are wise to suspect that other delusion, liberty. Let us turn to an example. The most rational religious ideas held in modern times, at least among Christians, are probably those of the Unitarians; the most nonsensical are those of the Christian Scientists. Yet it must be obvious to every observer that the average Unitarian, even when he is quite healthy, which is not often, is a sour, conscience-striken and unhappy fellow, whereas the average Christian Scientist, even when he is down with gall-stones, is full of a childish and enviable peace. The one is disquieted by his apprehension of the damning facts about God and the universe; the other is lulled by his magnificent imbecilities. I have had the honor of knowing, in my time,a number of eminent philosophers, some of them intelligent. The happiest among the latter, in his moments of greatest joy, used to entertain himself by drawing up wills leaving his body to a medical college.

H.L. Mencken (Minority Report, 1956)


The world presents itself to me, not chiefly as a complex of visual sensations, but as a complex of aural sensations. The fact explains many of my prejudices and weaknesses—for example, my defective appreciation of painting. It explains something a good deal more elusive: my taste in women. I seldom give much heed to the faces and forms of females, and I almost never notice their clothes. But when one of them has a low-pitched and soft voice, with a good clang-tint, she is free to consume my wealth and waste my time whenever the spirit moves her.

Studies of Vulgar Psychology -— The Art Eternal

by H. L. Mencken

(Prejudices: Fourth Series, Knopf, New York, 1924)

One of the laudable by-products of the Freudian necromancy is the discovery that lying, in most cases, is involuntary and inevitable—that the liar can no more avoid it than he can avoid blinking his eyes when a light flashes or jumping when a bomb goes off behind him. At its worst, indeed, this necessity takes on a downright pathological character, and is thus as innocent as sciatica or albuminuria. It is part of the morbid baggage of hysterics and neurasthenics: their lying is simply a symptom of their compulsive effort to adjust themselves to an environment which bears upon them too harshly for endurance. The rest of us are not quite so hard pushed, but pushed we all are. In us the thing works through the inferiority complex, which no man can escape. He who lacks it entirely is actually reckoned insane by the fact: his satisfaction with his situation in the world is indistinguishable from a delusion of grandeur. The great majority of us—all, in brief, who are normal — pass through life in constant revolt against our limitations, objective and subjective. Our conscious thought is largely devoted to plans and specifications for cutting a better figure in human society, and in our unconscious the business goes on much more steadily and powerfully. No healthy man, in his secret heart, is content with his destiny. …

Omnis homo mendax: thus the Psalmist. So far the Freudians merely parrot him. What is new in their gospel is the doctrine that lying is instinctive, normal, and unavoidable—that a man is forced into it by his very will-to-live. This doctrine purges the business of certain ancient embarrassments, and restores innocence to the heart. Think of a lie as a compulsion neurose, and you think of it more kindly. I need not add, I hope, that this transfer of it from the department of free will to that of determinism by no means disposes of the penalty that traditionally pursues it, supposing it to be detected and resented. The proponents of free will always make the mistake of assuming that the determinists are simply evil fellows looking for a way to escape the just consequences of their transgressing. No sense is in that assumption. If I lie on the witness-stand and am detected by the judge, I am jailed for perjury forthwith, regardless of my helplessness under compulsion. Here justice refuses absolutely to distinguish between a misfortune and a tort: the overt act is all it is concerned with. But as jurisprudence grows more intelligent and more civilized it may change its tune, to the benefit of liars, which is to say, to the benefit of humanity. Science is unflinchingly deterministic, and it has begun to force its determinism into morals. We no longer flog a child afflicted with nocturnal enuresis; we have substituted concepts of mental aberration for concepts of crime in a whole series of cases: kleptomania-shoplifting, pyromania-arson, etc.; and, in the United States at least, the old savage punishment of murderers is now ameliorated by considerations of psychiatry and even of honor. On some shining tomorrow a psychoanalyst may be put into the box to prove that perjury is simply a compulsion neurose, like beating time with the foot at a concert or counting the lamp-posts along the highway.

However, I have but small faith in millenniums, and do not formally predict this one. Nor do I pronounce any moral judgment, pro or con: moral judgments, as old Friedrich used to say, are foreign to my nature. But let us not forget that lying, per se, is not forbidden by the moral code of Christendom. Holy Writ dismisses it cynically, and the statutes of all civilized states are silent about it. Only the Chinese, indeed, make it a penal offense. Perjury, of course, is prohibited everywhere and also any mendacity which amounts to fraud and deprives a fellow-man of his property, but that far more common form of truth-stretching which has only the lesser aim of augmenting the liar’s personal dignity and consequence—this is looked upon with a very charitable eye. So is that form which has the aim of helping another person in the same way. In the latter direction lying may even take on the stature of a positive virtue. The late King Edward VII, when Prince of Wales, attained to great popularity throughout Christendom by venturing into downright perjury. Summoned into a court of law to give expert testimony regarding some act of adultery, he lied like a gentleman, as the phrase goes, to protect a woman. The lie, to be sure, was intrinsically useless; no one believed that the lady was innocent. Nevertheless, every decent Christian applauded the perjurer for his good intentions, including even the judge on the bench, sworn to combat false witness by every resource of forensics. All of us, worms that we are, occasionally face the alternatives that confronted Edward. On the one hand, we may tell the truth, regardless of consequences, and on the other hand we may mellow it and sophisticate it to make it humane and tolerable. It is universally held that the man who chooses the first course is despicable. He may be highly moral, but he is neverthelsss a cad—as highly moral men have so curious a way of being. But if he lies boldly, then he is held to be a man of honor, and is respected as such by all other men of honor.

For the habitual truth-teller and truth-seeker, indeed, the world has very little liking. He is always unpopular, and not infrequently his unpopularity is so excessive that it endangers his life. Run your eye back over the list of martyrs, lay and clerical: nine-tenths of them, you will find, stood accused of nothing worse than honest efforts to find out and announce the truth. Even today, with the scientific passion become familiar in the world, the general view of such fellows is highly unfavorable. The typical scientist, the typical critic of institutions, the typical truth-seeker in every field is held under suspicion by the great majority of men, and variously beset by posses of relentless foes. If he tries to find out the truth about arterio-sclerosis, or surgical shock, or cancer, he is denounced as a scoundrel by the Christian Scientists, the osteopaths and the anti-vivisectionists. If he tries to tell the truth about the government, its agents seek to silence him and punish him. If he turns to fiction and endeavors to depict his fellow-men accurately, he has the Comstocks on his hands. In no field can he count upon a friendly audience, and freedom from assault. Especially in the United States is his whole enterprise viewed with bilious eye. The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth. A Galileo could no more be elected President of the United States than he could be elected Pope of Rome. Both high posts are reserved for men favored by God with an extraordinary genius for swathing the bitter facts of life in bandages of soft illusion.

Behind this almost unanimous distrust of the truth-teller there is a sound and sure instinct, as there is behind every other manifestation of crowd feeling. What it shows is simply this: that the truth is something too harsh and devastating for the majority of men to bear. In their secret hearts they know themselves, and they can suffer the thought of themselves only by idealizing the facts. The more trivial, loathsome and degraded the reality, the more powerful and relentless must be the idealization. An Aristotle, I daresay, may be able occasionally to regard himself searchingly and dispasssionately -- but certainly not an ordinary man. Here we come back to what we began with: the inferiority complex. The truth-seeker forgets it, and so comes to grief. He forgets that the ordinary man, at bottom, is always afraid of himself, as of some horrible monster. He refuses to sanction the lie whereby the ordinary man maintains his self-respect, just as the bounder, put upon the stand, refuses to support the lie whereby a woman maintains the necessary theory of her chastity. Thus he is unpopular, and deserves to be.

Then why does he go on? Why does he kick up such a bother and suffer such barbarous contumely, all to no end—for the majority of so-called truths, it must be evident, perish as soon as they are born: no one will believe them. The answer probably is that the truth-seeker is moved by the same obscure inner necessity (in Joseph Conrad’s phrase) that animates the artist. Something within him, something entirely beyond his volition, forces him to pursue his fanatical and useless quest—some impluse as blind as that which moves a puppy to chase its tail. Again the compulsion neurose! But this one differs materially from that of the liar. The latter is hygienic; it makes for peace, health, happiness. The former makes only for strife and discontent. It invades the immemoraial pruderies of the human race. It breeds scandals and heart-burnings. It is essentially anti-social, and hence, by modern theories of criminology, diseased. The truth-seeker thus becomes a pathological case. The average man is happily free from any such malaise. He avoids the truth as diligently as he avoids arson, regicide or piracy on the high seas, and for the same reason: because he believes that it is dangerous, that no good can come of it, that it doesn’t pay. The very thought of it is abhorrent to him. This average man, I believe, must be acepted as the normal man, the natural man, the healthy and useful man. He presents a character that is general in the race, and favorable to its security and contentment. The truth never caresses; it stings—and life is surely too short for sane men to be stinging themselves unnecessarily. One would regard it as idiotic even in a flea.

Thus the truth about the truth emerges, and with it the truth about lying. Lying is not only excusable; it is not only innocent, and instinctive; it is, above all, necessary and unavoidable. Without the ameliorations that it offers life would become a mere syllogism, and hence too metallic to be born. The man who lies simply submits himself sensibly to the grand sweep and ripple of the cosmic process. The man who seeks and tells the truth is a rebel against the inner nature of all of us.(pp. 269-277)

Christian Brotherhood

by H.L. Mencken

There is no more sign that its [Christian] spokesmen believe in brotherhood than there is sign that they believe the end of the world to be at hand. One might easily conjur up, perhaps by the discreet use of alcohol, a picture of the nations of the world at peace at last, with every frontier abolished and all the old dark plots and counterplots forgotten, but to imagine Moslem and Christian, Catholic and Protestant burying their differences and joining amicably in the worship of the One God they all profess to serve—to imagine anything so tremendously improbable would take far more wine than all the vintners now in practice could supply. (from Treatise on the Gods, 1930, p.324)


by H.L. Mencken

(from The American Mercury, May, 1928, p. 27.)

The truly religious man can never be really tolerant and humble. Either he must retreat to the snobbish shades of mysticism or he must arm himself with an ax. The Beatitudes are as incomprehensible to him as the epigrams of La Rochefoucauld. He cannot imagine a heretic headed for anything save the fires of Hell. Always his demand is for pastors who carry side-arms and are ready to take to the field. He is happiest when crusades are on, and saddest when the police forbid them.

H. L. Mencken (from Minority Report—H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks)


Christianity, for all its wounds, is not likely to die; even its forms will not die; the forms, indeed, will preserve what remains of the substance. Of all religions ever devised by man, it is the one that offers the most for the least money to the average man of our time. This man may be very briefly described. He has enough education to make him view all religions somewhat critically, to make him competent to weigh and estimate them, particularly in terms of their capacity to meet his own problems—but not enough to analyze the concepts underlying them. Such an analysis leads inevitably to agnosticism; a man who once reaches the point of examining religions as psychological phenomena, without regard to their ostensible authority, always ends by rejecting all of them. But the average man is incapable of any such examination, and his incapacity not only safeguards his religion but also emphasizes his need of it. He must have some answer to the maddening riddle of existence, and, being unable to work out a logical or evidential answer, he is thrown back upon a mystical answer.

This mystical answer is religion. It is a transcendental solace in the presence of the intolerable. It is a stupendous begging of questions that nevertheless disposes of them. Of all such answers Christianity is at once the simplest and the most reassuring. It is protean and elastic; it has infinite varieties; it has comfort both for the man revolting despairingly against reason or congenitally incapable of reason, and for the man whose capacity for reason stops just short of intelligence. It is, at its best, a profound inner experience, a kind of poetry that is lived—call it Catholicism. It is, at its worst, a game of supernatural politics—call it Methodism. But in either case it organizes and gives a meaning to life. In either case it soothes the man who is too weak to stand up single-handed against the eternal and intolerable mysteries.

Christian Aesthetics

by H.L. Mencken

(from Treatise on the Gods, 1930, p. 347)

There are Moslem mosques that, in their way, are quite as glorious as Chartres Cathedral, and in Shinto there is a dramatic liturgy that far surpasses the Roman Mass. But no other religion is so beautiful in its substance—none other can show anything to match the great strophes of flaming poetry which enter into every Christian gesture of ceremonial and give an august inner dignity to Christian sacred music. Nor does any other, not even Judaism, rest upon so noble a mythology. The story of Jesus, as it is told in the Synoptic Gospels, and especially in Luke, is touching beyond compare. It is, indeed, the most lovely story that the human fancy has ever devised … the story of Jesus is the sempiternal Cinderella story, lifted to cosmic dimensions. Beside it the best that you will find in the sacred literature of Moslem and Brahman, Parsee and Buddhist, seems flat, stale and unprofitable.