H.L. Mencken quotes

H.L. Mencken photo
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H.L. Mencken

Birthdate: 12. September 1880
Date of death: 29. January 1956

Henry Louis Mencken was an American journalist, satirist, cultural critic and scholar of American English. Known as the "Sage of Baltimore", he is regarded as one of the most influential American writers and prose stylists of the first half of the twentieth century. He commented widely on the social scene, literature, music, prominent politicians and contemporary movements. His satirical reporting on the Scopes trial, which he dubbed the "Monkey Trial", also gained him attention.

As a scholar, Mencken is known for The American Language, a multi-volume study of how the English language is spoken in the United States. As an admirer of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, he was a detractor of religion, populism and representative democracy, which he believed to be a system in which inferior men dominated their superiors. Mencken was a supporter of scientific progress, skeptical of economic theories and critical of osteopathic and chiropractic medicine.

Mencken opposed American entry into World War I and World War II. His diary indicates that he was a racist and anti-semite, and privately used coarse language and slurs to describe various ethnic and racial groups . Mencken also at times seemed to show a genuine enthusiasm for militarism, though never in its American form. "War is a good thing," he once wrote, "because it is honest, it admits the central fact of human nature… A nation too long at peace becomes a sort of gigantic old maid."

Mencken's longtime home in the Union Square neighborhood of West Baltimore was turned into a city museum, the H. L. Mencken House. His papers were distributed among various city and university libraries, with the largest collection held in the Mencken Room at the central branch of Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Works

„The fact is that the average man's love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth.“

—  H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun (12 February 1923)
1920s
Context: The fact is that the average man's love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. Liberty is not a thing for the great masses of men. It is the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority, like knowledge, courage and honor. It takes a special sort of man to understand and enjoy liberty — and he is usually an outlaw in democratic societies.

„Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats.“

—  H.L. Mencken

Source: 1910s, Prejudices, First Series (1919), Ch. 6, "The New Poetry Movement"
Source: Prejudices: First Series

„A man who can laugh, if only at himself, is never really miserable.“

—  H.L. Mencken

15
1940s–present
Context: Human life is basically a comedy. Even its tragedies often seem comic to the spectator, and not infrequently they actually have comic touches to the victim. Happiness probably consists largely in the capacity to detect and relish them. A man who can laugh, if only at himself, is never really miserable.

„Human life is basically a comedy.“

—  H.L. Mencken

15
1940s–present
Context: Human life is basically a comedy. Even its tragedies often seem comic to the spectator, and not infrequently they actually have comic touches to the victim. Happiness probably consists largely in the capacity to detect and relish them. A man who can laugh, if only at himself, is never really miserable.

„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.“

—  H.L. Mencken

Editorial in TheAmerican Mercury (May 1924), p. 26
1920s
Context: 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.

„Laws are no longer made by a rational process of public discussion; they are made by a process of blackmail and intimidation, and they are executed in the same manner.“

—  H.L. Mencken

The American Mercury (May 1930)
1930s
Context: Laws are no longer made by a rational process of public discussion; they are made by a process of blackmail and intimidation, and they are executed in the same manner. The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly devoid of principle — a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him, he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.
It is the aim of the Bill of Rights, if it has any remaining aim at all, to curb such prehensile gentry. Its function is to set a limitation upon their power to harry and oppress us to their own private profit. The Fathers, in framing it, did not have powerful minorities in mind; what they sought to hobble was simply the majority. But that is a detail. The important thing is that the Bill of Rights sets forth, in the plainest of plain language, the limits beyond which even legislatures may not go. The Supreme Court, in Marbury v. Madison, decided that it was bound to execute that intent, and for a hundred years that doctrine remained the corner-stone of American constitutional law.

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„Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.
Bryan was a vulgar and common man, a cad undiluted. He was ignorant, bigoted, self-seeking, blatant and dishonest.“

—  H.L. Mencken

"Bryan" in Baltimore Evening Sun http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/menck05.htm#SCOPESC (27 July 1925)
1920s
Context: It is the national custom to sentimentalize the dead, as it is to sentimentalize men about to be hanged. Perhaps I fall into that weakness here. The Bryan I shall remember is the Bryan of his last weeks on earth -- broken, furious, and infinitely pathetic. It was impossible to meet his hatred with hatred to match it. He was winning a battle that would make him forever infamous wherever enlightened men remembered it and him. Even his old enemy, Darrow, was gentle with him at the end. That cross-examination might have been ten times as devastating. It was plain to everyone that the old Berseker Bryan was gone -- that all that remained of him was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.
But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.
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.

„Religion, after all, is nothing but an hypothesis framed to account for what is evidentially unaccounted for.“

—  H.L. Mencken

The American Mercury (February 1926)
1920s
Context: By what route do otherwise sane men come to believe such palpable nonsense? How is it possible for a human brain to be divided into two insulated halves, one functioning normally, naturally and even brilliantly, and the other capable only of such ghastly balderdash which issues from the minds of Baptist evangelists? Such balderdash takes various forms, but it is at its worst when it is religious. Why should this be so? What is there in religion that completely flabbergasts the wits of those who believe in it? I see no logical necessity for that flabbergasting. Religion, after all, is nothing but an hypothesis framed to account for what is evidentially unaccounted for. In other fields such hypotheses are common, and yet they do no apparent damage to those who incline to them. But in the religious field they quickly rush the believer to the intellectual Bad Lands. He not only becomes anaesthetic to objective fact; he becomes a violent enemy of objective fact. It annoys and irritates him. He sweeps it away as something somehow evil...

„I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.“

—  H.L. Mencken

"What I Believe" in The Forum 84 (September 1930), p. 139; some of these expressions were also used separately in other Mencken essays.
1930s
Context: I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind — that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty and the democratic form is as bad as any of the other forms.
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech — alike for the humblest man and the mightiest, and in the utmost freedom of conduct that is consistent with living in organized society.
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I —But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.

„The Bryan I shall remember is the Bryan of his last weeks on earth -- broken, furious, and infinitely pathetic.“

—  H.L. Mencken

"Bryan" in Baltimore Evening Sun http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/menck05.htm#SCOPESC (27 July 1925)
1920s
Context: It is the national custom to sentimentalize the dead, as it is to sentimentalize men about to be hanged. Perhaps I fall into that weakness here. The Bryan I shall remember is the Bryan of his last weeks on earth -- broken, furious, and infinitely pathetic. It was impossible to meet his hatred with hatred to match it. He was winning a battle that would make him forever infamous wherever enlightened men remembered it and him. Even his old enemy, Darrow, was gentle with him at the end. That cross-examination might have been ten times as devastating. It was plain to everyone that the old Berseker Bryan was gone -- that all that remained of him was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.
But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.
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.

„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.“

—  H.L. Mencken

"Bryan" in Baltimore Evening Sun http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/menck05.htm#SCOPESC (27 July 1925)
1920s
Context: It is the national custom to sentimentalize the dead, as it is to sentimentalize men about to be hanged. Perhaps I fall into that weakness here. The Bryan I shall remember is the Bryan of his last weeks on earth -- broken, furious, and infinitely pathetic. It was impossible to meet his hatred with hatred to match it. He was winning a battle that would make him forever infamous wherever enlightened men remembered it and him. Even his old enemy, Darrow, was gentle with him at the end. That cross-examination might have been ten times as devastating. It was plain to everyone that the old Berseker Bryan was gone -- that all that remained of him was a pair of glaring and horrible eyes.
But what of his life? Did he accomplish any useful thing? Was he, in his day, of any dignity as a man, and of any value to his fellow-men? I doubt it. Bryan, at his best, was simply a magnificent job-seeker. The issues that he bawled about usually meant nothing to him. He was ready to abandon them whenever he could make votes by doing so, and to take up new ones at a moment's notice. For years he evaded Prohibition as dangerous; then he embraced it as profitable. At the Democratic National Convention last year he was on both sides, and distrusted by both. In his last great battle there was only a baleful and ridiculous malignancy. If he was pathetic, he was also disgusting.
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 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.“

—  H.L. Mencken

The American Mercury (March, 1930); first printed, in part, in the Baltimore Evening Sun (9 December 1929)
1920s
Context: 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 field, 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 the convention that I have mentioned 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., LL. 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 or 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 most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos.“

—  H.L. Mencken

"Le Contrat Social", in: Prejudices: Third Series (1922)
1920s
Context: All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.

„But the razor edge of ridicule is turned by the tough hide of truth.“

—  H.L. Mencken

"On Truth" in Damn! A Book of Calumny (1918), p. 53
1910s
Context: 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...

„It is the natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true. In order to overcome that tendency it is not sufficient to exhibit the true; it is also necessary to expose and denounce the false.“

—  H.L. Mencken

The American Mercury (May 1926)
1920s
Context: It is the natural tendency of the ignorant to believe what is not true. In order to overcome that tendency it is not sufficient to exhibit the true; it is also necessary to expose and denounce the false. To admit that the false has any standing in court, that it ought to be handled gently because millions of morons cherish it and thousands of quacks make their livings propagating it—to admit this, as the more fatuous of the reconcilers of science and religion inevitably do, is to abandon a just cause to its enemies, cravenly and without excuse. It is, of course, quite true that there is a region in which science and religion do not conflict. That is the region of the unknowable.

„All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him.“

—  H.L. Mencken

"Le Contrat Social", in: Prejudices: Third Series (1922)
1920s
Context: All government, in its essence, is a conspiracy against the superior man: its one permanent object is to oppress him and cripple him. If it be aristocratic in organization, then it seeks to protect the man who is superior only in law against the man who is superior in fact; if it be democratic, then it seeks to protect the man who is inferior in every way against both. One of its primary functions is to regiment men by force, to make them as much alike as possible and as dependent upon one another as possible, to search out and combat originality among them. All it can see in an original idea is potential change, and hence an invasion of its prerogatives. The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. And even if he is not romantic personally he is very apt to spread discontent among those who are.

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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