Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
U.S. journalist and literary critic
 
Historical Note: descended from Luise Wilhelmine Mencken
(1789-1839), the mother of Otto von Bismark, the "Iron Chancellor" of
Germany.

 

MANKIND:

"Don't overestimate the decency of the human race."

"It is even harder for the average ape to believe that he has descended from man."

"The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore."

"We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine."

"An absolutely new idea is one of the rarest things known to man."

"I have little belief in human progress. The human race is incurably idiotic. It will never be happy."

"The capacity of human beings to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than that of any other animals."

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

"War will never cease until babies begin to come into the world with larger cerebums and smaller adrenal glands."

"The cosmos is a gigantic flywheel making 10,000 revolutions per minute. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it."

"The most common of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind."

"The best years are the forties; after fifty a man begins to deteriorate, but in the forties he is at the maximum of his villainy."

"Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. .... The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on "I am not too sure."

"No man can be friendly to another whose personal habits differ materially from his own. Even the trivialities of table manners thus become important. The fact probably explains much of race prejudice, and even more of national prejudice."

"Man is never honestly the fatalist, nor even the stoic. He fights his fate, often desperately. He is forever entering bold exceptions to the rulings of the bench of gods. This fighting, no doubt, makes for human progress, for it favors the strong and the brave. It also makes for beauty, for lesser men try to escape from a hopeless and intolerable world by creating a more lovely one of their own."

 

POLITICS:

"A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar."

"Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under."

"Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage."

"Economic independence is the foundation of the only sort of freedom worth a damn."

"Government under democracy is thus government by orgy, almost by orgasm."

"In this world of sin and sorrow there is always something to be thankful for; as for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican."

"Giving every man a vote has no more made men wise and free than Christianity has made them good."

"Unquestionably, there is progress. The average American now pays out twice as much in taxes as he formerly got in wages."

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."

"It is inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office."

"They have taken the care and upbringing of children out of the hands of parents, where it belongs, and thrown it upon a gang of irresponsible and unintelligent quacks."

"The argument that capital punishment degrades the state is moonshine, for if that were true then it would degrade the state to send men to war... The state, in truth, is degraded in its very nature: a few butcheries cannot do it any further damage."

"A professional politician is a professionally dishonorable man. In order to get anywhere near high office he has to make so many compromises and submit to so many humiliations that he becomes indistinguishable from a streetwalker."

"I believe there is a limit beyond which free speech cannot go, but it's a limit that's very seldom mentioned. It's the point where free speech begins to collide with the right to privacy. I don't think there are any other conditions to free speech. I've got a right to say and believe anything I please, but I haven't got a right to press it on anybody else. .... Nobody's got a right to be a nuisance to his neighbors."

"It is the invariable habit of bureaucracies, at all times and everywhere, to assume...that every citizen is a criminal. Their one apparent purpose, pursued with a relentless and furious diligence, is to convert the assumption into a fact. They hunt endlessly for proofs, and, when proofs are lacking, for mere suspicions. The moment they become aware of a definite citizen, John Doe, seeking what is his right under the law, they begin searching feverishly for an excuse for withholding it from him."

"Democracy is grounded upon so childish a complex of fallacies that they must be protected by a rigid system of taboos, else even halfwits would argue it to pieces. It's first concern must thus be topenalize the free play of ideas."

"For there is something about a national convention that makes it as fascinating as a revival or hanging. It is vulgar, it us ugly, it is stupid, it is useless. It is hard upon both the higher cerebral centers and the gluteus maximus, and yet it is somehow charming."

"Democracy--the domination of unreflective and timorous men, moved in vast herds by mob conditions."

"When a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose distinquishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even comprehending any save the most elemental--men whose chief thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is the dread of what they cannot understand."

"Sooner or later the American Negroes would hatch a leader capable of putting their discontent into clear, simple and vivid words...The appearance of such a leader would give a new complexion to the race problem, and make it ten times more pressing than ever before."

"No one believe in its _bona fides_ anymore, no one believes that its typical member has any thought save for his own hide...And if the Constitution stands in the way so much the worse for the Constitution."

"People constantly speak of "the government" doing this or that, as they might speak of God doing it. But the government is really nothing but a group of men, and usually they are very inferior men."

"Certainly there is something radically wrong with a system which enables a Henry Ford to posture magnificently as one who pays lavish wages, and then, when the pinch comes, to lay of men by tens of thousands and throw them on public charity."

"Communism will probably disappear altogether when the Russian experiment comes to a climax, and Bolshevism either converts itself into a sickly imitation of capitalism or blows itself up with a bang. The former issue seems much more likely."

 

RELIGION:

"Imagine the Creator as a low comedian, and at once the world becomes explicable."

"Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing."

"Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."

"I detest converts almost as much as I do missionaries."

"One seldom discovers a true believer that is worth knowing."

"The chief contribution of Protestantism to human thought is its massive proof that God is a bore."

"The trouble with Communism is the Communists, just as the trouble with Christianity is the Christians."

"A man who is an agnostic by inheritance, so that he doesn't remember any time that he wasn't, has almost no hatred for the religious."

"Say what you will about the Ten Commandments, you must always come back to the pleasant fact that there are only ten of them."

"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 or chemistry."

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

"It is only the savage, whether of the African bush or of the American gospel tent, who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely."

"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."

"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, as safe--that the god in the sanctuary was a fraud."

 

LOVE, MARRIAGE, MEN, & WOMEN:

"Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence."

"Adultery is the application of democracy to love."

"The only really happy folk are married women and single men. "

"A man always blames the woman who fools him. In the same way he blames the door he walks into in the dark."

"Whenever a husband and wife begin to discuss their marriage they are giving evidence at a coroner's inquest."

"The great secret of happiness in love is to be glad that the other fellow married her."

"A man may be a fool and not know it -- but not if he is married."

"The first kiss is stolen by the man; the last is begged by the woman."

"Bachelors know more about women than married men. If they didn't, they would be married too."

"Husbands never become good; they merely become proficient."

"Suicide is belated acquiescence in the opinion of one's wife's relatives."

"Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution."

"In brief, she assumed that, being a man, I was vain to the point of imbecility, and this assumption was correct, as it always is."

"No normal man ever fell in love after thirty when the kidneys begin to disintegrate."

"When women kiss, it always reminds me of prizefighters shaking hands."

"To be in love is merely to be in a state of perceptual anesthesia."

"If I ever marry, it will be on a sudden impulse - as a man shoots himself."

"He marries best who puts it off until it is too late."

"A man always remembers his first love with special tenderness, but after that he begins to bunch them."

"Every man is thoroughly happy twice in his life: just after he has met his first love, and just after he has left his last one."

"Strike an average between what a woman thinks of her husband a month before she marries him and what she thinks of him a year afterward, and you will have the truth about him..."

"Man is a natural polygamist: he always has one woman leading him by the nose, and another hanging on to his coattails."

"Men have a much better time of it than women; for one thing, they marry later; for another thing they die earlier."

"Any man who, having a child or children he can't support, proceeds to have another should be sterilized at once."

"A man is called a good fellow for doing things which, if done by a woman, would land her in a lunatic asylum."

"Women decide the larger questions of life correctly and quickly, not because they are lucky guessers, not because they practise a magic inherited from savagery, but simply and solely because they have sense. They see at a glance what most men could not see with searchlights and telescopes... They are the supreme realists of the race."

"For it is mutual trust, even more than mutual interest that holds human associations together. Our friends seldom profit us but they make us feel safe...Marriage is a scheme to accomplish exactly that same end."

 

MISCELLANEOUS:

"The cynics are right nine times out of ten."

"Conscience is a mother-in-law whose visit never ends."

"I'm thoroughly convinced that editors don't help authors."

"A poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child."

"No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."

"For every problem, there is one solution which is simple, neat and wrong."

"A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin."

"The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom."

"Truth would quickly cease to become stranger than fiction, once we got as used to it."

"Immortality is the condition of a dead man who doesn't believe he is dead."

"It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place."

"An idealist is one who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup."

"The chief value of money lies in the fact that one lives in a world in which it is overestimated."

"After all, all he did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations." (on Shakespeare)

"A great nation is any mob of people which produces at least one honest man a century."

"There is only one justification for having sinned, and that is to be glad of it."

"Firmness in decision is often merely a form of stupidity. It indicates an inability to think the same thing out twice."

"People will believe what they want to believe."

"The way for newspapers to meet the competition of radio and television is simply to get out better papers."

"Science, at bottom, is really anti-intellectual. It always distrusts pure reason, and demands the production of objective fact."

"...school teachers, taking them by and large, are probably the most ignorant and stupid class of men in the whole group of mental workers."

"..for a professor must have a theory, as a dog must have fleas."

"...there is always a well-known solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."

"The average man doesn't want to be free. He wants to be safe."

"...history deals mainly with captains and kings, gods and prophets, exploiters and despoilers, not with useful men."

"Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all other philosophers are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself."

"But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe 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 to be ignorant."

"...the proof of an idea is not to be sought in the soundness of the man fathering it, but in the soundness of the idea itself. One asks of a pudding, not if the cook who offers it is a good woman, but if the pudding itself is good."

"...no man of genuinely superior intelligence has ever been an actor. Even supposing a young man of appreciable mental powers to be lured upon the stage, as philosophers are occasionally lured into bordellos, his mind would be inevitably and almost immediately destroyed by the gaudy nonsense issuing from his mouth every night."

"And what is a good citizen? Simply one who never says, does or thinks anything that is unusual. Schools are maintained in order to bring this uniformity up to the highest possible point. A school is a hopper into which children are heaved while they are still young and tender; therein they are pressed into certain standard shapes and covered from head to heels with official rubber-stamps."

"In a man's world...simian aptitudes are rated high, and so not too many women get in. To succeed as a lawyer, for example, a woman would have to throttle two of her chief attributes: her disdain for the petty accumulations of useless knowledge, and her sharp feeling for the truth."

"Americans invented the curious doctrine that there is a body of doctrine in every department that every good citizen is duly bound to accept and cherish; it was Americans who invented the right thinker."

"I believe that it should be perfectly lawful to print even things that outrage the pruderies and prejudices of the general, so long as any honest minority, however small, wants to read them. The remedy of the majority is not prohibition, but avoidance."

"A man does not serve his country by canting, snuffling and marching inparades, he serves her by striving to make her clean, brave, just, intelligent and worthy of respect."

"Every third American devotes himself to improving and uplifting his fellow citizen, usually by force." - quoted by Hunter S. Thompson in Better Than Sex

"The public ... demands certainties. ... But there are no certainties."

"Time is a great legalizer, even in the field of morals."

"The great artists of the world are never Puritans, and seldom even ordinarily respectable."

"Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only errorto be exposed."

"Faith may be defined briefly as an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."

"No one in this world, so far as I know...has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."

DEFINITIONS:

Alimony: The ransom the happy pay to the devil.

Archbishop: A Christian ecclesiastic of a rank superior to that attained by Christ.

Church: A place in which gentlemen who have never been to Heaven brag about it to people who will never get there.

Clergyman: A ticket speculator outside the gates of Heaven.

Conscience: The inner voice which warns us that someone may be looking.

Confidence: The feeling that makes one believe a man, even when one knows that one would lie in his place.

Creator: A comedian whose audience is afraid to laugh.

Demagogue: One who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.

Democracy: The worship of jackals by jackasses.

Evil: That which one believes of others. It is a sin to believe evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake.

Experience: A series of failures. Every failure teaches a man something, to wit, that he will probably fail again.

Fine: A bribe paid by a rich man to escape the lawful penalty of his crime.

Historian: An unsuccessful novelist.

Husband: A No. 16 neck in a No. 15 1/2 collar.

Idealist: One who, on noticing that a rose smells better than a cabbage, concludes that it will also make better soup.

Immorality: The morality of those who are having a better time.

Jealousy: The theory that some other fellow has just as little taste.

Judge: A law student who marks his own papers.

Lawyer: One who protects us against robbery by taking away the temptation.

Legend: A lie that has attained the dignity of age.

Love: The delusion that one woman differs from another.

Morality: The theory that every human act must either be right or wrong, and that 99% of them are wrong.

Pastor: One employed by the wicked to prove to them by his example that virtue doesn't pay.

Platitude: An idea (a) that is admitted to be true by everyone, and (b) that is not true.

Psychotherapy: The theory that the patient will probably get well anyhow, and is certainly a damned fool.

Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

Self-respect: The secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious.

Sunday: A day given over by Americans to wishing that they themselves were dead and in Heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in Hell.

Sunday School: A prison in which children do penance for the evil conscience of their parents.

Wife: A former sweetheart.

Wife: One who is sorry she did it, but would undoubtedly do it again.

Copyright: Kevin Harris 1995 (may be freely distributed with this acknowledgement)