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Henry Louis Mencken
1880 - 1956

Writer, editor, critic, journalist with the Baltimore Sun papers (1906-1956), philologist. Menken was at the same time one of the most popular and most unpopular commentators of his time. Master of the rapier quip, his clever phrases appeared everywhere from pamphlets to welcoming screens in movie theatres, as well as in his own various publications including his magazine The American Mercury and his six-volume Prejudices. He was by most standards a racist and by some an anarchist, but he remains one of the most quoted writers of any time.

Books by Henry Louis Mencken
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Mencken Chrestomathy (1982)
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Vintage Mencken (1990)
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[The State] has taken on a vast mass of new duties and responsibilities; it has spread out its powers until they penetrate to every act of the citizen, however secret; it has begun to throw around its operations the high dignity and impeccability of a State religion; its agents become a separate and superior caste, with authority to bind and loose, and their thumbs in every pot. But it still remains, as it was in the beginning, the common enemy of all well-disposed, industrious and decent men.

Unionism seldom, if ever, uses such power as it has to insure better work; almost always it devotes a large part of that power to safeguarding bad work.

1922 - from Prejudices: Third Series
The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth - that the error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it is cured on one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.

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

1926 - from Notes on Democracy
It is [a politician's] business to get and hold his job at all costs. If he can hold it by lying, he will hold it by lying; if lying peters out, he will try to hold it by embracing new truths. His ear is ever close to the ground.

1926 - from Notes on Democracy
What restrains us from killing is partly fear of punishment, partly moral scruple, and partly what may be described as a sense of humor.

Jan. 25, 1924 - from "The Library", published in The American Mercury
Progress ... is to be measured by the accuracy of man's knowledge of nature's forces. ... I conceive progress as a sort of process of disillusion. Man gets ahead ... by discarding the theory of to-day for the fact of to-morrow.

1910 - from Men versus the Man: A Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H.L. Mencken, Individualist
The New Deal began, like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flop-houses and disturbing the peace.

It remains impossible...to separate the democratic idea from the theory that there is a mysterious merit, an esoteric and ineradicable rectitude, in the man at the bottom of the scale - that inferiority, by some strange magic, becomes a kind of superiority...

1926 - from Notes on Democracy
[Educators] Who could imagine a pedagogue honestly believing in liberty? If he did his life would be one long stultification, for he lives in a world in which he has no rights as against his superiors, the trustees, and need grant no substantial rights to his inferiors, the students.

Nov. 30, 1924 - from "The Library" in The American Mercury
A politician normally prospers under democracy in proportion ... as he excels in the invention of imaginary perils and imaginary defenses against them.

1918 - from Damn! A Book of Calumny
The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.

Socialist: A man suffering from an overwhelming conviction to believe what is not true.

... government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods.

The smallest atom of truth represents some man's bitter toil and agony; for every ponderable chunk of it there is a brave truth-seeker's grave upon some lonely ash-heap and a soul roasting in hell.

from Prejudices: First Series
It is the fundamental theory of all the more recent American law...that the average citizen is half-witted, and hence not to be trusted to either his own devices or his own thoughts.

1920 - from The American Credo: A Contribution toward the Interpretation of the National Mind
Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.

Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice.

It seems to me that society usually wins. There are, to be sure, free spirits in the world, but their freedom, in the last analysis, is not much greater than that of a canary in a cage. They may leap from perch to perch; they may bathe and guzzle at their will; they may flap their wings and sing. But they are still in the cage, and soon or late it conquers them.

Jul. 27, 1924 - from his editorial in The American Mercury
Good government is that which delivers the citizen from the risk of being done out of his life and property too arbitrarily and violently - one that relieves him sufficiently from the barbaric business of guarding them to enable him to engage in gentler, more dignified and more agreeable undertakings...

1924 - from "On Government" in Prejudices: Fourth Series
The older I grow the more I distrust the familiar doctrine that age brings wisdom.

1922 - from Prejudices: Third Series
The fundamental purpose of education, in college as in the high-school and so on down to the kindergarten, is to set the young mind upon a track, and keep it running there in all decorum. The task of a pedagogue, in other words, is not to turn out anarchists, but to turn out correct and respectable citizens.

Apr. 26, 1924 - from his editorial in The American Mercury
Government, today, is growing too strong to be safe. There are no longer any citizens in the world; there are only subjects.

The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one's time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.

The chief difference between free capitalism and State socialism seems to be this: that under the former a man pursues his own advantage openly, frankly, and honestly, whereas under the latter he does so hypocritically and under false pretenses.

The fact is that liberty, in any true sense, is a concept that lies quite beyond the reach of the inferior man's mind. He can imagine and even esteem, in his way, certain false forms of liberty - for example, the right to choose between two political mountebanks, and to yell for the more obviously dishonest - but the reality is incomprehensible to him. And no wonder, for genuine liberty demands of its votaries a quality he lacks completely, and that is courage. The man who loves it must be willing to fight for it; blood, said Jefferson, is its natural manure. More, he must be able to endure it - an even more arduous business. Liberty means self-reliance, it means resolution, it means the capacity for doing without.

1926 - from Notes on Democracy
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 a half.

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

1916 - from A Little Book in C Major
[Government] is apprehended, not as a committee of citizens chosen to carry on the communal business of the whole population, but as a separate and autonomous corporation, mainly devoted to exploiting the population for the benefit of its own members.

1927 - from "From the Memoirs of a Subject of the United States", in Prejudices: Sixth Series
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.

Capitalism undoubtedly has certain boils and blotches upon it, but has it as many as government?

Sep. 28, 1924 - from "The Library" in The American Mercury
The practical politician, as every connoisseur of ochlocracy knows, is not a man who seeks to inoculate the innumerable caravan of voters with new ideas; he is a man who seeks to search out and prick into energy the basic ideas that are already in them, and to turn the resultant effervescence of emotion to his own uses.

1920 - from The American Credo: A Contribution toward the Interpretation of the National Mind
A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.

Socialism is simply the degenerate capitalism of bankrupt capitalists. Its one genuine object is to get more money for its professors.

Most people want security in this world, not liberty.

... idealism is not a passion in America, but a trade; all the salient idealists make a living at it ...

1920 - from The American Credo: A Contribution toward the Interpretation of the National Mind
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.

from "Minority Report", published in Notebooks
Life is a constant oscillation between the sharp horns of dilemmas.

My business is not prognosis, but diagnosis.

1926 - from Notes on Democracy
The great masses of men, though theoretically free, are seen to submit supinely to oppression and exploitation of a hundred abhorrent sorts. Have they no means of resistance? Obviously they have.

1926 - from Notes on Democracy
Democracy must be a sound scheme at bottom, else it would not survive such cruel strains.

What men value most in this world is not rights but privileges.

Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.

No article of faith is proof against the disintegrating effects of increasing information; one might almost describe the acquirement of knowledge as a process of disillusion.

1920 - from The American Credo: A Contribution toward the Interpretation of the National Mind
The aim of democracy is to break all... free spirits to the common harness. It tries to iron them out, to pump them dry of self-respect, to make docile John Does of them. The measure of its success is the extent to which such men are brought down, and made common. The measure of civilization is the extent to which they resist and survive. Thus the only sort of liberty that is real under democracy is the liberty of the have-nots to destroy the liberty of the haves.

What we confront is not the failure of capitalism, but simply the failure of democracy. Capitalism has really been responsible for all the progress of the modern age. Better than any other system ever devised, it provides leisure for large numbers of superior men, and so fosters the arts and sciences. No other system ever heard of is so beneficial to invention. Its fundamental desire for gain may be far from glorious per se, but it at least furthers improvement in all the departments of life. We owe to it every innovation that makes life secure and comfortable.

It is not a sign of communal well-being when men turn to their government to execute all their business for them, but rather a sign of decay ... The state, indeed, is but one of the devices that a really healthy community sets up to manage its affairs.

Aug. 27, 1924 - from "The Library" in The American Mercury
Democracy is a form of worship. It is the worship of jackals by jackasses.

The natural tendency of every government is to grow steadily worse - that is, to grow more satisfactory to those who constitute it and less satisfactory to those who support it.

Aug. 27, 1924 - from "The Library" in The American Mercury
The average man doesn't want to be free. He wants to be safe.

1926 - from Notes on Democracy
That erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.

Apr. 24, 1924 - from "The Library", published in The American Mercury
Economic independence is the foundation of the only sort of freedom worth a damn.

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.

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

1924 - from A Book of Burlesques
... democracy is based upon so childish a complex of fallacies that they must be protected by a rigid system of taboos, else even half-wits would argue it to pieces. Its first concern must thus be to penalize the free play of ideas.

1918 - from Damn! A Book of Calumny
... 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.

from "From the Files of a Book Reviewer"
The most costly of all follies is to believe passionately in the palpably not true. It is the chief occupation of mankind.

Progress ... is to be measured by the accuracy of man's knowledge of nature's forces.

1910 - from Men versus the Man: A Correspondence between Robert Rives La Monte, Socialist, and H.L. Mencken, Individualist
Time is the great legalizer, even in the field of morals.

1917 - from A Book of Prefaces
The idea that the sole aim of punishment is to prevent crime is obviously grounded upon the theory that crime can be prevented, which is almost as dubious as the notion that poverty can be prevented.

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

1920 - from from "The Divine Afflatus" in Prejudices: Second Series
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.

Nov. 30, 1924 - from "The Library" in The American Mercury
The common argument that crime is caused by poverty is a kind of slander on the poor.

... philosophy first constructs a scheme of happiness and then tries to fit the world to it ...

1913 - from The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
Democracy is the art of running the circus from the monkey cage.

Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.