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The wit and wisdom of H.L. Mencken

I find witty quotations valuable for several reasons. They can summarize or express a thought or idea in a few well-chosen words, and their brevity makes them easy to remember. Many remain relevant across generations because they express universal truths or insights.

H.L. Mencken. the cranky “Sage of Baltimore,” was a satirist and cultural critic. He was born in 1880 and died in 1956, having lived most of his life in West Baltimore.

Mencken was suspicious of representative democracy and predicted in 1920, “On some great and glorious day, the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.” Truer words were never spoken.

But that was only one of his pearls of wisdom. Here are some others:

“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.”

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

“The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.”

“The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic.”

“Under democracy one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule – and both commonly succeed and are right.”

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

“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.”

“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.”

“Any man who afflicts the human race with ideas must be prepared to see them misunderstood.”

“To die for an idea; it is unquestionably noble. But how much nobler it would be if men died for ideas that were true!”

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

“God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; He will set them above their betters.”

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

“Sunday: A day given over by Americans to wishing they were dead and in heaven, and that their neighbors were dead and in hell.”

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

“Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.”

“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong.”

““For every human problem, there is a neat, simple solution; and it is always wrong.”

“Immorality: the morality of those who are having a better time”

“Self-respect: the secure feeling that no one, as yet, is suspicious.”

“The one permanent emotion of the inferior man is fear – fear of the unknown, the complex, the inexplicable. What he wants beyond everything else is safety.”

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

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

“No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have searched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby. The mistake that is made always runs the other way. Because the plain people are able to speak and understand, and even, in many cases, to read and write, it is assumed that they have ideas in their heads, and an appetite for more. This assumption is a folly.”

“There is only one way to help the fugitives [Jews fleeing the Nazis], and that is to find places for them in a country in which they can really live. Why shouldn’t the United States take in a couple hundred thousand of them, or even all of them?”

“After all, all he did was string together a lot of old, well-known quotations.” Did Mencken anticipate me?

Featured image: Mencken in 1928; From Wikipedia.

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Mark Berg is a community activist in Adams County and a proud Liberal. His email address is MABerg175@Comcast.net.

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Ralph Siegel
Ralph Siegel
9 days ago

I do not like or approve of cancel culture in which certain characteristics are highlighted to erase a person’s collective worth. I also understand that insensitivity and heated rhetoric can sometimes be mistaken for anti-semitism. But I have always been icy about praising Mencken (who sternly rejected the Gettysburg Address) because I believe this phrase, in his book about Nietzsche, is inexcusable: “The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world.” (Perhaps the master of English did not know in 1918 what the word… Read more »

David S Moore
David S Moore
3 months ago

Excellent.
Thanks for posting.

P J
P J
3 months ago

Seems like he’s describing himself with the following: “The kind of man who wants the government to adopt and enforce his ideas is always the kind of man whose ideas are idiotic.” And he lost me with these. He obviously thinks the same thing about “the other side” that he accuses others of doing. Pot, meet Kettle.: “God is the immemorial refuge of the incompetent, the helpless, the miserable. They find not only sanctuary in His arms, but also a kind of superiority, soothing to their macerated egos; He will set them above their betters.” “Faith may be defined briefly… Read more »

Fran K. Ingram
Fran K. Ingram
3 months ago

What I find more interesting about this article is a professed liberal who wrote the article agreeing with Mencken. Having been born and raised in Baltimore and astute in the power of journalism, I am aware of how Mencken was able to also attract Constitutionalist Conservatives like me to also read his works. Mencken wrote like a politician on the campaign trail. They have both liberal and conservative voters in their districts. When they speak in front of liberals, they answer, “Yes, I vote what my constituents want.” Then when they speak to groups of conservatives, they say, “I vote… Read more »

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