H. L. Mencken citations

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H. L. Mencken

Date de naissance: 12. septembre 1880
Date de décès: 29. janvier 1956

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Henry Louis Mencken , plus connu sous le nom de H. L. Mencken, est un journaliste, linguiste, satiriste, critique social et un libre penseur, surnommé « le sage de Baltimore » ou encore « le Nietzsche américain ». Il est souvent considéré comme l'un des écrivains américains les plus influents du XXe siècle. À une époque de sa carrière, les Américains l'avaient désigné comme leur plus brillant esprit et critique littéraire hors pair.

Mencken est probablement plus connu aujourd'hui pour son ouvrage The American Language, une étude de plusieurs volumes sur la façon dont l'anglais est parlé aux États-Unis, ainsi que pour son reportage satirique sur le procès Scopes, qu'il appelait le « procès du singe ».

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Citations H. L. Mencken

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

—  H.L. Mencken, Prejudices: First Series
Context: Every normal man must be tempted, at times, to spit upon his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin slitting throats. Ch. 6, "The New Poetry Movement"

„No government as such is ever in favor of the freedom of the individual.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: Government, like any other organism, refuses to acquiesce in its own extinction. This refusal, of course, involves the resistance to any effort to diminish its powers and prerogatives. There has been no organized effort to keep government down since Jefferson's day. Ever since then the American people have been bolstering up its powers and giving it more and more jurisdiction over their affairs. They pay for that folly in increased taxes and diminished liberties. No government as such is ever in favor of the freedom of the individual. It invariably seeks to limit that freedom, if not by overt denial, then by seeking constantly to widen its own functions. 197

„No man ever entered the White House under the burden of a more inconvenient past. And no President was ever denounced with greater ferocity.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: No man ever entered the White House under the burden of a more inconvenient past. And no President was ever denounced with greater ferocity. -- said of Andrew Jackson Review of Andrew Jackson: An Epic in Homespun by Gerald W. Johnson http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1928mar-00382, The American Mercury, March 1928, pp. 382-383 (March 1928)

„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.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: 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.... 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.... 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. "Aftermath" in the Baltimore Evening Sun http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/menck05.htm#SCOPESD (14 September 1925)

Publicité

„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.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: 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 man 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 names0 but the great masses of men, even in this inspired republic, are ignorant, they are dishonest, they are cowardly, they are ignoble. They know little if anything that is worth knowing, and there is not the slightest sign of a natural desire among them to increase their knowledge. Homo Neanderthalensis Baltimore Sun (June 29th, 1925), The Impossible Mencken

„Truth, indeed, is something that is believed in completely only by persons who have never tried personally to pursue it to its fastness and grab it by the tail.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: Truth, indeed, is something that is believed in completely only by persons who have never tried personally to pursue it to its fastness and grab it by the tail. It is the adoration of second-rate men — men who always receive 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. Perhaps this statement is a bit too sweeping. There is, year by year, a gradual accumulation of what may be called, provisionally, truths — there is a slow accretion of ideas that somehow manage to meet all practicable human tests, and so survive. But even so, it is risky to call them absolute truths. All that one may safely say of them is that no one, as yet, has demonstrated that they are errors. Soon or late, if experience teaches us anything, they are likely to succumb too. The profoundest truths of the Middle Ages are now laughed at by schoolboys. The profoundest truths of democracy will be laughed at, a few centuries hence, even by school-teachers. Ch. 3 "Footnote on Criticism", pp. 85-104

„Liberty and democracy are eternal enemies, and every one knows it who has ever given any sober reflection to the matter.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: Liberty and democracy are eternal enemies, and every one knows it who has ever given any sober reflection to the matter. A democratic state may profess to venerate the name, and even pass laws making it officially sacred, but it simply cannot tolerate the thing. In order to keep any coherence in the governmental process, to prevent the wildest anarchy in thought and act, the government must put limits upon the free play of opinion. In part, it can reach that end by mere propaganda, by the bald force of its authority — that is, by making certain doctrines officially infamous. But in part it must resort to force, i. e., to law. One of the main purposes of laws in a democratic society is to put burdens upon intelligence and reduce it to impotence. Ostensibly, their aim is to penalize anti-social acts; actually their aim is to penalize heretical opinions. At least ninety-five Americans out of every 100 believe that this process is honest and even laudable; it is practically impossible to convince them that there is anything evil in it. In other words, they cannot grasp the concept of liberty. Always they condition it with the doctrine that the state, i. e., the majority, has a sort of right of eminent domain in acts, and even in ideas — that it is perfectly free, whenever it is so disposed, to forbid a man to say what he honestly believes. Whenever his notions show signs of becoming "dangerous," ie, of being heard and attended to, it exercises that prerogative. And the overwhelming majority of citizens believe in supporting it in the outrage. Including especially the Liberals, who pretend — and often quite honestly believe — that they are hot for liberty. They never really are. Deep down in their hearts they know, as good democrats, that liberty would be fatal to democracy — that a government based upon shifting and irrational opinion must keep it within bounds or run a constant risk of disaster. They themselves, as a practical matter, advocate only certain narrow kinds of liberty — liberty, that is, for the persons they happen to favor. The rights of other persons do not seem to interest them. If a law were passed tomorrow taking away the property of a large group of presumably well-to-do persons — say, bondholders of the railroads — without compensation and without even colorable reason, they would not oppose it; they would be in favor of it. The liberty to have and hold property is not one they recognize. They believe only in the liberty to envy, hate and loot the man who has it. "Liberty and Democracy" in the Baltimore Evening Sun (13 April 1925), also in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy : New Selections from the Writings of America's Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit (1994) edited by Terry Teachout, p. 35

„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.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: 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.... 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.... 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. "Aftermath" in the Baltimore Evening Sun http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/menck05.htm#SCOPESD (14 September 1925)

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„All of us, if we are of reflective habit, like and admire men whose fundamental beliefs differ radically from our own. But when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: All of us, if we are of reflective habit, like and admire men whose fundamental beliefs differ radically from our own. But when a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental — men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or count himself lost. … All the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre — the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. 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. Bayard vs. Lionheart, The Evening Sun, Baltimore (26 July 1920), newspapers.com/clip https://www.newspapers.com/clip/21831908/hl_mencken_article_26_jul_1920_the/

„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.“

—  H.L. Mencken
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 American Mercury (March, 1930); first printed, in part, in the Baltimore Evening Sun (9 December 1929)

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

—  H.L. Mencken
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... The American Mercury (February 1926)

„One of the main purposes of laws in a democratic society is to put burdens upon intelligence and reduce it to impotence. Ostensibly, their aim is to penalize anti-social acts; actually their aim is to penalize heretical opinions.“

—  H.L. Mencken
Context: Liberty and democracy are eternal enemies, and every one knows it who has ever given any sober reflection to the matter. A democratic state may profess to venerate the name, and even pass laws making it officially sacred, but it simply cannot tolerate the thing. In order to keep any coherence in the governmental process, to prevent the wildest anarchy in thought and act, the government must put limits upon the free play of opinion. In part, it can reach that end by mere propaganda, by the bald force of its authority — that is, by making certain doctrines officially infamous. But in part it must resort to force, i. e., to law. One of the main purposes of laws in a democratic society is to put burdens upon intelligence and reduce it to impotence. Ostensibly, their aim is to penalize anti-social acts; actually their aim is to penalize heretical opinions. At least ninety-five Americans out of every 100 believe that this process is honest and even laudable; it is practically impossible to convince them that there is anything evil in it. In other words, they cannot grasp the concept of liberty. Always they condition it with the doctrine that the state, i. e., the majority, has a sort of right of eminent domain in acts, and even in ideas — that it is perfectly free, whenever it is so disposed, to forbid a man to say what he honestly believes. Whenever his notions show signs of becoming "dangerous," ie, of being heard and attended to, it exercises that prerogative. And the overwhelming majority of citizens believe in supporting it in the outrage. Including especially the Liberals, who pretend — and often quite honestly believe — that they are hot for liberty. They never really are. Deep down in their hearts they know, as good democrats, that liberty would be fatal to democracy — that a government based upon shifting and irrational opinion must keep it within bounds or run a constant risk of disaster. They themselves, as a practical matter, advocate only certain narrow kinds of liberty — liberty, that is, for the persons they happen to favor. The rights of other persons do not seem to interest them. If a law were passed tomorrow taking away the property of a large group of presumably well-to-do persons — say, bondholders of the railroads — without compensation and without even colorable reason, they would not oppose it; they would be in favor of it. The liberty to have and hold property is not one they recognize. They believe only in the liberty to envy, hate and loot the man who has it. "Liberty and Democracy" in the Baltimore Evening Sun (13 April 1925), also in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy : New Selections from the Writings of America's Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit (1994) edited by Terry Teachout, p. 35

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