This massive book was compiled by H.L. Mencken himself in his twilight days to highlight the best writing of his career. It’s neatly organized by category, making it easy to jump around to topics that you are most interested in.
In case the H.L. Mencken name is new to you, he was a renowned essayist and cultural commentator in America during the early 20th century, with a biting wit and devastating satire that is hard to find today. The ideas within his chrestomathy reveal that he can and should be considered the great grandfather of red pill thought due to how he excoriated the flaws of the sexes, democracy, and modern culture while wielding his sword at dubious historical beliefs. He bloodied the propaganda and lies of the time and was hated for it. Even to this day as he is commonly denounced as a ‘racist’ even though he attacked all creeds and groups.
Here are my favorite quotes and passages from the book:
The ideas that conquer the race most rapidly and arouse the wildest enthusiasm and are held most tenaciously are precisely the ideas that are most insane. This has been true since the first “advanced” gorilla put on underwear, cultivated a frown and began his first lecture tour, and it will be so until the high gods, tired of the farce at last, obliterate the race with one great, final blast of fire, mustard gas and streptococci.[…]
Civilization tends to dilute and cheapen all other hazards. Even war has been largely reduced to caution and calculation; already, indeed, it employs almost as many press agents, letter openers and generals as soldiers. But the duel of sex continues to be fought in the Berserker manner. Whoso approaches women still faces the immemorial dangers.
He is chronically and unescapably deceived, not only by the other animals and by the delusive face of nature herself, but also and more particularly by himself— by his incomparable talent for searching out and embracing what is false, and for overlooking and denying what is true.
The capacity for discerning the essential truth, in fact, is as rare among men as it is common among crows, bullfrogs and mackerel. The man who shows it is a man of quite extraordinary quality— perhaps even a man downright diseased. Exhibit a new truth of any natural plausibility before the great masses of men, and not one in ten thousand will suspect its existence, and not one in a hundred thousand will embrace it without a ferocious resistance.
All the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times have been opposed as bitterly as if they were so many waves of smallpox, and every individual who has welcomed and advocated them, absolutely without exception, has been denounced and punished as an enemy of the race.[…]
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 the 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.[…]
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.
Perhaps the most valuable asset that any man can have in this world is a naturally superior air, a talent for sniffishness and reserve. The generality of men are always greatly impressed by it, and accept it freely as a proof of genuine merit.
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.
Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical , and especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes. The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.[…]
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.[…]
In every age the advocates of the dominant political theory seek to give it dignity by identifying it with whatever contemporaneous desire of man happens to be most powerful. In the days of monarchy, monarchy was depicted as the defender of the faith. In our present era of democracy, democracy is depicted as the only safe guardian of liberty. And the communism or super-communism of tomorrow, I suppose, will be sold to the booboisie as the only true palladium of peace, justice and plenty. All of these attempts to hook up cause and effect are nonsensical. Monarchy was fundamentally not a defender of the faith at all, but a rival and enemy to the faith. Democracy does not promote liberty; it diminishes and destroys liberty. And communism, as the example of Russia already shows, is not a fountain that gushes peace, justice and plenty, but a sewer in which they are drowned.[…]
To a [believer in democracy,] any attitude based upon a concept of honor, dignity and integrity seems contemptible and offensive.[…]
The democratic politician, confronted by the dishonesty and stupidity of his master, the mob, tries to convince himself and all the rest of us that it is really full of rectitude and wisdom. This is the origin of the doctrine that, whatever its transient errors, democracy always comes to right decisions in the long run. Perhaps— but on what evidence, by what reasoning, and for what motives! Go examine the long history of the anti-slavery agitation in America: it is a truly magnificent record of buncombe, false pretenses, and imbecility. This notion that the mob is wise, I fear, is not to be taken seriously: it was invented by mob-masters to save their faces.[…]
The democrat, leaping into the air to flap his wings and praise God, is forever coming down with a thump. The seeds of his disaster lie in his own stupidity: he can never get rid of the naive delusion —so beautifully Christian! – that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow.[…]
One cannot observe [democracy] objectively without being impressed by its curious distrust of itself— its apparently ineradicable tendency to abandon its whole philosophy at the first sign of strain. I need not point to what happens invariably in democratic states when the national safety is menaced. All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions, convert themselves, by a process as simple as taking a deep breath, into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity.[…]
The capital defect in the culture of These States is the lack of a civilized aristocracy, secure in its position, animated by an intelligent curiosity, skeptical of all facile generalizations, superior to the sentimentality of the mob, and delighting in the battle of ideas for its own sake.[…]
…the worst curse of democracy , as we suffer under it today, is that it makes public office a monopoly of a palpably inferior and ignoble group of men. They have to abase themselves in order to get it, and they have to keep on abasing themselves in order to hold it. The fact reflects itself in their general character, which is obviously low.
The ideal husband is surely not a man of active and daring mind; he is the man of placid and conforming mind. Here the good business man obviously beats the artist and adventurer. His rewards are all easily translated into domestic comfort and happiness. He is not wobbled by the admiration of other women, none of whom, however much they may esteem his virtues as a husband, are under any illusion as to his virtues as a lover.[…]
All men who, in any true sense, are sentient strive mightily for distinction and power, i.e., for the respect and envy of their fellowmen, i.e., for the ill-natured admiration of an endless series of miserable and ridiculous bags of rapidly disintegrating amino acids. Why? If I knew, I’d certainly not be writing books in this infernal American climate; I’d be sitting in state in a hall of crystal and gold, and people would be paying $ 10 a head to gape at me through peep-holes.[…]
The notion that any respectable work of art can have a communal origin is wholly nonsensical. The plain people, taking them together, are quite as incapable of a coherent esthetic impulse as they are of courage, honesty or honor. The cathedrals of the Middle Ages were not planned and built by whole communities, but by individual men; all the communities had to do with the business was to do the hard work, reluctantly and often badly.[…]
It is the pressing yearning of nearly every man who has actual ideas in him to empty them upon the world, to hammer them into plausible and ingratiating shapes, to compel the attention and respect of his equals, to lord it over his inferiors.
Even the most lowly prostitute is better off, in all worldly ways, than the virtuous woman of her own station in life. She has less work to do, it is less monotonous and dispiriting, she meets a far greater variety of men, and they are of classes distinctly beyond her own.[…]
The woman who has not had a child remains incomplete, ill at ease, and more than a little ridiculous. She is in the position of a man who has never stood in battle; she has missed the most colossal experience of her sex.[…]
A man forbids his wife to drink too much because, deep in his secret archives, he has records of the behavior of other women who drank too much, and is eager to safeguard his wife’s connubial rectitude and his own dignity against what he knows to be certain invasion. In brief, it is a commonplace of observation, familiar to all males beyond the age of twenty-one, that once a woman is drunk the rest is a mere matter of time and place: the girl is already there.
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.
Man cannot sit still, contemplating his destiny in this world, without going frantic. So he invents ways to take his mind off the horror . He works. He plays. He accumulates the preposterous nothing called property. He strives for the coy eyewink called fame. He founds a family, and spreads his curse over others. All the while the thing that moves him is simply the yearning to lose himself, to forget himself, to escape the tragicomedy that is himself. Life, fundamentally, is not worth living. So he confects artificialities to make it so. So he erects a gaudy structure to conceal the fact that it is not so.[…]
The basic fact about human existence is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not so much a war as an endless standing in line.[…]
Women whom we place upon pedestals worthy of the holy saints come down at last with mastoid abscesses or die obscenely of female weakness. And we ourselves? Let us not have too much hope. The chances are that, if we go to war, eager to leap superbly at the cannon’s mouth, we’ll be finished on the way by being run over by an army truck driven by a former bus-boy and loaded with imitation Swiss cheeses made in Oneida, N. Y. And that if we die in our beds, it will be of cholelithiasis.[…]
The great majority of us— all, in brief, who are normal— pass through life in constant revolt against our limitations, objective and subjective. Our conscious thought is largely devoted to plans and specifications for cutting a better figure in human society, and in our unconscious the business goes on much more steadily and powerfully. No healthy man, in his secret heart, is content with his destiny . He is tortured by dreams and images as a child is tortured by the thought of a state of existence in which it would live in a candy-store and have two stomachs.
In the big cities, that need [of happiness] is easily met. Here there is a vast and complex machinery for taking the slave’s mind off his desolateness of spirit— movie cathedrals to transport him into a land of opulence and romance, where men (whom he always identifies with himself) are brave, rich and handsome, and women (whom he identifies with his wife— or perchance with her younger sister) are clean, well-dressed and beautiful; newspapers to delight and instruct him with their sports pages, their comic strips and their eloquent appeals to his liberality, public spirit and patriotism; radio to play the latest jazz for him; baseball , races, gambling, harlotry and games in arenas; a thousand devices to make him forget his woes. It is this colossal opportunity to escape from life that brings yokels swarming to the cities, not any mere lust for money. The yokel is actually far more comfortable on his native soil; the city crowds and exploits him, and nine times out of ten he remains desperately poor. But the city at least teaches him how to forget his poverty; it amuses him and thrills him while it is devouring him.[…]
Happiness, like health, is probably also only a passing accident. For a moment or two the organism is irritated so little that it is not conscious of it; for the duration of that moment it is happy. Thus a hog is always happier than a man, and a bacillus is happier than a hog. The laws of the cosmos seem to be as little concerned about human felicity as the laws of the United States are concerned about human decency.
There has never been a successful revolution out of the clear sky. Always the doomed despot has prepared for it by making concessions to his enemies.[…]
Thus the despot who hedges, no matter how exalted his motives may be in his own view, appears to his enemies as one who has lost his grip, and at the first chance they fly at his throat, usually to the tune of loud protestations of altruism.
The Greeks of the palmy days remain the most overestimated people in all history. Ever since the Renaissance it has been a high indecorum to question their genius, and never a month passes that another book does not come out, praising them in loud, astounding terms.[…]
The plain facts are that Greek science, even at its best, would be hard to distinguish from the science prevailing among Hottentots, Haitians and Mississippi Baptists today, that Greek art was chiefly only derivative and extremely narrow in range, that Greek philosophy was quite as idiotic as any other philosophy, and that the government of the Greeks, even at its best, was worse than the worst of Tammany.[…]
If the history of Greek philosophy were known accurately, it would probably turn out to be no more than an imitation of some earlier philosophy, now forgotten— and maybe abandoned by its inventors as nonsense. In architecture and the other arts, it is certainly absurd to say that the Greeks invented anything. They got the column from the Egyptians , who had perfected it a thousand years before the Parthenon, and they slavishly followed the Egyptians in their neglect of the arch.[…]
As for the Greek genius for politics, it revealed its true measure in the fact that no Greek government ever lasted for more than a century, and that most of them ended in scandal and disaster.[…]
The one genuinely solid contribution of the Greeks to human progress lay in their attempt to synthesize and organize whatever knowledge was afloat in the world of their day.
Of all the arts practised by man, the art of the soldier seems to call for the least intelligence and to develop the least professional competency. Every battle recorded in history appears as a series of almost incredible blunders and imbecilities— always, at least, on one side, and usually, on both. One marvels, reading the chronicles, that any major engagement was ever won. Even the greatest generals— for example, Bonaparte— walk idiotically into palpable traps, and waste thousands of lives getting themselves out.[…]
…in war time, the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment cease to have any substance, and may be set aside summarily by any jury that has been sufficiently inflamed by a district attorney itching for higher office.
The average American judge, as everyone knows, is a mere rabbinical automaton, with no more give and take in his mind than you will find in the mind of a terrier watching a rathole. He converts the law into a series of rubber-stamps, and brings them down upon the scalped skulls of the just and unjust alike. The alternative to him, as commonly conceived, is quite as bad— an uplifter in a black robe, eagerly gulping every new brand of Peruna that comes out, and converting his pulpit into a sort of soap-box .
School-days, I believe, are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence. They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances, brutal violations of common sense and common decency. It doesn’t take a reasonably bright boy long to discover that most of what is rammed into him is nonsense, and that no one really cares very much whether he learns it or not. His parents, unless they are infantile in mind, tend to be bored by his lessons and labors, and are unable to conceal the fact from his sharp eyes.[…]
The virtue of a college degree is that it shuts off the asking of certain kinds of questions, some of them embarrassing. It is a certificate of safety, both to the holder and to the nation in general. A graduate is one who has been trained to act according to a pattern that is publicly considered to be normal and trustworthy.[…] [Education’s] sole purpose is to cram the pupils, as rapidly and as painlessly as possible, with the largest conceivable outfit of current axioms, in all departments of human thought— to make the pupil a good citizen, which is to say, a citizen differing as little as possible, in positive knowledge and habits of mind, from all other citizens. In other words, it is the mission of the pedagogue, not to make his pupils think, but to make them think right, and the more nearly his own mind pulsates with the great ebbs and flows of popular delusion and emotion, the more admirably he performs his function.
The trouble with human progress is that it tends to go too fast— that is, too fast for the great majority of comfortable and incurious men. Its agents are always in a hurry, and so become unpopular. If Darwin had printed “The Origin of Species” as a serial running twenty or thirty years he might have found himself, at the end of it, a member of the House of Lords or even Archbishop of Canterbury. But he disgorged it in one stupendous and appalling dose, and in consequence he alarmed millions, including many of his fellow scientists, and got an evil name.[…]
In at least two-thirds of the American States one of the easiest ways to get into public office is to denounce [Darwin] as a scoundrel. But by the year 2030, I daresay , what remains of his doctrine, if anything , will be accepted as complacently as the Copernican cosmography is now accepted. His offense was simply that he was too precipitate.[…]
I began reviewing current American fiction in 1908. The change that I note since then is immense. When I started out a new novel dealing frankly with the physiology and pathology of sex was still something of a novelty. It was, indeed, so rare that I always called attention to it. Today it is a commonplace.[…]
If I open a new novel and find nothing about copulation in it, I suspect at once that it is simply a reprint of some forgotten novel of 1885 , with a new name.
Trolling the masses
I often think of the noble divertissement that John D. Rockefeller could have got by giving $ 100,000,000 to the Mormons, first to finance a nation-wide campaign in favor of polygamy, then to buy legislation authorizing it from the State Legislatures, and then to pay for a fight to a finish before the Supreme Court of the United States, with all the leading barristers of the nation for the defense. The combat would have been gaudy, thrilling, incomparable . Millions of Americans would have been converted; the newspapers would have fallen one by one; in the end it might have been possible to put through a constitutional amendment not only authorizing polygamy, but even making it obligatory. John got no such fun out of the Rockefeller Institute, nor out of his gifts to Baptist missions in Cochin-China. Carnegie got no such fun out of his libraries. Morgan got no such fun out of his squirrel-like hoarding up of dingy paintings and moth-eaten old sofas.[…]
…the millionaire who imported a shipload of Moslem evangelists from Arabia, schooled them in English by intensive cultivation, and then turned them loose in Georgia— that such a millionaire , at all events, would suffer little from boredom during the ensuing carnage, and that his name would have an assured place in the history of the Confederate States. I am a poor man , but if the hat is passed I shall be glad to contribute to the project $ 1,000,000 in Mississippi bonds of the issue of 1838.
Literature always thrives best, in fact, in an atmosphere of hearty strife . Poe, surrounded by admiring professors, never challenged, never aroused to the emotions of revolt, would probably have written poetry indistinguishable from the hollow stuff of, say, George E. Woodberry. It took the persistent (and often grossly unfair and dishonorable) opposition of Griswold et al. to stimulate him to his highest endeavors. He needed friends, true enough, but he also needed enemies.[…]
The life of an artist is a life of frustrations and disasters. Storms rage endlessly within his own soul. His quest is for the perfect beauty that is always elusive, always just beyond the sky-rim. He tries to contrive what the gods themselves have failed to contrive. When, in some moment of great illumination, he comes within reach of his heart’s desire, his happiness is of a kind never experienced by ordinary men, nor even suspected , but that happens only seldom . More often he falls short, and in his falling short there is agony almost beyond endurance.[…]
It is almost as safe to assume that an artist of any dignity is against his country, i.e., against the environment in which God hath placed him, as it is to assume that his country is against the artist. The special quality which makes an artist of him might almost be defined, indeed, as an extraordinary capacity for irritation, a pathological sensitiveness to environmental pricks and stings. He differs from the rest of us mainly because he reacts sharply and in an uncommon manner to phenomena which leave the rest of us unmoved, or, at most, merely annoy us vaguely. He is, in brief, a more delicate fellow than we are, and hence less fitted to prosper and enjoy himself under the conditions of life which he and we must face alike. Therefore, he takes to artistic endeavor, which is at once a criticism of life and an attempt to escape from life.
Never let your inferiors do you a favor. It will be extremely costly.[…]
Morality is the theory that every human act must be either right or wrong, and that 99% of them are wrong.[…]
Love is the delusion that one woman differs from another.[…]
Misogynist – A man who hates women as much as women hate one another.[…]
Adultery is the application of democracy to love.[…]
Bachelors know more about women than married men. If they didn’t they’d be married, too.[…]
The war on privilege will never end. Its next great campaign will be against the special privileges of the underprivileged.
If Mencken lived during these times, he would be an unemployable writer resigned to a WordPress blog that would be subject to change.org petitions organized by feminists and social justice warriors. His angry and truthfully bitter writing would have caused too much outrage today, and that is exactly why it’s so refreshing, since we have no Mencken that exists at his level of intellectual skill and writing ability. Today’s establishment tosses aside any writer who has potential to achieve a comparable level of greatness yet nourishes replaceable idiots with barely a heap of talent who excel solely at writing 600-word turds of unintelligible invective attacking evil men and their supposed desire to rape middle class white women.
My only complaint with the book is that the topics became more obscure and irrelevant as you go on. Mencken wisely stacked the beginning with his best work, so you can get away with only reading the first half and still gain immense value from it. He has achieved the noble goal of teaching you uncommon common sense while giving you mental tools to deconstruct myths that stubbornly persist in spite of whatever scientific advancement we may have achieved in modern times. His chrestomathy should be required reading for any man dissatisfied with the current state of America, for unfortunately not much has improved since his time.
Read More: “A Mencken Chrestomathy” on Amazon