Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)
U. S. Editor and Critic.

Most of these quotes are selected from Minority Report, H. L. Mencken's Notebooks, Knopf, 1956. These have numbers in square brackets corresponding to the numbers in the book. Use your browser's `find' or `search' tools to jump to keywords.


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.

[43] The effort to educate the uneducable is hopeless. Schools for adults soon become kindergartens for adults. The pupils are quite unable to take in the education proper to their years. The gogues thus have to provide them with amusement, just as children of four are provided with amusement in kindergartens. The hope is that they will somehow learn to think as an accidental by-product of playing, but that hope is vain.

[51] The average American college fails...to achieve its ostensible ends. One failure...of the colleges lies in their apparent incompetence to select and train a sufficient body of intelligent teachers. Their choice is commonly limited to second-raters, for a man who really knows a subject is seldom content to spend his lifetime teaching it: he wants to function in a more active and satisfying way, as all other living organisms want to function. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this rule, but they are very rare, and none of them are to be found in the average college. The pedagogues there incarcerated are all inferior men—men who really know very little about the things they pretend to teach, and are too stupid or too indolent to acquire more. Being taught by them is roughly like being dosed in illness by third-year medical students.

The truth is that the average schoolmaster, on all the lower levels, is and always must be...next door to an idiot, for how can one imagine an intelligent man engaging in so puerile an avocation?

New York Evening Mail, 23 Jan. 1918.

[181] Consider [the pedagogue] in his highest incarnation: the university professor. What is his function? Simply to pass on to fresh generations of numskulls a body of so-called knowledge that is fragmentary, unimportant, and, in large part, untrue. His whole professional activity is circumscribed by the prejudices, vanities and avarices of his university trustees, i.e., a committee of soap-boilers, nail manufacturers, bank-directors and politicians. The moment he offends these vermin he is undone. He cannot so much as think aloud without running a risk of having them fan his pantaloons.

[92] John Milton, in his famous "Tractate of Education," laid stress upon the need to purge the young of infantile and adolescent concerns and concentrate their attention upon the ideas and interests of maturity. Any adequate education, he argued, must so influence them that "they may dispose and scorn all their childish and ill-taught qualities to deal with manly and liberal exercises." It must be manifest that the over-accentuation of athletics in American colleges works powerfully against this transformation. It is impossible to think of games among young men and women save as reversions to an earlier stage of growth. A really intelligent educational policy would try to discourage the taste for them, just as it tries to discourage the taste for making mud-pies.

[25] The essential difficulty of pedagogy lies in the impossibility of inducing a sufficiency of superior men and women to become pedagogues. Children, and especially boys, have sharp eyes for the weaknesses of the adults set over them. It is impossible to make boys take seriously the teaching of men they hold in contempt.

[161] ...When the American pedagogue became a professional, and began to acquire a huge armamentarium of technic, the trade of teaching declined, for only inferior men were willing to undergo a long training in obvious balderdash.

[174] Of all the classes of men, I dislike most those who make their livings by talking—actors, clergymen, politicians, pedagogues, and so on. All of them participate in the shallow false pretenses of the actor who is their archetype. It is almost impossible to imagine a talker who sticks to the facts. Carried away by the sound of his own voice and the applause of the groundlings, he makes inevitably the jump from logic to mere rhetoric.

[186] College football would be much more interesting if the faculty played instead of the students, and even more interesting if the trustees played. There would be a great increase in broken arms, legs and necks, and simultaneously an appreciable diminution in the loss to humanity.

The honorary degree is a way of honoring a pompous ass. No honest person would accept a degree he hadn't worked for. Honorary degrees are suitable only for realtors, chiropractors and presidents of the United States.

— [Quoted by Alistair Cooke in a speech before the National Press Club, Oct 8, 1986.]


[168] ...I suppose that the inferiority of the teachers of [English] is largely due to the fact that they are recruited from the lower moiety of pedagogical aspirants. The more ambitious fellows tackle something that seems more recondite, and hence better worth knowing. A prospective teacher of biology, say, or mathematics, or physics, cannot outfit himself for his career by reading a few plays of Shakespeare, memorizing the rules of grammar laid down by idiots, and learning to pronounce either as if it were spelled eyether; he must apply himself to a vast mass of strange and difficult facts, and mastering them requires a kind of capacity that is not common. The stupider fellow turns to something that is easier and more obvious, which is to say, to the language that every "educated" man is presumed to know, and the books he is presumed to have read...

But in English even the higher ranks of professors tend to be inferior to those of any other faculty. The papers printed in [the journals] seldom show any professional competence or contribute anything worth knowing to the subject. For the most part they consist wholly of dull pedantries—attempts to establish the dates of some forgotten poet, investigations of the stealings of one obscure author from another, elaborate statistical inquiries into weak endings, and so on and so on. The standards of professional research and writings in the United States are anything but high, but it would certainly be unusual to find any similar rubbish in a journal of chemistry, astronomy or zoology, or even in a medical journal. The men who actually know something always know the difference between something and nothing, but the professors of English seem to be largely unaware of it. ...they devote themselves ardently to irrelevant trivia about the writers of the past, many of them existing today only as flies embalmed in the amber of text-books.

[173] All the leaders of groups tend to be frauds. If they were not, it would be impossible for them to retain the allegiance of their dupes...

[32] The taste for gambling, like that for sports, is a kind of feeble-mindedness—maybe even an insanity. It can be justified only by a resort to the most preposterous sophistry. Whenever it has seized a man of any visible talent—for example, Dostoevsky and C. C. Colton— he has ended crazy. It is the silliest of all the vices.

[44] All professional philosophers tend to assume that common sense means the mental habit of the common man. Nothing could be further from the mark. The common man is chiefly to be distinguished by his plentiful lack of common sense: he believes things on evidence that is too scanty, or that distorts the plain facts, or that is full of non sequiturs. Common sense really involves making full use of all the demonstrable evidence—and of nothing but the demonstrable evidence.

[45] The scientist who yields anything to theology, however slight, is yielding to ignorance and false pretenses, and as certainly as if he granted that a horse-hair put into a bottle of water will turn into a snake.

[48] One of the strangest delusions of the Western mind is to the effect that a philosophy of profound wisdom is on tap in the East. I have read a great many expositions of it, some by native sages and the rest by Western enthusiasts, but I have found nothing in it save nonsense. It is, fundamentally, a moony transcendentalism almost as absurd as that of Emerson, Alcott and company. It bears no sort of relation to the known facts, and is full of assumptions and hypotheses that every intelligent man must laugh at. In its practical effects it seems to be as lacking in sense and as inimical to human dignity as Methodism, or even Mormonism...

The so-called Philosophy of India is even more blowsy and senseless than the metaphysics of the West. It is at war with everything we know of the workings of the human mind, and with every sound idea formulated by mankind. If it prevailed in the whole modern world we'd still be in the Thirteenth Century; nay, we'd be back among the Egyptians of the pyramid age. Its only coherent contribution to Western thought has been theosophy—and theosophy is as idiotic as Christian Science. It has absolutely nothing to offer a civilized white man.

[57] Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he also usually proves that he is one himself.

[67] The capacity of human beings to bore one another seems to be vastly greater than that of any other animals. Some of their most esteemed inventions have no other apparent purpose, for example, the dinner party of more than two, the epic poem, and the science of metaphysics.

[71] There are people who read too much: the bibliobibuli. I know some who are constantly drunk on books, as other men are drunk on whiskey or religion. They wander through this most diverting and stimulating of worlds in a haze, seeing nothing and hearing nothing.

[74] Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and quantities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians. Thus their speculations tend almost inevitably to depart from the field of true science, which is that of precise observation, and to become mere soaring in the empyrean. The process works backward, too. That is to say, their reports of what they pretend actually to see are often very unreliable. It is thus no wonder that, of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology. Nor is it remarkable that, in the popular belief, most astronomers end by losing their minds.

[78] The fact that I have no remedy for all the sorrows of the world is no reason for my accepting yours. It simply supports the strong probability that yours is a fake.

[79] It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.

[118] ...The only really respectable Protestants are the Fundamentalists. Unfortunately, they are also palpable idiots...

[125] The believing mind is externally impervious to evidence. The most that can be accomplished with it is to induce it to substitute one delusion for another. It rejects all overt evidence as wicked...

[181] What is the function that a clergyman performs in the world? Answer: he gets his living by assuring idiots that he can save them from an imaginary hell. It is a business almost indistinguishable from that of a seller of snake-oil for rheumatism.

[205] I am one of the few Goyim who have ever actually tackled the Talmud. I suppose you now expect me to add that it is a profound and noble work, worthy of hard study by all other Goyim. Unhappily, my report must differ from this expectation. It seems to me, save for a few bright spots, to be quite indistinguishable from rubbish. If, at its highest, it is genuinely worth reading, then at its lowest it is on all fours with the Koran, "Science and Health" and the Book of Mormon.

[232] The effort to reconcile science and religion is almost always made, not by theologians, but by scientists unable to shake off altogether the piety absorbed with their mothers' milk. The theologians, with no such dualism addling their wits, are smart enough to see that the two things are implacably and eternally antagonistic, and that any attempt to thrust them into one bag is bound to result in one swallowing the other. The scientists who undertake this miscegenation always end by succumbing to religion; after a Millikan has been discoursing five minutes it becomes apparent that he is speaking in the character of a Christian Sunday-school scholar, not of a scientist. The essence of science is that it is always willing to abandon a given idea, however fundamental it may seem to be, for a better one; the essence of theology is that it holds its truths to be eternal and immutable. To be sure, theology is always yielding a little to the progress of knowledge, and only a Holy Roller in the mountains of Tennessee would dare to preach today what the popes preached in the Thirteenth Century, but this yielding is always done grudgingly, and thus lingers a good while behind the event. So far as I am aware even the most liberal theologian of today still gags at scientific concepts that were already commonplaces in my schooldays.

Thus such a thing as a truly enlightened Christian is hard to imagine. Either he is enlightened or he is Christian, and the louder he protests that he is the former the more apparent it becomes that he is really the latter. A Catholic priest who devotes himself to seismology or some other such safe science may become a competent technician and hence a useful man, but it is ridiculous to call him a scientist so long as he still believes in the virgin birth, the atonement or transubstantiation. It is, to be sure, possible to imagine any of these dogmas being true, but only at the cost of heaving all science overboard as rubbish. The priest's reasons for believing in them is not only not scientific; it is violently anti-scientific. Here he is exactly on all fours with a believer in fortune-telling, Christian Science or chiropractic.

[239] It is never possible for a metaphysician to state his ideas in plain English. Those ideas, with few exceptions, are inherently nonsensical, and he is forced to formulate them in a vague and unintelligible jargon. Of late some of the stars of the faculty have taken to putting them into mathematical formulae. They thus become completely incomprehensible to the layman, and gain the additional merit of being incomprehensible also to most other metaphysicians.

[248] Experience is a poor guide to man, and is seldom followed. A man really learns little by it, for it is narrowly limited in range. What does a faithful husband know of women, or a faithful wife of men? The generalizations of such persons are always inaccurate. What really teaches man is not experiences, but observation. It is observation that enables him to make use of the vastly greater experience of other men, of men taken in the mass. He learns by noting what happens to them. Confined to what happens to himself, he labors eternally under an insufficiency of data.

[252] Metaphysics is a refuge for men who have a strong desire to appear learned and profound but have nothing worth hearing to say. Their speculations have helped mankind hardly more than those of the astrologers. What we regard as good in metaphysics is really psychology: the rest is only blah. Ordinarily, it does not even produce good phrases, but is dull and witless. The accumulated body of philosophical speculation is hopelessly self-contradictory. It is not a system at all, but simply a quarreling congeries of systems. The thing that makes philosophers respected is not actually their profundity, but simply their obscurity. They translate vague and dubious ideas into high-sounding words, and their dupes assume, as they assume themselves, that the resulting obfuscation is a contribution to knowledge.

[260] Life on this earth is not only without rational significance, but also apparently unintentional. The cosmic laws seem to have been set going for some purpose quite unrelated to human existence. Man is thus a sort of accidental by-product, as the sparks are an accidental by-product of the horseshoe a blacksmith fashions on his anvil. The sparks are far more brilliant than the horseshoe, but all the same they remain essentially meaningless. They constitute, at best, a disease of the horseshoe—they involve a destruction of its tissue. Perhaps life, in the same way, is a disease of the cosmos.

[298] Why assume so glibly that the God who presumably created the universe is still running it? It is certainly perfectly conceivable that He may have finished it and then turned it over to lesser gods to operate. In the same way many human institutions are turned over to grossly inferior men. This is true, for example, of most universities, and of all great newspapers.

[300] The time must come inevitably when mankind shall surmount the imbecility of religion, as it has surmounted the imbecility of religion's ally, magic. It is impossible to imagine this world being really civilized so long as so much nonsense survives. In even its highest forms religion embraces concepts that run counter to all common sense. It can be defended only by making assumptions and adopting rules of logic that are never heard of in any other field of human thinking.

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

[311] The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.

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

[326] The worst government is the most moral. One composed of cynics is often very tolerant and humane. But when fanatics are on top there is no limit to oppression.

[330] 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... The United States has never developed an aristocracy really disinterested or an intelligentsia really intelligent. Its history is simply a record of vacillations between two gangs of frauds.

[333] Religion, of course, does make some men better, and perhaps even many men. There can be no doubt of it. But making them better by filling their poor heads with grotesque nonsense is an irrational and wasteful process, and the harm it does greatly outweighs the good. If men could be made better—or even only happier—by teaching them that two and two make five there would be plenty of fools to advocate that method, but it would remain anti-social none the less. If the theologians could only agree on their doctrines their unanimity might have some evidential value, just as the agreement of all politicians that the first duty of the citizen is to obey them and admire them has some evidential value. It may not be true, but it is at least undisputed by all save a small fraction of heretics, which is certainly something. Fortunately for common sense, the theologians are never able to agree. Even within the sects, and under the more rigid discipline, there is constant wrangling, as, for example, between the Jesuits and the Dominicans. Thus the cocksureness of one outfit is cancelled out by the ribald denial of all the rest, and rational men are able to consign the whole gang to statistics and the Devil.

[334] The so-called Philosophy of India has found its natural home in Los Angeles, the capital of American idiots. Nowhere else, so far as I know, is there any body of theosophists left, and nowhere else has there ever been any substantial following for Yogi. All the quacks who advertise to teach Yogi in twenty lessons for $2, and all the high priests of the other varieties of Indian balderdash have their headquarters in Los Angeles, which is also the Rome of the American Rosicrucians.

[336] The theological argument by design, made popular in the English-speaking countries by William Paley, is very far from convincing. The creator it adumbrates shows only a limited intelligence compared to His supposed masterpiece, man, and all save a few of His inventions are inimical to life on earth rather than beneficial. There is nothing among them that is at once as ingenious, as simple and as admirably adapted to its uses as the wheel. I pass over the vastly more complicated inventions of the modern era, many of them enormously superior to, say, the mammalian heart. And I also pass over the relatively crude contrivances of this Creator in the aesthetic field, wherein He has been far surpassed by man, as, for example, for adroitness of design, for complexity or for beauty, the sounds of an orchestra. Of the irrationality and wastefulness of the whole natural process it is hardly necessary to speak. Nothing made by man resembles it here, save only government. It is hence no wonder that the overwhelming majority of men, at all times and everywhere, have inclined toward the belief that government is of divine origin.

[340] The country high-schools of the United States no longer make any pretense to rational teaching. Now that every yokel above the intellectual level of an earthworm is run through them, their more intelligent teachers give up in despair, for not more than a small percentage of the pupils they face are really educable, at least beyond the fifth-grade level. The average curriculum shows a smaller and smaller admixture of rational instruction, and is made up more and more of simple time-killers. The high-school, in its earlier form of the academy, was a hard and even harsh school, but it actually taught a great deal. But in its modern form it is hardly more than a banal aggregation of social clubs. Every student of any pretensions belongs to a dozen—imitation fraternities, bands and orchestras, athletic teams, and so on. The most salient pupil, next to the champion athlete, is the female drum-major, proudly showing her legs, making the most of her budding breasts, and even offering the spectators a very good idea of the lines and foliage of her pudenda. The State universities are commonly required by law to take in, sight unseen, the graduates of these burlesque institutions of learning. As a result, they go downhill rapidly, and many of them are already burlesques themselves. As the student body increases in quantity it declines correspondingly in quality.

[343] The theory behind representative government is that superior men—or at all events, men not inferior to the average in ability and integrity—are chosen to manage the public business, and that they carry on this work with reasonable intelligence and honesty. There is little support for that theory in the known facts...

[344] Every contribution to human progress on record has been made by some individual who differed sharply from the general, and was thus, almost ipso facto, superior to the general. Perhaps the palpably insane must be excepted here, but I can think of no others. Such exceptional individuals should be permitted, it sees to me, to enjoy every advantage that goes with their superiority, even when enjoying it deprives the general. They alone are of any significance to history. The rest are as negligible as the race of cockroaches, who have gone unchanged for a million years...

[350] Who are A's betters? They are all persons whom he envies, and with whom he would willingly change places. The essence of the superior man is that he is free of such envy. Conscious of his capacity to survive and prosper within his own field, he has no desire to change places with anyone else, and hence he is incapable of envying anyone else. Thus he is inevitably a bad democrat, for democracy is a practical matter is based mainly and perhaps almost wholly on envy.

[357] ...Metaphysics is almost always an attempt to prove the incredible by an appeal to the unintelligible.

[362] No more than one man in ten, at least in the United States, is really a master of the trade he practises. The rest take money for doing what they are quite incompetent to do, and thus live by false pretenses...

[364] Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops. Why is the so-called science of sociology, as ardent young college professors expound it, such an imbecility? Why is a large part of economics? Why does politics always elude the classifiers and theorizers? Why do fashions in metaphysics change almost as often as fashions in women's hats? Simply because the unknowable casts its black shadows across all these fields—simply because the professors attempt to label and pigeon-hole phenomena that are as elusive and intangible as the way of a man with a maid.

[366] The theory seems to be that so long as a man is a failure he is one of God's chillun, but that as soon as he succeeds he is taken over by the Devil.

[371] Metaphysics is the child of theology, and shows all the family stigmata. Both are based upon the theory that there is some mysterious magic in the unintelligible. Believing in it is thus an act of faith, lying precisely within the definition of faith by Paul in Hebrews XI, 1. This idea that there is something creditable about embracing nonsense is at the bottom of the vulgar idea that religion is a necessary part of the outfit of a decent man. It appears also on putatively higher levels, and is the hallmark of the whole race of so-called philosophers...

[373] It is often argued that religion is valuable because it makes men good, but even if this were true it would not be a proof that religion is true. That would be an extension of pragmatism beyond endurance. Santa Claus makes children good in precisely the same way, and yet no one would argue seriously that the fact proves his existence. The defense of religion is full of such logical imbecilities. The theologians, taking one with another, are adept logicians, but every now and then they have to resort to sophistries so obvious that their whole case takes on an air of the ridiculous. Even the most logical religion starts out with patently false assumptions. It is often argued in support of this or that one that men are so devoted to it that they are willing to die for it. That, of course, is as silly as the Santa Claus proof. Other men are just as devoted to manifestly false religions, and just as willing to die for them. Every theologian spends a large part of his time and energy trying to prove that religions for which multitudes of honest men have fought and died are false, wicked, and against God.

[380] One of the most irrational of all the conventions of modern society is the one to the effect that religious opinions should be respected. ...[This] convention protects them, and so they proceed with their blather unwhipped and almost unmolested, to the great damage of common sense and common decency. that they should have this immunity is an outrage. There is nothing in religious ideas, as a class, to lift them above other ideas. On the contrary, they are always dubious and often quite silly. Nor is there any visible intellectual dignity in theologians. Few of them know anything that is worth knowing, and not many of them are even honest.

[382] No one ever heard of the truth being enforced by law. Whenever the secular arm is called in to sustain an idea, whether new or old, it is always a bad idea, and not infrequently it is downright idiotic.

[388] Despite all the current gabble about curved space and other such phantasms, it is much easier to think of the universe as infinite than to think of it as having metes and bounds. If we try to think of it as finite we must somehow conjure up a region of sheer nothingness beyond its limits, and that is a feat I defy anyone to undertake. The human mind, in fact, simply cannot grasp the concept of nothingness. All we know of the universe tends to prove that it is unlimited, and the more we learn about it the more that impression is confirmed. Am I here, perhaps citing a subjective reason to support an objective fact? Well, why not? What other reasons are there? We can examine the universe only through our senses, and our senses tell us that it spreads infinitely in all directions. By senses, of course, I do not mean the unaided senses of a child; I mean the enormously reinforced senses of a man of science. His telescope magnifies the evidence of his eyes, but what it tells him must still be recorded by his two optic nerves.

As for me, I refuse to waste thought upon a structure that apparently has no limits in either time or space. The human mind can imagine it, but that is as far as anyone can go. Our ordinary thinking constantly assumes temporal and spatial boundaries; indeed, we always think of objects and phenomena in terms of duration and extension. But there is no sign of either in the universe. We must either accept it as infinite, or stop thinking about it altogether. Any effort to put bounds to it, as for instance that of Einstein and his followers, leads quickly to plain absurdity. Curved space explains nothing whatsoever: it simply begs the question. Nor is there any genuine illumination in the general doctrine of relativity. It only says what every man of any sense knew before—that time and space are not absolute values, but only relative.

[389] Man's limitations are also visible in his gods. Yahveh seems to have had His hands full with the Devil from the start. His plans for Adam and Eve went to pot, and He failed again with Noah. His worst failure came when He sent His only-begotten Son into the world to rescue man from sin. It would be hard to imagine any scheme falling further from success.

[395] Christianity, for all its wounds, is not likely to die; even its forms will not die; the forms, indeed will preserve what remains of the substance. Of all religions ever devised by man, it is the one that offers the most for the least money to the average man of our time. This man may be very briefly described. He had enough education to make him view all religions somewhat critically, to make him competent to weight and estimate them, particularly in terms of their capacity to meet his own problems—but not enough to analyze the concepts underlying them. Such an analysis leads inevitably to agnosticism; a man who once reaches the point of examining religions as psychological phenomena, without regard to the ostensible authority, always ends by rejecting all of them. But the average man is incapable of any such examination, and his incapacity not only safeguards his religion but also emphasizes his need of it. He must have some answer to the maddening riddle of existence, and, being unable to work out a logical or evidential answer, he is thrown back upon a mystical answer.

This mystical answer is religion. It is a transcendental solace in the presence of the intolerable. It is a stupendous begging of questions that nevertheless disposes of them. Of all such answers Christianity is at once the simplest and the most reassuring. It is protean and elastic; it has infinite varieties; it has comfort both for the man revolting despairingly against reason or congenitally incapable of reason, and for the man whose capacity for reason stops just short of intelligence. It is, at its best, a profound inner experience, a kind of poetry that is lived—call it Catholicism. It is, at its worst, a game of supernatural politics—call it Methodism. But in either case it organizes and gives a meaning to life. In either case it soothes the man who is too weak to stand up single-handed against the eternal and intolerable mysteries.

[402] It is one of the Christian delusions that Christianity brought charity into the world. It did not such thing. There were plenty of agencies for taking care of the poor and helpless long before Christianity was heard of, and even before Judaism. Both Christianity and Judaism have converted charity into a sort of pious racket. The alms-giver, in return for a trifling expenditure on this earth, will be rewarded with an infinity of bliss post-mortem. This purely selfish note is struck with great clarity by Judaism, and only less clearly by Christianity. It appears also in the other religions of the East. Thus religion has not really promoted charity, but debased it.

[404] The trouble with the theologians is that they are very adroit logicians, and so usually prove too much. If the existence of man proves that of God, on the commonly stated ground that every effect must have a cause, then the existence of God equally proves the existence of some super-God, and so on ad infinitum. Theologians have made many efforts to meet this dilemma, but never with success. They have been quite unable to imagine a power creating itself, just as all the rest of us have been unable to imagine it. They pretend otherwise, but their pretense is quite transparent.

[405] The essential dilemma of education is to be found in the fact that the sort of man (or woman) who knows a given subject sufficiently well to teach it is usually unwilling to do so. There are, of course, exceptions, but they tend to be confined to the higher levels, where even the most aloof savant may usually be prevailed on to take a few apprentices. His motive may be bad—in the average case, in fact, it is simply a desire to get some free helpers in his own work—but nevertheless he commonly makes a more or less diligent effort to instruct his pupils, if only because it increases their value to him, and he would be disgraced to have ignoramuses claim him as their master. But on the lower levels [of education] the average teacher really knows little about the thing he presumes to teach; he is simply a pedagogue. In the public schools, in fact, and also in the private schools, it is common to shift him from one subject to another, though they may lie miles apart, or to load him with two or three more that have nothing in common. Savages order this business better. The teaching of the young, in most tribes, in handed over to the leading men thereof. They are not pedagogues at all, in the civilized sense; they are rather men who happen to know. It may be objected that what they teach is mainly a series of customs and superstitions that have no support in the overt facts, but to that two answers may be made. The first is that these customs and superstitions, whatever their objective dubiousness, at least have validity and value for the young of the tribe, and the second is that the schoolteachers of civilization seldom inculcate any ideas that are clearly more rational.

[412] Science, at bottom, is really anti-intellectual. It always distrusts pure reason, and demands the production of objective fact. The so-called philosophers who still survive in the world (just as fortune-tellers and witch-doctors survive) argue that a scientist cannot carry on his business without some grounding in metaphysical theory, but for this there is no evidence whatsoever; on the contrary, the career of almost any competent scientist proves that it is false. All the metaphysical equipment he really needs in contained in common sense, and he shares it with carpenters and bricklayers. Whenever he steps beyond it he gets into difficulties, and very often he comes dramatically to grief. Some of the great glories of science, including many who have adorned the non-physical sciences, have been as innocent of metaphysical theory as so many police lieutenants. The business of a man of science in this world is not to speculate and dogmatize, but to demonstrate. To be sure, he sometimes needs the aid of hypothesis, but hypothesis, at best, is only a pragmatic stop-gap, made use of transiently because all the necessary facts are not yet known. The appearance of a new one in contempt of it destroys it instantly. At its most plausible and useful it simply represents an attempt to push common sense an inch or two over the borders of the known. At its worst it is only idle speculation, and no more respectable than the soaring of metaphysicians.

[418] 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. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. 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."

[427] Obviously, some sort of force keeps the universe spinning, and in the absence of any knowledge whatsoever as to its character it is not unnatural for multitudes of men to think of it as a kind of intelligence. This easy animism is congenital in mankind, and it will probably be many centuries before even the most enlightened men throw it off altogether. But if we try to think of the prime mover of the universe as an intelligence, we are quickly brought up by evidence that it must be a very inferior intelligence. In many ways, indeed, it shows marked inferiority to man, presumably its creature. It has a certain cleverness, but no as much as he has. Its designs are inferior, and its execution is clumsy, wasteful and not infrequently preposterous. If it has any moral sense, then that moral sense must be represented by something closely approaching a vacuum. Any man who was so completely brutal would be looked upon with horror by all other men.

[431] The religious man, starting out with an outfit of irrational postulates and untenable hopes, tries to fit them into the facts of a harshly material world. In the process he must do violence to both. They can never march together; indeed they are intrinsically irreconcilable. A common way out of the dilemma is the resort to mysticism, which is simply an attempt to construct a non-Euclidean world in which anything that can be imagined is assumed to have happened.


Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.

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

Criticism is prejudice made plausible.

— [Quoted in Omni, August, 1988]

My private prejudices are innumerable, and often idiotic.

— [Quoted in Fitzpatrick, Vincent, H. L. Mencken. Reviewed in the Laissez Faire Books catalog, May 1990, p. 32.]

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

— [Quoted in Omni, August, 1988]

The typical lawmaker of today is a man devoid of principle—a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology, or cannibalism.

— [Quoted in Galt, John (pseud.) Dreams Come Due. Reviewed in the Laissez Faire Books catalog, May 1990, p. 17.]


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.

To sum up: 1. The cosmos is a gigantic fly-wheel making 10, 000 revolutions a minute. 2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it. 3. Religion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.

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.

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

If we assume that man actually does resemble God, then we are forced into the impossible theory that God is a coward, an idiot and a bounder.

The Jews fastened their religion upon the Western world, not because it was more reasonable than the religions of their contemporaries—as a matter of fact it was vastly less reasonable than many of them—but because it was far more poetical.

Religion, like poetry, is simply a concerted effort to deny the most obvious realities.

Religions, like castles, sunsets and women, never reach their maximum of beauty until they are touched by decay.

The curse of man, and the cause of nearly all his woes, is his stupendous capacity for believing the incredible.

The truth that survives is the lie that it is pleasantest to believe.

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.

What I got in Sunday-School... was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities, and the Christian God preposterous... The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves groveling before a Being, who, if He really exists, deserves to be denounced rather than respected.

Morality: The theory that every human act must be either right or wrong.

Theology: An effort to explain the unknowable by putting it into terms of the not worth knowing.

I see little evidence in this world of the so-called goodness of God. On the contrary, it seems to me that, on the strength of His daily acts, He must be set down a most stupid, cruel and villainous fellow.

— [Quoted in Durant, On the meaning of Life, p. 34)

Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the unknowable. But there it sits nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.

— Minority Report, 1956.


The only way to reconcile science and religion is to create something which isn't science or something which isn't religion.

Christian theology is not only opposed to the scientific spirit; it is opposed to every other form of rational thinking.


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.

The curse of all the arts is the fact that they are constantly invaded by persons with absolutely nothing to say.

—Quoted in The New Criterion

Critical note.—Of a piece with the absurd pedagogical demand for so-called constructive criticism is the doctrine that an iconoclast is a hollow and evil fellow unless he can prove his case. Why, indeed, should he prove it? Is he judge, jury, prosecuting officer, hangman? He proves enough, indeed, when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing—that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The fact is enormously significant; it indicates that instinct has somehow risen superior to the shallowness of logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians—and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been 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, was safe—that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.

— The American Mercury. p. 75.