March 12, 2011
MENCKEN: "THE MESSIANIC DELUSION IS OUR NATIONAL DISEASE"
Mencken, H. L., Prejudices: First, Second, and Third Series, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (New York: Library of America, 2010) (From The First Series, "Professor Veblen," reprinted at 34-47: We are best endlessly by quacks--and they are not the less quacks when they happen to be quite honest. In all fields, from politics to pedagogics and from theology to public hygiene, there is a constant emotional obscuration of the true issues, a violent combat of credulities, an inane debasement of scientific curiosity to the level of mob gaping." "The thing to blame, of course, is our lack of an intellectual aristocracy--sound in its information, skeptical in its habit of mind, and, above all, secure in its position and authority. Every other civilized country has such an aristocracy. It is the natural corrective of enthusiasms from below. It is hospitable to ideas, but as adamant against crazes. It stands against the pollution of logic by emotion, the sophistication of evidence to the glory of God. But in America there is nothing of the sort. On the one hand there is the populace--perhaps more powerful here, more capable of putting the idiotic ideas into execution, than anywhere else--and surely more eager to follow platitudinous messiahs. On the other hand there is the ruling plutocracy--ignorant, hostile to inquiry, tyrannical in the exercise of its power, suspicious of ideas of whatever sort. In the middle ground there is little save an indistinct herd of intellectual eunuchs, chiefly professors--often quite as stupid as the plutocracy, and always in great fear of it. When it produces a stray rebel he goes over to the mob; there is no place for him within his own order. This feeble and vacillating class, unorganized and without authority is responsible for what passes as the well-informed opinion of the country--for the sort of opinion that one encounters in the serious periodicals--for what later on leaks down, much diluted, into the few newspapers that are not frankly imbecile. . . . It is, in the main, only half-educated. It lacks experience of the world, assurance, the consciousness of class solidarity and security. Of no definite position in our national life, exposed alike to the clamors of the mob and the discipline of the plutocracy, it gets no public respect and is deficient in self-respect. Thus the better sort of men are not tempted to enter it. It recruits only men of feeble courage, men of small originality. It sublimest flower is the American college president, . . . --a perambulating sycophant and platitudinarian, gaudy mendicant and bounder, engaged all his life, not in the battle of ideas, the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge, but in the courting of rich donkeys and the entertainment of mobs. . . Id. at 46-47. And, now we have 24/7/365 mindless talk radio, unreal 'realty television,' news as entertainment, a failed public education system, a failing private education system, and, of course, the new 'corporate university.' From the Second Series, "The National Letters," reprinted at 153-208: "What I have found, after long and arduous labors, is a state of things that is surely not altogether flattering to the Gelehrten under examination. What I have found, in brief, is that pedagogy turned to general public uses is almost as timid and flatulent as journalism--that the professor, menaced by the timid dogmatism of the plutocracy above him and the incurable suspicious of the mob beneath hm, is almost invariably inclined to seek his own security in a mellifluous inanity--that, far from being a courageous spokesman of ideas and an apostle of their free dissemination, in politics, in the fine arts, in practical ethics, he comes close to being the most prudent and skittish of all men concerned with them--in brief, that he yields to the prevailing correctness of thought In all departments, north, east, south and west, and is, in fact, the chief exponent among us of the democratic doctrine that heresy is not only a mistake, but is also a crime." Id. at 196-197. From The Third Series,"On Being an American," reprinted at 301-333: "It is, for example, one of my firmest and most sacred beliefs, reached after an inquiry extending over a score of years and supported by incessant prayer and meditation, that the government of the United States, in both its legislative arm and its executive arm, is ignorant, incompetent, corrupt, and disgusting--and from this judgment I except no more than twenty living lawmakers and no more than twenty executioners of their laws. It is a belief no less piously cherished that the administration of justice in the Republic is stupid, dishonest, and against all reason and equity--and from this judgment I except no more than thirty judges, including two upon the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States. It is another that the foreign policy of the United States--its habitual manner of dealing with other nations, whether friend or foe--is hypocritical, disingenuous, knavish, and dishonorable--and from this judgment I consent to no exceptions whatever, either recent or long past. And it is my fourth (and, to avoid too depressing a bill, final) conviction that the American people, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages, and that they grow more timorous, more sniveling, more poltroonish, more ignominious every day." Id. at 301-3-22. In reading these essays, one may (and, perhaps, should) disagree with Mencken on specific points. However, he remains relevant, and very much on point, that there is a need for greater cosmopolitanism and skepticism in American thought, that ideas and clear, critical thinking matters. Unfortunately, we live in an age where lip service is given to these notions, and the preference is for the group think of the bureaucrat, including the academic bureaucrat.).
Mencken, H. L., Prejudices: Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Series, edited by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers (New York: Library of America, 2010) (From the Fourth Series, "Justice Under Democracy," reprinted at 48-58: "But the legal mind is usually tougher than that. It can almost always find justification for doing, as agent of the law, what would be inconceivable privately to a man of honor." Id. at 50. From the Fifth Series, "Miscellaneous Notes," reprinted at 347-359: "On Cynicism: One of the most curious of human delusions lies in the theory that cynics are unhappy men--that cynicism makes for a general biliousness and malaise. It is a false deduction, I believe, from the obvious fact that cynics make other men unhappy. But they are themselves among the most comfortable and serene of mammals; perhaps only bishops, pet dogs and actors are happier. For what a cynic believes, through it may be too dreadful to be put into formal words, at least usually has the merit of being true--and truth is ever a rock, hard and harsh, but solid under the feet. A cynic is chronically in the position of a wedding guest who has known the bride for nine years, and has had her confidence. He is a great deal less happy, theoretically, than the bridegroom. The bridegroom, beautifully barbered and arrayed, is about to launch into the honeymoon. But the cynic looks ahead two weeks, two months, two years. Such, to borrow a phrase from the late Dr. Eliot, are the durable satisfactions of life." Id. at 352-353. And, lastly, from the Sixth Series, "Hymn to the Truth," reprinted at 476-480: "My point is that, despite all this extravagant frenzy for the truth, there is something in the human mind that turns instinctively to fiction, and that even the most gifted journalists succumb to it. A German philosopher, Dr. Hans Vaihinger, has put the thing into a formal theory, and you will find it expounded at length in his book, 'The Philosophy of As If.' It is a sheer impossibility, says Dr. Vaihinger, for human beings to think exclusively in terms of the truth. For one thing, the stock of indubitable truths is too scanty. For another thing, there is the instinctive aversion to them that I have mentioned. All our thinking, according to Vaihinger, is in terms of assumptions, many of them plainly not true. Into our most solemn and serious reflections fictions enter--and three times out of four they quickly crowd out all the facts." Id. at 478.).
With respect to the above two volumes, there is a quotation on the back of the second volume's jackcover which captures their strength and force. "'What amazed me was not what he [i.e., Mencken] said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.' --Richard Wright."