H.L. Mencken, A Character For The Ages: Quotes For The Cynical Soul

By Guest Author Alex from Libertas Bella


“I am suspicious of all the things that the average people believe.”


H.L. Mencken (1880–1956) is the kind of guy you wish you could become whenever you’re confronted by a vociferous pinhead. Few wits as crystal as his are bestowed among men. More abrasive dispositions are even scarcer. But no worries – just memorize a few H.L. Mencken quotes to pass off as your own, and you’ll be able to trounce ninnies with the best of them.


Henry Louis Mencken was a “literary fella” (to borrow a term coined by one of his contemporaries) who wrote essays, satire and cultural critiques. As a journalist Mencken worked for The HeraldThe Baltimore Sun and The American Mercury, the last of which he co-founded. He famously covered the Scopes Monkey Trial, and indeed is the one who gave it that name. 


Mencken was cynical about religion, especially the Elmer Gantry brand of Christianity which commonly bred under giant striped tents during his day. (He was good friends with Sinclair Lewis who wrote it.) Mencken was cynical about a lot of things, including quackery like chiropractic, American involvement in both World Wars, and democracy in particular. The Nietzschean scholar called democracy “the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.” To him, democracy was a thing which impotent dolts mistook for actual power as they welcomed a succession of crooks to rule over them. Music to a libertarian’s ears.


Mencken’s writing is remarkably similar to that of Mark Twain, of whom he was a great fan, as well as Ambrose Bierce whose faux dictionary entries he paid frequent homage to. If you’d like to dip your big toe into Mencken’s staggeringly large body of work, you’d best start with The Vintage Mencken complied by Alistair Cooke. If you’d like to spend just a few minutes with Mencken at his very best, please proceed.


Best H.L. Mencken Quotes


“Most people want security in this world, not liberty.”


“A good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”


“Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.”


“Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under.”


“The penalty for laughing in a courtroom is six months in jail; if it were not for this penalty, the jury would never hear the evidence.”


“A judge is a law student who marks his own examination papers.”


“I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.”


“A national political campaign is better than the best circus ever heard of, with a mass baptism and a couple of hangings thrown in.”


“Communism, like any other revealed religion, is largely made up of prophecies.”


“Democracy is also a form of worship. It is the worship of Jackals by Jackasses.”


“I believe that all government is evil, and that trying to improve it is largely a waste of time.”


“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.”


“A politician is an animal which can sit on a fence and yet keep both ears to the ground.”


“Democracy is only a dream: it should be put in the same category as Arcadia, Santa Claus, and Heaven.”


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


“Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”


“A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.”


“The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it.”


“It doesn’t take a majority to make a rebellion; it takes only a few determined leaders and a sound cause.”


“If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.”


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


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


“I believe that it is better to tell the truth than a lie. I believe it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe it is better to know than to be ignorant.”


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


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


“Equality before the law is probably forever unattainable. It is a noble ideal, but it can never be realized, for what men value in this world is not rights but privileges.”


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


“The men the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”


“As democracy is perfected, the office of President represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. 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.”


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


“The fact is that the average man’s love of liberty is nine-tenths imaginary, exactly like his love of sense, justice and truth. He is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely.”


“When a new source of taxation is found it never means, in practice, that the old source is abandoned. It merely means that the politicians have two ways of milking the taxpayer where they had one before.”


“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.”


“The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever the pretensions of politicians, pedagogues and other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.”


I skipped all the H.L. Mencken quotes about married life, because Libertas Bella doesn’t generally concern itself with such dark topics. But I feel I have to include one of the very best: “Bachelors know more about women than married men; if they didn’t they’d be married too.” Don’t tell that one to your wife or she might whomp you over the head with a rolling pin – or probably some less archaic cooking utensil, like a panini press. Those can hurt even worse when they’re plugged in.


By Guest Author Alex from Libertas Bella


Featured image by courtneyzott at Flickr.

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5 thoughts on “H.L. Mencken, A Character For The Ages: Quotes For The Cynical Soul

  1. Mencken wasn’t just a cynic about specific religions; he was a rabid anti-theist who hated anything that wasn’t hard materialism or arithmetic he could work using only his fingers and toes. He even considered calculus and general relativity to be hocus-pocus instead of science. He sincerely believed in top-down governance by “intelligent” people such as himself, and despised the general populace–especially the middle class and the South.

    He could cleverly express his opinions, to be sure, but so can anyone who’s trained himself to be cynical, sarcastic, and arrogant.

    1. The lady doth protest too much methinks. I’m inclined to think that what troubles you most about Mencken is that he thought that he was really something, and he was. Whereas, you think that you’re really something, but alas… you are not. fyi self serving, self righteous supercilious sanctimony is no substitute for cynicism, sarcasm and well earned arrogance, but it sure is a lot cheaper. You’re in all probability that schmuck back in grade school that when he couldn’t think up a snappy come back during banter, would run and tell the teacher, and OH boo-hoo-HOOOO.

  2. We will never see another Mencken. His biography by William Manchester is worth the work to read it. GREAT article, and thanks for the quotes! My favorite has always been, “…spit on his hands…”

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