“Men Versus The Man” HL Mencken & Robert Rives LaMonte

I finished my first book on my Kindle. I really enjoyed th reading experience, and moreso the note-taking/highliting feature. It’s because of the latter I’m able to bring you every single passage that I highlighted. With a few button clicks one can highlight a selection and it’s automatically saved into a text file that you can access on the memory when you plug it in via USB cable.

I didn’t even know this book existed, and last time I searched Google Books for “Mencken” I know it wasn’t there. when I read the title page I was immediatly sold on the book:

Men Versus the Man:

A CORRESPONDENCE BETWEEN

ROBERT RIVES LA MONTE, Socialist

AND

H. L. MENCKEN, Individualist
New York, Henry Holt & Co., 1910

That it was free to download helped with the immediate sale as well.

Oh boy, Mencken vs. a Socialist, this’ll be a hoot. I was reading it with such enthusiastic partisanship that when I picked up my Kindle after a break, I was mistaken in who I was reading. I thought it was the advocate of universal brotherhood and read his words like they were poisoned turds. Luckily it was only a few paragraphs in did I realize I was reading Menken’s words and I went back over them and realized they were brilliantly witty and a joy to consume.

I’ll leave the rest of this post to Mencken, a better writer by an infinite multiple. I will note that there may be some typos mixed throughout. The text was OCRed by Google, and I noticed a number of errors when reading.


All quotes that follow are from Mencken:

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Now, all the illusions which have afflicted the human race since its days of nonage may be divided into two classes. First come those which have arisen out of the imperfection of our powers of perception; and secondly come those that have arisen out of errors made in the interpretation of facts accurately observed. An excellent example of the first class is the familiar doctrine, held today by the ignorant, and until very recently by all, that the disease called malaria is caused by breathing impure air. Tested by the evidence of the naked eye, this doctrine seemed entirely sound. But by and by men began to use microscopes to aid their eyes, and one day, seized by a happy thought, an enterprising man took the trouble to place a drop of blood from a malaria patient’s veins beneath his glass. Since then the old doctrine has been put aside forever by all whose beliefs are worth hearing, and we know that malaria is caused, not by impure air, but by various minute parasites of the class of sporozoa. The human race, within historic times, has rejected thousands of delusions of this class, but many yet remain. As we perfect apparatus to reinforce our dull senses they will go overboard, one by one. The delusions and illusions of the second class resolve themselves into two grand, or king delusions. One of them is the notion that a human being, by his words or acts, is capable of suspending or modifying the immutable laws which govern ” the universe. The other is the notion that a human being is able to make laws for himself which shall have the force of the immutable laws aforesaid. Out of the first of these delusions springs the doctrine of the efficacy of prayer, and with it all of the world’s vast and bizarre stock of religions. Out of the second springs the ancient science of morality, with all its multitude of efforts to combat the eternal and inexorable law that the strong shall prevail over the weak. The latest of such*’ efforts is comprehended in the political theory called Socialism. It is the most fatuous of the whole lot, for it proposes, not only to make human laws as immutable as natural laws, but actually to make them supersede and nullify those natural laws. Here, indeed, we behold human beings on the topmost pinnacle of bombastic folly. I can imagine no more stupendous egotism.
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I am no apologist for the existing order of things. Like Huxley, I believe that the management of the universe is by no means perfect, but such as it is, we must accept it. If you point out that human progress, as I have defined it, involves the practical enslavement of two-thirds of the human race, my answer is that I can’t help it. If you point out that a slave always runs the risk of being oppressed by a particularly cruel master, I answer that a master always runs the risk of having his brains knocked out by a particularly enterprising slave. If you point out that, by my scheme of progress, it is only the upper stratum that actually progresses, I answer that only the upper stratum is capable of progressing unaided.
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The mob is inert and moves ahead only when it is dragged or driven. It clings to its delusions with a pertinacity that is appalling. A geological epoch is required to rid it of a single error, and it is so helpless and cowardly that every fresh boon it receives, every lift upon its slow journey upward, must come to it as a free gift from its betters— as a gift not only free, but also forced. Great men have fought and died for the truth for a thousand years, and yet the average low-caste white man of to-day, throughout Christendom, still believes that Friday is an unlucky day, still believes that ghosts walk the earth, and still holds to an immovable faith in signs, portents, resurrections, redemptions, miracles, prophecies, hells, gehennas, and political panaceas.
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Herein you will discern my first and last objection to Socialism. I believe, in a word, that it overlooks certain ineradicable characteristics of the human animal, and certain immutable laws of the biological process. Going further, I believe that these characteristics and laws deserve to be fostered and obeyed rather than opposed, for to their influence we owe all that we have of progress. Every comfort that we have to-day was devised by some man who yearned to get more out of life than the men about him; every great truth that ” helps us face existence bravely and confidently was unearthed by some philosopher who yearned to be honored above all other philosophers; every law that gives us safety and order was written by some law-maker who yearned to see his own notion of security and order prevail over the notions of others. Just as every micro-organism in the sea ooze fights for that pin point of space which will give it life while its fellows die, just so every man fights for that microscopic degree of superiority which gives him eminence over his fellowman—better food, a better coat, more leisure, greater honor, respect and love, and a more poignant and widespread feeling of something lacking after he is gone. You Socialists, seeing part of this dimly, talk of a ” materialistic conception of history,” and say Karl Marx invented it. But you are wrong, for it was invented for all time on the day that the first living cells began to fight over their first meal.
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…the majority of persons who succumb to preventable and curable diseases to-day go down to their graves, not so much because they are poor, as because they are ignorant—because they are handicapped by the low-caste man’s chronic and ineradicable suspiciousness, orthodoxy, stupidity, lack of foresight, and inability to learn.
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My own city of Baltimore, on account of its wealth of hospitals and clinics, has been called the medical capital of the New World. Its hospitals are open to all, and those who cannot pay are given treatment free. It is possible for a man without a cent in his pocket to profit by the skill of the greatest physicians and surgeons in America. Beyond the city boundaries are free sanitoria for the treatment of tuberculosis and other infectious diseases. Medicines and nursing are free. Those too ill to move are treated and nursed in their homes. The attentions for which visitors from all parts of the country pay thousands of dollars are free to every indigent citizen. And yet the death-rate of Baltimore is higher than that of any other city of its size in the United States. The Christian Scientists, of course, say that this is because there are so many hospitals, but the real reason lies in the fact that among Baltimore’s 600,000 inhabitants there are 100,000 negroes and 200,000 ignorant and superstitious foreigners. The negroes, when they grow ill, take patent medicines or send for some frowsy quack of their own race. When they grow worse, they summon a filthy black ecclesiastic and begin to pray to God. The result is that the death-rate among the lowest classes of these semi-human savages is fully sixty per thousand per annum. This is just about five times the normal death-rate among civilized white men. Is the negro—or low-caste white man—to blame for his poverty and ignorance ? No more, I think, than he is to blame for his filthiness and dishonesty. He can’t help being lazy and he can’t help being stupid, for he is a low-caste man, and he has a low-caste mind. That mind is unable to grasp any but the most elemental concepts. Tell him, as his pastors tell him, that if he gives five cents to the church he will be saved from hell, and he can understand it. But try to make him grasp the complicated chains of ratiocination whereby civilized man has determined that vaccination will almost infallibly prevent smallpox and rabies, that quinine will cure malaria, and that a long and complex treatment will arrest tuberculosis—and he is as pitifully helpless as the average college professor in the presence of a problem not solved in the textbooks.
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We vaccinate negroes, not because they want to be vaccinated or because we harbor a yearning to preserve their useless lives, but because we don’t want them to fall ill of smallpox in our kitchens and stables, and so expose us to inconvenience, danger, and expense. With few exceptions, they are piously opposed to baring their arms, and regard the necessity for so doing as proof positive that they are down-trodden and oppressed. Let them choose for themselves, and they would be dying of smallpox to-day just as copiously as they are dying of tuberculosis.
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In their vain rebellion against the very things which make life bearable for them, they reveal the eternal philosophy of the low-caste man. He is forever down-trodden and oppressed. He is forever opposed to a surrender of his immemorial superstitions, prejudices, swinishness, and inertia. He is forever certain that, if only some god would lend him a hand and give him his just rights, he would be rich, happy, and care-free. And he is forever and utterly wrong.
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Well, then, what virtues do I demand in the man who claims enrollment in the highest caste? Briefly, I demand that he possess, to an unusual and striking degree, all of those qualities, or most of them, which most obviously distinguish the average man from the average baboon. If you look into the matter, you will find that the chief of these qualities is a sort of restless impatience with things as they are—a sort of insatiable desire to help along the evolutionary process. The man who possesses this quality is ceaselessly eager to increase and fortify his mastery of his environment. He has a vast curiosity and a vast passion for solving the problems it unfolds before him. His happiness lies in the consciousness that he has made some progress to-day in comprehending and turning to his uses those forces which menaced him yesterday. His eye is fixed, not upon heaven, but upon earth; not upon eternity, but upon to-morrow. He enters the world infinitely superior to a mere brute, and when he leaves it his superiority may be expressed (in bad algebra) by infinity plus x. By his life and labors, the human race, or some part of it, makes some measurable progress, however small, upward from the ape.
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The educated negro of to-day is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. His brain is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals, no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain those of the clown. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and j he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him. I have used the negro as an example because in him the inherited marks of the low-caste man are peculiarly conspicuous.
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The efficient man of highest caste makes it his rule to accept the world as he finds it, and to work u out his own salvation with a light heart. His joy is in effort, in work, in progress. A difficulty over come, a riddle solved, an enemy vanquished, a fact proved, an error destroyed—in such things he finds the meaning of life and surcease from its sorrows. But the inefficient man, unable by his own hand and brain to cope with the conditions J which beset and menace him, seeks refuge, soon or late, in the notion that the world is out of joint. Sometimes he concludes, finally, that the horrors of existence are irremediable, and then he is ripe for religion, with its promises of repayment in some gaseous paradise beyond the grave. At other times he arrives at the idea that all would be well if there were some abysmal reconstruction of the scheme of things—some new deal of the cards, with four aces pushed his way. When this madness falls upon him he gropes about for a ready guide to the Utopia that arises nebulously in his brain. And thus it is that discontented, ignorant, helpless men subscribe to the poetical fancies of imaginative dreamers, and become single-taxers, Christian Scientists, Anarchists, or Socialists.
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The great objections to Socialism, as a philosophy, are that it encourages and aggravates the feeling of martyrdom which burns in the breasts of all such incompetents, and that it inflames them, at the same time, with the idea that their discomfort is due, not to the operation of natural laws, which benefit the world by ridding it automatically and harshly of the unfit, but to the deliberate and devilish cruelty of their betters. Your true Socialist is firmly convinced, before everything else, that his personal existence is of vast and undoubted value to the world, and that the world, if it were not a swindling felon, would reward him handsomely for remaining alive.
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Socialism is indissolubly linked with the doctrine that a man, merely by virtue of being a man, is fitted to take a hand in the adjudication of all the world’s most solemn and difficult causes. It insists that the voice of the ignorant shall be heard as respectfully as the voice * of the learned. It contends that the yearning of the hod-carrier for a high hat and a keg of beer shall receive as much consideration as the yearning of an Ehrlich for the secret of cancer. It maintains that the Russian-born tailor, filthy to his finger tips and the devotee of an outlandish, incomprehensible creed of nonsensical text-searching, shall be the equal of the men who conquer the wilderness and harness the lightning. It sees something portentous and holy in the trivial accident that the negro loafer, drowsing in his wallow, was born without a tail. It fastens a transcendental importance upon the word ” human ” and converts it into a synonym for ” intelligent,” ” honest,” ” wise “—for every adjective that distinguishes” one caste of men from the caste below it. You may protest all you please, and qualify your meaning of ” equality” however you please, but the fact remains that if this notion that one man is as good as another—” before God,” or ” as a citi zen “—be taken away, Socialism ceases to be intelligible to rational creatures,
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But am I arguing, I hear you ask, against government by the consent of the governed? Do I propose the overthrow of our democracy and the erection in its place of some form of absolute monarchy or oligarchy? Not at all. All things considered, I am convinced, as you are, that the republican form of government in vogue in the United States and England to-day is the best, safest, and most efficient government ever set up in the world. But its comparative safety and efficiency lie, not in the eternal truth of the somewhat florid strophes of the Declaration of Independence, but in the fact that those strophes must ever remain mere poetry. That is to say, its practice is beneficent because its theory is happily impossible. Once a year we reaffirm the doctrine that all men are free and equal. All the rest of the twelvemonth we devote our energies to proving that they are not.
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suppose that these swine actually recorded their own thoughts in the ballot-box ! Just suppose that the honest opinions of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, white and black, were transformed into laws upon the statute-books of the State! If they were, it would be a misdemeanor to call a Baptist clergyman an ass, and a felony to put a lock on a henhouse door.
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If it were actually possible to give every citizen an equal voice in the management of the world—if it were practicable to provide machinery whereby the collective will of the majority could be registered accurately, and made effective automatically and immediately— the democratic ideal would reduce itself to an absurdity in six months. There would be an end to all progress. Emotion would take the place of reason. It would be impossible to achieve coherent governmental policies. The mind of the government, as a government, would be the mind of the average citizen of the nether majority—a mind necessarily incapable of grasping the complex concepts formulated by the progressive minority. The more childish the idea the more eagerly it would be adopted and put into execution. The more unreasoning the prejudice, the more desperately it would be cherished and the longer it would survive.
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The clod-hopper’s distrust of his betters will be accentuated, rather than ameliorated by Socialism. Our scavenger, even after he is the political and economic equal of Dr. Eliot and Mr. Rockefeller, will still view such men with suspicion —if there be, indeed, any men of their sort in the socialistic state—because it is an inherent and ineradicable characteristic of all low-caste men to look with suspicion upon those whose ambitions, ethics, and ideals are more complex than theirs. The old hatred of the man who would rather read a book than bask in the sun has not died out in the world. The old cry of sorcery is still raised. And the low-caste man, whenever he has the chance, still prefers to trust himself to a delegate from his own caste, whose yearnings are his, and whose mental processes he can follow. Socialism can never change this.
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The negro loafer is not a victim of restricted opportunity and oppression. There are schools for him, and there is work for him, and he disdains both. That his forty-odd years of freedom have given him too little opportunity to show his mettle is a mere theory of the chair. As a matter of fact, the negro, in the mass, seems to be going backward. The most complimentary thing that can be said of an individual of the race today is that he is as industrious and honest a man as his grandfather, who was a slave. There are exceptional negroes of intelligence and ability, I am well aware, just as there are miraculous Russian Jews who do not live in filth; but the great bulk of the race is made up of inefficients. In the biological phrase, the negro runs true to type. There are few variations, except downward. I have known, I should say, at least five hundred negroes in my time, and of all these not more than ten have displayed any inclination whatever to rise above their racial level. Socialism, as I understand it, proposes to let these savages plunder civilization. It holds that they should get more pay for their loafing; that the comforts and luxuries which represent the ideals and ingenuity of the highest caste of human beings should be handed over, gratuitously, to these parasites. It proposes to heed and satisfy their yearnings, to take account of their opinions, to give them a hand in the government of the state, to dignify their laziness with sounding names, to hail them as brothers. I am unable, my dear La Monte, to subscribe to this scheme. I am far from a Southerner in prejudice and sympathies, though born on the borders of the South, but it seems to me that, so long as we refrain, in the case of the negro loafer, from the measures of extermination we have adopted in the case of parasites further down the scale, we are being amply and even excessively faithful to an ethical ideal which makes constant war upon expediency and common sense.
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You yourself are the anthropomorphist; not I. You still hold to the ancient theological doctrine that the human race is a race apart—that because it is molded ” in the image of God ” it is superior to natural laws which govern other races. In the days when men believed that Jerusalem was the capital of the universe this was a credible doctrine; but the history of all exact knowledge is the history of its gradual decay. When adventurers proved, despite St. Augustine’s masterly logic, that the earth was a sphere, it received a telling blow. When they proved, despite Moses, that the earth was but one of countless worlds, it received another. And when Darwin came, and his like, it ceased to be a living doctrine, and became a mere empty shell upon the garbage-pile of dead ideas. But you Socialists want to resurrect it. You ask us all to believe it, as John the Baptist believed it—despite a mass of evidence so enormous that one man can scarcely hope to master even its daily accretions.
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Saving only psychical research, no modern cult seems to be so well outfitted with college professors as Socialism.
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My own private view (the child, I must admit, of a very ardent wish) is that the idea of truthseeking will one day take the place of the idea of money-making. That is to say, I believe that the Huxleys and Behrings of the world will one day loom up, in the eye of the race, as greater heroes than the St. Pauls and Augustines, the William Conquerors and Alexanders, the Rockefellers, Cecil Rhodeses, Krupps, and Morgans. But that day is far distant. As yet there is scarcely a sign of its dawn. The name of Huxley is still as strange, to the common people, as that of Duns Scotus. His influence upon their daily thought is still infinitely remote and infinitesimal. They still pay numbskulls to mount pulpits and preach down at them the dead fallacies of a primeval necromancy. They still insist that Friday is an unlucky day, that blasphemy is a crime, that the Book of Revelation is authentic. The race is yet in its childhood. Its yearning for the truth is yet swallowed up by its yearning for a rock and a refuge.
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You Socialists, when you come to discuss the magnates, surplus values, bourgeoisie, and other fantastic fowl in your aviary of horrors, too often borrow a dialectic device from your blood brothers, the Christian Scientists. That is to say, you insist upon using private brands of epistemology and logic, unknown and incomprehensible to mere human beings, in the conduct of your philosophical feuds.
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There is, in a word, no irreducible minimum of compensation, due to every man by , virtue of his mere existence as a human being. No man has any right to life, save that which he proves by mastering his environment.
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You Socialists, in the very first paragraph of your philosophy, make one of the errors that I have mentioned in a preceding paragraph. That is to say, you give very unlike things the same name, and then assume that they are like. As examples of these unlike things, I can do no better than mention Thomas Henry Huxley and a man whom we may call the Rev. Jasper Johnson. On the surface you will find many points of resemblance between the two. Huxley was a male of the genus homo, and so is Johnson; Huxley had five fingers on each hand, and so has Johnson; Huxley expressed his ideas in the English language, and so does Johnson; Huxley was carnivorous and so is Johnson. Reckon up all these points of resemblance and you will find them almost infinite in number. But, reckon up, then, the points of difference between the two men, and you will find them equal to *n plus a million. In every characteristic, instinct, habit, and quality which serves to differentiate any man from any ape, Huxley was more lavishly endowed, perhaps, than any other individual man that ever lived; but in Johnson these characteristics, instinct, habits, and qualities, when they appear at all, are so faint that it is well-nigh impossible to detect them. Huxley, in a word, was an intellectual colossus; while Johnson, intellectually, scarcely exists at all. The one pushed the clock of progress ahead a hundred years; the other is a foul, ignorant, thieving, superstitious, self-appointed negro preacher of the Black Belt, whose mental life is made up of three ambitions—to eat a whole hog at one meal, to be a white man in heaven, and to meet a white woman, some day, in a lonely wood. And yet, by the socialistic and Christian philosophies, these men are equal. According to the Christian seers, they will kneel before the throne of God side by side, and spend eternity as brothers. According to the Socialist seers, they are equally fitted to deal with the great problems of society and the state, equally worthy of ease, protection, and leisure, and equally entitled to have the aid of their fellow-men in the achievement of their ambitions. I am unable, my dear La Monte, to grant this much. It seems to me, indeed, that the man who attempts to prove merely that Huxley and Johnson belong to the same order of living creatures has a staggering task ahead of him. The gap between them, I am convinced, is greater than that between Johnson and the anthropoid apes. Physically, true enough, there is probably only a difference in degree, but mentally there is an abysmal difference in kind. No conceivable course of training, however protracted, could convert Johnson into an imitation of Huxley. The one came into the world with certain inherited traits, certain invaluable forms of congenital efficiency, which the other can never hope to acquire. The one belonged to a caste of men whose value to the human race, and whose consequent right to life, no sane person would venture to deny; the other belongs to a caste whose value is obviously nil, and whose right to life, in consequence, must be proved before it is admitted.
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…in the struggle for existence an act is never actually moral or immoral, but only (in the broadest sense of the words) profitable or unprofitable, worth doing or not worth doing. The view of it taken by a moralist, however accomplished he may be, is always a mere opinion, and you can always find some other moralist to contradict it. To show you how nearly this is true, I need only recall to you that practically every act possible to human beings has been the storm-center of furious moral debates. To one man the act of eating flesh seems indecent, while to another it appears as the most agreeable operation imaginable. To one man the habit of taking money from ignorant folk, on the promise of getting them into heaven, seems the most dignified and honorable of human avocations, while to me it bears the aspect of a peculiarly heartless and nefarious form of fraud. To one man the soldier is a hero; to another, he is a vile loafer and chronic criminal. To one, marriage is a holy sacrament; to another, it is a dangerous vice.

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