H.L. Mencken

H.L. Mencken: ‘I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it.’

H.L. Mencken Admits  That God has Treated Him with Vast Politeness

Noted as a newspaperman, editor, author and critic, the Sage of Baltimore was both a prompt and prodigious letter writer. His brief notes and his long letters alike were marked by his torrential style, his militant manner and his colorful images. Born in Baltimore in 1880, Henry L. Mencken was associated almost all of his adult life with the Baltimore Sun papers. From 1914 to 1923 he was the co-editor of Smart Set the following year, with George Jean Nathan, he founded The American Mercury and subsequently was sole editor until 1933. In addition to his long series of Prejudices and Prefaces, he has done important scholarly work in philology, climaxed by The American Language. Music was one of his main interests.

The letter printed below (written in 1933) was prompted by a request from Will Durant, author of The Story of Philosophy, who was conducting a Socratic symposium of his own and asked Mencken (among others) to explain what meaning life held for him.

‘…if He really exists, [He] deserves to be denounced instead of respected’

You ask me, in brief, what satisfaction I get out of life, and why I go on working. I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. There is in every living creature an obscure but powerful impulse to active functioning. Life demands to be lived. Inaction, save as a measure of recuperation between bursts of activity, is painful and dangerous to the healthy organism–in fact, it is almost impossible. Only the dying can be really idle.

The precise form of an individual’s activity is determined, of course, by the equipment with which he came into the world. In other words, it is determined by his heredity. I do not lay eggs, as a hen does, because I was born without any equipment for it. For the same reason I do not get myself elected to Congress, or play the violoncello, or teach metaphysics in a college, or work in a steel mill. What I do is simply what lies easiest to my hand. It happens that I was born with an intense and insatiable interest in ideas, and thus like to play with them. It happens also that I was born with rather more than the average facility for putting them into words. In consequence, I am a writer and editor, which is to say, a dealer in them and concoctor of them.

Will Durant

Will Durant

There is very little conscious volition in all this. What I do was ordained by the inscrutable fates, not chosen by me. In my boyhood, yielding to a powerful but still subordinate interest in exact facts, I wanted to be a chemist, and at the same time my poor father tried to make me a business man. At other times, like any other relatively poor man, I have longed to make a lot of money by some easy swindle. But I became a writer all the same, and shall remain one until the end of the chapter, just a cow goes on giving milk all her life, even though what appears to be her self-interest urges her to give in.

I am far luckier than most men, for I have been able since boyhood to make a good living doing precisely what I have wanted to do–what I would have done for nothing, and very gladly, if there had been no reward for it. Not many men, I believe, are so fortunate. Millions of them have to make their livings at tasks which really do not interest them. As for me, I have had an extraordinarily pleasant life, despite the fact that I have had the usual share of woes. For in the midst of those woes I still enjoyed the immense satisfaction which goes with free activity. I have done, in the main, exactly what I wanted to do. Its possible effects upon other people have interested me very little. I have not written and published to please other people, but to satisfy herself. I like to think that most of my ideas have been sound ones, but I really don’t care. The world may take them or leave them. I have had my fun hatching them.

Next to agreeable work as a means of attaining happiness I put what Huxley called the domestic affections–the day to day intercourse with family and friends. My home has seen bitter sorrow, but it has never seen any serious disputes, and it has never seen poverty. I was completely happy with my mother and sister, and I am completely happy with my wife. Most of the men I commonly associate with are friends of very old standing. I have known some of them for more than thirty years. I seldom see anyone, intimately, whom I have known for less than ten years. These friends delight me. I turn to them when work is done with unfailing eagerness. We have the same general tastes, and see the world much alike. Most of them are interested in music, as I am. It has given me more pleasure in this life than any other external thing. I love it more every year.

As for religion, I am quite devoid of it. Never in my adult life have I experienced anything that could be plausibly called a religious impulse. My father and grandfather were agnostics before me, and though I was sent to Sunday-school as a boy and exposed to the Christian theology I was never taught to believe it. My father thought that I should learn what it was, but it apparently never occurred to him that I would accept it. He was a good psychologist. What I got in Sunday-school–beside a wide acquaintance with Christian hymnology–was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities, and the Christian God preposterous. Since that time I have read a great deal in theology–perhaps much more than the average clergyman–but I have never discovered any reason to change my mind.

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 instead of respected. 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 with a most stupid, cruel and villainous fellow. I can say this with a clear conscience, for He has treated me very well–in fact, with vast politeness. But I can’t help thinking of His barbaric torture of most of the rest of humanity. I simply can’t imagine revering the God of war and politics, theology and cancer.

I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men. In its Christian form it is little more than a device for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth. What the meaning of human life may be I don’t know. I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing. Moreover, they tend to foster the human qualities that I admire most–courage and its analogues. The noblest man, I think, is that one who fights God, and triumphs over Him. I have had little of this to do. When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothinginess. No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever.

      H.L. Mencken