Romanticism Rests on Two False Premises

Benjamin Marks takes Mencken-misconceptions (and libertarian uplift) to task…

Read more about “Mencken’s Conservatism” here.


Mencken believed that most of the debates about politics, religion, science, philosophy, aesthetics and other issues rests on false premises that make all their squabbles merely petty infighting. Here is a brief tour of his commentary on this:

Religion — “Every religion of any consequence, indeed, teaches that all the rest are insane, immoral and against God. Usually it is not hard to prove it.”1

And: “Evil is that which one believes of others. It is a sin to believe evil of others, but it is seldom a mistake.”2

Philosophy — “Philosophy consists very largely of one philosopher arguing that all others are jackasses. He usually proves it, and I should add that he usually proves that he is one himself.”3

Politics — conflicting parties spend much of their time “trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule — and both commonly succeed, and are right.”4

Patriotism — “If it is the duty of a young man to serve his country … then it is equally the duty of an enemy young man to serve his.”5

Mencken identified two significant delusions among debaters in these and other diverse departments of thought. Both these delusions are of particular significance in explaining his conservatism. They explain why romantics rarely question both their own solutions and the very existence of solutions at all. They explain why Mencken believed, “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 possibility that yours is a fake.”6

Tender Minds Rarely Become Tough Minds: Exposing Error is Not Discovering Truth

Mencken explained:

The race of men is sharply divided into two classes: those who are what James called tough-minded, and demand proofs before they will believe, and those who are what he called tender-minded, and are willing to believe anything that seems to be pleasant [and give their life meaning] … They find it wholly impossible to distinguish between what is subjectively agreeable and what is objectively true. Would it be nice if the whole world turned sober overnight, and even flappers put away the jug? If so, then there must be a quick and sure way to accomplish it. Does Prohibition promise to do so, then Prohibition must be true …

[W]ho has ever heard of a Socialist who did not also believe in some other quackery [in addition to socialism]? I have known all the principal gladiators of the movement in my time, at least in America; I have yet to meet one who was not as gullible as a Mississippi darkey, nay, even a Mississippi white man. Didn’t Karl Marx himself carry a madstone and believe in astrology? If not, then it was strange indeed. Didn’t Debs believe that quinine would cure a cold? If not, then he was not a genuine Socialist.7

Mencken did admit that believers do not believe everything. But, he explains, even when an error is found in one belief, that rarely means a change for the better:

So long as there are men in the world, 99 percent of them will be idiots, and so long as 99 percent of them are idiots they will thirst for religion, and so long as they thirst for religion it will remain a weapon over them. I see no way out. If you blow up one specific faith, they will embrace another. And if, by any magic, you purge them of pious credulity altogether, they will simpl[y] swallow worse nonsense is some other department.8


I do not admire the general run of American Bible-searchers — Methodists, United Brethren, Baptists, and such vermin. But try to imagine what the average low-browed Methodist would be if he were not a Methodist … They submit perfectly voluntarily, and their submission is inherent in their nature … [I]t is their eternal fate, laid upon them by a just and prudent God, to have soft and believing minds … The precise nature of the nonsense that such folks believe is of small consequence; the only condition that they lay down is that it must be incredible. Dissuade them from the notion that Jonah swallowed the whale, and they will succumb to the theory that it is a sin to go fishing on Sunday. Purge them of this, and they will begin to patronize a spiritualist. Jail the spiritualist, and they become Socialists. And all the while they believe that Friday is an unlucky day, that a nutmeg carried in the pocket will ward off rheumatism, and that a horse-hair bottled in water will turn into a snake. Thus it seems to me a vain enterprise to rescue them from the clutches of the Rev. clergy, and a folly to protest sentimentally … [W]hy should anyone want to change what they believe into something else? Is their religion idiotic? Then their science would also be idiotic.9

And again:

[T]he assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of the truth — that error and truth are simply opposites. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it has been cured of one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one. This is the whole history of the intellect in brief. The average man of to-day does not believe in precisely the same imbecilities that the Greek in the Fourth Century before Christ believed in, but the things that he does believe in are often quite as idiotic.10

An amusing thought follows: “Think of the men jailed, clubbed, hanged, burned at the stake — not for embracing error, but for embracing the wrong error.”11

It is wrong to equate the ability to see a problem or an error with the ability to see a solution or a truth.

Fact may sometimes get in the way of fiction, but what usually requires evasion or “correction” is an incompatible fiction. Facts are rarely known, let alone identified.

If you steer clear of one thing, you just end up in the firing line of something else, and you are not as prepared to deal with it.

When people acknowledge that they have made an error, they often incorrectly assume that just because they have successfully identified one mistake, they must not have made any others.

When a conservative finds an error his emotions, expectations and plans rarely change; he knows about error and expects it. When a romantic spots an error, he jumps on it. His confidence grows. He is surprised, and indignant. He writes to his politician. He writes a letter to the editor: on every issue every day — unless a more pressing obligation intervenes. He responds to politician’s press releases to the politician himself. He begins to think about other ideas he has and how his ability to find error in others must be a hint that he has much more to offer them. Having seen how wrong other people are, he then magically infers that they are intelligent, receptive and interested enough to see where they are wrong and mend their ways. He conducts brainstorming sessions with those who agree with him, and tries to map out every argument against his point of view with a tailored irrefutable response. He writes a book, and then has a series of book launches, so that he may intelligently discuss his book with those who haven’t read it yet. He starts a think tank, a yearly conference and a monthly magazine. He thinks the error can be prevented, corrected, combated. A conservative may also do many of these things, but he has other aims in addition to preaching and does not have such high expectations.

Reform is not necessarily improvement. Addressing an illness is not necessarily allaying it. Loudness is not necessarily effectiveness. The popular is not necessarily the right. People often forget that the human race has great potential, for getting worse; and that things are rarely so bad that they can’t worsen.

Reforms and revolution do one of seven things: (1) prolong what they are trying to prevent, like the drunk soldier who put up more flags12; (2) repeat what they are trying to prevent, like Diogenes comprehensively, ingeniously and methodically dealing with his rain barrel in the manner of political enthusiasms13; (3) continue what they are trying to prevent, like Tantalus starving, despite food being at arm’s-length, until he reaches for it, and dehydrating, despite water lapping his chin, until he sticks his tongue out, or like Sisyphus forever failing to get a boulder up a hill14; (4) aggravate what they are trying to prevent, like they are trapped in a spider’s web, and in trying to wriggle out, attract the attention of the spider and entangle themselves further; (5) become what they are trying to prevent, like Moses in the desert; (6) revise what it is they are trying to prevent, like Jesus’s swimming instructor; or (7) succeed partially in what they set out to do and regret it, as Wilde said, “In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it. The last is much the worst; the last is a real tragedy!”15 Of course, there are also reforms that don’t catch on at all. This is no reason to believe they are any less fanciful, although they may be fanciful for other reasons.

Value is Subjective

The second delusion is the belief that what one person values, everyone else does equally. As Mencken said, most men “cannot formulate the concept of a good that is not his own good. The fact explains his immemorial heat against heretics, sacred and secular.”16

Mencken acknowledged that value is subjective. He could see that many supporters of government do not prefer to support a libertarian society. In this way he goes further than most libertarians, who fail to apply their rule of subjective utility to individuals living in a society where government is already established. The consent of these individuals to government is not evident, it is true, but often no expression of discontent, despite many safe opportunities, can be found. So although it cannot be proven that they consent, neither can it be proven that they disapprove and suffer.17

Many people fail to acknowledge the subjectivity of value, and many people fail to acknowledge this. Mencken did not fail on either account. As a result, he neither believed that statist reform would be beneficial, nor that libertarian reform would be adopted.

In the following sections, among other things, additional reasons, clarifications and qualifications for disbelieving in “solutions” are given.


  1. Treatise on the Gods, p. 343. In Sara Mayfield’s The Constant Circle: H.L. Mencken and His Friends (Tuscaloosa and London: The University of Alabama Press, 2003), p. 90, the author states, “One of the resident psychics, an English spiritualist, took [Mencken] aside to warn him that most of the American mediums at the camp were quacks.” A similar passage is found in François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Burton Raffel (New York: Norton, 1991), bk. 4, ch. 18, p. 428: “The next day, on our starboard side, we met up with nine old tub boats full of monks — Dominicans, Jesuits, Capuchins, Hermits, Augustinians, Bernardines, Celestines, Theatines, Egnatins, Amadeans, Franciscans, Carmelites, Minims, and monks named for all the other holy saints — who were on their way to the Crazy Council, where they were going to polish up the articles of faith so they could deal with new styles of heretics.” Also of interest is the Cardiff Giant, a 10ft petrified man that was a fake, of which a fake was made, and the parties of both fakes claiming that the other was a fake. And the McCarthyite communist restrictions on free speech to track down communists. And the crazy psychiatric practise of calling others mentally ill, even when malingering. []
  2. A Mencken Chrestomathy, p. 617. []
  3. Minority Report, p. 48. []
  4. Ibid., p. 222. Similarly, Edmund Burke, when he was a true conservative, said, “The Aristocratical, Monarchical, and Popular Partizans have been jointly laying their Axes to the Root of all Government, and have in their Turns proved each other absurd and inconvenient.” [From Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society, in his Pre-Revolutionary Writings, ed. Ian Harris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 42.] And here’s a relevant joke, of unknown origin: The protest vote is so rampant nowadays that if most current parties and politicians had run unopposed they would never have got in. []
  5. Ibid., p. 173. []
  6. Ibid., p. 63. []
  7. H.L. Mencken, Prejudices: Sixth Series (New York: Octagon Books, 1985), pp. 97-102. Similarly, in George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, ch. 11, “[T]here is the horrible — the really disquieting — prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England. []
  8. H.L. Mencken, The New Mencken Letters, ed. Carl Bode (New York: The Dial Press, 1977), p. 76. Similar to this and the surrounding Mencken passages, Eric Hoffer said, “When people are ripe for a mass movement, they are usually ripe for any effective movement, and not solely for one with a particular doctrine or programme.” Hoffer elaborated and provided historical examples in his The True Believer (London: Secker & Warburg, 1952), p. 29 and on. []
  9. A Mencken Chrestomathy, p. 90; The Gist of Mencken, pp. 211-12; and H.L. Mencken, H.L. Mencken on Religion, ed. S.T. Joshi (New York: Prometheus, 2002), p. 35. Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson said in “New England Reformers,” in his Essays: Second Series (Boston: Phillips, Sampson, & Co., 1855), p. 254: “If I should go out of the church whenever I hear a false sentiment, I could never stay there five minutes. But why come out? the street is as false as the church.” []
  10. A Mencken Chrestomathy, p. 434. Similarly, Wyndham Lewis said, in The Art of Being Ruled, ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1989), p. 151: “People ask nothing better than to be types — occupational types, social types, functional types of any sort. If you force them not to be, they are miserable … And if so forced (be some interfering philanthropist or unintelligent reformer) to abandon some cliché, all men … take the first opportunity to take their cliché back, or to get another one.” []
  11. The Gist of Mencken, p. 276. []
  12. Quoted in Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living (New York: Reynal & Hitchcock, 1937), p. 243. []
  13. François Rabelais, Gargantua and Pantagruel, trans. Burton Raffel (New York: Norton, 1991), pp. 242-44, bk. 3, author’s prologue. []
  14. Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (New York: Penguin, 1997), pp. 268-69, bk. 11, lns. 679-89. []
  15. Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act III. []
  16. Notes on Democracy, p. 31. []
  17. For more on this, see Benjamin Marks, “Grounding Political Debate,” Libertarian Papers 1, 18 (2009). []

3 replies »

  1. Conservatism is actually a romantic doctrine. It was born of that era in reaction to, primarily, the French Revolution. It was in reaction to the Enlightenment that Burke and De Maistre wrote.

    There was a movement headed by Irving Babbitt which tried to demonise romanticism by painting it as left wing and conflating it with a straw man version of Rousseau. From this essay it looks like Mencken, who lived at the right time for it, bought into this view.

    Conservatism isn’t an intelligible doctrine at all. You write “When a conservative finds an error his emotions, expectations and plans rarely change; he knows about error and expects it. When a romantic spots an error, he jumps on it. His confidence grows.” This is just describing a personality type. Conservatives are annoying because they insist on paying themselves this complement: instead of saying “this is what I believe”, they say, “this is how superior I am”.

    • This isn’t my writing, and I agree that conservatism has plenty of its own romanticism and “uplift” about it, despite protests to the contrary. I think Marks could’ve used a better name for what he describes in his otherwise thoughtful overview (elitism, inegalitarianism, realism, cynicism). Personally, I certainly don’t identify as a “conservative”.

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