If you don’t know who H.L. Mencken was, and if you are the beneficiary of a modern public school education or the product of any modern University, you probably do not, you are missing an intellectual experience that is, among other things, the cure for the pandemic of paranoia that infects the entire world today.
I do not recommend Mencken, or anyone else, as an authority on any subject. I highly recommend him as an individual with original and provoking ideas. If one gains nothing else from the works of Mencken, he reaffirms the obvious fact that most of what is taught in the world by its authorities in every field is balderdash and nonsense and that the great mass of humanity is predominantly ignorant, gullible, and hopelessly doomed to failure and unhappiness.
Why Praise Vice?
It is not the, “vices,” of the dissolute—the drug addicts, sex maniacs, or pathological—or the “vices,” of the criminal classes referred to here, but all those practices of individual human beings that others judge to be, “immoral,” in terms of their own private ideologies and religions.
Mencken chooses, “Alcohol,” to make his point, but he might just as well have chosen, “smoking,” or the use of any other tobacco products, or drugs, or enjoying any other so-called, “forbidden,” pleasure. Some of those, “pleasures,” are surely risky and indulged in by those who allow their desires and passions to guide them to their own destruction, but no pleasure is wrong in itself.
What Mencken emphasizes is that the pleasures enjoyed by others that are commonly condemned as evil is condemnation based on the consequences of the presumed, “vices.” but the fact is, others enjoy them without fearing them and the overriding motive of all condemnation of vice is not virtue, but fear.
Whatever you think of Mencken’s premise, his description of the individual who indulges his vices, because he refuses to be driven by fear, is the description of a free individual, the only truly creative human beings. As I’ve written before, “the measure of a life is not how long it lasts, but how much it did,” but Mencken says it much more eloquently:
“He may, in fact, die slightly sooner than the teetotaler, but he lives infinitely longer. Moreover, his life, humanly speaking, is much more worth while, to himself and to the race. He does the hard and dangerous work of the world, he takes the chances, he makes the experiments. He is the soldier, the artist, the innovator, the lover. All the great works of man have been done by men who thus lived joyously, strenuously, and perhaps a bit dangerously. They have never been concerned about stretching life for two or three more years; they have been concerned about making life engrossing and stimulating and a high adventure while it lasts.”
“Their ideal is not a safe life, but a full life….“
[From: DAMN!—A BOOK OF CALUMNY, H.L. Mencken, 1918]
Chapter XXIX, Alcohol
Envy, as I have said, is at the heart of the messianic delusion, the mania to convert the happy sinner into a “good” man, and so make him miserable. And at the heart of that envy is fear—the fear to sin, to take a chance, to monkey with the buzzsaw. This ineradicable fear is the outstanding mark of the fifth-rate man, at all times and everywhere. It dominates his politics, his theology, his whole thinking. He is a moral fellow because he is afraid to venture over the fence—and he hates the man who is not.
The solemn proofs, so laboriously deduced from life insurance statistics, that the man who uses alcohol, even moderately, dies slightly sooner than the teetotaler—these proofs merely show that this man is one who leads an active and vigorous life, and so faces hazards and uses himself up—in brief, one who lives at high tempo and with full joy, what Nietzsche used to call the ja-sager, or yes-sayer. He may, in fact, die slightly sooner than the teetotaler, but he lives infinitely longer. Moreover, his life, humanly speaking, is much more worth while, to himself and to the race. He does the hard and dangerous work of the world, he takes the chances, he makes the experiments. He is the soldier, the artist, the innovator, the lover. All the great works of man have been done by men who thus lived joyously, strenuously, and perhaps a bit dangerously. They have never been concerned about stretching life for two or three more years; they have been concerned about making life engrossing and stimulating and a high adventure while it lasts. Teetotalism is as impossible to such men as any other manifestation of cowardice, and, if it were possible, it would destroy their utility and significance just as certainly.
A man who shrinks from a cocktail before dinner on the ground that it may flabbergast his hormones, and so make him die at 69 years, ten months and five days instead of at 69 years, eleven months and seven days—such a man is as absurd a poltroon as the fellow who shrinks from kissing a woman on the ground that she may floor him with a chair leg. Each flees from a purely theoretical risk. Each is a useless encumberer of the earth, and the sooner dead the better. Each is a discredit to the human race, already discreditable enough, God knows.
Teetotalism does not make for human happiness; it makes for the dull, idiotic happiness of the barnyard. The men who do things in the world, the men worthy of admiration and imitation, are men constitutionally incapable of any such pecksniffian stupidity. Their ideal is not a safe life, but a full life; they do not try to follow the canary bird in a cage, but the eagle in the air. And in particular they do not flee from shadows and bugaboos. The alcohol myth is such a bugaboo. The sort of man it scares is the sort of man whose chief mark is that he is always scared.
No wonder the Rockefellers and their like are hot for saving the workingman from John Barleycorn! Imagine the advantage to them of operating upon a flabby horde of timorous and joyless slaves, afraid of all fun and kicking up, horribly moral, eager only to live as long as possible! What mule-like fidelity and efficiency could be got out of such a rabble! But how many Lincolns would you get out of it, and how many Jacksons, and how many Grants?