HLM on bad ideas

Leo Elliott (homeboy@esinet.net)
Tue, 29 Sep 1998 08:13:49 -0400 (EDT)

Date: Tue, 29 Sep 1998 08:13:49 -0400 (EDT)
From: Leo Elliott <homeboy@esinet.net>
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
Subject: HLM on bad ideas

Meditation on Meditation

by H. L. Mencken

Man's capacity for abstract thought, which most other mammals seem to
lack, has undoubtedly given him his present mastery of the land surface of
the earth -- a mastery disputed only by several hundred species of
microscopic organisms. It is responsible for his feeling of superiority,
and under that feeling there is undoubtedly a certain measure of reality, at
least within narrow limits. But what is too often overlooked is that the
capacity to perform an act is by no means synonymous with its salubrious
exercise. The simple fact is that most of man's thinking is stupid,
pointless, and injurious to him. Of all animals, indeed, he seems the least
capable of arriving at accurate judgments in the matters that most
desperately affect his welfare. Try to imagine a rat, in the realm of rat
ideas, arriving at a notion as violently in comtempt of plausibility as the
notion, say, of Swedenborgianism, or that of homeopathy, or that of infant
damnation, or that of mental telepathy. Try to think of a congregation of
educated rats gravely listening to such disgusting intellectual rubbish as
was in the public bulls of Dr. Woodrow Wilson. Man's natural instinct, in
fact, is never toward what is sound and true; it is toward what is specious
and false. Let any great nation of modern times be confronted by two
conflicting propositions, the one grounded upon the utmost probability and
reasonableness and the other upon the most glaring error, and it will almost
invariably embrace the latter. It is so in politics, which consists wholly
of a succession of unintelligent crazes, many of them so idiotic that they
exist only as battle-cries and shibboleths and are not reducible to logical
statement at all. It is so in religion, which, like poetry, is simply a
concerted effort to deny the most obvious realities. It is so in nearly
every field of thought. The ideas that conquer the race most rapidly and
arouse the wildest enthusiasm and are held most tenaciously are precisely the
ideas that are most insane. This has been true since the first "advanced"
gorilla put on underwear, cultivated a frown and began his first lecture
tour in the first chautauqua, and it will be so until the high gods, tired
of the farce at last, obliterate the race with one great, final blast of
fire, mustard gas and streptcocci.

No doubt the imagination of man is to blame for this singular weakness.
That imagination, I daresay, is what gave him his first lift above his
fellow primates. It enabled him to visualize a condition of existence
better than that he was experiencing, and bit by bit he was able to give the
picture a certain crude reality. Even to-day he keeps on going ahead in the
same manner. That is, he thinks of something that he would like to be or to
get, something appreciably better than what he is or has, and then, by the
laboriious, costly method of trial and error, he gradually moves toward it.
In the process he is often severely punished for his discontent with God's
ordinances. He mashes his thumb, he skins his shin; he stumbles and falls;
the prize he reaches out for blows up in his hands. But bit by bit he moves
on, or, at all events, his heirs and assigns move on. Bit by bit he smooths
the path beneath his remaining leg, and achieves pretty toys for his
remaining hand to play with, and accumulates delights for his remaining ear
and eye.

Alas, he is not content with this slow and sanguinary progress! Always
he looks further and further ahead. Always he imagines things just over the
sky-line. This body of imaginings constitutes his stock of sweet beliefs,
his corpus of high faiths and confidences -- in brief, his burden of errors.
And that burden of errors is what distinguishes man, even above his capacity
for tears, his talents as a liar, his excessive hypocrisy and poltroonery,
from all the other orders of mammalia. Man is the yokel _par excellence_,
the booby unmatchable, the king dupe of the cosmos. He is chronically and
unescapably deceived, not only by the other animals and by the delusive face
of nature herself, but also and more particularly by himself -- by his
incomparable talent for searching out and embracing what is false, and for
overlooking and denying what is true.

(from _Ad Imaginem Dei Creavit Illum_, _Prejudices: Third Series_, Alfred A.
Knopf, New York (1922), pp. 125-128.)

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