By H.L. Mencken
Of all the varieties of men, the one who is least comprehensible to me is the fellow who immolates himself on the altar of what he conceives to be the public interest – in other words, the reformer, the uplifter, the man, so called, of public spirit.
What I am chiefly unable to understand is his oafish certainty that he is right – his almost pathological inability to grasp the notion that, after all, he might be wrong.
As for me, I am never absolutely certain that I am right, and for the plain reason that I am never absolutely certain that anything is true. It may seem to me to be true but I may be quite unable to imagine any proof of its falsity – but that is simply saying that my imagination is limited, not that the proposition itself is immovably sound. Some other man, better-born than I, or drinking better liquor, may disprove it tomorrow. And if not tomorrow, then the day after tomorrow, or maybe next week or next year. I know of no so-called truth that quite escapes this possibility. Anything is conceivable in a world so irrational as this one.
But even if the truth were not wobbly, I should still hesitate a long while before sacrificing any of my comfort or security to it. The man who does so seems to me to be one who deceives himself doubly. First, as I have noted, he convinces himself that he cannot be wrong, which is nonsense. And then he convinces himself that he is disinterested, which is also nonsense. Actually, altruism does not exist on earth, at least in our present, glorious age. Even the most devoted nun, laboring all her life in the hospitals, is sustained by the promise of a stupendous reward – in brief, billions of centuries of indescribable bliss for a few years of unpleasant but certainly not unendurable drudgery and privation.
What passes for altruism among lesser practitioners is often less praiseworthy; in most cases, indeed, it is only too obviously selfish and even hoggish. In the case of the American reformer, in his average incarnation, the motive seldom gets beyond the yearning for power, the desire to boss things, the itch to annoy his neighbors. If they really wanted to be saved from their iniquities, he would let them alone; if they bawled to give up their money, he would not press them for it; if they did not flee him, he would not pursue them.
Well, this happens to be a motive that burns in my own breast very feebly so I am not a reformer. Like all other men, of course, I pant for power – but not the power to afflict and dominate a rabble of my inferiors. I have had the job, in the past, of bossing them but it gave me no joy and I got rid of it as soon as possible. Thus I lack altogether the messianic hankering, and to that extent must remain a bad American.
When people seem to me to be immersed in error or sin, I can discover no impulse to save them, but only a gentle hope that their follies will soon translate them to bliss eternal and I’ll be rid of their presence.
Reposted from Minority Report (1956) by H.L. Mencken