Man’s Natural Instinct
(Comments by H. L. Mencken,  PREJUDICES: THIRD SERIES)
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 contempt 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 streptococci.

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 laborious,  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.  The capacity for discerning the essential truth,  in fact,  is as rare among men as it is common among crows,  bullfrogs and mackerel.  The man who shows it  is a man of  quite extraordinary quality—  perhaps even a man downright diseased.
Exhibit a new truth of  any natural plausibilty  before the great masses of  men,  and  not one in ten thousand will suspect its existence,  and  not one in a hundred thousand will embrace it  without a ferocious resistance.  All the durable truths that have come into the world within historic times  have been opposed as bitterly  as if they were so many waves of  smallpox,  and every individual who has welcomed and advocated them,  absolutely without exception,  has been denounced and punished as an enemy of  the race.

Perhaps  “absolutely without exception” goes too far.  I substitute  “with five or six exceptions.”  But who were the five or six exceptions?  I leave you to think of  them;  myself,  I can’t. . . .  But I think at once of  Charles Darwin and his associates,  and of  how they were reviled in their time.  This reviling,  of  course,  is less vociferous than it used to be,  chiefly because later victims are in the arena,  but the underlying hostility remains.  Within the past two years  the principal Great Thinker of  Britain,  George Bernard Shaw,  has denounced the hypothesis of  natural selection  to great applause,  and a three-times candidate for the American Presidency,  William Jennings Bryan,  has publicly advocated prohibiting the teaching of  it  by law.  The great majority of  Christian ecclesiastics  in both English-speaking countries,  and with them the great majority of  their catechumens,  are still committed to the doctrine that Darwin was a scoundrel,  and Herbert Spencer another,  and Huxley a third—  and that Nietzsche is  to the three of  them  what Beelzebub himself is  to a trio of  bad boys.

This is the reaction of  the main body of  respectable folk  in two puissant  and idealistic Christian nations  to the men who will live in history as the intellectual leaders of  the Nineteenth Century.  This is the immemorial attitude of  men  in the mass,  and of  their chosen prophets,  to whatever is honest,  and important,  and most probably true.

But if truth  thus has hard sledding,  error is given a loving welcome.  The man who invents a new imbecility  is hailed gladly,  and bidden to make himself at home;  he is,  to the great masses of  men,  the beau ideal of  mankind.  Go back through the history of  the past thousand years  and you will find that nine-tenths of  the popular idols of  the world—  not the heroes of  small sects,  but the heroes of  mankind in the mass—  have been merchants of  palpable nonsense.  It has been so in politics,  it has been so in religion,  and it has been so in every other department of  human thought.  Every such hawker of  the not-true  has been opposed,  in his time,  by critics who denounced and refuted him;  his contention has been disposed of  immediately  (when)  it was uttered.  But on the side of  every one there has been the titanic force of  human credulity,  and it has sufficed in every case  to destroy his foes and establish his immortality.