That’s Life

Many years ago, the historian, philosopher, and author Will Durant asked an assortment of his eminent contemporaries for their opinon of the meaning of life, and gathered the responses into a book, now rather obscure. It happens that I own a first-edition copy, and the other day I took it down from the shelf.

The first reply, which I have transcribed here in its entirety, is from H.L. Mencken. You are not likely to run across it anywhere else.

You ask me, in brief, what satisfaction I get out of life, and why I go on working. I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs. There is in every living creature an obscure but powerful impulse to active functioning. Life demands to be lived. Inaction, save as a measure of recuperation between bursts of activity, is painful and dangerous to the healthy organism — in fact, it is almost impossible. Only the dying can be really idle.

The precise form of an individual’s activity is determined, of course, by the equipment with which he came into the world. In other words, it is determined by his heredity. I do not lay eggs, as a hen does, because I was born without any equipment for it. For the same reason I do not get myself elected to Congress, or play the violoncello, or teach metaphysics in a college, or work in a steel mill. What I do is simply what lies easiest to my hand. It happens that I was born with an intense and insatiable interest in ideas, and thus like to play with them. It happens also that I was born with rather more than the average facility for putting them into words. In consequence, I am a writer and editor, which is to say, a dealer in them and concoctor of them.

There is very little conscious volition in this. What I do was ordained by the iinscrutable fates, not chosen by me. In my boyhood, yielding to a powerful but still subordinate interest in exact facts, I wanted to be a chemist, and at the same time my poor father tried to make me a business man. At other times, like any other realtively poor man, I have longed to make a lot of money by some easy swindle. But I became a writer just the same, and shall remain one until the end of the chapter, just as a cow goes on giving milk all her life, even though what appears to be her self-interest urges her to give gin.

I am far luckier than most men, for I have been able since boyhood to make a good living doing precisely what I have wanted to do — what I would have done for nothing, and very gladly, if there had been no reward for it. Not many men, I believe, are so fortunate. Millions of them have to make their living at tasks which really do not interest them. As for me, I have had an extraordinarily pleasant life, despite the fact that I have had the usual share of woes. For in the midst of these woes I still enjoyed the immense satisfaction which goes with free activity. I have done, in the main, exactly what I wanted to do. Its possible effects on other people have interested me very little. I have not written and published to please other people, but to satisfy myself, just as a cow gives milk, not to profit the dairyman, but to satisfy herself. I like to think that most of my ideas have been sound ones, but I really don’t care. The world may take them or leave them. I have had my fun hatching them.

Next to agreeable work as a means of attaining happiness I put what Huxley called the domestic affections — the day to day intercourse with family and friends. My home has seen bitter sorrow, but it has never seen any serious disputes, and it has never seen poverty. I was completely happy with my mother and sister, and I am completely happy with my wife. Most of the men I commonly associate with are friends of very old standing. I have known some of them for more than thirty years. I seldom see anyone, intimately, whom I have known for less than ten years. These friends delight me. I turn to them when work is done with unfailing eagerness. We have the same general tastes, and see the world much alike. Most of them are interestd in music, as I am. It has given me more pleasure in this life than any external thing. I love it more every year.

As for religion, I am quite devoid of it. Never in my adult life have I experienced anything that could be plausibly called a religious impulse. My father and grandfather were agnostics before me, and though I was sent to Sunday-school as a boy and exposed to the Christian theology I was never taught to believe it. My father thought that I should learn what it was, but it never apparently occurred to him that I would accept it. He was a good psychologist. What I got in Sunday-school — beside a wide acquaintance with Christian hymnology — was simply a firm conviction that the Christian faith was full of palpable absurdities, and the Christian God preposterous. Since that time I have read a great deal in theology — perhaps much more than the average clergyman — but I have never discovered any reason to change my mind.

The act of worship, as carried on by Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves groveling before a Being who, if He really exists, deserves to be denounced instead of respected. I see little evidence in this world of the so-called goodness of God. On the contrary, it seems to me that, on the strength of His daily acts, he must be set down a most cruel, stupid and villainous fellow. I can say this with a clear conscience, for He has treated me very well — in fact, with vast politeness. But I can’t help thinking of his barbaric torture of most of the rest of humanity. I simply can’t imagine revering the God of war and politics, theology and cancer.

I do not believe in immortality, and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men. In its Christian form it is little more than a device for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth. What the meaning of human life may be I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing. Moreover, they tend to foster the human qualities that I admire most — courage and its analogues. The noblest man, I think, is that one who fights God, and triumphs over Him. I have had little of this to do. When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever.


  1. So that’s why I blog! If only the pay were better . . .

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 1:03 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    The pay is not so good.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 2:00 am | Permalink
  3. JK says

    However the pay is, “All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing.”

    Now that, is funny.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  4. Kevin Kim says

    The noblest man, I think, is that one who fights God, and triumphs over Him.

    A book of mine, Comparative Religious Ethics, highlights the concept of chutzpah in the Jewish attitude toward God. Existing in a voluntarily disputatious relationship with the Almighty is something Jews would be familiar with. Triumphing over, God… well, I don’t know how the Jews would feel about that. For Mencken, though, if God doesn’t exist, there’s nothing over which to triumph. This, in turn, somehow reminds me of the apophatic notions found in the Heart Sutra: no attainment, no non-attainment, no old age and death, no end to old age and death, etc.

    In other words: no God, no not-God…


    Posted June 6, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    I have a feeling that Mencken was imagining what the noblest relation to God would be if it were to turn out that there were actually a God who was responsible for all of this.

    Posted June 6, 2009 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

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