H.L. Mencken as Impartial Spectator?

impartial spectator

November 1, 2023

When it comes to leading a good life, there are guides within us (like our impartial spectators) but there are also past thinkers and writers to help us along the way. 
H.L. Mencken is one of the sharpest-tongued satirists America has ever produced. But did he also offer a guide to life? It turns out that Mencken offered his own curmudgeonly version of Adam Smith’s impartial spectator, even if it was hidden beneath mockery and negativity. A recent Virtual Reading Group explored this question in Mencken’s self-curated collection, A Mencken Chrestomathy (Amazon.com affiliate link) .

The impartial spectator is a key concept in Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. It is a way for people to judge their own behavior. If a complete stranger were observing how I treated people, would that person say that I was treating them well? If I were having a disagreement with someone, who would this unbiased stranger side with? 

Mencken, in his own way, is also an impartial spectator. He made fun of almost everybody, but his lampooning had a few common themes. These include status-seeking, greed, gullibility, and, above all, being a killjoy. One way to judge your own conduct is to ask yourself, would H.L. Mencken fun of me for this? If the answer is yes, you might need to make some changes.

Mencken does not provide as wholesome a guide to life as Adam Smith. Some of his jabs were mostly for entertainment purposes. He punched down at opponents who couldn’t fight back. Mencken also shared many of the common prejudices of his day about race and gender; these should not be a part of anyone’s guide to life. But compared to some other figures who have become popular in recent years, especially on the populist right, one could do worse than the Sage of Baltimore. 

Like Smith’s impartial spectator, the Mencken mockery test can be a useful check against our own excesses. It can also be a way to make sure we are enjoying life as we should. One of Mencken’s few positive recommendations is that happiness is ok.

Mencken wrote that “There is only one honest impulse at the bottom of Puritanism, and that is the impulse to punish the man with a superior capacity for happiness.” (Chrestomathy, p. 163) He goes on: “What I admire most in any man is a serene spirit, a steady freedom for moral indignation, and all-embracing tolerance—in brief, what is commonly called good sportsmanship.” That sounds like a version of Aristotle’s Golden Mean. 

A less temperate impulse may have animated Mencken’s vocal opposition to Prohibition, but underneath it all was a belief in the right to happy, and the moral duty to put unsportsmanlike busybodies in their place. Not only that, but Prohibition didn’t even work. “The instant they realized what was upon them they applied the national ingenuity and the national talent for corruption to the problem, and in six months it was solved.” Bootleggers, Baptists, and drinkers all reached an uneasy détente.

Mencken also lampooned businessmen who bought and sold politicians as readily as they did their other products. He went after charities when he felt the people running them cared less about doing good and more about donations, social status, and virtue signaling. While Mencken admired great men and great accomplishments, he mocked rent-seekers and social climbers as mediocrities.

When it comes to a guide to a life well lived, Theory of Moral Sentiments has more to offer than does A Mencken Chrestomathy or Happy Days (Amazon.com affiliate link) , and the competition is not close. Smith’s impartial spectator theory is a foundational idea in moral philosophy that is also easy to use in everyday life. 

But there is value in Mencken, too. A good life needs humor, and Mencken could find a laugh on nearly any subject; this is its own life lesson. 

Mencken also gives a guide in pitfalls to avoid. For example, don’t believe everything you read. Some people took as true Mencken’s satirical article on the invention of the bathtub, which then went viral, and led to a fresh round of mocking from Mencken. How many thousands of people failed this impartial spectator test?

One of the few people Mencken admired was Voltaire, the French satirist, philosopher, playwright, and activist, who in some ways was the Enlightenment’s version of Mencken. Voltaire once said that “I have only made but one prayer to God, and it is very short. Dear God, please make my enemies ridiculous. God has granted my wish.” 

If your impartial spectator tells you that you are not Voltaire’s enemy, and that you are not acting like a  target for one of Mencken’s broadsides, then you’re probably on the right track.