The Urge to Save Humanity is Almost Always Only a False-Face for the Urge to Rule It

H.L. Mencken? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following saying is credited to H.L. Mencken on several websites, and I found it in some quotation dictionaries. But I cannot find it directly in any works written by Mencken. Could you tell me if the attribution is correct?

The urge to save humanity is almost always a false-front for the urge to rule it.

Quote Investigator: I sympathize with your inability to find this adage using electronic searches. Locating this saying is tricky because the key word “false-front” is incorrect. Here is the phrase with some additional context as it appeared in “Minority Report: H.L. Mencken’s Notebooks” which were first published in 1956 [MRH]:

The urge to save humanity is almost always only a false-face for the urge to rule it. Power is what all messiahs really seek: not the chance to serve. This is true even of the pious brethren who carry the gospel to foreign parts.

The first sentence above was altered to yield the common modern variant by replacing “false-face” with “false-front” and by deleting the word “only”. It is not clear when or where this modification took place.

In 1984 the maxim appeared in a compilation called “The Cynic’s Lexicon”. The attribution and source given were correct, but the wording differed slightly from the sentence in Mencken’s Notebooks. The currently popular variant matches this version [CLFF]:

1880-1956 American editor, essayist and philologist
The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.
Minority Report, 1956

In conclusion, Mencken is properly credited with a maxim that is very close to the questioner’s sentence. Thanks for your inquiry.

[MRH] 1967 [First Printing and Copyright 1956], Minority report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks by Henry Louis Mencken, Entry 369, Page 247, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.  (Verified on paper in Fourth printing January 1967)

[CLFF] 1984, The Cynic’s Lexicon by Jonathon Green, Section: H. L. Mencken, Page 135, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified on paper)

2 thoughts on “The Urge to Save Humanity is Almost Always Only a False-Face for the Urge to Rule It”

  1. Oh yes, this website is very good – I have been taking a fair amount of time ensuring that the quotes I use on my website are accurate and correctly attributed. I just found you this morning and this makes my life a bit easier. Great idea – well done!!!
    I’ve got a whole bunch of quotes that are still in ‘authentic mode’ so I’ll be using this site from now on to check them out and submitting them to you where appropriate for investigation.

  2. Drew: Thanks for visiting, and I am glad that you like the website. The database currently is rather small. So I recommend that visitors use several tools if possible. For example, here are some valuable resources:

    Barry Popik’s website: Here is the archive page and the search page.

    2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Yale University Press, New Haven.

    2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Yale University Press, New Haven.

    2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, St Martin’s Griffin, New York.

    Available through some libraries: Oxford Reference Online which includes The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations edited by Elizabeth Knowles, Oxford University Press.

    There are other great resources, and I probably should develop a webpage on this topic in the future.

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