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]:
H. L. MENCKEN
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)