My Favorite Quotes

Recently: The Mania Phase Is Getting Closer

When I first got into the habit of ending every edition of The International Speculator (and later The Casey Report) with a quote — starting about ten years ago — I almost always referred to at least one of my four favorite modern philosophers — Mikhail Bakunin, Peter Kropotkin, Edward Gibbon, and H.L. Mencken. I used all of these quotes from them so long ago now that many current subscribers either haven't seen them or have let them fade into the further reaches of their consciousness.

We've put some of them together, and I've appended a current observation on many. Take a few of the quotes you like best and tape them on your computer or your fridge. They'll provide a continuing measure of solace and amusement.

Let's set the tone with Einstein. I don't quote him often, but two of my all-time favorite observations are courtesy of him:

"Two things are infinite — the universe and human stupidity. And I'm not sure about the former."

"After hydrogen, the most common thing in the universe is stupidity."

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At the opposite end of the fame spectrum from Einstein is Mikhail Bakunin, the Russian anarchist. Bakunin, like Kropotkin, was a revolutionary. Unfortunately, neither had any understanding of economics. But they had a fantastic grip on the nature of the state and a great sense of life.

Here Bakunin deflates the concept of patriotism — which is really just a nice word for nationalism or jingoism. Patriotism boils down to the belief that your country is the best in the world, because you were born there:

"Natural patriotism may be defined as follows: an automatic and wholly uncritical, instinctive attachment for hereditary or traditional ways of life which are collectively accepted, and an equally automatic and instinctive hostility toward any other way of living. It is love for one's own, and a hatred for everything foreign…"

"[T]he patriotism that is extolled to us as an ideal and sublime virtue by the poets, by politicians of every school, by governments, and by every privileged class, is rooted not in man's humanity, but his animality."

Open Letter to Swiss Comrades, 1869

Bakunin shares Acton's view on the corrupting nature of power:

"Nothing is more dangerous for man's private morality than the habit of command. The best man, the most intelligent, disinterested, generous, pure, will infallibly and always be spoiled at this trade. Two sentiments inherent in power never fail to produce this demoralization; they are: contempt for the masses and the overestimation of one's own merits."

— Power Corrupts the Best, 1867

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Here Bakunin addresses the state. Of course, American readers (the same as British, Chinese, Russian, Canadian, and every other nationality represented in our readership) will reflexively think their state is different and better:

"The supreme law of the State is self-preservation at any cost. All States, ever since they came to exist upon the earth, have been condemned to perpetual struggle — a struggle against their own populations, whom they oppress and ruin. A struggle against all foreign States, every one of which can be strong only if the others are weak. And since the States cannot hold their own in this struggle unless they constantly keep on augmenting their power against their own subjects as well as against other States, it follows that the supreme law of the State is the augmentation of its power to the detriment of internal liberty and external justice."

— The Immorality of the State, 1870

No truer words than these have ever been spoken… and I promise you will never hear them, or any like them, spoken on the evening news, or written in the New York Times. That's especially true when a war is being fomented and it's time to be patriotic:

"Lying. Diplomacy has no other mission. Every time a State wants to declare war upon another State, it starts off by launching a manifesto addressed not only to its own subjects but to the whole world. In this manifesto it declares that right and justice are on its side, and it endeavors to prove that it is actuated only by love of peace and humanity and that, imbued with generous and peaceful sentiments, it suffered for a long time in silence until the mounting iniquity of its enemy forced it to bare its sword. At the same time it vows that, disdainful of all material conquest and not seeking any increase in territory, it will put an end to this war as soon as justice is reestablished. And its antagonist answers with a similar manifesto, in which naturally right, justice, humanity, and all the generous sentiments are to be found respectively on its side.

"Those mutually opposed manifestos are written with the same eloquence, they breathe the same virtuous indignation, and one is just as sincere as the other; that is to say both of them are equally brazen in their lies, and it is only fools who are deceived by them. Sensible persons, all those who have had some political experience, do not even take the trouble of reading such manifestos."

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— Ibid.

Remember this from Bakunin when someone starts blathering about the government being necessary, having good intentions, doing good, blah blah blah…

"From its very beginnings it (the State) has been — and still remains — the divine sanction of brutal force and triumphant iniquity. Even in the most democratic countries, like the United States and Switzerland, it is simply the consecration of the privileges of some minority and the actual enslavement of the vast majority…

"This explains to us why ever since history began, that is, ever since States came into existence, the political world has always been and continues to be the stage for high knavery and brigandage — brigandage and knavery which are held in high honor, since they are ordained by patriotism, transcendent morality, and by the supreme interest of the State. This explains to us why all the history of ancient and modern States is nothing more than a series of revolting crimes; why present and past kings and ministers of all times and all countries — statesmen, diplomats, bureaucrats, and warriors — if judged from the point of view of simple morality and human justice, deserve a thousand times the gallows of penal servitude.

"For there is no terror, cruelty, sacrilege, perjury, imposture, infamous transaction, cynical theft, brazen robbery, or foul treason which has not been committed and all are still being committed daily by representatives of the State, with no other excuse than this elastic, at times so convenient and terrible phrase Reason of State."

— Ibid.

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Ayn Rand may have first gotten her image of Attila and the witch doctor — her archetypes of mankind's greatest enemies — from Peter Kropotkin:

"The priest and the warrior. The charlatan who makes a profit out of superstition and, after freeing himself from the fear of the devil, cultivates it in others. And the bully, who procures the invasion and pillage of his neighbors, that he may return laden with booty and followed by slaves. These two, hand in hand, have succeeded in imposing upon primitive society customs advantageous to both, while tending to perpetuate their domination of the masses. Profiting by the indolence, the fears, and the inertia of the crowd, and thanks to the continual repetition of the same acts, they have permanently established customs which have become a solid basis for their own domination."

Law and Authority, 1886, Peter Kropotkin

"When ignorance reigns in society and disorder in the minds of men, laws are multiplied, legislation is expected to do everything, and each fresh law being a miscalculation, men are continually led to demand from it what can only proceed from themselves, from their own education and their own morality."

— French jurist M. Dalloy, quoted by Kropotkin, Law and Authority, 1886, p. 1

With Edward Gibbon, it wasn't just what he observed about the collapse of Rome; it was the language he used to describe it:

"The most worthless of mankind are not afraid to condemn in others the same disorders which they allow in themselves; and can readily discover some nice difference of age, character, or station, to justify the partial distinction."

Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776, p. 128

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Here's one that should resonate with American conservatives — but doesn't. Empires: You've seen one, you've seen them all…

"The minds of the Romans were very differently prepared for slavery. Oppressed beneath the weight of their own corruption and of military violence, they for a long while preserved the sentiments, or at least the ideas, of their free born ancestors."

— Ibid., p. 72

Here Gibbon is speaking of the Crusades:

"[Pope Urban II] proclaimed a plenary indulgence to those who should enlist under the banner of the cross; the absolution of all their sins, and a full receipt for all that might be due to canonical penance. The cold philosophy of modern times is incapable of feeling the impression that was made on a sinful and fanatic world. At the voice of their pastor, the robber, the incendiary, the homicide, arose by thousands to redeem their souls by repeating on the infidels the same deeds which they had exercised against their Christian brethren; and the terms of atonement were eagerly embraced by offenders of every rank and denomination."

— Ibid., book 3, p. 426

It sounds like he might be talking about Bush, Clinton, and perhaps Carter in an anachronistic déjà vu…

[On conquest of Britain] "After a war of about forty years, undertaken by the most stupid, maintained by the most dissolute, and terminated by the most timid of all the emperors, the far greater part of the island submitted to the Roman yoke."

— Ibid., Ch. 1, p. 3

I doubt he would have been a fan of Bush, Palin, or most popular TV shows:

"[T]he use of letters is the principal circumstance that distinguishes a civilized people from a herd of savages incapable of knowledge or reflection."

— Ibid., Ch. 9

This is pretty much what has happened with the U.S. military:

"In the purer ages of the commonwealth, the use of arms was reserved for those ranks of citizens who had a country to love, a property to defend, and some share in enacting those laws, which it was their interest, as well as duty, to maintain. But in proportion as the public freedom was lost in extent of conquest, war was gradually improved into an art, and degraded into a trade."

— Ibid., Ch. 1, p. 9

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Scores of thousands — even hundreds of thousands — of Americans are now getting out of Dodge annually for exactly the same reasons Romans once did:

"The Roman government appeared every day less formidable to its enemies, more odious and oppressive to its subjects. The severe inquisition, which confiscated their goods and tortured their persons, compelled the subjects of Valentinian (425-455) to prefer the simple tyranny of the barbarians, to fly to the woods or the mountains, or to embrace the vile and abject condition of mercenary servants. They abjured and abhorred the name of Roman citizens, which had formerly excited the ambition of all mankind. If all the barbarian conquerors had been annihilated in the same hour, their total destruction would not have restored the empire of the West: and if Rome still survived, she survived the loss of freedom, of virtue, and of honour."

— Ibid., Ch. 3

The sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, was without question the soundest and most literate writer and thinker to have ever graced the pages of an American paper. Mencken coined the term Boobus americanus, a phrase that often occurs in TCR these days. The following should give you a flavor of his thought:

"The average man doesn’t want to be free. He wants to be safe."

Notes on Democracy, 1926, Part III, p. 148

"The great masses of men, though theoretically free, are seen to submit supinely to oppression and exploitation of a hundred abhorrent sorts. Have they no means of resistance? Obviously they have. The worst tyrant, even under democratic plutocracy, has but one throat to slit. The moment the majority decided to overthrow him he would be overthrown. But the majority lacks the resolution; it cannot imagine taking the risks."

— Ibid., p. 50

"The surest way to get on in politics in America is to play the leading part in a prosecution which attracts public notice."

The American Credo: A Contribution toward the Interpretation of the National Mind, by George Jean Nathan and H.L. Mencken, preface

In a way, it's a good thing Mencken didn't live to see Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among other military entanglements:

"All [of the Americans'] foreign wars have been fought with foes either too weak to resist them or too heavily engaged elsewhere to make more than a half-hearted attempt. The combats with Mexico and Spain were not wars; they were simply lynchings."

— On Being an American, p. 43

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This, of course, is much more true now than it was in Mencken's day. And, back then, not only was a college degree somewhat rare, but it didn't cost the equivalent of $50,000 a year.

"The average American college fails… to achieve its ostensible ends. One failure… of the colleges lies in their apparent incompetence to select and train a sufficient body of intelligent teachers. Their choice is commonly limited to second-raters, for a man who really knows a subject is seldom content to spend his lifetime teaching it: he wants to function in a more active and satisfying way, as all other living organisms want to function. There are, of course, occasional exceptions to this rule, but they are very rare, and none of them are to be found in the average college. The pedagogues there incarcerated are all inferior men who really know very little about the things they pretend to teach, and are too stupid or too indolent to acquire more…. Being taught by them is roughly like being dosed in illness by third-year medical students."

Minority Report, 1956, p. 51

"The argument that capital punishment degrades the state is moonshine, for if that were true then it would degrade the state to send men to war… The state, in truth, is degraded in its very nature: a few butcheries cannot do it any further damage."

— The American Mercury

Hey, is he allowed to say this?

"The average soldier… found in the Army a vastly more spacious life, with many of the privileges of a chartered libertine…. If he did a little stealing, it was one of his privileges as a savior of humanity. If he was rough and brutal, it was a sign of his fighting spirit. Moreover, he could look forward to distinction and respect for the rest of his life, with a long list of special privileges. In every community in America, however small, there are local notables whose notability rests wholly on the fact that they were once drafted into some war or other…. Their general intelligence is shown by the kind of ideas they advocate. They are, in the main, bitter enemies of the liberty of the individual, and are responsible for some of the worst corruptions of politics. The most grasping of all politicians is the war veteran."

A Mencken Chrestomathy, 1949, p. 90

In The Casey Report, you can not only read Doug's favorite quotes each month, but — more importantly — the big-picture analysis and profit opportunities that will keep you far ahead of the investing crowd. Try it now for 3 months with full money-back guarantee… details here.

December 24, 2010