Humbug Universal - In Religion - In Politics - In Business - In Science - In Medicine

A little reflection will show that humbug is an astonishingly

wide-spread phenomenon--in fact almost universal. And this is true,

although we exclude crimes and arrant swindles from the definition of

it, according to the somewhat careful explanation which is given in the

beginning of the chapter succeeding this one.

I apprehend that there is no sort of object which men seek to attain,

whether secular, mor
l or religious, in which humbug is not very often

an instrumentality. Religion is and has ever been a chief chapter of

human life. False religions are the only ones known to two thirds of the

human race, even now, after nineteen centuries of Christianity; and

false religions are perhaps the most monstrous, complicated and

thorough-going specimens of humbug that can be found. And even within

the pale of Christianity, how unbroken has been the succession of

impostors, hypocrites and pretenders, male and female, of every

possible variety of age, sex, doctrine and discipline!

Politics and government are certainly among the most important of

practical human interests. Now it was a diplomatist--that is, a

practical manager of one kind of government matters--who invented that

wonderful phrase--a whole world full of humbug in half-a-dozen

words--that "Language was given to us to conceal our thoughts." It was

another diplomatist, who said "An ambassador is a gentleman sent to

lie abroad for the good of his country." But need I explain to my own

beloved countrymen that there is humbug in politics? Does anybody go

into a political campaign without it? are no exaggerations of our

candidate's merits to be allowed? no depreciations of the other

candidate? Shall we no longer prove that the success of the party

opposed to us will overwhelm the land in ruin? Let me see. Leaving out

the two elections of General Washington, eighteen times that very fact

has been proved by the party that was beaten, and immediately we have

not been ruined, notwithstanding that the dreadful fatal fellows on

the other side got their hands on the offices and their fingers into the


Business is the ordinary means of living for nearly all of us. And in

what business is there not humbug? "There's cheating in all trades but

ours," is the prompt reply from the boot-maker with his brown paper

soles, the grocer with his floury sugar and chicoried coffee, the

butcher with his mysterious sausages and queer veal, the dry goods man

with his "damaged goods wet at the great fire" and his "selling at a

ruinous loss," the stock-broker with his brazen assurance that your

company is bankrupt and your stock not worth a cent (if he wants to buy

it,) the horse jockey with his black arts and spavined brutes, the

milkman with his tin aquaria, the land agent with his nice new maps and

beautiful descriptions of distant scenery, the newspaper man with his

"immense circulation," the publisher with his "Great American Novel,"

the city auctioneer with his "Pictures by the Old Masters"--all and

every one protest each his own innocence, and warn you against the

deceits of the rest. My inexperienced friend, take it for granted that

they all tell the truth--about each other! and then transact your

business to the best of your ability on your own judgment. Never fear

but that you will get experience enough, and that you will pay well for

it too; and towards the time when you shall no longer need earthly

goods, you will begin to know how to buy.

Literature is one of the most interesting and significant expressions of

humanity. Yet books are thickly peppered with humbug. "Travellers'

stories" have been the scoff of ages, from the "True Story" of witty old

Lucian the Syrian down to the gorillarities--if I may coin a word--of

the Frenchman Du Chaillu. Ireland's counterfeited Shakspeare plays,

Chatterton's forged manuscripts, George Psalmanazar's forged Formosan

language, Jo Smith's Mormon Bible, (it should be noted that this and the

Koran sounded two strings of humbug together--the literary and the

religious,) the more recent counterfeits of the notorious Greek

Simonides--such literary humbugs as these are equal in presumption and

in ingenuity too, to any of a merely business kind, though usually

destitute of that sort of impiety which makes the great religious

humbugs horrible as well as impudent.

Science is another important field of human effort. Science is the

pursuit of pure truth, and the systematizing of it. In such an

employment as that, one might reasonably hope to find all things done in

honesty and sincerity. Not at all, my ardent and inquiring friends,

there is a scientific humbug just as large as any other. We have all

heard of the Moon Hoax. Do none of you remember the Hydrarchos

Sillimannii, that awful Alabama snake? It was only a little while ago

that a grave account appeared in a newspaper of a whole new business of

compressing ice. Perpetual motion has been the dream of scientific

visionaries, and a pretended but cheating realization of it has been

exhibited by scamp after scamp. I understand that one is at this moment

being invented over in Jersey City. I have purchased more than one

"perpetual motion" myself. Many persons will remember Mr. Paine--"The

Great Shot-at" as he was called, from his story that people were

constantly trying to kill him--and his water-gas. There have been other

water gases too, which were each going to show us how to set the North

River on fire, but something or other has always broken down just at the

wrong moment. Nobody seems to reflect, when these water gases come up,

that if water could really be made to burn, the right conditions would

surely have happened at some one of the thousands of city fires, and

that the very stuff with which our stout firemen were extinguishing the

flames, would have itself caught and exterminated the whole brave wet


Medicine is the means by which we poor feeble creatures try to keep from

dying or aching. In a world so full of pain it would seem as if people

could not be so foolish, or practitioners so knavish, as to sport with

men's and women's and children's lives by their professional humbugs.

Yet there are many grave M. D.'s who, if there is nobody to hear, and if

they speak their minds, will tell you plainly that the whole practice of

medicine is in one sense a humbug. One of its features is certainly a

humbug, though so innocent and even useful that it seems difficult to

think of any objection to it. This is the practice of giving a

placebo; that is, a bread pill or a dose of colored water, to keep the

patient's mind easy while imagination helps nature to perfect a cure. As

for the quacks, patent medicines and universal remedies, I need only

mention their names. Prince Hohenlohe, Valentine Greatrakes, John St.

John Long, Doctor Graham and his wonderful bed, Mesmer and his tub,

Perkins' metallic tractors--these are half a dozen. Modern history knows

of hundreds of such.

It would almost seem as if human delusions became more unreasoning and

abject in proportion as their subject is of greater importance. A

machine, a story, an animal skeleton, are not so very important. But the

humbugs which have prevailed about that wondrous machine, the human

body, its ailments and its cures, about the unspeakable mystery of human

life, and still more about the far greater and more awful mysteries of

the life beyond the grave, and the endless happiness and misery believed

to exist there, the humbugs about these have been infinitely more

absurd, more shocking, more unreasonable, more inhuman, more


I can only allude to whole sciences (falsely so called) which are

unmingled humbugs from beginning to end. Such was Alchemy, such was

Magic, such was and still is Astrology, and above all, Fortune-telling.

But there is a more thorough humbug than any of these enterprises or

systems. The greatest humbug of all is the man who believes--or pretends

to believe--that everything and everybody are humbugs. We sometimes meet

a person who professes that there is no virtue; that every man has his

price, and every woman hers; that any statement from anybody is just as

likely to be false as true, and that the only way to decide which, is to

consider whether truth or a lie was likely to have paid best in that

particular case. Religion he thinks one of the smartest business dodges

extant, a firstrate investment, and by all odds the most respectable

disguise that a lying or swindling business man can wear. Honor he

thinks is a sham. Honesty he considers a plausible word to flourish in

the eyes of the greener portion of our race, as you would hold out a

cabbage leaf to coax a donkey. What people want, he thinks, or says he

thinks, is something good to eat, something good to drink, fine clothes,

luxury, laziness, wealth. If you can imagine a hog's mind in a man's

body--sensual, greedy, selfish, cruel, cunning, sly, coarse, yet

stupid, short-sighted, unreasoning, unable to comprehend anything except

what concerns the flesh, you have your man. He thinks himself

philosophic and practical, a man of the world; he thinks to show

knowledge and wisdom, penetration, deep acquaintance with men and

things. Poor fellow! he has exposed his own nakedness. Instead of

showing that others are rotten inside, he has proved that he is. He

claims that it is not safe to believe others--it is perfectly safe to

disbelieve him. He claims that every man will get the better of you if

possible--let him alone! Selfishness, he says, is the universal

rule--leave nothing to depend on his generosity or honor; trust him just

as far as you can sling an elephant by the tail. A bad world, he sneers,

full of deceit and nastiness--it is his own foul breath that he smells;

only a thoroughly corrupt heart could suggest such vile thoughts. He

sees only what suits him, as a turkey-buzzard spies only carrion, though

amid the loveliest landscape. I pronounce him who thus virtually

slanders his father and dishonors his mother and defiles the sanctities

of home and the glory of patriotism and the merchant's honor and the

martyr's grave and the saint's crown--who does not even know that every

sham shows that there is a reality, and that hypocrisy is the homage

that vice pays to virtue--I pronounce him--no, I do not pronounce him a

humbug, the word does not apply to him. He is a fool.

Looked at on one side, the history of humbug is truly humiliating to

intellectual pride, yet the long silly story is less absurd during the

later ages of history, and grows less and less so in proportion to the

spread of real Christianity. This religion promotes good sense, actual

knowledge, contentment with what we cannot help, and the exclusive use

of intelligent means for increasing human happiness and decreasing human

sorrow. And whenever the time shall come when men are kind and just and

honest; when they only want what is fair and right, judge only on real

and true evidence, and take nothing for granted, then there will be no

place left for any humbugs, either harmless or hurtful.