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The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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by H. L. Mencken

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H. L. Mencken’s The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908) was the first complete exposition of Nietzsche’s thought written in English. It provides a coherent and systematic picture of the tapestry that is Nietzsche’s philosophy. In several analyses Mencken almost seems to make Nietzsche’s point better than Nietzsche does.


H. L. Mencken’s The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1908) was the first complete exposition of Nietzsche’s thought written in English. It provides a coherent and systematic picture of the tapestry that is Nietzsche’s philosophy. In several analyses Mencken almost seems to make Nietzsche’s point better than Nietzsche does.

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H. L. Mencken�s The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was the first complete exposition of Nietzsche�s thought written in English. Published in 1908 when Mencken was twenty-seven years old, the book is remarkable for a number of reasons. Despite the fact that it was penned a century ago, without the aid of any serious secondary source materials, the book is rich in insights, extremely thorough in its coverage, and superbly written. It does not possess Mencken�s later flamboyant style, but it does provide a clear, no-nonsense presentation of the many and varied themes of Nietzsche�s philosophy.

It opens with one of the best biographical essays on Nietzsche to be found in any secondary source. Mencken provides insightful discussions of the distinction between the Dionysian and Apollinian impulses in the origin of Greek drama; the origins of morality; the concept of �superman� and the compunction to go �beyond good and evil�; the origin and nature of Christian values and value-creation; and the nature of �truth.� Mencken does a remarkable job of tying together these and other disparate threads, providing a coherent and systematic picture of the tapestry that is Nietzsche�s philosophy.

Henry Louis Mencken was born in Baltimore on September 12, 1880. His father owned a cigar factory, which provided financial security for the family and likely contributed to Mencken�s life-long devotion to cigars. In 1899, he began his literary career, becoming a police reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald. Then in 1906, he joined the staff of The Baltimore Sun, where he was an editorial contributor. Around this time he began to write short stories, a novel, poetry (which he later abandoned), and, at the suggestion of the Sun publisher John W. Luce, he began work on his study of Nietzsche. In 1908, Mencken became a book reviewer for and later editor of (1914�23) the witty and fashionable literary magazine The Smart Set.

For most of the first two decades of the twentieth century he was romantically involved with Marion Bloom. They had intended to marry upon her return from Europe, where she served as a nurse during World War I; when she came back, however, the relationship immediately soured, because Marion had become a Christian Scientist, an organization for which Mencken had no tolerance.

In 1924, Mencken and George Jean Nathan (1882�1958) founded and edited The American Mercury, a magazine, published by Alfred A. Knopf, that had a wide circulation and popularity on college campuses and in literary circles throughout the United States. Mencken continued to edit this magazine until 1933 (Nathan left after the first year). During the 1920s, Mencken achieved fame and notoriety as a satirist and critic, and became a friend and supporter of many successful writers, including Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O�Neill, Carl Sandburg, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was a champion of freethinking, freedom of the press, and �libertarianism,� and from 1919 to 1927 he published a six-volume collection of essays, Prejudices, which contained some of his most brilliant and most characteristic pieces. The book that many regard as his most important work, however, is The American Language, originally published in 1919 and revised in several subsequent editions over the years. In the book, Mencken traces the etymologies and usages of �contemporary� American words and phrases; it remains a classic to this day.

During the summer of 1925, Mencken reported on the Scopes �Monkey� Trial (and is credited with coining this description of the affair), which concerned the teaching of evolution in public schools. The case was a much-publicized contest between the Tennessee state legislature, represented by the politician and fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan, and the American Civil Liberties Union, represented by the libertarian and agnostic Clarence Darrow. Mencken�s colorful descriptions of the trial�s characters and events did much to dramatize for the American public the issues at stake as well as the personalities involved.

During the Great Depression, when Mencken hurled searing criticisms of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Dealers, his influence and popularity began to wane. Although he continued to publish some important works during this period (e.g., Treatise on the Gods [1930] and Treatise on Right and Wrong [1934]), his most insightful works appeared in the 1940s, with the publication of his three-volume autobiography: Happy Days, 1880�1892 (1940), Newspaper Days, 1899�1906 (1941), and Heathen Days, 1890�1936 (1943).

In 1948, Mencken suffered a cerebral thrombosis, which incapacitated him. Always a voracious reader and a voluminous writer, he was now incapable of doing either. He spent the remaining eight years of his life preparing his papers and correspondences for publication and listening to classical music, especially Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. He died on January 29, 1956.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844�1900) was a prolific writer whose ideas can be difficult to decipher and grasp, due to the complex manner in which they are expressed. Nietzsche usually presented his ideas in a stylized fashion, for example, as aphorisms, or in �experimental prose,� with the significance of one idea dependent upon its interrelationships with other ideas. When the twenty-six-year-old Mencken began writing The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, there were virtually no secondary sources to consult or to reference. Furthermore, he had only the original German editions of Nietzsche�s works to read. Given these factors, it is remarkable that Mencken was able to produce such a useful, readable book. His discussions, for example, on the origin of morality and the psychology of Christian beliefs are, in some ways, clearer and more comprehensible than Nietzsche�s. In several other analyses he almost seems to make Nietzsche�s point better than Nietzsche does.

Yet, there are other areas where Mencken misses the mark. One of his most obvious flaws is Mencken�s insistence that Nietzsche was, and remained throughout his career, a devotee of the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788�1860). Schopenhauer�s philosophy was largely a reaction against the views of G. W. F. Hegel (1770�1831), who dominated the philosophical landscape of the early nineteenth century. For Hegel, history is a rational process wherein all changes and activities are determined by necessary laws of development and improvement. Schopenhauer, by contrast, insists that the world consists in the activities of an irrational, purposeless �will� (Wille), which veils itself in its �representations�(Vorstellungen), or appearances. There is neither rational development nor historical improvement in how this process occurs; and since there is no necessity or purpose involved in the alterations of the appearances, there is no real significance in the knowledge that humans may achieve regarding the appearances. For Schopenhauer, the essential motive of all philosophical inquiry is human vanity; and the ultimate insight into the nature of reality is our recognition of this essential motive of philosophical inquiry. We can, however, come to a kind of �intuition� of the fundamental, metaphysical �will� through the immediate appreciation of music, and through an intuitive recognition of other conscious individuals as subjective embodiments of the objective Wille. Such intuitions provide us with brief respite against an otherwise nihilistic reality.

Nietzsche encountered Schopenhauer�s great work, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung (The World as Will and Representation,1818�19), in the autumn of 1865. While Mencken is correct in calling attention to the strong influence of Schopenhauer�s philosophy on Nietzsche�s early development, what Mencken fails to acknowledge is the all-important degree to which Nietzsche�s later conception of �the will to power� (der Wille zur Macht) transcends and supercedes Schopenhauer�s notion of the �will.� For Schopenhauer, the world is completely devoid of meaning or value, and the most fundamental insight into the nature of this situation leaves the inquirer with a sense of pessimistic resignation. For Nietzsche, the world is devoid of intrinsic meaning or value; yet, it may acquire meaning and value insofar as we human beings, we value-creators, bestow values and meanings upon the world. The recognition of this value -creating ability leaves the inquirer with a sense of optimistic affirmation. This is Nietzsche�s Dionysian attitude; his new life-affirming, �yea-saying� philosophy for the future. While Mencken acknowledges this attitude, he nevertheless maintains that there is virtually no difference between Schopenhauer�s nihilistic conception of the �will,� and Nietzsche�s positive and creative notion of the �will to power.�

Another of Nietzsche�s ideas which Mencken appears to have a flawed understanding is the idea of the �superman,� or �overman� (der �bermensch), a concept that is crucial for understanding Nietzsche�s mature doctrines. Nietzsche introduces this idea as a goal for human striving�a this-world antithesis to the traditional conception of God, who he proclaimed to be �dead.� While there is indeed a good deal of debate about what precisely the notion of the overman is and how it functions, it is fairly clear that it was not intended to serve as a kind of ancestral (or racial) ideal, as Mencken asserts. Mencken tends to view the overman notion through the lens of Social Darwinism. This distortion is uncharacteristic of the author�s interpretation of Nietzsche, which, as a rule, is taken straight from the German texts and is interpreted using several primary sources. With respect to Nietzsche�s discussions of the superman, however, Mencken inexplicably seems to rely more on the theories of Herbert Spencer (1820�1903), who is considered the father of Social Darwinism, and Ernst Haeckel (1834�1919), the German zoologist whose ideas posited a biological basis for justifying racism.

The third flaw in Mencken�s book is less important and more understandable, given the time in which it was written: namely, Mencken�s account of Nietzsche�s insanity, which he attributed to �overstudy in his youth, over-work and over-drugging later on, exposure on the battle field, functional disorders and constant and violent strife.� Nietzsche, having expressed increasing evidence of mental peculiarities in his letters to friends through the last three months of 1888, collapsed in the street in Turin, Italy, where he was then living, on January 3, 1889. On the following day he wrote to his friend Peter Gast: �To My Maestro Pietro�Sing me a new song: The world is transfigured and all the heavens are joyous. (Signed) The Crucified One.�

His friends came to his apartment to find that he had passed into a darkness from which there was no return. Given the progressive nature of the loss of his mental and physical capacities, which continued over an eleven-year period until his death in August 1900, Nietzsche�s doctors described his condition as dementia paralytica. This is the standard interpretation of his illness, the one that is prevalent today�that Nietzsche�s madness was the result of the tertiary stage of syphilis. When and how he contracted the disease is a question that is still debated. One commonly accepted explanation is that Nietzsche served for a short time (in September 1870) as a medical aide during the Franco-Prussian War, during which time he was exposed to the blood of his soldier-patients, some of whom were infected with syphilis.

Regardless of what caused Nietzsche�s mental illness, Mencken is emphatic on the important point that, while there is evidence of the progressive nature of his illness during 1888, there is no reason to reject or to devalue any of Nietzsche�s published works from that period�or from any other period�on the charge of mental incompetence. Mencken regarded the books written during the productive year 1888, in the twilight of Nietzsche�s career, to be among his most important, most powerful, and most beautifully written. It was no arbitrary choice when, of all of Nietzsche�s works, Mencken chose The Antichrist to translate into English�a work written in September and October of 1888, less than three months before the onset of Nietzsche�s dementia.

Mencken was a complex, outspoken, and eccentric writer who took great delight in surprising, shocking, and even offending his audience. That his first serious literary effort would be a work on Nietzsche seems entirely fitting, as does the fact that he translated The Antichrist, one of Nietzsche�s most powerful and vitriolic books. But between these works, published in 1908 and 1920 respectively, Mencken wrote another book, The Gist of Nietzsche, published in 1910 by John W. Luce (the original publisher of this work). To The Gist of Nietzsche, Mencken provided an introduction, a biography, and a translation of what he regarded as some of Nietzsche�s most memorable observations and quotable bons mots.

Like Nietzsche, Mencken was an iconoclast of the first order. But whereas Nietzsche�s criticisms were generally strategic, aimed at Western culture as a whole and at Christianity in general, Mencken was more tactical in his criticisms, waging his attacks at a particular enemy�the twentieth-century middle-class American, the Protestant fundamentalist, the Christian Scientist, the American southerner, and others. In fact, Mencken was the enemy of any sort of �group-think.� He was always the champion of individualism and individual accomplishment, and he disdained those who found their identities and their purposes in groups and group ideals.

Mencken launched his missiles in wide and, at times, seemingly arbitrary arcs. In some of his writings he makes comments that are clearly misogynistic, and in other places he sounds blatantly anti-Semitic; and he made numerous racists observations in his writings concerning African-Americans (some are contained in the present work, in part 2, section 13, �Civilization�). Yet he published an essay in which he argued that the �Anglo-Saxon race� (by which he meant the vast majority of his readership) was the most cowardly race in human history. With regard to the average American, the group Mencken referred to as the �booboisie,� or the �boobus americanus,� he observed that, �no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American middle class.� Even though Mencken criticized women, Jews, and African Americans, he was at least consistent in being equally critical of white Anglo-Saxons. In modern terms, he tended to be an �equal opportunity offender,� critical of all equally and discriminating somewhat indiscriminately.

But this simple observation applies to a tendency more ambiguous and complicated than it would imply. Although many of Mencken�s comments do indeed make him sound like an ardent misogynist, Dorothy Parker was one of The Smart Set�s most published authors while Mencken was editor of the magazine. Similarly, even though some of Mencken�s remarks are clearly anti-Semitic, he was responsible for helping a number of Jews escape from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied territories during World War II, while other, more �socially aware� or �concerned� literary figures bemoaned the situation, did nothing, or simply ignored the situation.

Mencken made many blatantly racist remarks in his writings; but as the chief creative force behind and editor of The American Mercury, he was instrumental in getting more African-American writers, including W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes, published than any other non-African-American magazine in publication. Mencken was a long-time friend to the African-American author and social critic George Schuyler, whom he regarded as �the most competent editorial writer now in practice in this great free republic.� In his book The Sage in Harlem, Charles Scruggs provides a detailed account of the positive effect of Mencken�s writings and influence upon many black writers. For example, Scruggs quotes a particularly poignant observation by the African-American author Richard Wright, who asserted that he was inspired to become a writer through his encounters with Mencken�s books:

I was jarred and shocked by the clear, clean, sweeping sentences/ . . . I pictured the man as a raging demon, slashing with his pen . . . denouncing everything American . . . laughing . . . mocking God, authority�. This man was fighting, fighting with words. He was using words as a weapon, using them as one would use a club�. I read on and what amazed me was not what he said, but how on earth anybody had the courage to say it.

If Mencken was a misogynist, an anti-Semite, and a racist, he was certainly not of a garden variety. If he found fault with members of these groups, it was nothing personal; he found fault with most members of most groups, just because they were group members. To some this made him a despicable, self-serving elitist; to others he was a generous, inspirational champion of civil liberties and free speech. Nietzsche could have been foreshadowing Mencken when, in Human, All Too Human, he wrote:

If anyone wanted to imagine a genius of culture, what would the latter be like? He would manipulate falsehood, force, the most ruthless self-interest as his instruments so skillfully he could only be called an evil, demonic being; but his objectives, which here and there shine through, would be great and good. He would be a centaur, half beast, half man, and with angel�s wings attached to his head in addition.

In conclusion, we are left to imagine how a twenty-seven-year-old Mencken, in reading and writing about Nietzsche, could have become increasingly attracted to and influenced by the beliefs of his subject. As we have seen, there are many parallels, similarities, and congruencies between Nietzsche and Mencken, many of which would not become recognizable until later in Mencken�s life.

Meet the Author

H. L. Mencken (1880–1956) lived his whole life in Baltimore, and as a newspaperman he was primarily associated with the Baltimore Sun. His columns reached a national audience through syndication, making him a well-known critic of war fever, every president from “Roosevelt I” to “Roosevelt II,” censorship, the Ku Klux Klan and rampant lynching in the South, Prohibition, and the residual Puritanism which, in his definition, underlay most of America’s problems.  He directed his writing to what he called the “civilized minority.” 

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