The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzscheby H. L. Mencken
The first book on Nietzsche ever to appear in English, this examination by legendary journalist H. L. Mencken is still one of the most enlightening. Mencken wrote this book while still in his 20s, but his penchant for thoroughness was evident even at that young age-in preparation for writing this book, he read Nietzsche's works in their entirety, mostly in the original German. A brief biographical sketch is followed by clear and thorough explanations of Nietzsche's basic concepts and attitudes. Analyzed are Nietzsche's much-misunderstood concept of the superman, his concept of eternal recurrence, his rejection of Christianity, and his basic rationalism and materialism. Included are two essays on Nietzsche that appeared in Mencken's magazine The Smart Set subsequent to the publishing of the original edition of this book. Also, nearly a century after its original publication, this remains one of the clearest, most concise, and entertaining introductions to Nietzsche to date.
Author Biography: H. L. Mencken was a journalist in the first half of the 20th century, reporting on social and political matters such as the Scopes monkey trial. He was the editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury and the author of over two dozen books, including The American Language, Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heather Days. He was also the translator of Nietzsche's The Anti-Christ.
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Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche
By H. L. Mencken
See Sharp PressCopyright © 2003 Charles Q. Bufe
All rights reserved.
Boyhood and Youth
FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE was a preacher's son, brought up in the fear of the Lord. It is the ideal training for sham-smashers and freethinkers. Let a boy of alert, restless intelligence come to early manhood in an atmosphere of strong faith, wherein doubts are blasphemies and inquiry is a crime, and rebellion is certain to appear with his beard. So long as his mind feels itself puny beside the overwhelming pomp and circumstance of parental authority, he will remain docile and even pious. But so soon as he begins to see authority as something ever finite, variable and all-too-human — when he begins to realize that his father and his mother, in the last analysis, are mere human beings, and fallible like himself — then he will fly precipitately toward the intellectual wailing places, to think his own thoughts in his own way and to worship his own gods beneath the open sky. As a child Nietzsche was holy; as a man he was the symbol and embodiment of all unholiness. At nine he was already versed in the lore of the reverend doctors, and the pulpit, to his happy mother — a preacher's daughter as well as a preacher's wife — seemed his logical and lofty goal; at thirty he was chief among those who held that all pulpits should be torn down and fashioned into bludgeons, to beat out the silly brains of theologians.
The awakening came to him when he made his first venture away from the maternal apron-string and fireside: when, as a boy often, he learned that there were many, many men in the world and that these men were of many minds. With the clash of authority came the end of authority. If A. was right, B. was wrong — and B. had a disquieting habit of standing for one's mother, one's grandmother or the holy prophets. Here was the beginning of intelligence in the boy — the beginning of that weighing and choosing faculty which seems to give man at once his sense of mastery and his feeling of helplessness. The old notion that doubt was a crime crept away. There remained in its place the new notion that the only real crime in the world — the only unmanly, unspeakable and unforgivable offense against the race — was unreasoning belief. Thus the orthodoxy of the Nietzsche home turned upon and devoured itself.
The philosopher of the superman was born on October 15th, 1844, at Röcken, a small town in the Prussian province of Saxony. His father, Karl Ludwig Nietzsche, was a country pastor of the Lutheran Church and a man of eminence in the countryside. But he was more than a mere rural worthy, with an outlook limited by the fringe of trees on the horizon, for in his time he had seen something of the great world and had even played his humble part in it. Years before his son Friedrich was born he had been tutor to the children of the Duke of Altenburg. The duke was fond of him and took him, now and then, on memorable and eventful journeys to Berlin, where that turbulent monarch, King Friedrich Wilhelm IV, kept a tinsel court and made fast progress from imbecility to acute dementia. The king met the young tutor and found him a clever and agreeable person, with excellent opinions regarding all those things whereon monarchs are wont to differ with mobs. When the children of the duke became sufficiently saturated with learning, the work of Pastor Nietzsche at Altenburg was done and he journeyed to Berlin to face weary days in the anterooms of ecclesiastical magnates and jobbers of places. The king, hearing by chance of his presence and remembering him pleasantly, ordered that he be given without delay a vicarage worthy of his talents. So he was sent to Röcken, and there, when a son was born to him, he called the boy Friedrich Wilhelm, as a graceful compliment to his royal patron and admirer.
There were two other children in the house. One was a boy, Josef, who was named after the Duke of Altenburg, and died in infancy in 1850. The other was a girl, Therese Elizabeth Alexandra, who became in after years her brother's housekeeper, guardian angel and biographer. Her three names were those of the three noble children her father had grounded in the humanities. Elizabeth — who married toward middle age and is best known as Frau Forster-Nietzsche — tells us practically all that we know about the Nietzsche family and the private life of its distinguished son. The clan came out of Poland, like so many other families of Eastern Germany, at the time of the sad, vain wars. Legend maintains that it was noble in its day and Nietzsche himself liked to think so. The name, says Elizabeth, was originally Nietzschy. "Germany is a great nation," Nietzsche would say, "only because its people have so much Polish blood in their veins. ... I am proud of my Polish descent. I remember that in former times a Polish noble, by his simple veto, could overturn the resolution of a popular assembly. There were giants in Poland in the time of my forefathers." He wrote a tract with the French title L'Origine de la famille de Nietzsche and presented the manuscript to his sister, as a document to be treasured and held sacred. She tells us that he was fond of maintaining that the Nietzsches had suffered greatly and fallen from vast grandeur for their opinions, religious and political. He had no proof of this, but it pleased him to think so.
Pastor Nietzsche was thrown from his horse in 1848 and died, after a lingering illness, on July 28th, 1849, when Friedrich was barely five years old. Frau Nietzsche then moved her little family to Naumburg-on-the-Saale — "a Christian, conservative, loyal city." The household consisted of the mother, the two children, their paternal grandmother and two maiden aunts — the sisters of the dead pastor. The grandmother was something of a bluestocking and had been, in her day, a member of that queer circle of intellectuals and amateurs which raged and roared around Goethe at Weimar. But that was in the long ago, before she dreamed of becoming the wife of one preacher and the mother of another. In the year '50 she was well of all such youthful fancies and there was no doubt of the divine revelations beneath her pious roof. Prayers began the day and ended the day. It was a house of holy women, with something of a convent's placidity and quiet exaltation. Little Friedrich was the idol in the shrine. It was the hope of all that he would grow up into a man illimitably noble and impossibly good.
Pampered thus, the boy shrank from the touch of the world's rough hand. His sister tells us that he disliked the bad little boys of the neighborhood, who robbed bird's nests, raided orchards and played at soldiers. There appeared in him a quaint fastidiousness which went counter to the dearest ideals of the healthy young male. His school fellows, in derision, called him "the little pastor" and took delight in waylaying him and venting upon him their grotesque and barbarous humor. He liked flowers and books and music and when he went abroad it was for solitary walks. He could recite and sing and he knew the Bible so well that he was able to dispute about its mysteries. "As I think of him," said an old schoolmate years afterward, "I am forced irresistibly into a thought of the 12-year-old Jesus in the Temple." "The serious introspective child, with his dignified politeness," says his sister, "seemed so strange to other boys that friendly advances from either side were out of the question."
There is a picture of the boy in all the glory of his first long-tailed coat. His trousers stop above his shoe-tops, his hair is long and his legs seem mere airy filaments. As one gazes upon the likeness one can almost smell the soap that scoured that high, shiny brow and those thin, white cheeks. The race of such seraphic boys has died out in the world. Gone are their slick, plastered locks and their translucent ears! Gone are their ruffled cuffs and their spouting of the golden text!
Nietzsche wrote verses before he was ten: pious, plaintive verses that scanned well and showed rhymes and metaphors made respectable by ages of honorable employment. His maiden effort, so far as we know, was an elegy entitled "The Grave of My Father." Later on he became aware of material things and sang the praises of rose and sunset. He played the piano, too, and knew his Beethoven well, from the snares for the left hand in "Für Elise" to the raging tumults of the C minor symphony. One Sunday — it was Ascension day — he went to the village church and heard the choir sing the Hallelujah Chorus from "The Messiah." Here was music that benumbed the senses and soothed the soul and, boy as he was, he felt its supreme beauty. That night he covered pages of ruled paper with impossible pot-hooks. He, too, would write music!
Later on the difficulties of thorough-bass, as it was taught in the abysmal German text-books of the time, somewhat dampened his ardor, but more than once during his youth he thought seriously of becoming a musician. His first really ambitious composition was a piano piece called "Mondschein auf der Pussta" — "Moonlight on the Pussta" — the pussta being the flat Bohemian prairie. The family circle was delighted with this maiden opus, and we may conjure up a picture of little Friedrich playing it of a quiet evening at home, while mother, grandmother, sister and aunts gathered round and marvelled at his genius. In later life he wrote songs and sonatas, and — if an enemy is to be believed — an opera in the grand manner. His sister, in her biography, prints some samples of his music. Candor compels the admission that it is even worse than it sounds.
Nietzsche, at this time, still seemed like piety on a monument, but as much as he revered his elders and as much as he relied upon their infallibility, there were yet problems which assailed him and gave him disquiet. When he did not walk and think alone, his sister was his companion, and to her he opened his heart, as one might to a sexless, impersonal confessor. In her presence, indeed, he really thought aloud, and this remained his habit until the end of his life. His mind, awakening, wandered beyond the little world hedged about by doting and complacent women. Until he entered the gymnasium — that great weighing place of German brains — he shrank from open revolt, and even from the thought of it, but he could not help dwelling upon the mysteries that rose before him. There were things upon which the scriptures, search them as he might, seemed to throw no light, and of which mothers and grandmothers and maiden aunts did not discourse. "One day," says Elizabeth, "when he was yet very young, he said to me: 'You mustn't expect me to believe those silly stories about storks bringing babies. Man is a mammal and a mammal must get his own children for himself.'" Every child, perhaps, ponders such problems, but in the vast majority knowledge must wait until it may enter fortuitously and from without. Nietzsche did not belong to the majority. To him ideas were ever things to be sought out eagerly, to be weighed calmly, to be tried in the fire. For weal or for woe, the cornerstones of his faith were brought forth, with sweat and pain, from the quarry of his own mind.
Nietzsche went to various village schools — public and private — until he was ten, dutifully trudging away each morning with knapsack and lunch-basket. He kissed his mother at the gate when he departed and she was waiting for him, with another kiss, when he returned. As happiness goes, his was probably a happy childhood. The fierce joy of boyish combat — of fighting, of robbing, of slaying — was never his, but to a child so athirst for knowledge, each fresh discovery — about the sayings of Luther, the lions of Africa, the properties of an inverted fraction — must have brought its thrill. But as he came to the last year of his first decade, unanswerable questions brought their discontent and disquiet — as they do to all of us. There is a feeling of oppression and poignant pain in facing problems that defy solution and facts that refuse to fit into ordered chains. It is only when mastery follows that the fine stimulation of conscious efficiency drowns out all moody vapors.
When Nietzsche went to the gymnasium his whole world was overturned. Here boys were no longer mute and hollow vessels, to be stuffed with predigested learning, but human beings whose approach to separate entity was recognized. It was possible to ask questions and to argue moot points, and teaching became less the administration of a necessary medicine and more the sharing of a delightful meal. Your German school-master is commonly a martinet, and his birch is never idle, but he has the saving grace of loving his trade and of readily recognizing true diligence in his pupils. History does not record the name of the pedagogue who taught Nietzsche at the Naumburg gymnasium, but he must have been one who ill deserved his oblivion. He fed the eager, inquiring mind of his little student and made a new boy of him. The old unhealthy, uncanny embodiment of a fond household's impossible dreams became more likeable and more human. His exclusiveness and fastidiousness were native and ineradicable, perhaps, for they remained with him, in some degree, his whole life long, but his thirst for knowledge and yearning for disputation soon led him to the discovery that there were other boys worth cultivating: other boys whose thoughts, like his own, rose above misdemeanor and horse-play. With two such he formed a quick friendship, and they were destined to influence him greatly to the end of his youth. They organized a club for mutual culture, gave it the sonorous name of "Der litterarischen Vereinigung Germania" ("The German Literary Association") and drew up an elaborate scheme of study. Once a week there was a meeting, at which each of the three submitted an essay or a musical composition to the critical scrutiny of the others. They waded out into the deep water. One week they discussed "The Infancy of Nations," and after that, "The Daemonic Element in Music," "Napoleon III" and "Fatalism in History." Despite its praiseworthy earnestness, this program causes a smile — and so does the transformation of the retiring and well-scrubbed little Nietzsche we have been observing into the long, gaunt Nietzsche of 14, with a yearning for the companionship of his fellows, and a voice beginning to grow comically harsh and deep, and a mind awhirl with unutterable things.
Nietzsche was a brilliant and spectacular pupil and soon won a scholarship at Pforta, a famous and ancient preparatory academy not far away. Pforta, in those days, was of a dignity comparable to Eton's or Harrow's. It was a great school, but tradition overpowered it. Violent combats between amateur sages were not encouraged: it was a place for gentlemen to acquire Euclid and the languages in a decent, gentlemanly way, and not an arena for gawky country philosophers to prance about in. But Nietzsche, by this time, had already become a frank rebel and delighted in elaborating and controverting the doctrines of the learned doctors. He drew up a series of epigrams under the head of "Ideen" ["Ideas"] and thought so well of them that he sent them home, to astonish and alarm his mother. Some of them exhibited a quite remarkable faculty for pithy utterance — as, for example, "War begets poverty and poverty begets peace" — while others were merely opaque renderings of thoughts half formed. He began to believe in his own mental cunning, with a sincerity which never left him, and, as a triumphant proof of it, he drew up a series of syllogisms designed to make homesickness wither and die. Thus he wrestled with life's problems as his boy's eyes saw them.
All this was good training for the philosopher, but to the Pforta professors it gave disquiet. Nietzsche became a bit too sure of himself and a bit too arrogant for discipline. It seemed to him a waste of time to wrestle with the studies that every oafish baron's son and future guardsman sought to master. He neglected mathematics and gave himself up to the hairsplitting of the Eleatics and the Pythagoreans, the Sophists and the Skeptics. He pronounced his high curse and anathema upon geography and would have none of it. The result was that when he went up for final examination he writhed and floundered miserably and came within an ace of being set down for further and more diligent labor with his books. Only his remarkable mastery of the German language and his vast knowledge of Christian doctrine — a legacy from his pious childhood — saved him. The old Nietzsche — the shrinking mother's darling of Naumburg — was now but a memory. The Nietzsche that went up to Bonn was a young man with a touch of cynicism and one not a little disposed to pit his sneer against the jurisprudence of the world: a young man with a swagger, a budding moustache and a head full of violently novel ideas about everything under the sun.
Excerpted from Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche by H. L. Mencken. Copyright © 2003 Charles Q. Bufe. Excerpted by permission of See Sharp Press.
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Meet the Author
H. L. Mencken was a journalist in the first half of the 20th century, reporting on social and political matters such as the Scopes Trial. He was the editor of The Smart Set and The American Mercury and the author of over two dozen books, including The American Language, Happy Days, Newspaper Days, and Heather Days. He was also the translator of Nietzsche's The Anti-Christ.
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