The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche

by H.L. Mencken

cover art for <i>The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche</i>, by H.L. Mencken

Introduction by Charles Bufe

The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche was the first book ever to appear in English on the German philosopher, and H.L. Mencken's second real book. It seems entirely appropriate that the topic of one of the earliest books by the foremost iconoclastic journalist of the first half of the twentieth century was the foremost iconoclastic philosopher of the latter half of the nineteenth century. Indeed, this seems a natural match given the many similarities between the two.

Mencken, however, was originally reluctant to write this book, and did so only at the urging of his then-publisher, John W. Luce. But once he had begun writing, Mencken dove into the project with characteristic energy. He read Nietzsche's entire works, mostly in the original German, and wrote this book in under a year, all the while working full time for The Baltimore Sun.

One can only imagine Mencken's growing excitement as he plowed through Nietzsche, while becoming increasingly aware of the similarity of many of Nietzsche's beliefs to his own, and his recognition of Nietzsche as a kindred spirit. Indeed the parallels between Mencken and Nietzsche are striking; and many were not yet fully apparent when Mencken wrote this book at age 27.

Similarities Between Nietzsche and Mencken

Both Mencken and Nietzsche came from German professional-class families. One of Mencken's earliest-known ancestors was a Lutheran clergyman, and the bulk of his ancestors were lawyers, academics, and, later, businessmen. Nietzsche's ancestry was less varied; it consisted of an unbroken string of Lutheran clergymen for two centuries on his mother's side, and three generations of Lutheran clergymen on his father's side. An additional family similarity is that the fathers of both Mencken and Nietzsche died while they were young—Mencken's when he was a very young adult, and Nietzsche's when he was a small child. The mothers of both then became the focus of their respective families, and both Mencken and Nietzsche lived with their mothers for extended periods as adults. (In Nietzsche's case, this was after his mental breakdown.) In both Mencken and Nietzsche, this professional-class family background manifested itself as incomprehension of, and a near-total lack of respect for, the lower economic classes.

One rather odd parallel between both Mencken and Nietzsche is that both were obsessed with health, and could fairly be called hypochondriacs. Mencken was so obsessed with his health that he even kept a detailed, long-running journal outlining his aches and pains. But both men, paradoxically, abused their health, Nietzsche through consistent overwork (though he did spend considerable time at health spas), and Mencken through drinking, smoking, lack of exercise, and a heavy German-American diet.

Still another similarity between Mencken and Nietzsche is that both were work-obsessed, prolific writers. In addition to writing several million words for newspapers and magazines, Mencken was the author of over two dozen books. Nietzsche, in his much shorter writing career, wrote over a dozen books, and his collected writings in various editions run to between 18 and 20 volumes.

It seems natural enough, given their obsession with work, that both men were relatively solitary. Nietzsche never married, and Mencken was only married for five of his 75 years, and then to a woman with severe health problems, whose early demise was foreseeable. The difference here is that Nietzsche (who was not well off, was obscure, and was sick much of his life) never married because of lack of opportunity, while Mencken (who was rich, famous, and had a large number of attractive potential partners, including movie stars) married only briefly out of choice. One outgrowth of this lack of intimate female companionship was that friendships with other men were uncommonly important to both Mencken and Nietzsche, with both spending a great deal of their social time with male friends.

Yet another similarity between the two men is that both were philologists, Nietzsche by profession, and Mencken as an "amateur." Ironically, Nietzsche's only philological book, The Birth of Tragedy, met with a very hostile response, especially among his academic colleagues, while Mencken's sole philological work, his massive The American Language (counting the two lengthy supplements as continuations of the original work), met with near-universal praise in newspapers and periodicals, and even among academics, who had been, as a class, regular targets of his scorn.

In terms of attitudes and beliefs, Mencken and Nietzsche shared many. Both were confirmed rationalists and materialists. Both were strong advocates of individualism. Both were deeply opposed to Christianity. Both held somewhat misogynistic views. And both were firm believers in a "natural" caste system.

This last was perhaps the result of their relatively privileged backgrounds, and the resultant desire to justify their privilege. (While Nietzsche was not well off as an adult, he had a middle-class background and had an ample [for a single person] pension from the university where he had taught.) In Nietzsche's case, his belief in a caste system was based on the concept that some individuals are naturally superior to others, and should therefore be in the upper caste. Mencken's idealized caste system was cruder; it was simple Social Darwinism—as exemplified, for example, in his praise of Theodore Roosevelt in Chapter 16 of this book. Of course, both Mencken and Nietzsche believed themselves superior and therefore members of the upper caste.

Differences Between Nietzsche and Mencken

There are, however, major differences between Nietzsche and Mencken. Nietzsche was probably less confused about the difference between natural superiority and socioeconomic class than Mencken. Nietzsche believed that members of the lower classes who demonstrated their superiority should be admitted to the upper caste, and conversely that members of the upper caste who failed to demonstrate their superiority should descend to the lower classes, though he sometimes confused the naturally superior with the existing ruling class. As mentioned above, Mencken, whose father was the owner of both a factory and a professional baseball team, was a believer in Social Darwinism—the doctrine that the rich are rich precisely because they are smarter and/or harder working than the poor.

A more marked difference between the two men was that Mencken was a germanophile, while Nietzsche was a germanophobe, even to the point of denying his German background and claiming that he was a Pole.

Another difference—and one that will surprise many—was that Mencken was, arguably, anti-semitic, while Nietzsche despised anti-semites. Consider the following statement from Mencken's introduction to his translation of Nietzsche's The Anti-Christ:

On the Continent, the day is saved by the fact that the plutocracy tends to become more and more Jewish. Here the intellectual cynicism of the Jew almost counterbalances his social unpleasantness. If he is destined to lead the plutoctacy of the world out of Little Bethel he will fail, of course, to turn it into an aristocracy—i.e., a caste of gentlemen—but he will at least make it clever, and hence worthy of consideration. The case against the Jews is long and damning; it would justify ten thousand times as many pogroms as now go on in the world. But whenever you find a Davidsbündlerschaft making practise against the Philistines, there you will find a Jew laying on. Maybe it was this fact that caused Nietzsche to speak up for the children of Israel quite as often as he spoke against them. He was not blind to their faults, but when he set them beside Christians he could not deny their general superiority. Perhaps in America and England, as on the Continent, the increasing Jewishness of the plutocracy, while cutting it off from all chance of ever developing into an aristocracy, will yet lift it to such a dignity that it will at least deserve a certain grudging respect.
This strange statement, despite its comment about the "general superiority" of Jews in contrast to Christians, is, overall, indisputably anti-semitic.

It would be a mistake, however, to tag Mencken as a simple anti-semite. Many of his closest friends and business associates were Jews (including his long-time publisher, Alfred A. Knopf); he attacked anti-semitic discrimination publicly; and he provided physical assistance to Jews fleeing Hitler.

Nietzsche's attitude toward Jews and anti-semites was more straightforward. While he attacked Jews for their "slave-morality," he also attacked Christians for precisely the same reason. And he hated anti-semites. One close-to-home example of this is that he refused to attend the wedding of his sister to the notorious anti-semite, Bernhard Förster. As well, one of the reasons for his split with Richard Wagner was Wagner's anti-semitism. One might also mention that, following his breakdown, he wrote that all anti-semites should be shot.

Misuse of Nietzsche

Given his disgust with anti-semites, it's very ironic that Nietzsche has been so misused by them, by men and women whom he would have despised. A large part of the blame for this lies with his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who was Nietzsche's literary executor and biographer, and who shared her husband's anti-semitism. Not only did she misrepresent Nietzsche, but late in life she gladly lent Nietzsche's name to the Nazi cause. Thus it's not terribly surprising that a great many of those who, for instance, have seen the photo of Hitler posing by a bust of Nietzsche at the Nietzsche Museum have come to the conclusion that Nietzsche shared Hitler's anti-semitism and political views. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and it's highly probable that Nietzsche would have outright hated Hitler. An additional reason for thinking that this is so is that Nietzsche despised the German Reich, which was being consolidated by Bismarck during Nietzsche's adult years.

But the mistaken impression that Nietzsche was a Nazi precursor lingers, and probably will for decades to come. It's a useful myth for both left-wing and right-wing totalitarians who wish to confuse Nietzsche's strident individualism with anti-semitism and Nazism.

At the same time, it must be admitted that many portions of Nietzsche's writings lend themselves to misinterpretation. This is particularly true of his writings on the Superman. The very word seems to conjure up images of blond-haired, blue-eyed Hitler Youth and goose-stepping stormtroopers. But what Nietzsche had in mind was very different: a being who has abandoned crippling Christian "slave-morality," who has full mastery over himself and always acts in his own interests, who looks at the world as it is, free of illusions and irrational beliefs, and who says a triumphant "yes!" to life. In short, Nietzsche's Superman is very much his own man, and is the antithesis of the slavish, blind follower of Hitler.

But again, it must be emphasized that part of the responsibility for the misinterpretation of his works lies with Nietzsche himself. Unfortunately, he repeatedly ignored the maxim, "Good writers have two things in common: they prefer being understood to being admired, and they do not write for the critical and overly shrewd reader." Nietzsche was a fine stylist, and seemingly couldn't resist a good turn of phrase or play on words—sometimes to the detriment of clarity of meaning. He was also prone to hyperbole and often wrote for effect, especially to shock. (Large portions of The Anti-Christ, notably the concluding section, are good illustrations of this.) All this lends itself to misinterpretation.

So, Nietzsche is not entirely blameless for the misuse of his works. If George Orwell's dictum is correct—that political (and by extension philosophical) writing should be as clear as a pane of glass—then Nietzsche's writing fails the test in many places. If his writing were clearer, there would be no need for the numerous exegetic Nietzsche texts, no need for books such as What Nietzsche Really Said. (In contrast, there's no need for exegetic texts for philosophers such as Bertrand Russell; if one wants to know what Russell meant, all one needs to do is read his works—Russell's meaning is almost always plain. Because of this, one cannot imagine Russell's writings being misused by, for instance, anti-semitic cretins; and one cannot imagine a book titled What Bertrand Russell Really Said.)

Still, this has not stopped many of Nietzsche's defenders from trying to exculpate him entirely. Some even attempt to present his failings as virtues. A good example of this can be found in the generally quite useful What Nietzsche Really Said, in the section in which the authors attempt to dismiss the contradictions in Nietzsche's writings: "What sounds like a contradiction is actually a sign of our ongoing engagement with reality." By this, they apparently mean that because Nietzsche's meaning is sometimes unclear, the reader will be forced to think through the contradictory ideas Nietzsche at times presents—thus lack of clarity and self-contradiction become, in their view, a virtue.

Another example of apologetics is provided by noted Nietzsche translator and biographer Walter Kaufmann in his otherwise admirable The Portable Nietzsche:

Doubtless Nietzsche has attracted crackpots and villains, but perhaps the percentage is no higher than in the case of Jesus. As [Jacques] Maritain has said: "If books were judged by the bad uses man can put them to, what book has been more misused than the Bible?"

This defense of Nietzsche is at least as suspect as the sophistic claim that contradictions are "sign[s] of our ongoing engagement with reality." In the first place, has the Bible really been misused? While it is a mishmash of myth, history, absurdities, contradictions, and mind-numbingly dull recitations of genealogy, it's also extremely difficult to read numerous passages, including Exodus 22:18 ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live") and Leviticus 20:15 ("And if a man lie with a beast, he shall surely be put to death: and ye shall slay the beast"), as anything other than direct incitements to murder. (One might add that the sentence imposed in the latter verse seems manifestly unfair to the poor, sexually abused beast.)

And even granting the dubious proposition that the Bible has been "misused," is this a point in its favor? If a book can be easily misinterpreted so as to justify mass murder and mayhem, is this a point for or against it?

The same applies to Nietzsche. Again, one can only wish that Nietzsche had consistently followed the useful maxim concerning " being understood [rather than] being admired" and not writing "for the critical and overly shrewd reader."

In contrast to the above apologetics, Mencken is on occasion refreshingly critical of Nietzsche. On pages 85 and 86 of this volume, he attacks as an "imbecile flight of speculation" Nietzsche's comments (most notably in The Anti-Christ) that the Jews "revenged" themselves by imposing their "slave-morality" upon their masters; and on page 95 he attacks Nietzsche's "atheistic determinism," pointing out that if Nietzsche really believed in determinism he would never have bothered to attempt to convince anyone of anything, let alone spent his precious energy writing polemical books.

Problems in Mencken's Interpretation of Nietzsche

Unfortunately, Mencken almost certainly has contributed to the misunderstanding of Nietzsche's position on a number of issues, including race and class. While Nietzsche believed that naturally superior individuals could arise from any race and any economic class, Mencken's remarks on race in this volume, and his Social Darwinism, could easily lead readers to conclude the opposite; given that Mencken's comments are made in the context of a book explaining Nietzsche, readers could easily conclude that Nietzsche's views coincide with Mencken's, when in fact they do not. To cite the worst example of Mencken's racist remarks, on page 99, he states:
The history of the hopelessly futile and fatuous effort to improve the negroes of the Southern United States by education affords one such proof [of it being "necessary" that there be "a class content to obey without fear or question"]. It is apparent, on brief reflection, that the negro, no matter how much he is educated, must remain, as a race, in a condition of subservience; that he must remain the inferior of the stronger and more intelligent white man so long as he retains racial differentiation.
No attempt to sugar coat this statement can hide the fact that it is outright racist (as are Mencken's statements on pages 120 and 165). One could search Nietzsche's entire works and find nothing even vaguely similar to these loathsome comments. The only remotely comparable remarks he makes are in regard to Germans, and there Nietzsche's disgust is clearly cultural, not racial, in nature.

At the same time, one should recognize that Mencken's remarks were not made in a vacuum—that he lived in an openly racist time, one in which even some of the most progressive writers wrote shockingly racist passages. Examples here include Max Nordau, a co-founder of the World Zionist Organization and author of the in-many-ways revolutionary Conventional Lies of Our Civilization. In another major work, The Interpretation of History, Nordau made blatantly racist remarks about Asians. And in his famous muckraking novel, The Jungle (published in book form two years prior to The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche), Upton Sinclair wrote extended racist passages concerning strike-breaking "big buck negroes with daggers in their boots." It's an indication of the temper of the times that prior to the publication of his book, Sinclair's racist descriptions of blacks were published in the socialist quarterly One-Hoss Philosophy, when it serialized the unexpurgated version of The Jungle in 1905, with apparently nary a word of protest from staff or readers. It's also worthy of note that Sinclair's most pointed political commentary was censored out, but the racist passages remained, when The Jungle was published in truncated book form in 1906 by Doubleday, Page, a major commercial publishing house.

It's also well to point out that Mencken apparently outgrew his early racism, at least in part, and later championed black writers in his influential magazine, American Mercury. And he attacked racists in his later writings. But he also continued to make racist comments throughout his life, "demonstrating that bizarre combination of tolerance and racial insensitivity he was always to display."

Mencken contributed to misunderstanding of Nietzsche in other ways as well. On page 58, he describes him as an "anarchist," a label which Nietzsche certainly would have violently disavowed. In fact, Nietzsche loathed anarchists, as is obvious from his remarks in sections 57 and 58 of The Anti-Christ, in which, incredibly, he equates them with Christians.

Mencken does, however, provide some slight justification for his labeling of Nietzsche as an anarchist, though his comments are more revealing of his own beliefs than of Nietzsche's:

Ideal anarchy, in brief, would insure the success of those men who were wisest mentally and strongest physically, and the race would make rapid progress. . . . [So,] Nietzsche was an anarchist—in the true meaning of that much-bespattered word . . . (p. 58)
Mencken is almost certainly correct that "ideal anarchy" would provide the best possible society in which Nietzsche's Superman could arise, but one would search Nietzsche's works in vain for anything approaching a similar assessment.

In fact, Nietzsche, has remarkably little to say about the political, economic, and social conditions under which his Superman could arise. He apparently hoped that his ideas would gradually gain acceptance, and that members of the lower classes who failed to excel would voluntarily accept their roles supporting his highest (Superman) class, or perhaps that the highest class would become aware of its superiority and impose his caste system on the lower classes.

To put it kindly, this reveals a remarkable political naïvete. In the long, sordid history of states and governments, no ruling class has ever given up its power to those it considers more enlightened. All hypocritical, self-serving rhetoric about "serving the nation" aside, the purpose of statecraft has always been to grab power by any means at hand, to use it to strengthen oneself and one's backers at the expense of everyone else, and to hang onto power by any means necessary. As long as governments and ruling classes exist, it seems highly unlikely that this will change—ever.

As well, as should be obvious, the creation and maintenance of a ruling class based (as all ruling elites are) on brute force, coercion, indoctrination, and deceit—and, of course, a very unequal distribution of wealth and income—creates an atmosphere in which it is very difficult for even the most gifted members of the lower economic classes to rise. At the same time, those few "naturally superior" individuals in the ruling class often spend so much of their time grubbing for money (they never seem to think they have enough) and maneuvering to retain power, that their true talents never emerge. In fact, under the present hierarchical system, a parasitocracy has arisen in which the mediocre, sub-mediocre, and even the grotesquely unfit flourish (at least economically) at the expense of the more able.

To put this another way, Nietzsche's political position is markedly romantic (ironically so, given that he considered himself a hard-headed realist) in that he feels that people should move freely between his intellectual classes, and that the ablest should rise to the top, but he provides no mechanism for this; and he ignores the fact that those in positions of privilege and power always try to retain those positions (or at least pass them on to hand-picked successors, who are often their relatives).

As long as authoritarian political, social, and economic relations continue, Nietzsche's caste system, with the ablest on top, will remain a pipe dream. The only system in which the "naturally superior" will inevitably rise is one with equal opportunity from birth. This means a system in which all have equal or near-equal access to resources; and it also means a system in which there is no government wielding coercive power (that is, there is no privileged, power-wielding class). To put this succinctly, this means an anarchist society.

So, Mencken was nearly right. Nietzsche should have been an anarchist, but he wasn't. If he really wanted to see his Superman ideal become reality, and if he'd had any real understanding of political power relationships, he probably would have been an anarchist—if he could have rid himself of his class prejudices.

And those he had in plenty, as did Mencken. Both had a distaste for the lower economic classes and held them responsible for their degraded condition, conceding not a whit that their degradation had anything to do with economic privation, poor education, poor medical care, racism, and lack of opportunity. For Nietzsche, the lower economic classes were simply the "chandala," beasts of burden who were draft animals precisely because of their unfitness. Further, Nietzsche actually imagined that working class people would happily accept their lot if not for the agitation of socialists and other riffraff urging them to seek "revenge." It's a mark of how much his privileged background and immersion in academia as a young adult (and subsequent pensioner status) isolated Nietzsche from the realities of working-class life that he could actually speak, in all seriousness, of "the workingman's instincts, his pleasure, his feeling of contentment with his petty existence." (The Anti-Christ, section 57)

This is very unfortunate in that Nietzsche's class prejudice crops up quite frequently in his writings and has so contaminated his concept of the Superman that the real meaning of the term (see above) has been largely obscured. He (and Mencken) shift back and forth, confusing the "naturally superior" with those at the top of the present socioeconomic heap, whose "superiority" normally consists only of inherited wealth and the power and privileges that go with it.

For his part, Mencken is even more explicitly class prejudiced that Nietzsche. In the concluding chapter of this book, his contempt could hardly be more obvious:

For one thing, there is the business of keeping the lower castes in health. They themselves are too ignorant and lazy to manage it, and therefore it must be managed by their betters. When we appropriate money from the public funds to pay for vaccinating a horde of negroes, we do not do it because we have any sympathy for them or because we crave their blessings, but simply because we don't want them to be falling ill of smallpox in our kitchens and stables, to the peril of our own health and the neglect of our necessary drudgery. (p. 165)
Needless to say, this prejudice does nothing to aid Mencken in accurately describing the characteristics of Nietzsche's Superman—characteristics already muddled by Nietzsche's own class prejudice and his confusion of the present ruling class with the "naturally superior."

There are still other places where Mencken is off the mark in his description of Nietzsche and his ideas. One of the most obvious—though one for which Mencken is entirely blameless—is in his discussion of Nietzsche's insanity. Virtually all Nietzsche scholars today attribute Nietzsche's insanity to a case of syphilis contracted during his student days. Mencken could not possibly have known of this.

Another, more important, place in which Mencken's description of Nietzsche is incorrect is in his equation of Schopenhauer's "will" (to live) with Nietzsche's "will to power":

Now, this will to continue living [Schopenhauer's "will"], if we are to accept words at their usual meaning, is plainly identical, in every respect, with Nietzsche's will to power. Therefore, Nietzsche's amendment was nothing more than the coinage of a new phrase to express an old idea. (p. 37)
Mencken is dead wrong here. Nietzsche expressed his "will to power" concept as follows: "[W]here there is struggle, it is struggle for power." And there is a difference between "power" and mere survival. In fact, the difference between the two is crucial, and Nietzsche formulated his "will to power" concept in large part because he considered the "will" (to live) concept inadequate to explain human behavior. To put this briefly, Schopenhauer asserted that the foundation of human behavior is the drive for simple survival, while Nietzsche posited that human behavior is rooted in the drive to exert control over oneself and one's environment—the "will to power." This explains certain actions—such as heroic actions in battle that lead, foreseeably, to the hero's death—which would be inexplicable under Schopenhauer's simpler "will" (to live) doctrine.

Like the Superman concept, "will to power" has been woefully misunderstood, and not by Mencken alone. All too often, it's been misinterpreted as meaning power over others (a mistake Mencken also makes—see page 61), whereas Nietzsche intended it to mean power over the environment and power over oneself. Robert Solomon and Kathleen Higgins explain this matter well in What Nietzsche Really Said:

[T]he word Nietzsche uses is Macht, not Reich, and thus might better be understood as personal strength rather than political power. It does not mean "power" in the nasty, jackbooted sense . . . The term means something like effective self-realization and expression.

The Strengths of Mencken's Interpretation of Nietzsche

That Mencken made mistakes in his interpretation of Nietzsche is hardly surprising. He wrote this book in 1907, and it was the first book on Nietzsche ever to appear in English. (Translations of a few of Nietzsche's works had been published before Mencken wrote The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, but no book on Nietzsche had yet appeared.) So, Mencken had to rely nearly entirely on his own reading of Nietzsche when he wrote this interpretive work.

Thus, it's surprising that this book is so good, that it's so accurate in many respects. To cite two of the most important (among the many) matters he explains correctly, Mencken gives a good account of Nietzsche's theory of drama, and the tension between the "Apollonian" and "Dionysian" approaches underlying it, that Nietzsche posited in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy—a tension that he refers to again and again in his later works. And Mencken's account of Nietzsche's concept of "eternal recurrence" is also quite perceptive and accurate.

But it is in his lengthy treatment of Nietzsche's views on Christianity that Mencken is at his best. (One suspects that this is in part due to Mencken's being in full agreement with Nietzsche's attacks on that "slave" religion.) He treats at length and explains well many points of Nietzsche's critique, including Nietzsche's assertions that Christian "chandala" slave-morality has led to acquiescence to evil and to lack of individual striving, and that Christianity discourages the development and use of the logical faculties, with dire social consequences.

In terms of writing style, Mencken had not yet hit full stride when he wrote The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, though flashes of his later brilliance sparkle within these pages. Given his youth when he wrote this book, and that he had essentially no preceding texts to rely on, save Nietzsche's own works, this book remains an impressive accomplishment nearly a century after Mencken wrote it. It is a pioneering work in two ways: 1) as the first interpretive work on Nietzsche ever to appear in English, it has historical significance in its own right; and 2) as one of the first books by Mencken, it helped to provide the foundation for the writing career of the most important American journalist of the first half of the twentieth century.

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