Saturday, August 11, 2012

H. L. Mencken's Book on Nietzsche

 [ Originally written and posted on on   June 17, 2007  ]
    Mencken's Nietzsche
As a new addition to its paperback series, "The Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading," the firm of Barnes & Noble has reprinted H. L. Mencken's book, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, originally published in 1908 and, according to the description on the cover, "the first complete exposition of Nietzsche's thought written in English."  Looking at the bibliographical note which  Mencken appends to his book, that honor would seem to belong to Grace Neal Dolson, who published her own book, also entitled The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, in 1901.  Dolson's work is not in print, but it is available by searching her name in Google Book Search.  Mencken praises Dolson's work.
This first book by Mencken is written in the same readable and entertaining style that is characteristic of his later works.  Even the incomparable wit of Mencken appears, though still in its nascent stage.  Writing for the general reader, rather than scholars, Mencken is nonethless serious in his documentation of facts.  His explication of Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy is the most understandable one which I have read.  Also, his definitions of  Nietzschean terms, especially Apollonian and Dionysian, are concise and clear.  Moreover, Mencken shows how the Apollonian-Dionysian opposition reappears in subsequent works by Nietzsche.  To write his book, Mencken read Nietzsche in the original German, consulting few secondary sources, a noteworthy achievement.
While Mencken is obviously a sympathetic reader of Nietzsche, he does not shrink from offering a critique of some of Nietzsche's ideas.  Mencken finds incredible the Nietzschean theory that Christianity was a form of slave morality imposed by the Jews upon the Europeans:  "It is obvious that this idea is sheer lunacy.  That the Jews ever realized the degenerating effect of their own slave-morality is unlikely, and that they should take counsel together and plan such an elaborate and complicated revenge, is impossible.  The reader of Nietzsche must expect to encounter such absurdities now and then. . . . sometimes the traditional German tendency to indulge in wild and imbecile flights of speculation cropped up in him."
"The Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading" has many titles worthy of being read and read again.  In addition to the major works of Nietzsche, the series includes two titles which are excellent starting points for anyone seeking to begin a general education:  H. G. Wells's The Outline of History, in two volumes, and Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary.  Wells and Voltaire were both leading liberal thinkers in the best sense of that term, champions of liberation in thought, but they are too often forgotten in this day when many people are ready to cast aside the whole literary product of those whom they dismiss as "DWEMs" (i.e. dead white European males).   (Lest anyone begins to wonder, I own no stock in Barnes & Noble.)



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