52 pages • 1 hour readFriedrich Nietzsche, Transl. H.L. Mencken
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Content Warning: The Antichrist and H.L. Mencken’s introduction contain multiple antisemitic phrases and idioms.
First published in America in 1918, American journalist and essayist H.L. Mencken’s translation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist—originally written in German and released as Der Antichrist in 1895—stood as the preeminent English version of the text for half a century. Mencken’s reprint helped the West reconcile with Nietzsche’s iconoclastic philosophies following the horrors of World War I, though it was no less controversial than it had been at the end of the 19th century. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche wields his philosophy in a full-force attack on Christianity and its effects on Western civilization, arguing for the eradication of Christian morality among the philosophical elite. This guide refers to the CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform paperback published in 2012.
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In the Introduction, H.L. Mencken reexamines the implications of Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Antichrist in the interwar years. During World War I, the Allied Powers decried Nietzsche’s iconoclasm, while the German Empire selectively embraced Nietzsche’s writings in their quest for nationalistic conquest and affirmation. In Mencken’s opinion, Nietzsche was misunderstood on both counts: Nietzsche’s anti-Christian sentiment never extended to the religion itself, as the work was consumed by common people, and he ultimately viewed nationalism as a foolish prospect. Nietzsche’s sole goal was to destroy adherence to Christian morality as it applied to his beloved philosophical elite, freeing them from the religion’s influences as modernity overtook Western civilization.
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Nietzsche opens The Antichrist with a dialogue between himself and Übermensch-like interlocutors (“supermen”) he calls “Hyperboreans”—named after a mythological northern people of infinite wisdom and youthful energy. He admits to not knowing these Hyperboreans’ names, or whether they still live, but believes they existed and will continue to appear throughout history—arising within any culture with philosophical capabilities that might lift entire nations or humanity as a whole towards a wiser existence.
Nietzsche blames Christianity for modernity’s failure (specifically the Enlightenment, technological progress, and the then-recent discovery of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution) to enhance the Hyperboreans’ capabilities. Christian metaphysics became increasingly irrelevant due to the scientific discoveries of the late 19th century—and yet Christian morality, which Nietzsche blames for the weakening of the Hyperborean spirit, remained as strong as ever. Western leaders still proudly pronounced their devotion to Christianity, with some of the most revered thinkers of the Enlightenment—such as Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer—grounding their moral views in Christian doctrines (even as they lauded advancements in science). Nietzsche seeks to divorce powerful minds such as Kant and Schopenhauer from their reliance on Christian morals, not simply by critiquing the essentialist nature of church doctrine, but by arguing that the doctrine itself is immoral.
The psychological drive that Nietzsche believes constitutes true morality is his famous will to power. This mental force, which he believes is present in all people but at its strongest in the Hyperboreans, constitutes an individual’s desire to overcome all external forces that lobby for influence in their mind to better access and execute their truest self. These “external forces” include all forms of morality that do not arise from the individual’s own discoveries, needs, and desires.
In Christianity, Nietzsche sees a way of thinking anathema to the will to power, far worse than any other religion or ideology. He specifically implicates Saint Paul the Apostle, whom he believes to be the first and most insidious of the Christian “theologians,” whose goal was to spread Christianity to as many cultures as possible—regardless of what evangelism would do to the quality of the faith itself. Nietzsche blames Paul for reorienting Christianity from Christ’s teachings to the nature of Christ’s death and resurrection. In doing so, Paul reoriented Christianity from reality to the supernatural.
By promising salvation beyond death to those who obey the word of Christ—which Nietzsche believes to be the work of priests—Christianity ultimately glorifies suffering as the only path to goodness. This pushes believers to seek out what is detrimental to their will to power. Nietzsche calls this counter-instinct decadence, accusing the Western world of comprising decadent nations and people.
To support his argument, Nietzsche compares Christianity to other religions—most notably, Judaism and Buddhism—the latter of which he praises for its attunement to reality. He openly exempts Christ from the worst of his critiques, believing that the historical Jesus had nothing to do with the corruption of his posthumous teachings, and compares the Bible unfavorably to the Hindu Manusmriti, which he judges to be superior—especially as a legal text.
At the end of his argument, Nietzsche calls upon the Hyperboreans to discard the chains of Christian morality to free their thoughts and attain their full potential. He recognizes that this may prelude drastic changes in society, postulating that even time itself will need to be upended to fully purge Christianity from the Western mindset.
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