Mencken on the trifunctional hypothesis and its connection with race

Mencken’s views on intelligence, as we began to see at the end of the last post, were based on a belief in the biological reality of caste, which he took from an overliteral and superficial reading of Nietzsche. In his book on Nietzsche be explained his doctrine thus:

The order of castes,” said Nietzsche, ” is the dominating law of nature, against which no merely human agency may prevail. In every healthy society there are three broad classes, each of which has its own morality, its own work, its own notion of perfection and its own sense of mastery. The first class comprises those who are obviously superior to the mass intellectually ; the second includes those whose eminence is chiefly muscular, and the third is made up of the mediocre. The third class, very naturally, is the most numerous, but the first is the most powerful.

To this highest caste belongs the privilege of representing beauty, happiness and goodness on earth…. Its members accept the world as they find it and make the best of it. … They find their happiness in those things which, to lesser men, would spell ruin in the labyrinth, in severity toward themselves and others, in effort. Their delight is” self-governing: with them asceticism becomes naturalness, necessity, instinct. A difficult task is regarded by them as a privilege ; to play with burdens which would crush others to death is their recreation. They are the most venerable species of men. They are the most cheerful, the most amiable. They rule because they are what they are. They are not at liberty to be second in rank.

The second caste includes the guardians and keepers of order and security – the warriors, the nobles, the king above all, as the highest types of warrior, the judges and defenders of the law. They execute the mandates of the first caste, relieving the latter of all that is coarse and menial in the work of ruling.

At the bottom are the workers the men of handicraft, trade, agriculture and the greater part of art and science. It is the law of nature that they should be public utilities that they should be wheels and functions. The only kind of happiness of which they are capable makes intelligent machines of them. For the mediocre, it is happiness to be mediocre. In them the mastery of one thing i. e. specialism is an instinct.

Therefore, argued Nietzsche, the proper performance of the manual labor of the world makes it necessary that we have a laboring class, which means a class content to obey without fear or question. This doctrine brought down upon Nietzsche s head the pious wrath of all the world s humanitarians, but empiric experiment has more than once proved its truth. The history of the hopelessly futile and fatuous effort to improve the negroes of the Southern United States by education affords one such proof. 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. Therefore, the effort to educate him has awakened in his mind ambitions and aspirations which, in the very nature of things, must go unrealized, and so, while gaining nothing whatever materially, he has lost all his old contentment, peace of mind and happiness. Indeed, it is a commonplace of observation in the United States that the educated and refined negro is invariably a hopeless, melancholy, embittered and despairing man.

This doctrine is essentially a primitive form of the trifunctional hypothesis as formulated by Georges Dumézil. Mencken’s caste theory leans far too much towards an imagined biorealism that simply does not fit biological reality, and he seems to be more concerned with the effect of his intellectual-emotional gestures than with the accuracy of coherence of his thought.

Mencken tries to fit blacks into his tripartite scheme. This is a doubtful endeavor, as that scheme is on solid footing only in the Indo-European context. If we are to extend it, we must either be asserting that each people (blacks included) has its three castes, or that caste can be extended past the Indo-European context by speaking of some kind of spiritual essences. Mencken tries to do the latter while conflating these spiritual essences with his imagined biorealism. Unlike clearer thinkers we have seen (Schopenhauer comes to mind), he did not try to explain low black intelligence, but merely took is as a fact and tried to shoehorn it into his tripartite caste system. All this he expressed in his Men versus the Man:

Now, what I want to insist upon, in all this, is that the distinction I have described is the product, not so much of varying environment as of inborn differences. I admit freely enough that, by careful breeding, supervision of environment and education, extending over many generations, it might be possible to make an appreciable improvement in the stock of the American negro, for example, but I must maintain that this enterprise would be a ridiculous waste of energy, for there is a high-caste white stock ready to hand, and it is inconceivable that the negro stock, however carefully it might be nurtured, could ever even remotely approach it. The educated negro of to-day is a failure, not because he meets insuperable difficulties in life, but because he is a negro. His brain
is not fitted for the higher forms of mental effort; his ideals, no matter how laboriously he is trained and sheltered, remain those of the clown. He is, in brief, a low-caste man, to the manner born, and he will remain inert and inefficient until fifty generations of him have lived in civilization. And even then, the superior white race will be fifty generations ahead of him.

I have used the negro as an example because in him the inherited marks of the low-caste man are peculiarly conspicuous. In some of the European peasants who are now coming to America and particularly in those from Russia the same marks are to be seen. These peasants differ as much from the high-caste white man as a mustang differs from a Kentucky stallion, and this difference is the product, not of their actual environment, but of their forefathers’ environment through innumerable generations. They represent a step in the ladder of evolution below that of the civilized white man, and no conceivable change of environment could lift them to the top en masse, in a lifetime. Individuals of extraordinary capacity occasionally appear among them the naturalists call such abnormal individuals “sports” and pass over automatically and at once into some higher caste. But they can get no higher than a caste in which individuals fully equal to them are the rule instead of the exception; and the generality of their race must forever remain below.

Castes are not made by man, but by nature.

While some of the race realist opinions that Mencken held are indeed true, his attempts at theorizing race can be justly ignored as derivative and inferior.


About Pechorin

A Hero of Our Time
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