Note's on Nietzsche's Genealogy
A warning. There is much disagreement in Nietzsche scholarship. For example, some philosophers read him as often being ironic; these philosophers might then read The Genealogy of Morals as offering a kind of reductio ad absurdum of some of the claims he makes in that book. In these notes, I read Nietzsche "straight"--I do not interpret him as being ironic.
A Note on Some of Nietzsche's Common Themes
Nietzsche is not a systems-building philosopher. There are however some themes which unite his work and are common to much of it. These claims include:
- Nature is incomplete at least in the sense that it cannot alone provide purposes which are sufficient. Non-human animals are without worthy purposes, for example. Thus, from Schopenhauer as Educator:usually we fail to emerge out of animality, we ourselves are animals whose suffering seems to be senseless. (Hollingdale translation; 1997: 158)
- Some humans can create values which are worthy, in part by doing something uniquely human. Again, from Schopenhauer as Educator:man is necessary for the redemption of nature from the curse of the life of the animal, and... in him existence at last holds up before itself a mirror in which life appears no longer senseless but in its metaphysical signficance. (Hollingdale translation; 1997: 157)
- A special value would be to assert life -- even if your life were to repeat itself endlessly just as it is. That is, to be able to assert and endorse your life would be a triumph of a kind. (The man who creates ideals and can face the possibility of eternal return is the overman. Antithesis to the overman is the last man, who is comfortable with animal pleasures alone, and who does not bother to even care about these issues.)
- God is dead.
- Christianity is the morality of the slave: it degrades life and praises weakness.
- Democracy is like Christianity in being antithetical to the task of fostering the overman.
- Psychology is a fundamental science, and often our theories are expressions of unconscious motives and beliefs. Philosophical systems are often just expressions of the author's view, for example; and more often yet just expressions of the most pedestrian beliefs of one's time. (However, Nietzsche believes that philosophy has a great and important task: to create value. He only denigrates the idea tha philosophy is a rational, disinterested investigation of things, and also he denigrates philosophers who try to emulate scientists with their indifference to values.)
- The Will to Power is a fundamental drive that can explain much, perhaps all, human endeavors. This is a theme that Nietzsche does not do much to explain; he seems to have meant to work this out more but did not stay healthy long enough to do so.
Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals
Here, Nietzsche uses the term "genealogy" in its fundamental sense: an account (logos) of the genesis of a thing. He is going to offer a theory of the genesis of Christian morality, which he believes is also democratic morality.
His historical analysis is a radical attack on these morals, offering a kind of social and psychological account of why they arose, as a replacement for the Christian story of these ethics being grounded in the will of the Christian god. Nietzsche has an alternative theory of value, which is only implicit in this book, and arises from his views about the will to power. We will discuss this.
Note that Christians, and nearly all if not all theists, tend to implicitly accept what I have called Foundationalism about Purpose. The character of Ivan in Doestoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov expresses this sentiment clearly when he says that if (the Christian) God does not exist, then "all is lawful," by which he means that any old purpose will count as well as any other (which may, given some understandings of "purpose," be just to deny that there are purposes).
In these notes, and in the notes I write on other philosophers and artists, I will save time by sometimes taking N's point of view. This is not an endorsement of his view, but rather a shorthand way to avoid having to write "Nietzsche says..." a thousand times.
First Essay1. The English psychologists are perhaps men like Hobbes and Hume; or, since he is mentioned later in the book, Herbert Spencer. All these philosophers share that they wrote on the origin of morality in terms of historical development.Second Essay
2. N argues the English psychologists have a genealogy of the good that claims our ancestors found some unegotistical acts useful to themselves, and then later "forgot" this self-referring aspect of the usefulness, and just began to call unegotistical acts good. N instead begins with the claim that the concept of good started not as a label for unselfish acts, but rather as a label of distinguishing the noble (in various senses) from those to which the nobles considered themselves superior (N seems to be willing to say, that nobles were in fact superior). It is a later development to associate good with unegotistical acts, and his genealogy is largely concerned to trace this development.
3. N claims the English psychologists' notion that our ancestors "forgot" the self-benefitting aspect of unselfish is ridiculous -- the benefit of an action must be present at all times in order for us to form the habit of calling that action good.
4. N was a philologist (a scholar of languages and their development) by training and (for a short while) by profession. He claims that the etymology of the many various cognates in different languages for "good" all reveal an origin in some notion of being aristocratic and noble. N believes this is compelling evidence for his central claim.
5. N goes on to give some examples of etymological and philological speculations. For example, dark can mean bad and lower in Italy, and blond in Gaelic meant noble and good, because (he claims) the conquerors and rulers of these places at one time were blond haired. (N does not appear to mean to endorse the idea here that being blond is good, but rather just claims that it is a historical fact that these places -- during the relevant period in the development of these terms like "Fin" -- were conquered by blond people.)
6. N admits that good has also included often the concept of pure. He argues that the early rulers, for which the ancestral concepts of our "good" first applied, were sometimes priests. Priests are, N claims here, a bad thing -- they transform rulers into inactive and unhealthy people. But they do also ask interesting questions, and have therefore some benefit (as N implicit understands benefit).
7. Historically, however, there is a split between priest and warrior, and the priests are weak and impotent. As a result, they are overwhelmed with resentment and hate. This resentment and hate was in some ways beneficial, since it generated or allowed for many social and cultural creations (I believe that N's point here is that without this resentful attack on the noble warriors, those noble warriors would have happily spent the next two thousand years jousting and fighting and so on, as opposed to developing other aspects of society like art). He sees the Jews as the victors in a great inversion of values. They were oppressed by warrior nobles (e.g., Romans), and they created the ultimatum revenge of convincing people that warrior nobles and their values were bad, and that being priestly and weak are good.
8. Jesus is the culmination of this inversion of values. The victory of Christianity is the ultimate revenge of the weak over the strong, the slave over the noble, the priestly over the warrior.
9. Christian churches are almost irrelevant now in the spread of this inverted morality, it is so pervasive.
10. "Ressentiment" is N's special or technical term for the resentful, spiteful morality of the slave. He argues that the resentful measure themselves always against others, especially against the nobles. They are reactive, and because they are impotent they harbor festering hatreds. Nobles instead, he claims, are so full of life and purpose that they don't have time to measure themselves against others. Nor do they harbor hatreds -- they act on insults immediately or are too busy accomplishing things to hold onto hatreds. (I find this section problematic. On the one hand, many of us know people who are full of energy and life and plans, and as a result are generous and never petty. Many of us know people who are petty and mean precisely because they really have no good purpose and are jealous of others who do. On the other hand, nobles -- and all human beings, one might suppose -- likely measure themselves against others. Consider: can there be a world where everyone is -- in N's sense of the word -- noble? If N's concept of nobility is essentially comparative, and the noble are those who are better than others, then the nobles are just as externally oriented as the resentful. What is unclear here is whether everyone can be noble -- and, to refer to another concept of Nietzsche's, whether everyone can be a super(wo)man. One way out of this problem for N might be to argue that the features that were recognized as noble are only contingently features of nobility, and rather arise from being independent, self-willed, autonomous, etc. Then they would be elitist features but not necessarily measured against others.)
11. The noble conceive only as an afterthought of "bad," and it plays a minor role in their view. The resentful develop the concept of evil, and it is essential to everything they do. Bad and evil are both the opposite of "good," but bad and evil are different. How is this? One notion of good is the noble. This was the old or original notion. "Bad" refers to its opposite. Another notion, the resentful or slave's notion of good, is weak, unselfish, unassertive. Its opposite is the noble (the other notion of good!), which the weak call "evil." N also argues that the noble are terrible when they leave the bounds of their own society. They are "blond beasts" (Kaufmann argued that Nietzsche meant by this term a lion): they rape, kill, despoil. But this does not mean that the resentful slave morality is beneficial because it cages this blond beast. Rather, we should be willing to live with danger in order to have something noble.
(Sympathetic philosophers have argued that Nietzsche sees the great artist as the best example of the new possible noble. If this is correct, it is unfortunate that his example here of allowing some alternative to a resentful culture is to allow the danger of raping, killing, and pillaging. It may be that Nietzsche's rhetorical style sacrifices precision for flourish and effect. However, in his notes published as The Will to Power, he seems more explicitly to endorse violence as a necessary feature of the great; furthermore, if we set aside the works on Wagner, Nietzsche's praise of warriors far, far outweighs his mention or praise of artists. This makes me suspicious of those who want to make Nietzsche seem nicer than he sounds.)
12. Nietzsche is aware that he will be accused of nihilism (since he denies the values that most hold dear). Here, he argues that there is a nihilism that is growing out of the culture that the resentful slaves have created. This culture suppresses the will to power that he believes creates values.
13. N believes that there is a confusion in much theorizing, in which we posit a reality behind appearance when it is unnecessary to do so. Also, he believes the strong man is the one who does things that require strength. The resentful claim instead that the strong man is capable of doing things that require strength, and can choose not to do them. This is a contradiction for N, but it also allows the resentful to claim that the strong choose to do the things that require strength, and therefore can be said to be accountable for those things. Also, they are thus allowing that they can call someone who never does anything strong, "strong." One might thus claim the weak are somehow "strong." N rejects this. Similarly, the weak adopt the false consciousness that their weakness is a merit. But really, to be weak is to be unable to do things requiring strength. How can this inability be a merit?
14. Nietzsche imagines a kind of festering dark basement of the collective unconscious, where in bad faith the resentful values are made. Here, weakness is called merit, inability to revenge is called forgiving, suffering is called bliss, subjection is called obedience, the longing for retaliation is called longing for justice, and the inability to create a better life here is assuaged with the claim that there is a better life after this one.
15. The gate to Dante's hell is inscribed, "I too was created by eternal love," meaning God's love created even hell, presumably for our benefit. Nietzsche claims the gate to heaven should read, "I too was created by eternal hate," since heaven and the victory of the Christian God over the strong is all the product of the hateful spite of the weak. As evidence of this claim, he offers a disturbing phrase from Saint Thomas: "the blessed in heaven will see the punishment of the damned in order that their bliss may be more great." He then quotes at great length from Tertullian. This passage from Tertullian is very striking in light of Nietzsche's earlier claims. We might, of course, doubt: that the passage is representative of Christian morality; whether Tertullian was a typical Christian; or that Tertullian had or otherwise was influenced by a resentful slave mentality. Tertullian's early writings, including this one, are widely considered by scholars of Catholicism to be orthodox, acceptable, important early Christian works.
16. The battle of the resentful and the noble is the battle of the Judaic heritage against the Romans, and the Romans lost.
17. Nietzsche's book prior to this one was Beyond Good and Evil, and we are to note here that this is not to say beyond good and bad (that is, not: beyond the noble and the ignoble), but rather beyond the resentful opposition of the weak (who call themselves "good") to the strong (which the weak call "evil").1. Humans are unique because they have the ability to plan for the future, and so to make promises. Related to this is having the ability to forget. Here N precedes Freud, and it is not hard to see why Freud greatly respected N: the idea of active forgetting is the predecessor to the Freud's idea of sublimation, of people actively suppressing parts of themselves (though I am not claiming N is a Freudian!).Third Essay
2. The arising of the ability to make promises required, N claims, a kind of predictability and regularity to human beings. Today, we express a similar notion by saying the evolution of social coordination requires the arising of certain conventions; driving on the right side of the road, for example. But then N goes farther: he argues that the free man is the one who doesn't just blindly follow conventions, but rather one who can chose to obey some norm or covenant. This makes some sense: there is no promise given in acting habitually. The smoker does not promise to smoke. But problematic is N's notion of "will." This is an essential part of Christian metaphysics, and N tries to seize and transmute it into a fundamental principle. I'm not sure how to reconcile it with his comments in Part I section 13 -- to be strong is to do strong things, not to have something that causes or "lies behind" those events, such as a strong will.
3. Conscience is the awareness by the free man of his will power and his "dominating instinct" (the drive of will to power). N sees a historical question in how conscience and the ability to keep promises arose. He speculates that pain is important to this, since pain helps us form memories -- we can read him here I think as saying something rather common-sensical: that pain conditions us. But he suggests also that a civilized society has then a history of pain and punishment. Today, prison and other punishments are "present realities," that is current threats, which are necessary to motivate the weak (the "slave of momentary affect [emotion] and desire").
4. We think today that people are punished because they could have done otherwise. But this is a late concept, N claims. Rather, punishment arose as a kind of economic-style exchange. One was hurt, and then paid back that hurt in kind.
5. But what is exchanged, what is the payment given, in recompense for some wrong? The wronged person gets to enjoy the pleasure of being cruel, arising from the pleasure of being (for a short while, perhaps) of seeming higher status than the sufferer.
6. All civilization is based on this principle, N claims. We enjoy seeing, and causing, suffering. It is essential to festival.
7. But N thinks our time, not the past in which cruelty was nakedly enjoyed, is the worse time. He sees in our time a dislike of life and living -- it seems here he means that in denouncing cruelty, since cruelty is part of life and civilization, we are denouncing living. (I find this unconvincing romanticism of the gladiatorial ring.) OK, so there is a part here that appears disgraceful. Kaufmann and others attempt vigorously to argue N is not a racist (few deny he was sexist). Here, N's defenders will likely say that he does not really endorse the view that he articulates regarding "negroes" as "representatives of prehistoric man." You judge.
We may not like suffering, but we feel compelled to give it sense. One classical way to do this was to interpret suffering as having purpose for the causer or viewer (it pleases them). For this reason, we invented the gods so that they observe every instance of suffering without a human viewer or cause, and thus make it sensible: it was caused or at least observed by a god.
8. N claims exchange, buying and selling, is the most primitive form of human interaction, and that other (later) forms are shaped by it if not sprung from it.
9, 10. Communities punish malefactors because they harm the community. But as communities grow more stable, they are less violent in this punishment, since they are less threatened by it. This is why punishments grow less severe over time. Mercy then in a sense transcend, is "beyond," the law.
11. Contrary to what some have argued, the law and punishment do not arise from ressentiment. The most lawful have been the strong, who are also people who most lack ressentiment. (One might suppose that N is thinking here of the ancient Romans.) Ressentiment does motivate anti-semites and anarchists. Justice arises after law.
12. This is a very rich section and much can be said about it. Ostensibly, it is about how we must separate the purpose of punishment from its origin. And Nietzsche's point here is very insightful: he observes that either a custom or an organ can have a purpose quite different than the purpose it originally (that is, first) served.
This is quite interesting because it appears that only much more recently has this kind of claim been well understood about evolution (I may be wrong, and would appreciate being set aright: was exaption widely recognized in N's time?). Our best biological theory of the bones in the mammal ear, for example, is that they were part of the jaw of a common ancestor. Pointing to these bones and saying that they are for chewing food (perhaps their original purpose) would be obviously to miss their purpose now. And N is making this very point -- although he is not concerned to defend or take this as part of evolutionary theory. His attack here on Herbert Spencer (a philosopher who tried to apply evolutionary theory very broadly, leading him to endorse for example eugenics) shows his impatience at least with the most simplistic kind of philosophical use of evolutionary theory.
Nietzsche sees this as part of the will to power. If we read N biologically, then this suggests an overlooked and very tidy interpretation of power (which is a very mysterious thing in Nietzsche). Power might be the name we (should) give to the state in which some purposes are subject to others. Thus, if Jones does the things he does because it serves the purposes of Smith (perhaps Jones is a slave, or is paid a wage), then Smith has power (over Jones) because it is his purposes, and not those of Jones, that are determining why the relevant activities occur. Something similar could be said for organs -- if the purpose of these special jaw bones was once to chew food, any such function it might have done is long subservient to the purpose of hearing. Power could then be defined as the ordered relation between purposes: those purposes which are fulfilled only to serve some other purpose are less powerful than those purposes they serve.
But N is not defending (at least, not here) a biological view. He insists that the will to power is a metaphysical principle (we can understand this to mean at least that the principle applies more broadly than any biological claims do -- for example, things other than the organisms studied in biology might exhibit the will to power). Later we will discuss Heidegger's lectures on Nietzsche. There, Heidegger reads the will to power as a fundamental feature of all Being (and Nietzsche sometimes says things like this).
I remain tempted to read this semi-biologically: the will to power might be some metaphysical, almost logical (by which I mean, having to do with the fundamental possible structure of things), principle -- but still best understood in biological terms. One might say, our universe is structured in such a way that complex things exhibit purposes (living things are the prime example), and these purposes can be related through relations of power, and that the will to power is the tendency of things with purposes to have also the purpose of having more power.
13. Punishment evolved as a social custom for many different reasons, and so today any justification of punishment is going to be ad hoc, coming along after the fact that we have this institution, and defending it with various made-up reasons. N gives a list of reasons that have been offered to justify punishment -- none is "right" or "best," he is arguing.
14. Punishment does not succeed (at least, not well) in instilling bad conscience, or the sense of guilt.
15. Punishments tames men.
16. Here N proposes ideas which, again, influenced (or miraculously predict) Freud. He supposes that our purposes which are suppressed by society still have a kind of force, and this force must "turn inward." This is what we now call the soul: the hostility we show to our own unsocial urges. (I find N's claims that this is unique unconvincing, however. Many kinds of social animals exist -- surely they all have inhibitions which exercise on them. Watch wolves to find many examples.)
17. N rejects contract theory as sentimental: the state began with "blond beasts," conquerors subjecting another people. The subjected retain their instinct for freedom, and they ultimately "discharge it" upon themselves through the bad conscience.
18. Something new arises out of this self-subjection, however. Artists treat themselves as something to be shaped. They assert their freedom through control over themselves. But selflessness then is the old delight in cruelty over others, turned now into delight in cruelty against one's self.
19-23. N offers some anthropological speculation. The ancients understood debt, and felt a debt that only grew for their ancestors. This debt ultimately is realized by seeing the ancestors as gods or God.
24-25. Here the hint of the Ubermensch, the overman, that N hopes will arise and which is discussed most extensively in Thus Spake Zarathustra. The overman will be able to escape the problems of theism while still asserting values (escaping nihilism).....
A Few Notes about the Will to Power, The Overman, Eternal Return, and the Aesthetic Reading of Nietzsche
The Genealogy is an accessible work by N, and one that is not too long to squeeze in before Being and Time, but it does leave unstated two important elements of N's thought: the concept of the will to power, of the Ubermensch, and of eternal return.
Before we turn to those, let me point out something useful that Heidegger (in his lectures on Nietzsche) observes, and that may be helpful if you read more Nietzsche. First, it is important to understand that Nietzsche often uses the term "truth" to mean the other "real" world that Plato and then Christianity posited. For Plato or a Christian, the everyday world is a kind of deception, and another immutable world that we fail to see is the true world. Nietzsche denies this, but he sometimes does so by saying that he rejects "truth." Second, Nietzsche sometimes uses the term "morality" in a similar way. It is not quite clear to me what Nietzsche's morality is, but he certainly is not rejecting the idea of morality in the broadest sense of the word (this we know, for example, because he accepts that there can be purpose, and some morals follow directly from any purpose). So, when he opposes "morality" he is rejecting Christian and related moralities, especially when they are based upon the idea of a "true" world behind this false world of appearance. He may also be rejecting anything like the traditional notions of morality, as complete and final sets of rules for living.
- Will to Power. Nietzsche's Theory of Value.
One of N's most difficult concepts is "will to power." He sees all of life as characterized by will to power -- by the seeking to realize goals and to dominate others if necessary to better realize these goals. Also, N often talks of this in biological terms -- he wants a "physiological" approach, he is fond of saying in his notes The Will to Power.
This will to power is not only essential to life, but it also is the source of all values. Values don't come from god (god is dead, N famously proclaimed) or from pleasure (N has infinite contempt for John Stuart Mill) or from another "true" world beyond this one or from any of the other places philosophers have argued it comes from. Rather, values are just the expression of will to power. Thus, if we are to have values, we must have and express our will to power.
Furthermore, Nietzsche believes that our current "morality" is false: it is the false cover we put on the will to power that we have which is primarily a fundamental biological drive. That is what we saw in N's history in The Geneology of Morals: the weak acted out of ressentiment, out of a desire to find some way to assert themselves over the great, and that is the source of Christianity and its ethics. This is crucial: before we can question N's ethic, before we can ask what does N offer in place of our ethics, we must recognize that he is not criticizing our ethics as inferior or otherwise flawed. He is rather saying our ethics is misleading. It does not require defense because no one in a position to properly defend it believes it or acts on it. Those who are moved by it are slaves -- those who made it, manipulators grasping for power.
The overman is the man who knows that will to power produces all our values, and sees also the lie in our "moralities," and aggressively seeks to express his will to power in a creative and novel way, creatin something uniquely personal, uniquely human, and which can give value to others. (I say "man" because N's sexism is so complete as to be ridiculous.) N clearly means that the overman will do great, unusual, difficult things. His ideal then is that there will be a few people (he appears to believe that there can never be more than a few), a kind of elite or nobility, that transforms the world by giving it great purposes (it may be that the rest of us will simply follows these purposes, grateful to have purposes, and we will call these purposes "virtue" or "morality," never admitting their true origin or motivation).
- Eternal Return.
Christianity says "no" to this world -- it posits another "true" world behind this one. We escape this world if we die and are saved, and then we see all that is false in this world, and we see why there is evil, and so on. But N denies this, and wants to assert an alternative. He conceives this alternative as saying "yes" to this world -- this sensual, "false" world.
His radical way to do this is the concept of eternal return. (Nietzsche tries to argue that eternal return is a real possibility, but I think he did not need that -- his point is sufficient as a thought experiment.) Imagine that this universe is all there is, and that it repeats itself endlessly: at the end of time there is the beginning of time, and all happens again exactly as before. There is no escaping this world, no "true" world behind it. If you can say "yes" then to your life, knowing that it will happen forever the same way again and again, knowing there is nothing behind or beyond it, then you will be (or, at least, you'll be on the way to being) the overman, the one who can say yes to this world and assert values in it.
- Is Nietzsche still a Foundationalist about Purpose? Aesthetics.
For the philosopher, this raise the question: does N believe it is possible to rank values? (And thus, ultimately, to offer some as the "right" way to live?) Now, it is very important to be clear that I don't mean that N does not explain why Christian values are not better than other values. N believes he has deflated Christian values by showing both that they are false (god is dead) and that they are resentment cloaked in fake but attractive metaphysics. But we might still offer alternatives. To keep the case simple: what if we believe that people are better off if everyone gets to exercise their will to power? Why can't there be a socialist/democratic will-to-power ethic? (N hated both socialism and modern democracy, seeing them as the expressions of the herd instinct.) Why are the great purposes of the overman better than (N does not say they are, but he clearly believes they are) the trivial purposes of the last man? It is not enough to say they are difficult and unique and authentic and challenging and can give purpose to many others -- why are these properties better than the alternatives?
N has several values he encourages us to share: that we should seek to be honest (to have authenticity) and thus unique; that we should strive to do what only humans can do (and thus be more than "mere animals." He rejects modern democracy because he believes the state grows in power and exerts a homogenizing influence, thus undermining authenticity and striving.
I believe that N gives us a kind of portrait of his vision and his hopes for human purpose, and though he may be able to consistently reject (in some sense) some values by arguing that they are fake ("morality"), he still seems to be a foundationalist about purpose.
Now, in at least one place in The Will to Power, N suggests that choosing his ethic is just a matter of aesthetics -- that he is merely encouraging us to see things his way. In the world of the overman that he imagines, things will be more diverse, more daring and bold -- and doesn't that sound more beautiful? If that is the sum of his value theory, then we might say that he has rejected foundationalism about purpose -- or, instead, we might say he has accepted it, concluded there is no foundation, and so offered in its stead something similar to but distinct from traditional, foundationalist value theory. I'm not sure which to conclude.
Regardless, Nietzsche always seems to believe that the loss of our traditional foundations is a great challenge, if not a catastrophe.
Nietzsche, F. (1997) Schopenhauer as Educator, in Untimely Meditations. Edited by Daniel Breazeale, and translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic (German: Zur Genealogie der Moral: Eine Streitschrift) is an 1887 book by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. It consists of a preface and three interrelated essays that expand and follow through on concepts Nietzsche sketched out in Beyond Good and Evil (1886). The three Abhandlungen trace episodes in the evolution of moral concepts with a view to confronting "moral prejudices", specifically those of Christianity and Judaism.
Some Nietzsche scholars consider Genealogy to be a work of sustained brilliance and power as well as his masterpiece. Since its publication, it has influenced many authors and philosophers.
Nietzsche's treatise outlines his thoughts "on the origin of our moral prejudices" previously given brief expression in his Human, All Too Human (1878). Nietzsche attributes the desire to publish his "hypotheses" on the origins of morality to reading his friend Paul Rée's book The Origin of the Moral Sensations (1877) and finding the "genealogical hypotheses" offered there unsatisfactory.
Nietzsche decided that "a critique of moral values" was needed, that "the value of these values themselves must be called into question". To this end Nietzsche provides a history of morality, rather than a hypothetical account in the style of Rée, whom Nietzsche classifies as an "English psychologist" (using "English" to designate an intellectual temperament, as distinct from a nationality).
First Treatise: "'Good and Evil', 'Good and Bad'"
See also: Good and evil
In the "First Treatise", Nietzsche demonstrates that the two opposite pairs "good/evil" and "good/bad" have very different origins, and that the word "good" itself came to represent two opposed meanings. In the "good/bad" distinction, "good" is synonymous with nobility and everything which is powerful and life-asserting; in the "good/evil" distinction, which Nietzsche calls "slave morality", the meaning of "good" is made the antithesis of the original aristocratic "good", which itself is re-labelled "evil". This inversion of values develops out of the ressentiment of the powerful by the weak.
Nietzsche rebukes the "English psychologists" for lacking historical sense. They seek to do moral genealogy by explaining altruism in terms of the utility of altruistic actions, which is subsequently forgotten as such actions become the norm. But the judgment "good", according to Nietzsche, originates not with the beneficiaries of altruistic actions. Rather, the good themselves (the powerful) coined the term "good". Further, Nietzsche sees it as psychologically absurd that altruism derives from a utility that is forgotten: if it is useful, what is the incentive to forget it? Such meaningless value-judgment gains currency . . . by expectations repeatedly shaping the consciousness.
From the aristocratic mode of valuation another mode of valuation branches off, which develops into its opposite: the priestly mode. Nietzsche proposes that longstanding confrontation between the priestly caste and the warrior caste fuels this splitting of meaning. The priests, and all those who feel disenfranchised and powerless in a situation of subjugation and physical impotence (e.g., slavery), develop a deep and venomous hatred for the powerful. Thus originates what Nietzsche calls the "slave revolt in morality", which, according to him, begins with Judaism (§7), for it is the bridge that led to the slave revolt by Christian morality of the alienated, oppressed masses of the Roman Empire (a dominant theme in The Antichrist, written the following year).
To the noble life, justice is immediate, real, and good, necessarily requiring enemies. In contrast, slave morality believes, through "ressentiment" and the self-deception that the weak are actually the wronged meek deprived of the power to act with immediacy, that justice is a deferred event, an imagined revenge which will eventually win everlasting life for the weak and vanquish the strong. This imaginary "good" (the delusion of the weak) replaces the aristocratic "good" (the strong decide) which in turn is rebranded "evil", to replace "bad", which to the noble meant "worthless" and "ill-born" (as in the Greek words κακος and δειλος).
In the First Treatise, Nietzsche introduces one of his most controversial images, the "blond beast". He had previously employed this expression to represent the lion, an image that is central to his philosophy and made its first appearance in Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Nietzsche expressly insists it is a mistake to hold beasts of prey to be "evil", for their actions stem from their inherent strength, rather than any malicious intent. One should not blame them for their "thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs" (§13). Similarly, it is a mistake to resent the strong for their actions, because, according to Nietzsche, there is no metaphysical subject. Only the weak need the illusion of the subject (or soul) to hold their actions together as a unity. But they have no right to make the bird of prey accountable for being a bird of prey.
Nietzsche concludes his First Treatise by hypothesizing a tremendous historical struggle between the Roman dualism of "good/bad" and that of the Judaic "good/evil", with the latter eventually achieving a victory for ressentiment, broken temporarily by the Renaissance, but then reasserted by the Reformation, and finally confirmed by the French Revolution when the "ressentiment instincts of the rabble" triumphed.
The First Treatise concludes with a brief section (§17) stating his own allegiance to the good/bad system of evaluation, followed by a note calling for further examination of the history of moral concepts and the hierarchy of values.
Second Treatise: "'Guilt', 'Bad Conscience', and Related Matters"
In the "Second Treatise" Nietzsche advances his thesis that the origin of the institution of punishment is in a straightforward (pre-moral) creditor/debtor relationship.
Man relies on the apparatus of forgetfulness [which has been "bred" into him] in order not to become bogged down in the past. This forgetfulness is, according to Nietzsche, an active "faculty of repression", not mere inertia or absentmindedness. Man needs to develop an active faculty to work in opposition to this, so promises necessary for exercising control over the future can be made: this is memory.
This control over the future allows a "morality of custom" to establish. (Such morality is sharply differentiated from Christian or other "ascetic" moralities.) The product of this morality, the autonomous individual, comes to see that he may inflict harm on those who break their promises to him. Punishment, then, is a transaction in which the injury to the autonomous individual is compensated for by the pain inflicted on the culprit. Such punishment is meted out without regard for moral considerations about the free will of the culprit, his accountability for his actions, and the like: it is simply an expression of anger. The creditor is compensated for the injury done by the pleasure he derives from the infliction of cruelty on the debtor. Hence the concept of guilt (Schuld) derives from the concept of debt (Schulden).
Nietzsche develops the "major point of historical methodology": that one must not equate the origin of a thing and its utility. The origin of punishment, for example, is in a procedure that predates punishment. Punishment has not just one purpose, but a whole range of "meanings" which "finally crystallizes into a kind of unity that is difficult to dissolve, difficult to analyze and [...] completely and utterly undefinable" (§13). The process by which the succession of different meanings is imposed is driven by the "will to power"—the basic instinct for domination underlying all human action. Nietzsche lists eleven different uses (or "meanings") of punishment, and suggests that there are many more. One utility it does not possess, however, is awakening remorse. The psychology of prisoners shows that punishment "makes hard and cold; it concentrates; it sharpens the feeling of alienation" (§14).
The real explanation of bad conscience is quite different. A form of social organization, i.e. a "state," is imposed by "some pack of blond beasts of prey, a race of conquerors and lords." Such a race is able to do so even if those they subject to their power are vastly superior in numbers because these subjects are "still formless, still roaming about", while the conquerors are characterized by an "instinctive creating of forms, impressing of forms" (§17). Under such conditions the destructive, sadistic instincts of man, who is by nature a nomadic hunter, find themselves constricted and thwarted; they are therefore turned inward. Instead of roaming in the wilderness, man now turns himself into "an adventure, a place of torture.” Bad conscience is thus man's instinct for freedom (his "will to power") "driven back, suppressed, imprisoned within" (§17).
Nietzsche accounts for the genesis of the concept "god" by considering what happens when a tribe becomes ever more powerful. In a tribe, the current generation pays homage to its ancestors, offering sacrifices as a demonstration of gratitude. As the power of the tribe grows, the need to offer thanks to the ancestors does not decline, but rather increases; as it has ever more reason to pay homage to the ancestors and to fear them. At the maximum of fear, the ancestor is "necessarily transfigured into a god" (§19).
Nietzsche ends the Treatise with a positive suggestion for a counter-movement to the "conscience-vivisection and cruelty to the animal-self" imposed by the bad conscience: this is to "wed to bad conscience the unnatural inclinations", i.e. to use the self-destructive tendency encapsulated in bad conscience to attack the symptoms of sickness themselves. It is much too early for the kind of free spirit—a Zarathustra-figure—who could bring this about, although he will come one day: he will emerge only in a time of emboldening conflict, not in the "decaying, self-doubting present" (§24).
Third Treatise: "What do ascetic ideals mean?"
Nietzsche's purpose in the "Third Treatise" is "to bring to light, not what [the ascetic] ideal has done, but simply what it means; what it indicates; what lies hidden behind it, beneath it, in it; of what it is the provisional, indistinct expression, overlaid with question marks and misunderstandings" (§23).
As Nietzsche tells us in the Preface, the Third Treatise is a commentary on the aphorism prefixed to it. Textual studies have shown that this aphorism consists of §1 of the Treatise (not the epigraph to the Treatise, which is a quotation from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra).
This opening aphorism confronts us with the multiplicity of meanings that the ascetic ideal has for different groups: (a) artists, (b) philosophers, (c) women, (d) physiological casualties, (e) priests, and (f) saints. The ascetic ideal, we may thus surmise, means very little in itself, other than as a compensation for humanity's need to have some goal or other. As Nietzsche puts it, man "will rather will nothingness than not will".
(a) For the artist, the ascetic ideal means "nothing or too many things". Nietzsche selects the composer Richard Wagner as example. Artists, he concludes, always require some ideology to prop themselves up. Wagner, we are told, relied on Schopenhauer to provide this underpinning; therefore we should look to philosophers if we are to get closer to finding out what the ascetic ideal means.
(b) For the philosopher, it means a "sense and instinct for the most favorable conditions of higher spirituality", which is to satisfy his desire for independence. It is only in the guise of the ascetic priest that the philosopher is first able to make his appearance without attracting suspicion of his overweening will to power. As yet, every "true" philosopher has retained the trappings of the ascetic priest; his slogans have been "poverty, chastity, humility."
(e) For the priest, its meaning is the "'supreme' license for power". He sets himself up as the "saviour" of (d) the physiologically deformed, offering them a cure for their exhaustion and listlessness (which is in reality only a therapy which does not tackle the roots of their suffering).
Nietzsche suggests a number of causes for widespread physiological inhibition: (i) the crossing of races; (ii) emigration of a race to an unsuitable environment (e.g. the Indians to India); (iii) the exhaustion of a race (e.g. Parisian pessimism from 1850); (iv) bad diet (e.g. vegetarianism); (v) diseases of various kinds, including malaria and syphilis (e.g. German depression after the Thirty Years' War) (§17).
The ascetic priest has a range of strategies for anesthetizing the continuous, low-level pain of the weak. Four of these are innocent in the sense that they do the patient no further harm: (1) a general deadening of the feeling of life; (2) mechanical activity; (3) "small joys", especially love of one's neighbour; (4) the awakening of the communal feeling of power. He further has a number of strategies which are guilty in the sense that they have the effect of making the sick sicker (although the priest applies them with a good conscience); they work by inducing an "orgy of feeling" (Gefühls-Ausschweifung). He does this by "altering the direction of ressentiment," i.e. telling the weak to look for the causes of their unhappiness in themselves (in "sin"), not in others. Such training in repentance is responsible, according to Nietzsche, for phenomena such as the St Vitus' and St John's dancers of the Middle Ages, witch-hunthysteria, somnambulism (of which there were eight epidemics between 1564 and 1605), and the delirium characterized by the widespread cry of evviva la morte! ("long live death!").
Given the extraordinary success of the ascetic ideal in imposing itself on our entire culture, what can we look to oppose it? "Where is the counterpart to this closed system of will, goal, and interpretation?" (§23) Nietzsche considers as possible opponents of the ideal: (a) modern science; (b) modern historians; (c) "comedians of the ideal" (§27).
(a) Science is in fact the "most recent and noblest form" of the ascetic ideal. It has no faith in itself, and acts only as a means of self-anesthetization for sufferers (scientists) who do not want to admit they suffer. In apparent opposition to the ascetic ideal, science has succeeded merely in demolishing the ideal's "outworks, sheathing, play of masks, [...] its temporary solidification, lignification, dogmatization" (§25). By dismantling church claims to the theological importance of man, scientists substitute their self-contempt [cynicism] as the ideal of science.
(b) Modern historians, in trying to hold up a mirror to ultimate reality, are not only ascetic but highly nihilistic. As deniers of teleology, their "last crowings" are "To what end?," "In vain!," "Nada!" (§26)
(c) An even worse kind of historian is what Nietzsche calls the "contemplatives": self-satisfied armchair hedonists who have arrogated to themselves the praise of contemplation (Nietzsche gives Ernest Renan as an example). Europe is full of such "comedians of the Christian-moral ideal." In a sense, if anyone is inimical to the ideal it is they, because they at least "arouse mistrust" (§27).
The will to truth that is bred by the ascetic ideal has in its turn led to the spread of a truthfulness the pursuit of which has brought the will to truth itself in peril. What is thus now required, Nietzsche concludes, is a critique of the value of truth itself (§24).
Reception and influence
The work has received a multitude of citations and references from subsequent philosophical books as well as literary articles, works of fiction, and the like. On the Genealogy of Morality is considered by many academics to be Nietzsche's most important work, and, despite its polemical content, out of all of his works the one that perhaps comes closest to a systematic and sustained exposition of his ideas. Some of the contents and many symbols and metaphors portrayed in On the Genealogy of Morality, together with its tripartite structure, seem to be based on and influenced by Heinrich Heine's On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany.
In philosophy, the genealogical method is a historical technique in which one questions the commonly understood emergence of various philosophical and social beliefs by attempting to account for the scope, breadth or totality of ideology within the time period in question, as opposed to focusing on a singular or dominant ideology. In epistemology, it has been first used by Nietzsche and later by Michel Foucault, who tried to expand and apply the concept of genealogy as a novel method of research in sociology (evinced principally in "histories" of sexuality and punishment). In this aspect Foucault was heavily influenced by Nietzsche.
Others have adapted "genealogy" in a looser sense to inform their work. An example is the attempt by the British philosopher Bernard Williams to vindicate the value of truthfulness using lines of argument derived from genealogy in his book Truth and Truthfulness (2002). Daniel Dennett wrote that On The Genealogy of Morality is "one of the first and still subtlest of the Darwinian investigations of the evolution of ethics".Stephen Greenblatt has said in an interview that On The Genealogy of Morality was the most important influence on his life and work.
The book is referenced and discussed in Pier Paolo Pasolini's 1975 film Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.
- The Birth of Tragedy & the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Francis Golffing, Anchor Books, 1956, ISBN 0-385-09210-5
- On The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann (translation of On the Genealogy in collaboration with R. J. Hollingdale), New York: Vintage, 1967; this version also included in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, New York: Modern Library, 2000, ISBN 0-679-72462-1.
- On the Genealogy of Morality, translated by Carol Diethe and edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994, ISBN 0-521-87123-9.
- On the Genealogy of Morals, translated and edited by Douglas Smith, Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1996, ISBN 0-19-283617-X.
- On the Genealogy of Morality, translated and edited by Maudemarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998, ISBN 0-87220-283-6.
- Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Zur Genealogie der Moral, edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2002.
- The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Horace Barnett Samuel, New York: Courier Dover Publications, 2003, ISBN 0-486-42691-2.
- On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Michael A. Scarpitti and edited by Robert C. Holub (Penguin Classics) 2013. ISBN 0141195371
Notes and references
- ^C. Janaway, Beyond Selflessness: Reading Nietzsche's Genealogy (OUP, 2007), p. 1
- ^The Birth of Tragedy & the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Francis Golffing, Anchor Books, 1956, p.153
- ^Schacht, Richard, ed. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
- ^See B. Leiter, Nietzsche on Morality (Routledge, 2002), p. 73; W. Stegmaier, Nietzsches "Genealogie der Moral" (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1994), p. 7.; G. Deleuze, Nietzsche et la philosophie (PUF, 1962), pp. 99.
- ^Darwin's Dangerous Idea.
- ^Barnes & Noble: Meet the writers. Archived from the original on 2012-02-10.