The genealogist

June 26, 2012

The Genealogy of Morals
Friedrich Nietzsche
(Modern Library, 1927) [1887]
192 p.

In this book Nietzsche develops and expands several of the ideas earlier presented in Beyond Good and Evil. The book consists of three essays, somewhat disjoint in subject matter, but united by a common concern with conscience and moral life, and more specifically with contextualizing, and then assaulting, the moral heritage of Judaism and Christianity.

Nietzsche takes it for granted that moral judgments are wholly subjective; his central question, as stated in the book’s preface, is this: “Under what conditions did Man invent for himself those judgments of values, ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’? And what intrinsic value do they possess in themselves?” [emphasis his] The seeds of the book lay, he says, in his doubts about the moral value of “pity, self-denial, and self-sacrifice”, his suspicion that the elevation of these values represented “the exhaustion that gazes backwards, the will turning against Life, the last illness announcing itself with its own mincing melancholy”. And his doubts about these values led to doubts about all values.

In the first and shortest essay, entitled “‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad’”, he sets forth a basic view of the moral life that will be familiar to those who have spent time with him: he favours ‘aristocratic’ values — strength, courage, pitilessness, nobility — over ‘slave’ values — mercy, meekness, forgiveness, compassion. The former he identifies especially with Roman civilization, and the latter with Jewish and Christian traditions. He argues that the political superiority of the strong is itself a mark of psychological superiority, and only the disguised cunning of the Jews, further deepened and intensified by Jesus, has been able to upset and undermine the natural order. In the waning influence of Christianity upon society, he sees hope for a resurgence of the old aristocratic values.

In the second essay, “‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the Like”, he sets forth a theory of the origins of conscience and penal practices in society. The argument is theoretical, and largely devoid of historical referents.

The essay begins, curiously, with a discussion about the making of promises, for in man’s ability to promise Nietzsche finds the seeds of the whole moral order. By promising one asserts one’s power over the world and over one’s own actions; one declares oneself to be sovereign and autonomous, and one achieves thereby an honourable status, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others. Likewise one recognizes this same honourable status in others when it is present — and in this pride, he argues, is rooted the first intimations of moral judgment: contempt for those who lie. The capacity to make promises gives one, furthermore, a consciousness of “the proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility”, and this knowledge he calls “conscience”. (This definition of “conscience” is peculiar. Socrates famously said that his daemon told him what not to do, but not what to do. Nietzsche’s conscience would seem to be doing the opposite. What does your conscience tell you?)

For Nietzsche conscience finds expression through, and is in turn shaped by, penal practices and laws. In the Western tradition the principal purpose of just punishment has usually been said to be retribution. Nietzsche asks why. Why does punishment seem to be an adequate — or at least a pertinent — response to wrongdoing? Guilt implies debt, but why is suffering (endured by way of punishment) a way of paying that debt? Nietzsche, true to his dark vision of things, argues that the infliction of suffering is itself pleasurable, for it bestows a sense of power on the wronged party, and it is for this reason that suffering can serve as compensation.

As a civilization becomes stronger and more stable, however, it can afford to be more lenient. Man’s natural inclination to punish is thwarted and turns against him, producing what Nietzsche calls a “bad conscience”. (He does not say, so far as I can see, why the desire to be lenient arises. If punishment is all about pleasure, why should social stability work against it?) His idea seems to be that the instinct for punishment — “enmity, cruelty, the delight in persecution, in surprises, change, destruction” — when prevented from acting outwardly turns inward, against the possessor. Each person begins to think himself guilty, at odds with the natural order of things, and he develops a desire for self-inflicted punishment. Here Nietzsche locates the origin of the notion that altruism is a good. He sees it, apparently, as a manifestation of self-loathing.

The “bad conscience” is a dynamic psychological force, and it cannot rest quietly. It provokes the thought that one somehow owes a non-specific, pervasive debt, and this is intolerable. In our own culture, this debt has been conceived as owed to God, and part of the (in Nietzsche’s mind, perverted) genius of Christianity has been to propose that God himself pays the debt on our behalf. Thus, the appeal of Christianity is rooted in a psychological and spiritual inclination for self-torture.

Naturally, this account of things is subject to doubt at nearly every step of the argument. It is a nice example, though, of Nietzsche’s method of depth psychology in the service of philosophical inquiry. The idea that retributive justice is ultimately grounded in sadism is one of those lurid Nietzschean notions that make him such an entertaining, if not quite convincing, figure. One often hears it said that God is the source of a sense of guilt — St. Paul himself argues that the law was given to teach us about sin — but Nietzsche puts it the other way around: a guilty conscience (a “bad conscience”) is itself the price of civilization, and the Christian God serves as a remedy for this psychic disease. That is at least an interesting idea that bears some reflection.

The third and final essay is titled “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?”, and it is by a fair margin the most interesting of the bunch. Certainly it is written with a savage rhetorical beauty that is at times overwhelming. (Some examples appended below.) The quality of its arguments is less impressive.

In the beginning, says Nietzsche, man found himself encircled by the void, living a life that lacked any intrinsic meaning or purpose. Unable to endure this condition, and especially unable to bear the thought that his suffering had no meaning, he willed a meaning for himself by adopting an ascetic attitude toward life. Asceticism gives him a goal, an orientation to the world; in limiting him it gives his life shape and structure. By way of asceticism, the wounded creature finds a way to affirm life. Asceticism is thus, at ground, a kind of self-hypnotism by which man protects himself from nihilism.

When we think of asceticism, I expect that most of us think first of religious traditions, most of which have integrated ascetic practices into their religious devotions and duties. Nietzsche doesn’t overlook this manifestation of the ascetic ideal — the priest, he says, is “hostile to life”, and his prescriptions are all intended to stifle vitality and secure power for the priest himself — but he casts his net much wider, finding commonalities between ways of life generally thought to be quite different from one another. Philosophers, for instance, starting with Plato (“the great defamer of life”), have in Nietzsche’s view championed asceticism for their own selfish purposes. The life of study and reflection cannot exist without renunciation. Nietzsche sees the dominant philosophical ideals of our entire tradition — tentativeness, making of careful distinctions, consistency, even rationality — as manifestations of asceticism, for they place limits that must not be transgressed. Thus the claim he made in Beyond Good and Evil about the autobiographical nature of philosophical ideas finds a particularly pervasive instance.

Scientific inquiry, too, is a modern manifestation of the ascetic ideal, a “self-anaesthetic” that prevents one “coming to consciousness”. Science, insofar as it demands discipline, prefers reason to instinct — or, in a word, is serious — encircles and fetters the human spirit. The scientific mindset has also begun to pride itself on its “contempt for man”, and this will to belittle and undermine man’s spiritual grandeur is another sickly manifestation of asceticism.

Even atheism does not escape. Nietzsche calls it “the awe-inspiring catastrophe of a two-thousand-year training in truth, which finally forbids itself the lie of the belief in God.” When atheism, in other words, is grounded in a devotion to truth, it earns Nietzsche’s contempt.

It seems, then, that Nietzsche sees ascetic ideals everywhere. Even so fundamental a thing as respect for truth is, for him, a souring of the golden, “Homeric” nature that rightly belongs to man at his best. “For some time past there have been no free spirits; for they still believe in truth.” We come face to face, therefore, in a particularly unvarnished and radical form, with Nietzsche’s admiration for animal nature, instinctive and amoral. There is an irony at work here, for the injunction to honour truth is grounded in a belief in God, yet this same injunction eventually undermines (says Nietzsche) this belief. But the deeper irony is that of a philosopher who believes that both truth and reason are cramping his style. Frankly, one wonders what to do with him.


To review: what we have in this book is, first, an argument that our basic moral framework is a weak-souled inversion of the values that ought truly to govern our conduct, values exemplified best by an eagle attacking its prey, noble and remorseless; second, an argument that our sense of justice is based on a sadistic lust to see others suffer, and that our psychological and spiritual disorders result from our reluctance to indulge that lust; and third, an argument that efforts to discipline our minds and our hearts are covert evasions of our true existential situation, which is that nothing — the nothing — is the ultimate horizon against which our lives play out.

I know that Nietzsche is a lion, and that I should quiver at his roar. The truth, however, is that I am finding him just a little too strident, a shade too vicious, to be taken quite seriously. After finishing this book I let it sit a full year before writing up these notes, trying to muster some sort of manly resolve to confront Nietzsche in the way that I fondly wish he deserved, but, in the end, I have been unable to do it. Blame me, perhaps, but perhaps not. As I have been writing these notes, some lines from Chesterton have been running through my mind:

And all these things are less than dust to me
For my name is Lazarus, and I live.

For better or worse, I am simply not ready to be impressed by Nietzsche’s radicalism. I hear a sounding gong and a clanging cymbal, full of sound and fury, granted, but signifying next to nothing.


Ah, but the man could write:

What is the meaning of ascetic ideals? In artists, nothing, or too much; in philosophers and scholars, a kind of “flair” and instinct for the conditions most favourable to advanced intellectualism; in women, at best an additional seductive fascination, a little morbidezza on a fine piece of flesh, the angelhood of a fat, pretty animal; in physiological failures and whiners (in the majority of mortals), an attempt to pose as “too good” for this world, a holy form of debauchery, their chief weapon in the battle with lingering pain and ennui; in priests, the actual priestly faith, their best engine of power, and also the supreme authority for power; in saints, finally a pretext for hibernation, their novissima gloriae cupido, their peace in nothingness (“God”), their form of madness.

But in the very fact that the ascetic ideal has meant so much to man, lies expressed the fundamental feature of man’s will, his horror vacui: he needs a goal — and he will sooner will nothingness than not will at all.

[Artists and their work]
It is certainly best to separate an artist from his work so completely that he cannot be taken as seriously as his work. He is after all merely the presupposition of his work, the womb, the soil, in certain cases the dung and manure, on which and out of which it grows—and consequently, in most cases, something that must be forgotten if the work itself is to be enjoyed. The insight into the origin of a work is a matter for psychologists and vivisectors, but never either in the present or the future for the aesthetes, the artists.

[Modern hubris]
Even judged by the standard of the ancient Greeks, our whole modern life, in so far as it is not weakness, but power and the consciousness of power, appears pure “Hybris” and godlessness: for the things which are the very reverse of those which we honour to-day, have had for a long time conscience on their side, and God as their guardian. “Hybris” is our whole attitude to nature nowadays, our violation of nature with the help of machinery, and all the unscrupulous ingenuity of our scientists and engineers. “Hybris” is our attitude to God, that is, to some alleged teleological and ethical spider behind the meshes of the great trap of the causal web. Like Charles the Bold in his war with Louis the Eleventh, we may say, “je combats l’universelle araignée“; “Hybris” is our attitude to ourselves—for we experiment with ourselves in a way that we would not allow with any animal, and with pleasure and curiosity open our soul in our living body: what matters now to us the “salvation” of the soul? We heal ourselves afterwards: being ill is instructive, we doubt it not, even more instructive than being well—inoculators of disease seem to us to-day even more necessary than any medicine-men and “saviours.” There is no doubt we do violence to ourselves nowadays, we crackers of the soul’s kernel, we incarnate riddles, who are ever asking riddles, as though life were naught else than the cracking of a nut; and even thereby must we necessarily become day by day more and more worthy to be asked questions and worthy to ask them, even thereby do we perchance also become worthier to—live?

[The Old and New Testaments]
I have the courage of my bad taste. The Old Testament—yes, that is something quite different, all honour to the Old Testament! I find therein great men, an heroic landscape, and one of the rarest phenomena in the world, the incomparable naivete of the strong heart; further still, I find a people. In the New, on the contrary, just a hostel of petty sects, pure rococo of the soul, twisting angles and fancy touches, nothing but conventicle air, not to forget an occasional whiff of bucolic sweetness which appertains to the epoch (and the Roman province) and is less Jewish than Hellenistic. Meekness and braggadocio cheek by jowl; an emotional garrulousness that almost deafens; passionate hysteria, but no passion; painful pantomime; here manifestly every one lacked good breeding. How dare any one make so much fuss about their little failings as do these pious little fellows! No one cares a straw about it—let alone God.

2 Responses to “The genealogist”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Nice review, Craig. I have only read the first essay in this work, so I can’t really comment on the whole thing. But I can share some anecdotes.

    We looked at Nietzsche’s work in one of my classes this year, and two of the instructor’s insights come back to me. First, one way to see Nietzsche is as that petulant adolescent who insists that he is brilliant but that nobody understands him. ‘When I’m dead you’ll realise that I was a genius.’ In Nietzsche’s case, this actually turned out to be true. So I don’t think your final assessment of him is off the mark. I don’t see why one should be awed by him. His ‘radicalism’ is somewhat adolescent. (He himself might even take that as a complement.) But he did have flashes of brilliance, and, as you rightly point out, he could write.

    Second, our teacher made the observation that Nietzsche describes us when we are at our best and when we are at our worst. There is a grain of truth in his rallying call for the return of the noble morality. There really is something
    salutary about rejoicing in life and forging ahead despite what everyone else might think. It can be a good antidote to the modern, saccharine sentiment that ‘everyone is special’ and that we ought not to praise gifted for fear of
    offending the ordinary. On the other hand, at our worst, we are petulant, selfish adolescents who refuse to listen to those from whom we might actually learn something …

    Finally, a companion of mine was recently talking to an old, Hungarian philosopher at an American university who is finishing up a book on ethical theories in philosophy. My companion asked him what he was going to say about Nietzsche. The professor looked at him with surprise and said (in a thick, confident Hungarian accent), ‘Nietzsche? But he is not really a philosopher.’

  2. cburrell Says:

    Good points, Adam. As I was writing my notes I actually used the word “adolescent” to describe him, but I took it out because it felt too much like name-calling. But the word does get at something pertinent. Maybe just the lack of balance and the desire to be shocking.

    I agree with you that Nietzsche has his merits. In my notes to Beyond Good and Evil I wrote appreciatively of his contempt for mediocrity and complacency. In this book, however, I found less to appreciate than in that.

    As to his status as a philosopher, I am not inclined to press the point. I don’t forget the claim Alasdair MacIntyre made in After Virtue: that there were really only two moral systems worthy of consideration — Nietzsche’s and Aristotle’s. Anyone of whom one can seriously say that has done enough to earn our attention.

    Happy Canada Day.

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