On the Genealogy of Morality
Title page of the first edition.
|Original title||Zur Genealogie der Moral|
|Preceded by||Beyond Good and Evil (1886)|
|Followed by||The Case of Wagner (1888)|
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'"
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-hunt hysteria, 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 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.
|Wikisource has original text related to this article:|
- On the Genealogy of Morals" 1887 Translated by Horace B Samuel Archive.org
- On the Genealogy of Morals" 1887 Translated by Walter Hausemann 1897
- Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1887. On the Genealogy of Morals - A Polemical Tract. (Translated into English by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC).
- Zur Genealogie der Moral. Eine Streitschrift online German text at Nietzsche Source
- Zur Genealogie der Moral. Eine Streitschrift online German text at Projekt Gutenberg-DE
- BBC Radio 4 - In Our Time - Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality - 12 January 2017 Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Nietzsche's On The Genealogy of Morality - A Polemic, which he published in 1887 towards the end of his working life and in which he considered the price humans have paid, and were still paying, to become civilised.