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A Note on The Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

The first time I encountered a philosopher named Friedrich Nietzsche, I was made aware of the pitiful life he had led: the love interest that never really took off, a desirous quest into the abyss, the solitary search for meaning in life, and a decade long entrapment in mental facilities, only to end with a sad death in 1900 CE.

Unlike many of our lives, whose meaning ceases to exist after our death, Nietzsche’s death sparked a rejuvenation of Nietzsche himself. Oft-dense works of the philosopher, which barely had any readers during its lifetime, found readers everywhere.

During the interwar era, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi propaganda machinery used Nietzsche’s ideas (part of the credit goes to his sister, Elisabeth). During the Cold War, the critical scholarship in the post-modernist turn in academia drew much influence from Nietzsche. His ideas get co-adopted both by the left and right discourses—part of the reason why Nietzsche continues to grow in popularity.

Why is Nietzsche so Famous Today?

In today’s age, Nietzsche is hailed as an influential philosopher who challenged the ways in which we thought about ideas. He asked questions—important ones. He thought of whether there is a certain genealogical direction to the notion of morality.

Nietzsche asked if God really existed—and further proclaimed:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

He thought of slave morality and master morality. And finally, he also thought of something called a Übermensch (a superhuman) that would save our societal decadence.

Reading Nietzsche can feel intimidating, but much of what he spoke about the world of ideas could be traced to one important work: The Genealogy of Morals, published in 1887. Among his other important works are: Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883), Beyond Good and Evil (1886), The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Ecce Homo (1908). His philosophy is existentialism.

Nietzsche on The Genealogy of Morals

In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche concerns morality—the rights and the wrongs, the good and the bad, their origins, historical evolutions, and their implications. This polemical work investigates the origin of “moral prejudices” of morality. He deals with morality through a historical, genealogical lens.

This work is one of the essential works of Nietzsche’s philosophy. The important tropes of argument lie in the Judeo-Christian ethos and how they have shaped our understanding of good, bad, evil, ressentiment, and repentance.

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Friedrich Nietzsche, circa 1875 | Wikimedia Commons

Nietzsche, the philosopher, did not easily give into truth claims. Unlike the linear or circular argumentations about how things occur in the world, Nietzsche takes on ideas and traces their historical origins to understand what they mean today—and how they came to mean what they mean today.

The book is divided into three interrelated essays. In the first essay, Nietzsche discusses what is good and what is evil. In the second, he looks at how guilt takes such an important place in our societies. The final chapter discusses how ascetic ideals can make people without passion.

Chapter One: Essay on the Origins of Good and Evil

In the first essay, Nietzsche asks: “Under what conditions did Man invent for himself those judgements of values, ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’? And what intrinsic values do they possess in themselves?” (p. 3). He then presents a contrasting view of morality in his dichotomous characterisation of “master” (or noble) morality and “slave” (or herd) morality.

In the pre-moral world (where there was no concept of morality), the concept of good and evil did not merely mean what they mean today; instead, good was associated with nobility and bad with poverty.

Defining “Good and Bad”, “Good and Evil”

To argue this case, he draws on the etymological distinctions of words in the German language for good and bad. For example, the German words gut (“good”) and schletch (“bad”) came from noble people without any moral component to it. It was merely a descriptive characterisation of rich and poor, strong and weak.

In simplistic terms, all that caused happiness and freedom was good and desirable, and everything that pertained to weakness and slavishness was bad and undesirable. In some sense, whatever the strong did, they affirmed as good, and everything else as bad. The strong were good, and the good were strong.

Slave Morality and Ressentiment

Somewhere down the line in history, morality was invented. The powerless, who could not take over power, deemed power as sinful. For Nietzsche, today’s notion of good and bad came from a slave mentality, which resented nobility for all their strength and mastery as vices. The weak then promised themselves to be the masters (inheritors) of the world.

In the process, the weak declared that competition, pride, and individual autonomy were sins. And those of charity, obedience, and humility as the good. For Nietzsche, the “slave revolt” led to devastating cultural implications, allowing all the weak to take over the world—and change the meanings of good and bad—thereby replacing strength with weakness. He writes:

Yet the priests are, as is notorious, the worst enemies—why? Because they are the weakest. Their weakness causes their hate to expand into a monstrous and sinister shape, a shape which is most poisonous… [and this priestly class] which eventually realised that one method of effecting satisfaction on its enemies and tyrants was by means of a radical transvaluation of values, which was at the same time an act of the cleverest revenge.

(pp. 16-17)

This revolt of slaves in morals creates the principle of ressentiment (resentment)—an instinctive reactionary desire for revenge involving the belief that something (or someone) is responsible for suffering. It is dependent on the other for its sustenance.

For Nietzsche, this resentment allows the priestly class to take revenge on the nobles. According to this philosopher, they have turned weakness into merit and impotence into goodness. In this new moral structure, patience is a virtue, forgiveness is a virtue too, and strength is vice.

Chapter Two: Guilt, Bad Conscience and the Like

The chapter titled ‘“Guilt”, “Bad Conscience”, and the Like’ discusses the origins of notions of guilt, bad conscience, and punishment. He says even these ideas were not initially morally invested in their meanings. For Nietzsche, conscience referred to one’s mastery over oneself. It was a dominating instinct.

In short, it was “the ability to guarantee one’s self with all due pride, and also at the same time to say yes to one’s self” (p. 37). He adds: what then constitutes a promise? A promise is owing something to someone at a later date. It is a “memory” of owing—a guarantee of fulfilling something in future—that is given birth in promise.  

Promise Keeping and the Notion of Guilty

Guilt, for the earlier societies, meant merely owing the debt. It was a mechanism for them to punish the guilty, those who did not keep up their promises. It is a “contractual relationship between the creditor and ower, that is as old as the existence of legal rights at all, and in its turn points back to the primary forms of purchase, sale, barter, and trade” (p. 39).

In such societies, where promises are made, the promiser is provided with a memory of that promise. Punishment was an instrument of making sure that the debt was paid back. It was a heinous punishment, nonetheless. Nietzsche adds:

…the creditor is granted by way of repayment and compensation of a certain sensation of satisfaction—the satisfaction of being able to vent, without any trouble, his power on one who is powerless, the delight “de faire le mal pour le plaisir de la faire”, the joy of sheer violence: and this joy will be relished in proportion to the lowness and humbleness of the creditor in the social scale… the infliction of suffering produces the highest degree of happiness, because the injured party will get in exchange for his loss an extraordinary counter-pleasure: the infliction of suffering—a real feast.

(pp. 40-41)

He adds further:

It was man, who, lacking external enemies and obstacles, and imprisoned as he was in the oppressive narrowness and monotony of custom, in his own impatience lacerated, persecuted, gnawed, frightened, and ill-treated himself; it was this animal in the hands of the tamer, which beat itself against the bars of its cage; it was this being who pining and yearning for that desert home of which it had been deprived, was compelled to create out of its own self, an adventure, a torture-chamber, a hazardous and perilous desert—it was this fool, this homesick and desperate prisoner—who invented ‘bad conscience’. But thereby he introduced the most grave and sinister illness, from which [humans] had not yet recovered, the suffering of man from the disease called man, as the result of a violent breaking from his animal past.

(p. 57)

Guilt and Bad Conscience

However, with the advent of slave morality and the emergence of Christianity, the concept of justice took shape. Punishments became a mechanism to punish for the extent of debt owed rather than the debt itself. In that vein, Nietzsche says, a notion of “bad conscience” was born. It is an internalisation of cruelty on oneself when the externalisation is absent.

Bad conscience is our tendency to see ourselves as sinners who ought to repent for their sins. In that process, this philosopher claims that animal instincts for aggression and cruelty were turned into guilt and bad conscience. It is this conscience that allows creditors to let the wrongdoer scot-free.

It is also this bad conscience that enables a “man’s will to find himself guilty and blameworthy to the point of inexpiability, his will to think of himself as punished, without the punishment ever being able to balance the guilt, his will to infect and poison the fundamental basis of the universe with the problem of punishment and guilt” (p. 63).

The advent of Christian morality has made humans meek. And that humans have been infected with the disease of bad conscience, according to Nietzsche.

Chapter Three: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?

The third essay asks: “what is the meaning of ascetic ideals?” He then argues that asceticism, as it exists today, is an expression of sick and weak will, which has given up on its animalistic instincts. It has tamed the beast, as it were. In this process of asceticism lies the role of the priestly class, suggests Nietzsche.

He writes, “Man would rather will nothingness than to will at all.” He adds: “The three great catch-words of the ascetic ideal: poverty, humility, chastity” (p. 77). For instance, a philosopher gains his value through shunning of fame, princes, and women, writes Nietzsche. He adds:

The ascetic ideal springs from the prophylactic and self-preservative instincts which mark a decadent life, which seeks by every means in its power to maintain its position and fight for its existence; it points to a partial physiological, depression and exhaustion, against which the most profound and intact life-instincts fight ceaselessly with new weapons and discoveries. The ascetic ideal is such a weapon: its position is consequently exactly the reverse of that which the worshippers of the ideal imagine—life struggles in it and through it with death and against death; the ascetic ideal is a dodge for preservation of life.

(p. 86)

Ascetic Priests and Repentance

For Nietzsche, the ascetic priest is an apparent enemy of life. He is a diseased animal. And it is not from the strongest that the harm comes, but from the weakest. In Christianity, the holy priest represents the epitome of ascetic ideals—the one who renunciates worldly desires. He adds: “The sick are the great danger of man, not the evil, not the ‘beasts of prey’ (p. 88).

Nietzsche laments further that “they are all the men of resentment”. He adds in today’s world, it is a shame to be happy because there is too much misery. This sickness cannot be cured, as the doctors and nurses are themselves sick. The ascetic priest is, therefore, the “champion of the sick herd”.

Christ Healing the Sick MET ep85.9.bw .R
Christ Healing the Sick – painting by Christian Wilhelm Ernst Dietrich (MET, 85.9) | Wikimedia Commons

In that vein, a man is suffering from himself as a punishment. Sin is the name for a bad conscience. Further, Nietzsche adds: “In every body politic where the ascetic priest has established this treatment of the sick, disease has on every occasion spread with sinister speed throughout its length and breadth” (p. 104).

As a result of the emergence of ascetic priests, man no longer desires for life within the earth but beyond—in heavenly pursuits. Ascetic ideals seek to achieve the beyond worlds, and in doing so, he inflicts suffering upon himself to sustain this heavenly pursuit.

Interpreting Nietzsche and The Genealogy of Morals

Through a genealogical study of morality in Western societies, Nietzsche seeks to interrogate: Why have we come to believe what we believe? How are our attitudes shaped by what happened to things we once believed? And are we correct in believing and following what we believe today?

Nietzsche’s goal does not merely end with critiquing the old moralities but also seeks to recreate a new morality. He does this through the process of “transvaluation of values”, which is a process of re-evaluating the known morals towards the exaltation of life rather than suffering. He debunks the Christian morality of self-sacrifice that has come to dominate Western morality.

Interestingly, in Nietzsche, the running trope of the argument revolves around the “will to power”—power is central to both master morality and slave morality. The slave morality that dominates today and the ascetic priest who rules over today sustain power.

While denying the strong and powerful power, this ascetic rules over the masses as a doctor of the mass. As someone who has come to save them from worldly ills such as power, that is the paradox of power in genealogy. Despite what dominates today, it is always dominated due to weak ascetic ideals.

In conclusion…

Nietzsche ends The Genealogy of Morals with this sentence: “…a will for nothingness, a will opposed to life, a repudiation of the most fundamental conditions of life, but it is and remains a will!—and to say at the end that which I said at the beginning—man will wish nothingness rather than not wish at all.”

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche speaks of “Übermensch” (overman/superhuman)—a highly evolved psychologically superior being of the society. Here, he asks: What is the ideal kind of human being? The concept of Übermensch would have transcended the ascetic ideals and would have independent beings carving their own paths.

The Genealogy of Morals by Nietzsche has inspired scholars in the years ahead to rethink how our society has been conceptualised.


Book Details:

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. 2003. The Genealogy of Morals. Dover Thrift Editions. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.


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