Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals

  Genealogy of Morals book cover

The Genealogy of Morals

Friedrich Nietzsche

(Translated by Horace Samuel)


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I. Background

II. First Essay: "Good and Bad", "Good and Evil"

III. Second Essay: "Guilt, Bad Conscience and the Like"

IV. Third Essay: "What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?"

Toward an Evaluation of Nietzsche's Genealogy

 


I. Background

The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche's most sustained critique of morality, exhibits such an original approach to value theory that many readers feel lost in the whirlpool of his ideas, and grapple for some solid ground from which to evaluate him. Surely much if not most Nietzsche scholarship has suffered from misunderstandings about his work, due to a reliance on secondary sources, an ignorance of Nietzsche's primary influences, the difficulty of the works, or a failure to see his innumerable, disparate insights in the context of the rest of his oeuvre.

Although Nietzsche is now hailed by many as the seminal thinker in post-modernist thought, for a long time serious philosophers considered Nietzsche a Nazi forbear, or even a mere sophomoric ranter, and so thorough criticism of Nietzsche remained scarce until after the Second World War[1]. Surely the efforts of Walter Kaufmann[2] and others to de-Nazify Nietzsche's reputation have had some success, and there has been an inundation of Nietzsche scholarship ever since. It is often overlooked that Nietzsche exerted a decisive influence on many modernist writers--Andre Gide, Thomas Mann, Albert Camus, Henry Miller, among many, many others--none of whom took him for racist. In a sense, Nietzsche has been such a successful philosopher, that, much like Christianity's grip on the society of his day, Nietzsche's influence is so strong on the modern intellectual climate that it is often imperceptible, the very ocean we swim in.

These may seem like excessively strong claims, and it would be an error to give Nietzsche undue credit for the general rise of secular society in the West, a trend that would certainly have continued without him. Nietzsche's legacy lies in his unique approach to that demise: his invocation of the Greeks as an ideal; his daring to turn the claims of Christianity on their head; to extol the virtues of strength; to mercilessly critique the shibboleths of pity, mercy, democracy, socialism; to brand the motivations of the clergy as wicked rather than merely misguided; to philosophize from an historical, etiologic perspective rather than a rationalistic void; to tackle the claims of science. Of course, Nietzsche's influence extends far beyond the realm of value of theory, casting light on every field of philosophy, as well as many other disciplines.

The three essays comprising The Genealogy of Morals represent Nietzsche's most sustained, cohesive work. Many of his other works[3] suffer from atomization, as Nietzsche's superabundance of fresh insight spills into all crevices of human endeavor, emerging in frequent aphorisms, or short discursions on topics with little apparent transition between them. Nietzsche, as philosopher, indeed believed that truth was nearly impossible to convey intellectually, and this belief reveals itself in his style, which aims for penetrating yet disjointed insights often covering a staggering breadth of subject matter in a single, piquant phrase. Despite his valiant efforts to break completely free from traditional moral thought, even in his last works we find him violently struggling against the tides of Christianity in which he felt we were all awash. Asserting that critiquing Christianity and its secular vestiges remained Nietzsche's primary enterprise in no way marginalizes his contributions to moral theory in general, nor psychology, the philosophy of language, aesthetics, metaphysics or epistemology. If a critique of Christianity provided Nietzsche's starting point, and even his idée fixe, it certainly led him to analyses of nearly all regions of philosophy; as well as to new ground.

Critics of Nietzsche must contend with a philosopher who sometimes shows little desire to substantiate his claims; who approaches philosophical problems with the psychologist's view (why do people think this way?) rather than the logician's (does the conclusion follow from the premises?[4]); who appeals equally to our intuition and our counter-intuition (he assumes that we concur that most of our moral assumptions are fundamentally misguided, and so we naturally want to explore and even embrace the opposite view); who assumes that we either see or can be convinced to see the same general traits that he sees in the Europe of his day. When we keep in mind that Nietzsche overtly addressed his writings to "free spirits," the philosophers of the future, and even future Übermensch, the obscurity of Nietzsche during his own lifetime becomes understandable.

Nietzsche's methodology, one of insight over orthodox scholarship, emerged in his first book, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music, a work which despite its focus on Greek mythology, drama, and philosophy, featured a complete lack of footnotes and little reference to the standard works of philology; Nietzsche's rejection of traditional scholarly methodology contributed to the work's scant scholarly reception. Later works fared no better for similar reasons, as well as for Nietzsche's increasingly strident claims of philosophical greatness, reaching their early pinnacle in the perceived pretentiousness of Also Sprach Zarathustra.[5]

After efforts to convey his essential philosophy in a more readily digestible form (cf. Beyond Good and Evil), Nietzsche's most cogent work finally emerged in The Genealogy of Morals. Despite a continuing lack of scholarly apparatus, Nietzsche's claims of grandeur are kept to a minimum, and the work's three essays[6] are complete in themselves, and feature progressive critical exploration rather than merely his usual lightning insight, although there is much of that as well. The three essays--"'Good and Evil,' 'Good and Bad'; "'Guilt,' 'Bad Conscience,' and the Like"; and "What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?"--investigate closely related aspects of Nietzsche's primary philosophical concern: the origins, persistence and increasingly ill effects of Christian morality on the psychic health of Europe.

II. First Essay: "Good and Bad", "Good and Evil"

Nietzsche makes his approach clear early in the first essay, contrasting himself with certain "English philosophers," who Nietzsche feels are completely misguided in their explanation that from the very beginning, altruistic acts were praised as "good" by those who benefited from them. Their thought, Nietzsche protests, is thoroughly "unhistorical"; it assumes that altruism predates value-judgments. For Nietzsche, value-judgments first arose from the original value-creators, the natural aristocracy. They first used the term to describe themselves, and employed antithetical terms for the weak slave classes. Only over the course of centuries, through deviously dishonest means, were the meanings of "good" and "evil" transvalued and the natural aristocracy subverted by the slave classes, a state of affairs Nietzsche believed still obtained in his day.

Already Nietzsche betrays his predilection for offering his own unprovable etiology of a pre-historical concept.[7] His claims for the aristocracy as value-creators are impossible to substantiate considering the meager historical record available to us (though in his defense his opponents claims are equally difficult to substantiate). Instead, we find ourselves relying on Nietzsche's authority as a philologist; that if anyone knows the origins of value-judgments in ancient Greece, it must be the former Chair of Philology at Basel. Despite the lack of evidence, Nietzsche's emphasis on an historical approach, rather than anachronistic methods of the utilitarians, seems a step in the right direction, as much as it points to overall weakness in Nietzsche's critique.

Still, the audacity of Nietzsche's claims more than holds our attention. Accustomed to viewing the rise of morality as concurrent with the rise of world religions, Nietzsche's claim of primacy for aristocratic values succeeds in turning our preconceptions on their head. Having "established" the primacy of aristocratic values, (and perhaps unconsciously invoking our predilection for the primal purity of (especially Greek) "noble savage" culture), Nietzsche is able to depict any change from the "original" value system as a corruption. Here is the hinge of his entire thesis, not only for The Genealogy of Morals, but for much of his entire philosophy. For Nietzsche, since the golden age of the Greeks man has experienced inexorable decline; a loss of animalism, of feeling at home in nature, or instinct and strength. In its stead has come arid intellectualism, petty utility over aesthetic grandeur, the debasement of the natural aristocracy at the hands of the herd-like multitude.

And the catalyst for this cataclysm began with the general rise of the priestly caste, especially in Palestine and India, but occurring in some form everywhere. The Jews, slaves in Egypt for centuries, managed to turn the original, aristocratic morality on its head. They created a God who favored them, the vanquished, as the chosen race; who saw their race as clean and others unclean; who promised eventual deliverance. The Jewish wish for revenge on their many oppressors eventually manifested itself as the Christian belief in a calamitous Judgment Day on the proud, the strong, and the rich--the exact attributes of Nietzsche's "original" value-creators, who are now, ironically, seen as evil.[8] Similarly, the rise of the caste system in India signaled the rule of the weak, the Brahmin, who had learned how to make the strong feel ashamed and unclean. With the rise of the priestly caste in India and elsewhere began the first, sinister transvaluation of values, from which, Nietzsche insists we still suffer.

But Nietzsche is more at home in the West than the East, and the first essay follows the historical thread of his argument from prehistoric times to his own day. In however sketchy a form, Nietzsche provides an original and alternative view of history. Having never fully escaped the ghost of the Hegelian dialectic[9], Nietzsche traces the gargantuan battle of opposing value systems over two millennia: Christ as apotheosis of Jewish transvaluation of values; Christianity's eventual triumph of Rome, despite Rome's military victory[10]; the brief rebirth of the original, aristocratic morality in the Renaissance only to be snuffed out by the forces of German and English populism, which also breathed life into the dying carcass of Christianity; further defeats for the aristocracy during the French Revolution; the inexplicable rise of Napoleon, the last world-figure of consequence for Nietzsche.

Lending such colossal drama to history is exciting stuff, but relies on appeals to our intuition tantamount to a suspension of disbelief. More often than not, Nietzsche eschews treating specific, historically pivotal events or figures (except when convenient, and especially if there is little historical record against which to check his utterances); he is more at home as psychologist, explaining the motivations of the "ascetic priest" (a psychological type rather than an individual) in his sinister attempts to subvert the primacy of the original aristocratic values.

It is here that Nietzsche is most original and convincing. He depicts an abstract struggle (no less abstract and unhistorical than the Social Contract theorists' State of Nature, which he lambastes) between the honest, strong, proud aristocrat who is defeated by the cunning, vengeful, but essentially wretched and weak ascetic priest. First the priest manufactures the illusion of the moral agent, making weak and strong alike responsible for their state, a matter of choice, rather than a manifestation of natural accident and breeding. Nietzsche argues against the ascetic priest by claiming that strength flows from superabundance of strength, and weakness is similarly a kind of natural state; in fact the notion of a "doer" is itself an illusion; only actions exist--a supposition that Heidegger would later embellish considerably. Yet the original aristocratic duality of "good and bad"--"good" being akin to virtù: strength; "bad" meaning "weak", "untrue", "petty", "mean"--is transplanted by the ascetic's conception of "good and evil": we are moral agents responsible to others for our actions and the state of downtrodden. Instead of supposed natural generosity of aristocrats to their own, we now have the onus of responsibility to others regardless of our estimation of their worth.[11]

Despite my belief that Nietzsche's depiction of the original conflict of value-systems is equally as fanciful (and rhetorical) as, say, the Hobbesian State of Nature, the Garden of Eden, or Utopia, it compels us to think about values in a novel way. Perhaps having rejected the notion that values come from on high, we still must explain their origin; for without divine sanction it is at least possible that (traditional) values do not serve mankind well (as Nietzsche asks, "what is the value of values?"); what were the motivations of the "original" value-creators and their opponents? do we have sufficient evidence to answer such a question?; if not, perhaps asking what are the motivations of contemporary purveyors of values can shed light on the subject. Perhaps exploring the contemporary effects of morality on mankind can equally expose their effects on ancient man, for whom morality was perhaps not inevitable, at least in its familiar form.

III. Second Essay: "Guilt, Bad Conscience and the Like"

Having established his "historical" depiction of the origins of values in the first essay, Nietzsche turns again to his strength, psychological interpretation, for the second and third essays. To support his case, Nietzsche must dissuade us from our conception of conscience, as well as our views toward the underlying motivations of pity, kindness, meekness and other attributes of the ascetic priest, who, despite being seen as increasingly misguided by Enlightenment and Romantic thinkers alike, was usually not depicted as being evil incarnate.[12] The notion of conscience has often been used to buttress the validity of morality, and even the existence of God[13]. Preachers avow that our notions of right and wrong "which we all have," must have come from somewhere, presumably hot-wired into us by the Creator. Certainly St. Paul claims as much in saying that all peoples have "the law written on their hearts." In this view, the existence of good suggests the existence of God.

Thus, Nietzsche must expose the "true" origin of conscience, which he nearly always ironically calls "bad conscience," a conception that bears strong parallels to Freud's superego. To achieve this end, Nietzsche portrays a time when ancient man held no moral views, lived in his glorious animal nature, and had not yet been subverted by the wicked priestly caste.[14] At first the honorable man, the "supermoral" autonomous individual, conceived the necessity of carrying out promises, an activity that both assumes his continued existence, his future, as well as sets him above the beasts. In this early state, promises existed only between equals, a responsibility toward immediate family and perhaps fellow warriors, certainly not toward the downtrodden.

All of this presupposes memory, yet Nietzsche feels he is even qualified to offer us an explanation of the origins of memory: "awful and sinister" (II, 3); only excruciating pain could brand the first few moral laws into men's memories.[15] Conscience itself is "a late fruit of the memory tree" (II, 3) (an interesting echo of Edenic imagery).[16] At first, however, "morality" consisted of keeping promises, of personal honor, with no suggestion of obligation to those to whom no promises were given.

Relying again on etymology, Nietzsche asserts that the very notion of "ought" sprung from the notion of "owe," logically, since the relationship of buyer and seller is among the oldest of relationships, certainly predating the establishment of the state in any form. The notion of punishment originated as retaliation for broken contracts and failure of repayment, and has none of its later righteous tincture. Creditors were simply given the "sweet power" to exact violence on their debtors, who now "owed" them in more ways than one. Thus "guilt" and "conscience" spring ultimately from the creditor/debtor relationship. This relationship becomes the very model for other social relations (shockingly, Nietzsche does not treat marriage here), with the notion that "everything has its price; all can be paid for" soon following. With this key conception in place, justice is soon conceived as the means to exact comparable revenge from debtors; a table of punishments can be drawn up, now that acts can be evaluated in terms of their damage to the creditor. Not only is justice born of this realization, but also according to Nietzsche, "kindness," "equity," "goodwill," and "objectivity" as well. Mutuality and commensurateness replace the former individuality of all persons and actions.

Comparing what are ultimately unique actions to a newly drawn standard becomes an entirely new basis for social behavior; prior to this, action and reaction, especially in regards to retaliation, were probably governed more by animal instinct than primeval standards of justice like "an eye for an eye." Unfortunately, Nietzsche fails to elaborate on his claim that herein are found the origins of kindness and goodwill; a more telling attack on these notions would have more thoroughly undermined others' claims of the innate goodness of man, and that conscience and morality are somehow innate.

Instead, Nietzsche anxiously presses on to a critique of the State, asserting that it emerged in much the same position as the early creditor. Since members of a community owe their security and much else to the community[17], a criminal (German "Verbrecker") has broken the contract with the state, which now can exact "sweet revenge" against the ungrateful outcast. Always eager to extol the virtues of the state, courts of law exist as much to remind law-breakers of the benefits the state has given them as to punish them. As societies grow in power, offenses are taken less seriously; offenders as seen more as pesky insects. As the state's authority weakens, the brutality of punishment intensifies.[18]

From his depiction of the State as supreme creditor, Nietzsche offers an analysis of justice. Remember that earlier Nietzsche claimed that the rise of the belief that "everything has its price" is the true origin of justice, presumably because before that man did not compare other men's actions to a standard, a table of punishments. For Nietzsche, this already represents a degeneration in the notion of justice, which Nietzsche believes degenerates pari passu to the extent that it is a reactive feeling--Nietzsche attaching greater value to proactive behavior of any sort. "The active man, the attacking, aggressive man is always a hundred degrees nearer to justice than the man who merely reacts; he certainly has no need to adopt the tactics necessary in the case of the reacting man, of making false and biased valuations of his object." (II, 11, my italics.) For Nietzsche, the fact that before responding to aggression the reactive man must first consult a table of punishments--implicit or explicit--means that he is somehow false and counter-instinctual.

In fact the reader often gets the notion that Nietzsche's ideal justice, seemingly divorced as it is from intellectual notions of any kind[19], is nothing more or less than the proto-Darwinian "war of Every Man against Every Man" which Hobbes believed made the Leviathan State imperative. Nietzsche finds any consultation with prescribed intellectual standards as a deviation from man's true self. At this point, one might agree with early critics and characterize Nietzsche's thought as essentially an interesting spin on Darwinism, yet Nietzsche is quick to dissociate himself from the Darwinians. The "whole problem of biology" (II, 12) is that proactive emotions have been woefully underestimated. Consider this extraordinary passage:

The democratic idiosyncrasy against everything which rules and wishes to rule, the modern misarchism (to coin a bad word for a bad thing), has gradually but so thoroughly transformed itself into the guise of intellectualism, the most abstract intellectualism, that even nowadays it penetrates and has the right to penetrate step by step into the most exact and apparently the most objective sciences: this tendency has, in fact, in my view already dominated the whole of physiology and biology, and to their detriment, as is obvious, in so far as it has spirited away a radical idea, the idea of true activity. The tyranny of this idiosyncrasy, however, results in the theory of "adaptation" being pushed forward into the van of the argument, exploited; adaptation--that means to say, a second-class activity, a mere capacity for "reacting"; in fact, life itself has been defined (by Herbert Spencer) as an increasingly effective internal adaptation to external circumstances. (II, 12)

Thus, Nietzsche, while tackling the problems of man-as-animal explicitly rejects the Darwinian vision, and strives for his own original depiction of man-as-animal. Man is innately proactive, spontaneous, exhibits "spontaneous play throughout all phenomena" (II, 12). That is to say, before the sinister transvaluation of values weakens the strong.[20]

Law, presumably a mechanism for justice, represents a war against reactive feelings, an attempt by the state to control them, to enjoy a monopoly of force. But the idea that law or morality can represent any absolute good is absurd; the war of the wills still rages. "To talk of intrinsic right and intrinsic wrong is absolutely nonsensical....life is essentially (that is, in its cardinal function) something which functions by injuring, oppressing, exploiting, and annihilating, and is absolutely inconceivable without such a character" (II, 11). The establishment of the State signifies that the old war of wills will continue to be waged through different channels and apparatuses, but continue nonetheless. The power of the State to punish should in no way be confused as a bulwark of the State's authority, as much as it is a facet of the State's power.

For Nietzsche, punishment, like any custom, undergoes such a dramatic transmogrification over time that its final end is often a diametric opposite of its original intention.[21] Nietzsche reasserts that at one time punishment was scarcely distinguishable from retaliation, and with no moral component. Again, the procedures of certain punishments existed long before they were put to use in the name of the State or a moral code. But now the application of punishment is sometimes justified as a mechanism to induce guilt in the victim of the punishing power--as if pain or solitude will somehow awaken the sleeping conscience. Nietzsche doubts the effectiveness of such means, believing that what is taken for "bad conscience" in a criminal is really anguish born of foreknowledge of the State's imminent wrath. Again, Nietzsche shows his tendency to view things from a physical, visceral level, and treats traditional morality as a horrible lie that we all need to overcome.

After devoting the first fifteen sections of the second essay to brief descriptions of the origins of promises, memory, justice, the state, obligation, punishment, and conscience, Nietzsche turns to the ill effects of conscience on mankind. To do so, he contrasts the hallowed, pre-moral era, with the time immediately after the establishment of the state. In this view, conscience is actually a "serious illness" born of "man's reaction" toward his new, peaceful, societal home (II, 16). Once the machinery of society had violently broken man from his animal past, all of man's old impulses now turned inward on himself; this is the disease of modern man, and Nietzsche will devote significant time to the prognosis, especially in relation to the role of the ascetic priest.

But first he returns to embellish his theory of the origin of the state. Paradoxically, the origin of bad conscience lies in a violent state set up by the "blonde beasts," the ultimate "artist-tyrants," the like of whom has not yet been seen since. Yet bad-conscience did not originate with the "blonde beasts," but by inaugurating the State, they made it possible. It should be noted, in Nietzsche's "defense," that the "blonde beasts" do not refer to any specifically Aryan or Teutonic group or to any specific racial group at all. For Nietzsche, the term refers to "the Roman, Arabic, German, and Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings....," (I, 11) all of who exhibited great virtù and power. For critic Walter Kaufmann, blond beast is simply an "ideogram for the conception of unsublimated animal passion."[22]

In the early state, ancestors assumed a place of preeminent authority, and in some cases were even worshipped because of their role in creating the existing social structure. Nietzsche posits that in the fear of such ancestors may lay the origin of gods themselves--significantly, from fear, still a primary motivation in belief.[23] Further support for this claim is Nietzsche's assertion that:

Progress towards universal empires invariably means progress towards universal deities; despotism, with its subjugation of the independent nobility, always paves the way for some system or other of monotheism. (II, 21)

By digging into the grisly roots of Western cultural history, Nietzsche has offered his own account of the origins of the state, and later, of religion, as an offshoot thereof.

Still aiming for the knockout blow, Nietzsche offers another scalding explanation for the rise of Christianity. As belief in a God tends to wane or ossify (as in 1st Century B.C.E. Palestine) there grows the belief that the debt to God cannot be paid (as with the state, the relationship between God and man is that of creditor and debtor). At first this realization brings horrible guilt; later man turns against his creditor (God, or nature, or even existence[24]); eventually man finds alleviation in the unique claims of Christianity: that God, the creditor, has sacrificed himself out of love for his debtor! Tamed man, following Christian dictums, turns his natural instinct for cruelty against himself, and psychologically impales himself on the opposing horns of God and the devil. Or he completely eschews the pleasures of this life, mortifying his flesh in hopes of pleasure and reward in the next.

And this for Nietzsche highlights the horrors of Christianity, the reason for his ceaseless critique: that many otherwise strong spirits, as well as entire eras, have had their strong natural instincts trod underfoot and repressed by Christian dogma. Nietzsche ends the second essay with his hope that an Antichrist, Antinihilist redeemer will appear to rediscover dogma-free reality, and dissolve man's foolish hopes for transcendence.

IV. Third Essay: "What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?"

In the final essay, Nietzsche devotes much of his energy to a psychological evaluation of the ascetic priest; the evolution of the idea of the asceticism; various philosophers' accounts of aesthetics and its relation to asceticism; and its detrimental effects on mankind. As he stated in the second essay, Nietzsche's primary objection to ascetic ideals is that ascetics must deny the value of this life, portray it as a mere bridge to the next life, rather than as an end in itself. For Nietzsche, refining and exercising our wills in this life is the ultimate end, and any dogma that inhibits this process is a manifestation of sickness.

In depicting this dogma as all-intrusive, Nietzsche attempts to show first how even artists and philosophers--usually considered free-thinkers--are themselves afflicted by this dogma, as manifested in their works, which often exude the sickly smells of morality and asceticism. Nietzsche seems especially prescient of twentieth century trends in literature in stating that man has a need for some will, some goal, even the will for nothingness--a statement that seems to anticipate existentialism, and the literature of the absurd, as much as it is a critique of nineteenth century nihilism.

Nietzsche's first artistic target remains Wagner, whom Nietzsche always felt took an abrupt aesthetic turn for the worst at the moment their short, intimate friendship ceased.[25] For Nietzsche, Parsifal is but a parody of tragedy (III, 3), and shows that Wagner was by then overcome by the ascetic dogma.

But aside from Wagner, Nietzsche aims to show that asceticism is a common (but by no means necessary) trait of the artist. The artist's will to action is in some way vitiated by the struggles of his life, else he be not an artist but a doer himself. The artist himself shows a reluctance to fully engage reality. "Homer would not have created an Achilles, nor Goethe a Faust, if Homer had been an Achilles or if Goethe had been a Faust" (III, 4). True artists do not consider themselves to be worthy objects of art.[26] And yet, true artists, for Nietzsche, rarely have the courage to stand alone, needing the "milk of some orthodoxy" to stand upon.

Still implicitly and explicitly critiquing Wagner, Nietzsche turns toward an examination of Schopenhauer's view of art, as Nietzsche believes that Schopenhauer's philosophy had an indelible imprint on the thought of the 1870s, including Wagner's. Schopenhauer, who exerted a decisive influence on Nietzsche himself by portraying the world as largely a struggle of wills, embraced ascetic ideals as a means of escape from his own tortured soul. Schopenhauer (like Kant before him) viewed the contemplation of pure beauty as the means to escape the life-will, and to counteract sexual interest (III, 6), betraying his predilection to view art from the perspective of the viewer rather than from that of the creator (as presumably Nietzsche does). Much like an ascetic, Schopenhauer needed enemies (the will, women, Hegel) in order to keep his own will going; Schopenhauer, too, was primarily a reactive force, and this is manifested in his philosophy.

Yet for Nietzsche, this is true of philosophers in general, not just Schopenhauer. Philosophers see asceticism as a bridge to independence; a way of achieving their purest intellectuality; a way of affirming their own (and only their own) existence.[27] Philosophers do not see asceticism so much as virtuous but as the means to the best, most rarified, existence. The denial of sensory joy underscores the contrived "importance" of sheer intellectual pursuits.

Picking up the torch, Nietzsche quickly offers an historical sketch of the relationship between philosophy and asceticism. Appealing again to an unnamable, Ur-philosophical time, Nietzsche portrays the first philosophers as showing shame about any softness, much as they show shame (inspired by Christianity) for any hardness they show today. Early philosophers knew how to depict themselves as a continuation in the tradition of wise men, wizards, priests, and soothsayers in order to make others fear them; and the early ascetics behaved no differently.

Ascetics too sought power; power over life itself; power over the very sources of power (III, 11). The ascetic priest became the "real representative of seriousness," characterized chiefly by a boundless resentment at those who enjoy health, strength, joy, and power. He sought to convince others of his formula: that this life is but a bridge to the next. (Nietzsche, in an unintentionally hilarious generalization, characterizes earth as "the ascetic planet" (III, 11).) Yet paradoxically, Nietzsche concedes that "Life itself must certainly have an interest in the continuance of such a type of self-contradiction. For an ascetic life is a self-contradiction..." (III, 11). Yet, since "Life itself" always grows and thrives despite the hostility of the ascetic priest, life, Nietzsche implies, must somehow strengthen itself through the conflict with asceticism.[28]

The philosophy of the ascetic priest bears strong resemblance to that of certain secular philosophers, who similarly detect errors what in the healthy soul takes for reality; who treat pain, multiplicity, the subject/object distinction as errors. Ascetics scorn reason, and demand that we see the absurd, the impossible, and the counter-intuitive (and take it on faith; its very ineffability is often the reason we should believe in it). Since reason, according to this view, leads to so many errors, we should divorce our wills from reason, employing it only as a crude tool when absolutely necessary. Such a view came to influence even Kant's epistemology, in that Kant championed "disinterested knowledge".

Philosophical objectivity, then, is another fallacious spin-off from asceticism. It is unnatural to view things from an abstract bird's-eye view; for Nietzsche, divorcing our wills from our perception is "intellectual castration" (III, 12). True objectivity, then, is the ability to see the pros and cons of a thing, "the difference in the perspective and in the emotional interpretations" (III, 12). Consider Nietzsche's theory of objectivity and its ramifications for our views of objectivity in such diverse fields as science, journalism, philosophy:

There is only seeing from a perspective, only a "knowing" from a perspective, and the more emotions we express over a thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we train on the same thing, the more complete will be our "idea" of that thing, our "objectivity." But the elimination of the will altogether, the switching off of the emotions all and sundry, granted that we could do so, what! would not that be called intellectual castration? (III, 12)

Quickly turning back to the ascetic priest, we now find Nietzsche telling us that the ascetic's contradiction of Life against Life is only an apparent contradiction; that psychologically asceticism represents a motivation for the preservation of life, the wish for another life; and yet, all the wounds he inflicts upon himself (and others) spurs the ascetic priest to live. Considering how prevalent are the sick among us, we should be all the more grateful for the rare cases, the "windfalls of humanity," who, despite the debilitating presence of the weak, manage to strengthen themselves. For the "sick are the greatest danger for the healthy" (III, 14)[29] and "the weak strive for union, as the strong strive for isolation" (III, 18).

But indeed the sick manage to infect the strong; the infection of asceticism spreads so widely, that society develops a need for "doctors and nurses who themselves are sick" (III, 15). Unfortunately, the ascetic's prescription--more self-mortification, guilt, etc.--will not bring about a true healing; the priest will only successfully channel the course of resentment in the sufferer, offering the drowsy syrup of faith in the afterlife. Of course Nietzsche disputes the priest's diagnosis that "sinfulness" is to blame; for Nietzsche, sinfulness is not real but merely the interpretation of a fact, probably springing ultimately from a physiological discomfort. In contrast, the "well-constituted" soul will easily digest even his negative experiences, remaining unsaddled with guilt or bad-conscience (III, 16).

For Nietzsche, there is simply no end to the evils of the ascetic priest. After aiding and abetting the slaves in their revolt against the natural aristocracy, wounding the strong through the introduction of bad-conscience into the human psyche, the priests' medications for diseased man simply exacerbate the disease. For the disease of fatigue, nausea with this life, Christianity and Buddhism alike preach the annihilation of all wants, joys, emotion, and the will. To effect such a repression of the will, ascetics must be rigorously trained, their spirits honed through mindless repetition (cf. mantras, the routine of work) and fasting, which invites hallucinations that tend to reinforce their world-views, taken as they are for divine revelation. Others are encouraged to follow these practices, lest they stay mired in the unreal, sinful, temporal world.

Turning away from the ascetic priest as a psychological type, Nietzsche returns to his ill effects on nineteenth century thought. Nietzsche lambastes the "innocent lying" of current intellectuals in their predilection to smear everything with moral judgments, subconsciously parroting the views of the ascetic, who, nominally, is rejected by these thinkers. Where then lays the opposition to the ascetic world-view, that contains but one aim...

this goal is, putting it generally, that all the other interests of human life should, measured by its standard, appear petty and narrow; it explains epochs, nations, men, in reference to this one end; it forbids any other interpretations, any other end; it repudiates, denies, affirms, confirms, only in the sense of its own interpretation (and was there ever a more thoroughly elaborated system of interpretation?); it subjects itself to no power, rather does it believe in its own precedence over every power--it believes that nothing powerful exists in the world that has not first got to receive from "it" a meaning, a right to exist, a value, as being an instrument in its work, a way and means to its end, to one end. (III, 23)

The strongest, apparent opposition to asceticism that Nietzsche can detect lies with modern science. It would seem to counter asceticism with its own "will", its strong focus on the temporal universe at the expense of the transcendent. And yet, science remains rhetorically unconvincing for Nietzsche ("these trumpeters of reality are bad musicians, their voices do not come from the deeps with sufficient audibility" (III, 23)). Consider, he says, the apparent temperamental similarities between the ascetic priest and the ideal scientist, their dispassion, their fixation with the routine of work. Science, with rare yet exquisite exceptions, is a "hiding-place for every kind of cowardice, disbelief, remorse, despectio sui, bad conscience--it is the very anxiety that springs from having no ideal, the suffering from the lack of a great love, the discontent with an enforced moderation" (III, 23). These scientists fear "coming to consciousness" (III, 23). Science's right to exist springs ultimately from its faith in its hypotheses or some philosophy. In fact, the first hypothesis of any science asserts the existence of a world different than our own, a world that needs must circumscribe and negate our world to some extent in order to capture it conceptually (III, 24). Or earlier, Nietzsche writes off science as "a dupe of the tricks of language"[30]. In short, scientists, like scholars, are usually not "free spirits," and still suffer from the faith of the ascetic, insofar as they still believe in truth (III, 24).

This belief in truth is born of the ascetic ideal, or more precisely the Platonic, and eventually Christian belief that truth is divine. This suggests a belief in a timeless, objective reality that corresponds to the divine; the importance of the ever-mutable sensory world is minimized by such a view, paving the way for asceticism and much else. Even agnostics suffer from this conception of reality; and in their approach to an objective, godless reality, they "worship their very query as God" (III, 25). Modern history, as championed by Ranke, suffers from a similar malaise in that it asserts little, it describes; historians show little overt will to interpret, to be value-creators.[31] Other strange transmogrifications of the ascetic include the prevalent belief in teleology (which presumably afflicts even Darwinism, in its belief in the inexorable improvement of the species), and the common belief in personal Fate, that things happen for a happen for a reason--echoing Nietzsche's comment in Beyond Good and Evil that most of us are afraid of "looking into the abyss" of a teleologically free reality.

In closing his essay, Nietzsche grants that the ascetic ideal filled a void in the whole problem of man; that man, who often wills to suffer, needed a reason of suffer (which appears counter-intuitive), and that man would rather will ascetic suffering, than to will nothing at all. Paradoxically (except for Nietzsche), asceticism, which is characterized by a denial of the will, saved the will by preserving in us a warped counter-will to suffer.

Toward an Evaluation of Nietzsche's Genealogy

Much of this essay necessarily degenerated into a summary of the Genealogy, because it remains especially difficult to evaluate Nietzsche without a sketch of his ideas fresh in mind. Nietzsche successfully preempted any valid reduction of his ideas into formulae, although many critics still rendered Nietzsche formulaically, rather than evaluated his philosophy in all its nuanced suppleness. As Kaufmann suggests[32], Nietzsche remains essentially "our greatest miniaturist," as he said of Wagner, "who crowds into the smallest space an infinity of meaning" but fails, modern man being what he is, to create a sweeping, integrated vision like the handful of greatest Western writers.

Kaufmann, in his chapter on Nietzsche's methodology, suggests that the "anarchy of atoms" that comprises his work are "perhaps integrated into a larger design" (Kaufmann, 74). His style:

might be called monadologic to crystallize the tendency of each aphorism to be self-sufficient while yet throwing light on almost every other aphorism. We are confronted with a "pluralistic universe" in which each aphorism is itself a microcosm. Almost as often as not, a single passage is equally relevant to ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of history, theory of value, psychology, and perhaps half a dozen other fields (Kaufmann, 75).

Kaufmann also mentions how the philosopher Karl Jaspers suggested not being satisfied that one understood Nietzsche's view on any issue until one also found a passage that contradicted it; Jaspers saw "a virtue in Nietzsche's bold attempt to face such contradictions squarely" (Kaufmann, 75).

For some philosophers, this points to a fundamental problem with Nietzsche's thought: he did not feel bound by the traditional rules of logic, believing them largely irrelevant outside of mathematics, which itself had little to do with manifold reality. Logicians, scientists and others who possess more faith in logic's usefulness in apprehending reality resist Nietzsche's flouting of the rules. Ultimately, however, these more rational minded folk must agree that no rule of logic or mathematics can support the meta-logical assertion that logic or mathematics bring us closer to "truth."

Indeed, in the discussion of the third essay, Nietzsche claims not to believe in ultimate truth--in essence undermining the whole scientific and intellectual enterprise (unless of course one believes that the real purpose of science has become to control nature, with a discovery but a necessary means to this end). Nietzsche believed truth still existed in most people's minds as a kind of overarching Platonic Form, and hence a false abstraction. As much as Nietzsche's criticisms do much to undermine the assumptions of science and metaphysics, "truth" in some form, must still be the standard to which he, Nietzsche, as philosopher, must struggle to achieve. Without any standard of truth, all remarks are equally valid, and thus we have no more reason to listen to Nietzsche's doom rather than the drowsy syrup of the ascetic priest.

Having avowedly freed himself from the standards of Truth and logic, Nietzsche's work appears more as rhetoric, in the benighted sense of the Sophists--an attempt to convince us through appeals to our intuition. Nietzsche's fighting ground almost always becomes psychology--or psychologically compelling portraits of the principal players in the formation of morality: the natural aristocracy; the ascetic priest; the early philosophers; the ancient Greeks; Wagner, etc. A fundamental charge that can be levied against Nietzsche, however, is that his appeals to our intuition are in actuality appeals to our cynicism. The persuasiveness of his method, one of rhetoric and psychology instead of systems or appeals to deductive logic, must be determined by individual readers.

Aside from these possible objections, critics could object to Nietzsche's passionate espousal of his beliefs; he often lacks the cold, detached stance of the philosopher to which we are accustomed. Nietzsche's response to such an objection can be found in third essay of the Genealogy: that cold, dispassionate quests for truth are too redolent of asceticism; a divorce of one's will from one's perspective; the laughable pretense of bird's-eye objectivity.

In the final analysis, Nietzsche's influence will be seen as primarily heuristic: rather than embracing Nietzsche's theories as they are, philosophers benefit from the wide tracts of previously unchartered ground that Nietzsche opened up for exploration. His approach to the origins of morality is singularly original, and anticipates, indeed exerted a decisive influence on twentieth century developments in value theory. Nietzsche himself, at times, would appear satisfied by this; rather than seeking disciples, he encouraged his readers above all to think for themselves. He sought merely to alter the locus of debate; in that, for those who have digested his works, he more than succeeded.

Dan Geddes,
19 September 1996

    [1] Philosophers' attitude toward Nietzsche before the war is perhaps typified by Bertrand Russell's entry on Nietzsche in his History of Western Philosophy (1945). Russell simply posits a direct link between Nietzsche and Hitler, and then betrays such an appalling ignorance of Nietzsche's work that his entry degenerates quickly into a fictional dialogue between Nietzsche and the Buddha--a humorous effort, but one that assumes we will take the Buddha's side unquestioningly, which is exactly what Nietzsche diagnosed as the problem of the West. Russell also places Nietzsche in the nineteenth century "Romantic" tradition, a highly dubious contention, and dependent on an indefinable term.

    [2] See especially Kaufmann's Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, AntiChrist, Prologue, "The Nietzsche Legend," for the  rise of the myth of Nietzsche as Nazi forbear. Kaufmann establishes the complete lack of anti-Semitism in Nietzsche's writings. Nietzsche's views on both the Jews and Germans were both extremely ambivalent: he does believe the Jews furthered the rise of the "slave morality," but no more so than the Buddha, Jesus, Paul, the early Christians, medieval monks, British utilitarian philosophers, and countless others; the Germans are often written off as "sausage-eaters" and other epithets. Nietzsche despised the nationalism of the Second Reich (1871-1918), and called himself the first "good European." Sensing that his writings would be appropriated and misused by his domineering sister, Nietzsche bemoaned that he should have written both Zarathustra and The Will to Power in French (!), so that these books would in no way be associated with the burgeoning nationalism of the Second Reich (Kaufmann, The Will to Power, introduction). Finally, Nietzsche's notion of a master race was multi-racial; it comprises all good "artist-tyrants" everywhere, and, when put in context of Nietzsche's love for all things (Classical) Greek, is seen as a transparent descendant of Plato's "philosopher-kings."

    [3] Nietzsche wrote over twenty volumes of philosophy during his writing years (1872-1890), most of which are divided into short sections dealing with a particular, usually original, idea or insight. Although sometimes divided into chapters (as in Beyond Good and Evil) or presented as poetry (Thus Spake Zarathustra), this form usually obtains, and so Nietzsche does not have to be read straight through like more thesis-oriented philosophers like Kant or Spengler.

    [4] By appealing to a prescribed standard, logicians too invoke a silent "should" that one "ought" to think a certain way. Logicians, however, must deal only with form at the expense of content, and so can do little in the face of Nietzsche's works other than cry "Contradiction!", which Nietzsche himself often does for us without flinching.

    [5] For the sheer audacity of self-praise, it is hard to top the late Nietzsche. See especially Ecce Homo, where, despite Nietzsche's echoes of Socrates' claim to be the wisest living man, he cannot be taken only at an ironic level.

    [6] My references to the Genealogy will include essay number and section number. Thus "(II, 15)" will mean second essay, section 15.

    [7] Readers of The Birth of Tragedy encounter a similar problem with Nietzsche's confident assertions about the early Greek's notion of drama. As carried away as we are by Nietzsche's thesis, many times we wonder what sources he is drawing from.

Nietzsche, however, may be using history as grounds for higher symbols, higher types. Kaufmann writes:

Nietzsche, from his first book to his last, considered historical events and figures less with an eye to literal accuracy or correctness than "to circumscribe . . . an everyday symbol . . . , to elevate it, to intensify it into a comprehensive symbol" (Kaufmann, 153).

It may well be that Nietzsche's perspective was more poetical than historical in his frequent historical accounts; but then, is it fair to characterize his philosophical opponents as "unhistorical", if he himself is weaving a typology rather than offering a literal account? Such a debate naturally leads to the relative strengths of the literal and the metaphorical in the quest for truth; and though there is no doubt which side Nietzsche would favor, this issue is beyond the scope of this footnote.

    [8] Nietzsche points out with juicy irony that even the weak dream of being strong, and fashion their beliefs in the afterlife accordingly. "These weaklings! --they also, forsooth, wish to be strong some time; there is no doubt about it, some time their kingdom also must come--"the kingdom of God" is their name for it..." (I, 15).

    [9] Nietzsche, in Ecce Homo, freely admits that The Birth of Tragedy suffered from Hegelian tendencies (positing the Dionysian and the Apollonian as the overarching thesis and antithesis of world history). But even as late as the Genealogy he has failed to divest himself of the quest of identifying the principal elements in the world-historical dialectic. In this work, it is essentially the Greek versus the Jew, or the pagan versus the Christian. Perhaps it is this impulse, one of wanting to replace existing overarching philosophical visions with his own, that leads him down the road of unsupported generalization and the unprovable. For all his claims of historical acuity, Nietzsche's various dialectics suffer from the same Achilles heel as Hegel and Marx's dialectic, or Freud's tripartite division of mind: they are unempirical, and bear as many resemblances to religion as science or philosophy.

    [10] "Which of them has been provisionally victorious, Rome or Judea? but there is not a shadow of doubt; just consider to whom in Rome itself nowadays you bow down, as though before the quintessence of all the highest values--and not only in Rome, but almost over half the world, everywhere where man has been tamed or is about to be tamed--to three Jews, as we know, and one Jewess (to Jesus of Nazareth, to Peter the fisher, to Paul the tentmaker, and to the mother of the aforesaid Jesus, named Mary). This is very remarkable; Rome is undoubtedly defeated" (I, 16).

    [11] In Nietzsche's defense, his portrayal of this original conflict of opposing value systems is supported by (Nietzsche's interpretation of) etymological evidence--rather than simply posited. He cites original usages for such encompassing words as "good" and "evil", and appears to have confidence in his interpretation of how ancient speakers used language. Here again, without a sturdy background in linguistics or classical languages, one is forced to either accept or reject Nietzsche's etymological insights, which provide the scant historical evidence for his "theory of history." Again, much of the problem lies in the subject matter itself--there is simply not much documentation--so the claims of both Nietzsche and his opponents lack an historical standard on which to be evaluated.

    [12] Even Nietzsche's view of the ascetic priest is, at times, ambivalent. Although he rants at the tragedy of man being "tamed" by the asceticism of the weak, his own philosophy of the individual entails restraining wild animal impulses, in order to channel them to higher ends (such as art and philosophy). In this sense, asceticism, insofar as it teaches us to at least train our impulses (to harness them for positive ends), is not beyond the pale. Indeed, in his Untimely Meditations, Nietzsche considered "the philosophers, artists, and saints" as the highest types of humanity.

    [13] C.S. Lewis uses such an argument in his Mere Christianity.

    [14] To belabor a point, Nietzsche's depiction of pre-moral ancient man is no more "historical" than the Social Contract theorists' State of Nature, or others who have posited the origins of morality or law. In the necessary absence of a pre-historical history, Nietzsche's position will stand or fall on the basis of its psychological credibility vis-à-vis other conceptions. Although I find Nietzsche's scenario more compelling, more "realistic" than the Social Contract or the Garden of Eden, his approach still suffers from the weakness that its cogency depends on convincing modern readers, living in what I sometimes like to call The Age of Psychology, that he has accurately described what he himself admits is essentially a pre-psychological state--what indeed was first written upon the historical tabula rasa of the mind?

    [15] For Nietzsche on the origins of memory see II, 3. Highlights include: "...perhaps there is nothing more awful and sinister in the early history of man than his system of mnemonics. 'Something is burnt in so as to remain in his memory: only that which never stops hurting remains in his memory.' This is the axiom of the oldest (unfortunately also the longest) psychology in the world....When man thinks it necessary to make for himself a memory, he never accomplishes it without blood, tortures and sacrifice; the most dreadful sacrifices and forfeitures (among them the sacrifice of the first-born), the most loathsome mutilation (for instance, castration), the most cruel rituals of all the religious cults (for all religions are really at bottom systems of cruelty)--all these things originate from that instinct which found in pain its most potent mnemonic."

    [16] Perhaps wisely, Nietzsche avoids a full etiology of memory, a task worthy of more than book-length treatment. But I leave Nietzsche's account of the origins of conscience unsure of the relationship between conscience and morality. If indeed such cruelty was necessary to brand a few moral laws (noble ones, like keeping promises) into men's souls, where did the morality exist in the minds of those who envisioned and were now branding moral laws into others, if not in memory?

    [17] Compare Hobbes' famous dictum from the Leviathan that prior to the State life was "poor, nasty, mean, brutish, and short."

    [18] To our cynical eyes, Nietzsche's depiction of the relationship between the state and the individual as one of creditor and debtor seems more convincing than Locke's State of Nature, where the Original Compact giving rise to the state is born of glorious mutuality.

    [19] As often the case with Nietzsche, he first appears virulent, proud, instinctual, and animalistic; later we as readers are shocked by his sensitivity, bookishness, loneliness, weakness.

    [20] The fact that the original aristocrats, the strong, are eventually vanquished by the "bungled and the botched" would, from a sheerly Darwinian perspective imply that, since the latter survived and won power, they were really stronger all along! Nietzsche, however, must reject this notion. His original aristocracy was not invincible; but it was true, honorable, spontaneous, warlike, and in possession of supreme aesthetic grandeur; only through the "sugary softness of lies" from the mouths of the proto-ascetic priests and his evil ilk did they fall from power. Nietzsche would not deny that industrialists and leading politicians of his day possessed far more "power" (control of men and matter) than most members of the original aristocracy; but their fall from their original state is (much like the fall from Eden!) irreversible and woeful, something that all later men should bemoan.

    [21] "It is only that which has no history, which can be defined" (II, 13). This gem of a quotation encapsulates Nietzsche's emphasis on the living, breathing, historical evolution of a concept, as well as its practical implementation, instead of the fool's quest for perfect definitions (including those of mathematics and science; why are they any different?), a goal rendered palpably foolish long ago by the Socrates of the Platonic dialogues.

    [22] See Kaufmann, op. cit., p. 225.

    [23] This is a compelling theory of the origins of religion, and is supported by examination of ancient literature. Greek heroes, such as Hercules, were at least partially of divine extraction, and the gods themselves were often depicted as the gods of the Greeks alone, as if only ancestral Greeks were truly divine. In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is most certainly a patriarchal god, "the God of our Fathers," of "Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," of the Jews--again showing a tribalist bent, rather than universalist claims.

    [24] This passage handsomely adumbrates the existentialism of Sartre.

    [25] Nietzsche's obsession with Wagner remains one of the more disquieting aspects of his writings, and is present from first to last. Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy, dealt mainly with the origin of tragedy as religious expression in ancient Greece, and remains a masterpiece of aesthetics and philosophy. Why then the long digression (forming the final third of the work) on Wagner's role as a renascent, true tragedian? Nietzsche later devoted two works to Wagner (Nietzsche Contra Wagner, and The Case of Wagner), and references to him and his circle appear throughout Nietzsche's work. Here too, in the Genealogy, Nietzsche expends a disproportionate amount of space, in this, perhaps his most cohesive work, on Wagner's failings, especially his succumbing to traditional morality. It remains one more "aesthetic" fault that one must forgive of Nietzsche, that his obsession with Wagner did something to undermine the effectiveness of his writings.

    [26] This is an interesting critique of much twentieth century fiction, which features a thinly veiled first person autobiographical narrator. While as Emerson (whom Nietzsche respected) anticipated that future literature would be composed of autobiographical accounts, Nietzsche believed such gross self-obsession to be counter-artistic. And yet, do his works (especially Ecce Homo) withstand such a critique?

    [27] Confer Descartes' famous dictum: "I think therefore I am."

    [28] Nietzsche's statement that "this species, hostile, as it is, to life, always grow again and always thrive again" contradicts his other depictions of history, which often posit an inexorable decline since the time of the Greeks, usually because of the sinister spread of asceticism. Here again, Nietzsche, in approaching his target from so many angles, generates self-contradictions in his own position. Yet it does echo his statement from the first essay (I, 16) that in this day it is a "sign of the higher nature," that they are self-contradictory; at least they are still struggling against the slave morality, and presumably the subtle permeations of asceticism as well.

    [29] This comment supports Nietzsche's depiction of the aristocrats being subverted by the slaves.

    [30] "Our whole science is 'moves, force causes,' and so on. Our whole science is still, in spite of all its coldness, of all its freedom from passion, a dupe of the tricks of language, and has never succeeded in getting rid of that superstitious changeling 'the subject' (the atom, to give another instance, is such a changeling, just as the Kantian 'Thing-in-itself')" (I, 13).

    [31] Interestingly, Nietzsche does not flex his Greek here by pointing out that in the Greek, "history" meant to narrate, and springs ultimately from the verb "histor," to judge!

    [32] See Kaufmann, op. cit., p. 73.