Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (I)

First part of my ongoing project to re-read On the Genealogy of Morals, sharing some thoughts as I go along.



I’ve decided to read some Nietzsche again. Properly read it, I mean. Although I’ve learnt a lot since university by reading broadly, I’ve gotten out of the habit of really studying primary texts intently. And I think I’d like to have a go at doing that again. There’s a whole bunch of stuff I’d like to apply this to, but as a first attempt I’m going with Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals.

Why? Well, for serious and also for convenient reasons. On the serious side, Nietzsche is an author who deserves attention, and rarely seems to get it – a lot of people quote him (he’s infinitely quotable), some even read him, but he’s an author it’s very easy to misread, to read carelessly. He almost seduces people into reading him carelessly, hitting them about the head with big blunt offensive things and keeping his subtlety more concealed. But I found him a powerful and inspirational philosopher, even if I disagreed with the vast majority of everything he said. And why this book? Well, it’s more readable than most Nietzsche, but also perhaps more profound. And on the convenient side, I have a copy, it’s only about 100 pages, and it’s divided neatly up into numbered paragraphs, making ideal for ‘annotation’.

So, my plan at the moment is to go through, put some quotes and occasional thoughts on Goodreads as I read, and then back that up with more substantial thoughts every now and then on my blog.

Now, I should stress that I am not an academic philosopher, nor am I a Nietzsche expert. Nor am I going to be using this book as the basis of soaring essays of my own, nor conducting fine-toothed lexicostatistical analysis nor conducting a biographical, medical or psychological study of the author.

My intention is to say the sort of thing any ordinary person might say when reading a book of this kind. I’ll have some summaries of what he’s saying and what I think he means, the odd quote, perhaps some sarcastic comments of my own if I feel them necessary. Now, I should also admit on the other hand that I’m not quite a virgin in this area. I read the Genealogy many years ago quite intently, along with a bunch of other Nietzsche books and a bunch of books about Nietzsche. I’m not sure how much I remember. I don’t intend to go through comparing everything with what he said elsewhere, but I may make reference to his other works occasionally if I think it helps. Similarly, I’ve also read a fair amount of other philosophers, now half-remembered, and I may make occasional reference. In particularly, I’m interested in how Nietzsche may slot in as an intermediate stage between his predecessor Schopenhauer and the work of the later Wittgenstein, so I may mention those two now and then. But probably not much.

So who is this for? Well, mostly me. But I have three suggestions for who might want to follow along at home:

–          people who are reading the Genealogy themselves. It’s mostly non-technical work: dense, but in a rhetorical and poetic way. Translations and the original German are both available freely online, as it’s long out of copyright. It’s 100 pages or so, it’s divided into a preface and three essays (which do build on one another but iirc mostly stand alone), and each of these is divided into numbered sections, varying from a few lines to a few pages. You won’t agree with everything he says, but he’s an interesting writer with a memorable turn of phrase. If you want to read along yourselves, maybe you’d like the company.

–          people who know about Nietzsche and will be amused seeing a semi-layman stumbling through by himself.

–          people who don’t want to read Nietzsche themselves but want to have a vague idea what he’s saying. For the most part I’d like to keep these comments of mine to a level where those who haven’t read the book can mostly follow what’s going on. Obviously you’ll miss out on most of the subtlety of Nietzsche’s arguments, but hopefully you’ll get some idea of what he’s saying…

Unfortunately, there is, as with all my projects, a caveat: I’m liable to abandon the project at any time and/or put it on hiatus for an indefinite period. I probably will get through it eventually, but who knows when. My current hope, however, is that I’ll get through it at a fair clip.




Brief Note on Context

For any readers not totally au fait with Nietzsche, some historical context might be useful here.

Nietzsche is writing in the late 19th century, when the Hegelian consensus is breaking up.

Nietzsche begins as a disciple of Hegel’s nemesis, Schopenhauer, at a time when Schopenhauer, in the last years of his life and in the decades after his death, has finally become famous and respected, particularly thanks to the influence of the composer (and semi-cult-leader) Wagner. Schopenhauer draws on Kant (except in his ethics) but despises the obscurantism of Hegel and company, and draws heavily on recent translations of Buddhist and Hindu texts. He see the whole of reality as a single entity, an indivisible Will, of which the divided world of our perception is only a representation. He is a powerful, if somewhat verbose prose stylist, and can become vitriolic at times. Later in his life he writes an ironic book explaining how best to win arguments unfairly. He is a pessimist – he believes that all life, all existence, even that of a rock, is suffering, only temporarily relieved by good music. He believes that the conscious self is only the surface of a more complex and often contradictory psychology, and, in contrast to Kant and most of his followers, who tend to see the mind and the body as radically distinct (even if in some metaphysical way ultimately united), Schopenhauer sees the mind as a directly physical thing, and the body as directly mental – he says, for instance, that the genitals are the direct physical representation of lust, and stresses that our limited human experience of the world is an inherently embodied one, with no free, purely spiritual perspective possible. In ethics, he does away with Kantian notions of duty and imperatives, seeing them as holdovers from an outdated belief in God, and instead emphasises the virtues, specifically compassion. He’s also, thanks probably to a domineering mother, a raging misogynist.

Nietzsche’s happy part of his life was as a professional philologist, follower of Schopenhauer, and close acquaintance of Wagner (who goes as far as saying that Nietzsche is the only human who has enriched Wagner’s worldview) and his mistress/wife Cosima, with whom Nietzsche may have been in love. Eventually, however, Wagner (who likes everyone to call him ‘the Master’) begins to notice that Nietzsche isn’t praising him enough, and he and Cosima worry about Nietzsche’s fragile and suggestable mental state, and they drift apart. Nietzsche tries joining the army as a medical orderly, but is invalided home. His one academic book isn’t just greeted poorly, it’s roundly derided and mocked, far too ‘speculative’ for serious philology. He retains an academic post, however, and goes on to write assorted essays on a variety of topics. He meets Paul Rée and the two become friends. In 1979, he gives up his post, and spends the next decade wandering from hotel room to hotel room with no proper job, surviving on the mercies of friends. In 1882, he meets Lou Salomé. For the course of one summer, Nietzsche and Salomé would wander the woods talking philosophy for ten hours every day, and he proposed to her repeatedly; but in the end, she went off to live with Rée (though not as lovers). Nietzsche’s response was to write Thus Spake Zarathustra. Salomé’s departure was something of a critical moment for his philosophical project: speaking of the agonising memories of that summer that drove him, he said, almost into madness, he explained to a friend, “if I do not discover the alchemist’s trick of turning even this dung into gold, I am lost”.

Nietzsche’s health was always poor. His father died of some kind of dementia when Nietzsche was only five, and he suffered throughout his life with migraines, agonising indigestions, and periodic episodes of partial or total blindness, as well as being generally weak and sickly; in the army, he contracted diphtheria and dysentery as well. Something finally broke in 1889, when he had a complete nervous breakdown. He lived the last ten years of his life with decreasing lucidity and increasing physical disability, publishing nothing. The traditional diagnosis is syphillis, although it’s also possible that he had inherited some rarer neurodegenerative condition from his father. It’s also unclear to what extent this final mental illness was connected to his general oddness and psychological fragility throughout his life (Rée said he had always been ‘unbalanced’; Nietzsche maintained as late as ’88 that he had never had the slightest symptom of any mental disturbance whatsoever).

We can thus divide up Nietzsche’s publication history chronologically. In 1872, after his war experience, he writes The Birth of Tragedy, ostensibly historical, and his most Schopenhauerian work. In the following years he writes a number of essays – the unpublished On Truth and Lie in a Non-Moral Sense and the published Untimely Observations, a sort of newspaper-column set of articles on issues in contemporary culture. Then there’s the period from 1878 (after his break with Wagner and just before he leaves academia) through to his rejection by Salomé – this comprises Human all too Human, Daybreak andThe Gay Science . These books are a more ‘positivist’-influenced Nietzsche, more modelled on science than on art (although Daybreak is in a way a precursor of some of his later themes). Then there’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil, written in the aftermath of the Salomé business. These are probably his most famous works, but also maybe his most difficult. They’re Nietzsche at the height of his radicalism, and they’re also Nietzsche at the height of his disjointed, contradictory, and often cryptic style. They’re also his most disgustingly misogynist, with the inferiority of women being a major theme in many of the more ‘humorous’ portions of Beyond Good and Evil. That takes us up to 1886. 1888 sees no fewer than five books written in a single year – two further his obsession with Wagner and two are sort of synoptic, wrapping-up books (including the biographical Ecce Homo). In all five, Nietzsche’s grandiosity rises to prima facie clinically worrying levels of megalomania, as Nietzsche increasingly identifies himself as the turning point of history, and the direct opponant of Christ, Plato, and Wagner. Then he goes mad in 1889.

The Genealogy of Morals is written in 1887. It’s thus the last work largely uncontaminated by the suspicion of lunacy, but it seems to represent a stage in his thought that has moved beyond the radicalism of the post-Salomé era. It’s probably his most coherent work since The Birth of Tragedy – still officially in aphoristic form like most of his writing, but those aphorisms are now big chunks of text, and ordered into three coherent essays. Fortunately, therefore, the work that can most unproblematically be considered to represent Nietzsche’s mature and developed thought is also among his easiest works to read.


2 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (I)

  1. Hans says:

    It will be interesting to see your observations – the “Genealogy” is the only Nietzsche that I ever read, about 20 years ago. I agree that he is a very good writer, he’s never boring, but he’s also too fond of being shocking for the sake of being shocking. I probably won’t read along – my copy is back home in Germany, and I hate reading book-length texts on a screen.

  2. I agree: he shocks in order to shock. In part, there’s a bit of a justification for it: he wants to be shocking because the thinks that being shocked is good. But there are also times when I think he shocks just because it boosts his ego. He’s undoubtedly a troll.

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