Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (II)

Part of an ongoing project to read through Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals and make some comments as I go.



We are unknown, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves: this has its own good reason.

Nietzsche is driving home, in rather purple tones, two different thoughts. First, the theoretical purpose of this section: ‘we’ do not know ourselves. “Each one is the farthest away from himself” – he suggests it’s a proverb, but I don’t know it.

This is of course an interesting thing to say, and very much a sentiment that was growing in that era: this was a time at the end of Whitman’s life, and the beginning of Freud’s career (Freud began his study with Charcot two years before this was written).

But I’m intrigued by the parallel with Wittgenstein, who also talks about us, in a way, being furthest from ourselves – where most philosophers have worried that, while we can know that we have a headache but cannot know whether our friend does, Wittgenstein suggests that we can know whether our friend has a headache, but can’t know whether we have one ourselves. Of course, his reasoning is different from Nietzsche’s – what Wittgenstein means is that in describing ourselves we are free, and that the status of our claim to have a headache is of a fundamentally different kind from that of our judgement whether somebody else does. But this in turn ties back in with Nietzsche, and his call for philosophers of the future not to judge, but to command; more generally, although he doesn’t make it clear here, there is a sense that in late Nietzsche the ‘unknowable’ ceases to become a source of anxiety and becomes an arena for choice and the will. Does the unknownness of the self render it mutable? I don’t think Nietzsche thinks that, but I do think he points in that direction.

The other thought, though, may be the more important one: that ‘we’ are different from everybody else. The ‘we’ who do not know ourselves is not necessarily everybody (though that probably does apply to everybody), but rather a particular type of person: “we knowers”.

Our treasure is there, where stand the beehives of our knowledge. It is to those hives that we are always striving; as born creatures of flight, and as the honey-gatherers of the spirit, we care really in our hearts only for one thing – to bring something “home to the hive”.

“We”, the creatures of flight, stand apart from the world of lesser people:

As far as the rest of life with its so-called “experiences” is concerned, which of us has even sufficient interest? or sufficient time? In our dealings with such points of life… our heart is not there, and certainly not our ear.

Nietzsche describes this life as a kind of waking dream, in which “we” never really pay attention to what’s going on as regards ‘the rest of life’. It’s an honest and unapologetic defence of the ivory tower, and you can see why generations of rebellious young university students have found themselves drawn to this elitist vision – particular those less given to socialising, who in Nietzsche find what others would call social ineptitude, ‘lonerdom’ or just plain weirdness instead held up as a noble ideal. Moreover, by addressing himself to “us”, he is rhetorically addressing a more direct sense of the words “we are unknown” – those who may live on the outskirts of normal society, unknown, become central, become the protagonists, of Nietzsche’s narrative, their anonymity made meaningful. Those generations of rebellious students, of course, include the strange and unpopular Nietzsche himself. We may also see an echo here of Nietzsche’s rejection as a philologist – when his The Birth of Tragedy was torn apart by other academics, his chief opponant mockingly likened him to a religious prophet rather than an academic, suggesting that he ought to sit and ‘gather tigers and panthers about the knees’, rather than teach the youth of Germany. Nietzsche seems to have eventually taken up the role his enemies suggested, and in his overtly elitist appeals to ‘us’, he is making clear that his audience is not the general public of his day, but the tigers and panthers of future generations.

Nonetheless, it’s worth remembering that metaphor of the bees: the bee is not seeking honey for its own benefit, but to bring it home to the hive, to the community of other bees. Nietzsche’s knowers are like knights of the mind, questing to find knowledge, and necessarily having to tread on a few yeomanry toes when their higher calling demands it. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Nietzsche, despite all his concerns about philosophy and truth and knowledge and whatnot, expressed in previous books and indeed in this one, still identified “us”, primarily, in the first sentence of his book, as “we knowers”. This should make us doubt interpretations that frame Nietzsche as an unyielding enemy of those who seek knowledge: his methods may be different, but he avows the same quest.

(oh dear gods, ‘avows the same quest’. I’ve only read two paragraphs of Nietzsche and look what it’s done to me already…)



Nietzsche claims continuity in his work, at least back to Human, all too Human. This is a big problem for those who claim substantial development, to the point of self-refutation, over the course of his career. But it’s not a fatal problem. Nietzsche may be lying, or may be confused about his own work – or the ideas he’s speaking of may be only a subset of his ideas, while others have changed. More generally, he admits that his thoughts may have ‘grown riper, clearer, stronger, more complete’, and that they have ‘outgrown their original shape’ – so on the one hand, perhaps what he sees as the essence has remained the same while many surface elements have changed, or perhaps everything he thought has remained the same, but his expressions of those thoughts were initially misleading, to the point of looking like similar but different thoughts altogether. It may also be significant that Nietzsche is dating these thoughts to the winter of ’76-’77, immediately before his then-friend Paul Rée published his own book on the topic, and five years before ‘the stars fell’ and he met Lou Salomé. Whether what he says is true (or honest) or not, maybe part of the purpose of it is to distance himself from Rée and Salomé, asserting his own originality – just as he (more vitriolically) disavows himself, as much as he reasonably can, of the formative influences of Schopenhauer and Wagner elsewhere.

We may note in passing that Nietzsche is really proud of himself, or want us to think he is – he doesn’t just think things that are interesting or original, or even important – no, he lets his mind wander through “broad and dangerous territory”. Nietzsche is always keen to remind us how incredibly dangerous his work is (perhaps to show us by extension what kind of a man he is – daring, iconoclastic, military, manly, sexy – things a far cry from the timid, sickly, embittered, rejected-by-women, perennially unemployed, near-friendless man that a casual glance at the man and not his writings might have suggested…)

Incidentally, “riper, clearer, stronger, more complete” might be an interesting criterion for what Nietzsche considers ‘better’ in a thought.

Also of interest is the way that Nietzsche talks about knowledge here:

[the fact that his thoughts have changed and now support each other better gives him] joyous confidence that they must have been originally neither separate disconnected capricious nor sporadic phenomena, but have sprung from a common root, from a fundamental will for knowledge, whose empire reached to the soul’s depth, and that ever grew more definite in its voice, and more definite in its demands.

That’s a pretty religious way of putting it for an atheist! It reminds me of the Stoic notion of ‘katalepsis’, the secure grasping of fact that is the criterion of truth, but that only the sage can be sure of discerning – and the Stoic sage, perhaps like the Nietzschean knower, is ‘as rare as phoenix’. Of course, it also suggests Descartes’ god-given ‘clear and distinct ideas’.


We have no right to be “disconnected”; we must neither err “disconnectedly” nor strike the truth “disconnectedly”. Rather with the necessity with which a tree bears its fruit, so do our thoughts, our values, our Yes’s and No’s and If’s and Whether’s, grow connected and interrelated, mutual witnesses of one will, one health, one kingdom, one sun – as to whether they are to your taste, these fruits of ours? – But what matters that to the trees? What matters that to us, us the philosophers?

So ‘we’ are explicitly philosophers. That ‘disconnected’ is suggestive: literally, it means that our thoughts should be connected to one another systematically, not piecemeal. But I think there’s a suggestion as well that our thoughts should be connected to the world – they are witnesses of one kingdom and one sun, as a tree that bears fruit is not disconnected from the earth and from the light of the heavens. This is also seen in some of Nietzsche’s comments on art, for instance, where he spurns the ideal of the ‘disinterested’ observer. Nietzsche does not believe in playing little games on the sidelines of things: the connectedness of us and our world is very much a theme for him. Note the continual images, by the way, of natural processes – trees and fruit here, bees and honey before. And I also wonder whether that ‘disconnected’ is also a warning to those who become too isolated from those-who-are-not-us – those who forget that the bee collects honey in order to bring it home. But what happens when it gets that honey home: that is no longer the collector’s concern. If you don’t want to eat our fruit, more fool you! The idea of natural processes, and particularly of productive natural processes, perhaps suggests that each thing has its own natural place and purpose – so long as the philosopher does his job, he’s happy, just as the trees are happy to bring forth fruit whether or not there is anyone around to eat it.

But look out: it’s not just about happiness. Nietzsche goes quite far when he says we have no right to be disconnected. It’s not just about happiness, then, but about duty.

Oh, and there’s a nice rhetorical flourish at the end of that quote: he begins by questioning you, but answers on behalf of us. Both you and us, in context, include the idealised reader – he challenges us, but before we can answer he co-opts us into his alliance… and perhaps we do not notice that he has answered for us, that he has turned us on ourselves on a pinhead and put us in league against ourselves.

23 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (II)

  1. Hans says:

    “Each one is the farthest away from himself” – he suggests it’s a proverb, but I don’t know it. It’s an allsuion to the German saying “Jeder ist sich selbst der Nächste”, with “Nächster” meaning “Nearest”, but also being the German equivalent to “neighbour” in the biblical sense (“Liebe deinen Nächsten” = “Love thy neighbour”). The proverb is cynical, “Everyone is the neares / the neighbour for themselves”, i.e. “everyone has too take care for themselves, everyone is on their own”. Nietzsche inverts the saying: für uns heisst der Satz in alle Ewigkeit …” – “for us> the sentence says in all eternity …”; i.e., for the knowers, the opposite is valid than for the rest of mankind. (And know you got me to open the text on a screen and check it. Shame ony ou! 😉 )

  2. Hans says:

    (And how I hate it that there is no preview function on wordpress. Typos and html-errors, with no chance to correct them!)

  3. Thanks! That’s the sort of thing it’s hard to appreciate unless you’re a native speaker…
    Doing this, I have actually been checking both an online translation (in addition to the paper one I’m reading) and the original German – I don’t speak German, but I know enough of it to at least spot some the word I’m not sure about and look it up. Turns out, my paper copy is a more literary translation that often switches the syntax around and often translates words loosely in order to get at the sense, whereas the online copy I’ve found tries to use simple language and translate very literally. Both approaches seem flawed in different ways. For instance, there’s a quote later on where Nietzsche describes something as a ‘idée fixe’ – my book translates what the author thinks he means, as just ‘obsession’, whereas the online version goes for the literal meaning, ‘fixed idea’. Neither, to me, conveys either the meaning (the musical connotation, the repeated theme displayed in various disguises in tonally different movements) or the linguistic style of the author (Nietzsche is pretentious and loves using French words whenever there’s the slightest excuse).

    Meanwhile, I’ve found some old notes of mine, and they were clearly based on a translation that’s even more flowery.

    There’s an example relevant to this page, actually. One translation describes us as ‘winged insects’, one as ‘born winged creatures’, while a third describes us as ‘born creatures of flight’. That’s just rhetoric, but there’s potentially a difference between ‘honey-gatherers of the mind’, ‘honey-gatherers of the spirit’, and ‘collectors of spiritual honey’. That darn Geist again – mind or spirit?

    Reminds me of when I was studying Schopenhauer. His major work is Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung… and nobody can even agree on what ‘Vorstellung’ means, which doesn’t bode well for the other thousand pages…
    (mainstream view is ‘representation’, but there’s a new translation with ‘presentation’, and the older translations have ‘idea’. this is more of an issue in Schopenhauer – as a more systematic thinker, he makes a number of fine distinctions between German words that translators have to scramble to find non-misleading English equivalents for)

  4. rottingham says:

    What is lost by substituting Geist with “ghost”, technical connotations or poetic nuances?

  5. Hans says:

    “Ghost” has a much more limited range of meanings than German Geist, which can mean, besides “ghost”: “spirit, mind, esprit, wit”. So you’d either have to use “ghost” meaning things it doesn’t do in English (but then it would be better to directly loan “geist” as a technical term) or you have to translate Geist using different words depending on context, but then you divide into differing concepts what in German is rendered by one word and, therefore, often alo seen as one concept.

  6. rottingham says:

    Thanks. “Wit” is stretching it too far, but ghost is sometimes used in expressions like “ghost in the machine”, so spirit and mind don’t seem out of reach to me.

  7. rottingham says:

    Does “give up the ghost” use the word in the sense of spirit, or was its originator imagining an actual ghost leaving the body? Dunno.

  8. Hans says:

    English “ghost” once had a broader range of meanings (see Etymology Online, which still shows up in expressions like “give up the ghost” or in “Holy Ghost” = “Holy Spirit”.

  9. rottingham says:

    Thanks again. “Ghost in the machine” is a relatively recent expression: So some of the older connotations might remain accessible if you deliberately use grave/solemn/archaizing/etc language.

  10. That’s not an older use, really: that’s deliberate mockery. Ryle was trying to mock the dualists. He’s also using the term literally, as he’s talking about people who believe that the mind can survive the body – in other words, the person’s ghost is sort of hanging around in the body (the machine) already.

    But in the case of these translations, ‘ghost’ would be entirely unuseful. The question is whether ‘Geist’ should be ‘mind’ (with connotations of rationality and cognition) or ‘spirit’ (with connotations or non-cognition, force, and possible mysticism). ‘Ghost’ in its modern sense doesn’t really apply to either sense.

  11. rottingham says:

    Older uses are often used in mockery… but thanks for the comment.

  12. …no, take it from me, ‘ghost’ does not normally mean animating spirit in modern English. Ryle was not busting out etymological dictionaries and his copy of Beowulf to think of a really clever joke that only makes sense if you know how the word used to be used a thousand years ago, he was using it to mean what the word means, precisely BECAUSE the idea of people having ghost inside them seems ridiculous.

  13. rottingham says:

    You are way too sure of yourself. “Holy Ghost” is not from Beowulf. “The ghost of Christmas past” is clearly closer to “the spirit of past Christmases” than “undead poltergeist of past Christmases”. I defer to you as a native English speaker, but I have too much evidence on my hands to utterly dismiss the possibility that the word “ghost” draws semantic echoes from within the zeitgeist other than “supernatural monster” as sheer fantasy. Here, eg, is OED’s entry for the word:

  14. rottingham says:

    (I accept that actually translating “Geist” as “ghost” would sound ridiculous in the 21st century, but as recently as 1843, it was possible to supplement the sense of “specter” with “spirit”, it seems. That’s still modern English.)

  15. Past experience unfortunately shows me that no amount of information from the real-world will get you to shake off your ideas once settled on. Of course, you can know through pure reason exactly what words mean in foreign languages, and native speakers and dictionaries be damned.

    The dictionary entry you cite says completely supports me. It lists the sense of ‘soul’ as being obsolete and gives no attestations outside the ‘give up the ghost’ idiom since the 16th century. It gives no citation for the ‘spirit’ meaning since the 17th century, except for two 19th century examples in intentionally archaic and revivalist poetry. [Tennyson’s gothic poetry is NOT a good guide to modern English, and indeed swathes of it are barely intelligeable as a result of his archaisms]. Other than a few idioms, “ghost” means the soul of a deceased person, generally when made visible, or a few other things that look like ghosts or are metaphorically ghosts. It does not mean ‘spirit’ or ‘mind.

  16. And yes, ‘spirit’ can sometimes be used to mean ‘ghost’; that doesn’t mean that ‘ghost’ can be used to mean ‘spirit’.

  17. rottingham says:

    Bravo, you have once again managed to discover an interpretation that allows you to start a response with a “no” (not literally) and go on to belittle others as much as possible. It doesn’t even bother me anymore. The original question had nothing to do with the first thing modern English speakers think of when they come across the word “ghost”. The question was about what meanings are lost in the transition from Geist to ghost despite the presence of uses like 3.a in the OED, and the answer is “wit, espirit, etc,” as already mentioned. The 1843 use I was referring to is the following: Indian English, at least when I was in school, tried to base itself more on Victorian literary language than contemporary spoken language.

  18. rottingham says:

    (That last sentence makes no difference to the argument. It only shows why old literary texts are more relevant to me than you might otherwise think.)

  19. The ghosts of Christmas are not minds or spirits (in the sense that we’re discussing here). They’re called ghosts because they appear to be ghosts – note that they’re matched with the ghost of Morley – even if they are not ghosts in a literal sense.

    And no, that’s not all that is lost in the translation of ‘geist’ to ‘ghost’. The two words mean entirely different things, and translating the former with the latter loses almost the entire meaning of the former. Etymology is not meaning.

  20. rottingham says:

    Look Sal, nobody is saying that it makes sense to actually translate Geist as ghost at the present moment. All I said is that the word ghost has connotations accessible through deliberately archaizing language matching some meanings of Geist, and I wanted to know what is left over. Geist means “mind, spirit, wit, espirit, etc.” OED says that archaizing language does in fact allow “ghost” to express some obsolete meanings, covering “mind, spirit, …” This leaves “wit, espirit, etc.” I got the answer I wanted, and everything is fine. I don’t know why this is so hard for you to accept.

    I’m not going to argue with you over what Charles Dickens was thinking. Look at how Wikipedia describes the Ghost of Christmas Past: “The Ghost of Christmas Past is the first of the three spirits to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge.” ( ) Nevertheless, I accept your word as a native speaker and a humanities student, and I intend to suspend judgement until further information is presented to me. Unlikely as it is, if I run into an argument on the subject in the mean time, then I fully intend to present your statement as evidence for a certain position on the question.

  21. rottingham says:

    (That “etc.” is very significant, and I promise you I won’t forget that.)

  22. kazisiddiqui says:

    (Plus, I never intended to say that “mind, spirit, …” was Charles Dickens’ primary denotation when he used the word, only that I had reasons to suspect those additional connotations coming along for the ride with the primary meaning of “spectre”.)

  23. kazisiddiqui says:

    (I’m sorry for the way this conversation turned out. Thank you for trying to help me.)

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