Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (III) (Preface, part 2)

Part of my ongoing project to re-read On the Genealogy of Morals, sharing some thoughts as I go along. Here, we deal with the remaining sections of the Preface



Nietzsche is really, really fond of himself, he claims – long preening sentence about his entirely unique, and entirely individual and not the result of any influences whatsoever nosiree ‘scrupulosity’. We’re also informed he as ‘an innate faculty of psychological discrimination par excellence’. Nobody else could come close to being as wonderful as him or to understanding things as well as him: he worked at his problem until “at last I had a land of my own and a soil of my own, a whole secret world growing and flowering, like hidden gardens of whose existence no one could have an inkling”. By which he means all the knowledge of the nature of good and evil he has that nobody else could have.

Oh, how happy we are, we finders of knowledge, provided that we know how to keep silent sufficiently long.

But it’s worth noting how he frames the problem of the ‘intrinsic’ value of morality: are morals where we see manifested “the fulness, the strength and the will of Life, its courage, its self-confidence, its future”? The pedant might like to point out that Nietzsche begins by begging the question, denying morality any intrinsic value at all and instead demanding that it serve as an instrument to produce – or at least display – other things that he finds valuable, like strength and confidence. He gives no reason why those things should be valuable; elsewhere he suggests that this is ‘a matter of taste’.

Perhaps it’s useful to bear in mind N.’s debt to Schopenhauer, with that phrase ‘the will of Life’. Schopenhaur believed that all of existence was, in itself, will, or was a willing. He believed that all life and existence was torment and that it would be best if the will turned against itself and ceased willing at all – Nietzsche takes up the imagery of the world, of Life, as a willing, striving being, but reverses his values, saying that what is good is what encourages willing and allows it to thrive, rather than what allows it to self-exterminate.



Nietzsche credits Rée’s book as the impulse for writing this, although he says he disagreed with every single proposition. He leaves out a couple of things, though – he doesn’t mention Rée was his close friend, until they fell out over Salomé, and that he’s refused to see him ever since. He doesn’t mention that at the time he praised the book, and that he, Rée (and Salomé once she arrived) were apparently very close in their thinking for another five years. It’s worth remembering too that this book comes out a full decade after Rée’s book, and he’d written two major works inbetween. Its also surprising that he positions himself so against Rée’s book, when there seems to be so much in common between them. Then again, he does say his rejection of the book was marked by neither pique nor intolerance, which I guess from Nietzsche is high praise – any response from Nietzsche not involving screaming is probably tantamount to agreement…

We also see Nietzsche’s bigotry here: he calls Rée’s book “a backward and perverted kind of moral philosophy (your real English kind)”, and goes on to call Rée himself English, Nietzsche’s most severe insult. (Rée was actually from Pomerania).

Also importantly, he discretely backtracks from the earlier claim of continuity, confessing that his earlier expressions of his views were not only clumsy but liable to “relapse and vacillation” (i.e. didn’t say what he now wants to claim that he really wanted to say…)



Nietzsche’s surprisingly forthright here about the origin of his views, for once. Schopenhauer praised values like altruism because he saw them as steps toward negation: therefore Nietzsche, preferring affirmation, has to question those values. He decries “the exhaustion that faces backward”, “the last illness announcing itself with its own mincing melancholy”, the “disease” of pity, “the will turning against Life” (and perhaps that ‘will’ should be the Schopenhauerian ‘Will’), and, worst of all, the possibility of Buddhism. He’s in a kind mood toward Schopenhauer here, actually, confessing that he was his “great teacher”, and seeming to praise the power of Schopenhauer’s rhetoric while reviling its content. Nietzsche began his philosophical life as a disciple of Schopenhauer.

He also clearly identifies his purpose in addressing the origins of morality: to question the value of morality.



I am an opponant of the scandalous modern effeminacy of emotions

(translations seem to vacillate between the more stative ‘effeminacy’ and the more active ‘emasculation’)

In questioning the value of pity, Nietzsche is lead into questioning all morality.

Let us speak out this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values is for the first time to be called into question.

To do that, he says, although without really any reasoning, requires knowledge of the origins of morality, and of how the underwent their ‘evolution and distortion’.

(morality as a result, as a symptom, as a mask, as Tartuffism, as disease, as a misunderstanding; but also morality as a cause, as a remedy, as a stimulant, as a fetter, as a drug)

He calls us to consider possible conflict between morality and what he assumes to be really valuable:

Suppose the converse were the truth! What? Suppose there lurked in the “good man” a symptom of retrogression, such as a danger, a temptation, a poison, a narcotic, by means of which the present lived at the cost of the future! More comfortable and less risky perhaps than its opposite, but also pettier, meaner! So that morality would really be saddled with the guilt, if the maximum potentiality of the highest power and resplendence of the human species were never to be attained? So that really morality would be the danger of dangers?

Of course, it’s wrong to read Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi – it’s an old and careless misreading. But still: there are often times when you can see the Nazis didn’t have to go far to find bits of Nietzsche that they liked. Nietzsche’s idea that morality should be tossed aside as ‘retrogressive’ if it stands in the way of the power and glory of the coming man is, to say the least, on the surface somewhat disturbing. Nonetheless, it flows neatly from the assumption that Schopenhauer must be disagreed with at all costs: nothing can stand in the way of the Will, of Life, thriving and burgeoning and growing and being powerful and magnificent, because this is the direct object of the Will turning upon itself and quelling itself into silence.

Maybe the debt to Schopenhauer explains exactly why Nietzsche values the thriving of Life so much, and with so little doubt or nuance: I wonder whether, even while he disagrees with his forebear on most of the points of detail, he still remains trapped within Schopenhauer’s picture of the world. By conflating everything in the world into the striving of a single Will, Schopenhauer eliminates most possible moral motivations: there is only one thing, the Will, and all it can do is will. This sets up a binary view of the world: everything is either furthering the will or… I was going to say combatting the will, but combat is still willing, so the alternative is instead abnegation of the will. In Schopenhauer we also see a secondary dimension, about the perspicacity or confusion of the will (egoism, for instance, is inferior to compassion because it fails to understand that everything is one with all), but since by this stage Nietzsche, as I think we’ll see later on, is at best highly skeptical of this sort of metaphysical knowledge/ignorance, that just leaves him with the first, binary dimension. In the worldview he inherits from Schopenhauer, then, Nietzsche perhaps feels he only has two choices: abnegation, or affirmation. Everything must ultimately be one or the other, and he picks affirmation. This isn’t exactly a reasoned choice, but it’s a choice that seems pretty reasonable, given the assumption that there are only two choices. I suppose a question for those who want to criticise Nietzsche, then, is whether there really are only two choices?

And on that note, I’d like to note once more the way that Nietzsche generally avoids the suggestion of his thought flowing from that of another, the way he stresses his own uniqueness in history: he obscures the genealogy of his own thoughts, making them just the voice of that ‘fundamental will for insight whose empire reached to the soul’s depths’. At the same time that he attacks rival conceptions by questioning their genealogy – he tries to make himself immune from the same sort of criticism that he employs himself.

One thing not to be missed here, however, is the way that Nietzsche attempts to shore up his own tastes through an appeal to pragmatism: the anti-life morality is not just bad because it’s anti-life in sentiment, but because its effect will be anti-life, in the future: humankind will allegedly fail to progress to its full resplendent power unless we move beyond morality (i.e. beyond altruism). This is of course highly questionable, and Nietzsche never really provides any good reasoning why this should be, so far as I can recall. But more important is probably the very attempt to appeal to this sort of “morality is bad because it will in practical terms get in the way” pragmatist approach.




More (passive-aggressive) thoughts on Rée and hatred of modernity.



Like many of his soi dissant followers in the Continental tradition, Nietzsche is keen to put the blame for miscommunication on the reader, not the author. Indeed, the standards he demands of his readers are very high indeed:

Take for instance my Zarathustra; I allow no one to pass muster as knowing that book, unless every single word therein has at some time wrought in him a profound wound, and at some time exercised on him a profound enchantment: then and not till then chan he enjoy the privilege of participating reverentially in the halcyon element from which that work is born, in its sunny brilliance, its distance, its spaciousness, its certainty.

Sooo… I take it Nietzsche kind of likes his writing?

He also says something interesting: the third essay in this book is intended as a commentary on the aphorism that heads it. This, if taken seriously, tells us something about Nietzsche’s use of aphorisms (do they all deserve such lengthy commentary?), and also perhaps something about what he wishes his essays to accomplish.

11 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (III) (Preface, part 2)

  1. Hans says:

    A note on this one:
    “(translations seem to vacillate between the more stative ‘effeminacy’ and the more active ‘emasculation’)”
    Well, we all know that Nietzsche is a bit of a misogynist, to put it mildly, but I must say English translations like this make him sound misogynistic in a place where isn’t in German – German has Verweichlichung, which literally means “softening” and doesn’t have the overt gender implications of ‘effeminacy’ and ‘emasculation’. If it wouldn’t be against the good philosophical tradition of using latinate abstract nouns, the best trasnslation would be “going soft”.
    Another thing – one can of course argue that the Nazis misunderstood Nietzsche, but I’d rather say that they just went through with what Nietzsche preached – the fact that perhaps Nietzsche would have been horrified by what they did doesn’t excuse the fact that he constructed a philosophical basis for ignoring pity and celebrating the rule of the “strong” over the “weak”. It’s the problem of all worldviews that require an elite to implement it – those who think them up always assume it’s them (or people who they think of as the “right” people) who’ll impement them, but it’s usually much more crude and vulgar people (who nevertheless see themselves as the people the philosophers intended to implement those teachings). Another good example of this is Spengler (also a self-professed disciple of Nietzsche) who cheered the Nazis along until he found out that they wouldn’t listen to him when in power.

  2. Thanks!
    I’m hoping to find (and I seem to recall) that Nietzsche’s actual sentiments, what he actually preached, was a little more complicated than the wonderful blond beast dominating the under-races that he’s often taken to have been supporting.
    Unfortunately, because the Nazis hadn’t yet existed at the time, Nietzsche was aiming in an entirely different direction, and really doesn’t do himself many favours in the lens of history.

  3. rottingham says:

    Would you consider freeing oneself from the self-destructive influence of the superego to be a more accurate interpretation of Nietzsche’s message?

  4. rottingham says:

    (Or if not more “accurate”, then at least more to the point?)

  5. No. The concept of the superego does not appear in Nietzsche, so far as I am aware. What’s more, Nietzsche seems in general positive about superegoistic (i.e. narcissistic, perfectionist) impulses, and skeptical about the idea of personal change at all (note that he repeatedly addresses himself to a small group of listeners who are already more or less on his side but just a bit confused, rather than attempting to convince a wider public). He’d also, I think, look with skepticism on the idea of an individual ‘freeing themselves’ from part of their own psychology: he points out somewhere, re: Kant and Schopenhauer, that there’s no such thing as dispassion, as the only thing that can defeat a drive is a stronger drive. I think he would say that trying to identify the self with only one drive and not the others would be unhealthy?

  6. rottingham says:

    You’re right, it’s coming back to me now. Nietzsche says the only way for suicidal people to become supermen is to give in and kill themselves. That leaves me confused as to what “unhealthy” means. Since Nietzsche is supposed to be an individualist, my guess is he’ll say that not following your drives will make you uh… dissatisfied, (Is that a safe word? Nietzsche doesn’t like “happiness”. Happiness is what the English want.) and being dissatisfied is “unhealthy”.

    Does he consider the obvious objection that instantly gratifying all your desires is liable to put you in a state from which it’s more difficult to gratify your desires? But I suppose a challenge is a good thing, and anyway, for any group that follows his advice, those with the mettle to overcome the adversity they put themselves in will continue to facilitate Flourishing, and the rest will kill themselves. So yeah, everything works out fine.

    You’d think that individuals with not many self-destructive drives would be the lucky ones in that case, but IIRC, that’s not it either. Strong desires be strongly good! Nietzsche doesn’t seem to value actual life at all, only some kind of weird, psychotic parody called Life that looks to me like death under a pseudonym. (Assuming what I remember is correct, which it probably isn’t.) Does the urge to confine self-identification to a single drive count as a drive?

  7. I don’t recall Nietzsche suggesting that everybody kill themselves – that seems unlikely to me.

    Nietzsche is very keen on happiness, joyfulness, etc. What he’s opposed to is… I’m not sure what word he uses, but it’s basically contentment.

    I don’t think Nietzsche thinks that everyone has to gratify all their desires instantly – he’s not a Cyrenaic. But in any case, he would probably think that if you have those desires in the first place, that’s a problem – I think his ideal man is fickle and moderate. Eating, for instance: he’s obviously all for a good meal, but he’s not into sitting around over-eating until you can’t get up and ride a horse anymore, and his ideal man wouldn’t want to do that. Not so much because he intentionally regulates himself to put future pleasures ahead of present ones, but because these over-sating, obsessive, desires aren’t healthy in the first place.

    I don’t really want to get dragged in to discussing his wider philosophy, though, frankly. The idea is to read through this book and see what it actually says, rather than just what I or you seem remember.

  8. rottingham says:

    Though I’ve “remembered” false things before, I seem to clearly recall Nietzsche saying that it’s by killing themselves that suicidal people turn themselves into supermen in hindsight. I’m very surprised if Nietzsche thinks having certain drives are a problem. If I understood him correctly, the actual “problem” is comes from suppressing your drives and turning into a whiner who hates the world, hates it because you are unable to fulfill your drives. If you genuinely want to kill yourself, you make the world a better place for you and everyone else by taking your life, because that is what discharges your drive so you don’t have to hate anymore.

    He may have meant contentment, but I’m equally “sure” Nietzsche has said somewhere that man doesn’t want happiness, the Englishman does. (though come to think of it, that may have been paraphrased by Bertrand Russell, who didn’t seem to want to understand what Nietzsche is all about) Does he associate utilitarianism with contentment, somehow?

    I was concerned that either you don’t let drives suppress dangerous drives, which pretty much everyone has other than maybe very few, or the only thing you change is which drives you “identify” with, which, depending on what’s meant, may or may not be trivial. But your interpretation of Nietzsche’s ideal man sounds quite reasonable. I’m going to read Genealogy of Morals again, lowering reading speed and trying to optimize for comprehension this time round. I sincerely beg your pardon for the other thread’s comment section.

  9. rottingham says:

    (Even I think the language of “for you and everyone else” is too democratic and non-Nietzschean. I think Nietzsche preferred to say that killing yourself is a great deed because it produces a world with less resentment in it. I promise to shut up and read the book now.)

  10. kazisiddiqui says:

    (By instant gratification, I only meant not giving drives a chance to change focus, etc.)

    I won’t comment anymore, if that will help this series along.

  11. kazisiddiqui says:

    (Also, I didn’t mean to imply that everyone always has to live with dangerous, highly insistent drives, but that pretty much everyone feels dangerous impulses at some time or other over the course of their lives.)

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