Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (Index)

This is the index page for my ongoing project to read through Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, sharing some thoughts as I go.

So far, I have the following posts up:

1 – Introduction to the project, intentions, note on the context of the text
2 – Preface: sections 1-2
3 – Preface: remaining sections
4 – First Essay: sections 1-2
5 – First Essay: sections 3-5
6 – First Essay: sections 6-9
7 – First Essay: section 10
8 – First Essay: section 11
9 – First Essay: sections 12-13
10 – First Essay: sections 14-17 and Note
11 – First Essay: roundup


Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (4: Essay 1, Sections 1-2)

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

First Essay – “Good and Evil, Good and Bad”


Nietzsche begins with his rivals – the ‘English’ psychologists. He appears hostile to their view of psychology, in which humans act for reasons they wouldn’t always be proud of:

(for example, in the vis inertiae of habit, or in forgetfulness, or in a blind and fortuitous mechanism and association of ideas, or in some factor that is purely passive, reflex, molecular, or fundamentally stupid)

Worth remembering, when he talks about ‘molecular’ reasons, that he’s probably including evolutionary theories of behaviour here as well – such as those put forward in Rée’s book. He instinctively opposes all these reasons as they put humanity in a passive role: things just happen to people and that’s why they act how they do, as though humans were subject to the same deterministic laws as everybody else. He wants people to turn out to be fundamentally active and self-determining. Nietzsche is an instinctive conspiracy theorist: he would also prefer to believe in malice than in passivity, inertness or coincidence. That’s why he doesn’t directly attack these views – instead, he questions what motivates the ‘English’ (remember, it’s not just a geographical term, it’s a term of abuse – anyone who thinks like the English is ‘English’). He suggests a variety of sordid motivations, but ultimately claims to personally think they have noble intentions, that they have “specifically trained themselves to sacrifice what is desirable to what is true”.



He lambasts the “crass ineptitude” of the English, and singles out some overly English-esque words: “utility”, “forgetting”, “habit”, “error”. Nietzsche’s point is that for most of history, when people have reflected on the fact that they have a sense of what is good, they generally feel proud of their ethical existence, as though knowing good was both something good and something they had in some way attained – whereas the English argue that the concept of the good is almost a sort of historical accident, a happenstance foisted upon humanity through the machinations of impersonal forces, something that just sort of emerges out evolution and history. Despite his earlier words, Nietzsche returns to the idea that the English are saying this for political reasons: that they are intentionally setting out to eliminate human pride and traditional systems of values. But where are they going wrong exactly? Well:

Now the first argument that comes ready to my hand is that the real homestead of the concept “good” is sought and located in the wrong place: the judgement “good” did not originate among those to whom goodness was shown. Much rather has it been the good themselves, that is, the aristocratic, the powerful, the high-stationed, the high-minded, who have felt that they themselves were good, and their actions were good, that is to say of the first order, in contradistinction to all the low, the low-minded, the vulgar, and the plebaian. It was out of this pathos of distance that they first arrogated the right to create values for their own profit, and to coin the names of such values: what had they to do with utility?

Here we come to the concrete. The English have argued that the idea of the good arises from the fact that goodness is beneficial, and that those it benefits, or would benefit, encourage people to follow goodness, and even create the concept of ‘goodness’, as what is beneficial (this ‘English’ approach is based on, on the one hand, utilitarianism, and on the other evolution). But Nietzsche, who always instinctively wants to reverse everything, says that it instead comes from the people who are good, who create the term to distinguish themselves from those who are not good.


That’s one thing, and an interesting idea – that the concept of morality is at least as much a matter of pride in what already separates us from the immoral (and ultimately from the animals) as it is about an attempt to improve ourselves and to control each other. But Nietzsche uses a sort of shock-and-awe style of rhetoric, in which he lands some startling theory, often a reversal of received wisdom, and then sends his ground troops creeping in behind while his reader is still reeling. In this case, he sneaks in the assumption that the people who created the term ‘good’ were aristocrats congratulating themselves on being aristocrats. There’s surely something true to this – many moral judgements, particularly regarding personal virtues, are indeed bound up in concepts of class superiority and status – ‘being a gentleman’, ‘being a man of honour’. ‘Low’ and ‘base’ aren’t just descriptors of social status, but also terms for condemning behaviour deemed unfitting, whereas ‘noble’ is both a status and a commendation. And yet I can’t help but feel that Nietzsche is rushing to an unsubtle conclusion here – he assumes that these terms describe how the nobles see themselves, for instance, rather than how the nobles wish to be, and he also assumes that he must locate a single part of society as the origin of the whole concept of goodness. I would suggest instead that various parts of society each have contributed ethical concepts relating to the values of their own class, and that alongside terms based on nobility there are also terms based on the values of craftsmen and labourers.


My translation here has Nietzsche going further than class:


The pathos of nobility and distance, as I have said, the chronic and despotic esprit de corps and fundamental instinct of a higher dominant race coming into association with a meaner race, an ‘under race’ – this is the origin of the antithesis of good and bad.


However, we have to be wary of translations. The word translated ‘race’ here can apparently be translated as everything from ‘species’ at one end through via ‘character’ down to the vague ‘sort’. So I’m not sure that we can necessarily accuse Nietzsche of racism at this point. What is essential here is the idea that there are natural masters and natural underlings, defined in terms of character and ‘instinct’ – whether these characteristics have a cultural, genetic, or even sui generis origin, is a secondary question, and not one we necessarily have to see Nietzsche as having decided – at least not yet.


It should be mentioned at this point that despite Nietzsche’s claims to epoch-defining originality, he’s actually doing something very old here. Nietzsche elsewhere admits his admiration for the Sophists in general and for (the possibly fictional character) Callicles in particular (Nietzsche believes Callicles to be a paradigm sophist, although the only story he appears in states explicitly that he hates the sophists and is not one of them). It was the Sophists who created the genealogical attack on moral convention – the idea being that by dividing out what is genuinely the product of nature (physis) from what is merely the product of human convention (nomos), we can come to see how contingent and artificial the latter is, stripping from it the unchallengeable force that it commandeers by hiding itself among physis. Nietzsche does not spell it out, but that seems to be what he is doing in his own genealogy also. More particularly, the discussion of whether morality comes from the strong or from the weak is the old argument of Thrasymachus and Callicles. Here Nietzsche disagrees with Callicles, who believes, like the English, that morality (Callicles is talking about ‘justice’ rather than ‘goodness’) is the creation of the weak to spancel the strong – although we’ll come back to this. Instead he sides with Thrasymachus, who beleives that morality is a creation of the strong for their advantage. It’s not a perfect agreement, however – Nietzsche’s emphasis is less on the strong using the language of morality for their own functional advantage, their manipulation of the weak, and more on a sort of self-congratulation and self-definition. Nietzsche also seems closer to Callicles in wanting to juxtapose this false and nomic conception of the good against some true-in-nature sense of virtue (Callicles identifies the virtues of intelligence and courage, which Nietzsche would likely approve of).


However, one has to wonder whether the appeal to what is true in nature is still really as powerful in the 19th or 21st centuries as it was in its original context in Ancient Greece, given that few of Nietzsche’s rivals (not since Hume, at least) would ever concede that morality could be learnt by observing what is ‘natural’.


This section also contains two further points of interest. First, Nietzsche argues that language reflects power:


(The Masters’ right of giving names goes so far that it is permissable to look upon language itself as the expression of the power of the Masters: they say “this is such and such”, they seal finally every object and event with a sound, and thereby at the same time take possession of it.)


It’s an interesting myth that people still repeat today – feminist campaigns against this word or that, for instance, often carry with them this idea of the dominant elements of society ‘sealing objects with a sound’, imposing their power by imposing their vocabulary (leading critics of their power to, naturally enough, attempt to change their vocabulary in order to unseat their power, in a ritual of hostile name-changing that goes back to the oldest fairy tales in our culture). The trouble is that outside myth, this has no basis in reality: it may have made sense from the philological worldview of the hierarchy-dominated 19th century, but scientific study of the issues has long since disproven it. Dominant elites actually have surprisingly little power, or even influence, over ordinary language – which is why conquerors almost always adopt the language of their slaves and chattels, and not the other way around, except where the conquerors utterly overwhelm the conquered in numbers (and even there, there are still cases where the under-language ends up dominant: the success of Guaraní in Paraguay, for instance). On a social level, language is not imposed by the patriarchy: language is controlled by women, specifically women in early middle age from lower-middle-class backgrounds. [Young men are the greatest source of innovations in language – in vocabulary, grammar, and phonology – but most of their innovations are temporary exuberances that pass rapidly and leave no trace; what determines the future of the language as a whole, beyond this street, this neighbourhood, this year in linguistic fashion, is which of those innovations appeal to those men’s girlfriends, and even more so which appeal to, and are adopted by, their girlfriends’ mothers.]


So it doesn’t matter in the slightest what the Master decides to call such-and-such; what matters is what his Mistress’s charwoman, seamstress and nanny decide to call such-and-such.


What can we salvage from Nietzsche’s suggestion? Well, we may consider it in a broader, less literal sense – perhaps the Masters do control language, but only indirectly. They do not name things, but perhaps by shaping their culture they are able to encourage others to name things as the Masters would like. But that gives us something of a circuitous argument, since it is meant to be through their control of language that they shape the thoughts of the under-people; and moreover, if this influence is anything less than absolute, then the application of language – and in particular here the definitions of values – would be not a shaping of the linguistic world to meet the desires of the Masters, but rather a multilateral negotiation, in which the final definitions would reflect the will not only of the rulers but also of the broader populace.


(Incidentally, and trivially, I can’t but see in Nietzsche’s use of parentheses – entire sentences in parentheses, and sometimes parenthetical utterances that are incomplete, suggestive but not settled – a foreëcho (no I don’t normally spell it like that, but I just felt like it for some reason, and it looks pretty) of the later Wittgenstein’s ellipses… – and dashes? – I don’t recall reading any pre-Nietzsche writer who does this, although it’s not something I’ve thought about before so I could well be forgetting something/somebody. It’s part of the unusual clash of styles in Nietzsche – at times as informal as though jotting something down in a notebook, at other times so otiose and porphyrous that it seems he should be writing poetry or bellowing out rhetoric rather than discussing philosophy in text – I wonder how much of this is intentional, and how much is the natural uncertainty of mode that flows from writing for a small and hidden audience with whom the writer has no direct communication?)


Finally, Nietzsche phrases a point in an interesting way. Having argued that the original ‘goodness’ was not a term created by the masses to mean whatever was in the interests of the masses (i.e. altruism) but rather a term created by the rulers to refer to whatever it was rulers felt like doing, he then laments how in the modern world:


…today the prejudice is predominant, which, acting even now with all the intensity of an idée fixe and brain disease, holds that “moral”, “altruistic” and “disinterested” are concepts of equal value.


Fair enough from what he’s said so far, but the interesting bit is instead:


…it is on the occasion of the decay of aristocratic values that the antitheses between “egoistic” and “altruistic” presses more and more heavily on the human conscience.


Here Nietzsche identifies that the ‘modern’ worldview he hates is based not just on the concept of the dread ‘altruism’, but on the antithesis between egoism and altruism: not just that the moral is equated with the altruistic, but that, through opposition to the egoistic, the altruistic must itself become the disinterested. The disinterested, of course, is horrible to Nietzsche on philosophical grounds: having identified that goodness is the healthy striving of the will, an attitude of ‘disinterest’ toward anything in the world, let alone toward all of it and toward one’s own actions, is abhorrent. [And this concept of ‘disinterest’ is supposed in the philosopher of his day to unite both morality and art] Here again I think that Nietzsche is going to get trapped in his own unexamined preconceptions: because he often talks as though his enemy is altruism, when in fact his true enemy should be, on his own grounds, the altruism/egoism antithesis itself, without which altruism need not be relegated to mere disinterest. It is interesting to note that this preconception is actually one place where Nietzsche fails to pay enough attention to Schopenhauer, as Schopenhauer’s ethical system is unusual in part because it does not dichotomise altruism and egoism: for Schopenhauer, altruism is egoism, only coupled with a true understanding of one’s own nature as a part of the world and a manifestation of the one universal Will. In Schopenhauer, therefore, the juxtaposition is not between moral altruism and immoral egoism, but between moral compassion and immoral malice, with egoism (and self-loathing) as fundamentally non-moral, neither good nor bad; and perhaps more directly importantly for Nietzsche, Schopenhauer’s compassionate altruism is therefore essentially not disinterested, is essentially connected and affirmative. Of course, no philosopher is required to consider every possible alternative view, but it is surprising that Nietzsche passes over here a third possibility of which he was indubitably, at least on some level, aware, given his own youthful enthusiasm for Schopenhauerianism. Indeed, Nietzsche’s whole phrasing of the debate is indebted to Schopenhauer, when he phrases the issue of altruism not in terms of rationality but of ‘pity’, not of laws but of instincts. Although Nietzsche’s proximal targets are the English evolutionary/sociological approach to morality (ironic then that both Nietzsche and English theorists like Spencer have ended up frequently equated with ‘social Darwinism’), which may perhaps have retained a little of ‘compassion’ from the time of Hume, the general prominence in Nietzsche’s day of the this idea of compassion (as opposed to obediance to a divine or moral law) as the basis of morality originated with Schopenhauer.


But I wonder whether Nietzsche is being driven here by a deeper instinctive reaction to his predecessor. After all, Schopenhauer does say things like: “The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instill in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? … this reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.”


If Schopenhauer makes the link explicit in this way – that tolerance and charity are important precisely because we realise that all existence is worth than worthless and we’d all be better off never having been born – perhaps we should not be surprised that Nietzsche reflexively takes that link and inverts it – if tolerance and charity spring from negation and despair, then so much the worse for tolerance and charity!


Sometimes reading Nietzsche is like watching an intelligent man screaming in an argument, so determined to avoid compromise that he avoids even those things that might look like compromise that are in actuality in his own best interest.


Then again, maybe that’s, in part, the point.