Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (5)

First part of my ongoing project to re-read On the Genealogy of Morals, sharing some thoughts as I go along. Today, we’re on the First Essay, sections 3-5.



In this brief section, Nietzsche attempts a little nuance and rationality. He distinguishes between the typical ‘English’ view of morality – in which ‘goodness’ was originally what was useful to the masses, but the masses later ‘forgot’ this fact, and continued using the word that way out of ‘habit’ – and the views of Spencer. The underlying problem with ‘good’ having originally just meant whatever was useful to the masses is that if this were the case we would expect people to be aware of this, and not create centuries of alternate theories and need the English to explain things to them: hence the English need the idea of ‘forgetting’. But Nietzsche points out that since not only has ‘good’ continued to mean what was useful, all along, but the usefulness of using ‘good’ this way (to convince the powerful to be socially useful) hasn’t gone away either, in fact has (Nietzsche says) become greater over time: so why has everybody ‘forgotten’ the use of a tool that they use every day? How has the confusion arisen, if what is referred to has indeed been sitting in front of us the whole time? How could such a confusion of names happen accidentally? To this, N. juxtaposes Spencer’s view that ‘good’ really does STILL just mean ‘useful’, being a sort of shorthand for whatever has proven to be of use – in this case, it wouldn’t be a matter of people forgetting an origin, but just of not sufficiently examining the nature of a current use, which presumably they would be able understand if they thought about what they really meant.

Nietzsche says that this is ‘pyschologically tenable’, and ‘coherent’, and much more logical than the English view, but also that it is wrong. He doesn’t say why.

We see here what I seem to recall being a trope in Nietzsche: he takes one minor theory and uses it to bash down a major theory, allowing him to damage the credibility of the theory he hates without having to get his hands dirty by commiting to things himself. He then hopes that he will look serious and charitable for having spoken better of one of his lesser rivals, and leaves the matter there, not bothering to discredit the theory he has just used.

In this case it would be particularly interesting to hear an argument against Spencer, because Spencer’s argument is very reminiscent of Nietzsche’s own comment in the Preface, that morality had to be challenged because it would otherwise prevent the full flourishing of the potential of the human species. After all, is Nietzsche not there holding up behaviour (in this case the action of calling something immoral or moral) against a standard based on what will be ‘useful’ for humanity? To be sure, he does not consistently call his own vision of what is useful ‘good’, but the normative attitude he holds toward it is nonetheless inescapable.



Here we have the first attempt at specific historical evidence. Nietzsche says that words for ‘good’, in his experience, all lead back to words for aristocracy, and words for ‘bad’ originate in words for the lower classes. It can’t be argued that this does often happen: my translation gives three examples in English of the latter, ‘vulgar’, ‘base’ and ‘low’, compared with ‘noble’ for the former. A particularly good English example would be ‘villain’, now meaning an evil person, but previously having just meant a farmer, and only shifting to its current meaning via aesthetic theory in the 19th century (after a period of meaning ‘base’, ‘simple’, ‘rustic’, ‘scoundrel’, ‘fool’, etc). However, Nietzsche is clearly overstretching here. Take English, for instance: ‘good’ comes from a word meaning ‘appropriate, fitting’, originally from a verb for uniting or assembling. ‘Right’ and ‘righteous’ come from a word meaning ‘straight’ – there is an association of this root with nobility in some languages (eg Latin rēx, ‘king’, and its derivatives (so ‘right’, ‘regal’ and ‘royal’ all come from the same root)), but in these cases the change in meaning has clearly gone in the opposite direction (the king is he who sets things in order). And we’re not even turning to recondite languages in the far corners of the globe, this is English we’re talking about here. And indeed German – although N. talks about the word for ‘good’ having had the sense of ‘noble’ or ‘aristocratic’, the German actually has the same source as the English – if it may once (I don’t know) have had a connotation of aristocracy, that’s certainly not its origin.

The concrete example N. gives is also suspect: schlecht (bad) vs. schlicht (simple, modest), which N. tells us once referred to plebeians, in contrast to nobles. N. is right that the two words have the same origin. However, the oldest root meant ‘slide’, from which developed a word meaning ‘smooth’, from which ‘even, plain’. From this, there came a connotation of something unexceptional, unremarkable, uninteresting, and hence unadmirable, and hence bad. Meanwhile, schlicht developed (either from a dialect form or from a verbal form) to maintain the older meaning, which in turn drifted in a different direction, toward simplicity. So far as I can see, neither word was ever primarily a term of class identification, and that certainly isn’t the origin. The English cognate, incidentally, is slight – now mostly small, minor, unimportant, we can see the older meaning of ‘level’ in the slighting of fortifications (rendering them useless by levelling parts of them), and a brief experiment with the German ‘bad’ meaning in the noun a slight, meaning an insult, a calumny or a macula – I’m not sure whether to slight in the sense of ‘to insult’ comes from the noun or from the metaphor of shaming someone by tearing down their castles… in any case, there’s no strong association with the plebeians in English. Slick is another cognate of these words. Sly and sleight of hand, on the other hand, are instead related to slaying. Moral: words just move around in meaning a lot, all the time. N. has to admit that his proposed meaning change/divergence for schlecht/schlicht must be surprisingly modern, rather than the forgotten-times-of-yore that he wants to be talking about, and blames democracy’s retarding effect, which seems counterintuitive to me, given that Germany in the dark ages and middle ages was not particularly democratic.

It does, however, let him go off on a well-polished rant, complaining how democracy ruins everything, and how ‘malicious’ it is, culminating with:

…it was in Buckle that that plebeianism of the modern spirit, which is of English origin, broke out once again from its malignant soil with all the violence of a slimy volcano, and with that salted, rampant and vulgar eloquence with which up to the present time all volcanoes have spoken.

‘Buckle’ here is presumably Henry Buckle, the English historian who hypothesised that civilisation was a matter of knowledge rather than moral superiority, that civilisation was directly associated with skepticism and the absence of credulity, and that people were individually irrelevent in human history, which could in theory be predicted and understood scientifically, with even great men being more the product of their times than shapers of them. His reputation as a historian is probably impeded by the fact that despite working on his History of Civilization for ten hours a day for seventeen years, he died after completing only the first two volumes of a proposed fourteen. Nietzsche is also probable predisposed against him because he was a leading voice in recognition of the intellectual equality of women (but difference – he believed they were intellectually quicker and better at understanding, and possessed what he called ‘feminine intuition’, and hence were far more deductive; on the other hand, they were also emotional, enthusiastic, imaginative, and lived in an ‘ideal’ world, whereas men were more ‘under the dominion of facts’). Indeed, Buckle identified the growing participation of women in intellectual society as the defining trait of modern civilisation compared to all the inferior ones that had come before, and of England over the barbaric, misogynist continent. Nietzsche’s view on this question was quite different – in Beyond Good and Evil, he identifies women as the greatest retarding element against European civilisation, on the grounds that even though they’re idiots, there’s been an increasing and abominable trend to let them cook, devastating male productivity through their inedible and poisonous products – the continuing incompetence of female cooking he takes as evidence that women are not ‘thinking creatures’ at all, and that women must at all costs be kept out of the kitchen. Preferably in small boxes, I think is his view. He takes the observation Buckle makes that, unlike modern civilisation, Greek civilisation became more misogynist as it developed, and takes this to show the superiority of misogny. No man who believes in equal rights can be a deep thinker, he says – on the contrary, “a man who has depth of spirit as well as of desires, and has also the depth of benevolence… can only think of woman as orientals do: he must conceive of her as a possession, as confinable property, as a being predestined for service and accomplishing her mission therein…”

But, that’s not a quote from On the Genealogy of Morals



With regard to our problem, which can justly be called an intimate problem, and which elects to appeal to only a limited number of ears…

This section continues Nietzsche’s ‘philological’ arguments. He argues that words for ‘good’ all indicated originally aristocracy, and that words of aristocracy in turn indicated how the aristocrats saw themselves, with a contrary association for words for the peasantry. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s philology was considered dodgy in the 19th century, and must now be seen as worse than dodgy in light of modern knowledge. The words Nietzsche picks out (and his etymologies):

ārya(Sanskrit): ‘the possessors’. Etymology disputed, but nothing to do with possessing – most likely ‘the hosts’, ‘the kindly ones’, or possibly something to do with kinsmen, ploughing, sharing, or fitting together. One could imagine that the meaning of sharing and being kind originated from the idea of having something to share, but there’s no reason to think this is so specifically. In any case, ‘Aryan’ appears to have been a general term for the whole nation or community before it became restricted to a noble caste

esthlos (Greek): ‘one who has reality’ > ‘true one’ > ‘truthful one’ > ‘aristocrat’. In reality, etymology unknown, possibly related to words for thriving or being fat.

kakos (Gr.): ‘the cowardice is emphasised’, ‘the plebeian’. Actually means ‘bad, awful, worthless’, though there is a derivative meaning cowardice (and others meaing ‘harmful’, ‘to damage’, ‘to scorn’ and so on). Origin unknown, possibly related to words for ‘small’. Used to describe Darius, who was hardly plebeian.

deilos (Gr.): plebeian, and emphasising cowardice. Does mean cowardly, and some connection with ‘wretched’, but dictionary doesn’t suggest an overt class implication.

agathos: doesn’t give an origin but suggests it will be about bravery, in contrast to the above. Origin still unknown, but Beekes suggests it’s actually a word borrowed from the autochthonous population the Greeks conquered (the direct opposite of Nietzsche’s theory).

melas (Gr.) and malus (Latin): Nietzsche assumes these are the same, and that the Latin word for ‘bad’ means ‘black’ originally – he cites a quote that uses niger to mean a cad. He says this is because the native populations were dark-haired, by contrast to the blond Aryan invaders. In reality, however, the ‘Aryans’ were also fairly dark-haired, as blondeness hadn’t yet been evolved, although iirc some may have been redheads. The words may or may not be related, and even if they are there’s not necessarily a black=evil equation going on here, as the same root is also associated with words for blue and yellow in other languages.

‘Fin’ as in ‘Fin-Gal’ (Gaelic): ‘blond’ > ‘aristocratic’ > ‘good, clean’. It’s true that this word started off meaning ‘white’, and ended up with an additional conotation of truth and justice. However, this may just have been via ‘clean’, ‘stainless’, without any diversion through class labels. Additionally, the ‘Fin-Gal’ (Finngaill) Nietzsche names weren’t Celtic, they were Vikings. The Irish distinguished between the fair and the dark ‘Gauls’ who invaded them (traditionally assumed to be Norwegians vs Danes) – but it’s not clear this is a racial difference (the words may simply mean ‘old’ and ‘new’ in this context). More importantly, while it’s true that the word for ‘fair’ does have noble connotations, so does the word for ‘dark’, which has connotations of might and power.

bonus (L.): ‘warrior’. Nietzsche actually has a good idea here, linking bonus to bellum, ‘war’. However, since in this hypothesis he’s right that the latter ‘contains’ the former (it’s a diminutive, ‘little good thing’, either ironic or referring originally to particular acts of valour), it’s the word for ‘war’ that’s derived from the word for ‘good’, rather than vice versa. He also opts not to mention the other diminutive, bella, ‘pretty’ (used of girls, and not very warrior-y at all). The original meaning of the root is unknown, but it may derive from words for ‘fitting together’ or ‘given’; he is wrong to relate it to duo and a sense of division.

gut (German): ‘of the godlike race’ = ‘Goth’. Again, as said regarding the last section, this etymology is nonsense. Gut comes from a word for fitting together, whereas God comes from a word for pouring (deity as the thing to which libations are poured). The ethnic name may be related to either of these roots, or to neither.

Where does this leave us? Well, Nietzsche’s thinking here isn’t entirely out of line with his era, although even then he was considered insufficiently rigorous (i.e. he lets his etymologies be driven by pre-determined doctrines of racial superiority, rather than by reason or evidence or method). But we know better now. If this is the evidence for Nietzsche’s view of history, it’s no evidence at all.

He helpfully caps it all off with “the grounds for this supposition do not appertain to this work.” That’s a phrase I’ll have to remember. In other words: “I could give a good argument for this, but I won’t, because I don’t think providing a basis for my otherwise implausible claims is in any way relevent to the implausible claims I’m making…” – somehow, I remain unconvinced.

Nietzsche also goes off on a racist rant in this section. First, he argues that the Celts were all blond, and that dark-haired populations must be the subject populations rising up. This is of course false. [And maybe worth noting that Celtic cultures seem often to have prized darker complexions – most famously, the anthropomorphisation of Ireland herself as a woman to be adored is Roisín Dubh, ‘Little Dark Rose’ or ‘Dark Roseleen’.] Then he goes on to attach political significance to this, arguing that democracy and socialism are the result of a deterioration in skull shape and intellectual capacity, demonstrating “the master race – the Aryan race – …becoming inferior physiologically” as a result of breeding with the lesser races. He may not have been making his ‘masters’ and ‘slaves’ into races in the prior section, but here it seems unavoidable. His theories are both unpleasant and deeply ignorant, a terrible combination.

Finally, it’s tempting to defend Nietzsche as not really talking historically, as only talking metaphorically or the like. But we should remember that Nietzsche dismissed the English theoreticians because their views were ‘historically untenable’, and went on to offer his own views of history. The fact that Nietzsche’s own views are themselves entirely historically untenable should not be overlooked…