Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (6)

Part of my ongoing project to carefully re-read On the Genealogy of Morals and offer some commentary as I go. In this part, we’re dealing with the First Essay, sections 6-9.



A difficult but important section – with the difficulty occuring right from the start in the grammar. I’ve looked at five different translations of this section now, and they all seem to say something slightly different…

Anyway, Nietzsche is here discussing the possibility of a society ruled by priests, and arguing that this is not a violation of his rule that “the concept of political superiority always resolves itself into a concept of superiority of the soul”. Nonetheless, there are differences in this special case. One is that the vocabulary is about purity – but N. warns us that primitive people are crude beyond imagining, psychologically speaking, and aren’t capable of symbolism, so that their concept of purity is literal – it’s about vegetarianism, washing regularly and so forth.

Here, Nietzsche is clearly being too racist and patronising. However, there may also be an element of truth: it’s probably true that some quite abstract concepts have evolved from quite simple concrete ones, and at the very least concepts like spiritual purity have often been very closely bound up with demonstrations of physical cleanliness.

The important bit, however, is what comes next:

From the beginning there is something unhealthy about such priestly aristocracies and about the customary attitudes which govern in them, which turn away from action, sometimes brooding, sometimes exploding with emotion, as a result of which in the priests of almost all ages there have appeared almost unavoidably those debilitating intestinal illnesses and neurasthenia.

Priests are wimps, not warriors: they prefer contemplation to violence, and are thus sick and dangerous, as contemplation is contrary to Life. Nietzsche portrays this moral (though he wouldn’t use the word – perhaps ‘spiritual’?) sickness as manifested in actual physical ailments. Perhaps he’s serious; perhaps it’s rhetorical. Either way, it’s surely important that he chose those ailments specifically: debilitating intestinal illnesses and neurasthenia are among the conditions with which Nietzsche himself suffered all his life. This furthers the image of Nietzsche as high priest of his own religion, and is one of the few (nearly) explicit indications that Nietzsche isn’t perfect.

But what they themselves came up with as a remedy for this pathological disease—surely we can assert that it has finally shown itself, through its effects, as even a hundred times more dangerous than the illness for which it was to provide relief. Human beings themselves are still sick from the after-effects of this priestly naivete in healing!

Here’s an important statement of a central thesis: that the ‘priests’, in order to resolve their own sickness (which Nietzsche I think is suggesting comes from an irreconcilable conflict in values within the priestly class, presumably between them qua priests and them qua rulers, or perhaps simply them qua priests versus them qua humans), have spiritually poisoned the whole of mankind.

Nietzsche goes on to give examples of the debilitating spiritual sicknesses that plague the modern world: vegetarianism, chastity, restrained eating, the ‘flight into the desert’, ‘anti-sensual metaphysics’ that make people lazy and over-sophisticated in a process of self-hypnosis. [And indeed, all historians now agree I’m sure that chastity and vegetarianism were indeed the greatest and most terrible evils of the 20th century]. Most importantly, he considers that the priests (like, we may note, Schopenhauer), consider the ultimate cure to be nothingness – Nietzsche regards both Buddhist nirvana and Christian union with God as forms of nothingness for the individual, further perhaps suggesting why he hates the idea of compassion or altruism, which for Schopenhauer spring from not only an ultimate abnegation but more proximally from a union with the world that mirrors the Christian dissolution into God. He then gives what looks like a condemnation of the priests:

Among the priests, everything simply becomes more dangerous—not only the remedies and arts of healing, but also pride, vengeance, mental acuity, excess, love, lust for power, virtue, illness…

But wait! Isn’t ‘dangerous’ a good thing in Nietzsche? And indeed then we are told:

…although with some fairness one could also add that it was from the soil of this essentially dangerous form of human existence, the priestly form, that man first became an interesting animal, that only here did the human soul acquire depth in a higher sense and become evil – and indeed these two are the basic forms of the superiority which man has until now displayed over other creatures.

So we have a contrast of two judgements: the priests and their offspring are both dangerous (good) and sick (bad), and as a result humans have become evil (good), and superior to the animals. It is vital to bear this in mind as we read on: that Nietzsche considers his pre-priestly Masters to be uninteresting, and no more than animals. Priests may have created sickness, but it is a sickness that has changed our nature for the better – we have gone from healthy animals to sick human beings. Perhaps the next step is to cure us?



The knightly-aristocratic judgments of value have as their basic assumption a powerful physicality, a blooming, rich, even overflowing health, together with those things required to maintain these qualities — war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and, in general, everything which involves strong, free, happy action. The priestly-noble method of evaluating has, as we saw, other preconditions: these make it difficult enough for them when it comes to war!

So, interesting things begin to happen when conflicts arise between aristocrats and priests. But because the values of priests involve prizing things like cleanliness and abhorring blood, they’re not very good at actually fighting. So they need subtler weapons…

As is well known, priests are the most terrible of enemies — but why? Because they are the most powerless. From their powerlessness, their hate grows among them into something huge and terrifying, to the most spiritual and most poisonous manifestations. The really great haters in world history and the most spiritual haters have always been priests.

It’s clear which side we’re meant to be sympathising with here: the priests are not only powerless but hate-filled. Why? Well, hopefully Nietzsche will try explaining that later, but for now it seems like a blunt rhetorical move to force our allegiances. And yet remember:

Human history would be a really stupid affair without that spirit which entered it from the powerless.

We’re not necessarily meant to side with the aristocrats entirely, or wholeheartedly lament their defeat.

But now we’re getting to the crux of Nietzsche’s vision of history: which, to summarise, is “it’s all the Jews’ fault”:

Everything on earth which has been done against “the nobility,” “the powerful,” “the masters,” “the possessors of power” is not worth mentioning in comparison with what the Jews have done against them: the Jews, that priestly people, who knew how to get final satisfaction from their enemies and conquerors through a radical transformation of their values, that is, through an act of the most spiritual revenge. This was appropriate only to a priestly people with the most deeply repressed priestly desire for revenge.

Put next to his earlier statement on race, and it’s really hard not to read Nietzsche as just a tad anti-semitic here, and it’s hard to really defend him at all. To avoid disgust, it’s probably better to just read ‘priests’ whenever Nietzsche talks about Jews (and to be fair to him, he does see Christianity as mostly a Jewish conspiracy). We might also note with curiosity how he’s appended ‘repression’ and ‘revenge’ to the earlier priestly characteristic of ‘hate’.

He gives us a simple version of the ‘Jewish’ ideology:

“Only those who suffer are good; the poor, the powerless, the lowly are the only good people; the suffering, those in need, the sick, the ugly are also the only pious people; only they are blessed by God; for them alone there is salvation.—By contrast, you privileged and powerful people, you are for all eternity the evil, the cruel, the lecherous, the insatiable, the godless; you will also be the unblessed, the cursed, and the damned for all eternity!”

Thus the “slave revolt in morality” revalues the old valuations, and takes revenge for the physical defeat of the priests by imposing guilt and a fear of the afterlife upon the strong.

It’s maybe worth going back to Callicles here. Callicles says that morals are created by the weak to control the strong; as a result, ‘Socrates’ can object that in that case the ‘weak’ are actually the strong, since they have conquered the strong. Nietzsche recognises this objection, and does give grudging credit to the Jews, acknowledging their power, their intellect and their audacity. More profoundly, however, he’s able to sidestep this problem, because unlike Callicles he does not define strength solely through appeal to worldly good and pleasures – Nietzsche’s strong aren’t just the people who are best at conquering in general, they’re a particulary type of person, who just happened to be best and conquering when the battle was fought in a particular way. The Masters are masters because they are superior, rather than being superior simply because they are masters – thus, their loss of mastery does not spiritually invalidate them as it does Callicles’ elites.

But let’s return for a moment to reality. In reality, it’s questionable whether secular rulers were in fact in general prior to religious rulers; it’s questionable how many time secular rulers in fact conquered priestly aristocracies; it’s questionable whether the Jews did in fact constitute a priestly aristocracy when they were conquered. It’s pretty clear that they didn’t in fact have an intentional conspiracy to defile the spiritual integrity of the aryan races.

We shouldn’t admit too much ambiguity in how Nietzsche considers this two-thousand year Jewish conspiracy, either. True, he admits that the Jews made humanity interesting, but he also says plainly that their project was “immeasurably disasterous”.

Finally, and forebodingly for the future of race relations in Germany, Nietzsche is forthright in asserting not only that there is a Jewish conspiracy, but that it amounts to violence, to open warfare, to “this most fundamental of all declarations of war” against the Aryan master race. The implication, of course, is that if the Jews have declared war on the master race, the master race is justified in fighting back – there are in this view no Jewish civilians, only a race of racial belligerants. What’s more, Nietzsche’s description of the subtlety of the Jewish ‘poison’ and their refusal to face the Aryans in honest battle positions the Jews as not merely enemy combatants (who might deserve honourable treatment as POWs) but as spies, fifth columnists and conspirators (who in a time of war, such as in the war the Jews have supposedly declared, can lawfully be shot on sight).

Needless to say, Nietzsche did not cause the Holocaust. German anti-semitism was rampant at that time, in other places Nietzsche explicitly denigrates the anti-semites, and without Nietzsche things would have proceeded no doubt more or less as they did. Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s rhetoric, whether novel or merely representative of public thinking in his day, is disturbing in how it appears to prepare a nation for genocide, not merely in one throwaway badly-chosen remark, but step-by-step.




Here, N. deals with the problem that readers may be having: in what way is Christianity a Jewish conspiracy? Aren’t the two religions quite different? Hasn’t there been substantial conflict between the two?

However, that’s what took place: out of the trunk of that tree of vengeance and hatred, Jewish hatred—the deepest and most sublime hatred, that is, a hatred which creates ideals and transforms values, something whose like has never existed on earth—from that grew something just as incomparable, a new love, the deepest and most sublime of all the forms of love: —from what other trunk could it have grown? . . . However, one should not assume that this love arose essentially as the denial of that thirst for vengeance, as the opposite of Jewish hatred! No. The opposite is true! This love grew out of that hatred, as its crown, as the victorious crown unfolding itself wider and wider in the purest brightness and sunshine, which, so to speak, was seeking for the kingdom of light and height…

Love is hate. In other news, perhaps war is peace and freedom is slavery? But to be fair, there is something to this. The project of revenge may be motivated by hatred, but its execution may involve persuading people of the virtues of love: love, after all, at least this sort of universal, passive love, is inimical to the sort of violence and narcissism that N. has been praising. It makes sense that anybody wanting to attack that old system of values would do so by appealing to love. But surely Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t actually part of an intentional plan on the part of the Jews to destroy the master race?

Didn’t Israel attain, precisely with the detour of this “Saviour,” of this apparent enemy to and dissolver of Israel, the final goal of its sublime thirst for vengeance? Isn’t it part of the secret black art of a truly great politics of vengeance, a farsighted, underground, slowly expropriating, and premeditated revenge, that Israel itself had to disown and nail to the cross, like some mortal enemy, the tool essential to its revenge before all the world, so that “all the world,” that is, all Israel’s enemies, could then swallow this particular bait without a second thought?

O….kay….? That sounds a little paranoid there, Mr. I’m-going-to-be-hospitalised-as-a-raving-lunatic-twenty-months-from-now. Worth noting in passing, incidentally, that Nietzsche isn’t just taking the Jews as an example of hatred or revaluation, but as a uniquely and incomparably hate-filled race, without any human parallel in their malign iniquity. And what has been the result so far of their ‘war’?

On the other hand, could anyone… even imagine… something to match the enticing, intoxicating, narcotizing, corrupting power of that symbol of the “holy cross,” that ghastly paradox of a “god on the cross,” that mystery of an unimaginable and ultimate final cruelty… Israel, with its vengeance and revaluation of the worth of all other previous values, has triumphed again and again over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals.



A strange section that mostly quotes the response of an imaginary ‘free-thinker’ and ‘democrat’ to fill Nietzsche’s reluctance to speak further as “for me at this juncture there is much to be silent about”. As for what the democrat says, he (presumably it’s a he, Nietzsche wouldn’t bother arguing with even a hypothetical woman – at least, not post-Salomé Nietzsche; up until then, many of the key figures in his life had been strong, intellectual women, and indeed he continued a (demented) relationship through (mad) letters even after his collapse with Cosima Wagner (he considers himself to be the god Dionysus, and her to be Ariadne, lost in the labyrinth, guarded by the Wagnerian minotaur)) argues that if the Jews have done this, then well done them. Isn’t it good that the old values have been eliminated by superior values? Nietzsche gives no answer at this point, nor explains what it is he is chosing to be loudly silent about.

Oh, and I’ll note in passing that the Democrat ‘grants’ Nietzsche that ‘improving’ mankind in this way has caused a lamentable intermingling of the races – Nietzsche is so convinced of the evils of miscegenation that he can’t even conceive of his opponants wanting to disagree with him on that, though they might on everything else…