Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (7)

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, section 10.



The slave revolt in morality begins when the ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who are prevented from a genuine reaction, that is, something active, and who compensate for that with a merely imaginary vengeance.

I’m going to stick with ‘ressentiment’ here because it’s become traditional; to be honest, though, I don’t see why this meaning won’t fall easily under (albeit a broad) understanding of ‘resentment’, and certainly I don’t see why this of all words Nietzsche uses is deemed most in need of a new item of vocabulary – indeed, I think that what is happening here is that commentators have taken the excuse of Nietzsche’s continually-displayed penchant for eruditely using French word as an excuse to mythologise Nietzsche, to distance his theories from the world of conventional language, and hence to distance them from criticism in plain terms.

But anyway, what Nietzsche says here is so important that I’m going to be quoting a big chunk of this section. First, as we’ve seen, we re-iterate that the values of altruism stem from hatred, and from weakness – from the inability to respond to conflict with pure violence, and hence the need to respond in poisonous intellectual ways. But now finally Nietzsche gets down to details on how this process works, and what the important distinctions are:

While all noble morality grows out of a triumphant affirmation of one’s own self, slave morality from the start says “No” to what is “outside,” “other,” to “a not itself.” And this “No” is its creative act.

This, on closer inspection, is very interesting, for what N. does not point out: the fundamental unity of these perspectives. Again we may remember Schopenhauer’s four possible orientations of desire: toward one’s own weal, toward one’s own woe, toward another’s weal, and toward another’s woe. Schopenhauer thus creates a two-dimensional picture of human motivations. Nietzsche reduces this to a single axis, and in the process assumes a remarkable degree of universality in human motivation: either you are praising yourself (and hence contemptuous of others by comparison), or you are filled with hate of others (and hence proud of yourself by comparison). Both sets of people have surprisingly similar patterns of attitude toward self and other – in effect we are left with a sort of doctrine of double effect, in which what matters is not who the person favours and disfavours, but who the person is focused on, and the polarity of that primary focus. This insistence on a fundamental difference between two things that might appear the same, or as perfect mirror images, again recalls, and may originate in, Schopenhauer, who insists that positive and negative are not mirror images of one another. In Schopenhauer, this allows him to say that only suffering (negative feeling) is real, and that pleasure does not exist at all, but is only a period in which suffering is absent; Nietzsche uses it to insist that hating one thing (negative attitude) is not the same as loving its opposite. Hatred is qualitatively different. For one thing, it is hatred – and we should admit here that hatred is only a symptom, what Nietzsche is now talking about is rejection itself – it is rejection that is the source of creation. Rejecting what is, we create what has not been until now. The contrary attitude of affirmation is inherently sterile.

One way in which this is not double-effect, of course, is that there is no effect involved. In the principle of double effect, the value of an action depends on which of its consequences was the reason for performing the action and which are only tolerated side-effects; Nietzsche, on the other hand, is categorising orientations by which component intentionality is motivating, with no inherent reference to consequences. Again, the contrast can be seen by comparing this view to that of Schopenhauer: Schopenhauer’s taxonomy assumes that people are oriented toward desired consequences, weal and woe (though his view is not ‘consequentialist’ in the technical sense), but Nietzsche’s view assumes that people are instead oriented toward evaluation of themselves and others.

It must also be pointed out in passing here that Nietzsche is avoiding Schopenhauer’s conclusion (that only altruism is moral) primarily by ruling inadmissable Schopenhauer’s attitude of compassion, the orientation that leads people to seek the weal of others. Not only is Nietzsche moving from seeking weal to affirmation, but he omits entirely the whole possibility of a primary orientation toward affirmation of others. [Although it’s true that Nietzsche is not necessarily (though I believe he is in practice) presenting the two systems of morality here as the only possibilities]. He assumes from the beginning that everything is either affirming self or rejecting other, which means that any other-oriented attitude, such as love, must by his definition be an expression of hatred.

This transformation of the glance which confers value—this necessary projection towards what is other instead of back onto itself—that is inherent in ressentiment. In order to arise, slave morality always requires first an opposing world, a world outside itself. Psychologically speaking, it needs external stimuli in order to act at all—its action is basically reaction.

This makes the point clearer: although we may see the value of these values most clearly in rejection vs affirmation, the more important functional characteristic is the direction of the sentiment. ‘Slave morality’ is oriented toward the other – indeed, slave morality begins by creating the concept of the Other, and then reacts toward that.

The reverse is the case with the noble method of valuing: it acts and grows spontaneously. It seeks its opposite only to affirm its own self even more thankfully, with even more rejoicing— its negative concept of “low,” “common,” “bad” is merely a pale contrasting image after the fact in relation to its positive basic concept, thoroughly intoxicated with life and passion, “We are noble, good, beautiful, and happy!”

The master morality has no Other, only a vague awareness of things that fail to be Self, the awareness of which provokes further self-affirmation, not because the non-Self is hated, but because awareness of its differences from the Self solidify the master’s sense of who he is. What Nietzsche does not spell out is the opposing process in slave morality: presumably, the slave morality has no Self, but only a non-Other that defines the Self through its emptiness, a Self defined by the silhouette of the Other, an Other that creates the Self as a ‘pale contrasting image’ of itsother.

When the noble way of evaluating makes a mistake and abuses reality, this happens with reference to the sphere which it does not know well enough, indeed, the sphere it has strongly resisted learning the truth about: under certain circumstances it misjudges the sphere it despises, the sphere of the common man, of the low people. On the other hand, we should consider that even assuming that the feeling of contempt, of looking down, or of looking superior falsifies the image of the person despised, such distortions will fall short by a long way of the distortion with which the suppressed hatred, the vengeance of the powerless man, assaults his opponent—naturally, in effigy.

Nietzsche identifies the slave’s intellectual war against the master as a form of assault by effigy, itself an interesting concept. Wittgenstein talks at length about effigies – the burning of an effigy, he says, need express no propositional beliefs about causality, no belief in magic, but rather is an action, a gesture, intended to express a certain feeling in a ritualised way. Language itself, he suggests, is a similar ritual: words can stand as effigies of the objects of our intent. So too, Nietzsche makes thought, belief, morality, into a world of effigies, not rational, but driven by the sublimation of desires we cannot act out toward the true intended targets. It’s worth remembering how deeply indebted Freud was to Nietzsche (or, perhaps, how indebted they were to certain common originations of thoughts – one of Freud’s closest confidants and intellectual collaborators was the same Salomé who earlier in her life had shared her views with Nietzsche ten hours every day).

We might, however, question how easily Nietzsche himself is slipping into Othercentric ideas in this passage. Has he not gone from a nobility who direct the force of their feeling toward themselves, aware of others only as a pale reflection of themselves, to a nobility who actively despise, contemn, and look down upon the Other? The translation may be relevent here – the German verachtete can apparently be given the more neutral English translations of ‘disdain’ or even just ‘disprize’, and its use in idioms suggest it is often much softer in implication than the strong English ‘despise’. Nonetheless, I think this is a very valid objection to Nietzsche: even if we accept that there is nobility in self-love, a self-love that knowledge of the non-self only magnifies by making the nature of the self more clear, does this really entail any negative emotions at all toward the non-self? Why must we assume that this is a zero-sum game?

In fact, in contempt there is too much negligence, too much dismissiveness, too much looking away and impatience, all mixed together, even too much of a characteristic feeling of joy, for it to be capable of converting its object into a truly distorted image and monster. For example, we should not fail to hear the almost benevolent nuances which for a Greek noble lay in all the words with which he set himself above the lower people—how a constant form of pity, consideration, and forbearance is mixed in there, sweetening the words, to the point where almost all words which refer to the common man finally remain as expressions for “unhappy,” “worthy of pity”…

Here Nietzsche seems to be aware of the complaint I just raised, acknowledging that self-love is primarily narcissistic, rather than contemptuous, dismissive rather than despective. He even is willing to say that the nobles show consideration for, and forebearance toward, the slaves: the effusive joy of their self-love spills over into benign tolerance. Yet still, his language is far from neutral here. On the other hand, we should always bear in mind in this part of his essay that he is discussing here the great noble races of history – not necessarily his ideal man.

I’d also like to make a suggestion here, before we go too much further: Nietzsche is a hypocrite. This isn’t exactly news, and I suspect that at times Nietzsche would agree, but I think it’s worth reminding ourselves of. The clear and superficial hypocrisy here is in the contrast between Nietzsche’s view of self and other, action and reaction, and his own philosophical project: Nietzsche sets out, explicitly and in deed, to attack his rivals and demolish their intellectual edifices, while leaving it to future generations to begin construction anew. Nietzsche as a philosopher is therefore a perfect example of the hate-filled, ressentiment-powered reactive slave morality, that acts out of rejection of others, not of love of self. Oh, sure, he repeatedly tries, and tries too hard, to convince us that he adores himself, but by and large his work is a great big ‘No!’, a reaction thatfrom the start says “No” to what is “outside,” “other,” to “a not itself.” And this “No” is its creative act.

A potentially deeper hypocrisy, or at least tension, comes in his shift from Schopenhauerian goal-oriented attitudes to his own evaluative attitudes. Isn’t that also a case of moving from a spontaneous action to a mere reaction? Evaluation, even affirmation, is passive, relies upon a non-self to evaluate, and when it takes the form of self-affirmation, does it not make the Self itself into an Other to be judged and found, in this case, pleasing? Perhaps the implication of self-othering may be gotten around by pleading the limitations of language, saying that affirmation is not a judgement but only a poor description of this sort of effusive, joyous response. But it is still a response – it is still a reaction. Whereas goal-oriented attitudes can be truly active. Schopenhauer’s, it is true, were not – because he identified only suffering as real, the desire for good is only a desire to negate a portion of the world, to escape the world, to react to the world and say ‘no’ to it. Indeed, I do wonder how much of Nietzsche’s assumption that reaction and Other-consideration are inherently negative is simply a failure to see how deeply Schopenhauer’s assumptions have set their roots into his sometime follower, simply an unquestioned assumption that in an evil world all positive reactions to the world amount to a negation and a rejection of things. But this is not integral to the concept of willing a certain outcome. While Nietzsche’s objection applies to what we might call limited or circumstantial or telic desires, it does not apply to atelic desires, the desires that aim in a certain direction without having any specific destination in mind, any specific change to accomplish. The desire for happiness, if defined in a positive way and not merely as surcease from pain, is one such atelic desire – it need have no end, and so, being impossible to fulfill, it is not a mere reaction to the current state of the world. Wanting to be a millionaire, wanting all the money in the world – those are reactive desires, that depend upon a perceived lack. But wanting to increase your hoard of money – that is not reactive, as it applies just as equally to the pauper as to the millionaire. We may even say that telic desires may indeed be seen as reflections of rejection – something wrong in the world that needs to be addressed – but unfullfillable, atelic desires are in this light seen as effulsions of love, a desire for a thing motivated by love for that thing, not any belief that obtaining it will address some other lack.

Incidentally, his description of the noble ethos involving pity for the untermenschen seems quite at odds with his remarks elsewhere on the despicability of pity.

The “well born” simply felt that they were “the happy ones”; they did not have to construct their happiness artificially first by looking at their enemies, or in some circumstance to talk themselves into it, to lie to themselves (the way all men of ressentiment habitually do). Similarly they knew, as complete men, overloaded with power and thus necessarily active, that they must not separate action from happiness—they considered being active necessarily associated with happiness… this is very much the opposite of “happiness” at the level of the powerless, the oppressed, those festering with poisonous and hostile feelings, among whom happiness comes out essentially as a narcotic, an anaesthetic, quiet, peace, “Sabbath,” relaxing the soul, and stretching one’s limbs, in short, as something passive.

Two distinctions made here: between happiness in yourself and happiness relative to others, and between active happiness – Nietzsche often seems to use the word ‘joyous’ for this – and inactive happiness, which we might think of as quietness or serenity. Both are interesting distinctions, but the last is a little weak. We can see in hindsight why Nietzsche thought this important – because Schopenhauer’s happiness is the latter, a surcease from suffering, and Nietzsche wanted to rebel against his teacher. But Nietzsche gives no real reason why joy is better than contentment; what’s more, we may question the rigidity of this dichotomy. I’m thinking here of the pleasures of, as N. says, stretching one’s limbs, in a comfortable chair, in front of a fire… having been labouring outside in the rain. Nietzsche I think would see this as a paradigm ‘anaesthetic’ happiness, a relief from discomfort, and on a causal level this is accurate. But it seems to me there is a great difference between the anaesthetic comfort of rest after labour, which almost rejoices in the gentle aches, the deep chill, the sullen but not unmanageable weariness of the muscles, and the narcotic comforts of unbridled sloth: a difference in feeling, in neurochemistry, and in associated behaviour. If this is so, perhaps Nietzsche is wrong to focus on the mere action-polarity of the happiness, rather than on the broader comfort: perhaps the noble man would indeed like to rest his limbs after a long day in the saddle (crushing the skulls of the untermenschen beneath his jodhpured heel), and perhaps the problem of the slaves is not that they want rest, but that they continue to want rest even when they have been freed from their labours.

While the noble man lives for himself with trust and candour… the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naive, nor honest and direct with himself. His soul squints. His spirit loves hiding places, secret paths, and back doors…. A race of such men of ressentiment will necessarily end up cleverer than any noble race. It will value cleverness to a completely different extent, that is, as a condition of existence of the utmost importance; whereas, cleverness among noble men easily acquires a delicate aftertaste of luxury and decadence about it…

This should remind us that Nietzsche sees himself as a clever man: his admiration in this essay for the noble man of action is therefore not monochrome.

The ressentiment of the noble man himself, if it comes over him, consumes and exhausts itself in an immediate reaction and therefore does not poison. On the other hand, in countless cases it just does not appear at all; whereas, in the case of all weak and powerless people it is unavoidable. Being unable to take one’s enemies, one’s misfortunes, even one’s bad deeds seriously for very long—that is the mark of strong, complete natures, in whom there is a surplus of plastic, creative, healing power, as well as the power of oblivion… Such a man with a single shrug simply throws from off himself the many worms which eat into other men.

Because the noble men are simple creatures, they almost lack the ability to resent, to hold grudges, to feel guilty – Nietzsche describes them very much as beasts, although it is interesting that he identifies the power of forgetting as a positive power.

We can see here, of course, Nietzsche’s seminal influence on Freud, who would take this contrast – between the healthy, active, man whose bad passions pass quickly and the unhealthy man in whom resentment, guilt, fear and so forth fester unexpressed like puss trapped within a boil, poisoning the psyche like a sepsis of the soul. Indeed, even the image of ‘repression’ suggests Nietzsche’s idea that the weak and unhealthy possess greater ‘depth’, the depth into which repressed feeling are pushed down… the depth that Nietzsche suggests it is repression itself that creates.

I’m also unable to overlook the similarities with the broader 19th century romanticisation of the middle ages, in which noble warriors were indeed portrayed as masters of this ‘oblivion’, this inability to take evil seriously. As a reader of fantasy novels, I’m aware that this sentiment is at much of the root of modern fantasy – even the modern wisecracking grimdark antihero is a descendent of this. But it’s expressed more directly early on – in Tolkien, for instance, the strongest of the Valar (his archangels) is Tulkas, who could almost have been written by Nietzsche:

In the midst of the war a spirit of great strength and hardihood came to the aid of the Valar, hearing in the far heaven that there was battle in the Little Kingdom; and Arda was filled with the sound of his laughter. So came Tulkas the Strong, whose anger passes like a mighty wind, scattering cloud and darkness before it; and Melkor fled before his wrath and his laughter, and forsook Arda, and there was peace for a long age.


Greatest in strength and deeds of prowess is Tulkas, who is surnamed Astaldo, the Valiant. He came last to Arda, to aid the Valar in the first battles with Melkor. He delights in wrestling and in contests of strength; and he rides no steed, for he can outrun all things that go on feet, and he is tireless. His hair and beard are golden, and his flesh ruddy; his weapons are his hands. He has little heed for either the past or the future, and is of no avail as a counsellor, but is a hardy friend.

Tolkien conceives of Tulkas as ‘the good side of violence’ – good, in that he has the unflinching courage and strength of will to face evil and not despair, nor negotiate. Where Tolkien and Nietzsche part is that Nietzsche seems reluctant to accept that there is ever a bad side to violence. Part of this may be their relative life-histories: Nietzsche spent a brief period as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War, which seems only to have enhanced his adulation of warriors, whereas Tolkien spent six months at the Somme, seeing both his comrades and his old friends from home killed around him, and where he quickly discovered that among the officers, rather than noble teutonic warrior-spirits, “gentlemen are rare… and even human beings are rare indeed”. Perhaps this experience is why, much later, he had his character Faramir explain: “I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.” Nietzsche is far more interested in the shinyness of the swords and armour. Tolkien, on other hand, rapidly grew weary of what he called “the dull backwaters of the art of killing”.

The same idea of the laughing warrior is also seen in Chesterton, another romanticist. His poem “The Last Hero” (1901), for instance, exemplifies this trope, particularly in this verse:

The wind blew out from Bergen to the dawning of the day,
They ride and run with fifty spears to break and bar my way,
I shall not die alone, alone, but kin to all the powers,
As merry as the ancient sun and fighting like the flowers.
How white their steel, how bright their eyes! I love each laughing knave,
Cry high and bid him welcome to the banquet of the brave.
Yea, I will bless them as they bend and love them where they lie,
When on their skulls the sword I swing falls shattering from the sky.
The hour when death is like a light and blood is like a rose, —
You never loved your friends, my friends, as I shall love my foes

Or again in his masterpiece, The Ballad of the White Horse, where first he echoes Nietzsche’s adulation of the Celts (but recognises the dark as well as the light):

For the great Gaels of Ireland
Are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
And all their songs are sad.

And then puts his views into the mouth of a pagan ‘big youth, beardless like a child’:

“For Rome was given to rule the world,
And gat of it little joy–
But we, but we shall enjoy the world,
The whole huge world a toy…

Doubtless your sires were sword-swingers
When they waded fresh from foam,
Before they were turned to women
By the god of the nails from Rome;

But since you bent to the shaven men,
Who neither lust nor smite,
Thunder of Thor, we hunt you
A hare on the mountain height.”

Before he is politely told by his elders to shut up, because while “boys must need like bellowing”, serious men have more serious attitudes. The other leaders of the Danish army, in order of advancing age, then give rather less healthy explanations for their violence – Ogier’s (Old he was, but his locks were red / And jests were all the words he said / Yet he was sad at board and bed / And savage in the fight) rage against gods and world – “the barest branch is beautiful / One moment, while it breaks – in defiance of death, and old Guthrum’s despairing need to simply take his mind off mortality:

“Strong are the Roman roses,
Or the free flowers of the heath,
But every flower, like a flower of the sea,
Smelleth with the salt of death.

“And the heart of the locked battle
Is the happiest place for men;
When shrieking souls as shafts go by
And many have died and all may die;
Though this word be a mystery,
Death is most distant then.

“Death blazes bright above the cup,
And clear above the crown;
But in that dream of battle
We seem to tread it down.

“Wherefore I am a great king,
And waste the world in vain,
Because man hath not other power,
Save that in dealing death for dower,
He may forget it for an hour
To remember it again.”

Anyway, I think I’ve become sidetracked here… Back to Nietzsche:

Only here is possible—provided that it is at all possible on earth—the real “love for one’s enemy.” How much respect a noble man already has for his enemies!—and such a respect is already a bridge to love. . . . In fact, he demands his enemy for himself, as his mark of honour. Indeed, he has no enemy other than one in whom there is nothing to despise and a great deal to respect! By contrast, imagine for yourself “the enemy” as a man of ressentiment conceives him—and right here we have his action, his creation: he has conceptualized “the evil enemy,” “the evil one,” and as a fundamental idea, from which he now also thinks his way to an opposite image and counterpart, a “good man”— himself! . . .

We may be reminded here, for instance, of the mediaeval Christian attitudes toward Saladin. And we also see Nietzsche finally making explicit what I suggested earlier: that for the slave morality, the ‘Self’ is only an ‘opposite image’ of the real reality, the conception of the Other.

3 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (7)

  1. kazisiddiqui says:

    So, does deliberately cultivating ressentiment have any chance of making me clever?

  2. kazisiddiqui says:

    (After all, as a bridge to Superman, should it matter to me what Nietzsche thinks is poisonous?)

  3. […] (Regarding Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (7).) […]

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