Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (8)

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 11.



Hmm. Maybe writing a 5000-word essay on each paragraph isn’t going to be a sustainable pace…

Section 11 is also a long and important section, but a little less in need of close study. It begins by giving us the title of this essay: N. compares master and slave moralities and their use of terms, with the masters dividing ‘good’ from ‘bad’, and the slaves dividing ‘good’ from ‘evil’. The nature of what ‘good’ is being opposed to gives different values of ‘good’, and it’s an important point that in a complex culture we may be dealing with multiple systems of ethical valuation at once, and that the same term may mean different things depending on which system we are employing. Nietzsche goes further, however, and argues that ‘good’ in the sense of ‘not bad’ is precisely what is meant by ‘evil’ – only ‘reinterpreted’ and ‘seen through poisonous eyes’.

Why is this? Well, Nietzsche’s actually quite charitable. Despite calling their perspective ‘poisonous’ and tainted by ressentiment, he nonetheless essentially concedes that this view is entirely justified and understandable, because the nobles are, fundamentally, wankers. At least toward the slaves.

And this is one of N.’s more troubling passages, because he says of his noble master race:

…the same good men who are kept within strict limits by custom, honour, habit, thankfulness, and even more by mutual protection, through jealousy inter pares, and who demonstrate toward one other such resourceful consideration, self-control, refinement, loyalty, pride, and friendship – towards the outside, where the strange world, the world of foreigners, begins, these men are not much better than beasts of prey turned loose. There they enjoy freedom from all social constraints. In the wilderness they make up for the tension which a long fenced-in confinement within the peace of the community brings about. They go back to the innocent consciousness of a wild beast of prey, as joyful monsters, who perhaps walk away from a dreadful orgy of murder, arson, rape, and torture with an exhilaration and spiritual equilibrium, as if they had merely pulled off a student prank, convinced that the poets now once again have something to sing about and praise for a long time to come. At the bottom of all these noble races we cannot fail to recognize the beast of prey, the blond beast splendidly roaming around in its lust for loot and victory. This hidden basis from time to time needs to be discharged: the animal must come out again, must go back into the wilderness – Roman, Arab, German, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings – in this need they are all alike.

He phrases this in national and racial terms – the master race invading the homes of the inferior races in order to rape and murder them and steal their possessions – but the same presumably holds true of class conflicts to some degree (as the Japanese mention confirms). We might presume then that to the extent it does not happen within the master’s own society (Roman plebs were not ‘joyfully’ tortured in the streets by their ‘roaming’ senators), this is because the slaves are the possession of the masters, and thus fall within their own fearful contracts of non-aggression.

It’s strange, incidentally, that N sees his master race as being so dominated by fear – the only thing that transforms them from pure beasts into civilised men is fear of one another, and elsewhere and repeatedly Nietzsche longs for more people worth fearing. Is a civilisation born of mutual fearfulness and timidity really so aesthetically appealing? He, of course, considers it in terms of a civilisation where people are to be feared – where they are strong, healthy, wild, joyously prone to orgies of rape, murder and torture – but the reverse of this is a civilisation where everybody is enslaved by their fears – where they are weak, constrained, contorted by external bonds, stunted. I’m not sure N has really thought this through sufficiently.

It goes without saying that this is one of the passages that really boosts the Nazi interpretation: they simply took him at his word that the animal must come out again, and let the blond beast room around for loot and glory – murdering, burning, raping and torturing – against the ‘inferior’ races of the east as ‘joyful monsters’.

And N is hardly doing himself any favours on this score. I don’t believe we are meant to entirely admire these joyful monsters – but in his desire to shock, he has put his adulation of monstrosity front and centre, and relegated (so far) any criticism of these people to implications and tangential subclauses.

Of course, N is clear in one respect about why he wouldn’t agree with the Nazis: he hates Germans (one can’t but wonder if this loathing of his own race is a sublimation of his own resentments and self-contempt, now that super-Nietzsche is determined only to praise himself). And indeed immediately after that passage he clarifies as regards modern Germanhood:

The deep, icy mistrust which the German evokes, as soon as he comes to power, once more again today—is always still an after-effect of that unforgettable terror with which for centuries Europe confronted the rage of the blond German beast (although there is hardly any idea linking the old Germanic tribes and we Germans, let alone any blood relationship).

Then again, even here we can see the agreement with the Nazis, who were merely one step less pessimistic and one step more proactive than Nietzsche. They, after all, did agree that the German race had become polluted and contaminated (‘blood-poisoned’ as N puts it elsewhere) – they just haven’t given up ‘hope’, and believe that with enough genocide and eugenics they can get back to the ‘blond beast’ once again – and in doing so impose an unforgettable terror!

Anyway, Nietzsche goes on with a cute theory that the bronze age (as the Greeks described it) and the homeric age of heroes are the same time period described from two perspectives: that of the nobles and that of the peasants. For the peasants, this time is “hard, cold, cruel, empty of feeling and scruples, with everything crushed and covered over in blood.” We should note that Nietzsche doesn’t dismiss this perspective: it’s just the necessary flip side to the admirable presence of murderers and rapists noble warrior spirits.

He then contrasts two views of civilisation, but this time he does not rate them equally. On the one hand, civilisation has produced an admirably domesticated pet out of the wild beast of mankind. But Nietzsche dismisses this view. Instead:

These people carrying instincts of oppression and of a lust for revenge, the descendants of all European and non-European slavery, of all pre-Aryan populations in particular—they represent the regression of mankind! These “instruments of culture” are a disgrace to humanity, and more a reason to be suspicious of or a counterargument against “culture” in general!

Again, to a reader living after the 20th century, the idea of labelling the descendents of ‘all pre-Aryan populations’, en masse, as a ‘disgrace to humanity’, a ‘regression’, is exceptionally distateful. And who can read this ‘counterargument against “culture” in general’ without remembering the words of the (Nietzsche-following) Nazi playwright, Hanns Johst:

Barbed wire is barbed wire! I know what I’m up against…. No rose without a thorn!… I know that rubbish from ’18: fraternity, equality, freedom, beauty and dignity! I shoot with live ammunition! When I hear the word ‘culture’, I release the safety-catch on my Browning!”

While it is hardly convicting evidence against Nietzsche as regards his influence on the Nazis, I do think it’s good to bear in mind, if we are tempted to dismiss Nietzsche’s rhetoric as mere hyperbole, the clear cultural ties involved. Nietzsche almost immediately became a symbol for a German avant-garde that prized youth, action, energy, affirmation, violence, and bloodletting – a generation of playwrights who (like Johst, or Bronnen, whose Parricide celebrates the murder of a father by his son as an expression of youthful action-at-all-costs in opposition to the conservative peaceability of the former generation) later developed their sentiments into propaganda for the Nazis. It’s easy to read Nietzsche’s violent words and great excesses of rhetoric as merely a poetic style, not to be taken literally – but in the context in which he wrote, and the context in which his audience first heard him, he would likely not have seemed particularly extreme at all – peculiar, no doubt, in some of the uses he made of his passion, but (notwithstanding the odd flourish) I don’t think that he can simply be dismissed as not being serious. Certainly he was read as being serious, and similar sentiments (if not his precise philosophy) were later put into effect in a very serious, and cataclysmically violent, way.

Not that it was only the Germans, of course. It’s hard to imagine, really the sheer insanity, to modern eyes, of respectable culture around the turn of the last century. Rupert Brooke springs to mind, encoruaging his friends to join up for WWI, in no illusions about their prospects: “The world’ll be tame enough after the war, for those who see it. Come and die. It’ll be great fun!” On the same conflict, from a distance but while preparing for his own intentional martyrdom, Patrick Pearse (another man who liked to compare himself favourably to Christ, revelled in his outsider status, and complained of the blood-poisoning of the Gael by an inferior race) opined:

It is good for the world that such things should be done. The old heart of the earth needed to be warmed with the red wine of the battlefields. Such august homage was never before offered to God as this, the homage of millions of lives given gladly for love of country.

Pearse too complained of the ‘emasculation’ of society and of pernicious female influence, and argued that only bloodshed of some sort could restore the manhood of the world. Indeed, almost anything could be justified as long as it involved killing:

I should like to see any and every body of Irish citizens armed. We must accustom ourselves to the thought of arms, to the sight of arms, to the use of arms. We may make mistakes in the beginning and shoot the wrong people; but bloodshed is a cleansing and a sanctifying thing.

The details of the cause may differ (Nietzsche was no great nationalist), but across Europe a sentiment hung heavily that bewailed the ‘old heart’ of the world, or as Brooke put it a ‘world grown old and cold and weary’, and called for action, beautiful, senseless, preferably violent action, to light that spark once again.

Nietzsche, writing a few decades before Pearse and Brooke, explains what is so terrible about the world today:

…who would not find it a hundred times better to fear if he could at the same time be allowed to admire, rather than not fear but in the process no longer be able to rid himself of the disgusting sight of the failures, the stunted, the emaciated, the poisoned? Is not that our fate? Today what is it that constitutes our aversion to “man”? – For we suffer from man. There’s no doubt of that. It’s not a matter of fear. Rather it’s the fact that we have nothing more to fear from man, that the maggot “man” is in the foreground swarming around, that the “tame man,” the hopelessly mediocre and unpleasant man, has already learned to feel that he is the goal, the pinnacle, the meaning of history…

N takes our fear of men as indicating some great quality about them – the lack of fear shows that men are only to be despised. But it’s not clear, once the first adolescent rush of restlessness has passed over us, why this is meant to be particularly compelling. There is, of course, a certain lure always about danger… but it’s a lure that is strongest for those who remain at a distance. Those surrounded by danger often long even more strongly for safety and peace – while some who have known terrible fear may admit an occasional creeping and subrational nostalgia, few of them would really prefer to go back to living in terror and mortal danger. Nietzsche talks of fear and danger with all the bravado of a career academic. It does not seem clear that this flows from the usual preoccupation with life and affirmation – while certain types of avoidance of violence are perhaps self-stunting products of timidity, it hardly seems as though this applies to all dignified and peaceful men. Or coming at it from the other side, is it true that the tame men Nietzsche hates are not to be feared? Hardly. The tamest men of all, the English, were at that time completing their subjugation of a quarter of the globe. That era produced the defence of Rourke’s Drift, and the Antarctic expeditions of Scott and Shackleton. They charged blindly and selflessly into bloody death in their millions in WWI, and later still, more men, even tamer men, bombed Dresden and Hiroshima. Nothing to fear? Hardly!