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!


15 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (8)

  1. kazisiddiqui says:


    * Compare the passage about civilized men restrained by fear turning into joyful monsters with the phenomenon of decent guys turning into notorious internet trolls under the cover of anonymity. Clearly the 19th century was longing for the internet.

    * Wasn’t war actually fun to some extent before the methods of modern warfare were invented? Every year during Muharram, the villagers of Sahapur, particularly the poor people, “re-enact” the Battle of Karbala. It’s a friendly melee, from which some people return bleeding from the head. No enemies are made. After a few days’ rest, they go back to work. Great fun. It’s sad when even in the 21st century, some people still don’t realize that effective warfare is no longer fun.

    * If Nietzsche is hoping to convince potential master-like people to be Supermen, do such men really need to be told by Nietzsche not to literally be good Christians? His time might be better spent focusing on the differences between masters and Supermen. I’m still confused regarding the nature of the relationship between the two. Are these issues clarified (as far as Nietzsche is capable of that) in this book?

  2. kazisiddiqui says:

    Since he’s referring to the same people, sometimes as master personalities, at other times dominated by social fears, maybe he wants people who agree with him and aren’t complete Last Men to be less afraid of their peers and live as emancipated Supermen, who live every moment as if they will have to experience it over and over for eternity, instead? (Oh yeah, I remember now. Eternal Recurrence is the reason I attributed Cyrenaic tendencies to Nietzsche, I think.)

  3. kazisiddiqui says:

    (Although pleasure is not exactly what Nietzsche’s after, etc.)

  4. […] (With respect to Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (8).) […]

  5. kazisiddiqui says:

    (Though it’d be more accurate to say that both Wittgenstein and the Nazis desired a more oppressive culture to drape over civic life. Nazis wanted to sweep away the broken remnants of the old culture (that is, Wittgenstein’s civilization) to make way for the new totalitarian Nazi culture.)

  6. kazisiddiqui says:

    (The oppressiveness of the late German Cultural scene was practically aesthetic compared to the state of affairs its enemies desired. Wittgenstein tried to emigrate to the USSR!)

  7. kazisiddiqui says:

    (He wanted to move to a new culture, “Dostoevsky’s Russia”. lol But the point is, he wanted to live in a society where everything dances to the same irrational rhythm, though that rhythm will progress to novel forms and inevitably dissolve. That’s totalitarianism.)

  8. kazisiddiqui says:

    (Or at least an impulse leading in that direction. My esteem for Wittgenstein will be greatly diminished if he would actually have been willing to pay the price, knowing what we know, of deliberately wrenching an existing society onto that path. This is in contrast to, say, such a state of affairs emerging spontaneously, or at least the bloodbath that brings it about happening for more justified reasons than the deliberate creation of a totalitarian society.)

  9. kazisiddiqui says:

    (Okay, even without knowing what we know, but ESPECIALLY knowing what we know. But he would probably not have gone about thinking in this manner. I don’t know how to think in accordance with Wittgenstein’s preferred method. Until I learn, I can only compare his bottom line with mine.)

  10. kazisiddiqui says:

    (And not just any impulse, but what seems to me to be a major one.)

  11. kazisiddiqui says:

    (But it’s more probable than not that I’m wrong about every single thing I’ve said till this point, so…)

  12. To make a more constructive point about your style of ‘engagement’: I find it difficult to engage with you because you seem to try to see what everyone says (including me) through the prism of your own ideology, and particularly by sorting individuals out into categories, rather than engaging with their actual complexity as individuals. So I say one thing, and you decide that makes me a [wordmadeuponablog]-ist and write ten pages about the problems of [wordmadeuponablog]-ism, which I can’t engage with because I can’t see how any of it applies to me, or how any of it addresses the question at hand. It feels very strange to see you try to make sense of Nietzsche as a whole, or Wittgenstein as a whole, when you don’t seem to have read their work extensively. But nor do you seem in general willing to remain on the specific points.

    I’m sorry if this sounds harsh. Maybe you’d do better talking to Continentally-trained people – but a great deal of the time, I can’t seem to grab hold of anything concrete to engage with in what you say.

    How am I meant to engage with your impressions of what you’d feel about Wittgenstein depending on his preference for revolutionary or reformist development of fascist regimes? I don’t see how this any connection to the Wittgenstein I know, and you don’t really give any link other than him liking Dostoevsky. The reality of his idea of settling in the USSR is that he briefly considered it (he liked both the idea of communal farm living and the apparent Soviet respect for science and philosophy – though he admitted his reasons were in part ‘bad and even childish’), and visited it to see what it was really like, but cut short his trip after deciding after a mere fortnight that he couldn’t live there.

    Why couldn’t he live there? He decided he liked some elements, but: “One could live there, but only if one kept in mind the whole time that one could never speak one’s mind. … It is as though one were to spend the rest of one’s life in an army…”. Wittgenstein admired elements of Soviet communism – conceptually, the forcefulness and passion that were necessary to bring about a revolution, and particularly the destruction of class distinctions, and more practically the elimination of unemployment (this was during the Depression, when unemployment in the UK was at 75% in some parts of the country). He was also sympathetic to the problems the Russian state faced, and excused some of their excesses by pointing out the situation (economic, cultural and political) when he came to power. But he did not approve of, indeed could not personally stand, the totalitarianism of the regime – and no doubt would have condemned the atrocities of the government if he had known about them fully (which few westerners did in the 1930s).

    So I don’t really see where you’re coming from.

  13. kazisiddiqui says:

    Calm down, nobody is saying Wittgenstein is a monster. I doubt there’s any point trying to explain myself to you because I cannot stop saying ideologically polarized things if you ideologically polarize everything I say. Why are you so nasty towards us dumb people?

    I am saying that the impulse motivating the Nazi dramatist is monstrous only in its accidents, because its essence was shared even by Wittgenstein. Hell, even taking environmentalism too seriously pushes you towards uncontrollable narcissism and dreams of genocide.

    As I said, I don’t think Wittgenstein actually wanted extremist revolutions or reactions. I have said so already because I knew beforehand that you would try to shoehorn in that particular misinterpretation.

    (To make make you understand a single precise point, I either have to write long and difficult essays in English, which is not my best language, or make one general statement implying a cloud of possibilities, and then make superficially paradoxical-seeming denials to pare down the meanings that were not intended. I understand now that this tactic annoys you and looks like a game. I won’t try it on you again.)

    Now we come to whether even that much can be safely said. Googling turns up this document from Virginia Tech: containing such delights as:

    – Wittgenstein thought European culture had come to an end with the death of Schumann in 1856.

    (Even though one of the three Bs was a Wittgenstein family acquaintance and died only when Ludwig was eight-ish, I think. I know many people were turning to the “New Music”, but just how desolate could the scene possibly have been? Classical music had taken off in Italy. The baton more or less passed to the Germans, and then to the Russians, right? I’m not seeing a fundamental break here, certainly not in 1856.)

    – He tried to to move to the USSR because Dostoevsky’s Russia was an incipient culture, and a possible candidate for his homeland.

    (Liking Dostoevsky does not make Wittgenstein a monster. I like Dostoevsky myself. I was amused at the contrast between Dostoevsky’s vision for Russia and the USSR. Moving to the USSR to find Dostoevsky’s Russia struck me as amusing, especially in light of what was to come.)

    – He did not stay in the USSR because he could not find the kind of job he wanted.

    – Wittgenstein’s mysticism (we all know about his non-mysticism) and his attitude towards science, which is suspiciously reminiscent of Continental philosophy.

    Do you claim that these are all lies spread by Continental philosophers? How do I know which sources to trust, with this omnipresence of Continentalism?

    Can you see the relevance of all this to Nietzsche’s passages that you talke about in this post yet? I also have complaints against your methodology, but these will have to wait.

    But you are right, all comments after this conversation go in that blog I created with this account. My idiocy will not show up in your blog and you will be free to ignore me to your heart’s content.


  14. […] Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (8). […]

  15. You’re not saying Wittgenstein’s a monster? You called him totalitarian, you said that he wanted to ‘drape an oppressive culture over civic life’, and you put him in the same breath as the Nazis. These seem pretty critical to me, they don’t seem flattering. They also seem nonsense, which is why I pointed this out.

    You say that you were “saying that the impulse motivating the Nazi dramatist is monstrous only in its accidents, because its essence was shared even by Wittgenstein.” Leaving aside the fact that I don’t think there’s much in common between Wittgenstein and the German avant garde playwrights who became Nazi supporters… how on earth are you saying that? You don’t mention ‘the impulse motivating the Nazi dramatist’, you don’t even mention the Nazi dramatist. If, in a comment, you speak only about Wittgenstein and don’t mention Nazi dramatists, it’s hard for the reader to realise that you are talking only about Nazi dramatists and not about Wittgenstein. A further question would then be WHY you’re saying that, because I said nothing at all about ‘the impulse motivating the Nazi dramatist’ being ‘monstrous’. Indeed, it’s perfectly understandable, I think.

    So you’re fashioning your replies as complete non sequiturs, and then encoding them to remove mention of your actual thesis, leaving the meaning of your replies unknowable either from your words or from the context of my post. Do you see how this is frustrating for me, and hard to have a coherent argument with? I mean, if you went off on a tangent but said plainly what it was, that would be one thing; if you were obscure and elliptical, but responded directly to what had said myself, that would be another thing. Either of those could be interesting, and maybe I could sometimes find a way to reply to that. But elliptical AND tangential? I don’t have the time or the intellect to work your posts out like crossword puzzles.

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