On the Genealogy of Morals (10)

Tenth part of my on-going commentary on On the Genealogy of Morals.


Joy of joys: a dialogue. And we can all guess how this is going to go:

“…There’s no doubt about it—things are just as you said they were.”

Yes, it’s one of those hard-hitting dialogues. Anyway, the more important bit there is where the interlocutor says that ‘weakness is being falsified into something of merit’. It’s tempting to protest that Nietzsche has no grounds for saying that weakness is without merit, without presenting some clear grounds for his own value system. But that might be a little too hasty. If we accept that there are goods, and that things that help us obtain what is good have merit, then perhaps we can say that ‘weakness’, which prevents us from obtaining anything, is inherently without merit… without us having to make any definite claims about what things really are good. We don’t even need to believe in an objective good, or in an absolute good – even if ‘good’ is just a figment of our imagination, we can all agree, if we use the word ‘good’ appropriately, that it’s not good to be unable to obtain the good. And ‘weakness’ could indeed prevent us from (reliably) obtaining any good. Indeed, Nietzsche’s attempt to portray weakness as a form of violence undermines even the attempt to give weakness an inherent value of its own – its value would undermine itself (assuming we are debating against someone who is praising weakness for traditional ‘moral’, ‘Christian’ reasons).

No, the real problem here is that Nietzsche doesn’t adequately show that his notion of ‘weakness’ is really weak; without that, the attempt at an ad hominem attack on weakness fails entirely. Similarly, he is unconvincing in showing that it is violent or ugly.

“They are miserable—there’s no doubt about that—all these rumour-mongers and counterfeiters in the corners, although crouched down beside each other in the warmth—but they are telling me that their misery is God’s choice, His sign. One beats the dog one loves the most. Perhaps this misery may be a preparation, a test, an education, perhaps it is even more—something that will one day be rewarded and paid out with huge interest in gold, no, in happiness. They call that ‘blessedness’.”

Here Nietzsche gets a bit more specific, and seems a bit more convincing. People make the most of their situation by, like Stoics, revaluing it, by accepting it, by even taking ownership of it (‘that incapacity for revenge is called the lack of desire for revenge’). It’s hard to deny that for many people in many places, impotence in situation has lead to a religion that makes humility a virtue and shifts the deserved rewards into the afterlife. We start seeing some cracks when we ask about universality – is it true that every humble person is weak and impoverished? No, clearly not. They may even issue from among the powerful and the arrogant. The argument really falls down, though, when we look at the other side. Yes, the poor and the weak tell themselves they are blessed to assuage their own misery… and the strong and the rich and the powerful? Are they really joyous, free and unconcerned? Those blond beasts, those Goths and Romans, knights and samurai, were they happy? Or were they doing exactly the same thing – consoling themselves with the assurance that they were special, blessed, and with fantasies of triumph and heroism that never really reflected the lives of the ordinary chieftain? Let’s think again of the great and melancholy champions of the Gaels, of the dirges and laments of the Saxons, of the great mediaeval tragedies. The mighty have been just as prone to sadness and self-delusion as the weak.

“…What they hate is not their enemy. No! They hate ‘injustice,’ ‘godlessness.’ What they believe and hope is not a hope for revenge, the intoxication of sweet vengeance (something Homer has already called ‘sweeter than honey’), but the victory of God, the righteous God, over the godless…”

Just in passing, I’d like to point out the ‘phantasmagorical’ nature of Nietzsche’s own perception of history. He wants to see the Romans among his master races… but can anyone seriously suggest that Rome was not interested in ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’, as distinct from simple personal vengeance? Indeed, even the Germanic tribes – once upon a time, the ruler of their pantheon was Tyr, the god of both impartial justice and heroic glory…



Now Nietzsche is in full ad hominem mode. He again accuses the meek and the humble:

There’s no doubt that these weak people—at some time or another they also want to be the strong people, some day their “kingdom” is to arrive—they call it simply “the kingdom of God,” as I mentioned. People are indeed so humble about everything! Only to experience that, one has to live a long time, beyond death—in fact, people must have an eternal life, so they can also win eternal recompense in the “kingdom of God” for that earthly life…

There’s no doubt Nietzsche is speaking truly of some religious people, who rejoice vicariously in the bullying they expect their god to perform on their behalf. And he has an interesting point in suggesting that some religious people, in aiming at an unknowable afterlife, make sacrifices in their real lives, and to some extent in the process devalue their own lives. Terry Pratchett puts this pithily, by the way (assuming it’s not from Chesterton), when he observes (Feet of Clay) that those who save up a little money for a rainy day, even if it’s pouring now, many times also put a little life by for a rainy eternity.

But is this really true of all religious people – let alone all humble and meek people in general? And after all, it’s not as though those two categories are the same. Many Christians who have rejoiced in the violence of the Lord have eagerly pre-empted Him in that regard: Nietzsche’s accusations of hidden hatred may seem very applicable to witchfinders, steel-caparisoned archbishops with maces in their hands, or to the Abbots of Cîteaux, but are these really exemplars of the lambs?

Nietzsche goes on to provide some concrete evidence: a brief quotation from Aquinas in which St Thomas says that those in heaven will be even happier because they can watch the evil being tortured, and then a very lengthy and bloodthirsty piece by Tertullian in which he rejoices in all the torture and destruction that will be visited on his enemies, and how even just the thought of how they will be tortured is much more enjoyable than the heathen pursuits (races, athletics, theatre) of the evil ones. But again, are these realistic representatives of ordinary ‘lambism’? Tertullian was enthusiastic about hell, but also enthusiastically condemnatory of theatre, sport, music, sex, women, the faces of virgins not being veiled, women wearing jewellery, usury, dice, eye-shadow, women again, remarriage, and actually more or less anything that didn’t involve fasting. He was so hardline that even the early church, itself fairly devout, felt that he went too far. I don’t think we can take one disturbing fantasy of his as representative of all modern civilisation. Aquinas is more troubling, given his stature, and his generally high level of sanity – but if the worst Nietzsche can do is find a brief subsidiary argument suggested by the Ninth Doctor, I find myself underwhelmed. Perhaps the angelic one was simply having a bad morning and his sinful neighbour had really irritated him – it’s hardly reasonable to take this passing remark as exposing the core of his entire personality and motivation, let alone, the entire soul and essence of Christianity and Nonbastardism.



A bulky section, but only a conclusion, with little further forward motion of its own.

We could even say that in the intervening time the battle has been constantly drawn to greater heights and in the process to constantly greater depths and has become constantly more spiritual, so that nowadays there is perhaps no more decisive mark of a “higher nature,” a more spiritual nature, than that it is split in that sense and is truly still a battleground for those opposites. [sc. the opposing moral systems of good/bad and good/evil]

This is an interesting suggestion, but somewhat out of keeping with the rest. What Nietzsche really seems to admire is the victory of good/bad, rather than just the ‘battleground’ between them – when the master-morality was dominant, were Nietzsche’s sympathies with the slaves who challenged it, in whom there was a battleground between the old morality and the new? Hardly.

In Rome the Jew was considered “guilty of hatred against the entire human race.” And that view was correct, to the extent that we are right to link the health and the future of the human race to the unconditional rule of aristocratic values…

I have the strangest feeling there’s some sort of slight objection that might be made here, but I just can’t put my finger on where that weak point might be…

(Incidentally, we must not underestimate the deep consistency of the Christian instinct, when it ascribed this very book of hate [sc. Revelation] to the name of the disciple of love, the same man to whom it attributed that enthusiastic amorous gospel—: there is some truth to this, no matter how much literary counterfeiting may have been necessary for this purpose)

Incidentally incidentally, the deep consistency of the Christian instinct has been rather inconsistent, since it was considered debateable right from the beginning whether the John of the Revelation was indeed the same as the John of the Gospel and/or the Epistles, and to a lesser extent whether any of these were the same as the Apostle John. Nietzsche is as usual strawmanning somewhat here.

The Romans were indeed strong and noble men, stronger and nobler than any people who had lived on earth up until then or even than any people who had ever been dreamed up. Everything they left as remains, every inscription, is delightful…

OK Romans, fess up, which of you has been brainwashing Nietzsche to be your love-slave?

N. goes on to be bitter about the ‘three Jews and one Jewess’ who have taken over the world – in particular, he seems oddly offended by the idea that one of them, Paul, is only a ‘carpet maker’. [Nietzsche, incidentally, was the son of a retired local school teacher turned Lutheran pastor, and having found a place at an elite school on his personal merit spent the whole of the rest of his life in the company of his social superiors. It’s hard not to read a little Stockholm Syndrome into his adulation of an aristocracy who would have had near as much contempt for him as he had for the lowly carpet maker Paul]

He’s a big fan of the Renaissance, which he sees as the return of masterly morality, later stiffled by the Reformation. It’s a strange view: were the bustling young mercantile republics and experimental democracies of the renaissance city-states somehow less democratic, more masterly, than the sword-swinging warrior elites of mediaeval feudalism?

It’s interesting, incidentally, that Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde (who would have hated each other yet often seem to singing over the same continuo) both identify the role of the renaissance in this way, yet in opposite directions. For Nietszsche the renaissance is a recurrence of the dangerous, the noble, the strong; but Wilde laments (in De Profundis):

To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance, which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it.

Goes to show how the same things can be interpreted very differently by different observers, no matter how self-evident Nietzsche seems to consider his own narrative.

Anyway, Nietzsche closes the section by lamenting the fall of the Ancien Regime as the end of the great old nobility (which I think would more often conjure up words like ‘lazy’, ‘decadent’, ‘obese’, ‘vain’, and ‘gout-ridden’ than words like ‘dangerous’ and ‘healthy’; on the other hand, Robespierre does not strike me as a genuine ‘lamb’ of a bitter but inactive kind…), but admits that in the process there was a brief flaring of the older morality in the form of one man:

…in opposition to all that there rang out a fearsome and delightful counter-slogan about the rights of the very few! As a last signpost to a different road, Napoleon appeared, the most singular and late-born man there ever was, and in him the problem of the inherently noble ideal was made flesh—we should consider well what a problem that is: Napoleon, this synthesis of the inhuman and the superhuman. . . .

Dear lord, sometimes you really can almost physically hear the sound of Nietzsche ejaculating, still reverberating sycophantically down throughout the centuries!



Nietzsche finally feigns to suggest that the debate between the two systems of morality is difficult and that readers will not come to a quick conclusion: but he rapidly goes on to admit that he does indeed believe what has been obvious all along, that he prefers the good/bad system and that ‘beyond good and evil’ does not mean ‘beyond good and bad’ (which should make clear the errors of those who take him at his word and see him as a critic of all morality).



Nietzsche recommends the establishment of an essay prize in the history of morality. Interesting idea. He suggests this question:

What suggestions does the scientific study of language, especially etymological research, provide for the history of the development of moral concepts?

This isn’t good for Nietzsche, as it’s returning the focus to the very weakest parts of his work. He goes on to call for contributions from physiologists and doctors, believing that the study of morality should begin with physiology before moving on to psychology. This is positive in being a tacit admission that he has jumped the gun himself – presumably he would admit that advances in the sciences might make his arguments obsolete. And indeed, he brings in one of his rare but important references to ‘future philosophers’ here. On the other hand, this Note, which is as it were written in a more plain and intimate way than the hyperbolic body of the text, does all emphasise that Nietzsche is not kidding when he says he’s trying to address morality from a historical point of view. His genealogy is not intended to be metaphorical or ironic, it really is how he sees history.

He ends by stepping back from the position he’s been taking all along, and identifying the underlying debate:

Something, for example, that would have an apparent value with respect to the longest possible capacity for survival of a race (or for an increase in its power to adapt to a certain climate or for the preservation of the greatest number) would have nothing like the same value, if the issue were one of developing a stronger type. The well-being of the majority and the well-being of the fewest are opposing viewpoints for values. We wish to leave it to the naivete of English biologists to take the first as already the one of inherently higher value… the philosopher’s task is to solve the problem of value, that he has to determine the rank order of values.

This is one of the rare times Nietzsche steps out of character and admits that there is a genuine decision to be made here between two conflicting values – most of the time, as seen above, the emphasis is in how wrong (and horrible) the advocates of one set of values are, the choice prejudged in favour of Nietzsche’s own position. But here the choice is put centre-stage. And that word ‘determine’ should be reflected on: the German, bestimmen, has apparently the same ambiguity as the English: so does Nietzsche mean ‘ascertain’, ‘designate’, or ‘fix’? The obvious answer is ‘ascertain’, that’s what philosophers are normally doing when they determine things; my old paperback translation offers me ‘fix’ instead, which seems rather dictatorial (that is, philosophers would be making the values unchanging, and I’m not sure that’s something Nietzsche’s too keen on). Instead, I think ‘designate’ or ‘decide’ would be a closer fit to the meaning. This echoes his comments in Beyond Good and Evil, where he says:

The real philosophers, however, are commanders and law-givers; they say: “thus SHALL it be!” They determine first the Whither and Why of mankind… they grasp at the future with a creative hand, and whatever is and was becomes for them a means, an instrument, a hammer. Their “knowing” is creating, their creating is a law-giving, their will to truth is will to power.

On the other hand, maybe I’m being too charitable. There’s also evidence from Beyond Good and Evil that ‘fix’ may be the more accurate interpretation, and a reminder that Nietzsche is not talking solely in metaphorical or intellectual terms:

New philosophers… who shall fix the constraints and fasten the knots which will compel the Millenium to take new paths. To teach man the future of humanity as his will… and to make preparation for vast hazardous enterprises… in rearing and educating, in order thereby to put an end to the frightful rule of folly and chance which has hereto gone by the name of “history” – for that purpose a new type of philosopher and commander will sometime or other be needed, at the very idea of which everything that has existed in the way of occult, terrible and benevolent beings might look pale and dwarfed.

Such ‘commanders’, or ‘Leaders’ must be merciless, their conscience should be steeled and… heart transformed into brass’ in order to impose will and order onto history by force, ‘subjugate the past’, and halt the ‘universal degeneracy of mankind’ (as revealed politically throught the plague of democracy and genetically through the intermingling of the Aryan race with lesser peoples, particularly the Jews).

Modern readers of Nietzsche would like very much to cut out the personal side of Nietzsche from the political side – as we have seen how people act when they try to adopt those political views – but in the original these two dimensions are very closely, perhaps inextricably, linked.


3 thoughts on “On the Genealogy of Morals (10)

  1. orwell1627 says:

    I think that Nietzsche is the ideal comedic “Roastmaster.”

  2. I think he’s a bit too self-important for that. Schopenhauer is more merciless, but I probably prefer the more genteel approach – Hume, perhaps. I love Hume’s barb at Christianity: “Christianity was from the first a faith attended by miracles – and to this day, no sane man could possibly believe in it without one.” It’s brilliant because it’s a perfectly mainstream theological statement (all acts of conversion are miraculous), it’s a statement of his own theoretical position (only witnessing a miracle could provide rational grounds for believing in God), and it’s at the same time a clear insult toward believers. All at a time when insulting religion could be dangerous.

    One I came across recently that I liked, however, was by Bradley: “Reading so few books, Mr Spencer was naturally more at the mercy of those he did read…”

  3. Hans says:

    I don’t think we can take one disturbing fantasy of his as representative of all modern civilisation. Aquinas is more troubling, given his stature, and his generally high level of sanity – but if the worst Nietzsche can do is find a brief subsidiary argument suggested by the Ninth Doctor, I find myself underwhelmed. … it’s hardly reasonable to take this passing remark as exposing the core of his entire personality and motivation, let alone, the entire soul and essence of Christianity and Nonbastardism. Yes, hardly reasonable, but what Nietzsche is doing here is the “they let slip the mask ” gambit – these passages are supposed to show the “real’ motivation behind what N. sees as pious lies. He is “unmasking”, not engaging the adversary’s officially stated reasons.
    On bestimmen , I’d assume with someone like Nietzsche who knows his distinctions, the ambiguity is intended. Otherwise he could have used feststellen “ascertain, identify” or festlegen “stipulate, fix”. So using “determine” seems to be the best translation.

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