On the Genealogy of Morals, 11

Part of my ongoing commentary on On the Genealogy of Morals.

The First Essay is rather scattergun in its approach – one reason why my comments have been so long, since N. produces a constant stream of interesting remarks, often tangential to his purpose.

It’s fatuous to try to boil all of that down to a precis, and such a summary would necessary leave out (/leaves out) a lot and simplifying the rest. In essence, however, it is probably fair to perceive six main thrusts of what he is saying here:

  • it is wrong to look at accounts of mankind that see man as passive before impersonal forces – rather, history should be explained through active decisions and desires
  • in point of fact, originally, the rulers created language to impose their will and reflect their attitudes
  • the rulers were overthrown and their language distorted, creating new values
  • the values of the masters are founded on self-love; the values of the slaves are founded on other-hatred
  • specifically, the masters were dangerous and violent men, and the slaves are meek and praise passivity
  • the lack of danger in mankind breeds contempt for mankind and a turning against life
  • the ‘positive’ values of Christianity, democracy, liberalism, pacifism and so on are expressions of hatred

What can we make of these? Obviously, any answer would be (/is) presumptuous. But for what it’s worth, I think:

  • the idea of seeing man as commanding rather than commanded is wishful thinking on Nietzsche’s part, with no real reasons given to support it
  • Nietzsche’s attempts at history and etymology are flawed to the point of being ludicrous and thus it is not really viable to accept his account of history as in any way accurate in a literal sense
  • Nietzsche’s observation that values can be founded on perception of the self or on perception of the other is a very interesting one, but needs more exploration, particular in separating out this locus-of-value from the polarity of value issue (hate vs love)
  • Nietzsche is surely onto something when praising dangerous men – it’s the soul of every Western, for instane, most war films, plenty of crime and detection films, action films, and so on. There is no doubt something admirable about dangerous men. But is that admirable thing really enough to outweigh all that is repellent about them? There is something lost in the loss of glory and danger, but is what is lost greater than what has been gained? And Nietzsche is surely correct in saying that the passivisation of mankind has bred a sort of self-contempt, a tendency to regard people as interchangeable mechanisms… but surely there was also contempt among the Vikings and the Goths and the Romans, albeit of a different sort?
  • Nietzsche is accurate and clever in pointing out how ‘good’ people can sometimes have very ugly motivations for being ‘good’. But he is much less compelling in the suggestion that this is true of all ‘goodness’.

Nietzsche’s strength is certainly in challenging perceived certainties. He is much weaker in presenting a compelling vision of his own. And much of how we assess Nietzsche’s work may come down to what we think he was doing. What is a genealogy? As a history, it is frankly a failure. As an attempt to ‘subjugate the past’, it is little better – it is not robust enough to subjugate anything. Its greatest value, I think, is subversive: by showing how certain ideas could arise, how certain attitudes can sometimes be linked to certain other things, it encourages us to question our own preconceptions. Even if we exonerate ourselves on Nietzsche’s charges, the fact we have been led to put ourselves in the dock in the first place can be a powerful first step in its own right.

Unfortunately, though later ‘genealogists’ may perhaps have been content with metaphorical and hypothetical histories, Nietzsche really does seem to be trying to offer a genuine historical analysis. This analysis must be – and was – judged a failure by the standards and knowledge of his time, and a disaster by the standards of what we now know about history.



EDIT: incidentally, is this the first appearance of the idea of Self and Other in this sense (the sense of self requiring the creation of an Other than is then looked down upon)? I know that a lot of the Continentals who popularised the terms in the following century were Nietzsche fans. I’m also aware that he of course wasn’t the first to discuss the general ideas of self and other, which of course are hard to avoid in philosophy – in particular, I’m thinking of the Fichtean ego positing the other as what limits its own action, and of course there are elements in the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave. But I suspect Nietzsche may have been first or near-first when it comes specifically to the mutually-constructing-through-negation “Self” and “Other”?

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