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”?

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’.”

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Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (9)

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 12.


Here we begin with one of N’s more famous quotes:

What is it exactly that I find so totally unbearable? Something which I cannot deal with on my own, which makes me choke and feel faint? Bad air! Bad air! It’s when something which has failed comes close to me, when I have to smell the entrails of a failed soul!

What a tosser. But philosophically, what is interesting here is the way that Nietzsche has moved from plain appraisal of things in their own right toward the concept of his inferior beings as ‘failed’. This is important, because failure implies an intent, a proper aim – to call a thing a failure means first holding it up against some ideal and then assuming the the actual was somehow meant to be the ideal.

What might Nietzsche say about that if he were willing to criticise himself? Well, fortunately for us he discusses this exact thing in Twilight of Idols, as the third step in his ‘history of an error’ (where in context ‘the true world’ is an ideal contrasted against reality):

The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolidation, an obligation, an imperative.

(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Konigsbergian)

This is what Nietzsche is doing as regards ‘failed souls’ – the criticism of them as failures necessitates an ideal that imposes an obligation, even if it’s only an aesthetic obligation.

Of course, what he is also doing is defining the self not through the self but through the other…

But if there are heavenly goddesses who are our patrons, beyond good and evil, then from time to time grant me a glimpse, just grant me a single glimpse into something perfect, something completely developed, happy, powerful, triumphant, from which there is still something to fear! A glimpse of a man who justifies humanity, of a complementary and redeeming stroke-of-luck of a man, for whose sake we can hang onto a faith in humanity!

Huh. Nietzsche goes all Heiligenstadt on us… he also becomes even more no-saying an life-hating than normal. What, the whole of the human species stands then in need of some justification? This great and many-splendoured and unparalleled flower of the tree of life lies summed up and measured and condemned by a merely human intellect and now must in some way be justified? Has Life then strayed so badly that it is not merely painful or distateful, in some way that could still allow us to rejoice in its elements, but so that it is actually in need of justification? Something that requires justification and yet has none is something that would better not to be at all. How can any flaws then outweigh the immeasurable virtues of any part of Life? Does a man dying of thirst complain that the water he is given to drink tastes brackish, is too warm, fails to smell of summer grass and fresh-cut fruit? Perhaps he does – but does he, can he, then exclaim that the water must justify its existence, that without a sufficient excuse the water ought not to exist? And if we berate nature and say that it requires some justification, why would nature pay any attention to us? Has its exuberance and joy so weakened that it allows itself to be subjugated to the petty and myopic and grandiloquent demands – be this waydon’t be like thatjustify yourself – of Herr Nietzsche?

Of course, you may not see the world this way; I’m not sure I do. But it is Nietzsche who teaches us the glories of life, the absolute necessity of saying yes to life; and yet at every turn we see him separate himself from life and cry out a resounding no.

Europe’s fate lies right here—with the fear of man we also have lost the love for him, the reverence for him, the hope for him; indeed, our will to him.

I can see elements of a point here. Indeed, things we fear often inspire awe, or reverence, and they in turn can inspire love, and faith. But are these the only routes to love? Is Nietzsche not adopting here a slave’s mentality? Our masters are so mighty they can kill us – how glorious and wonderful are the masters! Nietzsche, who wants philosophers to stand tall, to command, prefers himself to crawl and hide among the crowd, begging for someone to push his face into the dirt, a slave soul who yearns for a master because he cannot comprehend himself without a master to define him. What a pitiable creature. And he prefers to say that his demands to be dominated, his attempts to strongarm other men and force them to stand above him on a pedestal, are efforts born of love for others? Ressentiment! Ressentiment and false humility! And is he not indeed loving only one part of mankind? And a part, at that, that he does not believe exists? He takes his purported and impossible love of a terrifying man who no longer lives (if he ever did) as reason to despise mankind as it actually exists. Oh, there is no love in this, except perhaps self-love.



A long section that brings in one of N’s most famous metaphors: the eagles and the lambs.

That the lambs are upset about the great predatory birds is not a strange thing, and the fact that they snatch away small lambs provides no reason for holding anything against these large birds of prey.

Why not?

And if the lambs say among themselves, “These predatory birds are evil, and whoever is least like a predatory bird, especially anyone who is like its opposite, a lamb— shouldn’t that animal be good?” there is nothing to find fault with in this setting up of an ideal…

A clever argument: whoever is least like our enemies is a good person. I think it’s hard to deny that many people do think like this. But of course the problem with these genealogical arguments is that they concern the is, not the ought – even if we take them at face value. It’s true that being disliked by lambs is not inherently a reason to hold anything against the eagles… but likewise, the fact that the lambs dislike the eagles for their own reasons is not a reason for us to dismiss the reasons the lambs give for holding something against the eagles. Nietzsche tries to delegitimate rival views by suggesting ulterior motives, but this does nothing to address the views themselves.

I suspect also that Nietzsche isn’t being honest when he says that there’s nothing to find fault with here… given how vituperous he was in earlier sections about the monstrous villainy of it!

… except for the fact that the birds of prey might look down on them with a little mockery and perhaps say to themselves, “We are not at all annoyed with these good lambs. We even love them. Nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.”

No doubt which side Nietzsche sees himself on here… but he doesn’t just leave it as a conflict of tastes:

To demand from strength that it does not express itselfas strength, that it does not consist of a will to overpower, a will to throw down, a will to rule, a thirst for enemies and opposition and triumph, is just as unreasonable as to demand from weakness that it express itself as strength.

Here we see the ideology of the lambs as not just self-interested but as “unreasonable”. But I think Nietzsche is treading onto dangerous ground here. First, the standard of reasonableness is itself a value that must be questioned; and second, this implies an essentialist view of the world in which things simply are what they are. But this essentialism is something that it is difficult to sustain from a Nietzschean perspective. Finally, we can of course argue with his definition of strength, which equates strength with the actions of warrior barbarians – even taking strength on its own merits, we must surely observe that everywhere the wild and the dangerous is penned in and domesticated by the orderly and the civilised, not merely through psychological poisoning or through genetic dilution, but through force and strength. How then can we equate strength with the blond beast?

What follows is a vital section that I’ll quote in full:

A quantum of force is simply such a quantum of drive, will, action—rather, it is nothing but this very driving, willing, acting itself—and it cannot appear as anything else except through the seduction of language (and the fundamental errors of reason petrified in it), which understands and misunderstands all action as conditioned by something which causes actions, by a “Subject.” For, in just the same way as people separate lightning from its flash and take the latter as an action, as the effect of a subject, which is called lightning, so popular morality separates strength from the manifestations of strength, as if behind the strong person there were an indifferent substrate, which is free to express strength or not. But there is no such substrate; there is no “being” behind the doing, acting, becoming. “The doer” is merely made up and added into the action—the act is everything. People basically duplicate the action: when they see a lightning flash, that is an action of an action: they set up the same event first as the cause and then yet again as its effect. Natural scientists are no better when they say “Force moves, force causes,” and so on—our entire scientific knowledge, for all its coolness, its freedom from feelings, still remains exposed to the seductions of language and has not gotten rid of the changelings foisted on it, the “Subjects” (the atom, for example, is such a changeling, like the Kantian “thing-in-itself”): it’s no wonder that the repressed, secretly smouldering feelings of rage and hate use this belief for themselves and basically even maintain a faith in nothing more fervently than in the idea that the strong are free to be weak and that predatory birds are free to be lambs:—in so doing, they arrogate to themselves the right to blame the birds of prey for being birds of prey.

It seems to me that there are three key theories here. First, Nietzsche does away with the subject, and indeed with the object – all that exist are actions. The self, a fiction, is shaped by its actions, rather than its actions being chosen by the self. This is a big idea for the 19th century, but the passage of time has leant more and more support to it, through scientific experiments as well as through philosophical considerations, and Nietzsche gives some compelling metaphors and explanations of this myth. But, second, he believes that this entails some sort of determinism: things are what they are, and are not free to be otherwise. This is more than just denying the reality of the subject: after all, if freedom is defined through the choices of subjects, and subjects are themselves defined through their actions, then subjects, even if not ‘real’, will still be ‘free’ to act this way or that, provided that their actions are not entirely determined (there will be no other ‘freedom’ to contrast this freedom with and against which to find this freedom wanting). Nietzsche’s leanings toward determinism show up elsewhere too, as in his famous doctrine of eternal return; but are they really convincing? To take him at face value we must accept physical determinism, and then must rule out any sort of compatibilism that allows both freedom of will and physical determinism. Moreover, taking words like ‘freedom’ themselves at face value, it seems hard to deny that humans have immense powers of plasticity within them, and are able to change their natures to an unparalleled degree – so even if we do not believe that their changes are the result of free will decisions, they are still free to change. Finally, Nietzsche also makes the assumption that we cannot be blamed (or praised – the section goes on to depict the opposite side of the matter) for things we did not choose. But this seems tendentious, and out of character for Nietzsche. After all, can we not say that this is an excellent eagle, or that an excellent lamb, or this a thoroughly admirable piece of architecture? Why then shouldn’t we be able to praise an individual? And if perhaps ‘blame’ is too tied up in notions of free choice, why should that be an important thing, why would the move toward other terms of disapprobation be significant? After all, the ‘slave morality’ has been equally promulgated by those who do not believe that evil is the result of free choices.

…what that amounts to, coolly expressed and without bias, is essentially nothing more than “We weak people are merely weak. It’s good if we do nothing; we are not strong enough for that”—but this bitter state, this shrewdness of the lowest ranks, which even insects possess (when in great danger they stand as if they were dead in order not to do “too much”), has, thanks to that counterfeiting and self-deception of powerlessness, dressed itself in the splendour of a self-denying, still, patient virtue, just as if the weakness of the weak man himself—that means his essence, his actions, his entire single, inevitable, and irredeemable reality—is a voluntary achievement, something willed, chosen, an act, something of merit.

Aside from the comments above, there are three points to bring out here: first, the confirmation that Nietzsche is indeed talking about essential natures; second, the explicit contrast being action (strength) and inaction, ‘not doing too much’ (weakness); and third, the objection to how the weak portray themselves.

The second point may allow him to find some root for his essentialism: it’s conceivable that we might hold a coherent view in which exact qualities were not essential, but that raw quantities, degrees of action, were essential, and indeed objective. In practice, however, it requires Nietzsche to define rather conveniently which actions are actions and which actions are not actions… since of course we can hardly, objectively, say that 19th century society was inactive. Indeed, industrial society in some important senses did more than centuries of happy bloodletting in earlier times.

The third point, combined with the determinism, may remind us of stoicism. Stoics believed that physical events were predetermined, and that all we had power over was how we felt about them – thus, they preached emotional disengagement from the world. We cannot stop our children from dying, for instance, so we must simply learn not to care. Now of course the details of this are utterly inimical to Nietzsche, but he does often seem to be falling into the stoic division between what happens and what we think about it. We cannot blame a person for their behaviour, nor praise them, since that’s just their essence – but it certainly seems as though Nietzsche is willing to praise and criticise on the grounds of what people think about behaviour, and how they describe behaviour. But Nietzsche has no metaphysical grounds for making this distinction. What we think, what we say, that’s (in the absence of any belief in the soul/subject) just as determined as what we do. So why is it so unreasonable to criticise Aryans for raping people, yet perfectly reasonable it seems to criticise peasants for being proud of their non-violence? Nietzsche seems to be trying to have it both ways: put his own favoured things beyond criticism, but leave the things his enemies do as fair game. [Indeed, the whole fact of his writing these books, and the passionate, rhetorical, persuasive efforts he makes in doing so, belie his fatalism]

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!

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.

Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (6)

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, sections 6-9.



A difficult but important section – with the difficulty occuring right from the start in the grammar. I’ve looked at five different translations of this section now, and they all seem to say something slightly different…

Anyway, Nietzsche is here discussing the possibility of a society ruled by priests, and arguing that this is not a violation of his rule that “the concept of political superiority always resolves itself into a concept of superiority of the soul”. Nonetheless, there are differences in this special case. One is that the vocabulary is about purity – but N. warns us that primitive people are crude beyond imagining, psychologically speaking, and aren’t capable of symbolism, so that their concept of purity is literal – it’s about vegetarianism, washing regularly and so forth.

Here, Nietzsche is clearly being too racist and patronising. However, there may also be an element of truth: it’s probably true that some quite abstract concepts have evolved from quite simple concrete ones, and at the very least concepts like spiritual purity have often been very closely bound up with demonstrations of physical cleanliness.

The important bit, however, is what comes next:

From the beginning there is something unhealthy about such priestly aristocracies and about the customary attitudes which govern in them, which turn away from action, sometimes brooding, sometimes exploding with emotion, as a result of which in the priests of almost all ages there have appeared almost unavoidably those debilitating intestinal illnesses and neurasthenia.

Priests are wimps, not warriors: they prefer contemplation to violence, and are thus sick and dangerous, as contemplation is contrary to Life. Nietzsche portrays this moral (though he wouldn’t use the word – perhaps ‘spiritual’?) sickness as manifested in actual physical ailments. Perhaps he’s serious; perhaps it’s rhetorical. Either way, it’s surely important that he chose those ailments specifically: debilitating intestinal illnesses and neurasthenia are among the conditions with which Nietzsche himself suffered all his life. This furthers the image of Nietzsche as high priest of his own religion, and is one of the few (nearly) explicit indications that Nietzsche isn’t perfect.

But what they themselves came up with as a remedy for this pathological disease—surely we can assert that it has finally shown itself, through its effects, as even a hundred times more dangerous than the illness for which it was to provide relief. Human beings themselves are still sick from the after-effects of this priestly naivete in healing!

Here’s an important statement of a central thesis: that the ‘priests’, in order to resolve their own sickness (which Nietzsche I think is suggesting comes from an irreconcilable conflict in values within the priestly class, presumably between them qua priests and them qua rulers, or perhaps simply them qua priests versus them qua humans), have spiritually poisoned the whole of mankind.

Nietzsche goes on to give examples of the debilitating spiritual sicknesses that plague the modern world: vegetarianism, chastity, restrained eating, the ‘flight into the desert’, ‘anti-sensual metaphysics’ that make people lazy and over-sophisticated in a process of self-hypnosis. [And indeed, all historians now agree I’m sure that chastity and vegetarianism were indeed the greatest and most terrible evils of the 20th century]. Most importantly, he considers that the priests (like, we may note, Schopenhauer), consider the ultimate cure to be nothingness – Nietzsche regards both Buddhist nirvana and Christian union with God as forms of nothingness for the individual, further perhaps suggesting why he hates the idea of compassion or altruism, which for Schopenhauer spring from not only an ultimate abnegation but more proximally from a union with the world that mirrors the Christian dissolution into God. He then gives what looks like a condemnation of the priests:

Among the priests, everything simply becomes more dangerous—not only the remedies and arts of healing, but also pride, vengeance, mental acuity, excess, love, lust for power, virtue, illness…

But wait! Isn’t ‘dangerous’ a good thing in Nietzsche? And indeed then we are told:

…although with some fairness one could also add that it was from the soil of this essentially dangerous form of human existence, the priestly form, that man first became an interesting animal, that only here did the human soul acquire depth in a higher sense and become evil – and indeed these two are the basic forms of the superiority which man has until now displayed over other creatures.

So we have a contrast of two judgements: the priests and their offspring are both dangerous (good) and sick (bad), and as a result humans have become evil (good), and superior to the animals. It is vital to bear this in mind as we read on: that Nietzsche considers his pre-priestly Masters to be uninteresting, and no more than animals. Priests may have created sickness, but it is a sickness that has changed our nature for the better – we have gone from healthy animals to sick human beings. Perhaps the next step is to cure us?



The knightly-aristocratic judgments of value have as their basic assumption a powerful physicality, a blooming, rich, even overflowing health, together with those things required to maintain these qualities — war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and, in general, everything which involves strong, free, happy action. The priestly-noble method of evaluating has, as we saw, other preconditions: these make it difficult enough for them when it comes to war!

So, interesting things begin to happen when conflicts arise between aristocrats and priests. But because the values of priests involve prizing things like cleanliness and abhorring blood, they’re not very good at actually fighting. So they need subtler weapons…

As is well known, priests are the most terrible of enemies — but why? Because they are the most powerless. From their powerlessness, their hate grows among them into something huge and terrifying, to the most spiritual and most poisonous manifestations. The really great haters in world history and the most spiritual haters have always been priests.

It’s clear which side we’re meant to be sympathising with here: the priests are not only powerless but hate-filled. Why? Well, hopefully Nietzsche will try explaining that later, but for now it seems like a blunt rhetorical move to force our allegiances. And yet remember:

Human history would be a really stupid affair without that spirit which entered it from the powerless.

We’re not necessarily meant to side with the aristocrats entirely, or wholeheartedly lament their defeat.

But now we’re getting to the crux of Nietzsche’s vision of history: which, to summarise, is “it’s all the Jews’ fault”:

Everything on earth which has been done against “the nobility,” “the powerful,” “the masters,” “the possessors of power” is not worth mentioning in comparison with what the Jews have done against them: the Jews, that priestly people, who knew how to get final satisfaction from their enemies and conquerors through a radical transformation of their values, that is, through an act of the most spiritual revenge. This was appropriate only to a priestly people with the most deeply repressed priestly desire for revenge.

Put next to his earlier statement on race, and it’s really hard not to read Nietzsche as just a tad anti-semitic here, and it’s hard to really defend him at all. To avoid disgust, it’s probably better to just read ‘priests’ whenever Nietzsche talks about Jews (and to be fair to him, he does see Christianity as mostly a Jewish conspiracy). We might also note with curiosity how he’s appended ‘repression’ and ‘revenge’ to the earlier priestly characteristic of ‘hate’.

He gives us a simple version of the ‘Jewish’ ideology:

“Only those who suffer are good; the poor, the powerless, the lowly are the only good people; the suffering, those in need, the sick, the ugly are also the only pious people; only they are blessed by God; for them alone there is salvation.—By contrast, you privileged and powerful people, you are for all eternity the evil, the cruel, the lecherous, the insatiable, the godless; you will also be the unblessed, the cursed, and the damned for all eternity!”

Thus the “slave revolt in morality” revalues the old valuations, and takes revenge for the physical defeat of the priests by imposing guilt and a fear of the afterlife upon the strong.

It’s maybe worth going back to Callicles here. Callicles says that morals are created by the weak to control the strong; as a result, ‘Socrates’ can object that in that case the ‘weak’ are actually the strong, since they have conquered the strong. Nietzsche recognises this objection, and does give grudging credit to the Jews, acknowledging their power, their intellect and their audacity. More profoundly, however, he’s able to sidestep this problem, because unlike Callicles he does not define strength solely through appeal to worldly good and pleasures – Nietzsche’s strong aren’t just the people who are best at conquering in general, they’re a particulary type of person, who just happened to be best and conquering when the battle was fought in a particular way. The Masters are masters because they are superior, rather than being superior simply because they are masters – thus, their loss of mastery does not spiritually invalidate them as it does Callicles’ elites.

But let’s return for a moment to reality. In reality, it’s questionable whether secular rulers were in fact in general prior to religious rulers; it’s questionable how many time secular rulers in fact conquered priestly aristocracies; it’s questionable whether the Jews did in fact constitute a priestly aristocracy when they were conquered. It’s pretty clear that they didn’t in fact have an intentional conspiracy to defile the spiritual integrity of the aryan races.

We shouldn’t admit too much ambiguity in how Nietzsche considers this two-thousand year Jewish conspiracy, either. True, he admits that the Jews made humanity interesting, but he also says plainly that their project was “immeasurably disasterous”.

Finally, and forebodingly for the future of race relations in Germany, Nietzsche is forthright in asserting not only that there is a Jewish conspiracy, but that it amounts to violence, to open warfare, to “this most fundamental of all declarations of war” against the Aryan master race. The implication, of course, is that if the Jews have declared war on the master race, the master race is justified in fighting back – there are in this view no Jewish civilians, only a race of racial belligerants. What’s more, Nietzsche’s description of the subtlety of the Jewish ‘poison’ and their refusal to face the Aryans in honest battle positions the Jews as not merely enemy combatants (who might deserve honourable treatment as POWs) but as spies, fifth columnists and conspirators (who in a time of war, such as in the war the Jews have supposedly declared, can lawfully be shot on sight).

Needless to say, Nietzsche did not cause the Holocaust. German anti-semitism was rampant at that time, in other places Nietzsche explicitly denigrates the anti-semites, and without Nietzsche things would have proceeded no doubt more or less as they did. Nonetheless, Nietzsche’s rhetoric, whether novel or merely representative of public thinking in his day, is disturbing in how it appears to prepare a nation for genocide, not merely in one throwaway badly-chosen remark, but step-by-step.




Here, N. deals with the problem that readers may be having: in what way is Christianity a Jewish conspiracy? Aren’t the two religions quite different? Hasn’t there been substantial conflict between the two?

However, that’s what took place: out of the trunk of that tree of vengeance and hatred, Jewish hatred—the deepest and most sublime hatred, that is, a hatred which creates ideals and transforms values, something whose like has never existed on earth—from that grew something just as incomparable, a new love, the deepest and most sublime of all the forms of love: —from what other trunk could it have grown? . . . However, one should not assume that this love arose essentially as the denial of that thirst for vengeance, as the opposite of Jewish hatred! No. The opposite is true! This love grew out of that hatred, as its crown, as the victorious crown unfolding itself wider and wider in the purest brightness and sunshine, which, so to speak, was seeking for the kingdom of light and height…

Love is hate. In other news, perhaps war is peace and freedom is slavery? But to be fair, there is something to this. The project of revenge may be motivated by hatred, but its execution may involve persuading people of the virtues of love: love, after all, at least this sort of universal, passive love, is inimical to the sort of violence and narcissism that N. has been praising. It makes sense that anybody wanting to attack that old system of values would do so by appealing to love. But surely Jesus’ crucifixion wasn’t actually part of an intentional plan on the part of the Jews to destroy the master race?

Didn’t Israel attain, precisely with the detour of this “Saviour,” of this apparent enemy to and dissolver of Israel, the final goal of its sublime thirst for vengeance? Isn’t it part of the secret black art of a truly great politics of vengeance, a farsighted, underground, slowly expropriating, and premeditated revenge, that Israel itself had to disown and nail to the cross, like some mortal enemy, the tool essential to its revenge before all the world, so that “all the world,” that is, all Israel’s enemies, could then swallow this particular bait without a second thought?

O….kay….? That sounds a little paranoid there, Mr. I’m-going-to-be-hospitalised-as-a-raving-lunatic-twenty-months-from-now. Worth noting in passing, incidentally, that Nietzsche isn’t just taking the Jews as an example of hatred or revaluation, but as a uniquely and incomparably hate-filled race, without any human parallel in their malign iniquity. And what has been the result so far of their ‘war’?

On the other hand, could anyone… even imagine… something to match the enticing, intoxicating, narcotizing, corrupting power of that symbol of the “holy cross,” that ghastly paradox of a “god on the cross,” that mystery of an unimaginable and ultimate final cruelty… Israel, with its vengeance and revaluation of the worth of all other previous values, has triumphed again and again over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals.



A strange section that mostly quotes the response of an imaginary ‘free-thinker’ and ‘democrat’ to fill Nietzsche’s reluctance to speak further as “for me at this juncture there is much to be silent about”. As for what the democrat says, he (presumably it’s a he, Nietzsche wouldn’t bother arguing with even a hypothetical woman – at least, not post-Salomé Nietzsche; up until then, many of the key figures in his life had been strong, intellectual women, and indeed he continued a (demented) relationship through (mad) letters even after his collapse with Cosima Wagner (he considers himself to be the god Dionysus, and her to be Ariadne, lost in the labyrinth, guarded by the Wagnerian minotaur)) argues that if the Jews have done this, then well done them. Isn’t it good that the old values have been eliminated by superior values? Nietzsche gives no answer at this point, nor explains what it is he is chosing to be loudly silent about.

Oh, and I’ll note in passing that the Democrat ‘grants’ Nietzsche that ‘improving’ mankind in this way has caused a lamentable intermingling of the races – Nietzsche is so convinced of the evils of miscegenation that he can’t even conceive of his opponants wanting to disagree with him on that, though they might on everything else…

Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (5)

First part of my ongoing project to re-read On the Genealogy of Morals, sharing some thoughts as I go along. Today, we’re on the First Essay, sections 3-5.



In this brief section, Nietzsche attempts a little nuance and rationality. He distinguishes between the typical ‘English’ view of morality – in which ‘goodness’ was originally what was useful to the masses, but the masses later ‘forgot’ this fact, and continued using the word that way out of ‘habit’ – and the views of Spencer. The underlying problem with ‘good’ having originally just meant whatever was useful to the masses is that if this were the case we would expect people to be aware of this, and not create centuries of alternate theories and need the English to explain things to them: hence the English need the idea of ‘forgetting’. But Nietzsche points out that since not only has ‘good’ continued to mean what was useful, all along, but the usefulness of using ‘good’ this way (to convince the powerful to be socially useful) hasn’t gone away either, in fact has (Nietzsche says) become greater over time: so why has everybody ‘forgotten’ the use of a tool that they use every day? How has the confusion arisen, if what is referred to has indeed been sitting in front of us the whole time? How could such a confusion of names happen accidentally? To this, N. juxtaposes Spencer’s view that ‘good’ really does STILL just mean ‘useful’, being a sort of shorthand for whatever has proven to be of use – in this case, it wouldn’t be a matter of people forgetting an origin, but just of not sufficiently examining the nature of a current use, which presumably they would be able understand if they thought about what they really meant.

Nietzsche says that this is ‘pyschologically tenable’, and ‘coherent’, and much more logical than the English view, but also that it is wrong. He doesn’t say why.

We see here what I seem to recall being a trope in Nietzsche: he takes one minor theory and uses it to bash down a major theory, allowing him to damage the credibility of the theory he hates without having to get his hands dirty by commiting to things himself. He then hopes that he will look serious and charitable for having spoken better of one of his lesser rivals, and leaves the matter there, not bothering to discredit the theory he has just used.

In this case it would be particularly interesting to hear an argument against Spencer, because Spencer’s argument is very reminiscent of Nietzsche’s own comment in the Preface, that morality had to be challenged because it would otherwise prevent the full flourishing of the potential of the human species. After all, is Nietzsche not there holding up behaviour (in this case the action of calling something immoral or moral) against a standard based on what will be ‘useful’ for humanity? To be sure, he does not consistently call his own vision of what is useful ‘good’, but the normative attitude he holds toward it is nonetheless inescapable.



Here we have the first attempt at specific historical evidence. Nietzsche says that words for ‘good’, in his experience, all lead back to words for aristocracy, and words for ‘bad’ originate in words for the lower classes. It can’t be argued that this does often happen: my translation gives three examples in English of the latter, ‘vulgar’, ‘base’ and ‘low’, compared with ‘noble’ for the former. A particularly good English example would be ‘villain’, now meaning an evil person, but previously having just meant a farmer, and only shifting to its current meaning via aesthetic theory in the 19th century (after a period of meaning ‘base’, ‘simple’, ‘rustic’, ‘scoundrel’, ‘fool’, etc). However, Nietzsche is clearly overstretching here. Take English, for instance: ‘good’ comes from a word meaning ‘appropriate, fitting’, originally from a verb for uniting or assembling. ‘Right’ and ‘righteous’ come from a word meaning ‘straight’ – there is an association of this root with nobility in some languages (eg Latin rēx, ‘king’, and its derivatives (so ‘right’, ‘regal’ and ‘royal’ all come from the same root)), but in these cases the change in meaning has clearly gone in the opposite direction (the king is he who sets things in order). And we’re not even turning to recondite languages in the far corners of the globe, this is English we’re talking about here. And indeed German – although N. talks about the word for ‘good’ having had the sense of ‘noble’ or ‘aristocratic’, the German actually has the same source as the English – if it may once (I don’t know) have had a connotation of aristocracy, that’s certainly not its origin.

The concrete example N. gives is also suspect: schlecht (bad) vs. schlicht (simple, modest), which N. tells us once referred to plebeians, in contrast to nobles. N. is right that the two words have the same origin. However, the oldest root meant ‘slide’, from which developed a word meaning ‘smooth’, from which ‘even, plain’. From this, there came a connotation of something unexceptional, unremarkable, uninteresting, and hence unadmirable, and hence bad. Meanwhile, schlicht developed (either from a dialect form or from a verbal form) to maintain the older meaning, which in turn drifted in a different direction, toward simplicity. So far as I can see, neither word was ever primarily a term of class identification, and that certainly isn’t the origin. The English cognate, incidentally, is slight – now mostly small, minor, unimportant, we can see the older meaning of ‘level’ in the slighting of fortifications (rendering them useless by levelling parts of them), and a brief experiment with the German ‘bad’ meaning in the noun a slight, meaning an insult, a calumny or a macula – I’m not sure whether to slight in the sense of ‘to insult’ comes from the noun or from the metaphor of shaming someone by tearing down their castles… in any case, there’s no strong association with the plebeians in English. Slick is another cognate of these words. Sly and sleight of hand, on the other hand, are instead related to slaying. Moral: words just move around in meaning a lot, all the time. N. has to admit that his proposed meaning change/divergence for schlecht/schlicht must be surprisingly modern, rather than the forgotten-times-of-yore that he wants to be talking about, and blames democracy’s retarding effect, which seems counterintuitive to me, given that Germany in the dark ages and middle ages was not particularly democratic.

It does, however, let him go off on a well-polished rant, complaining how democracy ruins everything, and how ‘malicious’ it is, culminating with:

…it was in Buckle that that plebeianism of the modern spirit, which is of English origin, broke out once again from its malignant soil with all the violence of a slimy volcano, and with that salted, rampant and vulgar eloquence with which up to the present time all volcanoes have spoken.

‘Buckle’ here is presumably Henry Buckle, the English historian who hypothesised that civilisation was a matter of knowledge rather than moral superiority, that civilisation was directly associated with skepticism and the absence of credulity, and that people were individually irrelevent in human history, which could in theory be predicted and understood scientifically, with even great men being more the product of their times than shapers of them. His reputation as a historian is probably impeded by the fact that despite working on his History of Civilization for ten hours a day for seventeen years, he died after completing only the first two volumes of a proposed fourteen. Nietzsche is also probable predisposed against him because he was a leading voice in recognition of the intellectual equality of women (but difference – he believed they were intellectually quicker and better at understanding, and possessed what he called ‘feminine intuition’, and hence were far more deductive; on the other hand, they were also emotional, enthusiastic, imaginative, and lived in an ‘ideal’ world, whereas men were more ‘under the dominion of facts’). Indeed, Buckle identified the growing participation of women in intellectual society as the defining trait of modern civilisation compared to all the inferior ones that had come before, and of England over the barbaric, misogynist continent. Nietzsche’s view on this question was quite different – in Beyond Good and Evil, he identifies women as the greatest retarding element against European civilisation, on the grounds that even though they’re idiots, there’s been an increasing and abominable trend to let them cook, devastating male productivity through their inedible and poisonous products – the continuing incompetence of female cooking he takes as evidence that women are not ‘thinking creatures’ at all, and that women must at all costs be kept out of the kitchen. Preferably in small boxes, I think is his view. He takes the observation Buckle makes that, unlike modern civilisation, Greek civilisation became more misogynist as it developed, and takes this to show the superiority of misogny. No man who believes in equal rights can be a deep thinker, he says – on the contrary, “a man who has depth of spirit as well as of desires, and has also the depth of benevolence… can only think of woman as orientals do: he must conceive of her as a possession, as confinable property, as a being predestined for service and accomplishing her mission therein…”

But, that’s not a quote from On the Genealogy of Morals



With regard to our problem, which can justly be called an intimate problem, and which elects to appeal to only a limited number of ears…

This section continues Nietzsche’s ‘philological’ arguments. He argues that words for ‘good’ all indicated originally aristocracy, and that words of aristocracy in turn indicated how the aristocrats saw themselves, with a contrary association for words for the peasantry. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s philology was considered dodgy in the 19th century, and must now be seen as worse than dodgy in light of modern knowledge. The words Nietzsche picks out (and his etymologies):

ārya(Sanskrit): ‘the possessors’. Etymology disputed, but nothing to do with possessing – most likely ‘the hosts’, ‘the kindly ones’, or possibly something to do with kinsmen, ploughing, sharing, or fitting together. One could imagine that the meaning of sharing and being kind originated from the idea of having something to share, but there’s no reason to think this is so specifically. In any case, ‘Aryan’ appears to have been a general term for the whole nation or community before it became restricted to a noble caste

esthlos (Greek): ‘one who has reality’ > ‘true one’ > ‘truthful one’ > ‘aristocrat’. In reality, etymology unknown, possibly related to words for thriving or being fat.

kakos (Gr.): ‘the cowardice is emphasised’, ‘the plebeian’. Actually means ‘bad, awful, worthless’, though there is a derivative meaning cowardice (and others meaing ‘harmful’, ‘to damage’, ‘to scorn’ and so on). Origin unknown, possibly related to words for ‘small’. Used to describe Darius, who was hardly plebeian.

deilos (Gr.): plebeian, and emphasising cowardice. Does mean cowardly, and some connection with ‘wretched’, but dictionary doesn’t suggest an overt class implication.

agathos: doesn’t give an origin but suggests it will be about bravery, in contrast to the above. Origin still unknown, but Beekes suggests it’s actually a word borrowed from the autochthonous population the Greeks conquered (the direct opposite of Nietzsche’s theory).

melas (Gr.) and malus (Latin): Nietzsche assumes these are the same, and that the Latin word for ‘bad’ means ‘black’ originally – he cites a quote that uses niger to mean a cad. He says this is because the native populations were dark-haired, by contrast to the blond Aryan invaders. In reality, however, the ‘Aryans’ were also fairly dark-haired, as blondeness hadn’t yet been evolved, although iirc some may have been redheads. The words may or may not be related, and even if they are there’s not necessarily a black=evil equation going on here, as the same root is also associated with words for blue and yellow in other languages.

‘Fin’ as in ‘Fin-Gal’ (Gaelic): ‘blond’ > ‘aristocratic’ > ‘good, clean’. It’s true that this word started off meaning ‘white’, and ended up with an additional conotation of truth and justice. However, this may just have been via ‘clean’, ‘stainless’, without any diversion through class labels. Additionally, the ‘Fin-Gal’ (Finngaill) Nietzsche names weren’t Celtic, they were Vikings. The Irish distinguished between the fair and the dark ‘Gauls’ who invaded them (traditionally assumed to be Norwegians vs Danes) – but it’s not clear this is a racial difference (the words may simply mean ‘old’ and ‘new’ in this context). More importantly, while it’s true that the word for ‘fair’ does have noble connotations, so does the word for ‘dark’, which has connotations of might and power.

bonus (L.): ‘warrior’. Nietzsche actually has a good idea here, linking bonus to bellum, ‘war’. However, since in this hypothesis he’s right that the latter ‘contains’ the former (it’s a diminutive, ‘little good thing’, either ironic or referring originally to particular acts of valour), it’s the word for ‘war’ that’s derived from the word for ‘good’, rather than vice versa. He also opts not to mention the other diminutive, bella, ‘pretty’ (used of girls, and not very warrior-y at all). The original meaning of the root is unknown, but it may derive from words for ‘fitting together’ or ‘given’; he is wrong to relate it to duo and a sense of division.

gut (German): ‘of the godlike race’ = ‘Goth’. Again, as said regarding the last section, this etymology is nonsense. Gut comes from a word for fitting together, whereas God comes from a word for pouring (deity as the thing to which libations are poured). The ethnic name may be related to either of these roots, or to neither.

Where does this leave us? Well, Nietzsche’s thinking here isn’t entirely out of line with his era, although even then he was considered insufficiently rigorous (i.e. he lets his etymologies be driven by pre-determined doctrines of racial superiority, rather than by reason or evidence or method). But we know better now. If this is the evidence for Nietzsche’s view of history, it’s no evidence at all.

He helpfully caps it all off with “the grounds for this supposition do not appertain to this work.” That’s a phrase I’ll have to remember. In other words: “I could give a good argument for this, but I won’t, because I don’t think providing a basis for my otherwise implausible claims is in any way relevent to the implausible claims I’m making…” – somehow, I remain unconvinced.

Nietzsche also goes off on a racist rant in this section. First, he argues that the Celts were all blond, and that dark-haired populations must be the subject populations rising up. This is of course false. [And maybe worth noting that Celtic cultures seem often to have prized darker complexions – most famously, the anthropomorphisation of Ireland herself as a woman to be adored is Roisín Dubh, ‘Little Dark Rose’ or ‘Dark Roseleen’.] Then he goes on to attach political significance to this, arguing that democracy and socialism are the result of a deterioration in skull shape and intellectual capacity, demonstrating “the master race – the Aryan race – …becoming inferior physiologically” as a result of breeding with the lesser races. He may not have been making his ‘masters’ and ‘slaves’ into races in the prior section, but here it seems unavoidable. His theories are both unpleasant and deeply ignorant, a terrible combination.

Finally, it’s tempting to defend Nietzsche as not really talking historically, as only talking metaphorically or the like. But we should remember that Nietzsche dismissed the English theoreticians because their views were ‘historically untenable’, and went on to offer his own views of history. The fact that Nietzsche’s own views are themselves entirely historically untenable should not be overlooked…

Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (Index)

This is the index page for my ongoing project to read through Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, sharing some thoughts as I go.

So far, I have the following posts up:

1 – Introduction to the project, intentions, note on the context of the text
2 – Preface: sections 1-2
3 – Preface: remaining sections
4 – First Essay: sections 1-2
5 – First Essay: sections 3-5
6 – First Essay: sections 6-9
7 – First Essay: section 10
8 – First Essay: section 11
9 – First Essay: sections 12-13
10 – First Essay: sections 14-17 and Note
11 – First Essay: roundup


Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (4: Essay 1, Sections 1-2)

Part of my ongoing project to re-read On the Genealogy of Morals, sharing some thoughts as I go along.

First Essay – “Good and Evil, Good and Bad”


Nietzsche begins with his rivals – the ‘English’ psychologists. He appears hostile to their view of psychology, in which humans act for reasons they wouldn’t always be proud of:

(for example, in the vis inertiae of habit, or in forgetfulness, or in a blind and fortuitous mechanism and association of ideas, or in some factor that is purely passive, reflex, molecular, or fundamentally stupid)

Worth remembering, when he talks about ‘molecular’ reasons, that he’s probably including evolutionary theories of behaviour here as well – such as those put forward in Rée’s book. He instinctively opposes all these reasons as they put humanity in a passive role: things just happen to people and that’s why they act how they do, as though humans were subject to the same deterministic laws as everybody else. He wants people to turn out to be fundamentally active and self-determining. Nietzsche is an instinctive conspiracy theorist: he would also prefer to believe in malice than in passivity, inertness or coincidence. That’s why he doesn’t directly attack these views – instead, he questions what motivates the ‘English’ (remember, it’s not just a geographical term, it’s a term of abuse – anyone who thinks like the English is ‘English’). He suggests a variety of sordid motivations, but ultimately claims to personally think they have noble intentions, that they have “specifically trained themselves to sacrifice what is desirable to what is true”.



He lambasts the “crass ineptitude” of the English, and singles out some overly English-esque words: “utility”, “forgetting”, “habit”, “error”. Nietzsche’s point is that for most of history, when people have reflected on the fact that they have a sense of what is good, they generally feel proud of their ethical existence, as though knowing good was both something good and something they had in some way attained – whereas the English argue that the concept of the good is almost a sort of historical accident, a happenstance foisted upon humanity through the machinations of impersonal forces, something that just sort of emerges out evolution and history. Despite his earlier words, Nietzsche returns to the idea that the English are saying this for political reasons: that they are intentionally setting out to eliminate human pride and traditional systems of values. But where are they going wrong exactly? Well:

Now the first argument that comes ready to my hand is that the real homestead of the concept “good” is sought and located in the wrong place: the judgement “good” did not originate among those to whom goodness was shown. Much rather has it been the good themselves, that is, the aristocratic, the powerful, the high-stationed, the high-minded, who have felt that they themselves were good, and their actions were good, that is to say of the first order, in contradistinction to all the low, the low-minded, the vulgar, and the plebaian. It was out of this pathos of distance that they first arrogated the right to create values for their own profit, and to coin the names of such values: what had they to do with utility?

Here we come to the concrete. The English have argued that the idea of the good arises from the fact that goodness is beneficial, and that those it benefits, or would benefit, encourage people to follow goodness, and even create the concept of ‘goodness’, as what is beneficial (this ‘English’ approach is based on, on the one hand, utilitarianism, and on the other evolution). But Nietzsche, who always instinctively wants to reverse everything, says that it instead comes from the people who are good, who create the term to distinguish themselves from those who are not good.


That’s one thing, and an interesting idea – that the concept of morality is at least as much a matter of pride in what already separates us from the immoral (and ultimately from the animals) as it is about an attempt to improve ourselves and to control each other. But Nietzsche uses a sort of shock-and-awe style of rhetoric, in which he lands some startling theory, often a reversal of received wisdom, and then sends his ground troops creeping in behind while his reader is still reeling. In this case, he sneaks in the assumption that the people who created the term ‘good’ were aristocrats congratulating themselves on being aristocrats. There’s surely something true to this – many moral judgements, particularly regarding personal virtues, are indeed bound up in concepts of class superiority and status – ‘being a gentleman’, ‘being a man of honour’. ‘Low’ and ‘base’ aren’t just descriptors of social status, but also terms for condemning behaviour deemed unfitting, whereas ‘noble’ is both a status and a commendation. And yet I can’t help but feel that Nietzsche is rushing to an unsubtle conclusion here – he assumes that these terms describe how the nobles see themselves, for instance, rather than how the nobles wish to be, and he also assumes that he must locate a single part of society as the origin of the whole concept of goodness. I would suggest instead that various parts of society each have contributed ethical concepts relating to the values of their own class, and that alongside terms based on nobility there are also terms based on the values of craftsmen and labourers.


My translation here has Nietzsche going further than class:


The pathos of nobility and distance, as I have said, the chronic and despotic esprit de corps and fundamental instinct of a higher dominant race coming into association with a meaner race, an ‘under race’ – this is the origin of the antithesis of good and bad.


However, we have to be wary of translations. The word translated ‘race’ here can apparently be translated as everything from ‘species’ at one end through via ‘character’ down to the vague ‘sort’. So I’m not sure that we can necessarily accuse Nietzsche of racism at this point. What is essential here is the idea that there are natural masters and natural underlings, defined in terms of character and ‘instinct’ – whether these characteristics have a cultural, genetic, or even sui generis origin, is a secondary question, and not one we necessarily have to see Nietzsche as having decided – at least not yet.


It should be mentioned at this point that despite Nietzsche’s claims to epoch-defining originality, he’s actually doing something very old here. Nietzsche elsewhere admits his admiration for the Sophists in general and for (the possibly fictional character) Callicles in particular (Nietzsche believes Callicles to be a paradigm sophist, although the only story he appears in states explicitly that he hates the sophists and is not one of them). It was the Sophists who created the genealogical attack on moral convention – the idea being that by dividing out what is genuinely the product of nature (physis) from what is merely the product of human convention (nomos), we can come to see how contingent and artificial the latter is, stripping from it the unchallengeable force that it commandeers by hiding itself among physis. Nietzsche does not spell it out, but that seems to be what he is doing in his own genealogy also. More particularly, the discussion of whether morality comes from the strong or from the weak is the old argument of Thrasymachus and Callicles. Here Nietzsche disagrees with Callicles, who believes, like the English, that morality (Callicles is talking about ‘justice’ rather than ‘goodness’) is the creation of the weak to spancel the strong – although we’ll come back to this. Instead he sides with Thrasymachus, who beleives that morality is a creation of the strong for their advantage. It’s not a perfect agreement, however – Nietzsche’s emphasis is less on the strong using the language of morality for their own functional advantage, their manipulation of the weak, and more on a sort of self-congratulation and self-definition. Nietzsche also seems closer to Callicles in wanting to juxtapose this false and nomic conception of the good against some true-in-nature sense of virtue (Callicles identifies the virtues of intelligence and courage, which Nietzsche would likely approve of).


However, one has to wonder whether the appeal to what is true in nature is still really as powerful in the 19th or 21st centuries as it was in its original context in Ancient Greece, given that few of Nietzsche’s rivals (not since Hume, at least) would ever concede that morality could be learnt by observing what is ‘natural’.


This section also contains two further points of interest. First, Nietzsche argues that language reflects power:


(The Masters’ right of giving names goes so far that it is permissable to look upon language itself as the expression of the power of the Masters: they say “this is such and such”, they seal finally every object and event with a sound, and thereby at the same time take possession of it.)


It’s an interesting myth that people still repeat today – feminist campaigns against this word or that, for instance, often carry with them this idea of the dominant elements of society ‘sealing objects with a sound’, imposing their power by imposing their vocabulary (leading critics of their power to, naturally enough, attempt to change their vocabulary in order to unseat their power, in a ritual of hostile name-changing that goes back to the oldest fairy tales in our culture). The trouble is that outside myth, this has no basis in reality: it may have made sense from the philological worldview of the hierarchy-dominated 19th century, but scientific study of the issues has long since disproven it. Dominant elites actually have surprisingly little power, or even influence, over ordinary language – which is why conquerors almost always adopt the language of their slaves and chattels, and not the other way around, except where the conquerors utterly overwhelm the conquered in numbers (and even there, there are still cases where the under-language ends up dominant: the success of Guaraní in Paraguay, for instance). On a social level, language is not imposed by the patriarchy: language is controlled by women, specifically women in early middle age from lower-middle-class backgrounds. [Young men are the greatest source of innovations in language – in vocabulary, grammar, and phonology – but most of their innovations are temporary exuberances that pass rapidly and leave no trace; what determines the future of the language as a whole, beyond this street, this neighbourhood, this year in linguistic fashion, is which of those innovations appeal to those men’s girlfriends, and even more so which appeal to, and are adopted by, their girlfriends’ mothers.]


So it doesn’t matter in the slightest what the Master decides to call such-and-such; what matters is what his Mistress’s charwoman, seamstress and nanny decide to call such-and-such.


What can we salvage from Nietzsche’s suggestion? Well, we may consider it in a broader, less literal sense – perhaps the Masters do control language, but only indirectly. They do not name things, but perhaps by shaping their culture they are able to encourage others to name things as the Masters would like. But that gives us something of a circuitous argument, since it is meant to be through their control of language that they shape the thoughts of the under-people; and moreover, if this influence is anything less than absolute, then the application of language – and in particular here the definitions of values – would be not a shaping of the linguistic world to meet the desires of the Masters, but rather a multilateral negotiation, in which the final definitions would reflect the will not only of the rulers but also of the broader populace.


(Incidentally, and trivially, I can’t but see in Nietzsche’s use of parentheses – entire sentences in parentheses, and sometimes parenthetical utterances that are incomplete, suggestive but not settled – a foreëcho (no I don’t normally spell it like that, but I just felt like it for some reason, and it looks pretty) of the later Wittgenstein’s ellipses… – and dashes? – I don’t recall reading any pre-Nietzsche writer who does this, although it’s not something I’ve thought about before so I could well be forgetting something/somebody. It’s part of the unusual clash of styles in Nietzsche – at times as informal as though jotting something down in a notebook, at other times so otiose and porphyrous that it seems he should be writing poetry or bellowing out rhetoric rather than discussing philosophy in text – I wonder how much of this is intentional, and how much is the natural uncertainty of mode that flows from writing for a small and hidden audience with whom the writer has no direct communication?)


Finally, Nietzsche phrases a point in an interesting way. Having argued that the original ‘goodness’ was not a term created by the masses to mean whatever was in the interests of the masses (i.e. altruism) but rather a term created by the rulers to refer to whatever it was rulers felt like doing, he then laments how in the modern world:


…today the prejudice is predominant, which, acting even now with all the intensity of an idée fixe and brain disease, holds that “moral”, “altruistic” and “disinterested” are concepts of equal value.


Fair enough from what he’s said so far, but the interesting bit is instead:


…it is on the occasion of the decay of aristocratic values that the antitheses between “egoistic” and “altruistic” presses more and more heavily on the human conscience.


Here Nietzsche identifies that the ‘modern’ worldview he hates is based not just on the concept of the dread ‘altruism’, but on the antithesis between egoism and altruism: not just that the moral is equated with the altruistic, but that, through opposition to the egoistic, the altruistic must itself become the disinterested. The disinterested, of course, is horrible to Nietzsche on philosophical grounds: having identified that goodness is the healthy striving of the will, an attitude of ‘disinterest’ toward anything in the world, let alone toward all of it and toward one’s own actions, is abhorrent. [And this concept of ‘disinterest’ is supposed in the philosopher of his day to unite both morality and art] Here again I think that Nietzsche is going to get trapped in his own unexamined preconceptions: because he often talks as though his enemy is altruism, when in fact his true enemy should be, on his own grounds, the altruism/egoism antithesis itself, without which altruism need not be relegated to mere disinterest. It is interesting to note that this preconception is actually one place where Nietzsche fails to pay enough attention to Schopenhauer, as Schopenhauer’s ethical system is unusual in part because it does not dichotomise altruism and egoism: for Schopenhauer, altruism is egoism, only coupled with a true understanding of one’s own nature as a part of the world and a manifestation of the one universal Will. In Schopenhauer, therefore, the juxtaposition is not between moral altruism and immoral egoism, but between moral compassion and immoral malice, with egoism (and self-loathing) as fundamentally non-moral, neither good nor bad; and perhaps more directly importantly for Nietzsche, Schopenhauer’s compassionate altruism is therefore essentially not disinterested, is essentially connected and affirmative. Of course, no philosopher is required to consider every possible alternative view, but it is surprising that Nietzsche passes over here a third possibility of which he was indubitably, at least on some level, aware, given his own youthful enthusiasm for Schopenhauerianism. Indeed, Nietzsche’s whole phrasing of the debate is indebted to Schopenhauer, when he phrases the issue of altruism not in terms of rationality but of ‘pity’, not of laws but of instincts. Although Nietzsche’s proximal targets are the English evolutionary/sociological approach to morality (ironic then that both Nietzsche and English theorists like Spencer have ended up frequently equated with ‘social Darwinism’), which may perhaps have retained a little of ‘compassion’ from the time of Hume, the general prominence in Nietzsche’s day of the this idea of compassion (as opposed to obediance to a divine or moral law) as the basis of morality originated with Schopenhauer.


But I wonder whether Nietzsche is being driven here by a deeper instinctive reaction to his predecessor. After all, Schopenhauer does say things like: “The conviction that the world, and therefore man too, is something which really ought not to exist is in fact calculated to instill in us indulgence towards one another: for what can be expected of beings placed in such a situation as we are? … this reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes.”


If Schopenhauer makes the link explicit in this way – that tolerance and charity are important precisely because we realise that all existence is worth than worthless and we’d all be better off never having been born – perhaps we should not be surprised that Nietzsche reflexively takes that link and inverts it – if tolerance and charity spring from negation and despair, then so much the worse for tolerance and charity!


Sometimes reading Nietzsche is like watching an intelligent man screaming in an argument, so determined to avoid compromise that he avoids even those things that might look like compromise that are in actuality in his own best interest.


Then again, maybe that’s, in part, the point.


Reading Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals (III) (Preface, part 2)

Part of my ongoing project to re-read On the Genealogy of Morals, sharing some thoughts as I go along. Here, we deal with the remaining sections of the Preface



Nietzsche is really, really fond of himself, he claims – long preening sentence about his entirely unique, and entirely individual and not the result of any influences whatsoever nosiree ‘scrupulosity’. We’re also informed he as ‘an innate faculty of psychological discrimination par excellence’. Nobody else could come close to being as wonderful as him or to understanding things as well as him: he worked at his problem until “at last I had a land of my own and a soil of my own, a whole secret world growing and flowering, like hidden gardens of whose existence no one could have an inkling”. By which he means all the knowledge of the nature of good and evil he has that nobody else could have.

Oh, how happy we are, we finders of knowledge, provided that we know how to keep silent sufficiently long.

But it’s worth noting how he frames the problem of the ‘intrinsic’ value of morality: are morals where we see manifested “the fulness, the strength and the will of Life, its courage, its self-confidence, its future”? The pedant might like to point out that Nietzsche begins by begging the question, denying morality any intrinsic value at all and instead demanding that it serve as an instrument to produce – or at least display – other things that he finds valuable, like strength and confidence. He gives no reason why those things should be valuable; elsewhere he suggests that this is ‘a matter of taste’.

Perhaps it’s useful to bear in mind N.’s debt to Schopenhauer, with that phrase ‘the will of Life’. Schopenhaur believed that all of existence was, in itself, will, or was a willing. He believed that all life and existence was torment and that it would be best if the will turned against itself and ceased willing at all – Nietzsche takes up the imagery of the world, of Life, as a willing, striving being, but reverses his values, saying that what is good is what encourages willing and allows it to thrive, rather than what allows it to self-exterminate.



Nietzsche credits Rée’s book as the impulse for writing this, although he says he disagreed with every single proposition. He leaves out a couple of things, though – he doesn’t mention Rée was his close friend, until they fell out over Salomé, and that he’s refused to see him ever since. He doesn’t mention that at the time he praised the book, and that he, Rée (and Salomé once she arrived) were apparently very close in their thinking for another five years. It’s worth remembering too that this book comes out a full decade after Rée’s book, and he’d written two major works inbetween. Its also surprising that he positions himself so against Rée’s book, when there seems to be so much in common between them. Then again, he does say his rejection of the book was marked by neither pique nor intolerance, which I guess from Nietzsche is high praise – any response from Nietzsche not involving screaming is probably tantamount to agreement…

We also see Nietzsche’s bigotry here: he calls Rée’s book “a backward and perverted kind of moral philosophy (your real English kind)”, and goes on to call Rée himself English, Nietzsche’s most severe insult. (Rée was actually from Pomerania).

Also importantly, he discretely backtracks from the earlier claim of continuity, confessing that his earlier expressions of his views were not only clumsy but liable to “relapse and vacillation” (i.e. didn’t say what he now wants to claim that he really wanted to say…)



Nietzsche’s surprisingly forthright here about the origin of his views, for once. Schopenhauer praised values like altruism because he saw them as steps toward negation: therefore Nietzsche, preferring affirmation, has to question those values. He decries “the exhaustion that faces backward”, “the last illness announcing itself with its own mincing melancholy”, the “disease” of pity, “the will turning against Life” (and perhaps that ‘will’ should be the Schopenhauerian ‘Will’), and, worst of all, the possibility of Buddhism. He’s in a kind mood toward Schopenhauer here, actually, confessing that he was his “great teacher”, and seeming to praise the power of Schopenhauer’s rhetoric while reviling its content. Nietzsche began his philosophical life as a disciple of Schopenhauer.

He also clearly identifies his purpose in addressing the origins of morality: to question the value of morality.



I am an opponant of the scandalous modern effeminacy of emotions

(translations seem to vacillate between the more stative ‘effeminacy’ and the more active ‘emasculation’)

In questioning the value of pity, Nietzsche is lead into questioning all morality.

Let us speak out this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, the value of these values is for the first time to be called into question.

To do that, he says, although without really any reasoning, requires knowledge of the origins of morality, and of how the underwent their ‘evolution and distortion’.

(morality as a result, as a symptom, as a mask, as Tartuffism, as disease, as a misunderstanding; but also morality as a cause, as a remedy, as a stimulant, as a fetter, as a drug)

He calls us to consider possible conflict between morality and what he assumes to be really valuable:

Suppose the converse were the truth! What? Suppose there lurked in the “good man” a symptom of retrogression, such as a danger, a temptation, a poison, a narcotic, by means of which the present lived at the cost of the future! More comfortable and less risky perhaps than its opposite, but also pettier, meaner! So that morality would really be saddled with the guilt, if the maximum potentiality of the highest power and resplendence of the human species were never to be attained? So that really morality would be the danger of dangers?

Of course, it’s wrong to read Nietzsche as a proto-Nazi – it’s an old and careless misreading. But still: there are often times when you can see the Nazis didn’t have to go far to find bits of Nietzsche that they liked. Nietzsche’s idea that morality should be tossed aside as ‘retrogressive’ if it stands in the way of the power and glory of the coming man is, to say the least, on the surface somewhat disturbing. Nonetheless, it flows neatly from the assumption that Schopenhauer must be disagreed with at all costs: nothing can stand in the way of the Will, of Life, thriving and burgeoning and growing and being powerful and magnificent, because this is the direct object of the Will turning upon itself and quelling itself into silence.

Maybe the debt to Schopenhauer explains exactly why Nietzsche values the thriving of Life so much, and with so little doubt or nuance: I wonder whether, even while he disagrees with his forebear on most of the points of detail, he still remains trapped within Schopenhauer’s picture of the world. By conflating everything in the world into the striving of a single Will, Schopenhauer eliminates most possible moral motivations: there is only one thing, the Will, and all it can do is will. This sets up a binary view of the world: everything is either furthering the will or… I was going to say combatting the will, but combat is still willing, so the alternative is instead abnegation of the will. In Schopenhauer we also see a secondary dimension, about the perspicacity or confusion of the will (egoism, for instance, is inferior to compassion because it fails to understand that everything is one with all), but since by this stage Nietzsche, as I think we’ll see later on, is at best highly skeptical of this sort of metaphysical knowledge/ignorance, that just leaves him with the first, binary dimension. In the worldview he inherits from Schopenhauer, then, Nietzsche perhaps feels he only has two choices: abnegation, or affirmation. Everything must ultimately be one or the other, and he picks affirmation. This isn’t exactly a reasoned choice, but it’s a choice that seems pretty reasonable, given the assumption that there are only two choices. I suppose a question for those who want to criticise Nietzsche, then, is whether there really are only two choices?

And on that note, I’d like to note once more the way that Nietzsche generally avoids the suggestion of his thought flowing from that of another, the way he stresses his own uniqueness in history: he obscures the genealogy of his own thoughts, making them just the voice of that ‘fundamental will for insight whose empire reached to the soul’s depths’. At the same time that he attacks rival conceptions by questioning their genealogy – he tries to make himself immune from the same sort of criticism that he employs himself.

One thing not to be missed here, however, is the way that Nietzsche attempts to shore up his own tastes through an appeal to pragmatism: the anti-life morality is not just bad because it’s anti-life in sentiment, but because its effect will be anti-life, in the future: humankind will allegedly fail to progress to its full resplendent power unless we move beyond morality (i.e. beyond altruism). This is of course highly questionable, and Nietzsche never really provides any good reasoning why this should be, so far as I can recall. But more important is probably the very attempt to appeal to this sort of “morality is bad because it will in practical terms get in the way” pragmatist approach.




More (passive-aggressive) thoughts on Rée and hatred of modernity.



Like many of his soi dissant followers in the Continental tradition, Nietzsche is keen to put the blame for miscommunication on the reader, not the author. Indeed, the standards he demands of his readers are very high indeed:

Take for instance my Zarathustra; I allow no one to pass muster as knowing that book, unless every single word therein has at some time wrought in him a profound wound, and at some time exercised on him a profound enchantment: then and not till then chan he enjoy the privilege of participating reverentially in the halcyon element from which that work is born, in its sunny brilliance, its distance, its spaciousness, its certainty.

Sooo… I take it Nietzsche kind of likes his writing?

He also says something interesting: the third essay in this book is intended as a commentary on the aphorism that heads it. This, if taken seriously, tells us something about Nietzsche’s use of aphorisms (do they all deserve such lengthy commentary?), and also perhaps something about what he wishes his essays to accomplish.