Note's on Nietzsche's Genealogy

Note's on Nietzsche's Genealogy




A Note on Some of Nietzsche's Common Themes

Nietzsche is not a systems-building philosopher. There are however some themes which unite his work and are common to much of it. These claims include:
Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals

Here, Nietzsche uses the term "genealogy" in its fundamental sense: an account (logos) of the genesis of a thing. He is going to offer a theory of the genesis of Christian morality, which he believes is also democratic morality.

His historical analysis is a radical attack on these morals, offering a kind of social and psychological account of why they arose, as a replacement for the Christian story of these ethics being grounded in the will of the Christian god. Nietzsche has an alternative theory of value, which is only implicit in this book, and arises from his views about the will to power. We will discuss this.

Note that Christians, and nearly all if not all theists, tend to implicitly accept what I have called Foundationalism about Purpose. The character of Ivan in Doestoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov expresses this sentiment clearly when he says that if (the Christian) God does not exist, then "all is lawful," by which he means that any old purpose will count as well as any other (which may, given some understandings of "purpose," be just to deny that there are purposes).

In these notes, and in the notes I write on other philosophers and artists, I will save time by sometimes taking N's point of view. This is not an endorsement of his view, but rather a shorthand way to avoid having to write "Nietzsche says..." a thousand times.

First Essay
1. The English psychologists are perhaps men like Hobbes and Hume; or, since he is mentioned later in the book, Herbert Spencer. All these philosophers share that they wrote on the origin of morality in terms of historical development.

2. N argues the English psychologists have a genealogy of the good that claims our ancestors found some unegotistical acts useful to themselves, and then later "forgot" this self-referring aspect of the usefulness, and just began to call unegotistical acts good. N instead begins with the claim that the concept of good started not as a label for unselfish acts, but rather as a label of distinguishing the noble (in various senses) from those to which the nobles considered themselves superior (N seems to be willing to say, that nobles were in fact superior). It is a later development to associate good with unegotistical acts, and his genealogy is largely concerned to trace this development.

3. N claims the English psychologists' notion that our ancestors "forgot" the self-benefitting aspect of unselfish is ridiculous -- the benefit of an action must be present at all times in order for us to form the habit of calling that action good.

4. N was a philologist (a scholar of languages and their development) by training and (for a short while) by profession. He claims that the etymology of the many various cognates in different languages for "good" all reveal an origin in some notion of being aristocratic and noble. N believes this is compelling evidence for his central claim.

5. N goes on to give some examples of etymological and philological speculations. For example, dark can mean bad and lower in Italy, and blond in Gaelic meant noble and good, because (he claims) the conquerors and rulers of these places at one time were blond haired. (N does not appear to mean to endorse the idea here that being blond is good, but rather just claims that it is a historical fact that these places -- during the relevant period in the development of these terms like "Fin" -- were conquered by blond people.)

6. N admits that good has also included often the concept of pure. He argues that the early rulers, for which the ancestral concepts of our "good" first applied, were sometimes priests. Priests are, N claims here, a bad thing -- they transform rulers into inactive and unhealthy people. But they do also ask interesting questions, and have therefore some benefit (as N implicit understands benefit).

7. Historically, however, there is a split between priest and warrior, and the priests are weak and impotent. As a result, they are overwhelmed with resentment and hate. This resentment and hate was in some ways beneficial, since it generated or allowed for many social and cultural creations (I believe that N's point here is that without this resentful attack on the noble warriors, those noble warriors would have happily spent the next two thousand years jousting and fighting and so on, as opposed to developing other aspects of society like art). He sees the Jews as the victors in a great inversion of values. They were oppressed by warrior nobles (e.g., Romans), and they created the ultimatum revenge of convincing people that warrior nobles and their values were bad, and that being priestly and weak are good.

8. Jesus is the culmination of this inversion of values. The victory of Christianity is the ultimate revenge of the weak over the strong, the slave over the noble, the priestly over the warrior.

9. Christian churches are almost irrelevant now in the spread of this inverted morality, it is so pervasive.

10. "Ressentiment" is N's special or technical term for the resentful, spiteful morality of the slave. He argues that the resentful measure themselves always against others, especially against the nobles. They are reactive, and because they are impotent they harbor festering hatreds. Nobles instead, he claims, are so full of life and purpose that they don't have time to measure themselves against others. Nor do they harbor hatreds -- they act on insults immediately or are too busy accomplishing things to hold onto hatreds. (I find this section problematic. On the one hand, many of us know people who are full of energy and life and plans, and as a result are generous and never petty. Many of us know people who are petty and mean precisely because they really have no good purpose and are jealous of others who do. On the other hand, nobles -- and all human beings, one might suppose -- likely measure themselves against others. Consider: can there be a world where everyone is -- in N's sense of the word -- noble? If N's concept of nobility is essentially comparative, and the noble are those who are better than others, then the nobles are just as externally oriented as the resentful. What is unclear here is whether everyone can be noble -- and, to refer to another concept of Nietzsche's, whether everyone can be a super(wo)man. One way out of this problem for N might be to argue that the features that were recognized as noble are only contingently features of nobility, and rather arise from being independent, self-willed, autonomous, etc. Then they would be elitist features but not necessarily measured against others.)

11. The noble conceive only as an afterthought of "bad," and it plays a minor role in their view. The resentful develop the concept of evil, and it is essential to everything they do. Bad and evil are both the opposite of "good," but bad and evil are different. How is this? One notion of good is the noble. This was the old or original notion. "Bad" refers to its opposite. Another notion, the resentful or slave's notion of good, is weak, unselfish, unassertive. Its opposite is the noble (the other notion of good!), which the weak call "evil." N also argues that the noble are terrible when they leave the bounds of their own society. They are "blond beasts" (Kaufmann argued that Nietzsche meant by this term a lion): they rape, kill, despoil. But this does not mean that the resentful slave morality is beneficial because it cages this blond beast. Rather, we should be willing to live with danger in order to have something noble.

(Sympathetic philosophers have argued that Nietzsche sees the great artist as the best example of the new possible noble. If this is correct, it is unfortunate that his example here of allowing some alternative to a resentful culture is to allow the danger of raping, killing, and pillaging. It may be that Nietzsche's rhetorical style sacrifices precision for flourish and effect. However, in his notes published as The Will to Power, he seems more explicitly to endorse violence as a necessary feature of the great; furthermore, if we set aside the works on Wagner, Nietzsche's praise of warriors far, far outweighs his mention or praise of artists. This makes me suspicious of those who want to make Nietzsche seem nicer than he sounds.)

12. Nietzsche is aware that he will be accused of nihilism (since he denies the values that most hold dear). Here, he argues that there is a nihilism that is growing out of the culture that the resentful slaves have created. This culture suppresses the will to power that he believes creates values.

13. N believes that there is a confusion in much theorizing, in which we posit a reality behind appearance when it is unnecessary to do so. Also, he believes the strong man is the one who does things that require strength. The resentful claim instead that the strong man is capable of doing things that require strength, and can choose not to do them. This is a contradiction for N, but it also allows the resentful to claim that the strong choose to do the things that require strength, and therefore can be said to be accountable for those things. Also, they are thus allowing that they can call someone who never does anything strong, "strong." One might thus claim the weak are somehow "strong." N rejects this. Similarly, the weak adopt the false consciousness that their weakness is a merit. But really, to be weak is to be unable to do things requiring strength. How can this inability be a merit?

14. Nietzsche imagines a kind of festering dark basement of the collective unconscious, where in bad faith the resentful values are made. Here, weakness is called merit, inability to revenge is called forgiving, suffering is called bliss, subjection is called obedience, the longing for retaliation is called longing for justice, and the inability to create a better life here is assuaged with the claim that there is a better life after this one.

15. The gate to Dante's hell is inscribed, "I too was created by eternal love," meaning God's love created even hell, presumably for our benefit. Nietzsche claims the gate to heaven should read, "I too was created by eternal hate," since heaven and the victory of the Christian God over the strong is all the product of the hateful spite of the weak. As evidence of this claim, he offers a disturbing phrase from Saint Thomas: "the blessed in heaven will see the punishment of the damned in order that their bliss may be more great." He then quotes at great length from Tertullian. This passage from Tertullian is very striking in light of Nietzsche's earlier claims. We might, of course, doubt: that the passage is representative of Christian morality; whether Tertullian was a typical Christian; or that Tertullian had or otherwise was influenced by a resentful slave mentality. Tertullian's early writings, including this one, are widely considered by scholars of Catholicism to be orthodox, acceptable, important early Christian works.

16. The battle of the resentful and the noble is the battle of the Judaic heritage against the Romans, and the Romans lost.

17. Nietzsche's book prior to this one was Beyond Good and Evil, and we are to note here that this is not to say beyond good and bad (that is, not: beyond the noble and the ignoble), but rather beyond the resentful opposition of the weak (who call themselves "good") to the strong (which the weak call "evil").

Second Essay
1. Humans are unique because they have the ability to plan for the future, and so to make promises. Related to this is having the ability to forget. Here N precedes Freud, and it is not hard to see why Freud greatly respected N: the idea of active forgetting is the predecessor to the Freud's idea of sublimation, of people actively suppressing parts of themselves (though I am not claiming N is a Freudian!).

2. The arising of the ability to make promises required, N claims, a kind of predictability and regularity to human beings. Today, we express a similar notion by saying the evolution of social coordination requires the arising of certain conventions; driving on the right side of the road, for example. But then N goes farther: he argues that the free man is the one who doesn't just blindly follow conventions, but rather one who can chose to obey some norm or covenant. This makes some sense: there is no promise given in acting habitually. The smoker does not promise to smoke. But problematic is N's notion of "will." This is an essential part of Christian metaphysics, and N tries to seize and transmute it into a fundamental principle. I'm not sure how to reconcile it with his comments in Part I section 13 -- to be strong is to do strong things, not to have something that causes or "lies behind" those events, such as a strong will.

3. Conscience is the awareness by the free man of his will power and his "dominating instinct" (the drive of will to power). N sees a historical question in how conscience and the ability to keep promises arose. He speculates that pain is important to this, since pain helps us form memories -- we can read him here I think as saying something rather common-sensical: that pain conditions us. But he suggests also that a civilized society has then a history of pain and punishment. Today, prison and other punishments are "present realities," that is current threats, which are necessary to motivate the weak (the "slave of momentary affect [emotion] and desire").

4. We think today that people are punished because they could have done otherwise. But this is a late concept, N claims. Rather, punishment arose as a kind of economic-style exchange. One was hurt, and then paid back that hurt in kind.

5. But what is exchanged, what is the payment given, in recompense for some wrong? The wronged person gets to enjoy the pleasure of being cruel, arising from the pleasure of being (for a short while, perhaps) of seeming higher status than the sufferer.

6. All civilization is based on this principle, N claims. We enjoy seeing, and causing, suffering. It is essential to festival.

7. But N thinks our time, not the past in which cruelty was nakedly enjoyed, is the worse time. He sees in our time a dislike of life and living -- it seems here he means that in denouncing cruelty, since cruelty is part of life and civilization, we are denouncing living. (I find this unconvincing romanticism of the gladiatorial ring.) OK, so there is a part here that appears disgraceful. Kaufmann and others attempt vigorously to argue N is not a racist (few deny he was sexist). Here, N's defenders will likely say that he does not really endorse the view that he articulates regarding "negroes" as "representatives of prehistoric man." You judge.

We may not like suffering, but we feel compelled to give it sense. One classical way to do this was to interpret suffering as having purpose for the causer or viewer (it pleases them). For this reason, we invented the gods so that they observe every instance of suffering without a human viewer or cause, and thus make it sensible: it was caused or at least observed by a god.

8. N claims exchange, buying and selling, is the most primitive form of human interaction, and that other (later) forms are shaped by it if not sprung from it.

9, 10. Communities punish malefactors because they harm the community. But as communities grow more stable, they are less violent in this punishment, since they are less threatened by it. This is why punishments grow less severe over time. Mercy then in a sense transcend, is "beyond," the law.

11. Contrary to what some have argued, the law and punishment do not arise from ressentiment. The most lawful have been the strong, who are also people who most lack ressentiment. (One might suppose that N is thinking here of the ancient Romans.) Ressentiment does motivate anti-semites and anarchists. Justice arises after law.

12. This is a very rich section and much can be said about it. Ostensibly, it is about how we must separate the purpose of punishment from its origin. And Nietzsche's point here is very insightful: he observes that either a custom or an organ can have a purpose quite different than the purpose it originally (that is, first) served.

This is quite interesting because it appears that only much more recently has this kind of claim been well understood about evolution (I may be wrong, and would appreciate being set aright: was exaption widely recognized in N's time?). Our best biological theory of the bones in the mammal ear, for example, is that they were part of the jaw of a common ancestor. Pointing to these bones and saying that they are for chewing food (perhaps their original purpose) would be obviously to miss their purpose now. And N is making this very point -- although he is not concerned to defend or take this as part of evolutionary theory. His attack here on Herbert Spencer (a philosopher who tried to apply evolutionary theory very broadly, leading him to endorse for example eugenics) shows his impatience at least with the most simplistic kind of philosophical use of evolutionary theory.

Nietzsche sees this as part of the will to power. If we read N biologically, then this suggests an overlooked and very tidy interpretation of power (which is a very mysterious thing in Nietzsche). Power might be the name we (should) give to the state in which some purposes are subject to others. Thus, if Jones does the things he does because it serves the purposes of Smith (perhaps Jones is a slave, or is paid a wage), then Smith has power (over Jones) because it is his purposes, and not those of Jones, that are determining why the relevant activities occur. Something similar could be said for organs -- if the purpose of these special jaw bones was once to chew food, any such function it might have done is long subservient to the purpose of hearing. Power could then be defined as the ordered relation between purposes: those purposes which are fulfilled only to serve some other purpose are less powerful than those purposes they serve.

But N is not defending (at least, not here) a biological view. He insists that the will to power is a metaphysical principle (we can understand this to mean at least that the principle applies more broadly than any biological claims do -- for example, things other than the organisms studied in biology might exhibit the will to power). Later we will discuss Heidegger's lectures on Nietzsche. There, Heidegger reads the will to power as a fundamental feature of all Being (and Nietzsche sometimes says things like this).

I remain tempted to read this semi-biologically: the will to power might be some metaphysical, almost logical (by which I mean, having to do with the fundamental possible structure of things), principle -- but still best understood in biological terms. One might say, our universe is structured in such a way that complex things exhibit purposes (living things are the prime example), and these purposes can be related through relations of power, and that the will to power is the tendency of things with purposes to have also the purpose of having more power.

13. Punishment evolved as a social custom for many different reasons, and so today any justification of punishment is going to be ad hoc, coming along after the fact that we have this institution, and defending it with various made-up reasons. N gives a list of reasons that have been offered to justify punishment -- none is "right" or "best," he is arguing.

14. Punishment does not succeed (at least, not well) in instilling bad conscience, or the sense of guilt.

15. Punishments tames men.

16. Here N proposes ideas which, again, influenced (or miraculously predict) Freud. He supposes that our purposes which are suppressed by society still have a kind of force, and this force must "turn inward." This is what we now call the soul: the hostility we show to our own unsocial urges. (I find N's claims that this is unique unconvincing, however. Many kinds of social animals exist -- surely they all have inhibitions which exercise on them. Watch wolves to find many examples.)

17. N rejects contract theory as sentimental: the state began with "blond beasts," conquerors subjecting another people. The subjected retain their instinct for freedom, and they ultimately "discharge it" upon themselves through the bad conscience.

18. Something new arises out of this self-subjection, however. Artists treat themselves as something to be shaped. They assert their freedom through control over themselves. But selflessness then is the old delight in cruelty over others, turned now into delight in cruelty against one's self.

19-23. N offers some anthropological speculation. The ancients understood debt, and felt a debt that only grew for their ancestors. This debt ultimately is realized by seeing the ancestors as gods or God.

24-25. Here the hint of the Ubermensch, the overman, that N hopes will arise and which is discussed most extensively in Thus Spake Zarathustra. The overman will be able to escape the problems of theism while still asserting values (escaping nihilism).
Third Essay
....


A Few Notes about the Will to Power, The Overman, Eternal Return, and the Aesthetic Reading of Nietzsche

The Genealogy is an accessible work by N, and one that is not too long to squeeze in before Being and Time, but it does leave unstated two important elements of N's thought: the concept of the will to power, of the Ubermensch, and of eternal return.

Before we turn to those, let me point out something useful that Heidegger (in his lectures on Nietzsche) observes, and that may be helpful if you read more Nietzsche. First, it is important to understand that Nietzsche often uses the term "truth" to mean the other "real" world that Plato and then Christianity posited. For Plato or a Christian, the everyday world is a kind of deception, and another immutable world that we fail to see is the true world. Nietzsche denies this, but he sometimes does so by saying that he rejects "truth." Second, Nietzsche sometimes uses the term "morality" in a similar way. It is not quite clear to me what Nietzsche's morality is, but he certainly is not rejecting the idea of morality in the broadest sense of the word (this we know, for example, because he accepts that there can be purpose, and some morals follow directly from any purpose). So, when he opposes "morality" he is rejecting Christian and related moralities, especially when they are based upon the idea of a "true" world behind this false world of appearance. He may also be rejecting anything like the traditional notions of morality, as complete and final sets of rules for living.

References

Nietzsche, F. (1997) Schopenhauer as Educator, in Untimely Meditations. Edited by Daniel Breazeale, and translated by R. J. Hollingdale. Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.