Note's on Nietzsche's Genealogy
Note's on Nietzsche's Genealogy
A warning. There is much disagreement in Nietzsche scholarship. For
example, some philosophers read him as often being ironic; these
philosophers might then read The Genealogy of Morals as
offering a kind of reductio ad absurdum of some of the claims he makes
in that book. In these notes, I read Nietzsche "straight"--I do not
interpret him as being ironic.
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
- Nature is incomplete at least in the sense
that it cannot alone provide purposes which are sufficient.
Non-human animals are without worthy purposes, for example.
Thus, from Schopenhauer as Educator:
usually we fail to emerge out of animality, we ourselves are animals
whose suffering seems to be senseless. (Hollingdale translation;
- Some humans can create values which
are worthy, in part by doing something uniquely human.
Again, from Schopenhauer as Educator:
man is necessary for the redemption of nature from the curse of
the life of the animal, and... in him existence at last holds up
before itself a mirror in which life appears no longer senseless
but in its metaphysical signficance. (Hollingdale translation;
- A special value would be to assert life -- even if your
life were to repeat itself endlessly just as it is. That is,
to be able to assert and endorse your life would be a triumph
of a kind. (The man who creates ideals and can face the
possibility of eternal return is the overman.
Antithesis to the overman is the last man, who is comfortable
with animal pleasures alone, and who does not bother to even
care about these issues.)
- God is dead.
- Christianity is the morality of the slave: it degrades
life and praises weakness.
- Democracy is like Christianity in being antithetical to
the task of fostering the overman.
- Psychology is a fundamental science, and often our
theories are expressions of unconscious motives and beliefs.
Philosophical systems are often just expressions of the
author's view, for example; and more often yet just
expressions of the most pedestrian beliefs of one's time.
(However, Nietzsche believes that philosophy has a great and
important task: to create value. He only denigrates the idea
tha philosophy is a rational, disinterested investigation of
things, and also he denigrates philosophers who try to emulate
scientists with their indifference to values.)
- The Will to Power is a fundamental drive that can explain
much, perhaps all, human endeavors. This is a theme that
Nietzsche does not do much to explain; he seems to have meant
to work this out more but did not stay healthy long enough to
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.
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
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").
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
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
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
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
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
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).
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.
- Will to Power. Nietzsche's Theory of Value.
One of N's most difficult concepts is "will to power." He sees all of
life as characterized by will to power -- by the seeking to realize
goals and to dominate others if necessary to better realize these
goals. Also, N often talks of this in biological terms -- he wants a
"physiological" approach, he is fond of saying in his notes The
Will to Power.
This will to power is not only essential to life, but it also is the
source of all values. Values don't come from god (god is dead, N
famously proclaimed) or from pleasure (N has infinite contempt for
John Stuart Mill) or from another "true" world beyond this one or from
any of the other places philosophers have argued it comes from.
Rather, values are just the expression of will to power. Thus, if we
are to have values, we must have and express our will to power.
Furthermore, Nietzsche believes that our current "morality" is false:
it is the false cover we put on the will to power that we have which
is primarily a fundamental biological drive. That is what we saw in
N's history in The Geneology of Morals: the weak acted out of
ressentiment, out of a desire to find some way to assert themselves
over the great, and that is the source of Christianity and its ethics.
This is crucial: before we can question N's ethic, before we can ask
what does N offer in place of our ethics, we must recognize that he is
not criticizing our ethics as inferior or otherwise flawed. He is
rather saying our ethics is misleading. It does not require defense
because no one in a position to properly defend it believes it or acts
on it. Those who are moved by it are slaves -- those who made it,
manipulators grasping for power.
The overman is the man who knows that will to power produces all our
values, and sees also the lie in our "moralities," and aggressively
seeks to express his will to power in a creative and novel way,
creatin something uniquely personal, uniquely human, and which can
give value to others. (I say "man" because N's sexism is so complete
as to be ridiculous.) N clearly means that the overman will do great,
unusual, difficult things. His ideal then is that there will be a few
people (he appears to believe that there can never be more than a
few), a kind of elite or nobility, that transforms the world by giving
it great purposes (it may be that the rest of us will simply follows
these purposes, grateful to have purposes, and we will call these
purposes "virtue" or "morality," never admitting their true origin or
- Eternal Return.
Christianity says "no" to this world -- it posits another "true" world
behind this one. We escape this world if we die and are saved, and
then we see all that is false in this world, and we see why there is
evil, and so on. But N denies this, and wants to assert an
alternative. He conceives this alternative as saying "yes" to this
world -- this sensual, "false" world.
His radical way to do this is the concept of eternal return.
(Nietzsche tries to argue that eternal return is a real possibility,
but I think he did not need that -- his point is sufficient as a
thought experiment.) Imagine that this universe is all there is, and
that it repeats itself endlessly: at the end of time there is the
beginning of time, and all happens again exactly as before. There is
no escaping this world, no "true" world behind it. If you can say
"yes" then to your life, knowing that it will happen forever the same
way again and again, knowing there is nothing behind or beyond it,
then you will be (or, at least, you'll be on the way to being) the
overman, the one who can say yes to this world and assert values in
- Is Nietzsche still a Foundationalist about Purpose? Aesthetics.
For the philosopher, this raise the question: does N believe it is
possible to rank values? (And thus, ultimately, to offer some as the
"right" way to live?) Now, it is very important to be clear that I
don't mean that N does not explain why Christian values are not better
than other values. N believes he has deflated Christian values by
showing both that they are false (god is dead) and that they are
resentment cloaked in fake but attractive metaphysics. But we might
still offer alternatives. To keep the case simple: what if we believe
that people are better off if everyone gets to exercise their will to
power? Why can't there be a socialist/democratic will-to-power ethic?
(N hated both socialism and modern democracy, seeing them as the
expressions of the herd instinct.) Why are the great purposes of the
overman better than (N does not say they are, but he clearly believes
they are) the trivial purposes of the last man? It is not enough to
say they are difficult and unique and authentic and challenging and
can give purpose to many others -- why are these properties better
than the alternatives?
N has several values he encourages us to share: that we should seek to
be honest (to have authenticity) and thus unique; that we should
strive to do what only humans can do (and thus be more than "mere
animals." He rejects modern democracy because he believes the state
grows in power and exerts a homogenizing influence, thus undermining
authenticity and striving.
I believe that N gives us a kind of portrait of his vision and his
hopes for human purpose, and though he may be able to consistently
reject (in some sense) some values by arguing that they are fake
("morality"), he still seems to be a foundationalist about purpose.
Now, in at least one place in The Will to Power, N suggests
that choosing his ethic is just a matter of aesthetics -- that he is
merely encouraging us to see things his way. In the world of the
overman that he imagines, things will be more diverse, more daring and
bold -- and doesn't that sound more beautiful? If that is the sum of
his value theory, then we might say that he has rejected
foundationalism about purpose -- or, instead, we might say he has accepted
it, concluded there is no foundation, and so offered in its stead something
similar to but distinct from traditional, foundationalist value theory. I'm
not sure which to conclude.
Regardless, Nietzsche always seems to believe that the loss of our
traditional foundations is a great challenge, if not a catastrophe.
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.