Nietzsche opens his preface with the observation that philosophers generally lack self-knowledge. Their business is to seek out knowledge, knowledge that takes them away from themselves. They only rarely pay adequate attention to present experience, or to themselves.
Following this preamble, Nietzsche introduces the subject of his inquiry: "the origin of our moral prejudices." The thoughts he expresses in this work were first given voice more than ten years before in his book Human, All-Too- Human. Since then, he hopes, these thoughts have ripened, become clearer and stronger, become more unified.
Nietzsche suggests that he has long been interested in the question of the origins of good and evil. He recollects his first attempt at philosophy at the age of thirteen, where his search for an origin brought him to God, and so he posited God as the originator of evil. He was not much older when he began to mistrust such metaphysical answers, and began to look for explanations of earthly phenomena on this earth, and not "behind the world." That is, he began to ask how we, as humans, came up with our concepts of good and evil, and pondered the value of these values: have our concepts of good and evil been a help or a hindrance to our development?
Nietzsche's interest has never been the purely academic question of the origin of morality: he has pursued this question as a means of understanding the value of morality. In order to understand the value of morality, we need to understand how it arose among us rather than just accepting its dictates as indisputable truths. Until now, we have always assumed that the "good man" is better than the "evil man." But perhaps, Nietzsche suggests, what we call "good" is actually a danger, by which the present prospers at the expense of the future. Perhaps what we call "evil" will ultimately be of greater benefit to us.
Nietzsche hopes that we might gain a broader perspective by seeing morality not as some eternal absolute, but rather as something that has evolved, often by accident, never free from error--much like the human species itself. When we can see our morality also as part of the human comedy and look upon it cheerfully, we will truly have elevated ourselves.
Nietzsche warns that his work might not be easily understood. He writes with the assumption that his readers have read his earlier works very carefully. Reading carefully is an art he claims is sorely lacking among his contemporaries. And if this warning is leveled against even those who have read his earlier works, perhaps we should take even more careful note: Nietzsche would not be impressed with an attempt to reduce his thought into a SparkNote!
Michel Foucault, in his essay "Nietzsche, Genealogy, History," notes that Nietzsche talks about origins in several different ways, using several different German words. On one hand, he attacks the idea of an origin as a starting point, a moment at which the essence of the matter is found, which then evolves or devolves into its present state. This is the kind of "origin" we might find in the story of Adam and Eve and their exile from Eden. It is an origin story that presents humanity as beginning in a state of godlike perfection, at an absolute distance from us in time. In the story of Adam and Eve's fall from grace, we also find the Christian explanation for the essence of human nature as founded in original sin. As such, the Adam and Eve "origin" also sees the origin of morality as something created at a particular moment in time, an edict that has come down from a perfect God. This kind of morality has an "origin" but no genealogy. It is the kind of morality that Nietzsche identified at the age of thirteen, positing God as the source of morality.
Nietzsche remarks that he soon gave up looking for the origin of morality "behind the world;" that is, he began to see the origin not as an event but as a process. To explain the origin of morality by an appeal to God is to look "behind the world," to sidestep any factual information that we might find through historical or anthropological research. Instead of an Adam and Eve model for the origin of morality, we might appeal to a Darwinian model. According to Darwin, humans aren't descended from an absolute and essential "origin" but rather find their origin in an evolutionary process that can be traced back to earlier primates. Like human evolution, we might see the evolution of our morals as a gradual process, marked by accident and error, which has no driving reason or end goal.
If we look at morality the way we look at human evolution, it loses its sacredness. What we call "good" may not be some absolute rule of behavior, but rather what a series of haphazard developments in our society has led us to approve of. From this perspective, morality no longer seems sacred: it is something we can question and critique. It makes sense to question the value of morality if we no longer have any divine guarantee that what we call "good" is in fact good for us.
Nietzsche's purpose, then, is to undertake such a critique, and to ask after the value of our morals. This demands not just careful scholarship, but also careful self-scrutiny. If our judgments and decisions are based on a moral code, how can we question that moral code from outside the bounds of that moral code? Nietzsche's opening remark about how philosophers are generally too busy looking outward ever to know themselves is meant to address this problem. The difficulty of his inquiry is set for him by the fact that it demands a whole new kind of scrutiny, a skepticism that questions even the values upon which the inquiry is based.
At the same time, Nietzsche recognizes that a total abandonment of any kind of moral standard can be dangerous, a modern illness he identifies as "nihilism." Nietzsche expresses the hope that a proper understanding of the genealogy of morals will not help us do away with morality, but rather to rise above it, to look at it cheerfully. In other works, Nietzsche identifies this "cheerful" perspective with the "overman," or "superman."