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Genealogy of Morals

Friedrich Nietzsche

First Essay, Sections 1-9

Preface

First Essay, Sections 10-12

Summary

Nietzsche opens by expressing dissatisfaction with the English psychologists who have tried to explain the origin of morality. They claim to be historians of morality, but they completely lack a historical spirit. Their theories suggest that, originally, people benefiting from the unegoistic actions of others would applaud those actions and call them "good." That is, initially, what was good and what was useful were considered one and the same. Over time, these genealogists suggest, we forgot this original association, and the habit of calling unegoistic actions "good" led us to conclude that they were somehow good in and of themselves.

Nietzsche disagrees with this account, suggesting that those to whom "goodness" was shown did not define "good." Rather, it was the "good" themselves--the noble and the powerful--who defined the term. They came to see themselves as good when they came to see the contrast between themselves and those who were below them: the common people, the poor and the weak. Their position of power included the power over words, the power to decide what would be called "good" and what "bad."

In support of his argument, Nietzsche remarks on the similarity between the German word for "bad" and the words for "plain" and "simple." By contrast, he notes, in most languages, the word for "good" derives from the same root as the words for "powerful" or "masters" or "rich." In the Greek, Nietzsche notes that "good" is associated also with "truth." The low, poor, commoners, are then associated with lying and cowardice.

Nietzsche also remarks on how "dark" and "black" are used as negative terms, presumably because of the dark-haired peoples of Europe who were overrun by blonde, Aryan conquerors. He notes the association of "good" with "war" and "warlike."

Nietzsche then considers the change in language that takes place when the priestly caste gains power. Here, "pure" and "impure" become opposites associated with "good" and "bad." This "pureness" consists in an abstinence from sex, from fighting, and from certain foods, a renouncement of many of the noble warrior's habits. With these priests, everything becomes more dangerous: they alternate between brooding and emotional outbursts, and their wills are much stronger and sharper. But Nietzsche also remarks that only with the priests do human beings become interesting. With the priests, the human soul first gains those attributes that set it apart from animals: it acquires depth and becomes evil.

Though the priestly mode of evaluation springs from the knightly-aristocratic mode, it becomes its opposite, and its most hated enemy. Because the priests are impotent, they learn to hate, and their hate becomes more powerful than any of the warlike virtues lauded by the nobles. Nietzsche identifies the Jews as the finest example of the priestly caste, the most refined haters in human history. The Jews managed to effect a complete reversal in moral valuations, associating themselves, the poor, the wretched, the meek, with "good," and the lustful, powerful, and noble as "evil," damned for all eternity.

This revaluation of values effected by the Jews has happened so slowly that it has not been noticed. Its crowning achievement was the development of Christianity: Christian love, created by this burning hatred. Nietzsche sees Jesus as the ultimate embodiment of these Jewish ideals, and his crucifixion as the ultimate bait. All the opponents of the Jews might side with Jesus against them, thereby adopting his and their Judeo-Christian moral code. With the advent and success of Christianity, Nietzsche suggests, the reversal of the moral code became complete: what was once "good" became "evil" and what was once "bad" became "good."

Commentary

This section introduces the contrast between what Nietzsche calls elsewhere "master morality" and "slave morality." Master morality is the morality of the masters, the nobles, the warriors, who see themselves and their actions as good. Thus, strength, power, health, wealth, and happiness are all considered "good." These masters then perceive what Nietzsche calls a pathos of distance between themselves and those who are poor, unhealthy, weak, or impotent. These are all undesirable qualities, and so the masters dub them as "bad." This is the contrast between "good" and "bad" that defines master morality.

Those opposed to the masters develop slave morality. In this passage, Nietzsche identifies slave morality with a priestly caste, though he identifies it elsewhere with the plebs or the slaves. These people are the poor, the unhealthy, the weak, and the impotent, and they learn to hate and resent the power and health of the masters. They dub their masters "evil" and call themselves "good" by contrast. Thus, slave morality is characterized by a contrast between "good" and "evil."

This brief sketch is over-simplified, but is meant mostly to get some of the terms clarified and out in the open. A great deal of what follows in later sections will help to refine these crude definitions. The contrast between master morality and slave morality is one of the more well known aspects of Nietzsche's thought, but also one more liable to mislead. It is easy, though naive, to see Nietzsche as setting up this contrast so as to praise master morality and disparage the Judeo-Christian slave morality that dominates his (and our own) time. Careless readings of Nietzsche have also led to his being understood as an anti-Semite or a Nazi who encourages the Aryan "master" races to do away with Jewish slave morality.

Let us begin trying to unpack this section by recalling Nietzsche's criticism of the English psychologists as lacking a historical spirit. Because contemporary English moral philosophy was dominated by utilitarianism, these psychologists interpreted the entire history of morality in terms of utility: the "good" and the "useful" were originally one and the same in their reading. Nietzsche is disappointed with their lack of a historical sense because they are unable to rise above the moral biases of their time: they see history through the lens of their own morality. This lack of perspective can be problematic when doing history, but when trying to decipher the history of morals itself it can be disastrous.

Nietzsche encourages a reading of history that detaches itself as much as possible from moral valuations. This claim will have to be refined in the commentary on the following section, as we shall see Nietzsche come down very harshly against the ressentiment of slave morality, but it should be sufficient for the present discussion. So, for instance, simply because Nietzsche sees slave morality as born out of Jewish hatred, we should not necessarily see him as speaking out against slave morality, the Jews, or even hatred. With Nietzsche, the matter is rarely as simple as "this is good and this is bad": after all, he is attempting a critique of what we should call "good" and "bad" in the first place. The same intensity that creates a burning hatred in the priestly caste is also the one thing that Nietzsche claims makes humans "interesting." It gives us a depth not found in master morality, and it develops the concept of evil, a concept not found in any animals. For the most part, Nietzsche seems to be exhibiting a great deal of preference for master morality, but it seems he would also argue that these masters are not "interesting."

Though this will be made clear later on, we should also remark that Nietzsche considers the blonde Aryans that make up the warlike nobility to be a very different breed from present-day Germans, the Germans who, as Nazis, would claim racial superiority as "Aryans" fifty years later.

We should also remark on Nietzsche's attitude toward the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The popular anti-Semitic myth in Germany was that Jesus and Christianity were in every way opposed to the Jews: one anti-Semite went so far as to suggest that Jesus was himself not Jewish but Aryan, and that he was born amongst the Jews only so that his greatness could be made even more apparent when set against the background of Jewish depravity. Nietzsche moves against the German anti-Semitic movement of his time by interpreting Jesus and Christianity not as the opposite of Judaism, but as its most refined expression. The most refined expression of Jewish hatred is Christian love, and Jesus is the most refined preacher of Jewish slave morality. What Nietzsche finds in Judaism, he finds even more so in Christianity. Whatever the "Christian" anti- Semites might loathe about Judaism, it is even more present in their own Christianity.

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