Skip over navigation

Genealogy of Morals

Friedrich Nietzsche

Second Essay, Sections 1-7

First Essay, Sections 13-17

Second Essay, Sections 8-15

Summary

Nietzsche opens the second essay by examining the significance of our ability to make promises. To hold to a promise requires both a powerful memory--the will that a certain event should not be forgotten--and a confidence about the future and one's ability to hold to the promise in the future. This confidence demands that, on some level, we must make ourselves calculable or predictable, and for a people to be predictable, they must share a common set of laws or customs that govern their behavior.

Society and morality thus serve the purpose of making us predictable, which in turn serves the purpose of allowing us to make promises. This complicated process has as its end the "sovereign individual" who is able to make promises, not because he is bound by social mores but because he is master of his own free will. The sovereign individual is then faced with the tremendous responsibility of being free to make claims regarding his own future: we call this sense of responsibility a "conscience."

Nietzsche then turns to the concepts of guilt and "bad conscience." He identifies a similarity in the German words for "guilt" and "debt," suggesting that, originally, guilt had nothing to do with accountability or immorality. Punishment was not meted out on the basis of guilt, but simply as a reprisal. If someone failed to fulfill a promise or pay off a loan they were in debt to the person they let down, and that debt could be balanced by submitting to punishment, cruelty, or torture. If a creditor could not have the pleasure of getting his money back, he could have the pleasure of harming his debtor. The memory that is necessary to our ability to make promises was thus "burned in": all sorts of cruelty and punishment ensured that we would not forget our promise the next time.

Nietzsche remarks that making others suffer was considered a great joy--Nietzsche calls it a "festival"--that would balance out an unpaid debt. We find the origins of conscience, guilt, and duty in the festiveness of cruelty: their origins were "like the beginnings of everything great on earth, soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time."

Nietzsche notes that with the cruelty of older cultures, there was also a great deal more cheerfulness. We have come to see suffering as a great argument against life, though creating suffering was once the greatest celebration of life. Nietzsche suggests that our revulsion against suffering is, on the one hand, a revulsion against all our instincts, and, on the other hand, a revulsion against the senselessness of suffering. For neither the ancients nor the Christians was suffering senseless: there was always joy or justification in suffering. Nietzsche suggests that we invented gods so that there was some all-witnessing presence to insure that no suffering ever went unnoticed.

Commentary

In Nietzsche's discussion of the origin of guilt and conscience, we find a sharp contrast with the other kind of "origin" that Foucault sees Nietzsche opposing. The concepts of guilt and conscience are so fundamental to our functioning as social beings that we have had a tendency to see their origins in a great instant of divine creation. Nietzsche suggests that, like the origin of humanity itself, there is no point of origin, but just a slow evolution. This point is made particularly clear with Nietzsche's account of the origin of guilt.

"Guilt," in its present incarnation, is associated with accountability and responsibility: you are guilty because you could have and should have done otherwise. Accountability and responsibility, which are connected with the concept of free will, are in no way connected with "guilt" as it was originally conceived. "Guilt," according to Nietzsche, originally meant simply that a debt needed to be paid. As Nietzsche remarks in section 13 of the first essay, "free will" is a recent invention that accompanies slave morality.

Punishment, according to slave morality, is then meted out because, and only because the offender could have acted otherwise. If someone is for whatever reason deemed not to have acted freely (insanity, duress, accident, etc.) they are not punished.

Nietzsche's conception of the ancient world is far crueler, but, he suggests, far more "cheerful." People were punished simply because it was fun to punish people. If you fail to keep your promise to me, at least I get the pleasure of beating you up. Here we see the original association of "guilt" with "debt." Guilt was seen as a debt to be paid: if you make a promise, you are in debt to me. If you fail to keep your promise, you must pay off the debt in some other way. If that "other way" is my gouging your eye out, there are no hard feelings afterward, and there is no sense of a corrective measure being taken. There is simply an agreement that now our debts are settled and we can go our different ways.

It is quite easy to understand why Nietzsche would characterize an age of torture, mutilation, and delight at the suffering of others as "cruel," but it might be harder to understand why he might characterize it as "cheerful." The key might be found in the suggestion that there would be no hard feelings between "creditor" and "debtor." Our modern concepts of morality plunge us into a bog of "bad conscience." We are constantly being watched and judged, we are always watching ourselves to be sure we are behaving appropriately. None of this was present in Nietzsche's conception of ancient societies. Our lack of cheer today stems from the fact that our wrongdoings and our guilt stay with us and plague us. In ancient times, one would submit to punishment and that would be the end of it. For most of the time, the ancients did not trouble themselves much about what they ought to be doing or about whether they had done wrong. They lived free of moral torments and were thus more cheerful.

Nietzsche presents frustratingly little evidence for his claims about how things were in times past. In a sense, he is much like Freud: his imagination and his genius far outstrip his carefulness as a scholar or his interest in empirical evidence. In other of his writings, Nietzsche often comes down quite harshly against the British empiricists and their methods, so it is understandable that he would not want to proceed in an empirical spirit. Still, we might find ourselves feeling a little more inclined toward the careful defense of empirical claims when we consider how little Nietzsche's arguments would stand up if his unsupported historical claims proved false.

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us