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Genealogy of Morals

Friedrich Nietzsche

Second Essay, Sections 8-15

Second Essay, Sections 1-7

Second Essay, Sections 16-25

Summary

Nietzsche traces the origins of guilt and conscience to the primitive relationship between buyer and seller, creditor and debtor. We are creatures who measure and evaluate everything: everything has a price, deeds just as much as goods. This relationship exists also between people and the community they live in. The community provides shelter, peace, security, and much else besides, placing people in its debt. People who break the laws of their community are not only not repaying the debt, but they are assaulting their creditor. No wonder such offenders face the harshest of punishments.

Nietzsche also observes that the more powerful the community becomes, the less it needs to punish offenders. If the community is weak, any attack against it is life threatening, and such a threat must be eliminated. A community that is strong enough to resist all sorts of assaults has the luxury of letting offenders go unpunished. Such a society has overcome its demand for strict justice. We give the name "mercy" to the expression of power in letting an offender go.

Nietzsche next turns to the origin of justice, suggesting that the reactive affects of revenge and ressentiment are the last to be touched by justice. Very few can truly be just toward someone who has harmed them. Still, the noble man who lashes out against someone who harms him is far closer to justice than the man of ressentiment, who is poisoned by prejudice and self-deception.

Justice and the institution of law essentially take revenge out of the hands of the offended party. If I am robbed, it is justice, and not myself, that has been harmed, and so justice must claim revenge. Thus, Nietzsche suggests, the concept of justice can only exist in a society that has established laws that can be transgressed: there is no such thing as "justice in itself."

We have seen that origins and utility are worlds apart. Anything that has existed for any length of time has been given all sorts of different interpretations, meanings, and purposes by different powers that master and subdue it. That something has a purpose or utility is only a sign that a "will to power" is acting upon it. Things and concepts have no inherent purpose, but are given purpose by the different forces and wills that act upon them.

The concept of punishment, for instance, has an aspect that is enduring and an aspect that is fluid. Contrary to what we might otherwise assume, Nietzsche suggests that the act of punishing is what endures, and the purpose for which we punish is what is fluid. Punishment has such a long history that it's no longer clear exactly why we punish. Nietzsche provides a long list of different "meanings" that punishment has had over the ages.

In this list, Nietzsche nowhere mentions the development of "bad conscience," and suggests that even today, punishment does not awaken a feeling of guilt. Punishment arouses the sense of "something has gone unexpectedly wrong" not of "I should not have done that." Punishment is treated as a misfortune, and serves to make us more prudent and tame.

Commentary

Section 12 contains the first mention in the Genealogy of Morals of the famous Nietzschean term "will to power." Since it is not immediately obvious what is meant by either "will" or "power," this term can be a bit obscure. All we can be sure of is that Nietzsche considers it very important: at the end of section 12, he calls it the "essence of life." Another clue is provided in section 18, where he uses the term synonymously with "instinct for freedom."

A superficial understanding of the will to power can easily be gained when we recognize that we all see it in our everyday dealings: everyone wants power over everyone else. For instance, the bully at school bullies weaker students for the feeling of power he gets over them. The nerd studies hard so as to get better grades and be smarter than his classmates, giving him a different kind of power. Anyone who has survived (or is surviving) adolescence is well aware of the power struggles that take place even between friends. The popular kids form a clique that excludes other kids and they feel more powerful by virtue of their exclusivity. Men and women both engage in sexual exploits largely for the feeling of power it gives them over the person they seduce. Nietzsche even suggests that acts of generosity are ultimately motivated by a will to power. If I do you a favor, I am essentially showing you that I have the power to help you, to put you in my debt.

Nietzsche suggests that the will to power is the fundamental drive that motivates all things. This suggestion might contrast with the suggestion that our fundamental drive is the will to life; that is, the suggestion that above all we pursue self-preservation. There are a number of reasons for seeing power as more important to us than life. For instance, the martyr who is willing to die for a cause is essentially saying "you can kill me, you can do anything to my body, but you cannot touch my principles because I am powerful enough to resist all your threats." This martyr clearly values that power of independence more than life itself.

This example might help us understand why Nietzsche identifies the will to power with the instinct for freedom. A powerful will is essentially one that cannot be dominated or controlled by any other. If I do whatever my friends tell me, I am not powerful because my will is subject to their whims. If not even the threat of torture and death can't change my behavior, I must have a very strong will that resists domination at all costs.

Nietzsche also identifies willing quite closely with meaning and interpretation. That something is meaningful to us means that some will or force is dominating it. For example, my harming you might be an act of bullying or an act of self- defense. In the first case, there is a very crude will to power acting, where I harm you for the feeling of power it gives me. In the second case, I am acting out of an instinct of self-preservation. In both cases, the deed itself might be the same, but the will that drives me to act interprets the deed in very different ways. Wherever we find a meaning or an interpretation, there is a will acting to give a deed or a thing that meaning or interpretation.

Nietzsche spells this point out in the case of punishment. The act of punishing has always been the same, but the meaning of that act has changed radically. The barbarians of ancient time had very different wills than the modern slave morality endorses. As a result, though the act of punishing and the word "punishment" have remained unchanged, they have been interpreted very differently. Nietzsche is showing that what is significant to us about punishment is not the act itself, but the meaning that we attach to it. Because this meaning is independent of and inessential to the act itself, we could potentially come to understand punishment as meaning pretty much anything. Because conventional wisdom sees the world in terms of things and deeds rather than forces and wills, we are unable to separate the meanings of punishment from the deed itself, and assume that the deed has always had the same meaning. Nietzsche raises the same point with pretty much all our moral concepts, showing that, while the words "good," "conscience," "guilt," or "justice" have been around for a long time, they have, unnoticed by us, taken on very different meanings depending on the wills that were interpreting them.

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