On the Genealogy of Morals, sometimes translated as On the Genealogy of Morality, consists of three essays, each of which questions the value of our moral concepts and examines their evolution.
The first essay, “‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” examines the evolution of two distinctive moral codes. The first, “knightly-aristocratic” or “master” morality, comes from the early rulers and conquerors, who judged their own power, wealth, and success to be “good” and the poverty and wretchedness of those they ruled over to be “bad.” Nietzsche associates the second, “priestly” or “slave” morality, primarily with the Jews. This morality originates with priests, who despise the warrior caste and condemn their lustful power as evil, while calling their own state of poverty and self-denial good. This slave morality turns master morality on its head. Driven by a feeling of ressentiment, or resentment, slave morality is much deeper and more refined than master morality. Its crowning achievement is Christianity: Christian love is born from hatred. While slave morality is deeper and more interesting than the casual self-confidence of the masters, Nietzsche worries that it has rendered us all mediocre. Modern humans, who have inherited the mantle of slave morality, prefer safety and comfort to conquest and risk. The slave morality of the priestly caste focuses the attention on the evil of others and on the afterlife, distracting people from enjoying the present and improving themselves.
Nietzsche illustrates the contrast between the two kinds of morality by reference to a bird of prey and a lamb. Nietzsche imagines that the lambs may judge the birds of prey to be evil for killing and consider themselves good for not killing. These judgments are meaningless, since lambs do not refrain from killing out of some kind of moral loftiness but simply because they are unable to kill. Similarly, we can only condemn birds of prey for killing if we assume that the “doer,” the bird of prey, is somehow detachable from the “deed,” the killing. Nietzsche argues that there is no doer behind the deed, taking as an example the sentence, “lightning flashes.” There is no such thing as lightning separate from the flash. Our assumption that there are doers who are somehow distinct from deeds is simply a prejudice inspired by the subject–predicate form of grammar. Slave morality detaches subject from predicate, doer from deed, and identifies the subject with a “soul,” which is then liable to judgment. While slave morality is definitely dominant in the modern world, Nietzsche hopes that master morality will have a resurgence.
In the second essay, “‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the Like,” Nietzsche suggests that our concept of guilt originally had no moral overtones, identifying a similarity in the German words for guilt and debt. A person in debt was “guilty” and the creditor could make good on the debt by punishing the debtor. Punishment was not intended to make the debtor feel badly but simply to bring pleasure to the creditor. Punishment was cruel but cheerful: there were no hard feelings afterward. A society with laws is like a creditor: when someone breaks the law, they have harmed society and society can exact punishment. The concept of justice in effect takes punishment out of the hands of individuals by claiming that, in a society, it is not individuals but laws that are transgressed, and so it is the laws, not individuals, that must exact punishment. Reflecting on the many different purposes punishment has served over the ages, Nietzsche observes that all concepts have a long and fluid history where they have had many different meanings. The meanings of concepts are dictated by a will to power, where concepts are given meanings or uses by the different wills that appropriate them.
Nietzsche identifies the origin of bad conscience in the transition from hunter–gatherer to agrarian societies. Our violent animal instincts ceased to be useful in a cooperative society, and we suppressed them by turning them inward. By struggling within ourselves, we carved out an inner life, bad conscience, a sense of beauty, and a sense of indebtedness to our ancestors, which is the origin of religion. At present, we direct our bad conscience primarily toward our animal instincts, but Nietzsche urges us instead to direct our bad conscience against the life-denying forces that suppress our instincts.
The title of the third essay poses the question, “What Is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?” Why have people from various cultures pursued an ascetic life of self-denial? Nietzsche suggests that asceticism enhances the feeling of power by giving a person complete control over him- or herself. In many cases, then, asceticism is ultimately life affirming rather than life denying. Ascetic ideals manifest themselves differently among different kinds of people. A sort of philosophical asceticism leads philosophers to claim that the world around them is illusory. This is one way of looking at things, and Nietzsche applauds looking at matters from as many perspectives as possible. There is no single right way to look at the truth, so it’s best to be flexible in our viewpoints.
Nietzsche sees asceticism as being born of spiritual sickness. Those that find the struggle of life too hard turn against life and find it blameworthy. Nietzsche sees the majority of humanity as sick and sees priests as doctors who are themselves sick. Religion addresses this spiritual sickness partly by extinguishing the will through meditation and work but also through “orgies of feeling,” manifest in the consciousness of sin and guilt. We condemn ourselves as sinners and masochistically punish ourselves. Science and scholarship are not alternatives to the ascetic ideals of religion. They simply replace the worship of God with the worship of truth. A healthy spirit must question the value of truth. Nietzsche concludes by observing that while ascetic ideals direct the will against life, they still constitute a powerful exercise of the will: “Man would rather will nothingness than not will.”
In his essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” Michel Foucault notes an important distinction in Nietzsche’s work between the concepts of genealogy and origin. An origin suggests a fixed starting point and, hence, an original essence with which something is associated. For example, the Adam and Eve story of creation locates human origins in the Garden of Eden. Naturally, we have changed since the time of Adam and Eve, but certain essential features, such as original sin, remain with us. Genealogy fits more comfortably with the paradigm of Darwinian evolution. With genealogy, there is no fixed starting point and no essential features, just a gradual and often haphazard progression from one state to another. We might understand Nietzsche’s main purpose in this book as being to shift our understanding of morality from an origins model to a genealogy model. That is, we tend to think of moral concepts like good and evil as stable, grounded in some distant origin. Nietzsche attempts to show that our moral concepts have always been fluid, to the point that the word good, for example, has had contrary meanings to different people. Our moral concepts have a long genealogy and are by no means fixed. By dislodging the idea that good and evil exist somehow independently of our wills, Nietzsche encourages a greater sense of agency with regard to our moral lives.
Nietzsche explains the fluidity of moral concepts by reference to the will to power. According to Nietzsche, the will to power is the fundamental drive in the universe. Every will has a desire for independence and to dominate other wills, though this will to power expresses itself in many different ways. For instance, the schoolyard bully achieves physical power over others, while the nerd studies hard to achieve an intellectual kind of power. Since all concepts are human inventions, Nietzsche argues, all concepts are ultimately the expression of some will or other. For example, the concept of good can mean wealth and vigor or it can mean meekness and charity, depending on who interprets it. If we seem to have relatively fixed moral concepts in this day and age, that is only a result of the triumph of slave morality over all other points of view. By assuming that these concepts have fixed meanings, we are surrendering our will to the wills of those who framed these concepts. Strong-willed people, according to Nietzsche, resist the categories of thought that are foisted upon them and have the independence and creativity to see the world from their own distinctive perspectives.
While it often seems as if Nietzsche praises the morality of ancient aristocratic cultures and condemns Judeo-Christian “slave” morality, he does not simply advocate a return to the older “master” morality. Although its net effect has been detrimental, slave morality has brought a number of benefits. While ancient conquerors had clearer consciences, they were also shallow. We have become deep and cunning and have acquired the characteristics that distinguish us from animals, as a result of the slave’s turning inward. Those who cannot successfully project their will to power outward and dominate those around them project it inward instead and gain fearsome power over themselves. The dominance of Judeo-Christian morality in the modern age is evidence of how the slave’s inner strength is much more powerful than the conqueror’s outer strength. Nietzsche’s concern with slave morality is not that it has turned us inward but that we are in danger of losing our inner struggle. Inner struggle is painful and difficult, and Nietzsche sees in the asceticism of religion, science, and philosophy a desire to give up the struggle or to minimize the hardship. Nietzsche insists that we must not see humanity as an end to be settled for but rather as a bridge to be crossed between animals and what he memorably terms the overman. Properly directed against the life-denying forces within us, the inner strength brought about by slave morality can be our greatest blessing.
Nietzsche often laments that language is incapable of expressing what he wishes to express, and he lays principal blame on the subject–predicate form of grammar. Because all sentences divide into subject and predicate, we are lulled into thinking that reality, too, bears this form and that there are doers and deeds. In Nietzsche’s view there are only deeds and no doers, and it is just as absurd to say that an eagle exists distinct from its act of killing as it is to say that lightning exists distinct from its act of flashing. An eagle is the act of killing just as much as lightning is the act of flashing: we are what we do. We might say Nietzsche’s is a metaphysics of verbs rather than a metaphysics of nouns. While most metaphysics conceives of a universe made up of things, Nietzsche conceives of a universe made up of wills. We are inclined to believe that there are subjects who exercise their will only because our grammar demands that we give subjects to verbs. In fact, Nietzsche suggests, there is no “I” that makes decisions and acts on them. Rather, that “I” is the forum in which different wills assert themselves in the form of decisions and actions. Frustratingly, both for Nietzsche and his readers, it is very difficult to wrap our minds around this idea that there is no doer behind the deed because every written expression of this idea relies on grammatical structures that reinforce the contrary idea.