In “‘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.

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