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Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Philosophy
Summary

On the Genealogy of Morals

Summary On the Genealogy of Morals

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.”

Analysis

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.