Nietzsche and the Genealogy of Morals: An Introduction

Gary Shapiro, Professor of Philosophy
University of Richmond

Friedrich Nietzsche, author of On the Genealogy of Morals, is one of the most influential thinkers of the last two centuries. While his writings received little public attention during his lifetime (1844-1900), he was not completely off the mark when he said of his thought "I am not a man -- I am dynamite" and when he predicted that wars would be fought in his name. Shortly after his death, Nietzsche's works began to be read very widely in Europe and the Americas. Since then he has been celebrated or condemned for the most various and incompatible reasons; for example, some have thought of him as a prophet of individual freedom and self-realization, while others have seen him as a theorist who helped to make Nazism possible. Certainly it is possible to pick out individual sentences from Nietzsche's works which would support both interpretations, but a careful reading will want to go beyond isolated sentences and attempt to deal with the general tendency and arguments of his work. Nietzsche continues to excite and provoke philosophers, social theorists, and imaginative writers; today we may be in a better position than our ancestors of a hundred years ago to sort out what is valuable from what is accidental in his thought and to free ourselves from some of the legends about this supremely provocative thinker.

Nietzsche was born into a German family with strong Protestant and Lutheran traditions. His father was a Lutheran minister and his mother came from a similar background. We can assume that Nietzsche, who went through a period of youthful piety (composing prayers, for example) had a fairly deep acquaintance with the modern Christian world that later became the object of his biting criticism. After his father died when Nietzsche was just five, he was brought up by his mother and other female relatives. Young Nietzsche attended one of the most intellectually elite secondary schools in Germany, Schulpforta, and it was there that he showed himself to be a precocious student of the Greek and Latin languages and literatures; he was also something of a musician (he is probably the only Core author whose music is available at Tower Records). When you read the Genealogy you will see Nietzsche using his knowledge of the ancient world in his discussion of the linguistic and social categories that distinguish the master and the slave (Essay I, sections 4-5) and in his praise of Greek religion for avoiding the sense of guilt which Christianity developed and exploited (Essay II, section 23). Nietzsche became a professor of classics at the astoundingly young age of twenty-four; he published a number of serious academic articles, taught Greek literature and philosophy, and was beloved by his students, who gave him a torchlight parade when they feared that he would be lured away from the university by a better job offer. During this time as a professor, Nietzsche fell under the spell of the composer Richard Wagner for some years. His first book, The Birth of Tragedy, presents an original theory of Greek tragedy that owes something to this enthusiasm; where others had seen the Greeks as a people of noble moderation, Nietzsche saw them struggling to attain a precarious but life-affirming balance between tendencies to aesthetic order and the chaotic life of the instincts (the Apollinian and the Dionysian). This book was also an answer to philosophical pessimism, exemplified by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer; Nietzsche thought that the tragic world-view of the Greeks provided an example of how one could live joyously even while recognizing the pain and suffering of existence, but without any hope of future salvation (as in Christianity). Important to the Genealogy is Nietzsche's conception that such a way of life is possible, at least for some people, some of the time; it is a misunderstanding, however, to think that Nietzsche believed that we could simply return to the past.

letter in Nietzsche's rather brief career as an author (1872-88) he wrote an important series of books analyzing the prospects of humanity, reflecting on religious and political history, and offering suggestions, sometimes in a prophetic tone, for attaining a more affirmative attitude toward life. The famous saying "God is dead" is meant as a cultural diagnosis, suggesting that ultimate religious commitment can no longer be the way that people organize their lives (the phrase originates in a Lutheran hymn and Nietzsche puts it in the mouth of a character in one of his short sketches). He became convinced that Western culture was endangered by what he called nihilism, the view that there is no point to human endeavor. Even asceticism, which at least proposes the goal of minimizing enjoyment and so involves a practice and a commitment to institutions (like the church), offers some alternative to nihilism (see Essay III, sections 27-28); but asceticism and otherworldly religion carry with them the baggage of guilt and the rejection of the value of human life in its actual earthly and bodily setting. Nietzsche's response to nihilism takes both a positive and negative or critical form. In his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra, written as something of a parody of the Bible, Nietzsche urges us to "remain true to the earth" and to strive to create something higher and better out of ourselves. That which is to be created is called the Übermensch in German. This is usually translated as "superman," which is misleading for a number of reasons; Nietzsche's idea has nothing to do with the comic strip figure who leaps tall buildings at a single bound and is not even necessarily masculine (if he had wanted to emphasize the male gender he would have used the word Mann). The word might be translated more faithfully as "post-human"; it also ought not to be thought of in the terms of racism or Nazism as referring to a specific ethnic group which is destined for political domination (indeed, Nietzsche had nothing but scorn for the racism and anti-semitism of the nineteenth century ancestors of the Nazis). One sense that we get of how the post-human would see the world is that such a person or group would value its experience in the world so highly that it could think of no better possibility than that everything which happens to each of us would occur continually, in the same order, in a great cycle. This thought, which Nietzsche called the eternal recurrence of all things, is meant as a counter-myth to all of those philosophies and religions (such as Christianity) which tell us that life is worthwhile only because of some goal that lies beyond it (e.g. in the world of Platonic ideas, in the Christian heaven, or in some future utopia on earth). This thought could act as a litmus test for a person's level of vitality: while some people might think there is nothing more depressing than to live their lives over again, concentrating on all the pains and humiliations of those lives, others would be excited at the prospect, ready to repeat the suffering because of the joyous times and episodes. For such people, Nietzsche thought, the idea of eternal recurrence was the strongest possible formula for the affirmation of life.

On the Genealogy of Morals is part of Nietzsche's negative and critical response to nihilism. It attempts to show how the Western practice of morality has come about and to show what morality actually does (promoting guilt and resentment, for example) in contrast to what morality claims to do. A better translation of the book's title, used in one recent English version, is On the Genealogy of Morality. This has the advantage of suggesting that Nietzsche is investigating the development of a specific practice and theory of valuation rather than examining all possible forms of the ethical life. Anthropologists sometimes speak of the difference between a "shame culture" and a "guilt culture." In a guilt culture, when something goes wrong as a result of a human action, people typically think that the person involved is to blame, and ideally that person is expected to own up to his or her guilt and repent; and perhaps we are all expected to realize that we are by nature sinners (touched by "original sin"). In a shame culture, like the Greek world as idealized by Nietzsche, when something goes wrong it might be blamed on the gods, fate, or the forces of nature; there may be something embarrassing or disreputable about being the one through which these powers operate, and there may be rituals for lifting the shame involved, but there is no idea that humans ought to think of themselves as completely free creatures who, knowing the good, nevertheless voluntarily descend to sin, and then must somehow redeem themselves. A shame culture may have an ethics or system of shared values and expectations; but a guilt culture involves something much more specific. When you are reading the Genealogy you should be sensitive to some of the following: the way in which Nietzsche describes our current moral practices as having a very diverse and complicated background, in which reactive or resentful feelings play a surprisingly large role (Essay I); how he thinks the phenomenon of guilt and bad conscience arose (Essay II); and how an ascetic or life-denying practice can actually help to maintain life in certain circumstances (Essay III). Another notable feature of the last essay is Nietzsche's claim that what we might think of as alternatives to the ascetic life, such as the pursuit of science, are really disguised forms of asceticism.

There is no denying that the Genealogy is a challenging and difficult book, but it can also be a very rewarding one. The Nietzsche Hypertext provides some good exercises in close reading. Nietzsche liked to describe himself as an "old philologist" and careful reader and even if he were surprised by our technology, he might approve of the spirit of the Hypertext project. Even after careful reading, you may ultimately decide that the Genealogy's descriptions of religion or morality are not very accurate. However, it is worth remembering that many things have changed in one hundred years and that Nietzsche's thought itself has often played a considerable role in that change. This book should at least challenge you to further define your own position about morality and religion.