Nietzsche: On the Genealogy of Morals

This is a quick summary of some of the points that will be discussed in lecture.

For an on-line version of Nietzsche's work click here.

I. First Essay

Nietzsche begins with a story of how the terms 'good' and 'bad' got their meaning: Originally, there were two kinds of people--"the noble, the powerful, the superior, and the high-minded" and the "low, low-minded, and plebeian." The former had an unquestioning hold over the latter--they had a feeling of ruling and superiority that was justified by the fact that they were ruling and they were superior. Nietzsche calls this feeling of the superior over the inferior the pathos of distance. He thinks that it is through the pathos of distance that 'good' and 'bad' first acquired their meaning. That is, 'good' was associated with those who were superior, noble and privileged, while 'bad' was associated with those who were common, plebeian, and low.

However, descendants of the lower class began to resent being so powerless; they began to resent being bad. Their hatred toward the superior class resulted in a "radical transvaluation of their values." That is, 'good' and 'bad' began to reverse in meaning such that 'good' now applied to the common, low, poor and powerless, while 'bad' now applied to the superior, privileged, rich, and powerful. In this way, the deprived, poor, sick, and helpless become pious, whereas as the powerful, noble, and rich became impious. This transvaluation of values is possible when the ressentiment of the lower classes for the superior becomes so great that they find compensation only in imagining or creating a different moral code. It is this creation of an opposing moral system that Nietzsche calls the slave morality. So in order for the powerless to feel better about the situation that they are in, they create for themselves a morality--a slave morality--where they, the powerless, are 'good,' while their superiors, the powerful, are 'bad.'

*A Quick Note on Part 13*

It is here that Nietzsche presents the analogy of the lambs and the eagles. The lambs may not like that the eagles take off with one of them from time to time, but it would be ridiculous for the lambs to blame the eagles for doing what they do. This would be just as bad, Nietzsche thinks, as the eagles blaming the lambs for doing what they do--namely, sitting there waiting to be eaten. Nietzsche claims: "To demand of strength that it should not express itself, that it should not be a will to overcome, overthrow, dominate, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, makes as little sense as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength."

As with the lambs and the eagles, so too with human beings. According to Nietzsche, the strong and superior can no more resist being strong and superior than the weak and inferior can resist being weak and inferior. At root of this idea is the belief that there is no distinction between strength (or weakness) and the expression of strength (or weakness). As he puts it, "...the doing itself is everything." One of the main problems with the slave morality, Nietzsche thinks, is that it assumes the exact opposite of this--that is, it assumes "that the strong may freely choose to be weak." Nietzsche thinks that strength just is doing strong things; weakness just is doing weak things. So the thought of tempering or taming strength, would just result in one becoming weaker; likewise, beefing up weakness, would just result in one becoming stronger.

II. Second Essay

Once the slave morality has been created, the descendants of the privileged, powerful classes begin to doubt their legitimacy. They begin to buy into the slave morality, accepting that being powerful and superior as they are is a moral sin. Nietzsche claims that 'guilt' first came about as a way for inferior people to feel better about themselves. By blaming the privileged people for their suffering, the inferior ones purge themselves of anger, and delight in the suffering of the privileged. The suffering of the privilege comes about once they buy into the slave morality: they feel guilty for having the things that are (now) condemned, e.g., power, wealth, privilege, etc.

III. Third Essay

Ascetic ideals, Nietzsche claims, are the direct result of a slave morality. To deny wealth, power, sex, drinking, sensuality, etc. is to deny all that the privileged classes possess. However, in accepting the new morality, the ascetic has to contend with the fact that he secretly desires these things. That is, the ascetic actually, though perhaps privately, wants to have wealth, power, sex, etc. After all, it was this fact that created such hatred and resentment towards the powerful and privileged in the first place. This shows what is deeply contradictory about he ascetic ideals--e.g., that what's responsible for the creation of these ideals (viz., resentment and anger at others having what you lack) ensures that you want those very things that the ascetic ideals condemn. For if you didn't want them in the first place, there would have been no anger or resentment for the ideals to grow out of.