Friedrich Nietzsche - On the Genealogy of Morals (1887)
Okay, as promised, I will try to make this as brief as possible. I apologize, but this time I am not including page numbers because I used a weird edition.
Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals was published in1887 and it is his effort to expand on efforts begun in All Too Human: A Book for Free Spirits (1878) and Beyond Good and Evil (1886) Human to investigate “the provenance of our moral prejudices.” Specifically, he is interested in asking “Under what conditions did man construct the value judgments good and evil? And what is their intrinsic worth?” The reward for such efforts, he says, is “that someday, we will be allowed to take it [morality] lightly. For lightheartedness, or to use [his] own phrase, a ‘gay science’ is the reward of a long, courageous, painstaking, inward seriousness, which to be sure is not within every man’s compass.” Part of Nietzsche’s project is an effort to give an example of “true interpretation” which demands in its reading a skill he says has been lost, for the practice of “reading as an art,” that is, “the skill to ruminate, which cows possess but modern man lacks.”
A view key points in no particular order and with minimal commentary:
First of all, it is important to keep in mind that what interests Nietzsche is not “good and bad” but “good and evil.” The distinction being between questioning actions (bad) and questioning judgments (evil).
Secondly, bad conscience, or the sick man, or guilt, about which he summarizes it best when he says that:
[to put it crudely, which does not mean that it should be understood crudely]…. The strong, healthy person digests his experiences [including every deed and misdeed] as he does his meals, even though he may have swallowed a tough morsel. If he can’t get rid of an experience, then this kind of indigestion is every bit as physical as the other, and often, in fact, merely one of the consequences of the other. Let me add that one may hold such notions and yet be an enemy of materialism.
This sickness of the soul, or bad conscience, is produced by “religious interpretation”:
I have briefly touched on the origin of that sense, treating it as an aspect of animal psychology; guilt was viewed there in its raw state. I may now add that to take shape it needed the hands of the ascetic priest, that virtuoso of guilt. ‘Sin,’ the priestly version of that animal ‘bad conscience’ (characterized earlier as introverted cruelty) constituted the greatest event in the entire history of the sick soul, the most dangerous sleight of hand of religious interpretation.
For, to put it quite generally, the main object of all great religions has been to counteract a certain epidemic malaise due to unreleased tension. It may safely be assumed that large masses of the earth’s population periodically suffer from physiological anxiety which, however, from lack of adequate physiological knowledge is not understood as such; whereupon religion steps in with its staple of psychological and moral remedies. 267
To put far too fine a point on it, Christianity produces guilt, Judaism, resentment and “slave mentality/ revolt.” This are historical statements, not ontological.
For our purposes it can’t go without saying how important Nietzsche’s Genealogy is to Foucault’s project, especially apparent in the text on our list, The Order of Things. You don’t have to look very hard to see both where Foucault found fuel for both his methods and his subjects. For example, this passage about the relationship of language (mots) and phenomena (choses):
For, just as popular superstition divorces the lightning from its brilliance, viewing the latter as an activity whose subject is the lightning, so does popular morality divorce strength from its manifestations, as though there were behind the strong a neutral agent, free to manifest its strength or contain it. But no such agent exists; there is no ‘being’ behind the doing, acting, becoming; the ‘doer’ has simply been added to the deed by the imagination – the doing is everything. The common man actually doubles the doing by making the lightning flash; he states the same event once as cause and then again as effect. The natural scientists are no better when they say that ‘energy moves,’ ‘energy causes.’ For all its detachment and freedom from emotion, our science is still the dupe of linguistic habits; it has never yet got rid of those changelings called ‘subjects.’
Or here, for example, which does not need to be stretched far to lead us to Foucault on subject formation:
“All instincts that are not allowed free play turn inward. This is what I call man’s interiorization; it alone provides the soil for the growth of what is later called man’s soul.”
Also the generator of the greatest and most disastrous of maladies, of which humanity has not to this day been cured: his sickness of himself, brought on by the violent severance from his animal past, by his sudden leap and fall into new layers and conditions of existence, by his declaration of war against the old instincts that had hitherto been the foundation of his power, his awesomeness.
Or, finally here, on the relationship between history and language:
(It is impossible to say with certainty today why people are punished. All terms which semiotically condense a whole process elude definition; only that which has no history can be defined.)
Another noted reader of Nietzsche on our reading list was Derrida. For example, it is interesting to think about how this passage from Genealogy might relate to Derrida’s ideas about religion as response in Faith and Knowledge:
Simply glance through history: in what sphere, thus far, has all legislation and, indeed, all true desire for laws, developed? In the sphere of ‘reactive’ man? Not at all. Exclusively in the sphere of the active, strong, spontaneous, and aggressive. Historically speaking, all law – be it said to the dismay of that agitator (Dühring) who once confessed: ‘The doctrine of vengeance is the red thread that runs through my entire investigation of justice’ – is a battle waged against the reactive emotions by the active and aggressive, who have employed part of their strength to curb the excesses of reactive pathos and bring about a compromise. Wherever justice is practiced and maintained, we see a stronger power intent on finding means to regulate the senseless raging of rancor among its weaker subordinates. 207
And, also so important to Derrida, the idea of credit (belief) and debt (guilt) are here in Nietzsche’s Genealogy at the crux of his investigation:
The civil-law relationship of debtor to creditor has been projected into yet another context, where we find it even more difficult to understand today, namely into the relationship between living men and their forebears.
The modern moralization of the ideas of guilt and duty – their relegation to a purely subjective ‘bad conscience’ – represents a determined attempt to invert the normal order of development, or at least to stop it in its tracks. The object now is to close the prospect of final deliverance and make man’s gaze rebound from an iron barrier; to force the ideas of guilt and duty to face about and fiercely turn on – whom? Obviously on the ‘debtor,’ first of all, who, infested and eaten away by bad conscience, which spreads like a polyp, comes to a view his debt as unredeemable by any act of atonement (the notion of ‘eternal penance’). But eventually the ‘creditor’ too is turned on in the same fashion. Now the curse falls upon man’s cause prima (‘Adam,’ ‘original sin’ the ‘bondage of the will’); or upon nature, which gave birth to man and which is now made the repository of the evil principle (nature as the instrument of the devil); or upon universal existence, which now appears as absolute non-value (nihilistic turning away from life, a longing for nothingness or for life’s ‘opposite,’ for a different sort of ‘being’ – Buddhism, etc.). Then suddenly we come face to face with that paradoxical and ghastly expedient which brought temporary relief to tortured humanity, that most brilliant stroke of Christianity: God’s sacrifice of himself for man. God makes himself the ransom for what could not otherwise be ransomed; God alone has power to absolve us of a debt we can no longer discharge, the creditor offers himself as a sacrifice for his debtor out of sheer love (can you believe it?), out of love for his debtor.
Lastly, these two gems, which I just can’t stand to leave out.
(the terms autonomous and moral are mutually exclusive)
(and all religions are at bottom systems of cruelty)