This is a critical response to Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: Essay One. I begin by giving a brief synopsis of the essay.
Then I respond to his work, finding similarities to other thinkers like Freud and Richard Dawkins, defending some of Nietzsche’s logical positions, attacking others, and finally – to answer a question that was never asked – I offer my opinion on the meaning of Goodness.
Nietzsche begins by talking about “English psychologists” (generally, utilitarians and moral Darwinists) and their theory on the origin of “Good”. They claim Good was judged by the receivers of an action, but later taken to be intrinsic to the thing itself. For example, when slaves were not beat, they called that Good, and the masters started to believe that not beating slaves was Good in-and-of-itself.
Nietzsche says instead it has always been good men who have defined Good, and they (rightfully) have control over the language since they actually know what Good is. Instead of the consequence determining if something is Good, true Goodness is being correct in your morals in the first place.
From here, he attempts to evaluate the “meta-morals” – the origin and purpose, as he will later explore, of morality. His investigation will be primarily historical and etymological.
He begins with Rome’s two classes: the patricians and the plebeians. Generally, the “fall” of aristocracy is associated with individualism and the sickness in Europe at the time.
He talks about how the Indo-Aryans, a blonde race that left India more than a few millennia ago, are the same race that created Rome.. and persist in the Celtic people today. In these languages, Good is associated with warrior. Bad is associated with cowardly (Greek) and black (Roman and Gaellic.)
Terms like “clean” and “unclean” are newer: the former identifies members of a special caste, the priests. He talks about priests being a degraded form of aristocrats who were introduced by Jews.
These priests are slaves that thought themselves Good, and enacted a terrible curse on society: a denial of the self. In fact, having Jesus killed was a great ploy because it threw people off their scent and made their effects even more undetectable via the Church. At this point, there are several pages that are rather critical of Jews and “Jewish values”.
He compares this “cure” prescribed by the priests (slave morality) to plebeianism, whereas the aristocrats were Platonists and, as such, cared about objective reality.
Eventually, the priests won against the aristocrats because the latter was not equipped to fight on the former’s terms (because they are noble.)
Here, he makes an important distinction - “good vs. bad” vs. “good vs. evil”.
“Good vs. bad” was developed by the aristocracy (the men who could define Good because they were, themselves, Good). Good was what they determined, and bad was simply the opposite. Not a clever attempt at malice - simply, a lack of excellence.
“Good vs. evil” was developed by the slaves and their priests. Whatever the slaves did to cope with their domination was actually Good, and whatever the masters were doing was Evil. So in this manner, they have developed not just incorrect assessments but rather whole new terms and a way of thinking. Nietzsche describes these people as “instruments of civilization,”, but he also calls them a “disgrace to humanity.”
He associates some other modern conventions with this slave morality: new language, egalitarianism, democracy, even ‘science’ – though he does speak positively of well-practiced science later.
He attacks the slave’s definition of Good as flawed: strength will always be strength, and the weak will always be weak. How could it be any other way? The ultimate slave lie is that “the strong are free to be weak.”
At this point, he engages in a dialogue with a man inside the “gloomy workshop” where ideals are made, exploring where slave-Goodness comes from. Weakness is turned into goodness, and generates several new “virtues” - patience, meekness, and obedience.
These slaves use language to spread their lies, such as preaching of the “kingdom of God” and Hell. They promise an eternal life where you will finally receive joy.
In fact, the Protestant Reformation promised the return of Rome, but a Rome transformed by Jews into something sinister. It was, as later described, led by a man who felt he ought to be able to talk to God: such priestly hubris! The last aristocrats, the French nobles, were finally defeated by Jews who used Napoleon as a vessel.
He ends by asking if we are completely lost? Or can we re-take the wheel of Europe and move “beyond Good and Evil”?
Wow. A lot to take in, right? As a disclaimer, I have not read Schopenhauer, Kant, or Hegel so I will refrain from commenting on them and likely am not treading new ground in thinking or even criticism of Nietzsche.
The first thing I’d like to do is set the stage for reading Nietzsche. Originally, I thought of him like Marcus Aurelius – a prescriber of maxims. I associate these more with his Ubermensch, but this essay was much less about the Ubermensch then some of his other ideas, namely “master morality / slave morality.”
But it is important to realize that Nietzsche is not describing any “system” that he recommends to others. He is as much beholden to the problems plaguing Europe (and, by extension, the world) – this book is an attempt to critically examine not just the morals we all hold, but the process by which we acquire morality.
Did Nietzsche consider himself an Ubermensch? An Aryan? I don’t think he did. I think, to some degree, we should set aside allegations of bias in his racialist views; instead, debating his ideas outside the context of modern sensibilities.
Do not close your ears when you encounter contradictions – they are so frequent, one could argue they’re a literary device. Perhaps the one that bothers me most is his historical investigation which gazes into the Wishing Well of prehistory: by definition an epoch devoid of data, where one sees in primitive man whatever they wish to.
What I want you to do is pay attention to how you feel after you read him. Does this work excite you? Disgust you? Make you laugh? For all that Nietzsche disdains “English psychologists”, this work is as much a treatise on psychology as it is a historical investigation into morality.
The first tie-in to the world outside of Nietzsche is via his friend, Paul Rée, and his cohort of “English psychologists” – men who also question the Church, but offer a dismally reductive picture of what man is. To Nietzsche, man was a beast in search of meaning - not a calculated pleasure machine.
When Nietzsche introduces slave morality, I was reminded of Freud’s superego. It’s a set of rules, customs, ideals, and norms imprinted on us by society to control us and, often, stifle us. Also interesting to note that neither Nietzsche nor Freud promise a better life if we eliminate slave morality / the superego – we must operate within our constraints and utilize slave morality / the superego.
Something interesting to note, too, is how wildly Darwin’s theory of evolution had spread in the 22 years since On the Origin of Species. What Rée and naturalist philosophers did was apply the concept of natural selection to ideas themselves – ideas which were well-suited to the individual’s or species’ survival made it on to the next generation; unproductive ideas were lost to selective pressure (i.e. the process of evolution.) This is effectively the same idea as Richard Dawkins’ concept of the meme from The Selfish Gene, where ideas mutate and survive as a gene would.
Calling these people psychologists may not make immediate sense (they would probably call themselves philosophers), but I do think that evolutionary psychology is a modern term for the same ideas, or closely related.
Nietzsche wonders if psychologists have a hatred for Plato they’re not aware of. [1.1] It is interesting, to me, to think of psychology and Platonism as incompatible – could we not say utilitarianism combines the two?
A utilitarian would believe that knowledge exists and that man is capable of acquiring it [Plato]. He would also acknowledge that man is not a supremely rational (a rejection of the earlier Rationalism) – that he will derive pain and pleasure from irrational sources. The value of the subjective experience is then taken into account when performing moral calculations, and utilitarianism successfully holds both positions.
Also compelling: pragmatism, which evaluates the utility of beliefs themselves (a meta-utilitarianism), was developed by William James, the same man who created the discipline of psychology at Harvard.
Getting back to Plato, Nietzsche would not deny slaves are in pursuit of virtue. From the depths of his Gloomy Workshop, Nietzsche procures a picture of these virtues: patience, meekness, and obedience.
Now, I’d like to ask – would one not call patience and meekness also temperance? To deny the self, to show restraint, for what one knows is Good? These slaves, in their pursuit of temperance, are striving for one of Plato’s “four virtues” [The Republic]. What Nietzsche sees in the sad behavior of the slave can also be looked at as a Platonic virtue of the master.
One thing I would like to better understand is the relationship between Nietzsche’s ideals (see: Gloomy Workshop) and a Platonic ideal, or form. It seems Nietzsche is describing aesthetics (what morals please you, entice you), whereas Plato is talking about metaphysics.
I’m not going to lie: I love this term.
I think of it as a mad state of affairs where the inmates run the asylum.
It’s an inversion of values. These slaves who don’t have it in them to know Good are leading us around in circles while keeping us dumb, distracted, and bribed.
Now, I don’t personally hold this viewpoint, but I wanted to give you a sense of how I view it because it’s the same spirit, in my view, that bolshevism (see: Protocols of Elders of Zion) and cultural marxism (see: Jordan Peterson) mean to capture. Side note: I think it would be fun to write an essay arguing that Jordan Peterson’s “Darwinian” embrace of Christianity plays by the same rules as the “postmodernists” that he criticizes.
I saw a massive similarity to “slave morality / master morality” in Daniel Quinn’s book, Ishmael. In this book, Quinn tells us there were two groups of people during the Agricultural Revolution.
The first group, the Leavers, were hunter/gatherers who lived in harmony with nature. The second group, the Takers, were agricultural farmers who moved onto Leavers’ land and came to dominate them.
The Takers held certain cultural narratives (in essence, the roots of Judeo-Christianity) which explain their origin. After being defeated, the Leavers internalized these beliefs to explain how the Takers were so successful. Thus, Christianity was carried not by the conquerors but by the vanquished.
Just like how Nietzsche’s slaves internalized their master’s beliefs and transformed them, so too did Quinn’s Leavers. Even more coincidentally, the Leavers tell the story of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil to explain the key to the Takers’ success: they had eaten from the tree and truly knew Good from Evil.
Maybe a little similar??
I was left, however, feeling unconvinced that the slaves in Genealogy were not admirable on some level. This ressentiment they have at being dominated, this cruelty they enact upon the nobles using whatever devious means they have… is this malice not a will to power? This revenge? It shows that defeat does not destroy the spirit, but it will continually try and try again.
Plus, it’s not like these Roman aristocrats were paragons of virtue. For every Cincinnatus, there was a Sulla. For every Cicero, a Cataline. For every Stoic or Epicurean, an ambitious brother-in-law who would murder for political gain. For every pacifist emperor, a genocidal governor. No, I’m not convinced that Rome was any more virtuous than the world today.
As a Jew, I don’t think Nietzsche would have listened to any sort of argument I’d put forth against him, but I’ll try not to hold it against him. In later essays, he does distinguish himself from anti-Semites which, at least, takes some of the bite out of his anti-Jewish beliefs the way it wouldn’t for someone more simple and bloodthirsty, like his sister.
Was Nietzsche’s idea of an Aryan race of blonde beasts original? I was surprised to learn about the proto-Indo-European (PIE) linguistic theory, which does indeed point to a group leaving India, crossing Europe, and all the way to the British isles with the exception of Finland, some of the Baltics, and Hungary (Finno-Ugric), as well as Euskadi (Basque). It would make sense then to posit the same race that left India was responsible for a large cultural migration westward.
It turns out the idea of an Aryan race took root in Europe about 20 years before this book, and was not an idea accredited to Nietzsche. It’s not even clear to me if Nietzsche considered brown-haired Germans, like himself, Aryans.
It’s also interesting to speculate what makes one ethnic group more “noble” than another. Is it the number of noble individuals? The percentage? If the answer is ‘their ideals’ – do ethnic groups have ideals? Or do ideals belong to individuals?
Between racialism, evolution, utilitarianism, and psychology there was no shortage of ideas in 19th century Europe!
Turning back to Jews for a moment, I have to wonder about his theory of Jesus’ sacrifice – namely, it was a plot by Jews to “out themselves” and spread their ideas even more undetectably into society. If Jesus was part of this conspiracy, if he had agency (which we must assume he did), then he must also be a promoter of this slave morality. And as such, were the Jews who killed him not admirable?
If it was not Jesus’ fault, were he not a conspirator, where was Jesus’ agency? If he had no agency, then how was his sacrifice meaningful?
The Gay Science
What do we make of Nietzsche’s attempt to “taxonomize” morals? Is it pessimistic? Futile?
The process of analysis assumes that we can break something down into its components, and eventually see things exactly as a sum of their parts.. nothing more.
In reading Genealogy, I struggled to make out what his “components” were. Surely “goodness”, “badness”, and “evilness” only make sense in terms of our morality, not our fundamental human character. (And if we have a component identified, should we be able to locate its opposite?)
We could, for example, examine “strength”: is this a component of Nietzsche’s model of our nature? If it were, it should not be an expression of something even more fundamental, right?
So does strength come from “force”? Does force come from “power”? Does power come from “will”? And so on, until we reach our foundation.
It is very hard for me at the moment to point to a concept and say “This, Nietzsche considers fundamental – nay, atomic – to our very nature.”
One thing that his taxonomy does show, which I find very interesting, are some values common to many disparate philosophies – for example, that pity is bad. Is this shared rejection of pity a crumb to a higher truth, or a mere coincidence?
At the same time, can we not look for “slave” behaviors which hold up as reasonable in other perspectives (see: temperance)?
Another example: can “wishful thinking” be good for us?
The biggest irony to me here is that while the slaves were ‘wishfully thinking’ for eternal life, Nietzsche actually got it!
150 years later and it’s his ideas we’re still talking about. As relevant now as then, Nietzsche lives on in our collective unconscious!
The Analysis of Good
‘But Michael, what do you think Goodness is?’ said nobody, but here I go anyway.
I will not say that it is viscerally pleasurable to read Nietzsche. His passages make my skin crawl, every new sentence a trek to the footnotes, etc. More than the reaction I have, and against my will, the more pessimistic I become. The picture he paints is dark and full of nihilists. Who wants to hold that belief?! ( – for it is merely belief; Nietzsche does not impart knowledge.)
Inasmuch as we can choose what we believe, (provided this belief exists only where empirical observation cannot), what if instead we held the belief that Good is an intrinsic quality of something, the way these English psychologists paint us.
In this set of beliefs, Goodness is both a concept and an intrinsic property of something. We would say there exists a set S which contains:
- all instances of goodness as a property
In this set, Goodness is a special element among a set of degraded peers; it has the following properties:
- Goodness can be used as an analytical tool to ‘detect’ goodness as a property.
- Goodness itself cannot be “analyzed” – only used to analyze other elements in this set.
(2) is proven via negation of its opposite.
Let us suppose Goodness could be analyzed, then Goodness would belong to a set, T, of “things that can be analyzed”. A set of weeny concepts eclipsed by the deeper, the more important, the fundamental concepts that were used to analyze.
Also, some superset may exist which includes both S and T. Given we do not currently know what this set is or what it would look like or mean, it could be absolutely game-changing if it does make itself known.
We might find that concepts we don’t think of as related are more integral to each other and our own understanding of ourselves than we could have ever predicted.
Such a finding would completely invalidate any system that we have today!
The only way we can have any faith in a system (where faith is required) is to assume (2) - that Goodness cannot be analyzed, and there is nothing more fundamental than it.
We have two options at this point:
i) Analyze Goodness (i.e. this book.) Acknowledge that you are on shaky grounds, borrowed time, and ready to be upended by whatever we find is powerful enough to analyze good.
ii) Treat Goodness as un-analyzable, and leave Nietzsche to his Gloomy Workshop.