Review of On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic (1887)

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Friedrich Nietzsche (writer).

Read in 2023.

Read in Jan Sjögren’s Swedish-language translation.

The “polemic” of the title has a broad base and a narrow point. At the point, it is directed at the work of Nietzsche’s friend Paul Rée. Rée’s book on the origins (“genealogy”) of morality came out in 1877. To Nietzsche, it represents a larger school of thought in (natural) philosophy. The polemic is directed not only at this school but also at various titanic forces the author imagines have poisoned his society for thousands of years.

Simply put, Nietzsche took ancient epics at face value. He believed that, before the idea of evil came on the scene, people had a simpler notion of good. Good was what the aristocratic elites called good, and even what they called bad. In one of the author’s own examples, a funeral oration by Pericles from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the works of an elite are celebrated regardless of their moral value, as evidence of the elite’s vivacity and audacity. Nietzsche refers to audacity as the “will to power”, an imaginary fundamental force he admired as the good driver of “rough, stormy, reinless, hard, violently-predatory health and power”. In other words, he noticed that powerful generals like Pericles were callous, and he loved it.

Nietzsche thought power was spiffy, but he was a sick man and achieved few—if any—feats of arms against the Spartans. In my reading, he wanted to feel free and fit regardless of his own qualities, so he admired the old literature, including the Old Testament (ca. 164 BCE). The book of Job (ca. 550–200 BCE) expresses his morality, where the work of the powerful is good by definition, regardless of intention and consequence. Somehow the man became so attached to this view that he was hypersensitized to criticism. He saw any moral critique as an unfair manipulation. Specifically, in this book he develops the idea that it is a nasty trick to provoke the feeling of guilt by stating that anyone could or should have acted differently. In Nietzsche’s view, a kind of conspiracy arose among the weak to use that trick, making the strong feel guilty for some of their actions. He speculates that this practice developed out of commerce:

The feeling of “ought,” of personal obligation (to take up again the train of our inquiry), has had, as we saw, its origin in the oldest and most original personal relationship that there is, the relationship between buyer and seller, creditor and ower: here it was that individual confronted individual, and that individual matched himself against individual.

Emphasis in the original. It is obviously wrong to say, as the author does in his rambling way, that a transactional commercial relationship is “the oldest and most original personal relationship”. Nietzsche is wrong on a lot of the facts. I guess he picked commerce here because he associated dry accounting with jurisprudence and justice. It is a sign of sociopathy to misinterpret an actual “feeling of ‘ought’” as essentially similar to a debt of money, but he doesn’t stop there. He paints a picture of a Jewish-led grand enterprise to make the whole world “sick” by implanting it with guilt from the outside. In this book, justice is a weapon wielded by the weak to gain an unnatural power over the strong. The wound inflicted by that weapon is a bad conscience, and the result is “a tyranny over the healthy”. The “healthy”, again, are those predators Nietzsche loved.

There are glimmers of cleverness in the argumentation, but almost every part of this explanation for moral feelings is poorly reasoned, unsubstantiated and tendentious. For example, Nietzsche asserts that the German word gut, meaning “good”, is derived from göttlich, “the godlike, the man of godlike race”, but that is not the etymology of gut. The word is now traced to a Proto-Indo-European origin, with a different meaning: “to unite, to suit”, which wouldn’t suit Nietzsche. The author uncritically repeats a number of other myths, claiming for instance that Cambodian priests practice jus primae noctis.

I would be interested in a model of how ethics really developed as a complement and competitor to a pre-human morality based on quasi-genetic self-interest (e.g. health), but Nietzsche doesn’t provide such a model. He doesn’t care that Pericles distinguishes good from evil. He doesn’t even seem to understand that when he brands the idea of evil metaphorically as a disease, he is portraying the idea of evil as an evil idea. He is as blissfully ignorant in this regard as the authors of Leviticus (ca. 500–400 BCE) who, for lack of abstract terminology and clarity of thought, used the image of impurity and disease metaphorically for anything they thought was creepy. In the process of thus categorizing evil as evil, Nietzsche subscribes to the thing he rejects, like when he disavows antisemitism but denigrates Jews.

Nietzsche claims in part 2, chapters 13–14, that the ostensible purpose of punishment is to induce remorse, and that it doesn’t work. Inducing remorse is indeed a commonly stated reason for punishing criminals, and indeed it doesn’t seem to work well, but both observations are contradictory to Nietzsche’s thesis. Real Abrahamic tactics for emotional manipulation, however nasty they can get, don’t fit the author’s description or purpose. In Proverbs 25:21f, for example, being nice to your enemy is indeed presented as a sort of judo move to make your enemy suffer, but it is not a punishment, nor a secret weapon, nor a weapon more popular with the weak than with the strong, nor is there reason to believe that Jews were its original inventors or popularizers. They nicked a lot of their proverbs from the Egyptians and other earlier sources. The feeling of “ought” and the feeling of guilt are much older than Nietzsche imagines, and more natural. Nowadays they are well explained by the Darwinian moral genealogists whose first predecessors—still under Lamarckian influence—were Nietzsche’s direct targets.

I think Nietzsche was led astray in his thinking by three factors. First, he resented being told what to do, which must have been a frequent occurence growing up in Germany with a pastor for a father. Second, he resented the encroachment of dysteleological scientific theories like Darwin’s, in books like Rée’s, upon the territory of teleological philosophy. He called that encroachment “mechanical senselessness”, failing to comprehend it. Third, he was prepared to reject Kant’s reason—as well as intellectual rigour in general—in order to express himself in the high-status medium of philosophical literature. Of course, he couldn’t admit to his resentment, or else he’d have been hoisted by his own petard.

There are moments where the conspiracy theory seems seductive. It’s a tragedy on a truly epic scale, where personal freedom is lost to the villainy of religion. However, the book is only worth reading for a more tragic reason. Nietzsche became influential, to the point that reading him after WW2 sheds some light on the wishful, impulsive, anti-intellectual ideology of the German state in that war.

References here: Reasons to invent Jesus.

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