On the Genealogy of Morals
By Friedrich Nietzsche
A commentary by Giles Fraser
Part 2 —
Part 3 —
Part 4 — guardian.co.uk,
Part 5 —
Part 6 —
Part 7 —
Edited by Andy Ross
Part 1: Meet Dr Nietzsche
"I can write in letters which make even the blind see. I call Christianity
the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great
instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous,
secret, subterranean, petty. I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind."
Friedrich Nietzsche is woefully underappreciated by the fashionistas of
contemporary media atheism. He makes an uncomfortable ally for the Dawkins
brigade. He does Christianity the compliment of first seeking to understand
Nietzsche does not claim that the primary sin of religion is that
it has an imaginary object at its centre. He is remarkably indifferent to
the question of God's existence. Rather, Nietzsche thinks religion in
general, and Christianity in particular, is a corruption of the human
Nietzsche grew up a pious little boy. His father, a Lutheran
clergyman, died when Friedrich was only five. His mother wanted him to grow
up just like his dad. It was a role he played throughout his early years.
This piety continued to the first year at university, where he won the
preaching prize, after which he lost his faith. From then on in,
Christianity was the enemy.
Contemporary popular atheism presumes
that the most fundamental question to address is whether or not God exists.
The religion that Nietzsche was brought up with starts somewhere else
entirely. The first question is not so much "Does God exist?" but rather,
something like "How are we saved?". Christianity isn't dodgy philosophy but,
as it were, corrupt existentialism.
Nietzsche sets out to save people
from the idea that they stand in need of salvation. The paradox of
Nietzsche's work is that he is offering a narrative of salvation from
For those unfamiliar with Nietzsche's idea of
eternal recurrence, its clearest exposition is probably this one:
"What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your
loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have
lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ...
Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon
who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you
would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more
What this thought experiment challenges is whether you can
be so lacking in regret that you would will your life the same way again and
again. In other words, the eternal recurrence poses the question as to
whether you would judge your own life to be a success or a failure.
The idea reintroduces something akin to ultimate judgment, whicht was
eliminated with the death of God. It reintroduces a sense that there is
judgment bearing down on one's every action. Cleverly, it does this without
any judge other than oneself.
Part 2: The slave morality
Nietzsche says Christianity is the religion of the downtrodden, the bullied,
the weak, the poor and the slave. And this is why it is so filled with
hatred. For there is nothing quite as explosive as the sort of bottled up
resentment that the oppressed feels towards their oppressor.
is this more obvious, Nietzsche insists, than with the invention of the idea
of hell. For hell is a fantasy of the weak that enables them to imagine
compensatory revenge against the strong. Nietzsche contends that the very
origins of morality itself can be understood as springing from the same
Nietzsche is re-narrating the myth of the fall. In the
beginning, there was nothing much wrong with the notion of God. Yahweh
represented a culture at ease with itself and its prosperity. But then came
slavery and deportation into exile. And with this, the whole idea of God was
re-imagined. Instead of being an expression of abundant confidence, God was
transformed into a vehicle for desired revenge:
"Only those who
suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the
suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people, the
only ones saved, salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble
and powerful, you eternally wicked cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless, you
will be eternally wretched, cursed and damned."
and life-affirming is redescribed as "bad" so as to undermine the authority
of the strong. And with this revolution, Nietzsche contends, humanity
Many who read Nietzsche still experience some
residual anxiety that his celebration of the powerful and his denigration of
the weak has proto-Nazi overtones. He speaks approvingly of the "magnificent
blond beast avidly prowling around for spoil and victory" in contrast to the
"failed, sickly, tired and exhausted people of whom today's Europe is
beginning to reek". This is not a reference to Jews. Even so, this sort of
Nietzsche is out to expose the vast weight of
poisonous anger that lurks behind that hideous evangelical smile. But his
ambition is much greater than this. For Nietzsche contends that
Judeo-Christianity has shaped European culture to such an extent that the
inversion of values that it promotes has permeated the entire way we see the
Part 3: The birth of the Übermensch
A society that has been founded up the suffering of the slave is not easily
able to throw off the deep psychological scars of its origins.
sufferers, one and all, are frighteningly willing and inventive in their
pretexts for painful emotions; they even enjoy being mistrustful and
dwelling on wrongs and imagined slights ... they rip open the oldest wounds
and make themselves bleed to death from scars long since healed, they make
evil-doers out of friend, wife, child, and anyone else near them."
The priest protects society from itself by saying that we are all
responsible for our own suffering. So the individual blames himself or
herself, folding hatred back upon itself and generating self-hatred instead.
The church persuades people to discharge all that poisonous energy back upon
Nietzsche's main task is to rid human beings from the
nihilistic power of self-destructive hatred that is the church's true gift
to the world. He regards his philosophy as an exercise in liberation: better
to express one's anger and bitterness than to keep it bottled up inside. For
by expressing it, one discharges all its destructive energy. Hence the
notorious übermensch, the atheist holy man:
"Some time, in a stronger
age than this mouldy, self-doubting present, he will come to us, the
redeeming man of great love and contempt ... This man of the future will
redeem us not just from the ideal held up till now, but also from the things
which have to arise from it, from the great nausea, the will to nothingness,
from nihilism, that stroke of midday and of the great decision which makes
the will free again, which gives earth its purpose and man his hope again,
this antichrist and anti-nihilist, this conquerer of God and nothingness –
he must come one day."
Part 4: Is Christianity cowardly?
"We godless anti-metaphysicians, still take out fire from the blaze set
alight by a faith a thousand years old, that faith of the Christians, which
was also Plato's faith, that God is truth and that truth is divine."
Plato is the thinker Nietzsche holds most responsible for providing the
philosophical foundations of Christianity. So it is vital to understand
Nietzsche's attack on Plato.
According to Nietzsche, Plato is driven
by the desire to protect the values of the rational Athenian world. Plato
fears that the logical order of his world would one day be overcome by the
forces of chaos that raged away beyond the boundaries of the city-state.
Plato sets out to eliminate all aspects of human life that expose us to
change, and to index our lives to that which is beyond the physical, to an
unchanging and eternal truth. This is the realm of the forms.
philosophical thinking came to merge with the parables of an itinerant
preacher from Galilee. With the Roman takeover of Christianity, the
essentially Jewish marrow of early Christian thought was traded for a
version of Platonic philosophy. Nietzsche said that Christianity is little
more than popular Platonism.
Nietzsche's objection here is that the
whole invention of metaphysics, as described by Plato and followed by the
Christians, comes about because of Plato's fear of change. Instead of
standing firm at the barricades of reason against the forces of moral chaos,
Plato elevates the source of human value into the heavens, thus apparently
projecting it from change and chance. For Nietzsche, this otherworldliness
simply reflects Plato's failure of courage.
It is not just
Christianity that gets infected with this moral cowardice. Philosophy itself
is thoroughly imbued with the same spirit:
"You ask me of the
idiosyncrasies of philosophers? … There is their lack of historical sense,
their hatred of the idea of becoming, their Egyptianism. They think they are
doing a thing a favour when they dehistoricize it, sub specie aeterni – when
they make a mummy of it. All philosophers ... kill, they stuff when they
worship, they're conceptual idolaters – they become a mortal danger to
everything they worship."
Western philosophy generally and
Christianity in particular has founded its thought upon the idea that change
is a bad thing and thus that for human life to be valuable it must be rooted
in something fixed and unchanging and eternal. Nietzsche points out that
anything that is not able to change is, by definition, dead. The
Christian/Platonic worldview is essentially a celebration of death dressed
up to look like the opposite.
"God degenerated into the contradiction
of life, instead of being its transfiguration and eternal Yes! In God a
declaration of hostility towards life, nature, the will to life! …In God
nothingness deified, the will to nothingness sanctified."
theology without Plato seems to many almost impossible. But Christianity was
originally a Jewish peasant religion, with no understanding of metaphysics.
Jesus had never heard of Plato. And the God of the philosophers is nothing
like the God of Abraham.
Part 5: Breaking the cycle of conflict
The thinker who has done most to defend Christianity against Nietzsche's
ferocious onslaught is the brilliant French sociologist René Girard. Girard
critically examines Nietzsche's central contention that Christianity is a
religion of sublimated vengeance and contends that Nietzsche is dangerously
naive about violence.
Girard's main interest is the relationship
between religion and violence. He looks at how violence often becomes
self-perpetuating. For Girard, the teachings of Christ are an attempt to
break this wheel of revenge. Instead of the endless reciprocity of an eye
for an eye, forgiveness breaks the cycle. Christian forgiveness is about not
answering back in kind. In essence, it represents a stubborn refusal to act
in the same way as the violent other, it is a refusal to become like them.
Because forgiveness refuses the satisfaction of vengeance it generates
ressentiment. So Nietzsche is partly right. Yes, there are huge wells of
anger that form within the Christian imagination. The instinct for vengeance
is not spirited away by the Christian act of forgiveness. Girard says the
fact that Christians have chosen to forgive and thus not to answer violence
directly with violence is itself already a huge victory.
is brilliant at diagnosing the hidden hatreds that lurk within the Christian
breast, but he does not appreciate that these hatreds are themselves the
by-product of a victory over real violence. Ressentiment is the collateral
damage of forgiveness.
Nietzsche was naive about the reality of
violence. For him it was almost a game. It was only because Nietzsche
treated violence a bit like a game that he could think of violence as a cure
for ressentiment. Christianity takes violence a good deal more seriously
than Nietzsche did.
Quite a lot of Christian theology has little
place for forgiveness. The evangelical doctrine of penal substitution argues
that human beings are saved through a process whereby the violence that is
due to human beings is instead discharged upon Jesus. This nasty and
pernicious theology is built around the idea of a holy lynching.
Part 6: Superman goes mad in solitude
Nietzsche marks an important stage in the development of western
individualism. Many begin this story with the rise of Protestantism and the
idea that human beings are individually responsible for their relationship
with God. This led to an explosion of individual piety.
Bonhoeffer said: "It was only out of the soil of the German reformation that
there could grow a Nietzsche." Going way further than the Protestants who so
decisively influenced him, Nietzsche tasks the individual with the
responsibility of actually generating his or her own individuality. Thus not
"be who you are", à la Polonius, but "become who you are". We must become
our own authors.
When this spiritual discipline of self-authoring is
going well, Nietzsche thinks of himself as a hero, as Zarathustra. This is
the Nietzsche of myth, striding out over the mountain top. But when it all
goes badly, he collapses in on himself:
"The last philosopher I call
myself, for I am the last human being. No one converses with me beside
myself and my voice reaches me as the voice of one dying. With the beloved
voice, with thee the last remembered breath of human happiness, let me
discourse, even if it is only for another hour. Because of thee I delude
myself as to my solitude and lie my way back to multiplicity and love, for
my heart shies away from believing that love is dead. I cannot bear the icy
shivers of loneliest solitude. It compels me to speak as though I were two."
For some this is a reductio of Protestantism itself, the empty climax of
that terrible experiment not to recognize any authority outside of one's own
heart. Nietzsche seeks to be "born again" wholly from his own spiritual
resources. He wants to be his own father and mother, the sole author of
himself. He wants to do away with the need for others in his heroic act of
self-creation. Tragically, Nietzsche is so locked up in himself, he is cut
off from the sources of creativity.
Part 7: Nietzsche contra dogma
The phrase "the death of God" is now firmly associated with Nietzsche. Yet
the death of God has historically been understood as a reference to Christ
on the cross, not the advent of unbelief. Nietzsche knew this perfectly
well. He does not claim for his atheism the pristine rationalistic
puritanism that is so widespread amongst the current crop of militant
Nietzsche provides a powerful and imaginative attack
upon faith that does not rely upon pretending that faith is without its
reasons or that atheism is an easy shortcut to a rational solution for all
the world's moral ills. Nietzsche asks religious believers to recognize
their own capacity for atheism and for atheists to face the religious
imperatives even within their own lack of faith:
"'What do I hear!'
the old pope said at this point, pricking up his ears; 'O Zarathustra, you
are more pious than you believe, with such an unbelief! Some god in you has
converted you to your godlessness … although you would be the most godless,
I scent a stealthy odour of holiness and wellbeing that comes from long
benedictions: it fills me with joy and sorrow."
that truth requires first a training in truthfulness. The search for truth
cannot be simply the product of some machine that churns out truths once the
mechanism has been properly set. Nietzsche recalls us to the role of
self-critical honesty in the search for truth. There is no systematic
rationality that can accommodate this.
By Guy Elgat
Tablet, May 2017
Edited by Andy Ross
Nietzsche has had a huge influence in art and philosophy. He has also
inspired a variety of political figures, including Italian fascists, German
Nazis, and US white supremacists. Nietzsche is a problematic and ambiguous
presence in politics.
Nietzsche compared two methods for improving
mankind: the Christian method that employs morality to tame the animal in
man, and the model that attempts to breed a race or type by harsher means.
Nietzsche identifies the latter with Aryan humanity and unfavorably
contrasts it with Christian morality. But he sides with the more violent
method of breeding and hopes a new faction will arise that takes on the task
of breeding humanity to higher levels and exterminating everything
degenerate and parasitical.
Nietzsche was relentless in attacking the
idea of equality and its political manifestations in democratic ideology. He
attacked the notion of human dignity, the idea that all human beings enjoy
equal rights, and the basic idea and value of the moral equality of all. He
took the latter to be a vestige of the Christian idea of the equality of all
souls before God.
Nietzsche understood the concept of race in terms
of the historical and cultural experiences of a people (ein Volk). For him,
race was not fixed but open to the ups and downs of history. So there is no
German essence or Jewish essence.
Nietzsche distinguished three
historical phases of the Jewish race. In the Old Testament phase, the people
of Israel had a natural relation to things and Yahweh expressed their
self-affirmation. In the Second Temple phase, the Jews chose survival at the
price of a radical falsification of nature — the Judaic and Christian
priestly type makes humanity sick, and Christianity is the greatest
corruption conceivable, an immortal blot on humanity. In the third phase,
the diaspora Jews of Europe were for Nietzsche the strongest, toughest, and
purest race living in Europe.
Nietzsche did not advocate racial
segregation. For him, a pure race is not a natural kind but the result of
incorporation of the other. A Nietzschean political philosophy remains an
unstable and unreal notion.
Nietzsche and Truth
By Patrick West
Spiked, April 2017
Michel Foucault said truth
stems from the desire for power and has no eternal objective foundation.
Rhetoric that truth or science are white or male inventions stems from
Foucault. And because Foucault is open in his debt to Friedrich Nietzsche,
he helped make Nietzsche the godfather of postmodernist relativism.
Nietzsche said there are no eternal facts, nor are there any absolute
truths. Yet he also exhorted the values of rigorous reflection, compression,
coldness, plainness, restraint of feeling, and taciturnity. Nietzsche had a
rational, harsh, and demanding philosophy. He believed in truth, constant
experimentation, and argument. Far from being casual about truth, Nietzsche
cared deeply about it.
Walter Kaufmann: "Nietzsche's valuation of
suffering and cruelty was not the consequence of any gory irrationality, but
a corollary of his high esteem of rationality. The powerful man is the
rational man who subjects even his most cherished faith to the severe
scrutiny of reason and is prepared to give up his beliefs if they cannot
stand this stern test. He abandons what he loves most, if rationality
Nietzsche on God and Morality
By Brian Leiter
Times Literary Supplement, June 21, 2018
Edited by Andy Ross
Friedrich Nietzsche is the existentialist who diagnoses the death of God. He sees the collapse of divine teleology as a collapse of its entire moral world view. He concludes that if moral equality is an obstacle to human excellence, then so much the worse for moral equality.
Schopenhauer set the existential issue: how can life, given that it involves continual, senseless suffering, possibly be justified? Schopenhauer offered a nihilistic verdict: we would be better off dead. Nietzsche wanted to affirm life, including all its suffering.
Kant and Plato remain the most frequent philosophical opponents in Nietzsche's writings. He writes aphoristically, polemically, lyrically, and always very personally. He can be funny, sarcastic, rude, scholarly, scathing, often in the same passage. He eschews almost entirely the rationally discursive form of philosophical argumentation.
Under the influence of the materialists and also Schopenhauer, Nietzsche took consciousness and reason to play a rather minor role in what humans do, believe and value. Far more important for him are our unconscious and subconscious instinctive and affective lives. For Nietzsche the psychologist, consciousness is a surface that conceals unconscious drives, and humans are neither free nor morally responsible for their actions.
But Nietzsche's central objection to Judeo-Christian morality is that it is inhospitable to the realization of human excellence. Consider moral views demanding that we eliminate suffering and promote happiness. Nietzsche noticed that suffering, at least in certain individuals (including himself), could be the stimulus to extraordinary creativity. In a culture committed to happiness and the elimination of suffering, nascent geniuses will squander their potential in pursuit of both those aims, rather than in pursuing creative work. Human excellence is compatible with neither the pursuit of happiness nor the flight from suffering.
Nietzsche concludes that a culture that devalues suffering and prioritizes its relief will lose the glorious spectacle of human genius. The animating idea of his response to Schopenhauer was that the existence of the world is justified only as an aesthetic phenomenon that seduces one to a continued life.
Aesthetic experience is a kind of sublimated sexual experience. Life can only be arousing if we continue to enjoy the spectacle of genius. If the excellences of human achievement are not possible in a culture devoted to hedonistic satisfaction and obsessed with eliminating all forms of suffering, then we will have no response to nihilism.