On the Genealogy of Morals

By Friedrich Nietzsche

A commentary by Giles Fraser

Part 1guardian.co.uk, 2008-10-27
Part 2guardian.co.uk, 2008-11-03
Part 3guardian.co.uk, 2008-11-10
Part 4 guardian.co.uk, 2008-11-17
Part 5guardian.co.uk, 2008-11-24
Part 6guardian.co.uk, 2008-12-01
Part 7guardian.co.uk, 2008-12-08

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 it.

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 spirit.

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 salvation itself.

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 divine.'"

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.

Nowhere 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 impulse.

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."

Everything vibrant and life-affirming is redescribed as "bad" so as to undermine the authority of the strong. And with this revolution, Nietzsche contends, humanity degrades itself.

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 language stinks.

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 world.

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.

"The 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 itself.

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.

This 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."

Christian 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.

Nietzsche 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.

Dietrich 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 unbelievers.

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."

Nietzsche insists 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.

Friedrich Nietzsche

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 requires it."

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.

Alamy Stock Photo
Paul Rée, Lou Salomé, Nietzsche

"I Am Dynamite!"

By Kathryn Hughes
The Guardian, November 21, 2018

Edited by Andy Ross

Sue Prideaux opens her biography of Friedrich Nietzsche with a lengthy quotation from a letter he wrote about the day he first met Richard Wagner.

Academic philosophers have watched over the rehabilitation of Nietzsche for nearly a quarter of a century, and these days he is even viewed as a postmodernist visionary. In the last book he wrote before he went mad, he said: "I am not a man, I am dynamite!"

The Nazi bonzes never really claimed Nietzsche as one of their own. Apart from the fact that Nietzsche was neither a socialist nor a nationalist and was opposed to racial thinking, he might indeed have been a leading National Socialist thinker. Hitler: "I can't really do much with Nietzsche .. he is not my guide."

Nietzsche was weird around women. Prideaux retells the story of his infatuation with Cosima Wagner. And then there is Lou Salomé, the wild Russian femme fatale, who for three years lived with Nietzsche and his gay best friend, Paul Rée, in a stormy triangle that involved alpine activities.

Nietzsche's younger sister Elisabeth took her chance to rewrite history. She seized control of her brother's literary estate and spent the next 40 years editing his writings until he started to sound like her, nationalist and racist. The Will to Power consists of fragments she put together later.

The great pleasure of this biography is watching philosophy in the making.