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3 May 2005
A critique of Friedrich Nietzsche’s ON THE GENEALOGY OF MORALS – A POLEMIC (1887).
I believe most people sense that Nietzsche’s prescriptions for how life should be lived and how society should be organised were wrong, and yet academic philosophers seem to have trouble saying why. I am going to try to explain his big mistake.
Basically I’m going to say that homo sapiens is a cooperating animal like the wolf, dolphin and rat. Humans do not forage, shelter and breed singly; they do it in the teams and tribes that make up society. No co-operating animal can survive alone, and no animal can co-operate if it cannot exercise appropriate self-restraint.
The requirements of co-operation curtail freedom. If we want to co-operate we can’t be free from social constraints, in other words we can’t be free from morality. So Nietzsche’s aristocratic ideal of freedom is impossible. It’s a pipe dream.
I claim that the teams formed by co-operating animals can be considered as quasi-living organisms with minds, moods and motives of their own. Thus we have two quite distinct modes of behaviour: As individual members of teams or groups we behave morally. But those teams themselves are totally amoral. Teams, companies or tribes that are even slightly constrained by morality have a distinct survival disadvantage against those that are not so constrained. When the crunch comes the process of natural selection, which in a co-operating animal is played out at group level, quickly kills off a morally constrained group. I’ll come back to this later.
Nietzsche’s proposals are socially impractical; as a behavioural blueprint for human society they can’t work. In this paper I will try to demonstrate why this has to be so.
The Genealogy is a witty and often hilarious elitist polemic against the under class. It is also a blasphemous outburst against the Christian Church which, according to Nietzsche supports the under class. Surprisingly Nietzsche is not particularly anti-Semitic but to him the Jews are a good example of the meek, humble and gutless underclass.
Much against my expectation I developed a grudging respect for the man. He is an original thinker, honest, often perverse and great fun. But the best thing about him is the originality and pure creativity of his ideas. This book is intensely provocative.
It is interesting to compare Nietzsche to Cervantes whose cockeyed Don Quixote ridicules the aristocratic ideal with a tremendous satirical punch. The Genealogy of Morals is the exact opposite; it launches a cockeyed elitist attack on Christianity and because academia has failed to notice the impracticality of his proposals the world can still feel the aftershocks.
In Don Quixote Cervantes is totally in control of his message at all times. But in the Genealogy Nietzsche never quite gets his tamed; it keeps slipping out of his grasp. Nietzsche’s is of course a more difficult message, and you sense that he doesn’t really care about watertight logic. He seems to hint as much when he calls the book A Polemic.
These words are on the title page but they are not on the cover. This modern editorial omission seems to hint that the academic world wants to take his ideas more seriously than he himself did. Academia recognises that though he asks the right questions his answers are all wrong, and yet they’ve failed to say why.
Whereas sophisticated Cervantes purposely makes Don Quixote into a cartoon figure, naïve Nietzsche really means what he says in this book; he does not use satire or irony. Pretending that the Genealogy is ironic lays it open to fancy interpretations. But this is wrong; there is no hint of irony in the words he wrote.
I believe Hitler made the world take The Genealogy of Morals much more seriously than Nietzsche ever intended.
If there is any message in the comparison between Cervantes and Nietzsche it is that, though extreme positions may be stimulating, they seldom explain human society satisfactorily. Aristotle was right to recommend the middle way between extremes.
There is no need for Christianity, Socialism or Post-Modernism to destroy Nietzsche. Just think ‘co-operation’ and much of The Genealogy of Morals turns out to be nonsense. Nietzsche failed to grasp what Darwin said.
The book is in three parts, called Essays. Each essay is made up of chapters, which are up to three pages long. There are 17 in the First Essay, 25 in the Second, and 28 in the Third. Each chapter is presented as a block; there are no paragraph breaks, so the reader is invited to swallow each chapter whole, or to read it without mentally drawing breath. When you have got used to this you gradually realise that the book has a very distinct rhythm; almost like a musical symphony. Nietzsche’s rhythm, which comes at you like waves crashing on rocks, intersperses calmer explanatory chapters with wonderful explosions of polemic. The tempo rises in this way to a crescendo at the end of each essay.
First Essay: ‘Good and Evil’, ‘Good and Bad’
Nietzsche says in his preface that since childhood he was fascinated by the idea of morality, and that at the age of thirteen he decided God is the father of evil. Reading on, I kept remembering this unusual remark, until I finally realised that here was a boy who learnt at an early age about how much can be gained by turning common sense on its head and then examining what you’ve got. Nietzsche’s trick, like lateral thinking, was to search out unconventional angles from which to crack problems. This is a device he uses almost instinctively throughout the book. It seems almost an inbuilt childhood habit, which he never grew out of, like biting his fingernails.
‘God the father of evil’ is a good example of this device. And this is not satire or irony; it’s lateral thinking. It’s the offer of a new platform from which to look at a problem.
His first idea is that city man has replaced chivalry as the code of behaviour. The new code is morality. No precise timescale is offered but the supposedly uninhibited feudal communities of the German Iron Age, maybe 1,500 years (75 generations) ago – Huns, Celts and Goths - were not, according to naive Nietzsche, weighed down by morals. He is quite wrong of course.
The First Essay starts the search for the origin of morality by going into the derivations of words. And specifically BAD and EVIL. In the original aristocratic concept ‘good’ was to do with health, strength and will, and ‘bad’ with weakness and illness.
In chapter 11, he flashes up ‘bad’ and ‘evil’ as the modern pair of opposites. ‘Bad’ now applies to nobility when it is being naughty like an exuberant child, and is almost excusable. But the concept of ‘evil’ applies to hatred as articulated or expressed by the slave mentality. In this analysis he implies that he is writing about individual morality, but it becomes clear that he’s talking about group behaviour.
Like many before him Nietzsche mixes up individual and group behaviour. My thesis is that these are very different, and must be carefully separated: for example in his blond beast.
His infamous creation, the blond German beast from the age of the knight-aristocrats, is a woolly concept. It only makes sense when interpreted as referring to group behaviour. His blond beast in this essay is a gang or group, not an individual.
This is clearly stated in chapter 11 where he discusses German Feudal Society:
These same men behave towards the outside world – where the foreign, the foreigners, are to be found – in a manner not much better than predators on the rampage. There they enjoy freedom from all social constraint… They regress to the innocence of the predator’s conscience, as rejoicing monsters, capable of high spirits they walk away without qualms from a horrific succession of murder, arson, violence and torture as if it were nothing more than a student prank… There is no mistaking the predator beneath the surface of all these noble races, the magnificent blond beast roaming lecherously in search of booty and victory…
So clearly this beast is a group, team or gang. Not an individual.
Then with the onset of civilization along came the priestly caste, who brought about a ‘slave revolt in morals’ on behalf of the down-trodden of society. This turned ideas on their heads so that the low-life was designated as ‘good’ and the strong, aristocratic elite as ‘evil’.
Second Essay: ‘Guilt’, ‘Bad Conscience’, and Related Matters
Nietzsche says that the ability to remember is what distinguishes man from animals, and that the self-disciplined capacity to promise is what distinguishes the aristocrat from the slave.
But the problem now is that memory also introduces the possibility of broken promises, and this leads to ‘bad conscience’ ‘guilt’ and punishment.
‘Bad conscience’ is an introspective force; it results from repressing active instincts and generates guilt. The word guilt in German derives from debt, and leads Nietzsche on through enforcement to the barbarism of medieval punishments including branding and amputation. These engender remorse and revenge in the lower classes.
Nietzsche goes on to modern commerce and economics, and proceeds from there to the small-minded and resentful workings of communities. These he says, restrict man’s true, free and aristocratic nature. Guilt according to Nietzsche is the agent of man’s degeneration.
Through the invention of a Christian God, Nietzsche says man has turned this guilt back on himself in an act of self-torture. He explains what he means by self-torture in chapter 16:
Those fearful bulwarks by means of which the state protected its self [against aristocratic self expression] caused all the instincts of the wild, free, nomadic man to turn backwards against man himself… Such is the origin of ‘bad conscience’… This (is like an) animal which is to be ‘tamed’, which rubs himself raw on the bars of his cage.
Nietzsche wants freedom from all the self-restraining rules. In chapter 20 he sweepingly refers to them as guilt. But of course what he is really talking about are the natural and necessary rules that govern society; rules like obligation, obedience, duty, fairness, equality, indebtedness, sharing of advantage, self-denial, and loyalty
These are the very rules that make cooperation possible. If Nietzsche were granted this wish, mankind would quickly perish because in doing away with these rules we would lose the ability to cooperate.
Anyway according to Nietzsche all civilization is the product of economically sanctioned violence. He claims it is the threat of this ruthless force that underpins the social institutions of justice, religion and the state.
He ends the Second Essay with the wish to discredit bad conscience (the self torturing guilt-trap which society has become tangled in). He invokes a great saviour to do this; a superman.
Chapter 24 ends:
This man of the future… This Antichristian and Antinihilist, this conqueror of God and of nothingness – he must come one day.
Third Essay: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?
Nietzsche hates the ascetic ideal. According to him it is a construct of the priestly caste, and will lead us down the slippery road to nihilism.
This Essay starts with a quotation from one of his own earlier books about the aphrodisiac of violence which lies deep in the feminine side of the human psyche. This thought seems to support Nietzsche’s knightly aristocratic ideal of the ‘will to power’, and the attainment of wisdom through violence. Disappointingly he doesn’t develop it, almost certainly because ‘that way nonsense lies’.
Instead this Essay studies ascetic ideals in Wagner, Kant, Schopenhauer and Stendhal. He abhors the hair shirt; the ascetic abstinence and self-denial of Christianity. He tries as many angles as he can think of in order to understand the origin and purpose of this awful ascetic ideal.
These angles include History (chapters 9, 26), Science (23, 24, 25), Art (5, 6,), Co-operation (18), Philosophy (7, 8, 10) Genealogy and Literature (2, 4). They are fascinating in themselves but they don’t give him any answers. Most of these disciplines are rubbished with wonderful, scornful wit.
But Nietzsche reserves his most piercing invective for the Christian church. He quietly abandons the wider search for the genealogy of morals in order to concentrate narrowly on Christian morals and their purveyor, the priestly caste (11, 12-17).
His argument is that the pathetic lower orders are trapped in a cage and the priestly caste with the use of ‘original sin’ and ‘guilt’ helps them to turn their ‘will to power’ in on themselves (15, 20).
In this way Nietzsche explains Christian morals as a sick distortion of nature. In the same stroke, like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he confirms the existence of the ‘will to power’ in all people by claiming that what the priestly caste has achieved is the turning of this force introspectively back in on the slave mentality. So even the slave mentality prefers to will nothingness, which is something, (nihilism is the ultimate destination of this process) than not to will at all.
At the end of the Essay Nietzsche contemplates the meaning of life. He thus claims to demonstrate that both in the predatory animal of aristocratic mentality and in the caged animal of slave mentality the meaning of life lies in the ‘will to power’.
Much of this of course is highly dubious, but there is just enough truth in what he says - he does ask the right questions - so that along with his forceful style, his marvellous invective and his challenging intellect, he keeps you highly entertained and forces you to think.
But my final thought is that if you go along with Nietzsche then you too, like members of his underclass, will go along with anything. But of course if the current is strong enough, we are all swept along by powerful social movements; popes, philosophers and prime ministers alike.
Polemics, as I have said are the essence of this book but modern scholars, being unable to put a finger on where he goes wrong are forced to take Nietzsche too seriously. To admit that he’s really having a wild psychotic rant weakens their scholarly arguments; it shows them to be tilting at windmills. So I’ll highlight some of the polemical fireworks, which make this book so entertaining. In his First Essay (chapters 11, 12), he expresses a farcical hatred for humanity:
What causes our revulsion from ‘man’ today?- for we suffer from man, there is no doubt. – Not fear; but rather the fact that we no longer have anything to fear from man; that ‘man’ squirms like a worm before us; that the ‘tame man’, the irredeemably mediocre and unedifying man has already learnt to regard himself as goal and destination, as the meaning of history, as the ‘higher man’…
This isn’t the logical persuasion of the philosopher; it is maximum polemical provocation. Nietzsche will have known perfectly well that more reasoned language is necessary: first of all if he wants to think it through properly himself, and secondly if he wants to convince others.
Then there’s his convoluted ‘Jewish revenge’ argument, put forward in the first essay, chapter 8. It’s not that he hates the Jews themselves, he is not specifically anti-Semitic, but along with Christianity, the Jews are a sitting target; they personify the slave mentality, which is destroying mankind. He returns to this theme with a crescendo of invective at the end of the Second Essay.
The idea, which is a prime example of Nietzsche’s cockeyed polemics, is that Jesus was put forward by the Jews as a bait. He announced the dissolution of Israel, so the Jews were obliged to kill him.
Would it be possible, with the most refined ingenuity, to devise a more dangerous bait? To devise something which could even approach the seductive, intoxicating, anaesthetising and corrupting power of the symbol of the ‘Holy Cross’, that horrific paradox of the ‘crucified God’, that mystery of an inconceivably ultimate, most extreme cruelty, and self-crucifixion undertaken for the salvation of mankind?… It is certain at least that under this symbol Israel’s revenge and trans-valuation of all values has so far continued to triumph over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals.
In other words by devising the Crucifixion as a sort of Trojan horse, the Jews planted Christianity. This, their own child, then grew up to be the new agent for repressing humanity.
Jewish revenge then becomes the theme of the great crescendo, which ends the Second Essay. It’s a tremendous rant against the invention of God as man’s formula for self-punishment in the name of original sin and guilt.
The crescendo starts with a calmer, and somewhat irrelevant, passage (chapter 2 / 23) about the Greek Gods. This soothes the reader in preparation for the final explosion of polemics in chapter 2 / 24. All hell breaks loose. Nietzsche wants a saviour who is strong enough to reverse the advance of the slave mentality; a new Napoleon perhaps, someone with great health strengthened through wars and victories.
This man of the future, who will redeem us as much from the previous ideal as from what was bound to grow out of it, from the great disgust, from the will to nothingness, from nihilism, this midday stroke of the bell, this toll of great decision, which once again liberates the will, which once again gives the earth its goal and man his hope, this Antichristian and Antinihilist, this conqueror of God and of nothingness – he must come one day…
And amazingly he does. Two years after the publication of the Genealogy in 1887 a superman is born. It’s Hitler. But crucially Hitler did not follow Nietzsche’s principle of freedom. He merely used it to establish dictatorship. Crucially he did not allow his courtiers freedom from the social constraints of morality. Quite the reverse in fact.
Hitler adopts a warped version of the ‘will to power’ message, he persecutes the Jews, he goes to war, blunders by opening up a second front against Russia, England stands firm, the allies beat him, his genocide is revealed, the Nazi message is massively condemned and Nietzsche is disgraced.
So the reader can’t help noticing that this time it’s Hitler who is the dangerous bait put forward by the self-crucifying Jews. They put Hitler forward. He tries to exterminate them and fails. Nietzsche is disgraced and the Jews become untouchable. He thus ends up zapped by his own cockeyed metaphor - destroyed by his imaginary Jewish revenge.
But Nietzsche would be the first to recognise that the predatory animal of aristocratic morality lives by the sword and dies by the sword. I’m sure his ghost is delighted by the fuss this book has caused, and readily accepts that if you create polarised polemics and blasphemous metaphors, you too can be destroyed by them. There are many more examples of Nietzsche’s marvellously challenging, cockeyed polemics. Here are a few:
In the Second Essay (chapters 19, 20), he goes ballistic on ‘guilt’ and bad conscience, which according to him, are born of repression; In the Third Essay (chapter 13), man is spiralling down into nothingness encouraged by the ascetic priest. Chapter 14 is a rant, which shamelessly echoes Dante’s Inferno, against downtrodden humanity.
Here the worms of vindictive feeling and reaction squirm, here the air stinks of things kept secret and unacknowledged; here the net of malicious conspiracy is continually spun – the conspiracy of the suffering against the well-constituted and the victorious, here the sight of the victor is the object of hatred.’
This again is hardly the carefully reasoned prose of the philosopher; it is, as he himself says; polemic.
Apart from criticizing Nietzsche for borrowing Dante’s language without admitting it. I also notice that in the Second Essay (chapter 23) where Nietzsche refers to ancient Greece, he chooses to talk about the Greek Gods, but that they have little relevance to his theme. However the pre-Socratic Greek Sophists, with their philosophies about the selectiveness and the flexibility of morality, do massively support his anti-Christian theme. Yet he chooses to ignore this excellent support for his genealogy of morals. So one must presume that he is using the Greek Gods as a smokescreen to divert our attention from the embarrassing fact that the Sophists got there long ago. Nietzsche’s ideas are not all that new.
In the Third Essay (chapter 20), he summarises his criticism of Christianity. He has been going on about guilt being not a thing in its own right but rather an interpretation of a feeling.
Only in the hands of the priest, this real artist in guilty feelings, did it take form – oh what a form! ‘Sin’, for such is the priestly name given to the reinterpretation of animal ‘bad conscience’ (cruelty turned inwards against its self) – has been the greatest event so far in the history of the sick soul; it represents the most dangerous trick of religious interpretation.
So the ferocity he uses is unbalanced and the book is indeed a polemic. In the Third Essay (chapter 21), he says Christian morality is more harmful even than alcohol and syphilis.
Nietzsche’s philosophical method is to polarise opposing principles, turn common sense on its head and then pour invective and scorn into the mix. His writing style is ‘in your face’, provocative and vehement. His content is unconventional, iconoclastic and upside-down and lateral (in thinking). With this glittering set of tools he has set academia in a whirl.
Modern philosophers tend to read all sorts of meanings and interpretations into his enigmatic text. Nietzsche has become a sort of philosophers’ trampoline into whom academics read their own agendas. But his introduction of ‘God the father of evil’ at the very beginning of this book should warn us against this tendency; it says he is going to see how far he can get by turning ideas on their heads.
Nietzsche did not put forward any new or helpful ideas for society, quite the reverse in fact. His importance is in the methods he used, which unearthed many of the right questions but not in his philosophy, which produced no useful answers.
As I have said there is no irony or satire in this book. Nietzsche does not invite us to read between the lines. He has no hidden agenda. What he says is what he means; he’s not joking or talking in riddles like Cervantes. What he’s doing is turning convention on its head and examining what he then finds. We too are invited to look over his shoulder and see what we can find for ourselves. But we cannot then claim that he supports our theory. In other words he is not an important philosopher as many modern academics claim. In doing so they are merely claiming legitimacy for their own ideas.
To say that Nietzsche is an important philosopher because you can (wrongly) read your own theory into his words is really saying that you yourself are an important philosopher. When an academic praises Nietzsche it is usually disguised showing off.
I prefer Aristotle’s more balanced approach, which aims for the middle ground, never losing sight of already established science and using simple, easily intelligible reasoning.
The meaning of life
When we were teenagers getting to grips with society, we often asked ourselves, ‘What life style should I follow?’ or ‘How should I live my life?’ This opened up subsidiary questions about things like Truth, Being, Consciousness, and Morality. One of these is ‘How should society be organised?’ We learned that to answer these questions we first needed to work out, ‘What actually is the meaning of life?’
Nietzsche is not the only philosopher to go on about the meaning of life, but why should life have a meaning at all? In my opinion it’s a trick question. I’m convinced life has no meaning, and I think this idea is one of the greatest examples of human hubris.
Life has a forward drive. It has a drive to survive and reproduce. Nietzsche’s ‘will to power’ is an aspect of this drive. But human life does not have any hidden or superior meaning.
Nietzsche himself implies that life should be lived on the edge, like James Bond or Alexander the Great; in an existential whirl of aristocratic freedom; especially freedom from petty social constraints. But he himself offered no practical solutions about how society should be organised. The solutions prescribed by his followers Hitler and Mussolini were disastrous.
On the other hand if, instead of using Nietzsche’s aristocratic principle, you base your social prescriptions on the obvious fact that homo sapiens is one of the cooperating animals like the dolphin, then an integrated set of explanations about morality and human behaviour does fall neatly into place. These deal with legal constitutions, politics, the law, the media, multi-national corporations, terrorism, bullying, education and business management.
This starting point; that we survive and prosper by cooperating, also produces a reasonable answer to the question of ‘the meaning of life’. It says life has no meaning, only a purpose. This purpose is to survive and prosper. To feed, shelter and reproduce.
And that’s it. That’s all there is - except for one further twist. Co-operators achieve this in teams and tribes, not singly. So the fulfilled life, the best lifestyle for the teenage boy or girl lies in contributing as well as possible to the best team or tribe that will accept them.
The right questions but the wrong answers
I opened the Genealogy with preconceived ideas about Nietzsche; about the distastefulness of his arrogant, elitist ‘will to power’ and related concepts, which were co-opted in support of Nazism and genocide. So I was quite unprepared for what he has to say.
The book is a glorious, often hilarious polemic against do-gooding. And, let’s face it, don’t thin-lipped, gimlet-eyed do-gooders drive us all mad occasionally. If Nietzsche were alive today, steam would come whistling out of his navel at the thought of Political Correctness. And we would all be greatly entertained.
I was surprised to find that the concept of a ‘will to power’ is secondary to his ruthless dismembering of the Christian church. The book starts out to analyse morality; first through etymology and then history, but it soon concentrates on purely Christian morality. It thus becomes a merciless criticism of the priestly caste and their inhuman concepts of original sin and guilt.
I agree with much of what Nietzsche rants against. I also agree with his ‘will to power’, but only if it is interpreted as the basic drive that motivates all life forms.
Without the ‘will to power’ natural selection couldn’t work. This applies to all animals.
But homo sapiens is a co-operating animal which must combine in teams and tribes to survive and reproduce. Being co-operators, it is better for the future of a human individual’s genes to be an average member of the fittest tribe than the fittest member of an average tribe. So the ‘will to power’ or the process of natural selection is carried out by teams rather than by individuals. For this Co-operating vertebrates have, I believe, evolved a genetically inherited language-like propensity for rules of self-restraint. This self-restraint enables individual team members to co-operate. But, biologically speaking, our teams and tribes themselves must be amoral; meaning ‘free’ from these rules.
Thus Nietzsche’s concept of the blond beast only really makes sense when you visualise this beast as a working group: a gang for example, or business corporation or political party, not an individual. In a solitary animal like a tiger, frog or rhinoceros the blond beast with the ‘will to power’ has to be the autonomous individual, but in a co-operator it has to be the group.
Nietzsche commands attention because he put his finger on many paradoxes, which the Christianity and the philosophy of his day could not answer. These paradoxes included:
The flexibility and selectivity of morality – as the Greek Sophists said it’s not an absolute.
The corruptibility of the Christian Church
The gullibility of the proletariat
The universality of motivation - his blond beast
And the amorality of foreign policy 1/11. This is Machiavelli’s message
But sadly he himself produced no practical proposals, and the Fascism that developed after his death had no restraining mechanisms against the natural amorality of group behaviour. Fascism was not fitted with any checks and balances; it quickly degenerated into dictatorship. Without any brakes it naturally ran wild. That’s why I say he asked the right questions but gave the wrong answers.
Western philosophy has led us badly astray in encouraging the belief that morality is the same as goodness. It most certainly is not. That’s a huge mistake, a colossal, error. The Nazis had a strong moral code, but they cannot be said to have been good. The same goes for the Aztecs. Morality is simply the language of co-operation. It is local, flexible and selective. Nietzsche was groping for this answer, and with his originality and inventiveness he must have been close. But his ideals were steeped in the German Romantic tradition, and so he diverted himself with impossible dreams of individual ‘freedom’, and with the desire to discredit the Christian Church.
This is a corrupting, but entertaining book, which had a huge impact on society. It marvellously illustrates the saying that the ‘Devil has all the best tunes’. Academics have had difficulty destroying Nietzsche’s philosophy. Some invented Relativism and Post Modernism, others revived Existentialism and Utilitarianism. But compared to Nietzsche these have had little impact on the man in the street, and that after all is the ultimate test of any philosophy.
Homo sapiens is a co-operating animal like the dolphin, wolf and ant. Co-operation curtails individual freedom. But Nietzsche’s understanding of morality and his prescriptions for society completely ignore this simple fact. Like making the sign of the cross to ward off witches; all you need to do is think ‘co-operation’ and Nietzsche’s philosophy of aristocratic freedom collapses in a heap.