Monday, March 6, 2017
On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche
Straight talk for skeptics
On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, originally published in 1887, is one of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s most important and influential works. Through three interrelated essays, Nietzsche calls into question our most basic values and attempts to reconstruct how the western world’s system of morality arose in the first place. Though many of the ideas advanced in this book were touched upon in earlier works, On the Genealogy of Morals synthesizes and clarifies Nietzsche’s philosophical thought into a well-organized argument.
In the first essay, Nietzsche questions the very meaning and intention of the words “good,” “bad,” and “evil.” He explains that the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” was originally established by the powerful, the wealthy, and the nobility. Anything relating to the aristocracy was deemed good, while those beneath them were bad. This polarity was later inverted by the “meek shall inherit the earth” philosophy of the Judeo-Christian tradition, through which the powerless and downtrodden expressed their resentment toward the powerful by branding them as “evil” in opposition to the “good” of the meek and pious. Nietzsche lays heavy blame on the Jews for originating this “slave revolt” mentality. In this book, his attacks on Judaism are not so much anti-Semitic as anti-theistic. In fact, he lays into the Christians with equal gusto. Here Nietzsche essentially myth-busts the very values which our society holds dear. As such it is unlikely to appeal to the devoutly religious reader. Even atheists may be disturbed by the antidemocratic tenor of his rhetoric, which often comes across as fascistic.
Nietzsche develops his argument further in the second essay on “guilt” and “bad conscience.” These concepts are likewise indoctrinated by the strong onto the weak as a deterrent against individual freedom and rebellion against the state. Nietzsche goes on to analyze the purposes of punishment and to speculate upon the very origin of the idea of God itself. In the third essay, he examines ascetic ideals. Nietzsche sees the glorification of poverty, humility, and chastity by religious clerics as a means of enforcing the inverted “good/evil” dichotomy discussed earlier. He likens asceticism to a widespread illness that weakens mankind. Religion is not the only purveyor of this sickness, however, as Nietzsche goes on to explain how the arts and sciences practice their own forms of self-negation and cynicism.
Nietzsche was not the first philosopher to call into question the validity of good-and-bad or good-and-evil value judgments. The ancient Stoics, among others, denied the existence of good and evil, seeing them as merely relative abstractions. Nietzsche contributes admirably to the discussion by seeking out the origins of these terms and the thought processes that lie behind them. The way he unsentimentally picks apart the most basic values upon which human society is founded, pointing out the motives of self-interest and “will to power” that lie behind them, is provocative and even liberating. Perhaps even more important is the way he states his case. While he clearly revels in slaughtering sacred cows, he does so in an orderly and well-structured manner. Many of Nietzsche’s other books can be serpentine mazes of literary indulgence and disjointed thoughts. While I would hesitate to call this book accessible, because it certainly isn’t always easy to decipher, On the Genealogy of Morals may be the clearest, most logical statement of his philosophy that Nietzsche ever wrote.
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