Alfie Gallagher 🔖 I stumbled across Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals this summer, which I suppose is the bibliophilic equivalent of a boorish backpacker saying he stumbled across Ayers Rock on his holidays. 


It is nonetheless true though. I had read Rob Doyle’s audacious debut novel Here are the Young Men a few months ago; later, I began to dip into his Autobibliography, Doyle’s inimitable guide to the fifty books which shaped him. It was there I stumbled across Nietzsche’s Genealogy, or to be more accurate, I was left stumbling by Doyle’s gleeful description of a philosophical treatise that was also “among the greatest horror novels ever written.” Though I was both a philosophy and Nietzsche novice, I was hooked. I knew what I’d be reading next.

Arguably, my error was not in thinking that I could read Genealogy without any previous knowledge of Nietzsche, but in attempting to review the book from such an impoverished standpoint. What follows is a fledgling effort to understand and evaluate a fraction of Nietzsche’s sometimes dizzyingly dialectical if not downright contradictory thought. This review may well be supremely stupid, like taking a walk across a tsunami, but Genealogy proved far too beguiling a subject on which to remain silent. Indeed, without writing, it seems impossible to make sense of Genealogy at all! Thus, into the tempest I must step, even if I end up drowning in its intoxicating waters.

Genealogy is divided into three essays, each one a different prong of Nietzsche’s assault on morality and its evolution. In the first, Nietzsche upturns our understandings of good, bad, and evil. Employing etymological arguments as evidence, he contends that in ancient times, “good” was simply how the ruling warrior class – the “masters” – saw themselves. Hence “good” meant strong, noble, virile. The master class then named as “bad” all that was unlike and indeed beneath them – the poor, the weak, the “slaves”. Yet somehow this underclass achieved a covert, cognitive “slaves’ revolt”, reversing the entire aristocratic moral order and converting the masters to their own slave morality. 

Driven by the cunning of the weak and their vicious hatred of the strong, then stoked and harnessed by the priestly castes, this moral revolution culminated in Judeo-Christianity. The crucifixion of Christ was its ultimate paradox: God orchestrating his own torture and murder by man in order to redeem mankind. For Nietzsche, this enthralling idea was like a Darwinian meme. It spread across the Western world, infecting noble minds with the slave morality and leaving priests everywhere ascendant. In the slave moral system, “bad” is equated with “evil”, which refers to all the previously “good” qualities of the nobility: the rich, the powerful, and the strong are now the “evil enemies”. In a further reversal of aristocratic moral procedures, “good” is defined in contradistinction to what is evil rather than the other way around. To be good is therefore to be poor, impotent, weak, to be a slave. Worse still, Nietzsche caustically dismisses modern secular moral systems as mere godless offspring of Christian morality. Democrats and socialists, it seems, are merely the latest priestly caste, preaching the same resentful slave gospel of the many, not the few.

In the second part of Genealogy, Nietzsche contends that the process of civilisation and Christianisation, the “taming” of man to keep promises and obey the law, has robbed man of external outlets for his primordial animal instincts to delight in inflicting violence and cruelty. Thus, man turns inwards and lacerates himself for possessing these uncivilised instincts in the first place. It is in this internal mental torture chamber that man fashions the psychosurgical tools of guilt and bad conscience with which to perform vivisection of his own soul. It seems to Nietzsche that the animal ego’s one remaining pleasure in a civilised world is self-torture, when the beast may “beat itself against the bars of its cage”. Moreover, it is only this pleasure, “only the will for self-abuse, that provides the necessary conditions for the existence of altruism as a value.”

The final essay argues that the value of ascetic ideals is that they provide man with a meaning for his suffering. With Christianity, guilt became a feeling of indebtedness to God that could never possibly be paid back. Hence ascetic ideals, in the cunning hands of the priest, became the tools with which man makes sense of pain – paradoxically by inflicting even more of it on himself, by turning against life itself, by eventually longing for nothing but oblivion. Nietzsche further argues that the core desire at the heart of asceticism in general and in Christian morality in particular is an “irresistible demand for truth” and that Christianity therefore contains the seed of its own destruction. With typical élan, Nietzsche proclaims that “unconditional, honest atheism … is the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two millennia of discipline in truth, which in the end forbids itself the lie implicit in the belief in God.” Atheistic philosophies and the practice of science are thus the natural, logical consequences of:

Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness taken ever more seriously … the confessor-subtly of the Christian conscience translated and sublimated into the scientific conscience, into intellectual integrity, at any price.

Astonishingly, Nietzsche appears to believe that this fanatical fixation with truth will ultimately destroy morality when the value of this desire for truth itself comes under scrutiny.

Nietzsche writes with such style and such enthusiasm on such peculiar preoccupations that there is always the temptation to eschew analysis and simply luxuriate in the heady elixir of his prose. This is particularly true when he is revelling in primordial festivals of cruelty, skewering the hypocritical vindictiveness of St Thomas Aquinas, and lambasting the meekness of us “domestic animals” – modern men. Even when sobriety prevails, the complexity of Genealogy militates against concise synopsis and critique. In the strands of arguments which I’ve outlined above, however, I find as much that is intriguing as is (seemingly) contradictory. Perhaps the main reason is that, apart from occasional references to etymological and anthropological research, Nietzsche grounds his theses on his own idiosyncratic assumptions about the evolution of human psychology.

Nietzsche clearly thinks that the potent, instinctive master morality of the “blond beasts of prey” is conducive to human flourishing, that “it is right to connect the well-being and the future of the human race with the absolute supremacy of aristocratic values”. Conversely, the slavish morality of the herd is “hostile to life” and will inevitably lead to man’s “regression and decline”. But Genealogy purports to be an evolutionary account of morality, so how is it that the latter unfit system of values not only supplants the former superior system but then thrives in its place? And is the “master race” all that masterly if its own morality proves so vulnerable to that of mere slaves? Indeed, with their potent cunning and resentment, don’t the lower classes possess strengths superior to anything the masters can muster? Nietzsche himself appears to acknowledge the inadequacy of the old nobility when he refers to emergence of priests as the moment when “man really becomes for the first time an interesting animal”.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche anticipates the eventual emergence of a superior kind of man who will “connect ‘bad conscience with all those unnatural inclinations … contrary to sense, instinct, nature and animal existence” and presumably bring about the destruction of morality that Nietzsche discusses towards the end of Genealogy. But since Nietzsche argues that our “fundamental … ancient, strong and human, all-to-human” instinct is to take “supreme pleasure” in the infliction of suffering on others, it is difficult to be in any way enthusiastic about the re-emancipation of man’s animal ego, never mind finding in it anything socially beneficial. It is more difficult still to accept that bad conscience is wholly deleterious for humanity if at the very least it “taught animal ‘man’ to be ashamed of all of his instincts” for “enmity, cruelty, the delight in persecution, in attack, destruction, pillage”. In the end, though Nietzsche himself rejects them, staid evolutionary accounts of the development of morals on the basis of their utility do seem far more plausible than the theses of Genealogy, however extraordinary and exhilarating the latter may be.

At the close of this review, I am uncertain of its worth. Perhaps it is possible for a novice to produce an incisive critique of On the Genealogy of Morals, but perhaps I am not that novice. I hadn’t written anything in three years before embarking on this review, and my confidence in my ability to write anything of substance was at its nadir. Paradoxically, it was the seeming impossibility of my tackling Genealogy that spurred me to write and to persist in the writing, especially when I felt utterly disorientated by the vertiginous waves of Nietzsche’s potent prose. For me, to write is to embrace uncertainty, to accept the probability of failure, and to take an unmerciful beating from myself. There is, though, an undeniable pleasure in my struggles with syntax and my desperate clawing for coherent thought. In writing at least, I am thus far more Nietzschean than I would care to admit. Indeed, I find myself returning inevitably to that monstrous leitmotif – the caged beast who delights in bashing himself against the bars.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 2013, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. Penguin Classics. ISBN-13: 978-0141195377

Alfie Gallagher is a Sligo based blogger who can be found @ Left From The West.

A Nietzsche Novice

Alfie Gallagher 🔖 I stumbled across Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals this summer, which I suppose is the bibliophilic equivalent of a boorish backpacker saying he stumbled across Ayers Rock on his holidays. 


It is nonetheless true though. I had read Rob Doyle’s audacious debut novel Here are the Young Men a few months ago; later, I began to dip into his Autobibliography, Doyle’s inimitable guide to the fifty books which shaped him. It was there I stumbled across Nietzsche’s Genealogy, or to be more accurate, I was left stumbling by Doyle’s gleeful description of a philosophical treatise that was also “among the greatest horror novels ever written.” Though I was both a philosophy and Nietzsche novice, I was hooked. I knew what I’d be reading next.

Arguably, my error was not in thinking that I could read Genealogy without any previous knowledge of Nietzsche, but in attempting to review the book from such an impoverished standpoint. What follows is a fledgling effort to understand and evaluate a fraction of Nietzsche’s sometimes dizzyingly dialectical if not downright contradictory thought. This review may well be supremely stupid, like taking a walk across a tsunami, but Genealogy proved far too beguiling a subject on which to remain silent. Indeed, without writing, it seems impossible to make sense of Genealogy at all! Thus, into the tempest I must step, even if I end up drowning in its intoxicating waters.

Genealogy is divided into three essays, each one a different prong of Nietzsche’s assault on morality and its evolution. In the first, Nietzsche upturns our understandings of good, bad, and evil. Employing etymological arguments as evidence, he contends that in ancient times, “good” was simply how the ruling warrior class – the “masters” – saw themselves. Hence “good” meant strong, noble, virile. The master class then named as “bad” all that was unlike and indeed beneath them – the poor, the weak, the “slaves”. Yet somehow this underclass achieved a covert, cognitive “slaves’ revolt”, reversing the entire aristocratic moral order and converting the masters to their own slave morality. 

Driven by the cunning of the weak and their vicious hatred of the strong, then stoked and harnessed by the priestly castes, this moral revolution culminated in Judeo-Christianity. The crucifixion of Christ was its ultimate paradox: God orchestrating his own torture and murder by man in order to redeem mankind. For Nietzsche, this enthralling idea was like a Darwinian meme. It spread across the Western world, infecting noble minds with the slave morality and leaving priests everywhere ascendant. In the slave moral system, “bad” is equated with “evil”, which refers to all the previously “good” qualities of the nobility: the rich, the powerful, and the strong are now the “evil enemies”. In a further reversal of aristocratic moral procedures, “good” is defined in contradistinction to what is evil rather than the other way around. To be good is therefore to be poor, impotent, weak, to be a slave. Worse still, Nietzsche caustically dismisses modern secular moral systems as mere godless offspring of Christian morality. Democrats and socialists, it seems, are merely the latest priestly caste, preaching the same resentful slave gospel of the many, not the few.

In the second part of Genealogy, Nietzsche contends that the process of civilisation and Christianisation, the “taming” of man to keep promises and obey the law, has robbed man of external outlets for his primordial animal instincts to delight in inflicting violence and cruelty. Thus, man turns inwards and lacerates himself for possessing these uncivilised instincts in the first place. It is in this internal mental torture chamber that man fashions the psychosurgical tools of guilt and bad conscience with which to perform vivisection of his own soul. It seems to Nietzsche that the animal ego’s one remaining pleasure in a civilised world is self-torture, when the beast may “beat itself against the bars of its cage”. Moreover, it is only this pleasure, “only the will for self-abuse, that provides the necessary conditions for the existence of altruism as a value.”

The final essay argues that the value of ascetic ideals is that they provide man with a meaning for his suffering. With Christianity, guilt became a feeling of indebtedness to God that could never possibly be paid back. Hence ascetic ideals, in the cunning hands of the priest, became the tools with which man makes sense of pain – paradoxically by inflicting even more of it on himself, by turning against life itself, by eventually longing for nothing but oblivion. Nietzsche further argues that the core desire at the heart of asceticism in general and in Christian morality in particular is an “irresistible demand for truth” and that Christianity therefore contains the seed of its own destruction. With typical élan, Nietzsche proclaims that “unconditional, honest atheism … is the awe-inspiring catastrophe of two millennia of discipline in truth, which in the end forbids itself the lie implicit in the belief in God.” Atheistic philosophies and the practice of science are thus the natural, logical consequences of:

Christian morality itself, the concept of truthfulness taken ever more seriously … the confessor-subtly of the Christian conscience translated and sublimated into the scientific conscience, into intellectual integrity, at any price.

Astonishingly, Nietzsche appears to believe that this fanatical fixation with truth will ultimately destroy morality when the value of this desire for truth itself comes under scrutiny.

Nietzsche writes with such style and such enthusiasm on such peculiar preoccupations that there is always the temptation to eschew analysis and simply luxuriate in the heady elixir of his prose. This is particularly true when he is revelling in primordial festivals of cruelty, skewering the hypocritical vindictiveness of St Thomas Aquinas, and lambasting the meekness of us “domestic animals” – modern men. Even when sobriety prevails, the complexity of Genealogy militates against concise synopsis and critique. In the strands of arguments which I’ve outlined above, however, I find as much that is intriguing as is (seemingly) contradictory. Perhaps the main reason is that, apart from occasional references to etymological and anthropological research, Nietzsche grounds his theses on his own idiosyncratic assumptions about the evolution of human psychology.

Nietzsche clearly thinks that the potent, instinctive master morality of the “blond beasts of prey” is conducive to human flourishing, that “it is right to connect the well-being and the future of the human race with the absolute supremacy of aristocratic values”. Conversely, the slavish morality of the herd is “hostile to life” and will inevitably lead to man’s “regression and decline”. But Genealogy purports to be an evolutionary account of morality, so how is it that the latter unfit system of values not only supplants the former superior system but then thrives in its place? And is the “master race” all that masterly if its own morality proves so vulnerable to that of mere slaves? Indeed, with their potent cunning and resentment, don’t the lower classes possess strengths superior to anything the masters can muster? Nietzsche himself appears to acknowledge the inadequacy of the old nobility when he refers to emergence of priests as the moment when “man really becomes for the first time an interesting animal”.

Nevertheless, Nietzsche anticipates the eventual emergence of a superior kind of man who will “connect ‘bad conscience with all those unnatural inclinations … contrary to sense, instinct, nature and animal existence” and presumably bring about the destruction of morality that Nietzsche discusses towards the end of Genealogy. But since Nietzsche argues that our “fundamental … ancient, strong and human, all-to-human” instinct is to take “supreme pleasure” in the infliction of suffering on others, it is difficult to be in any way enthusiastic about the re-emancipation of man’s animal ego, never mind finding in it anything socially beneficial. It is more difficult still to accept that bad conscience is wholly deleterious for humanity if at the very least it “taught animal ‘man’ to be ashamed of all of his instincts” for “enmity, cruelty, the delight in persecution, in attack, destruction, pillage”. In the end, though Nietzsche himself rejects them, staid evolutionary accounts of the development of morals on the basis of their utility do seem far more plausible than the theses of Genealogy, however extraordinary and exhilarating the latter may be.

At the close of this review, I am uncertain of its worth. Perhaps it is possible for a novice to produce an incisive critique of On the Genealogy of Morals, but perhaps I am not that novice. I hadn’t written anything in three years before embarking on this review, and my confidence in my ability to write anything of substance was at its nadir. Paradoxically, it was the seeming impossibility of my tackling Genealogy that spurred me to write and to persist in the writing, especially when I felt utterly disorientated by the vertiginous waves of Nietzsche’s potent prose. For me, to write is to embrace uncertainty, to accept the probability of failure, and to take an unmerciful beating from myself. There is, though, an undeniable pleasure in my struggles with syntax and my desperate clawing for coherent thought. In writing at least, I am thus far more Nietzschean than I would care to admit. Indeed, I find myself returning inevitably to that monstrous leitmotif – the caged beast who delights in bashing himself against the bars.

Friedrich Nietzsche, 2013, On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. Penguin Classics. ISBN-13: 978-0141195377

Alfie Gallagher is a Sligo based blogger who can be found @ Left From The West.

5 comments:

  1. The author has risen from the dead.
    Not after three days, but after three years.
    Welcome back Alfie. Friedrich be praised!

    "God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?"
    Ref: Gott ist tot

    People are best advised, resist festivals of atonement and cut back by the tiniest of the tiniest little bit on pleasuring themselves by bashing themselves on the bars of their cages.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Alfie - a great piece of writing. I read it while formatting it and want to go back in and give it a closer read. So good to see you writing again. All the type of stuff we have discussed over whiskey into the small hours!!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Don’t know much about Nietzsche, so I found this piece extremely illuminating. Thanks, Alfie.

    Easy to identify with the idea that ‘to write is to embrace uncertainty’, which is what I’m doing in referring to the one point in the piece that I’m not sure I agree with (or perhaps don’t understand properly):

    ‘[T]he slavish morality of the herd is “hostile to life” and will inevitably lead to man’s “regression and decline”. But [this] unfit system of values not only supplants the former superior system but then thrives in its place’.

    Has the ‘slavish morality of the herd’ really replaced the rule of the strong?

    It’s true that the dominant class (in the west at least) pays lip-service to love-thy-neighbour ideas. But in practice the dominant class craps on their weaker neighbours, using Humanist / Christian values purely for rhetorical cover. Meanwhile the weak suffer what they must.

    Anyway, a fantastic piece by Alfie. I would welcome any comments which expand my understanding of Nietzsche.


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  4. 'Slave morality depends on the belief in a subject (or a "soul") which is independent of its deeds, so that it can interpret its weakness as freedom, and its inaction as praiseworthy'.

    Ramon, check out 'Spark notes' on the text, they may be helpful in getting your head round Nietzsche's position.

    ReplyDelete