On The Genealogy of Morals

A Polemic

by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

A few translations:

All page numbers below refer to the Kauffman/Hollingdale translation

My writeup deals mainly (almost entirely) with the second essay of this book, entitled "Guilt," "Bad Conscience," and the Like and centres mainly on the theme of punishment in that essay. The other two essays present considerably different material and deal with a number of subjects that are only glossed in the second essay. The first essay is called "Good and Evil," "Good and Bad" and deals more with the concept of ressentiment and the rise of 'slave morality' (the morality of mores). The third essay is called What Is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? and deals, unsurprisingly, with the ascetic ideal and the psychology of the ascetic priest. Both these essays are invaluable aspects of the negative, polemical attack that provides the ground upon which he builds his more positive philosophy (in works like Thus Spoke Zarathustra).

Nietzsche’s conception of punishment differs radically from most of those who came before him. For Nietzsche, punishment is not:

  1. A way to spiritual enlightenment (Buddhism)
  2. A spiritual tool (applied in the world) to discipline the wicked (Luther)
  3. The correction of sinful natures in order to better solidify a Christian polity (Calvin)
  4. The disciplining of an errant free will, to encourage repentance (Bramhall)
  5. One cause, within chains of causes, that encourages the maintenance of social order and the adherence to law (Hobbes)
  6. One mechanism by which utility (happiness) is maximized (Bentham)
  7. The fundamental law of human society; that by which we are kept ordered and within God’s providential plan (De Maistre)

Rather, it is not essentially any one of these things, though historically these have been, and continue to be, called ‘punishment.’ For Nietzsche, punishment, like all categories, has a historical origin (rooted in relations of power) that is not unified; in fact, its origins are fragmented, conflicting… They combine successes and failures, lengthy periods of a unified discourse and also numerous dead ends. Rather than the hierarchical (Platonic or Cartesian) model of a tree that constantly moves toward greater heights, Nietzsche’s model can be compared with a rhizome. A rhizome has no particular center, but is a network of interconnected tendrils and nodes, it extends in all directions rather than ‘upwards’; some nodes connect to a number of others while some prove to be fruitless and isolated.

So, rather than tracing a stable category (“punishment”) through its logical unfolding over time until it is finally ‘realized’ in the form that we understand it today, Nietzsche wants to examine punishment genealogically. Thus, rather than tracing the meaning of punishment as we have figured it today, he wants to trace the form of punishment, and the meanings that have been attached to that form. Rather than assuming that punishment has been fundamentally the same throughout history, Nietzsche traces practices that we commonly consider ‘punishment’ to see what meanings were attached to them.

His objective in doing so is a polemical one; the historicization of such categories (punishment, guilt, and fundamentally morality itself) allows him to situate them within his own positive philosophy. Rather than positing these as transcendental or divine categories, Nietzsche brings them down to earth, and fits them into his world and life-affirming philosophy. In doing so he illustrates the life-denying aspect of the philosophies he attacks: everything from Plato to Kant is shown to be nihilistic, and an eternal No.

Rather than attempt to summarize Nietzsche’s entire argument (which involves historicizing a variety of conceptions of punishment) I will discuss punishment as it relates to the development of guilt. I will also point out how this essentially polemical relates to his positive philosophy based on the will to power. While this argument is not strictly centered upon punishment, the concepts dealt with usually have direct bearing on punishment.

He begins with a discussion of forgetfulness and forgetting. Rather than a merely passive, inactive process, forgetting is an active, life-affirming act. This fits in with Nietzsche’s more positive philosophical works (like Zarathustra): forgetting is seen as actively embracing the chaotic, unpredictable, Dionysian character of the world. Rather than attempting to subvert nature by making it predictable, forgetting is a sort of amor fati, an almost fatalistic love of what will happen. For Nietzsche, the act of forgetting is always an affirmation of what may come, an active willing of whatever may come.

Unsurprisingly, Nietzsche’s remarks about memory and remembering are not as affirmative. For him, memory allows us to become predictable, calculable; it allows, in fact, for the ability to make promises, to become responsible. He states that “Man himself must first of all have become calculable, regular, necessary, even in his own image of himself, if he is to be able to stand security for his own future, which is what one who promises does!” [58] It is memory that provides the material for this calculability. We cannot limit our own future if we cannot remember the promise… thus forgetting allows us to affirm what may come, while remembering limits us to that which we have promised will come. Instead of actively willing whatever may come you have deferred the will to a law. You passively will that which is predetermined by the law of the promise.

Nietzsche moves from the memory to another node in his genealogy: the origins of the conscience. Through various, and painful, mnemotechnics the memory penetrates to “the profoundest depths and become instinct” [60]. Essentially, the idea is that

“Man could never do without blood, torture, and sacrifices when he felt the need to create a memory for himself; the most dreadful sacrifices and pledges (sacrifices of the first-born among them), the most repulsive mutilations (castration, for example), the cruelest rites of all the religious cults (and all religions are at the deepest level systems of cruelties)—all this has its origin in the instinct that realized that pain is the most powerful aid to mnemonics” [61].
Thus, memory was forged by the application of terror and pain; and the birth of the conscience was the result of stretching this process out over centuries. More specifically, when someone is made predictable through their ability to promise, they are able to be formed and fitted into society. Once they are ‘fitted’ into society their predictability slowly, through the application of law, becomes subsumed until memory itself comes to seem as something otherworldly, transcendental, divine. Thus, by drawing out these mnemotechnics and their resulting socialization, humanity comes to see the law of the promise as something outside itself: this is the birth of the conscience. The conscience is the memory made instinct; it is memory detached from ‘memory’.

From the ‘conscience’ Nietzsche moves to the bad conscience, or guilt. The origin of the bad conscience, of guilt, lies in the relationship between debtor and creditor. But, even before guilt makes an appearance, something we might call ‘punishment’ must be explicated. The root of these contractual relationships is in the ability to make promises, in the ability to remember, in the memory itself (“a memory had to be made for those who promised” [64]). One can be indebted or owed insofar as the transaction has been remembered. The move from the purely contractual relationship to ‘punishment’ occurred when the debtor, unable to repay the debt, substituted his body, or the body of another as repayment. The repayment (what we might call the ‘punishment’) was not intended to be an admission of guilt, or the repentance of the ‘guilty’ party (that would be putting the cart before the horse…). It wasn’t even the pain of the debtor in itself. Rather, the repayment was originally seen as “a kind of pleasure—the pleasure of being allowed to vent his power freely upon one who is powerless, the voluptuous pleasure “de fair pour le plaisir de la fair,” [Of doing evil for the pleasure of doing it].” [65]. Thus, “The compensation, then, consists in a warrant for and title to cruelty.— ” [65]. So, punishment is not, in this instance, the punishment of ‘guilt’ or of an act, rather: punishment is figured purely as repayment, the punished repays the punisher through the entertainment of suffering.

Here we see very clearly the method behind Nietzsche’s argument: he takes a category like punishment that we define as ‘disciplining guilt’ or ‘enforcing guilt’ and he shows us how the actions and practices that we consider ‘punishment’ are not, in their essence based on ‘guilt’ or disciplining at all. Rather, those practices created the grounds upon which guilt itself was formed. So what, precisely, is her getting at here? It seems to me that his argument is an attempt to show us that punishment (among other things) is not a category that has any stable ‘essence’ but rather it just is a certain historical relationship between practices and ‘meanings’. This lays the ground for his positive philosophy: there may not be any stable categories that we can use as foundations, but behind all the historical fluctuations, behind all the meanings, behind all the practices, is the fundamental drive of the will to power. His positive philosophy is the reversal of Platonism: rather than the celebration of deep essences, of essential forms and a heaven of Ideas , Nietzsche wants us to celebrate the surface, the passing moment, the becoming. In effect, he wants us to get back to the cheerfulness of the pre-Socratic, tragic Greeks who were able to celebrate the truth of the world: that there is no truth; that all that is, is will to power. It is given this desire to get back to (or move forward to) the realization that the world is suffering and that suffering is festive, that Nietzsche attacks the entire history of Western thought, from Plato to Kant to Schopenhauer. Nietzsche points out numerous times (and most vehemently in section 7 of the second essay) that this celebration of suffering is not, as Schopenhauer would have it, a principle inimical to life and the will. Rather, he argues that

“…in the days when mankind was not yet ashamed of its cruelty, life on earth was more cheerful than it is now that pessimists exist. The darkening of the sky above mankind has deepened in step with the increase in man’s feeling of shame at man. The weary pessimistic glance, mistrust of the riddle of life, the icy No of disgust with life—these do not characterize the most evil epochs of the human race: rather do they first step into the light of day as the swamp weeds they are when the swamp to which they belong comes into being—I mean the morbid softening and moralization through which the animal “man” finally learns to be ashamed of all his instincts. On his way to becoming an “angel” (to employ no uglier word) man has evolved the queasy stomach and coated tongue through which not only joy and innocence of the animal but life itself has become repugnant to him—so that he sometimes holds his nose in his own presence and, with Pope Innocent the Third, disapprovingly catalogues his own repellant aspects (“impure begetting, disgusting means of nutrition in his mother’s womb, baseness of the matter out of which man evolves, hideous stink, secretion of saliva, urine, and filth”) [67].
It is this pessimistic ‘darkening of the sky’ that is humanity’s shame, and its guilt. These so-called instincts (which have been deified from Plato to Kant and expressed ultimately in Schopenhauer) are born when an earthly relationship or practice (like that between the debtor and the creditor) takes on the character of an instinct. That is, once these concepts become “soaked in blood thoroughly and for a long time” [65] their worldly origins are forgotten and they are able to become otherworldly, and divine; the sources of non-human law. Thus, when Schopenhauer raises the horror of suffering as a point against existence, we would do “well to recall the ages in which the opposite opinion prevailed because men were unwilling to refrain from making suffer and saw in it an enchantment of the first order, a genuine seduction to life” [67]. That is: pessimists need to realize that their pessimism and hatred of the world is missing the point; the will to nothingness is still simply the will to power. Rather than denying the world, they should affirm it in all its horror as the cheerful Greeks did. After all, “Without cruelty there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches—and in punishment there is so much that is festive!—“ [67]. The correct reaction to the realization that the world is nothing but suffering and the will to domination is not to will nothingness (that is merely a disguised and truncated version of that same will to domination). The correct reaction, for Nietzsche, is to dive headlong into the fray, to actively forget, to love fate absolutely, to will your fate, whatever it may be. The will to power thus becomes… the will to life.

That is my summary of Nietzsche’s argument and what I think is its connection to his more positive philosophy of the will to power that is only hinted at in this text. I would now like to move on to a critical assessment of a few things in the text.

Originally, what I found most puzzling about Nietzsche was his relation to the ancient Greeks and fundamentally to what he calls the ‘Dionysian’ aspect of Greek life. This only refers to the Greeks before the death of tragedy under the aegis of Euripides, Socrates and Plato. At first, it seemed to me that that Nietzsche is appealing to some sort of idealized Rousseauian state of nature; that if we could just get back to something rather than move on in our dreadful decadence we would be fine. Unlike Hobbes who thinks the social contract is necessary to get us out of the brutish state of nature, it would seem that Nietzsche’s philosophy is a ‘hammer’ that would allow us to get out of that contract finally. I found this aspect puzzling because he often characterizes his philosophy as the philosophy of the future, as untimely, as anticipating something to come, as a bridge to something. Near the end of the second essay he remarks: “as if man were not a goal but only a way, an episode, a bridge, a great promise.—” [85]. Man is a bridge to something new, a way station on the way to… what? To the Overman, what Nietzsche’s whole endeavor leads us to. In his greatest affirmation, Thus Spoke Zarathustra he notes that “The time has passed when accidents could befall me; and what could still come to me that was not already my own?” [Thus Spoke Zarathustra, 173]. Thus the Overmen are those that love fate, much like the pre-Socratic Greeks Nietzsche describes in his The Birth of Tragedy. So it seems, paradoxically that Nietzsche’s philosophy is both the return to the past and the bridge to the future. The answer that might clarify this problem would seem to lie in defining both the Greeks and the Overman more specifically.

He describes the Overman as the creator of values, one who actively wills their own fate, as someone outside, beyond, over and above all previous values; fundamentally as one who is not subject to an order or a measure. Above all someone who loves and wills their own fate and someone who is Dionysian in every sense of the word.

The cheerful Greek may seem to fit this description. He states of these Greeks in The Birth of Tragedy that

“the bright image projection of the Sophoclean hero—in short, the Apollinian aspect of the mask—are necessary effects of a glance into the inside and terrors of nature; as it were, luminous spots to cure eyes damaged by gruesome night. Only in this sense may we believe that we properly comprehended the serious and important concept of “Greek cheerfulness.” The misunderstanding of this concept as cheerfulness in a state of unendangered comfort is, of course, encountered everywhere today.” [The Birth of Tragedy, p.67, Section 9]
Thus, the cheerful Greeks require tragic revelation, the Apollinian image of the Dionysian terrors of nature in order to understand in themselves the Dionysian. Today, however, we have utterly forgotten and misunderstood this; we see in tragedy only the enjoyment of suffering outside of the world, from a safe distance; this is the decadent Kantian enjoyment of the sublime and not the tragedy of the Greeks. This seems to be a description of the Overman as well. However, in section 23 of the second essay of On the Genealogy of Morals his discussion of the origin and purpose of the Greek gods may give us some hint as to exactly what the difference might be.

“That the conception of gods in itself need not lead to the degradation of the imagination that we had to consider briefly, that there are nobler uses for the invention of gods than for the self-crucifixion and self-violation of man in which Europe over the past millennia achieved its distinctive mastery—that is fortunately revealed even by a mere glance at the Greek gods, those reflections of noble and autocratic men, in whom the animal in man felt deified and did not lacerate itself, did not rage against itself! For the longest time these Greeks used their gods precisely so as to ward off the “bad conscience,” so as to be able to rejoice in their freedom of soul” [93-94].

So it is that the creation of gods allowed the Greeks to defer their love of fate; they do not love fate because they have overcome themselves and because they affirm the realization that the world is pure suffering. Rather, their love of fate stems from an ability to defer their will; they defer responsibility to the gods, and allow themselves to enjoy the fruits of freedom. Yet, this deferral is illusory: they are still, at heart, participating in a reaction to the world, there is still an enforced and limiting order, even if it is that of Olympus. Rather than actively willing their own fate, they remove the creation of fate to the level of the gods.

This, I think, is the fundamental difference between the pre-Socratic Greeks and the Overman. Rather than removing fate as the responsibility of the gods, the Overman actively creates his own fate. Fate is thus no longer determined (even by the fate-loving Olympian gods) rather it is indeterminate, chaotic, Dionysian at its very core; and the Overman loves it because of this, he loves it insofar as it is Dionysian. So it is that

“He who not only understands the word ‘dionysian’ but understands himself in the word ‘dionysian’ needs no refutation of Plato or of Christianity or of Schopenhauer – he smells the decomposition …” [Ecce Homo, 50 (Chapter on The Birth of Tragedy].
That is to say; while the Greeks could (and did) refute the decadence of Plato, Christianity and Schopenhauer, they required the creation of the god Dionysus to do so. The Overman, on the other hand, understands everything Dionysian in himself and needs no refutation or god; his very existence and willing constitute rejections of everything decomposed, of everything decadent, of everything that says No to life (of everything Platonistic).

So while the cheerful Greek may serve as a nice model for the philosophy of the future, it can never truly be seen as an achievement of it. Rather, both the Greek celebration of all that is animal in humanity and the Platonic/Christian attempt to remove all those animal qualities are required before we can get beyond man. I will end with a quote from Nietzsche about the movement from man to Overman and its relation to punishment. He states that:

“The justice which began with, “everything is dischargeable, everything must be discharged,” ends by winking and letting those incapable of discharging their debt go free: it ends, as does every good thing on earth, by overcoming itself. This self-overcoming of justice: one knows the beautiful name it has given itself—mercy; it goes without saying that mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful man, or better his—beyond the law.” [72-73]
Within the philosophy of the future, there is no place for punishment, because the solidity and calculability that is based upon is eliminated: there is nothing to ‘punish’ (no matter which conception of punishment we rely upon) because everything is actively willed.

Other references:

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York, Vintage Books/Random House Inc., 1967). This edition also contains The Case of Wagner.
  2. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo translated by R.J. Hollingdale (London, Penguin Books, 1979 (1992 edition)).
  3. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra translated by R.J. Hollingdale (London, Penguin Books, 1961 (1969 edition)).

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