On the Genealogy of Morality by Friedrich Nietzsche, translated by Maudmarie Clark and Alan J. Swensen

On the Genealogy of Morality (more often translated as “On the Genealogy of Morals”) is Nietzsche’s attempt to explain why many of us subscribe to Judeo-Christian morality, and why we’re wrong to do so.

The book is divided into three treatises. In the first treatise, Nietzsche argues that there was an ancient distinction between “good” and “bad”. “Good” referred to the powerful, i.e. the nobility; “bad” referred to the weak, i.e. the slaves. Then Judaism and Christianity popularized a new distinction, replacing “bad” with “evil”. “Good” people were now those who followed strictures like the Golden Rule and evil people were those who didn’t. Judeo-Christian morality embraces ideas like compassion for the weak in place of respect (including self-respect) for the strong. It is “slave morality”.

The second treatise describes the origins of punishment in the ancient relationship between creditor and debtor and the subsequent creation of the guilty conscience. God was erected as the ultimate creditor to which we owe absolutely everything. We are not worthy. We feel guilt. Nietzsche says that having a guilty conscience is a kind of sickness. We should accept the fact that we all have a fundamental “will to power” or, what he says is an equivalent phrase, an “instinct for freedom”. If we suppress our will to power, if we do not act as we will, our internal energy bursts forth in other ways. We become sick. We suffer. 

According to Nietzsche, bad conscience should really be wed to “the unnatural inclinations, all those aspirations to the beyond, to that which is contrary to the senses, contrary to the instincts, contrary to nature, contrary to the animal — in short, the previous ideals which … are hostile to life, ideals of those who libel the world” (section 24).

Not everyone recommends reading the third treatise. It is an extended rant concerning the ill effects of religion as practiced by the “ascetic priest”. To quote Nietzsche: “the ascetic ideal and its sublime-moral cult, this most ingenious, most unsuspected and most dangerous systematizing of all the instruments of emotional excess under the aegis of holy intentions, has inscribed itself in a terrible and unforgettable way into the entire history of man” (section 21). But not all is lost: “It is from the will to truth’s becoming conscious of itself that from now on — there is no doubt about it — morality will gradually perish” (section 27).

Nietzsche apparently believes that the will to power or instinct for freedom is such a large part of human psychology that it is foolish to deny it. In order to live good, healthy lives, we need to create our own morality, one that meets our need for power and freedom, if we are capable of doing so. This does not necessarily mean that we must treat other people badly. We just have to remember that we should always come first. It isn’t surprising that this philosophy appeals to some people, since it is awfully one-dimensional. Fortunately, cooperation, compassion and even altruism are natural too.  (4/2/12)

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