Book Review: Genealogy of Morals – Nietzsche

Nietzsche wrote On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic, in response to a book by his former friend Paul Rée, on the origins of morality. This book is among Nietzsche’s most sustained and cohesive works.

In the first essay, titled “Good and Evil”, “Good and Bad”, Nietzsche sets up a contrast between what he calls “master” morality and “slave morality” and shows how strength and actions have often been replaced by passivity and nihilism. The second essay “Guilt”, “Bad Conscience” and the Like – looks into the origins of guilt and punishment, it shows how the concept of justice was born and how internalisation of this concept led to the development of what people called “the soul”. In the third and final essay, Nietzsche dissects the meaning of the ascetic ideal.

It is not Nietzsche’s intention to reject slave and master morality, internalised values out of hand or ascetic ideals; his main concern is to show that culture and morality, rather than being eternal verities, are human made.


He begins stating that “we are unknown, we knowers”. We have taken morality for granted; without exploring their genealogy, he goes back in history and investigates under what conditions did man invent good and evil, if they have any intrinsic value and if they have advanced or hindered human wellbeing. The values of these values were being called into question for the first time.

Essay I. “Good and Evil” “Good and Bad”

The Good and Evil – William Blake

In the first essay, titled “Good and Evil” “Good and Bad”, Nietzsche argues that the concept of good did not in fact originate among those to whom goodness was shown. It was the aristocratic and the high-minded who felt that they were good, in contradistinction to the mediocre people and low-minded, who were mean. This is what he calls a pathos of distance, a chasm separating the ordinary from the noble.

Nietzsche, was considered the greatest philologist of his age, becoming a professor at 24 years old, to this day, the youngest on record.

He started to trace the etymological roots of the idea of “good”, “bad” and “evil” and found out that they all let to the evolution of the same idea: that the “good” developed from the aristocratic and noble, while the idea of “bad” was associated to the vulgar and plebeian.

He distinguishes between the priestly caste and the aristocratic people. The priests were physically weaker and that caused their hate to expand into a sinister shape. They made up in knowledge and became psychologically superior. This was represented by the Jews, a priestly nation who created a transvaluation of values, they flipped everything upside-down and suggested that the aristocratic and strong were in fact “evil”, while the poor and the weak were
“good”. Thus, the revolt of slaves began, the likes of which had never been seen, with the triumph of the morality of the herd over the aristocratic ideal.

Here is where we stumble upon a crucial idea – that the revolt of slaves in morals begins in the principle of ressentiment or resentment. The inferiority complex and jealousy gives way to revenge, ending up attacking the source of one’s frustration.

He talks about master morality and slave morality. The slave morality resents the virtues of the powerful, they turn the other cheek, and this translated to Christianity “the meek shall inherit the earth”, Nietzsche was appalled by this, he calls for the master morality, which does not intend to oppress others, but rather create new values and ways of life.

Thanks to the self-deception of the resentful man, weakness is turned into merit.

Ressentiment proved a powerful tool to overpower the aristocratic race, it is a symbol of the decline of humanity, part of a dreadful and thousand-year fight in the world:

“Rome against Judaea, Judaea against Rome.” Hitherto there has been no greater event than that fight.

Essay I: “Good and Evil” “Good and Bad” §16

The Romans were the strong and aristocratic; a nation stronger and more aristocratic had never existed in the world. The Jews, conversely, were that priestly nation of ressentiment par excellence.

And there is not a shadow of a doubt to who has proven victorious. With Jesus of Nazareth representing the quintessential Jew, Rome is undoubtedly defeated.

Essay II. “Guilt”, “Bad Conscience”, and the like

Guilt, Bad Conscience, and the like

In the second essay, Nietzsche explores the origin of punishment in a creditor/debtor relationship.

He talks about the idea of forgetfulness, an active faculty of repression that helps us to not sink into the past, To actively oppose this, we develop memory – so promises necessary for exercising control over the future can be made.

This control over the future made man calculable, it is the long history and origin of responsibility. Nietzsche calls this control over the future a “Morality of Custom”, when there was no concept of morality, individuals simply punished those who broke their promises, it was a way of expressing anger.

Instead of a compensation in money or possessions, the creditor is granted a sensation of satisfaction in being able to “vent” from the pain inflicted on one who is powerless, producing the highest degree of happiness. Cruelty was a real feast and constituted great joy in the ancient man.

As the maxim goes: “The sight of suffering does one good; the infliction of suffering does one more good.”

Here’s where we find the idea of guilt (schuld) which derives from debt (schulden).

This system of mnemonics is the oldest psychology in the world, where an idea is burned into man’s memory and remain “fixed”, finally keeping in his memory a few “I will nots”.

The criminal was above all a breaker of the word – however, as the community grows more powerful, it tends to take the offense less serious, thus the meek evil-doer is slowly and carefully shielded and protected and the penal law becomes mitigated. The most drastic measure being the foundation of law.

Nietzsche’s idea of a Will to Power is implicitly recurrent throughout the book, where a more powerful force masters a less powerful one, the whole world consists of overpowering and dominating, this is how history unfolds.

The other crucial term is what Nietzsche calls “bad conscience”, to create in the guilty the consciousness of guilt, taming him. He suggests that the ancient man was adapted to the savage life of war and adventure, and with the modernisation of society, all his instincts were “switched off” and rendered useless. Instead, he was confronted with a new unknown world – a world of thinking and calculating. Nietzsche states:

“I do not believe there was ever in the world such a feeling of misery.”

Essay II. “Guilt”, “Bad Conscience”, and the like §16

All instincts which do not find a vent, turn inwards – this he calls the growing “internalisation” of man: which man named soul.

Bad conscience also comes from the relationship of the existing generation to its ancestors. A legal obligation is recognised towards the earlier generation due to their sacrifices, and this has to be paid back to them by sacrifices, temples, and above all obedience. As the power of the tribe grows, so does the need to thank their ancestors. This fear may well be the origin of the gods.

He ends by suggesting a man of the future who will redeem us from the old ideal: the Antichrist and Antinihilist – Zarathustra the godless.

Essay III. What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals

The ascetic ideal

The last essay: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? is the most detailed and longest of the three.

The ascetic ideal is best summarised at the start of the essay, it is:

“… the fundamental feature of man’s will, his horror of emptiness: he needs a goal – and he will sooner will nothingness than not will at all.”

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §1

This puzzling statement will become clear at the end. Let’s first define asceticism. It is the renunciation of earthly pleasures in favour of a simple, self-denying and abstinent life. He associates the ascetic ideal to three words:

poverty, humility and chastity.”

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §8

The ascetic ideal has different meanings for different groups: artists, philosophers, priests, and even scientists. However, the greatest enemy of life is the ascetic priest who belongs to the Church, the champion of the sick herd.

“I suffer: it must be somebody’s fault – so thinks every sick sheep. But his herdsman, the ascetic priest, says to him, “Quite so, my sheep, it must be the fault of someone; but thou thyself art that same one […]

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §15

The ascetic priest does not cure physiological depression, he merely diverts it with deadening drugs and hypnotism, this alone is the real physiological cause of ressentiment.

The individual finds delight in the thriving of the community – producing emotional excess, the most efficacious anaesthetic. Thus, “Sin” is born, the greatest event in the history of the diseased soul. However, the ascetic priest prescribes a small dose of the most life-assertive impulse – the Will to Power, which is why Nietzsche also has some respect for them.

The herd’s will for cooperation necessarily brought the Will for Power. The herd organisation is a genuine advance and triumph in the fight with depression.

Nietzsche goes on to give a striking critique of modern science and its absolute fanaticism with the value of truth, claiming not to believe in metaphysics, when they in fact do. Without God, there exists a new problem: the problem of the value of truth. And with the Enlightenment:

“ […] existence has become more random, casual and superfluous in the visible order of the universe.”

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals? §25

Science and the ascetic ideal both rest on the same over-appreciation of truth and the impossibility of valuing and of criticising it. Thus, they are necessarily allies.

He concludes that what is needed is a critique of the value of truth in itself. Even our faith in truth needs to be justified.

He talks of a new ideal, that does not have a will for truth and which is not opposed to the ascetic ideal, but rather is the final phase of its evolution. Christianity developed a self-destructive tool which ended up destroying itself.

The ascetic ideal was simply a means for the tremendous void that encircled man, and the senselessness of suffering of man, it gave him a meaning – and any meaning is better than no meaning, thus closing the tremendous gap of nihilism. It brought, however, a new and more venomous suffering into life: under the perspective of guilt, but in spite of that, man was saved. It is a will for Nothingness, a will opposed to life, but it is and remains a will.

Man will wish Nothingness rather than not wish at all.

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Genealogy of Morals in 10 Minutes | Nietzsche

This video summarises Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals in 10 minutes. It is among Nietzsche’s most sustained and cohesive works consisting of three essays: “Good and Evil, Good and Bad”, “Guilt, Bad Conscience and the Like” and “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?”

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