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On the Genealogy of Morals is an exercise in "burning bridges." Rarely has a philosopher in the Western tradition embarked on such a radical a task: breaking the old "tables of laws" (or, more correctly, pointing to the fact that they had been broken for a long time), the utter "deconstruction" of the system of Judeo-Christian moral values on which the last two thousand years of Western civilization were based. This book is to the specific sphere of moral values what Nietzsche's philosophy is in general: a systematic overthrowing of idols, a "reevaluation of all values," or, as Nietzsche himself preferred to call it, "philosophizing with the hammer." The noisy hammer resounds throughout the three essays of the book, as one seeks to trace the origin of the distinction between "good" and "evil" into the physiological distinction between "strong" and "weak" and when one talks of the crucial role of cruelty in the birth of conscience, or of the meaning of the ascetic ideals. Certainly, one does not have to agree with the contents of Nietzsche's book to enjoy its indelible flavor and get its ultimate message. For what today's reader should learn from Nietzsche is not necessarily his views on particular ethical issues, but first of all his independence of mind, the luxury of not taking anything for granted and the courage of being oneself. In a world increasingly dominated by laziness of mind and academic snobbisms of all kinds, On the Genealogy of Morals can teach us the rare art of thinking independently, the wisdom of saying "no" when everybody says "yes," and vice versa.
Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844 in Röcken, Saxony. He grew up in a very pious family: his father and both his grandfathers were Lutheran pastors and the general expectation was that he, too, would become a pastor. In 1850 Nietzsche's father died, and the family had to move to Naumburg. There, Nietzsche attended the local elementary school and then a private preparatory school. Between 1858 and 1860 he attended the elite grammar school Schulpforta, whose alumni include Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Leopold von Ranke, and Ulrich Wilamowitz-Moellendorf. It was at Schulpforta that Nietzsche first showed clear promise as a classicist and humanist scholar, and also where he first met Paul Deussen (1845-1919) with whom he would be friends for a long time. In 1864 Nietzsche entered Bonn University to study theology, but after only one semester he switched to classical philology. In 1865, since Friedrich W. Ritschl (1806-1876), the professor of classical philology he admired most, moved to Leipzig, Nietzsche also transferred to Leipzig University to continue studying under Ritschl. At Leipzig, Nietzsche distinguished himself as a classicist and also discovered the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer and the music of Richard Wagner, both of which had a deep impact on his intellectual formation. In 1869, upon Ritschl's recommendation, Nietzsche was appointed extraordinary professor of classical philology at Basel University, where he taught for the following ten years. In 1872 he published The Birth of Tragedy (Die Geburt der Tragödie), his first major philosophical work, written under the strong influence of Schopenhauer and Wagner. In the coming years, although formally a professor of classical philology, Nietzsche published books that were more and more philosophically minded. Following The Birth of Tragedy, he published a multi-volume series, Untimely Meditation (Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen): David Strauss, the Confessor and Writer (David Strauss, der Bekenner und Schriftsteller, 1873), Of the Use and Disadvantage of History for Life (Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, 1874), Schopenhauer as Educator (Schopenhauer als Erzieher, 1874), Richard Wagner in Bayreuth (1876), Human, All-Too-Human (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, 1878), with two supplements, the first one in 1879 under the title Mixed Opinions and Maxims (Vermischte Meinungen und Sprüche) and the second one in 1880, titled The Wanderer and His Shadow (Der Wanderer und sein Schatten). For medical reasons Nietzsche had to retire from Basel University in May 1879, after which he lived on a small university pension and traveled between various locations in Italy, France, Switzerland, and Germany. The only place he spent a considerably longer period of time was Sils-Maria, in Ober-Engadine, Switzerland. "He lived in hotel rooms and lodgings and his only property was the clothes he wore, the paper he wrote on, and a large traveling-trunk in which they were kept." After his retirement, Nietzsche belonged to no place, being only a "citizen of the world" (Weltbürger), or, as he liked to put it, a "good European." The period between 1879 and 1889, despite the fact that he suffered physically tremendously, was the most productive period in Nietzsche's life, when he wrote his most influential and "Nietzschean" works: The Dawn (Die Morgenröte, 1881), The Gay Science (Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft, 1882), Thus Spoke Zarathustra (Also Sprach Zarathustra, parts 1 and 2 in 1883, part 3 in 1884, and part 4 in 1885), Beyond Good and Evil (Jenseits von Gut und Böse, 1886), On the Genealogy of Morals (Zur Genealogie der Moral, 1887), The Case of Wagner (Der Fall Wagner, 1888), and The Twilight of the Idols (Die Götzen-Dämmerung,1889). On January 3, 1889, while in Turin, Nietzsche suffered a major mental collapse from which he would never recover, and he spent the rest of his life in a state of quasi-vegetation, shut off from the outside world. A Berlin journalist said of Nietzsche in 1893: "When he is not brooding dully to himself, he plays with dolls and other toys." After his collapse in 1889, the following of his works were published: The Antichrist (Der Antichrist, 1895), Ecce Homo (1908), and Nietzsche contra Wagner (1895). All three of these works are books Nietzsche himself conceived of as such. In 1895 his sister published, under the title The Will to Power (Der Wille zur Macht), an arbitrary selection of fragments from his notebooks. This book, which Nietzsche never actually composed, ironically came to be his best-known work. It was mostly this book that was used and abused by the Nazi propagandists in their attempt to make Nietzsche appear as a proto-Nazi. Nietzsche died on August 25, 1900.
As many Nietzsche scholars have noticed, there is an organic unity between his life and his work. One cannot understand the one without the other: his books became part and parcel of his life, "flesh out of his own flesh," and at the same time he turned his life into a most spectacular narrative. As Rüdiger Safranski has aptly put it, Nietzsche's "life was a testing ground for his thinking. The essay was a mode of living." Nietzsche had to make his life into a narrative: it was his only means of survival, of making his life bearable. In The Birth of Tragedy he cites the ancient story about the wise Silenus who, questioned by King Midas about the meaning of existence, gives the terrible answer: "What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be born, not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is-to die soon." In a sense, Nietzsche's whole life pivoted around the metaphysical abyss alluded to in that ancient insight: through what he did he tried to keep safely away from the abyss, but, strangely enough, at the same time he could not take his eyes from it. This unique existential situation meant for Nietzsche untold suffering, anguish, and despair, but it also provided him with invaluable insights into what it means to be human. The result was a life turned into an uninterrupted process of philosophical self-experimentation. For him, "philosophy begins with horror-existence is something both horrible and absurd."
In a letter to his doctor, Otto Eiser, written in early January 1880, Nietzsche makes this terrible confession: "My existence is an awful burden-I would have dispensed with it long ago, were it not for the most illuminating tests and experiments I have been conducting in matters of mind and morality even in my state of suffering and almost absolute renunciation-the pleasure I take in my thirst for knowledge brings me to heights from which I triumph over all torment and despondency." The sheer fact of staying alive took him exhausting efforts to the point that around 1877 he gave the impression of "an eternally sleepless man whose brain mercilessly rolled up one bodily fiber after another." One of his former students in Basel remembered Nietzsche's performance as a teacher in those years:
[I]t was almost painful to watch him lecture. Equipped with the strongest eyeglasses, he sat with his face almost touching his notebook on the lectern. Slowly and laboriously, the words struggled through his lips and often his speech was interrupted by pauses which caused one to worry that he might be unable to continue reading. In fact, sometimes he had to stop the class because the excruciating headaches that plagued him almost daily and deprived him of sleep at night became unbearable.
It is precisely in this context that we should understand his famous aphorism in Twilight of Idols: "what does not destroy me makes me stronger" or his equally famous "my humanity is a constant self-overcoming."
Then, from something pertaining only to his private self, the notion of self-overcoming enters Nietzsche's philosophy to become a concept central to it. On self-overcoming, for example, he builds his philosophical vision of the Ubermensch as someone who managed to re-invent himself and be reborn into a better, wiser person, someone who has killed the frightened animal within and now "lives dangerously" as a matter of routine: "live dangerously! Build your cities on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your ships into uncharted seas! Live at war with your peers and yourselves! Be robbers and conquerors as long as you cannot be rulers and possessors, you seekers of knowledge!" There is something alchemical about Nietzsche's life and work: in the end he managed to transmute all his agony, illness, and anguish, all his biographical misery, into something precious and timeless. From someone almost crushed under the pressure of life he went all the way to become an affirmer of life, "a Yes-sayer" (ein Ja-sagender). Needless to say, this is an extraordinary achievement and, as has been remarked, Nietzsche is among the very few people who have managed to "derive insight from their suffering, utilizing their talents to the last, and making their misery a stepping stone to new and bolder visions."
In a certain sense, Nietzsche is too complex a figure to be something as precarious as a human being. There is too much consistency, too much richness, and too deep an abyss in Nietzsche not to suggest a different form of existence, a superior and more ethereal one: just like Socrates, Nietzsche has more of a literary character than that of a man of flesh and blood. He is simply too "spectacular" not to be a literary character-at any rate, such a refined existence suits him better. With this in mind, Thomas Mann attempted in Doctor Faustus to place Nietzsche where he-in an essential way-belongs: the realm of fiction. Yet, perhaps more than in Mann's, the fictional world where Nietzsche would feel truly "at home" would be that of Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881). Thanks to his unique personality, to his almost un-human biography, to his entire psychological make-up, Nietzsche would make the most Dostoevskyan of all Dostoevsky's characters. For years he must have been "in search of an author" and in the winter of 1886-1887 he finally discovered Dostoevsky, which he called "the most beautiful strokes of fortune in my life, even more than my discovery of Stendhal." Nietzsche never read The Brothers Karamazov, but had he done so, he would have discovered in Ivan Karamazov his closest, most understanding friend. More than with any of his nineteenth-century contemporaries, Nietzsche has the most profound intellectual affinities with the literary character Ivan Karamazov. They share an entire galaxy of philosophical obsessions, of insoluble metaphysical problems, and of devastating anxieties. In both cases their "brain mercilessly rolled up one bodily fiber after another"; in their own specific ways they must have been tortured by the same "cursed question": "How much truth does a spirit endure, how much truth does it dare?" And they both paid with the sanity of their own mind for daring to ask this kind of question. Above all, what is most striking is that both Ivan Karamazov and Nietzsche were philosophers of the "death of God." They were equally obsessed with God's disappearance from the world (and from people's minds), and with the terrible question, "If God is dead, then what happens with the man?":
God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How can we console ourselves, the murderers of all murderers! […] Is the magnitude of this deed not too great for us? Do we not ourselves have to become gods merely to appear worthy of it? There was never a greater deed […] What then are these churches now if not the tombs and sepulchers of God?
Finally, one cannot help entertaining the disturbing thought that both Ivan Karamazov and Nietzsche shared the misfortune of having the wrong type of followers.
On the Genealogy of Morals (subtitled "A Polemic") is divided into three essays. The first essay is an etymological and historical investigation into the origins of our moral values (which Nietzsche prefers to call "moral prejudices" [preface, § 2]). Throughout the essay he employs his philological-historical expertise to show that, originally, the concept of "good" was directly related to a set of aristocratic values such as courage, good health, will to dominate and rule, whereas the concept of "bad" was associated with plebeian weakness, sickness, cowardice, and ressentiment. It was, of course, the aristocratic class that dictated this distinction and its terms: "The pathos of nobility and distance … the chronic and despotic esprit de corps and fundamental instinct of a higher dominant race coming into association with a meaner race, an 'under-race,' this is the origin of the antithesis of good and bad." (I, § 2) However, as a result of "slave revolt" in morals accomplished by Judaism and then Christianity, this distinction was in the end completely reversed, and the re-defined "good" came to mean what was originally bad, and the other way around. This reversal is what characterizes the entire European culture, based as it is on Judeo-Christian values. The second essay is dedicated to such topics as memory, forgetfulness, capacity to promise, punishment, the role of violence in morals, the birth of "bad conscience," and the concept of "guilt." Nietzsche controversially derives the concept of "guilt" [Schuld] from that of "debt" [Schulden] and argues that the feeling of guilt and responsibility originated in something as prosaic as "the relationship between buyer and seller, creditor and ower" (II, § 8). What we call "higher civilization" is in large part the result of a sophisticated process of "continually growing spiritualization and 'deification' of cruelty" (II, § 6). The conclusion of the second essay is that religious consciousness itself has something essential to do with a feeling of infinite guilt: "The appearance of the Christian god, as the record god up to this time, has … brought equally into the world the record amount of guilt consciousness" (II, § 20). The third essay is about the "meaning of the ascetic ideals." Nietzsche introduces here the figure of the "ascetic priest" whose important mission is to "interpret" and give a "meaning" to the suffering of the weak, to "administrate" their ressentiment in such a way that it will be kept within reasonable limits: "Not suffering, but the senselessness of suffering was the curse which till then lay spread over humanity-and the ascetic ideal gave it a meaning! " (III, § 28). The central idea of the third essay is that "man will wish Nothingness rather than not wish at all" (III, § 28).
Nietzsche conceived On the Genealogy of Morals as a musical piece. In Ecce Homo he reveals some of the rhetorical tricks he used in writing this composition. He confesses, for instance, that its beginning is "calculated to mislead: cool, scientific, even ironic, deliberately foreground, deliberately holding off." We then learn how he gradually pours in "more unrest" and uses various other "special effects," such as "sporadic lightening," letting "very disagreeable truths" be "heard grumbling in the distance." The composition slowly unfolds itself until eventually "a tempo feroce is attained in which everything rushes ahead in a tremendous tension." In the end "in the midst of perfectly gruesome detonations, a new truth becomes visible every time among thick clouds." This confession offers an essential key to a proper understanding of On the Genealogy of Morals (and, probably, by extension, of any of Nietzsche's other writings): Nietzsche is first of all an artist and he works as an artist. His is an artistic vision, not a scientific one. As such, we should not expect from him definite truths about the world: the only thing he can offer is a possible truth, a certain vision, or approximation, of the truth-as it appears from a certain "perspective," and as it is reflected in a certain narrative.
Foucault once asked: "What serious use can Nietzsche be put to?" On reading On the Genealogy of Morals one of the most plausible answers that one can give to Foucault's question is: we can see (use) him as a cultural critic. A cultural critic is someone who discusses not particular instantiations of the literary, artistic, scientific, or philosophical productions, but the whole culture of a certain period or of a certain community, someone who takes a step back and considers with critical eyes the fundamental presuppositions on which whole systems of cultural practices are based. In this sense, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Ortega y Gasset, Erich Fromm, and Foucault are cultural critics. They are not "specialists" (they might be specialists in some field or other, but this is not important here), but their strength comes precisely from their ability to grasp a culture as a whole, to see its fundamental structures and dynamics, to detect its inner tensions, to sense whether there is something wrong with it, and to cause in the others a critical awareness about that. The proper mission of a cultural critic, as it is excellently revealed by Nietzsche, is that of an alarm system: They function as a warning that something might go wrong. They do not have so much to find solutions, as to announce that there might be a problem. A true cultural critic senses-just like Nietzsche-that there is a problem long before anybody else does: As it were, he sees it coming. Of course, on particular issues they might be wrong, but there is a sense in which even when they are wrong they are right. They are right in asking the kind of questions they ask, in adopting the attitudes they adopt, in considering the type of problems they consider. For example, some of Nietzsche's views on Christian religion, race, politics, morality, will to power, might be wrong, but from his impressive ability to perform close analyses and subtle anatomies of ample cultural phenomena, from his deep understanding of the life of the mind, from the breadth of his vision, from his thirst for knowledge, we definitely have something to learn. Especially today, when knowledge has become so specialized and scholars so irremediably blind, cultural critics of the Nietzschean type play a major role for the very sanity of our cultural environments. There are countless pages in On the Genealogy of Morals that are so much about ourselves that they seem taken from last week's New York Review of Books. This book might or might not have been about nineteenth-century culture, but definitely is about ours, in the twenty-first century.
Costica Bradatan is Assistant Professor of Humanities at Texas Tech University. He has also taught at Cornell University and Miami University, as well as at several European universities, and published in the areas of history of philosophy, Continental philosophy, East-European philosophy, and philosophy of literature. Bradatan is the author of The Other Bishop Berkeley: An Exercise in Re-enchantment (Fordham University Press, 2006). He also published two books in Romanian: An Introduction to the History of Romanian Philosophy in the 20th Century (2000) and Isaac Bernstein's Diary (2001).
Posted November 15, 2012
Posted September 18, 2011
I don't know if it was just Nietzsche's writing or Horace B. Samuels translation.... but this book was very difficult to read. I understand that it was translated from German or whatever but why is there an entire paragraph in Latin and various sentences and quotes from multiple different languages.
Other than the difficulty reading it and Nietzsche just being biased, it was an interesting book, not sure if I'm interested in reading more of his stuff but I know I will.
Posted February 28, 2008
This man is a great. I strongly suggest reading his numerous works. His insight on humankind is spectacular. I recommend this to all seeking knowledge and wisom. Philosophy is an eye-opening path of self importance and Nietzsche is the PERFECT religious philosopher for those wishing to explore their options.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2010
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Posted January 6, 2010
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Posted October 21, 2011
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Posted October 20, 2010
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