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On the Genealogy of Morals (German: Zur Genealogie der Moral), subtitled "A Polemic" (Eine Streitschrift), is a work by the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, composed and first published in 1887.

It consists of a preface and three interrelated Abhandlungen ("treatises" or "essays") each dealing with the evolution of our moral concepts, with a view to undermining our "moral prejudices", and specifically the morality of Christianity.

The Preface

Nietzsche states that the subject of his polemic is his "thoughts on the origin of our moral prejudices", thoughts a long time in the making and already given brief and imperfect expression in his Human, All Too Human. Nietzsche attributes the desire to publish his "hypotheses" on the origins of morality to the experience of reading his friend Paul Rée's book The Origin of the Moral Sensations (1877) and finding the "genealogical hypotheses" offered there unsatisfactory.

Nietzsche's aims, however, go beyond this. He has come to see that what is required is "a critique of moral values": "the value of these values themselves must be called into question". To this end it is necessary to provide an actual history of morality, rather than a hypothetical account in the style of Rée, whom Nietzsche refers to as an "English psychologist" (evidently using the word "English" to designate a certain intellectual temperament rather than a nationality).

First Treatise: "'Good and Evil', 'Good and Bad'"

In the "First Treatise" Nietzsche is concerned to show that the valuations "good/evil" and "good/bad" have distinct origins and that the two senses of "good" are, in their origins, radically opposed in meaning. The noble mode of valuation calls what it itself stands for "good", that is, everything which is powerful and life-asserting. In the "good/evil" distinction, which is the product of what he calls "slave morality", what is called "evil" equates to what aristocratic morality calls "good". This valuation develops out of the ressentiment (resentment) of the powerful experienced by the weak.

Nietzsche indicts the "English psychologists" for lacking historical sense. They seek to do moral genealogy by explaining altruism in terms of the utility of altruistic actions, which is subsequently forgotten as such actions become the norm. But the judgment "good", according to Nietzsche, originates not with the beneficiaries of altruistic actions. Rather, the good themselves (the powerful) coined the term "good". Further, Nietzsche contends that it is psychologically absurd to suggest that altruism derives from a utility which is forgotten: if it is useful, what is the incentive to forget it? Rather such a value-judgment gains currency by being increasingly burned into the consciousness.

From the aristocratic mode of valuation another mode of valuation branches off which develops into its opposite: the priestly mode of valuation. Nietzsche suggests this process is encouraged through a confrontation between the priestly caste and the warrior caste where they are unable to settle. The priests, who are powerless in a situation of combat, develop a deep and poisonous hatred of the powerful. This is the origin of what Nietzsche calls the "slave revolt in morality", which according to him begins with the Jews (§7).

Slave morality in feeling ressentiment does not seek redress for its grievances by taking revenge through action, as the noble would, but by setting up an imaginary revenge. It therefore needs enemies in order to sustain itself, unlike noble morality, which hardly takes enemies seriously and forgets about them instantly having dealt with them. The weak deceive themselves into thinking that the meek are blessed and will win everlasting life, thereby ultimately vanquishing the strong. They invent the term "evil" to apply to the strong, i.e. precisely to the "good" according to the noble valuation. These latter call their inferiors "bad"—in the sense of "worthless" and "ill-born" (as in the Greek words κακος and δειλος)—not "evil".

It is in the First Treatise that Nietzsche introduces one of his most controversial images, the "blond beast". At bottom the noble races are beasts of prey, or blond beasts (§11). It is Nietzsche's contention that these noble races have generally been blond (although he includes Arab and Japanese nobility among such races). Such races leave behind them the designation "barbarian" (that is, they have been regarded as barbarians by the people they have threatened), as with the Goths and the Vandals.

Another controversial aspect of Nietzsche's worldview comes into play when he expressly insists that we cannot hold beasts of prey to account for showing their strength through force. We should not blame them for their "thirst for enemies and resistances and triumphs" (§13)—a claim in tension with his earlier assertion that the powerful do not much care about pursuing their enemies. We are not to hold the noble responsible for their actions because, according to Nietzsche, there is no metaphysical subject. Only the weak need the illusion of the subject (or soul) to hold their actions together as a unity. But they have no right "to make the bird of prey accountable for being a bird of prey".

Nietzsche concludes the First Treatise by considering that the two opposing valuations "good/bad" and "good/evil" have been locked in a tremendous struggle for thousands of years, a struggle best borne out by the war between Rome (good/bad) and Judea (good/evil), the Jewish people being the harbingers of the slave morality par excellence. Rome, he laments, has been vanquished beyond all doubt.

Second Treatise: "'Guilt', 'Bad Conscience', and Related Matters"

In the "Second Treatise" Nietzsche advances his thesis that the origin of the institution of punishment is in a straightforward (pre-moral) creditor/debtor relationship.

Man relies on the apparatus of forgetfulness which has been bred into him in order not to become bogged down in the past. This forgetfulness is, according to Nietzsche, an active "faculty of repression", not a mere inertia or absentmindedness. Man needs to develop an active faculty to work in opposition to this in order that promises can be made that are necessary for exercising control over the future: this is memory.

This control over the future allows a "morality of custom" to get off the ground. (Such a morality is to be sharply differentiated from Christian or other "ascetic" moralities.) The product of this morality, the autonomous individual, comes to see that he may inflict harm on those who break their promises to him. Punishment, then, is a transaction in which the injury to the autonomous individual is compensated for by the pain inflicted on the culprit. Such punishment is meted out without regard for moral considerations about the free will of the culprit, his accountability for his actions, and the like: it is simply an expression of anger. The creditor is compensated for the injury done by the pleasure he derives from the infliction of cruelty on the debtor. Hence the concept of guilt (Schuld) derives from the concept of debt (Schulden).

Nietzsche develops the "major point of historical methodology" that one must not equate the origin of a thing and its utility. The origin of punishment, for example, is in a procedure that predates punishment. Punishment has not just one purpose, but a whole range of "meanings" which "finally crystallizes into a kind of unity that is difficult to dissolve, difficult to analyze and [...] completely and utterly undefinable" (§13). The process by which the succession of different meanings is imposed is driven by the "will to power"—the basic instinct for domination underlying all human action. Nietzsche lists eleven different uses (or "meanings") of punishment, and suggests that there are many more. One utility it does not possess, however, is that of awakening remorse. The psychology of prisoners shows that punishment "makes hard and cold; it concentrates; it sharpens the feeling of alienation" (§14).

The real explanation of bad conscience is quite different. A form of social organization, i.e. a "state", is imposed by a conqueror race. Such a race is able to do so even if those they subject to their power are vastly superior in numbers because these subjects are "still formless, still roaming about", while the conquerors are characterized by an "instinctive creating of forms, impressing of forms" (§17). Under such conditions the destructive, sadistic instincts of man, who is by nature a nomadic hunter, find themselves constricted and thwarted; they are therefore turned inward. Instead of roaming in the wilderness, man now turns himself into "an adventure, a place of torture". Bad conscience is thus man's instinct for freedom (his "will to power") "driven back, suppressed, imprisoned within" (§17).

Nietzsche accounts for the genesis of the concept "god" by considering what happens when a tribe becomes ever more powerful. In a tribe, the current generation always pays homage to its ancestors, offering sacrifices to them as a demonstration of gratitude to them. As the power of the tribe grows, far from the need to offer thanks to the ancestors declining, this need increases as it has ever more reason to pay homage to the ancestors and to fear them. At the maximum of fear, the ancestor is "necessarily transfigured into a god" (§19).

Nietzsche ends the Treatise with a positive suggestion for a counter-movement to the "conscience-vivisection and cruelty to the animal-self" imposed by the bad conscience: this is to "wed to bad conscience the unnatural inclinations", i.e. to use the self-destructive tendency encapsulated in bad conscience to attack the symptoms of sickness themselves. It is much too early for the kind of free spirit—a Zarathustra-figure—who could bring this about to emerge, although he will come one day: he will emerge only in a time of emboldening conflict, not in the "decaying, self-doubting present" (§24).

Third Treatise: "What do ascetic ideals mean?"

Nietzsche's purpose in the "Third Treatise" is "to bring to light, not what [the ascetic] ideal has done, but simply what it means; what it indicates; what lies hidden behind it, beneath it, in it; of what it is the provisional, indistinct expression, overlaid with question marks and misunderstandings" (§23). janice daly As Nietzsche tells us in the Preface, the Third Treatise is a commentary on the aphorism prefixed to it. Textual studies have shown that this aphorism consists of §1 of the Treatise (not the epigraph to the Treatise, which is a quotation from Nietzsche's Thus Spoke Zarathustra).

This opening aphorism confronts us with the multiplicity of meanings that the ascetic ideal has for different groups: (a) artists, (b) philosophers, (c) women, (d) physiological casualties, (e) priests, and (f) saints. The ascetic ideal, we may thus surmise, means very little in itself, other than as a compensation for humanity's need to have some goal or other. As Nietzsche puts it, man "will rather will nothingness than not will".

(a) For the artist, the ascetic ideal means "nothing or too many things". Nietzsche confines his attention to the composer Richard Wagner. Artists, he concludes, always require some ideology to prop themselves up. Wagner, we are told, relied on Schopenhauer to provide this underpinning; therefore we should look to philosophers if we are to get closer to finding out what the ascetic ideal means.

(b) For the philosopher, it means a "sense and instinct for the most favorable conditions of higher spirituality", which he needs to satisfy his desire for independence. It was only in the guise of the ascetic priest that the philosopher was first able to make his appearance without attracting suspicion of his overweening will to power. As yet, every "true" philosopher has retained the trappings of the ascetic priest; his slogans have been "poverty, chastity, humility".

(e) For the priest, it is the "'supreme' license for power". He sets himself up as the "saviour" of (d) the physiologically deformed, offering them a cure for their exhaustion and listlessness (which is in reality only a therapy which does not tackle the roots of their suffering).

Nietzsche suggests a number of causes for widespread physiological inhibition: (i) the crossing of races; (ii) emigration of a race to an unsuitable environment (e.g. the Indians to India); (iii) the exhaustion of a race (e.g. Parisian pessimism from 1850); (iv) bad diet (e.g. vegetarianism); (v) diseases of various kinds, including malaria and syphilis (e.g. German depression after the Thirty Years' War) (§17).

The ascetic priest has a range of strategies for anaesthetizing the continuous, low-level pain of the weak. Four of these are innocent in the sense that they do the patient no further harm: (1) a general deadening of the feeling of life; (2) mechanical activity; (3) "small joys", especially love of one's neighbour; (4) the awakening of the communal feeling of power. He further has a number of strategies which are guilty in the sense that they have the effect of making the sick sicker (although the priest applies them with a good conscience); they work by inducing an "orgy of feeling" (Gefühls-Ausschweifung). He does this by "altering the direction of ressentiment", i.e. telling the weak to look for the causes of their unhappiness in themselves (in "sin"), not in others. Such training in repentance is responsible, according to Nietzsche, for phenomena such as the St Vitus' and St John's dancers of the Middle Ages, witch-hunt hysteria, somnambulism (of which there were eight epidemics between 1564 and 1605), and the delirium characterized by the widespread cry of evviva la morte! ("long live death!").

Given the extraordinary success of the ascetic ideal in imposing itself on our entire culture, what can we look to to oppose it? "Where is the counterpart to this closed system of will, goal, and interpretation?" (§23) Nietzsche considers as possible opponents of the ideal: (a) modern science; (b) modern historians; (c) "comedians of the ideal" (§27).

(a) Science is in fact the "most recent and noblest form" of the ascetic ideal. It has no faith in itself, and acts only as a means of self-anaesthetization for sufferers (scientists) who do not want to admit that they are such. In its apparent opposition to the ascetic ideal, it has succeeded merely in demolishing the ideal's "outworks, sheathing, play of masks, [...] its temporary solidification, lignification, dogmatization" (§25). By succeeding in dismantling the claims to the theological importance of man, it has merely come to substitute the self-contempt of man as the ideal of science.

(b) Modern historians, in trying to hold up a mirror to ultimate reality, are not only ascetic but highly nihilistic. As deniers of teleology, their "last crowings" are "To what end?," "In vain!," "Nada!" (§26)

(c) An even worse kind of historian is what Nietzsche calls the "contemplatives": self-satisfied armchair hedonists who have arrogated to themselves the praise of contemplation (Nietzsche gives the example of Ernest Renan). Europe is full of such "comedians of the Christian-moral ideal". In a sense, if anyone is inimical to the ideal it is they, because they at least "arouse mistrust" (§27).

The will to truth that is bred by the ascetic ideal has in its turn led to the spread of a truthfulness the pursuit of which has brought the will to truth itself in peril. What is thus now required, Nietzsche concludes, is a critique of the value of truth itself (§24).


On the Genealogy of Morals is considered by many academics to be Nietzsche's most important work, and despite its polemical style perhaps of all his works comes closest to a systematic and sustained exposition of his ideas.

It is a matter of contention whether there is any such thing as a "genealogical method" as practised by Nietzsche, but there have been attempts, notably by Michel Foucault, to apply "genealogy" as a novel method of research in sociology (evinced principally in "histories" of sexuality (unfinished) and punishment).

Others have adapted "genealogy" in a looser sense to inform their work. An example is the attempt by the British philosopher Bernard Williams to vindicate the value of truthfulness using lines of argument derived from genealogy in his book Truth and Truthfulness (2002). Williams was one of the first among a growing number of analytic philosophers to take Nietzsche's work seriously.

Editions of On the Genealogy of Morals

  • Jenseits von Gut und Böse. Zur Genealogie der Moral, edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari, Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2002 (study edition of the standard German Nietzsche edition)
  • Zur Genealogie der Moral, with afterword by Volker Gerhardt, Stuttgart: Philipp Reclam jun., 2000 (follows text of the Colli-Montinari edition)
  • The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Horace B. Samuel (Vol. XIII of The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, ed. Oscar Levy), Edinburgh/London: Foulis, 1913; reprinted in Dover Thrift Editions, 2003 (superseded by later versions)
  • The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Francis Golffing, Garden City NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956 (superseded by later versions)
  • On The Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, translated and edited by Walter Kaufmann (translation of On the Genealogy in collaboration with R. J. Hollingdale), New York: Vintage, 1967; this version also included in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, New York: Modern Library, 2000 (set a new benchmark for accuracy; still widely used)
  • On the Genealogy of Morality, translated by Carol Diethe and edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994 (contains supplementary material from related writings, and translations of "The Greek State" and "Homer on Competition")
  • On the Genealogy of Morals, translated and edited by Douglas Smith, Oxford: Oxford World's Classics, 1996 (has a helpful introduction and explanatory notes)
  • On the Genealogy of Morality, translated and edited by Maudemarie Clark and Alan Swensen, Indianapolis: Hackett, 1998 (the most faithful rendition to date, with the most extensive notes)

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