On the Genealogy of Morals is the third work by Friedrich Nietzsche that I have read. The edition that I finished is a modernized version of the Horace B. Samuel translation. Nietzsche covers many of his usual themes in this effort. Having read Thus Spoke Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil several years ago I found that the lines of reasoning found in this treatise were similar, but often presented from different angles.
In some many ways this is a bold and brilliant work. However, I cannot think about this tome in a meaningful way without first pondering Nietzsche’s presentation. The famous philosopher is openly contemptuous, downright nasty and at times personally vituperative of the many belief systems and adherents to those systems that he disagrees with. On the Genealogy of Morals contains scathing attack after scathing attack on religions, philosophies and other forms of human beliefs that Nietzsche opposes. While the assaults are based upon chains of reasoning, they are often childish and hysterical. For instance, the philosopher describes people who act in ways that can be labeled as “Virtuous.”
“These abortions! What a noble eloquence gushes from their lips! What an amount of sugary, slimy, humble submission oozes in their eyes! What do they really want? At any rate to represent righteousness, love, wisdom, superiority, that is the ambition of these "lowest ones," these sick ones!”
These incessant rants actually serve as parody of the views that Nietzsche is advocating. He directs these tirades against people who espouse such beliefs as Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Nihilism, Nationalism, Democratic values, Socialism and a whole host of other philosophies. He rarely aims his contempt at ethnic groups, however. Oddly enough, he expresses hatred for anti – Semites. He does, however, exhibit an unfortunate streak of misogyny.
With all that said, Nietzsche is an audacious and extremely influential thinker. He takes aim at thoughts and belief systems that are ingrained and part of the foundation of much the world’s cultures and thought patterns, and challenges them head on. His primary goal in this work is to overthrow conventional notions of morality.
Though I disagree with almost all of the philosopher’s conclusions and am horrified by some of his hypothesis, I believe that there is room to question these basic tenets of human thought and culture. If anything, it forces us to analyze and justify some of the fundamental structures of what we call our moral system.
First Nietzsche takes aim at what people consider virtue. As he also espouses in Beyond Good and Evil he sees the concept of “Evil” as an idea that fits a “slave morality”. The concept of Evil and its opposite concept of “Good” were created by inferior people in order to sap the power of the strong, vibrant and healthy. Nietzsche advocates for robust action by the superior and resourceful that should be unencumbered by what he deems “bad conscience”. Concepts such as justice and fairness are factors that are weakening humanity,
“It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, "Those birds of prey are evil, and he who is as far removed from being a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb, - is he not good?"
For much of the work Nietzsche sets his sights upon what he calls “Ascetic Values”. This seems to be a combination not only self-denial, but also religion, metaphysical concepts and abstract values. Nietzsche argues that anything that attempts to direct our thoughts, actions and belief away from hard but wonderful reality is a contemptible denial of life itself. Such thinking is surrender to negativity and depression. Visions, transcendental states, etc. are extreme manifestations of this rejection of the world and thus an abrogation of life.
Nietzsche goes much further; he rejects the idea that scientific thought is anything but an advanced manifestation of the perverse force of Asceticism. According to Nietzsche, belief in truth itself is an abstract and, ultimately, metaphysical concept. The search for truth is a cold and bloodless endeavor that is also a rejection of life. The conflict between superstation and science is false as both systems are part of the same problem!
Ultimately Nietzsche advocates a morality based upon will, strength and individual greatness. He idolizes the classical virtues of ancient Greece and pre - Christian Rome.
I have barley summarized and I have oversimplified the philosophy presented in On the Genealogy of Morals. I have also skipped major arguments contained in the book. My point here is that this work goes way beyond most philosophies presented in the last two thousand years. It challenges our most basic conceptions. I will not try to refute Nietzsche’s beliefs here, as I would assume that the vast majority of readers would easily find their own objections to most of this philosopher’s conclusions.
Nietzsche can be infuriating. When he launches into melodramatic tirades he can also be unintentionally and ridiculously hilarious. Hidden beneath all the venom and ridiculousness is a bold attempt to redefine what modern civilized society deems to be morality. I not only disagree with his belief system, but I find major components of it reprehensible. On the other hand, it is good to have some basic “truths” challenged from time to time. Although he often falls flat on his face, I must concede some respect for a thinker who takes such a long and crazy leap.