Tuesday, August 14, 2012

On the Genealogy of Morals - by Friedrich Nietzsche

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.


Amritorupa Kanjilal said...

You are reading Nietzsche. Whoa! I myself have not yet had the courage to do that :) loved your review!

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Amritorupa - His style is actually not difficult. I would not recommend starting with Thus Spoke Zarathustra as that is very oddly written. But his other works are actually very accessible. It is more his extremely unconventional ideas and off the wall ideas that one has to get past. He is not for those who might be easily offended by insults to religion and other belief systems.

Anonymous said...

I am not well read in philosophy, but I have tried a bit of Nietzsche: I had to, really, given how major a figure he is in modern Western culture. I must confess that, whatever his philosophy may be, I found his incessant ranting and haranguing pretty tiresome: this is not a man conversing with me in a civilised manner, but, rather, someone screaming non-stop in my ear. And I couldn't help wondering: if he really does life so much, why does he appear to hate just about everything that makes up life? No doubt he was a visionary, as his admirers claim, but, rightly or wrongly, I've never been attracted to his work.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Himadri - Though I find his writings interesting and culturally important, I must agree with your sentiments. I must admit, that reading this work in particular I felt much amusement. I certainly was not laughing with Nietzsche, but rather at him.

It is not just his presentation, he basically rejects a huge percentage of what most civilized people value.

Guy Savage said...

I'm a Nietzsche fan. I often return to his aphorisms when I need to get my mind back on track.

he seems to be unfashionable these days which is too bad.

Caroline said...

I read a few of his books a few years ago. I like the writing. I enjoyed the one he wrote on music (Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik - sorry no clue wht the English title is).
In some ways he was a bit mad but he is nothing if not original. After all he coined the expression "God is dead".
I've never read Zarathustra but would like to.
Compared to other German philosophers, Kant, Heidegger ... he is very accessible. He writes like a novelist.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I never really thought of him as being not in fashion these days. Of course I am in no way up on what is in and not in among philosophers. He certainly had some great, and admittedly often insightful and true sayings and quotes. If you have read this work I would love to hear more of your views on it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - I think that you are referring to "The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music". Zarathustra was told almost in the form of a myth.

He was original indeed. He also was sometimes brilliant. I am indeed struggling with him. It is one thing to disagree with a writer, but at what point does the line of anger and vitriol become unacceptable or evan laughable? In addition, at what point does the renunciation of certain values, such as pity, charity, evan an appropriate sense of guilt, become personality flaws as opposed to a belief system worth considering?

Of course the tone of Genealogy is very, very angry and hostile. Not everything that Nietzsche wrote is so full of acrimony.

Ryan said...

I read Beyong Good and Evil a few years back and really enjoyed it. I especially love his attacks established institutions such as religion and nationalism. I have always meant to go back to Nietzsche (or a host of other philosophers for that matter) but I never do. Good on you for doing so. I'm going to make a point of following your lead as soon as possible.

Brian Joseph said...

IHi Ryan- It was some time ago that I read beyond Good and Evil and I wish that my memory was a bit better. I do remember it as being less strident then Genealogy. I certainly have my issues with organized religion, but in my opinion, at least in Genealogy, Nietzsche attacks it for all the wrong reasons.

He stays away from nationalism here. I do remember being in agreement with many of Nietzsche's criticisms of that belief system in Beyond Good and Evil.

vb said...

great review, i love the way you take the essence of what you read..Have you read My sister and I?? I read it long back and somehow couldn't finish of because of his philosophy and critical meaning to things that I couldn't pick up then, I guess I should dig it and read it...

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - Thanks for your kind words.

I have not read My sister and "My sister and I". I have heard that many believe that Nietzsche did not actually write it. I found Genealogy as well as Beyond Good and Evil to be fairly accessible works. You might have better luck with these.

Maria Behar said...

I commend you for tackling such a convoluted, mean, cruel, and just plain disgusting philosopher as Nietzche! No, I've never read any of his works, but I HAVE read that his philosophy exerted a great influence on the Nazis. Well, that's enough to make me avoid him! However, on the other hand, as you say, one should investigate the philosophies espoused by those who challenge our belief systems. Still, I can't imagine having a pleasant time reading this guy's obviously twisted views.

Also, from what you've described about this book, as well as the other two you've read, I'm thinking that Nietzche and Ayn Rand could have been great friends, had they lived in the same time period. Rand herself can be very contemptuous toward those she perceives as 'weak'. Hmmm...was she influenced by this nut job? I think I might do some research to find out!

Thanks for anotheer excellent, very thought-provoking review!! : )

Maria Behar said...

P.S. Oh, and thanks SO much for commenting on my "On My Bookshelves" post!! You are my most regular reader and commenter!! I really appreciate it!!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - You are welcome, your blog is awesome so I comment a lot.

The NAZIs professed to admire Nietzsche and some of their actions and beliefs were certainly influenced by his philosophies. In all fairness however, as problematical as many of Nietzsche's beliefs were, he would have hated the NAZI's. To his credit, he DESPISED Anti - Semites. He also was highly critical of German culture and felt that is was corrupting all of Europe.

Without a doubt Nietzsche influenced Rand. For instance, they both championed the elite and the strong over what they perceived as the weak. They also both had smilier ideas regarding religion.

Maria Behar said...

Oh, THANK YOU!!! That's very nice of you! I really appreciate it!!

How very ironic that Nietzche despised anti-Semites...but the Nazis did make use of his philosophy. I wonder what ol' Nitz would have thought of that..,

And I figured he'd had some influence on Rand. They have very similar ideas. Very interesting!

Thanks again for your thoughts!! : )

Brian Joseph said...

Hey Maria -For the most part Nietzche reserved his acrimony for belief systems not ethnic groups. The NAZIs were very attracted to his rejection of Christianity and his advocacy of what he conceived as pagan values as well as his belief in the power of WILL, aggressive virtues, etc.

Violet said...

Poor Friedrich. He really did rebel against his upbringing! I'm a fan of his philosophy but not necessarily all of his writing. :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - He really was rebel in so many ways. I usually really admire such characters but as I mentioned I have a host of reservations with Nietzsche.

james said...

Nice review. I wrote my own, though it is much shorter than yours. I am a bit puzzled, though, how you can be horrified by a hypothesis. I can understand if you find Nietzsche's values horrific. He would probably agree with you that they are horrific, and would be happier for it. If you find yourself horrified by reality itself, I wouldn't recommend reading any more books or learning any more in general ;)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks for commenting. I actually appreciate your particular comment as it the source of a solid discussion and perhaps a bit of disagreement :)

I do agree that Nietzsche would agree that his values are horrific.

I do also think that a hypothesis can be horrific. If we define a hypothesis as an explanation for reality based upon limited evidence, such an explanation could indeed be horrifying. For instance, if all that I know for sure that Mr. Smith is dead, and someone hypothesize that he was murdered in a brutal way, that hypothesis would be horrifying whether correct or not. Furthermore, if I was accused of committing the murder, the hypothesis would be doubly horrifying, evan more so if I believed it to be untrue. In fact that final hypothosis would be offensive to me.

As for Nietzsche, I find that his hypothesis is counter to what we know about biology and evolution (I know that he attempts to counter this argument in this work). Though I am sure that he would disagree, I find that his rejection of what he describes as weaker values to really be a personal choice and not based upon any empirical truth, With that said, I find that his choice of values to be not just antithetical to mine, but would lead to a world of increased suffering. This suffering would not just be something experienced by what Nietzsche sees as the weak, but eventually by those who he defines as the strong. I see little or no benefit gained in exchange for this suffering.

james said...

Which of his hypotheses are most horrific? I would say probably the one about humans taking great pleasure in the torture and suffering of other people. I don't have much doubt it's true though...think of all the evidence we have of human sacrifice and witch hunts, etc.

Yea Nietzsche is not too wise on biology and evolution, but is there a specific claim that comes to mind in this regard? Finally, I would definitely say that some, but not all, suffering does lead to some sort of improvement. It's the "whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger" argument.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - Thanks for the great conversation.

As you said the pleasure in suffering thing. I also find the entire line of thought that certain virtues, what he describes as "slave morality" to be horrifying. His theory of the origins of these virtues, as I alluded to earlier, I believe are incorrect and are one step toward the "horror" (OK I am overusing that word and I will try to stop :)), instead I believe that these virtues are rooted in our genes. The real problem for me is the supposition that these virtues are weakening and poisoning humankind.

I totally agree that some but not all suffering does lead to human improvement. I just think that if we tried to apply too many of Nietzsche's ideas there would be a lot of the kind that does not promote improvement :)