on 13 April 2012
I want to make the case that this particular edition of The Genealogy of Morals (GOM) is the best place for a newbie to Nietzsche to begin their study of his works, after the usual 'Nietzsche Reader' and/or intro-to-Nietzsche type of efforts. Why?
GOM combines two qualities that make it uniquely useful for the apprentice. It is a simply structured work, consisting of three essays - essentially three chapters - on distinct but interrelated topics. And it constitutes one of Nietzsche's most mature works, prior to any suspicion of mental deterioration.
Part of the reason for this lies in explicit authorial intent. GOM is purportedly a commentary of Beyond Good and Evil (BGE) which is purportedly a commentary on Thus Spake Zarathustra (TSZ). As a fictional narrative, TSZ sounds great for a starting point. Upon wonky advisement, that's where I started. But its poetic and mythological elements make it unique and highly challenging. And despite its bad boy rep, BGE is a notoriously difficult piece of philosophical writing.
As to the content itself, one of the great boons of GOM is that it takes the student beyond the titanic trio of topics - will-to-power, eternal recurrence and the superman - that tend to overshadow the rest of Nietzsche's philosophy for the beginner. Here, in GOM, we get exposure to many of his 'second tier' topics like ressentiment, master/slave morality and perspectivism. In fact, in GOM you gain exposure to many of the tertiary concepts that make up the language-game of Nietzsche's philosophy: pathos of distance, order of rank, herd-instinct, blond beast, subterranean, tartufferie, and intellectual hygiene to name a few.
I feel compelled to say something about this particular translation too. It is instantly likeable. Not only has Douglas Smith produced a highly readable translation, it seems fresh, even buoyant, compared to some of the older translations. For the first time I got the impression that Nietzsche had a sense of wry humor and liveliness as a writer - two of his own key virtues I believe! With some translations, he can read like a cross between a highly-strung pedant and Richard Dawkins on a downer. Not so here.
Smith has proved a concise-but-meaty Introduction, a select Biography and a handy Chronology. More noteworthy are his Explanatory Notes, which cover not only matters of translation and language, but also provide information of the people, concepts, references, events, quotations, schools and other allusions in the text. I also found it a treat to have an index on one of Nietzsche's works.
For me to comment on the content of GOM itself would be superfluous. Two eccentric observations will suffice. With reference to Professor Dawkins above, it interests me that in GOM Nietzsche presents us with some other dichotomies than "Dionysus against the Crucified". Here we have "Rome against Judea" (1:16) and "Plato versus Homer: that is the complete, the real antagonism..." (3:25). Even, dare I name it, the Old Testament versus the New Testament (3:22). No single dichotomy or perspective will ever explain the Neitzschean mind.
Also, Nietzsche makes reference to depression a few times in essay three when speaking of the sickly, fatigued nature of those with slave morality (ps. 113, 117). This, along with his frequent references to optimism and pessimism, interest me greatly. I would love it if someone would relate Nietzsche's ideas here to modern notions of mental health and the recent phenomenon of 'positive psychology'. To my ears, Nietzsche often resembles no-one as much as a self-help author rather than any kind of traditional philosopher. Heresy, I know. But good heresy, I hope, in the original sense of the word 'good' anyway...
And if you don't get this last sentence, then that's why you need to get this book.
In his characteristic raging style and with a sometimes obscene vocabulary, Friedrich Nietzsche shouts (`Am I understood?') his vision on the origin of morals (good, bad and evil), of guilt and bad conscience and on the value of ascetic ideals.
The origin of morals
The antithesis good-bad was established by `noble' rulers who seized the right to create their own values. They called their egoistic actions good, which means `of first rank'. Who were these masters? At the bottom all these noble races were `blond beasts of prey in search of spoil, living the voluptuousness of victory and cruelty.'
It was only when the aristocratic value judgments declined that the slaves (other names: the herd, the plebeians, the low, the mob, cellar rodents, insects, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the worm-eaten) could impose their own morality of unegoism, pity, self-sacrifice and self-abnegation on mankind.
The moral revolt of the slaves began when their ressentiment became creative. This ressentiment is an imaginary revenge, a brain-sickness, by those who are denied true action. The egoistic `good' of the rulers became `evil'.
However, the slave morality is an illness based on the phantasmagoria of anticipated bliss, the `Last Judgment'. It is anti-life and a danger for the species `man'.
Guilt, Bad Conscience
Guilt has its origin in `debts', in the contractual relations between creditor and debtor, in which the latter pledged that if he should fail to repay, he would substitute his debt by something else that he possessed (body, limbs, wife, freedom).
The origin of bad conscience comes from the internalization of instincts which couldn't discharge themselves. All those instincts of the wild, free, prowling man (cruelty, destruction) turned against man himself, because the political organization (the State) protected itself against these old instincts of freedom.
Real masters don't know what guilt is. One day, the man of the future, the Antichrist, will come, as a sovereign individual, liberated from the slave morality. He will call his dominating instincts his conscience.
The three slogans of the ascetic ideal are poverty, humility and chastity.
But, an ascetic planet is a nook of disgruntled, arrogant creatures filled with a profound disgust of themselves, of the earth, of all life.
Ascetic life is a self-contradiction. It is an attempt to employ force to block the wells of force, beauty and joy. Its pleasure is sought in decay, pain, ugliness, voluntary deprivation, self-mortification, self-flagellation.
The allies of the ascetics are the scientists (`these trumpeters of reality are bad musicians'), with their belief that truth cannot be criticized (?) and with their aim to dissuade man from his former respect for himself.
What we need is the freedom of `Nothing is true, everything is permitted.'
The powerful, the beasts of prey use(d) religion and its slave morality as a means to keep their power and wealth intact. The many accepted it, until in some countries general free elections (democratic rule) put the power base of the beasts in danger. The beasts had a new problem to face: how to control democracy.
Nietzsche's anti-democratic, anti-scientific, barbaric, full spectrum egoistic rule is unacceptable and indefendable in our `enlightened` world.
However, his shout to mankind to wake up and to live a real `human' life, free from a slave morality, is still highly needed and even more than ever before.
These brutal, raw, blasphemous essays didn't loose one ounce of their invective and polemic power. A real catharsis.
A must read for all Nietzsche fans, but with the necessary caution.
on 26 February 2013
If you are approaching Nietzsche for the first time, this book is where you should begin reading. One can read it as a commentary on Beyond Good and Evil, which in turn is a commentary on Thus Spake Zarathustra. Beyond Good and Evil is difficult because of its loosely structured and aphoristic style, whereas Thus Spake Zarathustra is positively opaque without some knowledge of Nietzsche's thought and, to a lesser extent, biography.
On the Genealogy of Morals is as close as Nietzsche got to explaining his ideas comprehensively in plain German. The book is divided into three sections with a preface. The Preface outlines Nietzsche's goal to produce a critique of morality from a genealogical explanation of the psychological formation of morals.
The first section, "Good and Evil, Good and Bad," describes Nietzsche's idea of the formation of master/slave morality, whereby the noble man forms his own values based on his will to power, and the slave forms his values based on his resentment of the noble man's power. The second section, "Guilt, Bad Conscience and the Like," describes Nietzsche's idea that guilt and bad conscience arise as a repression of the will to power and that punishment is merely a transaction in a creditor/debtor relationship. The third section is a critique of what Nietzsche calls the ascetic ideal, the ideological expression of slave morality, or a will to nothingness which must be critiqued in order to liberate the will to power.
Essentially, it is a critique of idealism, such as that of Kant, and consequentialism, such as that of Mill. One can view Nietzsche's morality as a kind of virtue ethics in which an action is deemed good or bad depending on the psychological state of the actor.
Nietzsche's ideas amount to a paradigm shift, throwing historical assumptions out the window and making way for the numerous turns in philosophy of the 20th Century. The method of genealogy itself is of seminal importance in the works of such diverse writers as Freud, Foucault and Greenblatt. In short, it is a must read and a timeless classic of world literature.
on 26 December 2002
More people have been influence by this text then would care to admit it. Communists to Christians, psychologists to artists. And it is with good reason. Nietzsche comes to the shocking conclusion that man is sick, his sickness self hatred and its symptom the ascetic life style. But this is no negative text, in fact he is looking for an immensely human response to the problem, a response that celebrates our nature. The distinction between slave and master moralities is fascinating as is his insistence that only the master's is sovereign. Here the motion toward healthy living is shown in contrast to the many forms of decadence that have manifested themselves in the Western World since Plato and Christ's early followers. It is the kind of book capable of making you question the most fundamental assumptions of why we believe in the morality we hold so dear to us and presume to be true.
A reasonably-priced readable translation of one of Nietzsche's more approachable works, this edition also features a useful introduction and notes that give information without seeking to shape the reader's interpretation. I'm not a philosopher, and I came at this after discussing, with a reading group, "The Gay Science" and "Zarathustra," which were tough sledding, and now, I think, I could usefully return to these slightly earlier texts in light of this more discursive one. I still can't decide whether or not Nietzsche's analysis of the genealogy of morals necessitates the particular intensity of his cultural pessimism, and that's in part because I'm not sure of the substance of his idea of the fuller human life. It's one thing to appreciate both the quality of thought and the rhetorical verve that goes into his critique of post-Enlightenment culture, but what the "modern" embodiment of a Zarathustra or of the ancient aristocracy might be is harder to tell. One is tempted to say "artist," but what the artist's medium might be -- his or her own life? -- is hard to pin down. I tend to see Nietzsche's critique as having affinities with work of Blake, Shelley, Yeats, Carlyle, and even Matthew Arnold, all of whom are critics of modernity and standard religious forms -- but none has Nietzsche's despair, and maybe only Blake has his verve, although in a very different mode. Be all that as it may, this is a wonderful and sometimes maddening book -- the critique is pointed, and the analysis disquietingly prescient.
on 3 August 2015
Famously "difficult" book, but well worth putting a bit of time into reading slowly and pondering well. The main benefit will be gained if you don't take the arguments as being pejorative, but instead try looking at ethical questions from a different angle. Highly original approach makes this a classic IMO.
on 5 February 2015
It is a good book about Nietzschean version of morality. It is the original text, good translation, very informative and helpful introduction at the beginning. It is an essential text for everyone interested in ethics or continental philosophy strand.
on 28 June 2015
The Smith translation shows little understanding of English. Strictly paint-by-numbers amateurism. Not worth more time than I have already wasted on this review.
on 17 October 2013
On the Genealogy of Morals
Lost in Translation?
I don't read German but I am sometimes tempted to learn if only to read this work in it's original language. And after reading this translation, I am more than ever reminded of that desire.
I own a Dover Thrift edition of this work, which I annotated and highlighted to death, and which is sadly printed on such dreadful quality stock (one rank above toilet paper), that I recently decided to try and get a new copy; which is what this translation is and is. Sadly I don't currently have the other here to compare but I sincerely wish I did because when I read through Smith's translation I highlighted very little of interest. Now It could be that I have grown since first reading and that the ideas herein have assimilated to my weltanschauung, but I think that those might be slightly ambitious claims - even if that was the desirous outcome of all good reading.
It seems to me that a lot of `claims' about what Nietzsche was and stood for - a lot of which are eluded to in the secondary data of the introduction are not in fact there in this primary source. Lots of the inferences and ideas which are routinely attributed to Herr Nietzsche are in fact either generous translations, utter fabrications or simply misplaced to other texts.
In this version he spends an awful lot of time deriding Wagner and the Jews (although according to the commentaries included in both the introduction and the notes Nietzsche has apparently been absolved of being an anti-Semite - whatever that term now means). He does, however, provide little or no Lyotardian postmodern rhetoric on the the Judaeo-Christian mafia and the meta narrative (grand récit). Nor the post-Enlightenment shattering of god and the resulting shards of truths that scatter the ontological floor (Lyotard's petit récit). Nor does this translation really plant the seed of morality firmly in the flowerbed of organised monolithic theology of the Abrahamic tradition and there lay all responsibility for that which blooms from such source.
So, all in all, I'm a bit lost. Maybe I just didn't read this text very well, maybe I passed the signposts and forgot to grab my highlighter, maybe I am slipping, maybe. Or maybe Herr Nietzsche's philosophical and epistemological musings have become like his actual later works, collected and re-edited to produce a kind of Nietzsche-by-numbers, a Nietzsche-for-dummies that is liberally carved off the bone of the primary sources to give a body of secondary musings, interpretations and assumptions that were not actually there. the ghost of Nietzsche haunts the present shouting `I don't say that!' who knows?
on 12 January 2013
The reader is made aware of an historical overview of Ethics and Nietzsche boldly states his views with reference to scientific critques.