Genealogy of Morality

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I will be writing an essay on Nietzsche's genealogy of good and evil. After explaining a little about what Nietzsche's project, On the Genealogy of Morality, is about, I will move on to concentrate on his concept of good and evil, and the distinction between them that he talks about variably. Also important is the role of what Nietzsche calls “ressentiment”. In conclusion, I will talk about why or why not the genealogy of morality shows anything about morality and the legitimacy of its demands on us.

Before getting involved in the topic, it is essential to know what does genealogy actually means. “A genealogy is a narrative that tries to explain a cultural phenomenon by describing a way in which it came about, or could have come about, or might be imagined to have come about”[1]. In simpler words, it can be said that a genealogy is about discovering the roots of history. What Nietzsche is interested in finding out is the value of morality. Rather than giving a theoretical account of genealogy, as done by psychologists at his time, Nietzsche wants to dig deeper, by giving an actual history of morality. So who decides what is good and what is not? English psychologists at that time proclaimed that “people originally praised unegoistic actions” and these actions came to be known as good from the viewpoint of those to whom these actions were beneficial. Later, people forgot how these actions came to be viewed as good, and because they were always perceived to be good, people began to feel that way too. Nietzsche however was displeased by this explanation of the English psychologists. He critiques them and says that goodness did not come about from the people to whom this goodness was shown to. In fact, it was those “good” people themselves who set their actions up as good i.e. on the first rank in comparison to everything low or vulgar. So Nietzsche differs from the psychologists and implies that a better statement worth making would be that there used to be only good people and bad people, not good/bad actions. The “noble, “powerful” and “beautiful” were considered to be good. The “plebeian”, “ill-born” and “ugly” were labelled as bad. Further criticizing the psychologists, he says that it is totally inept to say that unselfishness acquires from a utility which is “forgotten”. Possibly, if something is useful, what could lure a person to forget it?

However, this is not how these words are used now. There has been a transformation of the meaning of these two words. Nietzsche's way of explaining this metamorphosis is through giving an account of the “Jewish slave revolt”. It is important, however, to note that Nietzsche is not really targeting Judaism, but instead using their reference to explain a potential confusion in our moral thinking. At that time, Jews were considered to be slaves, the lower class of society, the powerless, while the Germans ruled over them as their masters. Nietzsche calls the Jews “priestly people”, because of the reason that they were too powerless to seek revenge from their masters physically (through action) for the cruelties done to them. Instead, they made up a fantasy revenge, which was called “spiritual” revenge. This led to the changeover of the morals. Good people were therefore described as the ones who suffered at the hands of their masters. The “powerless”, “low”, “poor”, “sick” and the “ugly” were considered to be righteous. These people believed that they were promised salvation by God. If they had to experience pain, suffering and a lower standard, they expected God to bless them in the near future so that they can take their revenge on the masters. On the contrary, the powerful and the privileged people (the masters) were known as the evil ones. It was expected that they would be unblessed and cursed by God, that their time of power would soon come to an end, and that they would suffer soon what the “powerless” people used to suffer. So, the Jewish slave revolt helped Nietzsche in explaining the re-evaluation of morals.

This transformation leaves us with three conclusions. The first being that it allows us to clear our heads of confusion about morals. Due to the limitations of the human mind, we are prone to confuse the chance-events with the necessary-events, longevity with authority, and human creations for reality. This genealogy helps to understand the potential confusion in our mind. The second conclusion, as directly stated by Nietzsche, is about the concept of ressentiment. This is a French word, which means a feeling of resentment or bitterness, which leads to an assignment of accusation for one's anger. Within this concept of ressentiment, the first conclusion is that unlike noble morality, the slave morality is derivative. The noble morality grows out of a “triumphant” self-declaration, while the slave morality rejects the idea of “outside”, “other” or “a non-self”. The slave morality always requires an opposing force (the “powerful” masters in the case of Jewish slave revolt) and cannot be born without an external cause. As Nietzsche puts it, the actions of slave morality are actually reactions. The people who were “well-born” did not create their happiness in a fake way by first looking at their enemies. They just felt that they were happy.

Similarly, Nietzsche figures out another fault. He argues that the “lower” people just assumed that the powerful people were happy because they were active. “They considered being active necessarily associated with happiness”. This is actually the complete opposite of happiness at the level of the “powerless”, the “oppressed” for whom happiness is about peace, quietness and relaxation after serving their masters. Continuing on, Nietzsche says that these people of ressentiment have a hypocritical, a deceitful and a pretentious way of thinking. He says that these people can fantasize as much as they want, but he knows what the reality is. Giving an account of their situation, he says that these people are dejected and miserable, and instead of admitting this, they blame it on their deity, their God, saying that this is his choice, a sign maybe. How ridiculous they sound when they say that this could be a test, a preparation that will someday be paid out with great “happiness”. They call it “blessedness”. Nietzsche gets frustrated when these people say that they are better than their masters, the ones with power. He explains the humiliation that these people of ressentiment have to go through by saying “the powerful..... whose spit they have to lick (notout of fear, certainly not out of fear, but because God commands that they honour all those in authority)”. They claim that they are not only better than these “masters of earth”, but that they are better-off, or will be in the future. They call this “God's Kingdom”, where they will have all the power, and will be blessed. Nietzsche rejects these ideas, calling them nothing more than just lies.

[1] Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy, Princeton University Press, 2002.