Nietzsche’s On The Genealogy Of Morals

On the Genealogy of MoralsExactly one hundred years before I was born, Nietzsche published On The Genealogy Of Morals, ostensibly to clarify and expand upon aspects of Beyond Good And Evil, though letters to his publisher reveal he was at least as interested in spurring sales of his previous works by writing something more accessible. Divided into three treatises, and developing a central argument in a far more direct way than, say, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it has long served as an introduction to Nietzsche’s thought, and indeed I have encountered it, in whole or in part, in various introductory courses throughout my education. Its very ubiquity makes it difficult to talk about, as does its broad scope, so in the interest of brevity I will approach him slant-wise, developing an argument first advanced by Allan Bloom in his The Closing Of The American Mind, and hopefully rescuing some of the book’s more controversial passages in the process.

Nietzsche argues that what we think of as morality, the meanings we attach to words like “good” and “evil,” are in fact radical redefinitions forced on us by “the weak.” In their original meanings, “good” was used by the strong to describe qualities associated with strength and vitality, whereas “evil” meant weakness, pessimism, stupidity. Christianity’s triumph was, in fact, a revenge of the weak on the strong: the strong may triumph on earth, may subjugate, rule and oppress, but the meek shall inherit the earth. “Goodness” became not power and strength but submission and sacrifice. But this is absurd, a lie, an inversion of the truth that cannot be sustained; in Nietzsche’s famous analogy, you cannot blame a predator for being a predator: it does not hunt and prey on the weak out of malice but because hunting is in its nature.

It is not surprising that the lambs should bear ill will 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 most unlike a bird of prey, who is most like its opposite, a lamb – is he not good?’ then there is nothing to cavil about in the setting-up of this ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey will regard it with some measure of derision, and say to themselves, ‘We bear no ill will against these fine, goodly lambs, we even like them; nothing is tastier than a tender lamb.’

This is what Nietzsche calls “slave morality,” the definitions of good and evil offered from the perspective of the weak, and for him it is unnatural: “To demand of strength that is should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a wish to overpower, a wish to conquer, a wish to become master, a lust for enemies, resistance and triumphs, is just as absurd as to require of weakness that it should express itself as strength.” To deny these instincts, to suppress the desire for strength – or in Nietzsche’s famous phrase, “the will to power” – is to feel guilt over one’s own nature.

Of course, it cannot escape your attention that only the most despotic, the most tyrannical of societies is possible if no restraints are placed on predators. “Liberty to the wolves is death to the lambs,” says Isaiah Berlin. Civilization necessitates restraint, necessitates concession on the part of the strong on behalf of the weak. This is an argument picked up both by Sigmund Freud, in his Civilization And Its Discontents, and by Oswald Spengler, who famously wrote the following, certainly with Nietzsche in mind:

A beast of prey tamed and in captivity – every zoological garden can furnish examples – is mutilated, world-heavy, inwardly dead. Some of them voluntarily hunger-strike when they are captured. Herbivores give up nothing in being domesticated.

I think this insight has been lost on us, living, as we do, in times of comfort and convenience. In The Closing Of The Western Mind, Allan Bloom argues that Nietzsche’s teachings have been either distorted or banished from the academy, less because of what they inspired in the Nazis (Heidegger, for example, is still widely taught) than because of what they acknowledge: that there are such categories as strong and weak, powerful and powerless, healthy and unhealthy, and that there are indeed virtues to strength, power and vitality.

No doubt this seems hopelessly abstract, but consider a column George Will wrote for the Washington Post just last year, one that earned him the ire of so-called liberals everywhere, in which he argues that “victimhood has become a coveted status” on college campuses, so much so that students are often willing to fabricate or exaggerate grievances in a bid for moral authority. Among the modern left, the claim to victimhood is seen to confer a unique perspective, one untainted by the “privileges” of the “dominant groups,” and so, unsurprisingly, the path to authority and respect – to power, if you will – is through the status of a victim.

Bloom – I think quite correctly – saw this same logic at play in the steady dismantling of the Western canon, the destruction of the very concept of “high art.” Colleges no longer teach what is powerful and lasting in great literature; they teach from political perspectives designed to put all works of art on an equal footing. To call something “high art” is to imply the existence of “low art,” just as to praise one writer or another as “good” is to distinguish them from others that are “bad.” But if all you do in your “analysis” of literature is examine the power dynamics between men and women, for example, or the status of minorities, every writer is rendered equally worthy

Rather than acknowledge that society requires a tenuous harmonizing of lions and lambs, the modern academic, the modern feminist, the modern leftist denies that any such distinction exists objectively, insisting at all costs that such perceived differences are merely subjective, the products of “social constructs” that, because they were made, can be unmade. Harold Bloom – that other Bloom – called critics who approach literature in this manner the School of Resentment, echoing the “ressentiment” that Nietzsche describes the weak as feeling towards the strong, and I ask you to keep these people in mind, these prophets of guilt, as you read the following:

On this soil of self-contempt, this swampy soil, grow weeds and poisonous plants of every sort, and all so tiny, so hidden, so treacherous, so sugary. Here the soil teems with the worms of revenge and vindictiveness; here the stench of things secret and concealed hangs in the air; here the web of the most malignant conspiracy is spun – the conspiracy of the miserable against the strong and victorious; here the very sight of of the victorious elicits contempt. And how disingenuous not to acknowledge this contempt for what it is! What noble eloquence gushes from their lips! How much sugary, moist humility and submissiveness wells up in their eyes! What do they really want? At any rate to represent righteousness, love, wisdom, pre-eminence, that is the ambition of the ‘lowly,’ the sick!

Such a swamp of resentment and contempt could only flourish in an academy that had already banished Nietzsche. And that is precisely what makes our need of him so dire.