Moral Dilemma: Nietzsche’s Reply to Paul Rée

PAUL Rée (1849-1901) is often described as a friend and contemporary of both Friedrich Nietzsche and Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937), the latter being a Russian associate of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) who inadvertently found herself the recipient of their youthful affections and over whom the two men so often competed. Rée, however, who was the Jewish son of a wealthy Pomeranian landowner connected with Hamburg nobility, was also a philosopher and thinker in his own right and, in 1877, wrote his The Origin of the Moral Sensations. The book was partly a result of a series of intense discussions which had taken place between Nietzsche and Rée himself, something which the latter openly acknowledged at the time in his private correspondence. Indeed, Nietzsche’s own copy of the book contained a personal dedication from the author, which read: “To the father of this book, with gratefulness from the mother.”

Nietzsche had first met Rée in 1873, after the latter had travelled to Basel in order to hear the German deliver a lecture to his students. Between 1876 and 1877, the two men became very close friends and they would often meet in Sorrento at the home of the Idealist writer, Malwida von Meysenbug (1816-1903).

Rée’s work sought to resolve two key issues: firstly, how feelings of altruism developed in humans and, secondly, how these feelings are interpreted as forms of morality. His conclusion was that altruism itself is something that has developed over the course of many centuries and shaped our understanding of “good” and “evil”. But Rée completely rejected these concepts and, instead, followed the example of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882) by proposing that altruism and moral sentiments in general are actually passed on to succeeding generations as a result of their beneficial nature.

The fact that Nietzsche was so greatly indebted to Rée’s original and ground-breaking study is plainly obvious and he stated as much in his 1877 Preface to The Genealogy of Morals, a book written in direct response to Rée’s own work:

My first impulse to publish some of my hypotheses concerning the origin of morality I owe to a clear, well-written, and even precocious little book, in which a perverse and vicious kind of moral philosophy (your real English kind) was definitely presented to me for the first time…[1]

Indeed, Nietzsche’s intention was never to offer a series of philosophical alternatives to the theories which had already been propounded by Rée in The Origin of the Moral Sensations, but to take these basic ideas and use them as a kind of litmus test for the conclusions about morality that he was arriving at simultaneously whilst also preparing the manuscript for his two-part Human, All-Too-Human between 1878 and 1880.

The first of his books to address the question of morality, however, was Nietzsche’s 1881 publication, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality. An important precursor to The Genealogy of Morals, the book had been the result of Nietzsche’s intense study of Philology, or what we know today as the Classics. Indeed, Nietzsche’s intellectual penchant for Greek philosophy – and, most notably, the Pre-Socratic variety – had first acquainted him with the uncompromising attitude of the ancient thinkers towards morality itself. Nietzsche was drawn to the work of the Pre-Socratics as a result of their methodological naturalism, their acceptance that knowledge is limited, their characteristic empiricism and their straightforward realism. The main protagonists who contributed to the formulation of Nietzsche’s own nineteenth-century world-view were Thales, Diogenes, Heraclitus, Democritus and Thucydides. Later philosophers such as Plato and Socrates, on the other hand, were rejected for their lack of realism, fundamental decadence and anti-Hellenism. One crucial component within Nietzsche’s strong aversion to Socrates, in particular, was the Greek philosopher’s reliance upon a system of abstract thought that was simply not grounded in the scientific empiricism of those who had preceded him:

[S]cience takes things seriously that have nothing to do with “good” and “evil”, consequently [it] makes the feeling for “good” and “evil” seem less important. For morality depends that the whole man and his forces should stand in its service […] This is why scientific procedures rapidly declined in Greece once Socrates had introduced into Science the disease of moralising; the height attained in the disposition of Democritus, Hippocrates, and Thucydides was not attained a second time.[2]

Inspired, as he was, by the more contemporary work of Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), the young Nietzsche was therefore keen to build upon these early Greek texts and explore whether “unegoistic instincts” such as pity, self-denial and self-sacrifice – which, despite his negation of existence, Schopenhauer had essentially glorified – had any real value both in and of themselves. For Nietzsche, such expressions of morality were responsible for fuelling an atmosphere of increasing melancholia and risked turning people against life itself:

I realised that the morality of pity which spread wider and wider, and whose grip infected even philosophers with its disease, was the most sinister symptom of our European civilisation; I realised it was the route along which that civilisation slid on its way to – a new Buddhism? – a European Buddhism? – Nihilism?[3]

Nietzsche was eager to get to grips with Schopenhauer’s view that only pity and compassion have moral value, whilst selfishness and egoism lack any kind of moral worth. According to Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter:

To the extent that we fail to recognise our individuality as mere appearance, we are moved to action only by egoistic concerns […] If we care about the welfare of others, this is not due to our natural inclinations, but only to the recognition in others of something that lies beyond nature, of our “own self”, our “own true inner nature”… [C]ompassion, immediate concern for the welfare of another, possesses a higher worth than egoistic inclination because, rather than being part of our natural equipment, it is a sign of our connection to a reality that goes beyond the phenomenal or natural world.[4]

For Schopenhauer, therefore, compassion has more higher moral value than egoism because it allows humans to overcome or transcend the illusion of their own individuality. The latter, he argues, is simply a facet of the phenomenal world or world of “mere appearances” and, instead of accepting the notion of self, he believed that nothing exists but pure will. Nietzsche, despite his appreciation of Schopenhauer’s immense contribution to philosophical thought, was forced to confront the assertion of this “great teacher” that compassion is a moral ideal. The reason being, of course, that if Nietzsche wished to go beyond Schopenhauer’s ideas then he needed to challenge the higher moral value that his counterpart had ascribed to the unegoistic at the expense of the egoistic. In other words, Nietzsche’s intention was to dispel this negative attitude towards egoistical behaviour and cast it in a better light.

At the same time, Nietzsche was keen to point out that the work of older philosophers such as Plato, Spinoza, Rochefoucauld and Kant contained no such pity. What was required, therefore, was not to take morality for granted but to ascertain the value of the values themselves and to attempt to locate their origins. This, of course, was to serve as the philosophical yardstick for his formulation of The Genealogy of Morals.

Nietzsche’s use of the term ‘genealogy’ was designed to herald the arrival of a new philosophical methodology. However, whilst postmodernist writers such as Michel Foucault (1926-1984) have wrongly interpreted Nietzsche’s approach as one in which the quest for metaphysical origins is entirely absent because his adoption of the genealogical form allegedly concentrates on the identification of moral succession and not the beginnings of morality itself, it is worth highlighting the huge inaccuracies inherent within Foucault’s theory as a result of the fact that Nietzsche is most certainly interested both in the history of morality and things as they really are. The genealogist who attempts to trace back his own family history, for example, is not simply content with documenting the generational succession of his forebears, on the contrary, he wishes to get to the very root of his ancestral line. At the same time, however, Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that moral values are discontinuous over time. He also believed that they had more than one point of origin and, furthermore, his main aim in writing The Genealogy of Morals was

to explain in purely naturalistic terms, without appeal to the voice of God or an immortal soul in touch with eternal values, the origins of morality: how it came about that human beings are guided by morality. The question is not why we are morally good, but why it is that human animals accept (hence act on the basis of) specifically moral reasons or values.[5]

Essay I: “Good and Evil”, Good and Bad”

Nietzsche’s work is divided into three parts. In the first of these, he begins by launching an attack on the insipid English psychologists of his age and their inability to account for the origins of “good”:

Man had originally”, so speaks their decree, “praised and called ‘good’ altruistic acts from the standpoint of those on whom they were conferred, that is, those to whom they were useful; subsequently, the origin of this praise was forgotten, and altruistic acts, simply because, as a sheer matter of habit, they were praised as good, came also to be felt as good – as though they contained in themselves some intrinsic goodness.”[6]

In other words, the higher man lived in accordance with a system of values that were only applied to his own kind. They were not, however, granted to those regarded as his inferiors and it was only later that notions of pity and morality were imparted to those previously considered to be undeserving of such. This idea was borrowed from Paul Rée’s The Origin of the Moral Sensations, although Nietzsche believes that the phenomenological reasons behind the slave revolt are due to ressentiment and not, as Rée claims, the fact that altruistic acts are said to serve a useful purpose. Nietzsche takes issue with the erroneous modern tendency to locate the roots of goodness among those to whom goodness was originally shown:

Much rather it has been the good themselves, that is, the aristocratic, the powerful, the high-stationed, the high-minded, who have felt that they themselves were good, and that their actions were good, that is to say of the first order, in contradistinction to all the low, the low-minded, the vulgar and the plebian.[7]

This framework was designed to favour the naturally superior in a utilitarian fashion, quite unlike the later practice of establishing an artificial and non-organic hierarchy in which “good” is simply applied on the mere basis that it can somehow favour those formerly viewed as unworthy. Meanwhile, it began when lower types associated receiving praise with being “good”:

According to this theory, “good” is the attribute of that which has previously shown itself useful: and so is able to claim to be considered “valuable in the highest degree”, “valuable in itself.”[8]

The result, of course, has been the disintegration of the caste system and a dangerous and careless blurring of the necessary demarcations which exist between various races and cultures. The guidelines relating to that which is “good”, therefore, were never related to altruistic acts and were only ever determined and applied by those who considered themselves to be naturally superior. This kind of prudential or non-moral goodness, according to Peter Railton, is purely relational:

In a naturalistic spirit, we might think of goodness as akin to nutritiveness. All organisms require nutrition, but not the same nutrients. Which nutrients a given organism or type of organism requires will depend on its nature. Cow’s milk nourishes calves and many humans, but it won’t nourish these organisms, including some humans, who cannot produce the enzymes needed to digest it; and some elements essential to human nutrition are toxic to other organisms. There is, then, no such thing as an absolute nutrient, that is, something that would be nutritious for all possible organisms. There is only relational nutritiveness: substance S is a nutrient for organisms of type T.[9]

Moral values, therefore, can also be either good or bad depending on the particular nature of the individual and there is no such thing as universal goodness. As W.K.C. Guthrie explains:

There is nothing to which the epithets good, bad or the like can be applied absolutely and without qualification, because the effect of everything is different according to the object on which it is exercised, the circumstances of its application and so on. What is good for A may be bad for B, what is good for A in certain circumstances may be bad for him in others, and so on.[10]

In short, Nietzsche’s view is that humans are natural creatures and their psychological and physiological character determines what is “good” for them alone. So that which is non-morally “good” for a person, therefore, is perceived to be entirely natural.

The two factors that make it possible for Nietzsche to advance his theory that a non-moral goodness can be applied to an individual, or group of individuals, are (i) the existence of the notion itself regardless whether it actually exists in the first place, and (ii) the ability to interact with it to the extent that it exerts an impact upon our thoughts and actions.

Herein also lies the crucial distinction between what Nietzsche rightly perceives as “egoistic” and “altruistic” values. The revealing comments below make it perfectly clear just which racial group Nietzsche considered to be representative of a naturally higher type:

In the Latin word malus (which I place side by side with melas) the vulgar man can be distinguished as the dark-coloured, above all as the black-haired (“hic niger est”), as the pre-Aryan inhabitants of Italian soil, whose complexion formed the clearest feature of distinction from the dominant blondes namely, the Aryan conquering race:- at any rate Gaelic has afforded me the exact analogue – Fin (for instance, in the name Fin-Gal), the distinctive word of the nobility, finally – good, noble, clean, but originally the blond-haired man in contrast to the dark black-haired aboriginals.[11]

Brian Leiter lists five key components in relation to the discussion of higher types that one finds in Nietzsche’s work:

  • The higher type is solitary and deals with others only instrumentally…

  • The higher type seeks burdens and responsibilities, as he is driven towards the completion of a unifying project…

  • The higher type is essentially healthy and resilient…

  • The higher type affirms life, meaning that he is prepared to will the eternal return of his life…

  • The higher man has a distinctive bearing towards others and especially towards himself: he has self-reverence…[12]

The lower types, Nietzsche claims, soon realised that in order to assert power over the strong it was necessary to create a moral atmosphere which was more conducive with their own ambitious desires. As he explains in The Will to Power: An Attempted Transvaluation of All Values (1901), which was published one year after his death:

[I]n the history of morality a will to power finds expression, through which now the slaves and oppressed, now the ill-constituted and those who suffer from themselves, now the mediocre attempt to make those value judgements prevail that are favourable to them.[13]

These lower types inevitably end up legitimising their own inferior values to the point that a kind of inverted morality comes into play:

  • […] their impotence becomes “goodness of heart”;

  • […] their anxious lowliness becomes “humility”;

  • […] their “inoffensiveness” and their “lingering at the door” becomes “patience”;

  • […] their inability to achieve revenge becomes their unwillingness to seek revenge;

  • […] their desire for retaliation becomes a desire for justice;

  • […] their hatred of the enemy becomes a hatred of injustice.[14]

For Nietzsche, of course, the true reasons behind this prudential moral translation is that these lower types are pitted against nature and therefore clearly opposed to life.

Nietzsche believed that racial origins were a determining factor in the development of political superiority and that terms such as “clean” and “unclean” are derived from the Brahmin (priestly) caste which occupied the uppermost echelons of the Aryan caste system. He is quick to point out, however, that religious efficiency of this kind – or at least the moral antidotes which are duly prescribed for those wishing to avoid the whys and wherefores of the “unclean”, such as fasting or sexual abstinence – often creates more problems than the perceived “evil” it seeks to keep at bay:

In sacerdotal societies every element is on a more dangerous scale, not merely cures and remedies, but also pride, revenge, cunning, exaltation, love, ambition, virtue, morbidity…[15]

This sudden depiction of man as a sinful and potentially damned creature is completely at odds with the more noble and aristocratic society which preceded it. Indeed, the conflict between the notion of a theocratic priestly hierarchy and that of a warrior caste has led to a great deal of debate, most notably amongst Traditionalist thinkers such as René Guenon (1886-1951) and Julius Evola (1898-1974). Nietzsche, of course, believes that the values of a knightly-aristocracy far outweigh the notoriously clandestine and self-serving agenda of the theocrats:

Their weakness causes their hate to expand into a monstrous and sinister shape, a shape which is most crafty and most poisonous. The really great haters in the world have always been priests…[16]

The Jews, in particular, come in for a large degree of Nietzschean venom as a result of their systematic transvaluation of the existing values which, originally, had only been applied to those occupying the hierarchical summit. The Jews, he says,

dared with a terrifying logic to suggest the contrary equation, and indeed to maintain with the teeth of the most profound hatred (the hatred of weakness) this contrary equation, namely “the wretched are alone the good; the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome, are the only ones who are pious, the only ones who are blessed, for them alone is salvation – but you, on the other hand, you aristocrats, you men of power, you are to all eternity the evil, the horrible, the covetous, the insatiate, the godless; eternally also shall you be the unblessed, the cursed, the damned!”[I7]

Organised Jewish hatred, therefore, is said to have been the root cause of the problems which have developed over the course of the last two thousand years and – perhaps inadvertently, or perhaps not – led to the spread of Christianity. The fact that Judaism rejects the divinity of Christ, Nietzsche argues, has no real bearing on the matter because the damage has already been done and the Jews undoubtedly obtain a perverse satisfaction from the manner in which their Gentile counterparts have been duly taken in by the tenets of a religion that began as a slave revolt directed at the very heart of the aristocratic morality which preceded it.

For Nietzsche, the vindictiveness and resentment which stems from Judeo-Christianity must be attributed to a basic thirst for revenge:

The revolt of the slaves in morals begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values – a resentment experienced by creatures who, deprived as they are of a proper outlet of action, are forced to find their compensation in an imaginary revenge.[18]

At this point, Nietzsche displays his characteristically naturalistic tendencies by seeking to infer that ressentiment is best understood as a psychological condition. It is a basic human response towards something – in this case the strength and power of others – which is regarded as an external threat, rather than an expression of self-confidence and inner fortitude. This kind of morality, therefore, is simply a negation based on a basic and instinctual reaction to external stimuli and not a valuation which stems from a positive affirmation of oneself.

Of course, whilst Jews and Christians alike began portraying themselves as the forces of “good” in order to endow themselves with an undeserved advantage, it logically follows, therefore, that those remaining outside their imagined religious framework are inevitably cast as agents of “evil”. As Nietzsche posited soon afterwards, in Ecce Homo (1888), morality is simply

the idiosyncrasy of decadents, with the ulterior motive of revenging oneself against life.[19]

Nietzsche’s view that naturally higher types effectively set the parameters of what is “good” and “evil” for themselves may appear rather arrogant to the contemporary mindset, but there is something of the barbarian coursing through Nietzsche’s philosophical blood and those he regards as superior delight in a transgression of the boundaries set for others and represent a law unto themselves. They occupy, therefore, a unique position that is above and beyond the rest of society:

They enjoy there freedom from all social control, they feel that in the wilderness they can give vent with impunity to that tension which is produced by enclosure and imprisonment in the peace of society, they revert to the innocence of the beast-of-prey conscience, like jubilant monsters, who perhaps come from a ghostly bout of murder, arson, rape, and torture, with bravado and a moral equanimity…[20]

This select group of outstanding individuals is not confined to Europe, either, and can be found throughout all aristocratic castes:

It is impossible not to recognise at the core of all these aristocratic races the beast of prey; the magnificent blonde brute, avidly rampant for spoil and for victory; this hidden core needed an outlet from time to time, the beast must get loose again, must return into the wilderness – the Roman, Arabic, German, and Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings, are all alike in this need.[21]

Nietzsche, writing in the late-nineteenth century, believed that man had become tired of life and that such a thoroughly uncharacteristic and defeatist mentality had allowed the lesser types to gain the upper hand. This, the castration of the strong and domineering, is regarded by the weak as meritorious and just. As though strength and dominance are necessary “evils” that need to be completely driven out of these higher types in order for the weak and submissive to gain at their expense. Despite being rooted in self-deception, the promotion of meekness and humility are therefore regarded as forms of freedom and if anyone dares question this contrived morality they are pilloried, lampooned and vilified as wicked examples of “godlessness” and “unrighteousness”.

As Nietzsche’s first chapter concludes, he attempts to situate the long and protracted struggle between the forces of “good” and “evil” in an historical context, i.e. that of Rome versus Judea:

Rome found in the Jew the incarnation of the unnatural, as though it were its diametrically opposed monstrosity, and in Rome the Jew was held to be convicted of hatred of the whole human race: and rightly so, in so far as it is right to link the well-being and the future of the human race to the unconditional mastery of the aristocratic values, of the Roman values.[22]

The Jews, according to Nietzsche, who were brimming with resentment and ambition, have since managed to utterly defeat the aristocratic values of their Roman adversaries by planting the seeds of Christianity in the very heart of Rome itself. It was not the Jews themselves, of course, but the patriarchs of the Early Church who effectively consolidated the prophetical tenets of the Judaic religion before going on to use Rome as a spiritual nerve centre. This process was completed in 312 BCE, when the Emperor Constantine’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge became the catalyst for his sudden conversion to Christianity. This led, over time, to a strengthening of Jewish supremacy through the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation which, for Nietzsche, represents the theological hijacking of the European Renaissance. Meanwhile, in a more secular but no less moralistic fashion, the eighteenth-century French Revolution with its concomitant values of “liberty”, “equality” and “fraternity”. The actual minutiae of these historical events are rather less important than the fact that, in Nietzsche’s opinion, the spread of Christian morality throughout the vast borders of the Roman Empire was a direct result of Jewish ressentiment. For Nietzsche, however, the age-old conflict between Rome and Judea has been temporarily postponed and will inevitably be reignited at some point in the future. This, he believes, is something which must be looked upon with great relish.

Essay II: “Guilt”, “Bad Conscience”, and the Like

The second chapter in The Genealogy of Morals sets out to deal with some of the main aspects of the moral debate. The human conscience, through which it is claimed that one has recourse to “the voice of God”, is fundamentally anathema to Nietzsche’s way of thinking. He tells us that the psychological device which stands in direct opposition to this method of moral self-policing is forgetfulness, a positive overcoming of the mind which allows us to put to one side the experiences we have absorbed during the course of our lives and thus retain the ability to focus upon the more transcendent aspects:

The temporary shutting of the doors and windows of consciousness, the relief from the clamant alarums and excursions, with which our subconscious world of servant organs works in mutual co-operation and antagonism; a little quietude, a little tabula rasa of the consciousness, so as to make room again for the new, and above all for the most noble functions and functionaries, room for government, room for government, foresight, predetermination (for our organism is on an oligarchic model) – this is the utility, as I have said, of the active forgetfulness, which is a very sentinel and nurse of psychic order, repose, etiquette; and this shows at once why it is that there can exist no happiness, no gladness, no hope, no pride, no real present, without forgetfulness.[23]

The conscience, then, is designed to constantly remind the individual that he or she must adhere to a strict moral code. This psychological mechanism, held in check by the religious promises undertaken by the individual, retains a firm grip upon the mind by perpetually stimulating the memory and controlling one’s future options. This wing-clipped automaton, bound and castrated by cerebral dogma, is denied his great historical destiny and presents quite a contrast to the anarchist-individualism proposed by Nietzsche:

If, however, we place ourselves at the end of this colossal process, at the point where the tree finally matures its fruits, when society and its morality of custom finally bring to light that to which it was only the means, then do we find as the ripest fruit on its tree the sovereign individual, that resembles only himself, that has got loose from the morality of custom, the autonomous “super-moral” individual (for “autonomous” and “moral” are mutually exclusive terms)…[24]

Nietzsche compares the man who has stifled his own unique potential by forging religious promises with that of the individual who has more than enough honour to keep his word without having to rely on a series of adopted moral precepts. The fact that a religious man adheres to a self-imposed code of morality, therefore, should not imply that he necessarily occupies the moral high-ground or that others are themselves incapable of being reliable. At the same time, however, the sovereign individual does not really express autonomous choice, he has simply been “bred” the right way.

Religious asceticism, Nietzsche believes, is a form of inverted cruelty that fixes certain ideas in the mind so that they become “unforgettable”. Real memory is obtained through blood, conquest and sacrifice, but religious groups assail the mind with lurid threats relating to both secular and divine punishment. This, of course, has the inevitable effect of forcing people to abide by the religious laws themselves and rein in their true emotions.

Turning now to the creation of “bad conscience”, Nietzsche is quick to point out that it has as much basis in genealogical reality – i.e. none whatsoever – as the history of morals themselves. Despite the fact that many faiths are steeped in blood and torture, religious hypocrites tell us that cruelty is something to be ashamed of. But Nietzsche believes that “guilt” and “suffering” merely serve as impediments to mankind’s natural zest for life and have caused many of us to be ashamed of our animal instincts.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) discussed the relationship between cruelty and psychological internalisation in his 1930 work, Civilisation and its Discontents, arguing that it leads to a state of tension between human instincts and civilised society. But whilst agreeing with the general thrust of Freud’s analysis relating to the internalisation process itself, Nietzsche’s approach is rather different in that he is more concerned about the moralisation of “bad conscience” and the guilt it creates in the individual. Cruelty, he says, is directed towards oneself.

Using the analogy of trade and commerce, Nietzsche is aware of the way “guilt” and “debt” are inextricably linked to the German word schuld and explains how the invention of “bad conscience” has led to those considered to have transgressed existing religious or moral strictures to be treated like common debtors. Consequently,

[t]he wrath of the injured creditor, of the community, puts him back into the wild and outlawed status from which he was previously protected: the community repudiates him – and now every kind of enmity can vent itself on him. Punishment is at this stage of civilisation simply the copy, the mimic, of the normal treatment of the hated, disdained and conquered enemy, who is not only deprived of every right and protection but of every mercy; so we have the martial law and triumphant festival of the væ victis! in all its mercilessness and cruelty. This shows why war itself (counting the sacrificial cult of war) has produced all the forms under which punishment has manifested itself in history.[25]

But this process becomes more and more watered-down over time, meaning that those acts once considered taboo are soon regarded as less serious and the justice system becomes more and more tolerant. This is because those who set the moral parameters inevitably become more powerful and rather less concerned with administering the kind of justice that was originally used merely as a smokescreen to disguise their real agenda, that of ressentiment. Compare this with a more honest form of justice:

The active man, the attacking aggressive man is always a hundred degrees nearer to justice than the man who merely reacts; he certainly has no need to adopt the tactics, necessary in the case of the reacting man, of making false and blessed valuations of his object.[26]

Continuing with this judicial theme, Nietzsche then turns his attention to the uses and abuses of punishment. The very nature of punishment is apparently designed to encourage the wrongdoer to exhibit a sense of remorse, but observers of penal servitude have found that this is extremely rare and, if anything, usually has the effect of hardening the criminal mind to the extent that an individual is yet further alienated from society at large.

Nietzsche claims that “bad conscience” originated once man was stripped of his natural instincts and then contained within the realms of peaceful society. In other words, despite the continuing existence of these submerged instincts – residing, as they do, just below the surface of our consciousness – man has been systematically domesticated. Due to the fact that man himself cannot vent these feelings outwardly, as he used to, we end up with the internalisation process mentioned above:

It was man, who, lacking external enemies and obstacles, and imprisoned as he was in the oppressive narrowness and monotony of custom, in his own impatience lacerated, persecuted, gnawed, frightened, and ill-treated himself; it was this animal in the hands of the tamer, which beat itself against the bars of its cage; it was this being who, pining and yearning for that desert home of which it had been deprived, was compelled to create out of its own self, an adventure, a torture-chamber, a hazardous and perilous desert – it was this fool, this homesick and desperate prisoner – who invented the “Bad conscience.”[27.]

By initialising a war against his own self, therefore, man thus created a rod for his own back. This evolution from wild beast to domesticated pet governed by “the State” was not a gradual affair, either, it was all very sudden and characterised by violence and brutality on the scale of which had previously been unknown in the ancient world.

Returning to the notion of “debt”, Nietzsche explains how the deification of one’s ancestors leads to a relinquishing of one’s own aristocratic attributes. When all that is noble in man is, over time, passed onto a godly forebear through a combination of submission and mimicry, it results in the spread of universalism and monotheism. Nietzsche also hints at the fact that both atheism and the decreasing popularity of Christianity will help to bring about a new age of freedom and innocence, despite the apparent inability of atheism to deal with the self-abasing and self-deprecatory notions that morality has engendered within us:

Indeed, the suggestion appears to be that belief in God has become an epiphenomenon of the will to self-torture; giving up belief in God, by itself, would simply not affect the deep, underlying structure of internalised aggression, that originally gave rise to that belief.[28]

There is also the fact that humans appear to possess a masochistic aspect to their nature and seem to delight in being cruel towards themselves.

The human perception of being in “debt” to a god or religious system, however, was already beginning to rapidly decline towards the close of the nineteenth century and has continued to do so through the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. When people begin to feel that they “owe” nothing, therefore, the very belief in “guilt” and “bad conscience” rapidly begins to dissipate. However, Nietzsche makes a distinction between the gods of the Semitic religions and those found among the Ancient Greeks:

The fact that in itself the conception of gods is not bound to lead necessarily to this degradation of the imagination (a temporary representation of whose vagaries we felt bound to give), the fact that there exist nobler methods of utilising the invention of gods than in this self-crucifixion and self-degradation of man, in which the last two thousand years of Europe have been past masters – these facts can fortunately be still perceived from every glance that we cast at the Grecian gods, these mirrors of noble and grandiose men, in which the animal in man felt itself deified, and did not devour itself in subjective frenzy.[29]

Furthermore, the Greeks blamed their “bad” actions on foolishness rather than “sin”. Guilt, therefore, was deflected and never once attributed to an individual. The ascetic ideal – i.e. that of self-moderation or, at worst, a kind of self-flagellation – was completely absent in Hellenic society.

Nietzsche’s cure for man’s infatuation with “bad conscience” takes the form of a defiant expression of our natural inclinations and a healthy reaffirmation of life:

[W]e need spirits of different calibre than seems really feasible in this age; spirits rendered potent through wars and victories, to whom conquest, adventure, danger, even pain, have become a need; for such a consummation we need habituation to sharp, rare air, to winter wanderings, to literal and metaphorical ice and mountains; we even need a kind of sublime malice, a supreme and self-conscious insolence of knowledge, which is the appendage of great health…[30]

The task itself, of course, is not something that can be undertaken by the masses, a new elite comprised of the highest types must emerge from their ranks and seek to embrace the liberating spirit that will bring about the re-orientation of humanity on a wider scale. If Paul Rée had offered his readers a glimpse into the subjective factors which have plunged mankind into the moral abyss, Nietzsche’s prophetic and inspiring tirades against ressentiment offer us a way out of it.

Essay III: What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?

The concluding chapter of Nietzsche’s work does not mince its words and the author shines his accusatory spotlight on the “physiological failures and whiners”[31] who use asceticism as a means to condemn a world in which they find themselves occupying the very bottom of the proverbial heap. This type of moral self-justification is based, of course, on a resentment of one’s inferior status in life. Those who are weak and inadequate blame, not themselves, but the world into which they have been thrown. It is, they argue, everyone else who is to blame for their shortcomings. Nietzsche’s intention in this chapter is to examine where the ascetic idea actually derives its power.

Using Richard Wagner (1813-1883) – with whom he so famously discontinued his friendship – as an example of someone who adopted a considerably more ascetic mentality towards the end of his life, rejecting the sensuality of his earlier musical compositions for a more chaste and monogamous approach to the dynamic of human relationships, Nietzsche accuses Wagner of separating these complimentary aspects and insinuates that he was guided by feelings of morality. Wagner’s Parsifal, for example, is viewed as a radical departure from the wild spirit that characterises some of Wagner’s earlier works and is seen as a form of betrayal:

Is Wagner’s Parsifal his secret laugh of superiority over himself, the triumph of that supreme artistic freedom and artistic transparency which he has at length attained? We might, I repeat, wish it were so, for what can Parsifal, taken seriously, really amount to? Is it really necessary to see in it (according to one expression used against me) the product of an insane hate of knowledge, mind and flesh? A curse on flesh and spirit in one breath of hate? An apostasy and reversion to the morbid Christian and obscurantist ideals? And finally a self-negation and self-elimination on the part of an artist, who till then had devoted all the strength of his will to the contrary, namely, the highest artistic expression of soul and body. And not only his art; of his life as well.[32]

Attacking Wagner, as he did, Nietzsche’s critique of nihilism in the ranks of the artistic community is all rather personal, to say the least. But Nietzsche does make a very important point, because most artists are afraid to stand alone without the patronage of the political or religious establishment and inevitably use their art to convey the most insipid forms of slave morality and ascetic religiosity.

At this point, Nietzsche examines the attitude of philosophers towards Art and concentrates specifically on thinkers such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). Some of these philosophers, he argues, are attracted to Art because it allows them to increase their feelings of power in ways that avoid instances of pride, materialism and sexual gratification. Nietzsche believes this is vital if a philosopher is to focus more intensely on his intellectual faculties and use them to the best of his abilities. Art, therefore, creates in the observer a kind of ascetic mentality which calms the mind and frees oneself from earthly desires. Philosophers often have to bear an intense burden and therefore such moments can enable them to transcend the pressures that may well distract them from their intellectual vocation.

Asceticism, then, can serve as a useful aid to the philosopher, but the earliest thinkers were forced to adopt special measures in order to stave off the possibility of religious and moral repression:

The philosophic spirit had, in order to be possible to any extent at all, to masquerade and disguise itself as one of the previously fixed types of the contemplative man, to disguise itself as priest, wizard, soothsayer, as a religious man generally: the ascetic ideal has for a long time served the philosopher as a superficial form, as a condition which enabled him to exist…[33]

For the Christian priest, however, upon the ascetic ideal rests his entire reason for existence and it is no wonder, therefore, that religious individuals are prepared to fight so intensely in order to jealously defend their spiritual principles from those who do not share them. Life, for ascetics, is perceived as something which must be transcended or even rejected completely. Nietzsche considers how this attitude might seem to outsiders:

The reading from the vantage of a distant star of the capital letters of our earthly life, would perchance lead to the conclusion that the earth was the especially ascetic planet, a den of discontented, arrogant, and repulsive creatures, who never got rid of a deep distrust of themselves, of the world, of all life, and did themselves as much hurt as possible out of pleasure in hurting – presumably their one and only pleasure.[34]

In those places where a healthy zest for life is found to be most acute and developed, therefore, the purveyors of asceticism and morality will attempt to root out and denounce those who dare to embrace it. The human will is everywhere stifled by the religious dogmatists who attribute either little of no value to life itself. Ironically, however, the fact that priests, rabbis and other spiritual formulators are so concerned about their own self-preservation actually demonstrates that by seeking to deny life to others, they are using the will as a means to preserve and defend their own lives from a spiritual or physical demise. The “will to power”, however, is tempered by a desire to experience life on a higher plane of existence, rather than in the world itself. The unattainable nature of this supernatural desire – in a more immediate sense, at the very least – has the effect of ensuring that, rather than seek to expand upon their “will to power”, religious ascetics look to strengthen and consolidate their position here in the material realm:

His “nay,” which he utters to life, brings to light as though by magic an abundance of grateful “yeas”; even when he wounds himself, this master of destruction, of self-destruction, it is subsequently the wound itself that forces him to live.[35]

As a result of the fact that the vast majority of people have neither the desire nor the ability to fulfil or live up to the demanding rigours of the ascetic ideal, the religious hierarchy increases its power by using asceticism to obtain moral superiority. Indeed, by sowing the seeds of “guilt” among those considered less pious it thus guarantees its privileged status at the helm of the ever-credulous masses.

The war of the sick against the healthy, says Nietzsche, and of the weak against the strong, is a perpetual feature of humanity and never ceases for one moment. He calls for a separation of the healthy from the weak and afflicted, even calling for the strong to keep away from the hospitals and madhouses, lest they become contaminated by

the evil fumes of internal corruption and the secret worm-eaten state of the sick![36]

It is alleged by Catholics that the role of the priest is to provide his flock with a kind of spiritual and emotional meditation, but Nietzsche takes issue with this claim and asks:

[I]s he really a physician, this ascetic priest? We already understand why we are scarcely allowed to call him a physician, however much he likes to feel a “saviour” and let himself be worshipped as a saviour. It is only the actual suffering, the discomfort of the sufferer, which he combats, not its cause…[37]

Furthermore, of course, the rise of morality under the auspices of Western Christianity actually created most of these problems in the first place. Indeed, due to self-denial and a rejection of some of life’s more virile aspects, the human psychology has been hopelessly plunged into a state of utter depression and mental incarceration. But whilst political and religious systems attempt to alleviate this widespread sickness by encouraging the masses to engage in community or group activities, the higher types prefer to remain aloof and tread a more solitary path:

[B]y an equally natural necessity the strong strive as much for isolation as the weak for union…[38]

The priests, Nietzsche claims, actually set out to foster and engender mass forms of emotional dependence. This is achieved by evoking a sense of personal and collective “guilt”, although the German philosopher also believes that modern psychologists have a lot to answer for because they seem incapable of self-examination. Knowing oneself is crucial to understanding what is wrong with human society at large, so psychology is performing an essentially dishonest role by passively accepting the moralising language of the times. So has moral asceticism served to improve mankind for the better? It seems not:

Speaking generally, the ascetic ideal and its sublime-moral cult, this most ingenious, reckless, and perilous systematisation of all methods of emotional excess, is writ large in a dreadful and unforgettable fashion on the whole history of man, and unfortunately not only on history. I was scarcely able to put forward any other element which attacked the health and race efficiency of Europeans with more destructive power than did this ideal; it can be dubbed, without exaggeration, the real fatality in the history of the health of the European man.[39]

Meanwhile, the systematic replacement and wholesale supplanting of Greek literature with the Christian Bible, a foreign importation completely lacking in relevance to Indo-European civilisation, has effectively castrated the spiritual, racial and cultural legacy of the West. Nietzsche has no time for the weakness and passivity of the New Testament, of course, but clearly understands the oft-violent, aggressive and uncompromising nature of the Old Testament. Nevertheless, the Christian texts remain poisonous for the intolerant manner in which everything must be interpreted in accordance with their blinkered theological precepts.

Nietzsche then speculates about whether the philosophers of his generation truly present a realistic opposition to the defenders and practitioners of asceticism, concluding that many of them are still far too interested in “the truth” and lack the free-spirited example of their forebears. In fact it is precisely this endless quest for “the truth” that is driven by a lingering belief in asceticism. Indeed, this pursuit of “the truth” at any price, as though it were somehow divine, bears all the usual hallmarks of asceticism in the sense that such an approach ends up becoming a threat to life. This happens as a result of the philosophical tendency to look at the world in terms of “mere appearances” only, thus establishing the negative characteristics that go on to contradict life itself.

Science is equally useless when it comes to providing a valid and functional opposition, he suggests, because it is incapable of creating values and has a constant need to believe in itself:

These two phenomena, science and the ascetic ideal, both rest on the same basis – I have already made this clear – the basis, I say, of the same over-appreciation of truth (more accurately the same belief in the impossibility of valuing and of criticising truth), and consequently they are necessarily allies, so that, in the event of their being attacked, they must always be attacked and called into question together. A valuation of the ascetic ideal inevitably entails a valuation of science as well: lose no time in seeing this clearly, and be sharp to catch it![40]

The same relationship exists today, of course, between modern states and their accompanying scientific establishments which wholly depend upon one another for their moral and financial subsistence. German patriotism, too, something Nietzsche greatly despised, was also unable to offer a realistic and practical antidote to the prevailing moral asceticism of the late-nineteenth century and, with its limited panoply of beer and cheap nationalist sentiment, was often seen to adopt a moral tone itself.

Nietzsche’s solution, then, in light of the moral plague that has gradually infected and subverted the body of Western civilisation, is that asceticism will ultimately destroy itself:

All great things go to ruin by reason of themselves, by reason of an act of self-dissolution: so wills the law of life, the law of necessary “self-mastery” even in the essence of life – ever is the law-giver finally exposed to the cry, “patere legem quam ipse tulisti” [submit to the law that you yourself have made]; in thus wise did Christianity go to ruin as a dogma, through its own morality; in thus wise must Christianity go again to ruin today as a morality – we are standing on the threshold of this event.[41]

Nietzsche’s concluding remarks explain how asceticism first arose as a direct result of the fact that man was unable to establish a reason for his existence. Indeed, at a time when suffering and hardship were accepted as part and parcel of one’s everyday life, asceticism became a convenient method of adding meaning to the question of why humans suffer in the first place. But the results, as we have shown, led to yet more suffering and a general “will”, according to Nietzsche, “for Nothingness” or what he describes elsewhere as “suicidal Nihilism”. The ascetic ideal, therefore, did not extinguish human will, it simply modified and redirected it until it became committed to the vanquishing of itself:

[B]ut it is and remains a will! – and to say at the end that which I said at the beginning – man will wish Nothingness rather than not wish at all.[42]

Nietzsche, however, does not believe that human suffering is itself a problem. In fact he is of the opinion that the main problem with suffering is that it is wrongly perceived as something which is completely meaningless and which serves no useful purpose. At the same time, Nietzsche formulates the view that suffering foments the feeling of ressentiment and that, in itself, leads those who suffer to blame others for their predicament.

Finally, that Nietzsche still continues to send a cold shiver down the spines of those who still champion and promote the pestilence of morality cannot be denied. The liberal philosopher, Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), is a case in point:

I dislike Nietzsche because he likes the contemplation of pain, because he erects conceit into a duty, because the men whom he most admires are conquerors, whose glory is cleverness in causing men to die. But I think the ultimate argument against his philosophy. as against any unpleasant but internally self-consistent ethic, lies not in an appeal to facts, but in an appeal to the emotions. Nietzsche despises universal love; I feel it the motive power to all I desire as regards the world. His followers have had their innings, but we may hope that it is coming rapidly to an end.[43]

Given the unsubstantiated claims which appear in this openly hostile extract, not least the insinuation that Nietzsche is somehow responsible for the rise of Nazism, the reader will be unsurprised, then, to discover that Russell was the twentieth century’s court philosopher par excellence and to learn that he was charged with the task of perpetuating and reinforcing the prevailing moral ethic. Compare the simpering morality of Russell with the anti-liberal sentiments of H. L. Mencken:

By the laws of this slave-morality the immoral man is he who seeks power and eminence and riches – the millionaire, the robber, the fighter, the schemer. The act of acquiring property by conquest – which is looked upon as a matter of course by master-morality – becomes a crime and is called theft. The act of mating in obedience to natural impulses, without considering the desire of others, becomes adultery; the quite natural act of destroying one’s enemies becomes murder.[44]

Many other philosophical commentators have either misinterpreted – deliberately or otherwise – or taken Nietzsche’s work completely out of context. Incredibly, one of his chief biographers, the German-American Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980), used his 1974 work Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist (1974) to portray Nietzsche as some kind of secular humanist. In 1961, on the other hand, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) issued a four-volume lecture series in which Nietzsche’s thought was effectively divorced from his discussions about morality and, instead, used to address questions relating to ontology and metaphysics. Others, such as Jacques Derrida (1930-2004) and Arthur Danto (1924-), have wrongly portrayed Nietzsche as a philosophical sceptic. Gilles Deleuze, who is probably best described as a pseudo-Nietzschean, also penned a ridiculously wild text (Nietzsche and Philosophy) about the ideas of the German thinker which actually tells us more about Deleuze than Nietzsche himself.

Friedrich Nietzsche died just two years after writing The Genealogy of Morals, but his work remains the most brilliant evaluation and, indeed, re-evaluation, of mankind’s descent into the abyss of slave morality and represents a most outstanding interpretation of those forms of justice and asceticism which are responsible. Sadly, Paul Rée – whose Origin of the Moral Sensations had greatly contributed to his friend’s understanding of morality – never published his thoughts concerning Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals and, instead, went on to study medicine and eventually became a doctor. He did, on the other hand, originally intend to dedicate The Origin of Conscience (1885) to Nietzsche, but the latter refused.

But despite the fact that the romantic allure of Lou Andreas-Salomé had initiated a gradual cooling-off process in terms of the friendship that had once been shared by the two philosophers, Nietzsche – who, ironically, had eventually proposed to Salomé through Rée himself – had produced a quite remarkable and valuable addition to the overall development of Western European thought. As Brian Leiter explains:

Nietzsche sets a profound task for the moral psychology of the future; it remains a challenge to the philosophers and psychologists of that future […] to complete it.[45]

The development of philosophy is one thing, but Nietzsche’s work is really aimed at a small elite of nascent individuals who are prepared to embrace their true destinies and express a willingness to both expose and dismantle the moral values of contemporary society and thus bring about the restoration of the natural order. Until we first begin to understand just how much damage has been wrought by the unprecedented expansion of human morality, however, that can never take place.


1. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals (Dover Publications, 2003), Pref:4.

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power: An Attempted Transvaluation of All Values (Vintage, 1968), 443.

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, op.cit., Pref:5.

4. Maudemarie Clark & Brian Leiter, Introduction in Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp.xix-xx.

5. Maudemarie Clark & Alan Swenson (Eds.), On the Genealogy of Morality (Hackett, 1998), pp.26-7.

6. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, op.cit., I:2.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid., I:3.

9. Peter Railton, Moral Realism in Philosophical Review 95 (1986), p.10.

10. W.K.C. Guthrie, The Sophists (Cambridge University Press, 1971), p.166.

11. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, op.cit., I:5.

12. Brian Leiter, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality (Routledge, 2002), pp.116-120.

13. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power: An Attempted Transvaluation of All Values, op.cit., 13.

14. Brian Leiter, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality, op.cit., p.125.

15. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, op.cit., I:6.

16. Ibid., I:7.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid., I:10.

19. Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo (Vintage, 1967), IV:7.

20. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, op.cit., I:11.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., I:16.

23. Ibid., II:1.

24. Ibid., II:2.

25. Ibid., II:9.

26. Ibid., II:11.

27. Ibid., II:16.

28. Brian Leiter, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality, op.cit., p.241.

29. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, op.cit., II:23.

30. Ibid., II:24.

31. Ibid., III:1.

32. Ibid., III:3.

33. Ibid., III:10.

34. Ibid., III:11.

35. Ibid., III:13.

36. Ibid., III:14.

37. Ibid., III:17.

38. Ibid., III:18.

39. Ibid., III:21.

40. Ibid., III:25.

41. Ibid., III:27.

42. Ibid., III:28.

43. Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy and its Connection with Political and Social Circumstances from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (George Allen & Unwin, 1974), p.739.

44. H.L. Mencken, The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (See Sharp Press, 2003), pp.50-1.

45. Brian Leiter, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Nietzsche on Morality, op.cit., p.303.

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