Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will summarize the three essays that constitute Friedrich Nietzsche's book ~'On the Genealogy of Morals.~' The most significant ideas in each essay will be explained and contextualized within the larger context of Nietzsche's thought.

Nietzsche's Genealogy

Friedrich Nietzsche published On the Genealogy of Morals in 1887. This period of Nietzsche's life is considered by many scholars to be his most productive and significant. On the Genealogy of Morals was preceded in 1886 by Beyond Good and Evil, and both texts are concerned with similar ideas involving the historically constructed nature of morality. Nietzsche challenged most of the main currents of philosophical thought in the 19th century and brazenly attacked many of the basic moral assumptions of his time. On the Genealogy of Morals is perhaps the most concise representation of his fully developed philosophy and is still highly influential in the 21st century.

Preface and First Essay

In the preface of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche sets up the basic argument that he will be presenting throughout the remainder of the text. In his highly distinctive, ironic, rather intimate writing style, Nietzsche begins by reminding the reader that contemporary humanity does not really know itself; the essential truths that we accept about the world are not only false, but also a distraction from a more careful analysis of the origins, or genealogy, of values.

In Nietzsche's first essay he sets out his understanding of the distinction between Good/Bad and Good/Evil that developed in the ancient world. Prior to the advent of Judeo-Christianity, humanity understood good to be that which was associated with strength and power. Conversely, that which was considered bad was the opposite of good, which is to say, weak, humiliating, and impoverished. Nietzsche closely associates this ancient and aristocratic notion of goodness with creativity; he, who has the will and the power enough to create his own values, assigns meaning to the world.

Nietzsche argues that this ancient conception of Good/Bad was first challenged and eventually replaced by the Judeo-Christian conception of Good/Evil. For Nietzsche, Good/Evil is based on the resentment that slaves in the Roman Empire felt towards their masters. In this new slave morality, good came to be everything that the slave was: passive, meek, and humble. Conversely, evil came to be everything that the masters were: violent, strong, greedy, etc. Nietzsche argues that this historically specific conception of morality has been handed down to the European cultures of his own day, but contemporary humanity has forgotten the historical origins of their morality, instead mistaking it for universal, essential morality.

Second Essay

Nietzsche sees the abovementioned forgetfulness and lack of historical reflection as a serious problem. Contemporary humanity's amnesia regarding the origins of Christian morality is not simply ignorance; it is a forgetfulness that distances humanity from the will that drives their actions and decisions. For Nietzsche, the will to power, the driving force of action and intention, is the most important force animating humanity. If we forget the origins of our moral choices, the will that drives them, we lose our will to power.

Nietzsche goes on to describe the function and development of the idea of punishment. In ancient times, Nietzsche argues, punishment was meted out by the powerful on those beneath them without any kind of moral scruples. With the rise of Judeo-Christian morality, humanity has been taught to feel shame regarding its natural impulse to inflict suffering on those who have wronged us, or simply those weaker than we are. Nietzsche sees this development as a form of modern pessimism, or as a symptom of humanity denying its own will to power.

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