Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Genealogy of Morality - Nietzsche

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Tagline:Beyond Good & Evil, not beyond good & bad!

Preface: Genealogy of the Genealogy

Nietzsche describes in his preface a personal genealogy of his project concerning morality’s history. The question of evil was the subject of his first philosophical essay — then, at the tender age of thirteen, he had attributed evil to God! But in order to tell of this and of the subsequent development of his ideas, he must rely on memory, on self-reflection, examining what had earlier occupied his thoughts, not on direct present experience. “We are unknown, we knowers, ourselves to ourselves”. Thus opens Nietzsche’s genealogy. A genealogy of morality presupposes a genealogy of truth, even of philosophers as “knowers” of truth, and perhaps also of oneself.

It is only over time, he says, that his thoughts have come to fruition, connected and interrelated into a unified philosophical enterprise, thanks to the development of both a new language and greater clarity within himself. He feels this unity more than he ever had in previous works such as “Human all Too Human”, both as fact and as duty in presentation. This sense of unity reinforces his confidence in what he wants to say, which ironically will be to ultimately deny unity to the goddess Philosophy that bedevils him (and society) with her objective ideals of Truth. If his fruits are not to our taste, “what matters that to the trees? What matters that to us, us the philosophers?” His are living subjective truths.

The question about the origin of evil is replaced by new questions: (1) how man came to invent such value-judgments as “good” and “evil”? (the historical conditions that led to their arising), and (2) whether these concepts possess intrinsic value in themselves to promote life, strength, fullness, courage, and human well-being? For what if, on the contrary, our idea of “good” were detrimental to humankind in the long-term? Nietzsche, skeptic but not nihilist, would like to see a revaluing of our values in terms of maximizing the long-term potentiality for human brilliance.

Paul Rée (1877) had suggested that our values derive from altruistic acts praised by others for their utility, and this reason for them being “good” is then forgotten, but Nietzsche disagrees that usefulness for the “other” could be forgotten since we would continuously be reminded of it. He rejects too what he regards as the more reasonable hypothesis of Herbert Spencer that “good” symbolizes unforgettable experiences of utility for the “other”.

For Nietzsche, the original (and truest) idea of “good” is a spontaneous overflowing of the noble self, who for itself defines this “good”. And yet Nietzsche also defines “good” as that which is worthy of being admired, and in this formulation he unwittingly approximates his rejected idea of “good” as rooted in the “other”. The “other” in this case would be the imagined admirer who admires only what is worthy of being admirable. Such a “worthy” observer would necessarily require a “good” imagination to imagine her, so Nietzsche’s “good” is after-all a most positive and self-reinforcing concept so far as it exists at all.

Nietzsche’s thesis is that the “morality of pity” and its culmination in the ascetic ideal of the philosopher and renunciant-priest are dangerous seductive temptations of society away from the original life-affirming self, confident in its own “goodness”, and a slide towards nihilism.

Nietzsche’s evidence that “good” was founded in the values of the noble races of antiquity is philological (from an analysis of Indo-European etymology) and historical (though his history is mostly imagined). Despite the inadequacy of Nietzsche’s history, his etymology is nevertheless convincing. The “simple” (“schlict”), once associated with “bad” (“schlect”), has over time come to mean the exact opposite: the simple man is the good man. Meanwhile, the aristocratic “good” which once meant the sincere, the clean, the successful, has taken on deadening moral overtones and become associated with the peaceful life. Nevertheless, it would be a genetic fallacy if we answered Nietzsche’s second question of whether our current conceptions were conducive to human flourishing on the basis of their original meanings and prejudices. What these changes reveal however is an inconsistency. This inconsistency forces us to doubt our inherited concepts, and to take his questions about morality seriously.

Not only does Nietzsche want to be read, but he wants to be ruminated upon, and the third essay in his book will be an example (based on an aphorism in “Thus Spake Zarathustra”) of what he imagines such a rumination should look like. He makes no small demand on his readers that they may “enjoy the halcyon element from which that work is born, in its sunny brilliance, its distance, its spaciousness, its certainty.” 

First Essay: Good & Evil

While Nietzsche admires the so-called “English psychologists” for being the first to dare examine the origins of our morals, he criticizes them for locating the “decisive element” of morality in passive principles: in man’s “forgetfulness”, “habit”, “stupidity”, in short on conditioning based on “error”. What a menagerie of “old frigid and tedious frogs hopping around men and inside men, as if they were as thoroughly at home there as they would be in a swamp” he quips.

According to Nietzsche, there is no antithesis between altruistic and egoistic to begin with because the first masters of language define “good” according to their own aristocratic values, and “bad” in contradistinction to it. Nor is there an antithesis between a subject and his or her actions, for there is no subject-predicate, no being behind doing — only doing, and so no sense of responsibility for being anything other than what one is: “good”. The actions of the master are “good” because it is master. This is master morality.

Meanwhile, other parts of the body-politic suffer. Unable to ease their suffering, they resent the master’s power. In a reversal, the master is seen as “evil”, and the weaker or slave-element in man defines itself as “good” (by this account then, “evil” comes first, the beginning of the gravest error, the creation of value based on resentment). This is the reactive slave morality that Nietzsche so abhors because he sees it as taming what was noble and active in man. The master in man is conditioned. Slave morality is based on prudence. It demands responsibility (the master, now separated from identification with the “good”, must take responsibility and make a choice to become “good”).

The master was foolish not to see it coming. But unlike the slave, he lacks cunning. Though cruel and violent at times, he knows no resentment except of the sort which he acts upon immediately. In contrast to seeing his enemy as “evil”, he reveres him as worthy of his distinction. It is only an active master-mentality that can go so far as to “love one’s enemy” as Jesus had preached (if such a thing is possible). Bearing no grudges, there is no question of forgiveness because all that is separated from action is forgotten. This is not a conditioned forgetfulness, but an active forgetting. In the same way, the sovereign individual is capable of an active remembering. The great will promises sparingly, conferring honour by its trust, knowing to its innermost depths that it is strong enough to fulfil its promise, “even in the teeth of disasters, even in the teeth of fate”. This is the true meaning of conscience, based on honour and supreme will.

The master is a sovereign individual. He is a symbol of the Apollonian overrun by the Dyonisian herd. As examples of this phenomenon, he cites the Reformation in reaction to the European Renaissance, and also the French Revolution. The latter, in a counter-reactive movement produced the terrible anachronism of “Napoleon, that synthesis of Monster and Superman” who represents “the incarnate problem of the aristocratic ideal in itself”, the ideal idealized. “May there not take place at some time or other a much more awful, much more carefully prepared flaring up of the old conflagration?” Nietzsche is uncertain whether he wishes for it or not. It is almost as if he has a bad premonition of being misunderstood by those who do not even know “what I exactly mean by that dangerous motto Beyond Good and Evil — at any rate that is not the same as beyond good and bad”.

In a way, weren’t the “English psychologists” right after all in locating our reactive sense of morality in our conditioning? And Nietzsche is right also to promote a more positive idea of conscience of the sovereign individual based on honour and supreme will. It is this good conscience which, in a reversal, has been undermined with resentment and unsatisfied revenge. In the third essay, we will see a second reversal whereby the resentment of slave morality is turned inward upon itself by the ascetic priest. The slave-element becomes itself “evil” and responsible for its own suffering. Nietzsche investigates this internalization of guilt, or so-called “bad conscience”, in his second essay, by which the priest gives meaning to suffering, for it is meaningless suffering which man cannot bear.

Second Essay: Bad Conscience

That supreme will to fulfil one’s promise — is it really a natural quality of the master, or is it burnt into the memory by pain? The history of man is replete with public and varied methods of torture and punishment that leave their scars in our collective unconscious. However, at least to begin with, Nietzsche claims that punishments were not based on guilt, but rather as the currency of exchange for some debt. In German, “Schuld” means guilt , while “Schulden” means debt. In English, we have a similar double-meaning of “ought” and “owe”.

Justice was not based on “right” and “wrong”, but on a coming-to-terms, by agreement where the parties were of equal strength, or compelling them to agree if they were not. Justice is not based on reactive feelings of resentment or revenge, but rather plays the role of a substitute-settlement softening the desire for revenge. It is a social exchange before it develops into the foundations of law.

Law restrains reactive feelings. It does not precede “right” and “wrong”, but rather founds them. The actor is separated from the action, held responsible for it, and to the extent it falls short, man as measurer of things inflicts a corresponding punishment.

The satisfaction in inflicting pain was measured against the duty unfulfilled. We balk at this today! How could inflicting pain be a satisfaction? But for the benefits of community life, Nietzsche believes that this was the price we had to pay, and we forget the ancient joy in cruelty, a joy we have repressed and turned inwards on ourselves. As the power of a community increases, so the need for punishment is mitigated. But “conversely, every weakening and jeopardising of the community revives the harshest forms of that law”.

Though revenge was not the original purpose of punishment, and law was conceived as an ordering power to be applied in exceptional conditions, everything which prevails anywhere “will always be put to new purposes by a force superior to itself”, in an overpowering that can extinguish any subsisting “meaning” it might have held. Indeed, the origin of a thing and its final utility are often utterly contrary to each other. There is no natural progression, only an appropriation by a greater will, with no ultimate arbiter, for this is so for the sovereign will itself. So law, in its own eventual overcoming by reactive values, is “conceived of as sovereign and universal”. In this form, it becomes antithetical to the power struggle itself, and thus “hostile to life”. Nietzsche approves of law at its inception where it regulated an exception in a struggle between a complex of powers, and was itself one such power. An example might be the law that insisted a break in fighting for lunch during the Battle of Hastings in 1066. It is the law that prohibits fighting altogether that Nietzsche finds oppressive.

Law also institutionalises punishment, which over the ages has been applied for very different reasons. The variation of reasons shows an incoherence in something whose meaning is normally taken for granted. This claim of incoherence is the essence of the genealogical approach to history which Foucault later applied more widely. The institution or habitual form of behaviour changes little over time, unlike the meaning which results from an imposition of will.

One meaning that punishment has never claimed to possess is the one we should most desire: a means to awaken intrinsic morality. On the contrary, it hardens and makes man cautious and cunning. People begin to obey the law not out of intrinsic morality but out of fear of punishment. Domesticated like animals, intrinsic morality or "good conscience" is like a muscle that grows weak through disuse. In the expectation of punishment, man represses his exuberant vivaciousness and turns his will to power and instinct for freedom against himself. The result is an internalized consciousness of guilt, what Nietzsche calls “bad conscience”.

This reflects a general principle for Nietzsche that psychological phenomena arise originally out of concrete social practices, and not the reverse. We are “guilty” because we are punished, not punished because we are “guilty”. This is not a form of philosophical materialism, just a claim that the psychological environment that led to the social practices was quite different from what these social practices themselves later brought about.

Bad conscience is the debt that can never be repaid. It turns against oneself, becomes active and seeks new and higher standards of customary morality. The purpose of these more and more demanding ideals is precisely that they are beyond reach, thus impossible to attain, perpetuating self-inflicted suffering. The devil is in the details! The result of this active bad conscience is a striving for self-improvement that creates much that is beautiful in the world, even the idea of beauty itself. If it is illness, it is so in the same way “as pregnancy is illness”.

Going back once again to the origins of this bad conscience, Nietzsche believes that the debt of obedience to society is transferred into a debt to ancestors and heroes who are revered as gods, the founders of society, ultimately becoming a debt to God, and thus a duty to ideals in themselves. The debt is too great to ever repay, and so no punishment can repay it. It is in this abject circumstance that Nietzsche conceives the Christian idea of Jesus, flesh of God, taking on man’s punishment while not assuaging his guilt, “the creditor playing scapegoat for his debtor, from love (can you believe it?), from love of his debtor!” Nietzsche contrasts this with the Greek gods who took on man’s guilt (which was “more noble”), whilst not lessening their punishment. The Greeks saw the vicissitudes of man as the result of foolishness (not sin), and how could aristocratic man fall prey to such folly? Why, “it must be that a god infatuated him”!

Nietzsche would like to see a reversal of religious conditioning based on fear and guilt, and a return to innocence. It is a different love that Nietzsche strives for, a love of free spirits “to whom conquest, adventure, danger, even pain, have become a need”, spirits of “great health”. It is the love that comes from letting ourselves go from the burden of bad conscience. “How conciliatory, how full of love does all the world show itself towards us so soon as we do as all the world does, and “let ourselves go” as all the world”. “In a stronger age than this rotting and introspective present” will come to us a redeemer of this great love, a redeemer of reality, “this Antichrist and Antinihilist — this conqueror of God and of Nothingness — he must one day come”. Nietzsche refers of course to his imagined prophet, Zarathustra, who might perhaps turn the very state of “bad conscience” against itself. But he catches himself in this hope that expresses nothing but his own bad conscience. The only proper response for him is silence.

Third Essay: The Ascetic Ideal

Nietzsche begins the third essay by describing the effects of the ascetic ideal: in artists “nothing or too much”, in women “the angelhood of a fat, pretty animal”, in the majority of mortals “an attempt to pose as “too good” for this world, a holy form of debauchery”, in priests an “engine of power”, in saints “a pretext for hibernation” and in philosophers “the conditions most favorable for advanced intellectualism”. 

In artists “nothing or too much” — what can he mean? Nietzsche felt that Richard Wagner’s paying homage to chastity, with his folk-hero Parsifal, was a betrayal because it was worshipping in old age what was in tragic antithesis to his own healthy sensuality of youth. The artist (like the philosopher) is only chaste by accident in so far as his energies are directed to higher pursuits, and so “there is no necessary antithesis between chastity and sensuality”. Even to the extent that there is conflict, this is something to celebrate as in Hafiz or Goethe, a further charm, a delicate balance that we are between animal and angel, something that allures one to life!

In any case, art should not be judged by the artist who is “after all merely the presupposition of his work, the womb, the soil, in certain cases the dung and manure on which and out of which it grows.” The question of origins is one for psychologists and vivisectors, but never for aesthetes and artists themselves. And so when it comes to art, ascetic ideals mean nothing because the art stands alone. As for the artists themselves, it means too much, a betrayal to nothingness.

There follow diatribes against both Kant and Schopenhauer, the latter whom he thinks unduly influenced Wagner into his volte face. Beauty is not without self-interest as Kant had insisted, nor a sublimation of libido as Schopenhauer had claimed. Nietzsche believes rather in Stendhal, whom he thinks, as an artist, knows the truth of these things better. Stendhal famously described the beautiful as une promesse de bonheur, “a promise of happiness”. Is Stendhal right?

Nietzsche believes Schopenhauer’s conception of beauty is confused not only by what is peculiar to Schopenhauer (perhaps for example his need for enemies in Hegel, woman, sensuality and the “will for existence” — passions of enmity which “kept him going”), but what is peculiar to him as a “youth of twenty-six”, implying his excess of sexual interest influenced his philosophical judgment. Schopenhauer’s sublimation of libido in beauty represents a certain insight to Nietzsche, the use of beauty as “escape from a torture”, and what is that if not self-interest?

The philosophical animal strives for ascetic ideals, and for Kantian disinterest, because the idyllic state they bring about results in an optimum of productivity for the intellectual life. It is hubris that philosophers prize ascetic ideals because they epitomize philosophical self-interest. Nietzsche makes a list of great unmarried philosophers, all the greatest philosophers he claims (apart from Socrates), and no doubt comforts himself to be among them. “The philosopher shuns three brilliant and noisy things — fame, princes and women”, and he does this out of an overriding maternal instinct for what is best in himself. “A married philosopher belongs to comedy”, he jeers. He is writing of course before either A. J. Ayer or Jean-Paul Sartre, both notorious womanizers. He means perhaps by all this that his own rejected proposal for Lou Salomé’s hand has been of untold benefit to philosophy.

So, unlike Kant, Nietzsche insists on the sensuality of the aesthetic state, possessing a “sweetness and fulness”, just as the idealism of adolescent youth is a form of sensuality, but it is sensuality transfigured and so not witnessed as sexual excitement.

The hubris of the philosopher would deny us the sensual pleasure. But how has it come to this? “All good things were once bad things”. Philosophy would have been “absolutely impossible in the world without the ascetic priest”, and ascetic ideals involve reversals in morality that the priest has helped bring about.

What is the real meaning of ascetic ideals? The ascetic ideal is the belief that in principle it is bad to exercise the will. It gives meaning to one’s own weakness and suffering as a consequence of activity being evil. In the long run, it starts a self-reinforcing debilitating cycle that increases suffering.

In the Christian setting, Nietzsche sees “innocent” therapies for suffering in prescribing work, the doing of good deeds, and finding joy in the joy of others, all these an expression of an infinitesimal communal will to power. Meanwhile, the “guilty” therapies for suffering are the ascetic practices which equate man’s suffering with sin: not only are we responsible for our suffering, but guilty for it. Nietzsche, of course, believes that there are no such things as moral phenomena, only moral interpretations of phenomena. Concepts are like coins whose images have been effaced to leave mere tokens, dominated by will, and he would deny any metaphysics of slave morality. Moreover, since all these therapies do not treat underlying physiological problems, they offer hope but rarely effect a cure.

The ascetic or “guilty” practices take two interrelated forms: introspection (examining what you have done, and what impulse to activity is causing your suffering), and the will to truth (pursued and acted upon for its own sake as if it has value over everything else). The will to truth is inherently an ascetic phenomenon because it is the turning of the will against what one might otherwise like to believe. Honesty to oneself is based on the moral imperative not to deceive others. It is in fact the very core of the ascetic ideal once all the outer scaffolding of religion is cast off.

Nietzsche is himself an example of someone who has developed these two facets of the ascetic ideal, introspection and truth, to their limits, and he wishes to reveal that it has been a dubious enterprise. In its inevitable fruition, it involves a dissolution of dogma, morality, and truth itself. Nietzsche sees Christian values as nihilistic because they negate vitality. In second-order nihilism that rejects nihilistic values, we don’t find ourselves back at where we started because this is not a dialectic: not (not A) ≠ A. So in the rejection of nihilism, we really end up worse off. This is a paradoxical situation because it is the ascetic ideal itself which has brought this about. 

He sees a precursor to this 2500 years ago in Indian history with the teachings of Buddha. Are we to expect a corresponding European Buddhism? Nietzsche sees this as the ascetic ideal with the mask torn off, the apogee of reactive slave morality. But perhaps he is mistaken. After all, the way of Zen is often known as the warrior path, and the same is true in all the great mystical traditions. There is no question of shrinking from the world, and on the contrary the challenge is to keep the heart open, compassionate and accepting. Buddha himself famously rejected asceticism. Finally, reactive slave morality requires a metaphysics of self upon which to turn inwards, whereas the essence of Buddha's teaching, which distinguished it from everything that had come before, is the idea of “no-self” (in Pali, anatta). It was with the creation of the metaphysical self that saw itself as “good” or “evil” that the whole of this history of our fall from innocence followed.

Does Nietzsche himself provide a positive alternative? There is the will to power, biological fitness, cultural productivity, and perhaps encapsulating all of these: the phenomenon of being worthy of admiration. Nietzsche is not attacking the good/bad or true/false distinction, for example as regards whether something is worthy of being admired, but rather the theories of truth that presuppose truth as the highest value. We see this in science and philosophy as well as religion. Rather, Truth for Nietzsche is a woman. We recall the aphorism from “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, from which this essay grew: “Careless, mocking, forceful — so does wisdom wish us: she is a woman, and never loves any one but a warrior”.

In summary, Nietzsche is offering a Dionysian corrective to self-conscious reactive morality that hinders man's natural instincts to pursue one's desires. This short book is brilliant in the sense that so many seminal ideas of 20th century philosophy can be traced back to some paragraph or sentence that we could imagine might have been the inspiration (Freud's “Totem & Taboo”, Freud's psychological repression, Derrida's “Force of Law”, Agamben's state of exception, Foucault's “Discipline & Punish”, Foucault's genealogical method to name but a few).

And yet in this Dionysian-style critique, Nietzsche neglects the value of the Apollonian from which, as he admits, beauty itself is born, and Dionysus imagined made-flesh. “I swear to Apollo” is the Hippocratic oath, self-conscious of one's metaphysical being as persona having duty to the other. That too has a place in our moral outlook, does it not?

As for Truth, as for Socrates, we are observers of the world, but we are also artists (or we should be, as Socrates in Plato's “Phaedo” says he was instructed in dreams) and Truth is the picture-frame that bridges art and observation. Truth is what lets us appreciate creation as art, to represent and share it, for in order for creation to be productive it must also be social. It must not be allowed to upset our own balance between reactive and active forces, Ascetic and Superman. It is for the alchemy of these two that we strive. In the spirit of an old Buddhist proverb, we must kill and transcend both: to reject Buddhism and become Buddha, to reject Christianity and become Christ. Self-knowledge is not the metaphysical objectification of the self, nor its subjective affirmation. The true meaning of self-knowledge is self-love, “when the two become one”.

Nietzsche is like the man in Plato's allegory of the cave who has been dragged into the sunlight and suffers from the sight. But unlike that story, he finds no comfort in Truth, unwilling to accept her, and so it is grudgingly that he spreads the “bad news”.

To conclude, what thrills you into activity? Do that! ...with a humble Will to Heart!

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