chapter  4
8 Pages

Reading the Genealogy

On the Genealogy of Morality is composed of a preface in which Nietzsche recounts his path to this project and three essays that take up different aspects of “morality”. Mathias Risse has helpfully drawn attention to a postcard from Nietzsche to Franz Overbeck in which Nietzsche offers some elucidation with respect to the structure of this work:

Nietzsche says that, “for the sake of clarity, it was necessary artificially to isolate the different roots of that complex structure that is called morality. Each of these three treatises expresses a single primum mobile; a fourth and fifth are missing, as is even the most essential (‘the herd instinct’) – for the time being, the latter had to be ignored, as too comprehensive, and the same holds for the ultimate summation of all those different elements and thus a final account of morality.” Nietzsche also points out that each treatise makes a contribution to the genesis of Christianity and rejects an explanation of Christianity in terms of only one psychological category. The topics of the treatises are “good” and “evil” (first treatise), the “bad conscience” (second), and the “ascetic ideal” (third). The postcard suggests that Nietzsche discusses these topics separately because a joint treatment is too complicated, but that in reality, these ideas are inextricably intertwined, both with each other and with others that Nietzsche omits. Therefore, the three treatises should be regarded as parts of a unified theory and critique of morality. (Risse 2001: 55)

The postcard to which Risse refers suggests why Nietzsche regarded the Genealogy as “decisive preliminary studies by a psychologist for a reevaluation of values” (EH “Why I Write Such Good Books”, on GM) and, more significantly, indicates that we should approach the three essays as “foregrounding” different aspects of a single complex phenomenon: “morality”. (This does not, however, license the view also advanced by Risse that there is no implicit narrative in the Genealogy – “no single historical background story in place yet” (Risse 2001: 60) – that relates the formation of the elements of “morality” treated in the three essays.) Further support for this view of the Genealogy is provided by Nietzsche’s gloss on the three essays in Ecce Homo:

Every time a beginning that is calculated to mislead: cool, scientific, even ironic, deliberately foreground, deliberately holding off. Gradually more unrest; sporadic lightning; very disagreeable truths are heard rumbling in the distance – until eventually a tempo feroce is attained in which everything rushes ahead in a tremendous tension. In the end, in the midst of perfectly gruesome detonations, a new truth becomes visible every time among thick clouds. The truth of the first inquiry is the birth of Christianity: the birth of Christianity out of the spirit of ressentiment, not, as people may believe, out of the “spirit” – a countermovement by its very nature, the great rebellion against the domination of noble values. The second inquiry offers the psychology of the conscience – which is not, as people may believe, “the voice of God in man”: it is the instinct for cruelty that turns back after it can no longer discharge itself externally. Cruelty is here exposed for the first time as one of the most ancient and basic substrata of culture that simply cannot be imagined away. The third inquiry offers the answer to the question whence the ascetic ideal, the priests’ ideal, derives its tremendous power although it is the harmful ideal par excellence, a will to the end, an ideal of decadence. Answer: not, as people may believe, because God is at work behind the priests but faute de mieux – because it was the only ideal so far, because it had no rival. (EH “Why I Write Such Good Books”, on GM)

We shall have reason to return to consideration of the opening paragraph of this gloss shortly but for the moment let us note merely

that Nietzsche here affirms that each essay is directed at a specific aspect of “morality” and at beliefs that people may have concerning “morality”.