Sunday, September 13, 2009

Deciphering Nietzsche

Before I begin, let me preface my post by declaring that I know about as much about Philosophy as a four-year-old knows about how to split an atom. This class is the first Philosophy course I’ve ever taken, therefore I have no knowledge of the principles and conventions upholding the discipline. As such, it takes me a bit longer than your average Philosophy whiz to absorb and understand all this information, and even longer to think of constructive ways to criticize it. So, if anything I say in the next few paragraphs sounds like the incoherent ramblings of a drunken maniac, you know why.

In the excerpt from “On The Genealogy of Morality,” Friedrich Nietzsche asserts that the origin of our understanding of the word “good” stems from an aristocratic projection of what he calls the “pathos of nobility,” (79) meaning that it was the lords and dukes and barons of times past who deemed everything they did and enjoyed as “good” while condemning everything else to the realm of “bad.” To support his argument, Nietzsche offers examples taken from various languages and demonstrates the implicit association within these words with “the common,” or “bad,” such as the correlation he draws between the German word for “bad” (schleclt) and “plain” (schlicht) given their one-letter difference (80). Although such a similarity warrants debate and investigation, it seems illogical to use such a connection as the entire grounds for debasing our understanding of a word.

Take, for example, the words “sea” and “see.” The first refers to a body of water while the latter indicates the act of comprehending the visual world. But to use Nietzsche’s reasoning, their near identical spelling indicates that these words share an inextricable etymological connection, right? Of course not. Although Nietzsche has more than enough fodder to purport a philosophical relationship between the ruling class and the development of the word “good,” his attempts to provide concrete evidence of this etymological evolution are questionable at best.

But nit-picky details aside, the overall course of Nietzsche’s argument seems to take an entire amusement park’s worth of twists and turns between point A and point B. Later on in the excerpt, Nietzsche unpacks the concept he terms “slave-morality” (82) where the low, common, and oppressed attempt to reclaim what it means to be “bad” by defining it in terms of everything their oppressors represent. In this sense, slave-morality is nothing more than an inversion of the patrician understanding of the good but from the opposite side of the fence. But such an act of reversal, in Nietzsche’s understanding, is entirely egregious, self-serving, and nothing more than a passive attempt at revenge. “[I]n order to come into being,” Nietzsche writes, “slave-morality always needs an opposite. . . it needs, psychologically speaking, external stimuli in order to order to be able to act at all,--its action is, from the ground up, reaction” (82). On those grounds, Nietzsche dismisses slave-morality as base and unproductive, serving no purpose other than to offer an outlet for the hate-filled powerless.

Wait, hold on. Now here’s where he’s lost me.

At the beginning of the excerpt, Nietzsche argues the aristocratic understanding of “good” as downright “wrong” (79) because the ruling class simply deemed everything they are as “good” and everything they are not as “bad.” As we’ve already deduced, slave-morality employs the same process. But yet, when discussing slave-morality, the nobility suddenly become “triumphant” (82) and filled with “life and passion” (82) while the weak and oppressed are the antagonists, the “most evil enemies” (81) worthy of scorn and contempt. Where did that switch happen? On what grounds does Nietzsche suddenly flip his argument in the opposite direction? Maybe these are some of life’s unanswerable questions, like who in the world thought it was a good idea to create 8 a.m. classes. Or maybe the answer’s staring up from the page at me, but I just don’t have the right perspective to recognize it. Either way, I hope my ramblings haven’t bored you too much and that I’ve instigated some sort of reflection of your part, even if only slightly.


  1. Some knowledge of German may help decipher some of what Nietzsche is saying here. What he offers for the origin of "good" and "bad" is an etymological argument, not merely one of closeness of letters. On page 80 he acknowledges the simple translation of "bad" in German is "schlecht". It is often used similarly to "schlicht", translated as "plain, simple". As "schlechterweg" and "schlechterdings" literally translate to "bad way" and "bad things," in German idiom, the meaning given to the words by the Germans historically, they translate to "simply or down-right." Thus the relation is demonstrated by the history of common use of the words.

    Pertaining to the revaluation of values, Nietzsche points out the Jews as the prototypical example. Out of their powerlessness, the only method by which they could assert themselves was to reverse the valuations of the nobility, to place the values of the politically powerful at the feet of other values, namely those of the weak: powerlessness, meekness, etc. Whereas the nobility valued physical prowess, the priestly caste devalued it as "immoral". Thus we are faced with two competing versions of what is "good", one promulgated by the nobility and the opposite by the priestly caste. We can see these two clashing moralities throughout modern history.

  2. Beautifully reasoned, good sir. I concede my argument and consider myself pwned.


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