Reading Nietzsches Genealogy

This book offers a reading of Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality, the work which has come to be regarded, especially in the English-speaking world, as his most sustained philosophical achievement, his masterpiece, and the most vital of his writings for any student of Nietzsche, of ethics, or of the history of modern thought. I shall refer to other texts by Nietzsche, especially his earlier published works Beyond Good and Evil, The Gay Science, and Daybreak, for elucidations of what is at stake in the Genealogy. But the centre of gravity is always the interpretation of the Genealogy itself, and the questions a reading of it raises: the nature of those modern moral values that locate goodness in selflessness, in compassion towards others, and in guilty hostility towards one's own instincts; the psychology and history that generated these values; their contribution to sickness and health; the complexity of human feelings and drives; the nature of philosophical truth-seeking; the significance of suffering; and the call for the creation of new values that affirm rather than deny life. I begin with some remarks about the kind of reading offered in the following pages.

In the increasingly urgent concern with Nietzsche in recent times two extreme trends are apparent. One extreme has reflected to the point of obsession on the nature of reading itself, on masks, playfulness, arbitrariness, and the radical problematization of meaning. Nietzsche has been co-opted into an assemblage of very recent theory and hailed as its originating and exemplary figure, and sometimes it has been thought that his writings are not 'about' anything other than style, the nature of metaphor, the undecidability of meaning, or the instability of the 'author position'. At the other extreme it has become possible to adopt towards Nietzsche's extraordinary, perplexing, and emotive literary achievement an attitude that amounts to denial, as if he were just an ordinary philosopher with a programme of theories about knowledge and reality, the nature of the human mind, and the status of values, that differed only superficially from the contents of a contemporary journal article. Both extremes in Nietzsche interpretation, for all the admirable sophistication and insight they may have shown, have tended to over-polarize and oversimplify debate; worse, they have risked stretching Nietzsche's unique writings between two alien forms of dogmatism about method.

The idea that present-day assumptions about philosophy may be 'alien' to historical texts is vulnerable to the challenge that we cannot strip away all our prior assumptions and view the bare text for what it 'really' is. One point likely to be agreed upon wherever one stands on issues of philosophical method is that no one approaches any text without applying to it their own aims, interests, theories, assumptions, prejudices, anxieties, horizons, perspectives, or whatever else they may be called. Reading Nietzsche himself has taught us that much. But that we must construe the text from some angle or other does not mean that all angles are equally appropriate. So one aim and one anxiety behind the present book is that Nietzsche not be treated as though he were some determinate species of theorist from the latter half of the twentieth century, or as though, were he so, he would somehow be improved.

In general, then, I do not see the prime task as that offitting Nietzsche into an independently existing theoretical programme. Rather I aim, somewhat naively no doubt, to transmit something of the richness and reward to be found in reading Nietzsche's texts themselves. Friends have accused me of very close reading, and indeed I have often tried to start with some stretch of the Genealogy—one of its treatises, sections, sentences, or prominent words—and work outwards to an interpretation of the assumptions and aims that might best make sense of it. The non-linearity and intricate construction of a text such as the Genealogy demand that it be read slowly, with care and imagination; its rhetorical power, provocativeness, and moodiness call for an open and self-conscious awareness of how it is affecting one and how it may be meant to affect one.

The Genealogy centres on the morality that has arisen from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, whose values, according to Nietzsche, give priority to selflessness, holding it good to be compassionate and self-sacrificing, to suppress one's natural self, to feel guilt about one's instincts, and to value a projected 'higher world' of absolute value of which one's imperfect human nature is unworthy. Nietzsche poses two large questions about this morality: How did we come to believe in it so firmly and with such powerful emotional attachments? and, Are these beliefs and attachments good, advantageous, or healthy for human beings? On my account Nietzsche is seeking truths in answer to both questions. The historical part of his enquiry relies on the idea that there are truths about the complex manner in which our values came into existence, became entrenched, and were subject to various elaborations and reinterpretations. The truths in question are psychological, concerning generic states of mind that, according to Nietzsche's hypotheses, explain the formation of affective and judgemental states at different stages of culture and leave their residue in today's concepts and feelings. For example, Nietzsche claims that the valuing of passive humility and harmlessness towards others arose from a feeling of resentful hatred in those who were subservient but lacked the power to retaliate against their masters. Again, he claims that guilt came to be valued positively because feelings of suffering inflicted internally upon ourselves by our natural instincts could thus become legitimate and meaningful to us.

The evaluative part of Nietzsche's project asks us to question the value of morality, and proclaims it true that morality is inimical to human flourishing and progress, in particular the prospering of higher types of human being. The self-hatred and emotional conflictedness promoted by morality are, in Nietzsche's eyes, forms of sickness that produce more suffering than they cure and lead us on a downward path towards nihilism and a total negation of our self-worth. Hence Nietzsche repeatedly moots the creation of new values that lie beyond the good and evil of the Christian inheritance, beyond selflessness, and in the direction of self-affirmation or self-satisfaction, states of which not everyone will be capable, and which may be attained, if at all, by different human beings in different ways.

While so far none of this departs in any large-scale manner from recent analytical readings, this book stands apart in its determination never to lose sight of the unique and powerful ways in which Nietzsche affects the reader as he pursues his philosophical aims. I give thematic prominence to questions about Nietzsche's method of writing, and seek to show why we should not succumb to the analytical habit of sidelining such questions. To treat Nietzsche's ways of writing—explicitly or implicitly—as mere modes of presentation, detachable in principle from some elusive set of propositions in which his philosophy might be thought to consist, is to miss a great part of Nietzsche's real importance to philosophy. Nietzsche simply does not behave as a conventional philosopher. He is not averse to putting forward hypotheses—candidates for acceptance as true—or even to presenting an argument sometimes where necessary. But more often than not he uses a wide range of rhetorical effects that appear to persuade, coax, or tempt the reader by quite other means, or to play with our attitudes to an extent that pushes us to the brink of bafflement. Nietzsche's way of writing addresses our affects, feelings, or emotions. It provokes sympathies, antipathies, and ambivalences that lie in the modern psyche below the level of rational decision and impersonal argument. I argue that this is not some gratuitous exercise in 'style' that could be edited out of Nietzsche's thought. Rather, for Nietzsche to have proceeded as the paradigmatic philosopher, excluding personal emotions from the investigation, seeking to persuade by impersonal rational considerations alone, would in his eyes have risked failure to grasp the true nature of our values and loss of an opportunity to call them into question. Without the rhetorical provocations, without the revelation of what we find gruesome, shaming, embarrassing, comforting, and heart-warming, we would neither comprehend nor be able to revalue our current values. On the one hand, feelings play a vital explanatory role in the genesis of our moral attitudes, and, on the other, the transition to new values that Nietzsche seeks can occur only through an alteration in our deepest-seated habits of feeling, a change of the same enormity as the shift that once led to the formation of Judaeo-Christian values.

For Nietzsche revising our views about the nature of our values goes together with revising our conceptions of self. Nietzsche's hypothesis is that each individual is a composite of drives and affective states, of which our conscious knowledge is never a complete or adequate reflection. We are not essentially rational or essentially unified or essentially known to ourselves. The drives that compose us compete and strive against one another and organize themselves hierarchically, giving rise to a multiplicity offeelings and attitudes within the individual. This view ofthe self, I would argue, has to be reflected back upon the self that is seeking knowledge of the history and value of our values. If we readers of Nietzsche are a plurality of drives and affects of the kind his texts suggest, do we not learn and understand best by engaging more of ourselves? Philosophers have tended to think that feelings and natural drives impede the search for knowledge, and that eliminating them in favour of the single viewpoint of the pure impersonal eye (or 'I') is to move closer to objectivity and an ideal form of knowing. Against this Nietzsche urges—and this is the core of his so-called 'perspectivism'—that engaging a multiplicity of feelings that better reflects the nature of our selves is both indispensable and beneficial for knowledge. So Nietzsche's emotive and pluralistic style can be seen as integral to a reorientation of our conception of enquiry away from that traditionally accepted by philosophy, and this reorientation can be seen as needed before we can comprehend and transcend the values of morality.

Nietzsche's challenge to philosophy's conception of itself is not just an instrumental means towards his critical investigation of morality. For he sees in philosophy's habitual self-understanding as an impersonal, objective enquiry into truth a mutation of the very same valuing of selflessness that underlies morality. Expunge one's feelings and prejudices, investigate the world as a 'pure subject', ideally from no particular point of view within it, fight against the influence of one's natural inclinations, be disinterested—why? Philosophers, Nietzsche claims, have conceived their task and themselves as if they were simply rational subjects, have tended to devalue their own feelings and subjectivity, the body, and even the entire empirical world of change, imperfection, and transience, and have sought something 'higher', more 'real' or 'objective', in subservience to which they must suppress their natural selves. He claims that they have conceived their task and themselves in these ways because of a persistent involvement with an ideal of asceticism whose origin is in Christian morality. The final six sections of the Genealogy, which I regard as its true culmination and one of Nietzsche's most profound passages, present the thought that the core of philosophy—what remains of it once God, the eternal, the absolute, and the transcendent are cast into oblivion by a rigorously scientific form of investigation—is a belief in the unconditional value of truth. This pure heart of philosophy is itself, he claims, the most resilient strain of the morality of selflessness. In setting up the pursuit of truth as an unconditional value, one is not only mimicking Christianity's ideal of self-denial in the face of a single absolutely valuable 'other', but enacting a value that is literally moral: that of being truthful at all costs. Nietzsche urges us to question whether truth at all costs is something we should be pursuing.

It is not that truth has no value for Nietzsche, let alone that he thinks we can have no knowledge of truths—on the contrary, he pursues truths about psychology and history throughout the book, and makes it clear that the drive to truthfulness is the most powerful instrument in the modern destruction of Christian religious doctrines and the morality of selflessness—rather that philosophy's assumption of the unconditional value of truth is questionable. Why (since Plato) does it not respect the creation of fictions, artistic beautifications of both world and self, as at least equally valuable for life? Why can it not leave life unexamined to some extent, refraining from the relentless scrutiny of beliefs, content not to enquire whether they are true or false, but rather to acquiesce in those that are helpful to us? Why should it matter absolutely whether they are true or not? The ending of the Genealogy is not so much a closing as an opening out: we must experiment with the idea that pursuing and holding true beliefs is not of unconditional value, and until we have questioned our own assumed status as pure seekers of knowledge, we will not fully have called into question the value of the morality of selflessness.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment