Spent some time going through boxes of old school and university work, deciding what to store and discard, when I unearthed some notes which informed the series of posts ending here. I didn't type the ones on The Genealogy of Morality because they were long and I was lazy, but I always meant to come back and finish the job. Nietzsche is not one to carefully plan his essays, but there is a structure to the book, which is why I have presented the arguments pretty much as they unfold.
The book concerns itself with the question of how man invented good and evil, and whether these concepts help or hinder man's progress – whether they boost his confidence or lead to degradation. Nietzsche is interested in how useful moral categories are to human health, and very quickly declares his view. The virtue of self-sacrifice, central to the Christian ethic, is 'antilife', leading to a nihilistic outlook and a surrender to nothingness. He seeks to provide a critique of modern moral values by revealing the circumstances of their development.
The 'English psychologists' explain that morality originates in a utility that becomes habitual, and eventually forgotten (no names mentioned, but this sounds awfully like David Hume's theory of justice). Morality is actually formed by the activities of the noble, powerful and superior, who create language and make and break hierarchies with no thought to utility. Etymology provides evidence for this ('good' from 'refined' and 'noble', 'bad' from 'common' and plebeian').
The priestly caste have made man an 'interesting' creature by creating the idea of evil, which diverges from the aristocratic mode to become its opposite. Priests hate strong and free activity, tarring it as stupid. They introduce intelligence to history, and make the poor pious. This development is characterised as a slave revolt in morals, a period of transvaluation.
The way it works: ressentiment (a reaction to external activity, denying it and imagining revenge) becomes creative and ordains values. The noble possess immanent fortune, their activity rewards them with happiness and they live for themselves. Resenters create imaginary transcendent values in contrast to those of the powerful. They are passive, clever and silent. While the noble have unconscious regulatory instincts, resenters are inventive in their relations (as will be explored below).
Man is separated from his predatory essence, and becomes psychologically complex. At the end of the first essay Nietzsche indicates that noble and slave characteristics have been internalised, becoming the equivalent of a kind of superiority and inferiority complex constantly struggling against each other within ourselves (and, indeed, Nietzsche).
The Second Essay fills out this picture by providing a kind of conceptual history of the creation of present-day social and political structures (not unlike Rousseau in the Second Discourse).
Human beings have an active ability to forget, they can ignore sensations, plan ahead and think. Memory is also active and willed – you construct your self, fix you character, and can promise to be the same person in the future. The sovereign individual is free from custom. He (it is always a he) is a master of circumstances, nature and weaker wills. He can assign his own value to everything. He makes the customs that make common men regular and calculable. He is entitled to promise, because he is strong enough to ensure that he can fulfill them regardless of accidents or fate. This ability is instinctual.
Memory is activated through pain. Values are grafted onto the psyche through torture, which make ephemeral slaves fit for social cohabitation. This in turn makes them capable of peaceful thought, and the development of conscience.
Bad conscience (or guilt) comes from debt, punishment from repayment, and damage from pain. When a promise or contract is broken, the creditor is allowed the pleasure of dominion and cruelty (i.e. indulging his anti-social feelings). As an aside, Nietzsche suggests that there is no festivity without cruelty – human beings find innate joy in the suffering of others. However, over time this pleasure has been refined and translated into the imagination. Meaningless suffering is now framed as taking place inside the theatre of the gods.
Man is a 'measuring animal', comparing his power to others. Justice is simply good will between equal powers, who force a contract on the less powerful. Those who break the contract are punished as debtors or outsiders. As the community becomes more established and wealthy, it can sustain more attacks, and the penal code is relaxed. The powerful can ignore injuries, they have an objective view which allows them to settle the ressentiment of weaker powers.
The active feelings to dominate and possess are of more biological value. The basic functions of life are to injure, exploit and destroy. This is the human animal at one with his nature. Justice is an exception imposed on immediate struggles in order to acquire larger units of power. The view of justice as revenge or a deterrent is inaccurate, a reinterpretation by new powers. In prehistoric times, justice as a deterrent does not work, as there is no concept of guilt. The criminal is unaware of the reason for his punishment, they experience it in the same way they would a natural disaster.
The will to power seeks gain mastery over weaker powers, and defines its functions according to its interests. The new interpretations created by strong wills are arbitrary and circumstantial. There is no teleology of utility. The will to power lies behind all things, all events. It does not adapt to external circumstances, but reinterprets and restructures external circumstances. It is beyond definition. Only that which is without history can be defined. Nietzsche postulates a universe comprised of oppositional wills (the definers) which structure experienced reality (the defined).
The state of nature (regulated by instinct and characterised by war and nomadism) gives way to society and peace under all-powerful tyrants. The first state is a tyranny of conquerors, which forms the common people and cages their freedom. Predatory instincts are internalised and turned inward. Your cruelty is directed against yourself.
The debt of the present generation to their forefathers and the founders of their race transforms these creditors into spirits that grant advantages. The debt increases as the people's advantages, wealth and power increase, so that these spirits become gods. Universal empires adopt universal divinities. Atheism threatens to destabalise this construct and create a 'second innocence'. To prevent this, the means of repayment are closed off. God is sacrificed for man's sins, creating an absolute debt to God, and eternal punishment for impiety. The cruel animal instincts are placed in opposition to the divine ideal, so that there is never any escape. The natural healthy human living in all of us is negated, and bad conscience (guilt / sin) is an ever-present principal in our psyches.
The Third Essay describes the agents of this change in greater detail. It starts by looking at the psychology of the artist, someone who has an unreal inner existence, but desires an existence in reality (independence, self-definition). This is unlikely, the artist cannot stand alone, and is often reduced to a sycophant.
Nietzsche restates the facts in themselves: animals strive for favourable conditions to expend their energy and achieve a feeling of power. They loathe obstacles and other animals. Everyone acts according to their interest. Philosophers (and all 'inventive spirits') ensure their independence through the ascetic ideal of poverty, humility and chastity. Their domineering instinct is used to bridle pride and sensuality. Like women's use of the mothering instinct, this carves out a space for their free activity. Contemplative men in fearful ages have made asceticism fearful – they have inflicted inventive cruelty on themselves and gained the respect of others. In doing so, they have made philosophy possible.
The will to power behind asceticism seeks to place a new evaluation on existence. This present life curtails the ascetic's freedom, so it is rejected as a bridge to the next. The ascetic feels ressentiment against the fundamental conditions of life which leave him deprived. The paradox leads him to find pleasure in pain and ugliness. The physical world is an illusion. The usual perspective is reversed.
Here we come to Nietzsche's famous description of objectivity: this is simply having 'all the arguments for and against at one's disposal'. You exploit the diversity of perspectives in the interests of knowledge. There is no pure reason or impartial subject. Only more and different eyes which provide greater objectivity. Nietzsche insists that you cannot get rid of feelings, or the operation of the will to power.
Nietzsche is claiming that he has these different perspectives, understanding both the ascetic personality and the noble one it has supplanted. He can see through to the origin of things because he can trace the transvaluations effected by different wills over time, and can strip them away to reveal the will to power lying behind all of history.
The ascetic ideal serves to sustain life in its disappointments. Those who cannot master the world master themselves instead. Nietzsche sees this as a physiological problem, describing it as a sickness, and suggesting that ascetics should be kept away from the free and healthy. Once the transcendent is stripped away by science, it will lead to nihilism and self-contempt. It is the manifestation of the will to power of the weakest, inspired by ressentiment and the desire for revenge, and seeking to make the fortunate ashamed.
The priest is a manager of ressentiment, redirecting vengeful feelings back onto resenters, and rendering the sick harmless. Again, this is explicitly described as a physiological problem – men with better constitutions can digest painful experiences. The sick, on the other hand, are rendered listless. Religion reduces the feelings of life, will and desire, acting as a kind of hypnosis giving nothingness a positive value. The will to power is syphoned into good works, reciprocal behaviour and the community interest. The weak are herded by priests, while the strong are solitary creatures, desiring absolute tyranny.
As mentioned above, Nietzsche suggests that asceticism has made man interesting. It has sought to improve, but has actually damaged, the human animal. Like Marx's respect for capitalists, Nietzsche allows a certain admiration for the agents who have effected so monumental a change in human consciousness. The simple instinctual relations of strong and weak have been overturned. Men are now controlled by more insidious means, their will to power cannibalising itself, resulting in a new world order overseen by priests.
According to Nietzsche, science is the most recent and most refined form of the ascetic ideal, having no belief, no ideal, no passion or conviction. Scientific activity is spurred by dissatisfaction, and it does not establish truth but probabilities. However, scientific practitioners still believe in the truth (a reality to define) and renounce interpretation as a way to comprehend the universe. Science does not explain the cause of this will to truth. Only Nietzsche, with his awareness of the genealogy of perspectives constructing the desire for definition beyond the self, can provide answers.
Science is dangerous because it threatens to impoverish life. It cools the feelings. By showing life to be random and dispensable, the need for a transcendent solution becomes ever greater. But by revealing man to be an animal, a nothing, this solution is discredited. The new knowledge gained does not satisfy human desires for self-definition. This fosters self-contempt and an inescapable nihilism. The only solution Nietzsche sees is the restoration of that primitive uninhibited self-defining individual last seen during the time of Napoleon.
I'll paraphrase Raymond Geuss's description of Nietzsche's argument as a conclusion: the book deconstructs itself down to a hypothetical prehistoric homo sapien entirely at one with nature. Nietzsche provides no evidence for the will to power, and his history is just conjecture with a bit of philology. His metaphysics are groundless and his politics are crazed. Nevertheless, his description of the psychological drives and effects of religion would go on to influence the concerns of existentialists (and others), and his characterisation of intellectual history as a series of willed interventions independent of physical and social structures set up the enquiries of post-structuralists (and others) in the 20th century.