Foundations of Ethics, Vol. III:

Nietzsche’s Challenge to the Idea of Moral Good

Daniel J. Castellano


Part VI

Full Table of Contents
Part V
14. Origin of Moral Good and Evil
15. Guilt, Bad Conscience and Punishment
   15.1 Conscience as Promise-Keeping
   15.2 Origin of Punishment
   15.3 Transvaluation of Punishment
   15.4 Origin of Bad Conscience
   15.5 Religious Form of Bad Conscience
   15.6 Turning Bad Conscience against Idealism

14. Origin of Moral Good and Evil

From the outset, Nietzsche distinguishes his account of the origin of moral good and evil from the pseudo-evolutionary explanations proffered by English psychologists. Even in our time, Anglophone scientists pretend to explain humanity as fundamentally hedonistic, delusion-making, or, more generally, “in terms of some undignified principle.” [GM, 1st Essay, 1] Nietzsche gathers that the English may have some “instinct for human disparagement,” still found among modern scientists, who talk condescendingly about the human psyche as if they were somehow exempt from the baseness and stupidity they ascribe to the rest of the race. He conjectures that their motive may be some petty rancor against Christianity, or a general vulgarity and gloominess, or perhaps they are just frigid, tedious frogs at home in the swamp. He hopes otherwise, and wishes them to be “brave, proud and magnanimous animals who know how to bridle both their hearts and their smarts, and have specifically trained themselves to sacrifice what is desirable to what is true…” [Loc. cit.]

These supposed historians of morality run their train of thought “on thoroughly unhistorical lines.” [GM, 1st, 2] For example, they say altruism was originally called good from the standpoint of those on the receiving end, i.e., those for whom the acts were useful. This origin was then forgotten, and the acts continued to be praised out of habit, and thus felt to be good. This analysis employs concepts that reflect English idiosyncrasies: utility, forgetting, habit, error.

Nietzsche instead considers that the judgment “good” originated not in the recipient of altruism, but in the aristocratic, the powerful. They judged themselves and their actions as good, in contrast to the plebeian. Out of this “pathos of distance,” they arrogated the right to create values for their own profit, and to name these values. Utility was inapplicable to them, for they inhabited a volcanic effervescence, not that tepid temperature where one deals with practical expediency. [cf. GM, First Essay, 2]

In other words, only the poor or middle-class man has to worry about expediency, since he is limited in what he can do and must economize. The rich, powerful man, by contrast, can afford to be extravagant, magnanimous, reckless. He pursues what pleases him, challenges him, or endangers him, without regard for expediency.

The pathos of nobility and distance, as I have said, the chronic and despotic esprit de corps and fundamental instinct of a higher dominant race coming into association with a meaner race, and “under race,” this is the origin of the antithesis of good and bad. [GM, 1st, 2]

The notion of good is not primarily tied up with altruism; that comes later. Eventually the herd instinct becomes master, with the result that moral evaluation gets bogged down in the contrast between egoism and unegoism, practically equating the latter with morality.

The English idea that the original utility of altruism has been forgotten seems impossible. How would its usefulness have ended? On the contrary, the utility of altruism is an everyday experience in plain view. Thus Nietzsche finds Spencer to be on sounder ground than his compatriots when he says the good is the same idea as the useful, though this too is mistaken.

The idea that the notions of good and bad originated among ruling classes was broached earlier in Human, All Too Human, 45. There goodness is associated with the power to requite with gratitude or vengeance, while those who are powerless to requite are bad. The requiting sentiment is held in common among men called good, while the bad are a subjugated mass who share no such bond.

In the Genealogy of Morals, we are given some philological evidence in support of these hypotheses. The ancient terms for “good” mean aristocratic, noble, privileged, as contrasted with the common, vulgar or low. In particular, the German word for “bad,” schlecht, is similar to schlicht (plain) and schlechtweg (simply). Thus the term originally referred to a plain, common man, without imputing any culpability. This insight had not been realized sooner by moral historians, due to their democratic prejudice in questions of origin. [GM, 1st, 4]

These philological claims are amply supported in the case of the ancient Greeks, who consistently contrasted the heroic esthloi (“noble, truthful”) and the lowly kakoi (“ weak, worthless”). Clearly the dichotomy between good and evil was informed by the aristocrats’ perception of themselves as contrasted with others. This is also found in the Iranian notion of arya, who are the wealthy or owning class. At first, according to Nietzsche, this self-valuation as “good” was purely positive, but later there was emphasis on distinction from the dishonest common man. Another pair of contrasts is deilos, which emphasizes the cowardice of the wretched, and agathos, a word for “good” that signifies noble birth and courage. [GM, 1st, 5]

Modern philology corroborates Nietzsche’s claim that “bad” was not originally a moral valuation implying culpability, but more of an aesthetic valuation of worthlessness. The Greek kakos comes from Proto-Indo-European kakka, meaning excrement, from which we also get the Latin cacare. Thus the most ancient notion of “bad” seems to involve an aesthetic judgment of disgust or disdain. Does this really prove that there was no moral sense, or rather were the moral and aesthetic senses confused? We might say that the ancients did have a sense of moral good and evil, but wrongly attributed evil to those who were merely ugly or weak.

If we go further back in time, even aesthetic terms disappear from the philological record, as we find only concrete terms identifying objects. Good and bad might not be so fundamental to humanity as supposed, as these terms do not appear among the broadest cognate class sizes of Eurasian languages. [M. Pagel et al., “Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia.” PNAS (2013), 110(21):8471-76.]

Nietzsche thinks that malus may come from melas (black, dark), referring to the dark-colored common man and especially the black-haired pre-Aryan inhabitants of Italy. He takes his blond beast literally (at least in a European context), as he considers the Romans to have been light-haired: “those who became dominant, the blonds, the conquering race of Aryans.” Similarly, he thinks the pre-Aryan inhabitants of Germany were dark. This idea that the ruling and lower classes were of different races is ill-supported, but it is a consequence of Nietzsche’s belief that different behavioral types must be grounded in physiological descent.

Setting aside his dubious racial hypothesis, we may nonetheless find merit in the claim that terms for good and bad are grounded in social class. By parallelism with the synonyms bellum and duellum, Nietzsche thinks bonus may come from duonus (via duen-lum), so the “good” man was the man of strife or discord. The German gut likely referred to a godlike man (compare Gott), and Nietzsche thinks the name of the Goths is so derived.

The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) terms dwenelos (fine, handsome, pretty) and dwenos (good) corroborate Nietzsche’s derivation of bonus from duonus (and duen-lum). Likewise, bene comes from dwene (well). However, the original sense of these terms may not have been strife, but aesthetic beauty (dwenelos) or a well-performed act (dwene, from deu-, to perform, show favor, revere).

‘Goth’ in Gothic is gutpiuda (“gut people”), cognate with the Old Norse term gotar, which means “men,” though it is uncertain if this is a secondary definition. (The ‘th’ in ‘Goth’ comes from Late Latin.)

Another Proto-Indo-European term for “good,” is eus, which in Greek is eu-, as in eudaimonia, “good spirits,” i.e., a pleasant feeling. This has analogues in Sanskrit (su-) and Avesta (hu-). This may suggest a different kind of good, more akin to happiness or pleasure. (Other PIE terms for good are ma- and mani-.)

Nietzsche’s basic point is that distinctions in political or social rank resolve themselves into distinctions in superiority of soul. In other words, the reality of distinct types of men in society, the rulers and the ruled, precedes a conscious articulation of concepts identifying superior and inferior souls. The fine, beautiful class of ruling warriors becomes the model of what will be called “good,” while the swarthy, worthless lower classes will be considered “bad” in the sense of waste or excrement.

The Hindu caste system is no exception to this rule, though it may seem here that class distinctions are consequent to moral distinctions. In fact, the moral designations of clean and unclean are badges of class distinction. Initially, they refer to literal cleanliness. The man who washes himself, abstains from food causing skin diseases, does not sleep with unclean women of the lower classes, and has a horror of blood, [GM, 1st, 6] is invariably of a higher social class, since such abstinences are impractical for the poor. When cleanliness is transformed from a mark of the master class into a moral end, such habits result in introspective morbidity and explosive emotionalism in priests and societies influenced by them. [Loc. cit.] To curb these passions, ascetic cures are proposed that are worse than the disease, for they condemn all passion and sensation. Thus we have the anti-sensory metaphysics and self-hypnotism of fakirs. [Loc. cit.] A demand for mystical union with Divinity is really a demand for the negation of all sensory life, the only life that exists. Thus Buddhism, in its demand for nothingness, only makes explicit the nihilism of Hindu asceticism.

In this account, our familiar “evil passions” are actually consequences of transforming aesthetic values into moral duties. The condemnation of these passions gives rise to a host of vices, since they can no longer be enjoyed innocently. Self-interest becomes pride, violence becomes vengeance, and resourcefulness becomes cunning. Human psychology thus acquires a deeper level, as men become “interesting and evil.” [Loc. cit.]

Nietzsche distinguishes the moral from the pre-moral period by a change in the basis of evaluating actions.

Throughout the longest period of human history—one calls it the prehistoric period—the value or non-value of an action was inferred from its CONSEQUENCES; the action in itself was not taken into consideration, any more than its origin; but pretty much as in China at present, where the distinction or disgrace of a child redounds to its parents, the retro-operating power of success or failure was what induced men to think well or ill of an action. Let us call this period the PRE-MORAL period of mankind; the imperative, “Know thyself!” was then still unknown. [BGE, 33]

In the last ten thousand years, by contrast, the worth of an action is evaluated by its origin or intention rather than its consequences. This is the Moral period of man, which ushers in an introspective examination of motives.

The psychology of moralists is naïve, in Nietzsche’s view, for it recognizes only conscious intentions, which frequently falsify the real motivation of our actions. In the upcoming Ultra-Moral period, “the decisive value of an action lies precisely in that which is NOT INTENTIONAL.” [BGE, 33] In particular, our comforting belief that we act for others regards only superficial intentions, ignoring our deeper, perhaps unconscious, self-interest. Modern neuroscience has borne out that our conscious explanations of our intentions or motivations are often post hoc fabrications, having nothing to do with the real causation underlying cognition.

Some may object that Nietzsche’s theory leads to evil consequences. He replies:

Nobody will very readily regard a doctrine as true merely because it makes people happy or virtuous—excepting, perhaps, the amiable “Idealists,” who are enthusiastic about the good, true, and beautiful, and let all kinds of motley, coarse, and good-natured desirabilities swim about promiscuously in their pond. Happiness and virtue are no arguments. It is willingly forgotten, however, even on the part of thoughtful minds, that to make unhappy and to make bad are just as little counter-arguments. [BGE, 39]

Here he rejects consequentialist thinking, though elsewhere he has criticized the pursuit of truth and suggested that falsehood may be desirable. Even here he names the “true” among Idealist fantasies. It would seem, then, that truth is not among Nietzsche’s criteria for evaluating arguments. This can be understood when we appreciate that Nietzsche takes “true” in the Idealist sense of a correspondence with some deeper reality. For Nietzsche, there is no deeper reality than the physical world of forces. There is no substance or essence, much less any underlying Idea. The standard of argument is how it measures against physical reality, which is utterly indifferent to our happiness or unhappiness. Thus the willfully bleak atheism of British empiricists is as faulty as naïve idealism.

In a non-idealistic view, love is a purely physical attraction (which includes the psychological), not something to be measured against an ideal of the Good. As it really exists, love is indifferent to moral categories. “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.” [BGE, 153] Even in Christianity, we see some indication that acts of love exempt one from the strictures of moral law. If we pretended to love only out of moral duty, it would not be the person or object that we love, but some abstract principle. The imposition of categories of good and evil transforms our understanding of love and hate, making them carry moral burdens that are alien to them. More generally, he holds: “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” [BGE, 108]


15. Guilt, Bad Conscience and Punishment

15.1 Conscience as Promise-Keeping

Morality is that which binds the conscience, so the psychologist who wishes to understand morality should inquire how such binding comes to be. Nietzsche identifies the central problem as man’s ability to promise, unique among animals. [GM, 2nd Essay, 1] Generally, our health and happiness depend on a forgetfulness of our lower processes, which enables us to enjoy the present and hope in the future. Nonetheless, man must become calculable and disciplined in order for his will to guarantee his future. His forgetfulness is held in check by memory where promises have to be made, so that we can continue what has once been willed and act upon it. [Loc. cit.]

To breed an animal that can make promises, man must first be made to some extent uniform and calculable, via the “morality of custom” developed in prehistory. [GM, 2nd, 2] This is a necessary preliminary to developing the sovereign individual, the “super-moral.”

This super-moral person of power and freedom recognizes himself as superior to those who cannot bind themselves by promises or be their own security. He arouses trust, awe and reverence. Others, having shorter wills, are less reliable. His long unbreakable will contains his standard of value. Thus he honors and despises others, esteeming the strong and reliable who can bind themselves by promises. [Loc. cit.] Here we see (1) that the master or sovereign emerged only after the prehistoric morality of custom, and (2) the origin of aristocratic esteem for honesty as a mark of strength.

Conversely, the strong one disdains those who promise when they have no business to do so, or the liar who breaks his word as he speaks it.

The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over himself and over fate, has sunk right down into his innermost depths, and has become an instinct, a dominating instinct—what name will he give to it, to this dominating instinct, if he needs to have a word for it? But there is no doubt about it—the sovereign man calls it his conscience. [GM, 2nd, 2]

The notion of moral responsibility arises from a sense of power over one’s fate. Thus conscience is originally an awareness of one’s ability to continue what he has willed, i.e., to keep his promises.

Before conscience could develop, man had to learn to retain a memory. Since what is painful is most permanent in memory, horror was originally concomitant to all promises and pledges. Thus they were solemnized by mutilations or abusive rituals, accounting for the evident cruelty of primitive religion. Nietzsche regards religions as systems of cruelty not with the moral outrage of a liberal, but coolly accepting their necessary psychological function in shaping man into a creature that can make and keep promises.

Ancient penal law is likewise severe in order to check man’s forgetfulness of his promises. Harsher penalties are applied in proportion to the forgetfulness entailed by an act. These deterrents helped drill in the “I will nots” to which man had already given his promise in order to enjoy the advantages of society. [GM, 2nd, 3] Clearly, Nietzsche recognizes a social function to morality, and is not a rank individualist like Stirner. Still, he construes this in terms of the individual willing to constrain himself in exchange for the benefits of society.

Conscience as such is salutary, as is the harsh discipline that holds us to our promises. Where then, does “bad conscience” come from? Nietzsche situates this in the notion of guilt, which in German (schuld) comes from the idea of material debt (schuld, cf. English: “should, ought, owed”). [GM, 2nd, 4] Here penalties are imposed not in order to hold us to our own promises, but rather out of a sense that we owe something for our actions, and suffer in order to pay a debt.


15.2 Origin of Punishment

Originally, punishments were a form of retaliation, independent of any sense of free will. It was only much later that distinctions were made between intentional and negligent offenses. The idea that a wrongdoer deserves punishment because he might have acted otherwise is a late arrival. [GM, 2nd, 2] This is evidenced in ancient law codes, where unintentional crimes were still punished, as were those committed by animals.

In prehistory, Nietzsche says, people punished as parents punish their children, out of anger at an injury, vented on the author of the injury. This anger can be moderated by the idea that every injury has an equivalent price that can be paid off, even if by pain to the author. [Loc. cit.] The most primitive punishment is a biological reaction, where we feel anger at the one who has caused us harm (or harmed a loved one), and we feel an urge to attack and harm what angers us. Animals with this reaction have a survival advantage, for they tend to destroy or chase away what harms them. This most primitive retaliation, present even among brutes, is not moderated by any idea of equivalent price.

According to Nietzsche, the idea of an equivalence between injury and pain originated in the notion of a contractual relationship between creditor and ower. [Loc. cit.] Yet the concepts of creditor and debtor presume a fairly sophisticated level of society, with some sense of private property. The idea that property taken ought to be returned presumes some primitive sense of justice, antedating “bad conscience” or guilt.

In a society with purchase, sale, barter, and trade, promises will be made. The debtor, to guarantee his promise, and remind him of his debt, pledges something of his as a contingency for non-repayment. This could be his life, his wife, his freedom, his body, or his peace in the grave (as in Egypt). [GM, 2nd, 5]

Alternatively, the creditor may be granted the power of inflicting pain and torture, such as cutting off a piece of flesh proportionate to the debt. Nietzsche finds it was freer and less petty when the Roman Twelve Tables decreed it was immaterial how much or how little creditors cut off, there being no fraud in this. [Loc. cit.] The Romans did not pedantically suppose that there was some objective measure of punishment, but recognized this was the product of negotiation.

Instead of direct compensation, the creditor supposedly receives the satisfaction of being able to vent his power on the powerless, the “joy in sheer violence.” [Loc. cit.] It is questionable if Nietzsche has correctly identified the motive here, since the creditor would much rather receive his money. It seems, instead, that such tortures were a deterrent so people would not lightly ignore their debts. The creditor inflicts punishment not out of sadism, but to help guarantee that other contracts will be honored. (There may also be an element of revenge, wishing to harm one who has harmed him.) Nietzsche, however, contends that deterrence is not essential to punishment, but only came later. Justice was originally “a balance between persons of approximately equal power,” as such equality is presupposed by contracts. [GM, Pref 4]

Nietzsche claims that joy in violence is relished the more lowly the creditor is, since ordinarily he would not be in a position to inflict such harm. He now participates in a master’s right to despise and mistreat a creature as “inferior,” either directly or as administered by authorities. “The compensation consequently consists in a claim on cruelty and a right to draw thereon.” [Loc. cit.] We see this in modern lawsuits, where the poor demand the strictest application of the law against the rich and revel in their humiliation. More dramatically, we find that the lower classes have taken greatest delight in public executions, as they momentarily feel empowered.

In the bloodlust latent in contract law, Nietzsche finds the cradle of guilt, conscience and duty. Regarding guilt, religion and Kantian moral imperatives as cruelty, he focuses on the effect of punishment as constraining the will. Yet punishment is cruel only if harm is desired for its own sake. Only adolescents think being told what to do is intrinsically cruel. Still, it can hardly be denied that any culture with a notion of guilt also has punishment.

Why should suffering be considered compensation for guilt? Nietzsche claims it is because the other party gets the pleasure of inflicting suffering, though he admits this is “purely conjectural.” At any rate, it is a better explanation than “revenge,” which simply leads back to the same problem of “How can the infliction of suffering be a satisfaction?” [GM, 2nd, 6]

Ancient man delighted in cruelty, seasoning his pleasures with it. At some point, cruelty became a matter of principle, “disinterested malice,” Nietzsche calls it with mock Kantianism. Higher civilization spiritualizes and even deifies cruelty. [Loc. cit.] One might think of the medieval conception of Hell, which exaggerated tortures in order to perfect divine justice. Yet the spiritualization of cruelty lies not in infernal punishment, but in the accusing conscience that demands satisfaction for guilt.

Nietzsche thinks the world was brighter when man was unashamed of his cruelty. Now man is ashamed of manhood and animalhood, pretending to become an angel. We are revolted by tortures, perhaps in part because we have lower pain tolerance than primitive man. What offends us most about suffering is not pain itself, but the meaninglessness of pain from the perspective of the sufferer. Ancient man, by contrast, found meaning in pain because he took the perspective of the delighted spectator or inflictor of suffering. [GM, 2nd, 7] The gods likewise found suffering edifying, so there was no unwitnessed, meaningless suffering. The Trojan war and other horrors were festival games for the gods.

Nietzsche’s contention that primitive notions of guilt and punishment arise from commerce seems problematic. A trader might indeed occupy his mind “making prices, assessing values, think out equivalents, exchanging… to such an extent that in a certain sense it constituted thinking itself.” [GM, 2nd, 8] Such a developed form of trade, however, seems to have been a rather late development. Subsistence farmers and hunters might have little or no reason to trade, so their thinking would be devoted to more direct means of survival. Many primitive societies, in the Old and New Worlds, had no notion of private property. Pride in the ability to assess values would be a later development only in some cultures and social classes. More primitive societies took pride in strength or fighting prowess.

Nonetheless, we can hardly ignore that the ancient law codes of Babylon and Rome appear to found justice on the principle that “everything has its price; all can be paid for.” The idea of retributive or compensatory justice would seem to have its basis in commerce, which certainly was well developed in these civilizations. Yet such notions of justice can be found even in societies without commerce or private property. It is unlikely, then, that justice and equity originated from commerce, but rather commerce may have informed how ancient civilizations began to think of them.

Nietzsche appears to admit as much when he says that justice in its initial phase meant goodwill among people of roughly equal power, to come to a settlement or to compel the weaker to come to a settlement among themselves. [Loc. cit.] This would be necessary for public order even in primitive communes without private property.

Man benefits from being in a community, secure from certain injuries and enmities. If he violates his pledge to abstain from such injuries, the community is defrauded and demands payment. [GM, 2nd, 9] Here Nietzsche clings to the language of commerce, as if this were the fundamental reason societies punish criminals, rather than a later interpretation. Even societies that know nothing of contracts or fraud will punish wrongdoers. Nietzsche’s intellect betrays him here, for it induces him to seek reasons for behaviors. More likely what is going on is something pre-rational, a reptilian impulse to harm that which threatens us.

Still, such a desire to harm would not account for our notion that a criminal “deserves” punishment, which is the central concept Nietzsche is trying to explain. Since the criminal has attacked his benefactor, namely society, the community retaliates by depriving him of the benefits of society. He is cast out of society, and thus can be treated as an enemy. [Loc. cit.] It would seem, then, that two principles need to be invoked: (1) violation of the conditions of membership in society are grounds for expulsion; and (2) those outside of society are enemies to be hated and injured without mercy. Only the first principle might have some semblance to contract law or a debtor-creditor relationship.

Casting someone out of society as an outlaw could be conceived as compensatory: the criminal is deprived of his security because he has deprived society of its security. Yet the notion of recompense is not strictly necessary. It would suffice to observe that certain rules of behavior are absolute conditions of membership in society; when such rules are violated, membership ceases. This simpler principle would account for the punishment of violating taboos that do no practical harm to society. Perhaps this is not altogether separable from the notion that the outlaw has harmed society, since all forbidden behaviors, even the most arbitrary taboos, are believed to hurt the community. The injured community is not necessarily seeking recompense, but removing a harmful element from itself.

The consequent ruthlessness toward a criminal, in the latter view, would be a product of that ancient human (and primate) hostility to those outside of one’s group, presumed to be a threat. It is only with the advance of civilization that men learn to distinguish that not all breaches of the covenant are existential threats. Thus not all outlaws need to be treated as enemies of war. The notion of compensatory justice would actually serve to temper punishments according to harm done. This is in fact what we find with the lex talionis of Hammurabi, which was designed to prevent the earlier practice of excessive retribution.

Nietzsche accounts for this development in somewhat different terms. As the community becomes more powerful, it is less threatened by individual criminals, so they are no longer cast out. In fact, the law shields the criminal from popular wrath, and instead tries to find equivalent compensation to settle the matter, treating every offense as if it can be paid off, and isolating the offender from his act. [GM, 2nd, 10] This analysis fits better with our thesis that compensatory justice was a late development, accompanying the rise of cities and commerce. The important insight is that, by making each offense dischargeable, the offender is separated from his act. The offense can be redeemed, so that the offender is untainted.

As society becomes increasingly powerful, penal law grows milder, just as a rich creditor is more humane. Some may even indulge the aristocratic luxury of letting wrongdoers go free. Justice surpasses itself with the name of Mercy, the privilege of the strongest. [GM, 2nd, 10] We have seen this progression continue over the past century. Society has become milder in its treatment of criminals precisely as the individual has become impotent before the might of the state.

Mercy is not an antithesis to justice, but the result of carrying juridical principles to their developmental extremes. Once it is accepted that not all crimes are existential threats, and that it is possible to find some compensatory equivalent to free the offender from his guilt, the path toward a mercy that ignores strict justice is clear. As the state grows more powerful, in no small part due to its successful imposition of juridical penalties, practically all individual crimes cease to be serious threats, so the state requires smaller penalties as compensation, and may even absolve many crimes outright. Similarly, with economic abundance and a vast population, the principles of frugality and sexual discipline can be relaxed without bringing societal collapse. Naturally, this relaxation cannot go too far, i.e., to the point that it threatens the prosperity and social strength that made it possible.

What of our suggestion that justice arose originally out of a response to injury? This was also held by socialists and anarchists, who thought justice was institutionalized revenge. As evidence that justice does not derive from reactive emotion (i.e., ressentiment), Nietzsche observes that “the last sphere conquered by the spirit of justice is the sphere of the feeling of reaction!” Classically, a just man was expected to be immune to provocation. Any small reaction of hostility or malice would drive blood to the brain and make him unjust or unfair. “The active man, the attacking, aggressive man is always a hundred degrees nearer to justice than the man who reacts.” [GM, 2nd, 11] The attacker has no need to make false, biased valuations, so he has a better conscience. That is why the law is administered by active, strong, aggressive men, not reactive men.

One of the first things a strong state attempts is to put an end to private vengeance, substituting its own campaign against enemies of peace and order, enforcing settlements and standardizing equivalents for injuries. Under rule of law, crimes are considered attacks on the law and the state, rather than against aggrieved parties. Distracting attention from the victim and ressentiment attains the opposite of revenge, which focuses on the injury of the aggrieved party. Only after the development of law do we derive an impersonal sense of right and wrong. [Loc. cit.]

Nietzsche holds that there is no intrinsic right or wrong. Injury, oppression, and annihilation, in themselves, are nothing wrong, for life is essentially that which functions by injury, oppression and annihilation, and is inconceivable without such character. Conditions of legality are only exceptional conditions, a partial restriction of life-will, for the purpose of creating larger units of strength, hence still subordinate to a more general life-will. If a legal organization should go beyond this and oppose fighting as such, treating every will as equal to every other will, it would be essentially hostile to life. [Loc. cit.]

All of this is obviously in accord with physical biology under a Darwinian paradigm. Instances of cooperation in nature exist for the function of creating large units of strength (multi-cellular organisms, tribes or colonies, populations or species) that exert themselves at the expense of competing units. Such macro-units are formed by a partial subordination of their constituents. The presence of organic or social cooperation does not abolish competition or strife, but is in fact directed to that end on a larger scale.


15.3 Transvaluation of Punishment

Another fruit of Darwinian thinking is recognition that the eventual function of a trait or behavior may be different from what it was in its origin. Anatomical and behavioral traits may be repurposed over time. Thus Nietzsche regards the origin and end of punishment as distinct questions. Once punishment originates, it may later be put to new purposes by a superior force. The eye was not made to see, nor the hand to grasp. “But all ends and utilities are only signs that a Will to Power has mastered a less powerful force, has impressed thereon out of its own self the meaning of a function…” [GM, 2nd, 12]

Unlike the “social Darwinists” of his day, Nietzsche did not see evolution as a progressus toward an end, much less the most logical, direct progressus with minimum energy and cost. Like Darwin himself, he recognized that evolution meanders haphazardly. Various processes of subjugation act on the biological matter (cells, organisms, groups), and the resultant form is a product of these subjugations and resistances to the same. “The form is fluid, but the meaning is even more so…” The functions of organs change more rapidly than their structure. Sometimes their partial destruction is a sign of growing strength. [Loc. cit.]

Genuine progressus is not in biological evolution as such, but “in the shape of a will and way to greater power, at the expense of innumerable smaller powers.” [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche does not see a telos in the specific form or meaning of anatomies and behaviors, but in the construction of greater powers. He measures the magnitude of this progress by the size of the smaller powers that are sacrificed. By extension, sacrificing the mass of humanity to the stronger kind of Man would be a progress. [Loc. cit.] By “sacrifice,” he does not mean the utter destruction of members for the good of the whole, but the relinquishing of autonomy to the stronger force that has subjugated them.

This immediately raises fears of dictatorship among liberals, and Nietzsche addresses this. Democratic thinking, he says, has a “misarchism,” an antipathy toward anything that rules or wishes to rule. Since most biologists have that sort of thinking, they refuse to recognize a will to power in life. Instead, they explain things in terms of “adaptation,” a mere reaction, as if it were the primary activity. They fail to recognize life as essentially striving, so they fail to see life at all as a positive activity. Nietzsche sees life in terms of spontaneous, aggressive activity, always looking for a way to assert itself, as opposed to the materialists, who would reduce life to the passivity and reactivity of its constituent chemicals. While Nietzsche is no believer in the Úlan vital, he recognizes life as a real, active force.

Applying this biological analysis, where the meaning or function is more mutable than form, we may distinguish in punishment two elements: (1) the custom, act, drama, or method of procedure, i.e., the relatively permanent form, and (2) its meaning, end or expectation, which is more fluid. Further, Nietzsche asks us to assume that the custom is older than the meaning. [GM, 2nd, 13] Yet this analogy with organic evolution does not seem to follow, since all human customs presume some ascription of meaning. It could be that the meaning changes with time, but this does not imply that the custom originally had no meaning at all.

At any rate, we may consider it likely that the current meaning is not the original. The procedures we now consider punitive were not necessarily invented for the purpose of punishment; they may originally have had other uses. Even recorded history shows diverse uses, so that we cannot abstract punishment from history as some timeless definable essence. Nietzsche regards the various meanings of punishment to be supplementary or accidental. These include:

Today, punishment is supposed to have the essential value of exciting consciousness of guilt in the guilty, including the reaction known as “bad conscience” or “remorse.” [GM, 2nd, 14] Think of the modern spectacle where liberal judges, especially women, scold the convict at sentencing, as if he is supposed to feel remorse and acknowledge that he is evil. This serves more to puff up the court’s (and the public’s) righteousness as contrasted with the exaggerated evil of the convict.

As Nietzsche observes, genuine remorse is extremely rare among wrongdoers who are punished. Prisons are not fertile soil for the worm of remorse. Punishment hardens and numbs, sharpens consciousness of alienation, and strengthens resistance. In cases where a man breaks down in abject prostration, the effect is even less salutary, a harsh and sinister doggedness. In this light, Nietzsche holds that the severe punishments of prehistory and antiquity actually retarded the evolution of consciousness of guilt in the punished. [Loc. cit.]

Judicial and executive procedures themselves show wrongdoers that their acts are not intrinsically wrong, for the same kinds of acts are practiced in the service of justice, and called good. They include “espionage, bribery, trapping, the whole intriguing and insidious art of the policeman and the informer.” [Loc. cit.] (Many of these, however, are modern developments.) The punishments themselves involve the same acts as crimes: “robbing, oppressing, insulting, imprisoning, racking, murdering.” Thus, the acts are not censurable in themselves, but only in certain contexts.

In antiquity, those who judged and punished showed no awareness of dealing with a “guilty man.” One dealt with “the author of an injury, an irresponsible piece of fate.” And the man upon whom punishment fell regarded it as a piece of fate, and was given no more “inner pain” than any other uncalculated event or catastrophe. [Loc. cit.]

This astute observation is confirmed in modern criminals, who lament the misfortune of getting caught and punished, but are not genuinely remorseful on that account. On the other hand, there are cases of penitent convicts, and for good reason. They recognize their misfortune as consequent to their commission of the crime. This may lead them to wish they had not committed the deed, on the ground that the benefit was not worth the penalty. Such regret is not the same as bad conscience or remorse in the sense of believing themselves to have done evil.

Nietzsche finds that Spinoza’s ethics effectively did away with the bite of conscience, instead defining the antithesis of joy to be “a sadness accompanied by the recollection of a past event which has turned out contrary to all expectation.” [Eth. III, xviii, i, 2] This purely prudential regret is akin to that of prisoners, and has no reference to good and evil as objective realities. Thus punishment only makes them more cautious and cunning, more in command of their desires. Such men have been tamed, but not made “better.” [GM, 2nd, 15]


15.4 Origin of Bad Conscience

Suppose that bad conscience was an illness contracted under the stress of radical change toward a state of imprisonment within peaceful society. Like water animals becoming land animals, men found that their older instincts were worthless, and acted clumsily in the new world. [GM, 2nd Essay, 16] Before, man had lived in his body, acting on animal instinct. Now, he had to use his mind to negotiate life in society, forcing him to live in his hitherto meager consciousness. The old instincts remained, but could not be satisfied often or openly. Those which could not be vented were turned inwards, growing into the inner world known as the soul.

The whole inner world, originally as thin as if it had been stretched between two membranes, burst apart and expanded proportionately, and obtained depth, breadth, and height, when man’s external outlet became obstructed. [GM, 2nd, 15]

Punishment and other defenses of society “against the old instincts of freedom” forced the “wild, free, prowling” instincts to turn back against man himself. “Enmity, cruelty, delight in persecution, in attacking, change, destruction” were turned against their own possessors. This is the origin of “bad conscience.” Lacking external enemies and obstacles, man beat the bars of his cage, gnawed himself, and created a hazardous torture-chamber within himself where he might do battle. He declared war against his old animal self, against instincts that had once been the staple of his power and joy. This unprecedented turning of an animal ego against itself changed the aspect of the world. [Loc. cit.]

Note that Nietzsche does not really condemn the arrival of “bad conscience.” On the contrary, he regards it as a productive stage in animal development, nothing short of revolutionary. This conjecture finds apparent agreement with the Neolithic revolution, which appears to have occurred after the formation of sedentary societies. From that point onward, humans progressed more rapidly in a few millennia than they had after a million years of relative stagnation.

In this view, the origin of the soul as we know it is consequent to being trapped in sedentary society, so that we are forced to abstract our sense of self from our animal desires. Nietzsche holds that this change of condition to confinement was not gradual or voluntary, but must have been sudden, leaving no time for slow adaptation. Thus society must have been formed in an act of violence, implying that the oldest state was some ghastly tyranny. [GM, 2nd, 17]

This last point is ill-supported by the evidence of anthropology and early history. We find no sign that the most primitive forms of government were especially powerful or tyrannical. Well into recorded history, we find that most societies were still threatened by external enemies rather than inward-looking despotisms. There was still plenty of opportunity to vent the old instincts.

Nietzsche conjectures that the first “state” was “a herd of blonde beasts of prey, a race of conquerors and masters,” which pounced on a formless population with warlike organization. [Loc. cit.] This is based on his theory of Aryans overtaking earlier indigenous populations of Europe. Notwithstanding the falsity of this theory, the basic point is correct insofar as it rejects the fanciful “social contract” origin of the state. The ruling class or masters do not use contracts, but instinctively create and impress forms. They know nothing of guilt, responsibility or consideration. They do not have bad conscience, but they occasioned its creation by expelling much freedom from the world, or forcing it to become latent. [Loc. cit.]

This denial of the contractual origin of the state, though sound, is in tension with Nietzsche’s earlier claim that the notion of punishment originated from contractual concepts such as owing a debt. If punishment created “bad conscience,” and this took place with the establishment of the first “state,” then it would follow that contracts were known when the first state was founded. To avoid this conclusion, we might suppose that the first state imposed constraints in other ways besides punishment, or, more likely, that the notion of punishment antecedes contractual law. Alternatively, we could admit that the use of contracts may be older than the state, while denying that the ruling class established the state by means of a contract.

The same force by which the masters worked upon men was imposed on a smaller scale to create a bad conscience in one’s breast. It is the same “instinct of freedom” or “will to power,” only applied to man’s old animal self. This inner self-tyranny cleaves the will in two, delighting in inflicting suffering upon itself out of supposed love of a soul. [GM, 2nd, 18] The creator of bad conscience (presumably of the slave class) acts as the master does, delighting in conquest and cruelty, but the conquered and sufferer is his own animal self. “Self-mastery” is to be taken quite literally.

Nietzsche does not regard the bad conscience as something purely negative. On the contrary, he credits the active bad conscience with giving birth to beauty, by creating a contrast with the newly perceived ugliness of the animal self. Cruelty is constructive, both for the master and for the creator of bad conscience, as one uses it to build the state, and the other builds an altruistic soul. Only with a will for self-abuse can altruism exist as a value. [Loc. cit.]


15.5 Religious Form of Bad Conscience

To account for the religious form of bad conscience, Nietzsche first steps back to the earlier phase of creditor and debtor morality. The relationship between generations was interpreted in such terms, so that each generation was indebted to the previous, and especially the earliest, which founded the family. This was a real legal obligation, not merely sentimental. The sacrifices of the ancestors for the survival of the race are repaid by sacrifices and other services. [GM, 2nd, 19]

Yet the debt grows, since the ancestors, now as spirits, continue to help the race. These favors are always owed repayment, in sacrifices, temples, tributes, and above all obedience, i.e., following ancestral customs as precepts or commands. As the race increases, so does the debt to the ancestors, who are now considered more powerful and fearsome. If the race decays, fear of the founding spirits diminishes, as they are less esteemed as wise, provident and potent. [Loc. cit.]

At first glance, this may seem obviously true. Consider, for example, how the wisdom of the Founding Fathers of the United States has seemed magnified in proportion to the success of that nation. On the other hand, decay is not always laid at the feet of the founders. In Cicero’s time, the Romans considered decay to be a consequence of falling away from founding principles. In more primitive nations, misfortune could be seen as a punishment by ancestral gods, requiring more extreme supplication. The more extreme sacrifices were made not in times of prosperity, but when there is danger of calamity. Thus the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter was made in extremis.

Nietzsche claims that the ancestors of the most powerful races, being most feared, become gods. This restriction to the powerful races is doubtful; even weak races might make their ancestors into gods over time. In any event, the principle he asserts is that fear preceded piety. This is corroborated by primitive religions, which seem steeped in fear toward spirits.

Later, when the aristocratic races were formed, there was even more fear of ancestral heroes or gods. The people they conquered adopted their religion, out of compulsion or mimicry, and took on the notion of owing debts to the gods. Nietzsche makes the Lamarckian claim that this feeling of debt is inherited, thus accounting for innate religious sentiment. [GM, 2nd, 20] Darwinian theorists must invent other explanations for religious feeling, which need not concern us here.

Rather than attempt another pseudo-biological account of ideas or instincts, we should scrutinize the notion that the worship of gods was adopted from master races. While higher civilizations were more likely to conceive of gods in anthropomorphic rather than animistic terms, gods did not always spread from conqueror to conquered, but sometimes the reverse process took root. Likewise, Nietzsche’s generalization that deities became more universal as did empires is only erratically true. Deities were not generally consolidated, but added to the pantheon, so a conquered nation’s deity might actually have a wider following as a result.

The notion of a universal deity arose among the Jews, a most inward-looking people, while the cosmopolitan Romans did not conceive of their gods as universal. It is only in the Christian era that they did so, with the Sol Invictus and a brief flirtation with Mithraism. When speaking of universal deities, Nietzsche obviously has Christianity in mind, with its most acute consciousness of debt to God, and overgeneralizes from it. This is a common problem among Western atheistic accounts of religion. Really having Christianity in their crosshairs, atheists pretend to give a general scientific account of “religion,” when their notion of “religion” is unconsciously shaped by Christianity despite themselves.

In the modern era, Nietzsche perceives that the moving away from belief in the Christian God brings a decay in consciousness of guilt or owing, i.e., the notion of “should” (schuld). Atheism might free mankind from all feeling of obligation to their origin or causa prima, bringing a second innocence. [Loc. cit.]

Regardless of how they originated, it seems clear that the ideas of “ought” and “owe” were interrelated with religion from a very early date. Yet the notion of God as creditor does not suffice to make these concepts moral. In fact, when “ought” and “duty” are moralized, pushing them into bad conscience, Nietzsche contends that this begins the reversal of ever increasing unpaid debt. Once you get to the point that there is no hope of redeeming the debt, the ideas of “guilt” and “duty” turn back against the “ower,” where bad conscience establishes itself. With the impossibility of paying the debt comes the idea of the impossibility of paying a sufficient penalty (hence the notion of eternal punishment), and bad conscience turns against the creditor, blaming the first cause or origin of the human race. This can be seen in doctrines regarding original sin, the determination of the will, and faulty human nature. Sometimes, as in Buddhism, fault is found with existence itself, leading to nihilism. [GM, 2nd, 21]

The problem of unpayable debt, where bad conscience accuses both debtor and creditor, is solved “in that stroke of genius called Christianity,” where God Himself pays the debt from His own flesh, for love of His debtor. [Loc. cit.] Nietzsche astutely recognizes that Christianity did not increase guilt, as liberal critics wrongly suppose, but in fact opened the path to freedom from guilt, as the debt for such has been paid. This leads to the eventual realization that we may be free from law or extrinsic obligation (“freedom in Christ”). It is no accident that liberalism arose in Christian Europe. Liberals who denounce Christianity are foolishly slandering the mother of liberalism. They perceive Christians as guilt-ridden only because the latter still believe that there is such a thing as guilt that needed to be redeemed. Yet to be a Christian means to hold as certain that all guilt has in fact been redeemed, so it has no power over us. Liberal antipathy toward guilt is already contained in Christianity; indeed, that antipathy is precisely where liberalism was born.

This is one area where Nietzsche credits Christianity with a unique and indispensable role in advancing human development. No other religion or system of thought provided such an elegant solution to the problem of irredeemable debt. This revelation was necessary to free man from enslavement to guilt and bad conscience.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche holds that bad conscience originated in the first place in a religious context. When enslaved man was no longer permitted to hurt others, he invented the bad conscience to hurt himself, supposing he owed something to God. Since God is the antithesis of all animal instincts, he interpreted these as opposing what he owes, as a rebellion against God. Every negation of some natural aspect of his being was interpreted as an affirmation of something in God, e.g., holiness, transcendence, eternity. Man willed to find himself guilty and blameworthy beyond expiability, liable to punishment without being able to balance the guilt. [GM, 2nd, 22] Nietzsche’s thought here is heavily informed by Lutheran and Calvinist theology.

Is it really the case that guilt and bad conscience were invented in the context of religion or Christianity? Surely it is possible to feel remorse quite apart from religion. Did no one feel guilty about murder before the theology of debt to God arose? Even in Christianity, it seems that theology came after bad conscience, not before. The doctrine of original sin was only gradually interpreted as a flaw in human nature, and even this never took much hold among the Eastern Orthodox. Strangely, the notion of man’s guilt and damnability was elaborated only after the fact, to explain the fact of Christian redemption and its necessity for salvation. The most vitiated notions of human nature came last, in the Age of Reformation. Those reformers who most strenuously insisted that salvation was a completely undeserved gift also disparaged the capacity of human nature to win merit for itself. Once again, human nature was condemned retrospectively, only after contemplating that it had been saved by grace.

Apart from this historical contradiction, there is an apparent redundancy or overdetermination in Nietzsche’s account of the origin of bad conscience. The notion of debt or owing already suffices to develop a bad conscience or guilt, without introducing the idea of a debt to God, much less an unredeemable debt. It would seem that these developments merely amplify an already existing bad conscience.

Nietzsche can only characterize man’s will to find himself irredeemably guilty as a disease or madness. Again, this fault is most prominent in Lutheran and Calvinist theology.

Here is disease, undubitably, the most ghastly disease that has as yet played havoc among men: and he who can still hear (but man turns now deaf ears to such sounds), how in this night of torment and nonsense there has rung out the cry of love, the cry of the most passionate ecstasy, of redemption in love, he turns away gripped by an invincible horror—in man there is so much that is ghastly—too long has the world been a mad-house. [GM, 2nd, 22]

Nietzsche is too repulsed by guilt and melancholy to give any credence to the Christian’s discovery of redemption in love. He assumes this is just another symptom of the madness.

While the God of Christianity is conceived in terms antithetical to the animal in man, not all conceptions of gods disparage human nature. The Greek gods, for example, actually deified the animal in man. Making the whims of the gods responsible for human fate effectively allowed the gods to serve as buffers against bad conscience, so the Greeks could enjoy freedom of the soul. In other words, all evil came from the gods, so the Greeks had no reason to feel guilty. Quoting the Odyssey, Nietzsche shows Homer pushing back against this tendency to blame the gods for all evil. Zeus retorts that mortals “make themselves wretched through folly, even counter to fate.” Even here it is only foolishness, a disturbance of the brain, not the guilt of sin, that is imputed to men. [GM, 2nd, 23]

Nietzsche further remarks that the Greeks ultimately attributed even foolishness to the gods: “He must have been deluded by a god.” Thus the gods justified man even in his evil, taking upon themselves, “not the punishment, but what is more noble, the guilt.” [Loc. cit.]

We should remark that the Greeks did not have a sharp distinction between the natural and the spiritual. So there would be no real difference between saying a man’s mind has become diseased and that he was influenced by a god. Ordinary lunacy, after all, was thought to be caused by bad spirits. So we cannot necessarily make a distinction between theological and naturalistic explanations of human folly.

In any event, it is clear from the Greek counterexample that Nietzsche’s quarrel with Christianity is not in its assertion of a Deity, but in the notion of sinful guilt. Redemption from punishment does not erase the guilt, so man is still burdened with the disease of bad conscience. This attack applies mainly to Protestant theology, in which redeemed man no longer has sins imputed to him, though his sinfulness remains. This Lutheran and Calvinist conception of redemption does not truly erase guilt.

The Catholic and Orthodox notion of redemption, on the other hand, truly erases guilt and penalty (culpa et poena). This is implied in the apostolic teaching that Christ “became sin” on the Cross, taking on even the guilt. Still, even Catholic and Orthodox Christians may feel sorrowful for past sins, which would still be unacceptable to Nietzsche as bad conscience. Yet this sorrow for sin, or repentance, is only a preliminary to redemption, after which one should be truly free from guilt. In practice, however, Christians lapse back into sin, so that the cycle of guilt and repentance is repeated, usually through the sacrament of penance. Nietzsche would not have us experience guilt or bad conscience in the first place, even if it could be truly removed.

While the lack of a sense of sin has abounded in our day, especially insofar as people do not consider themselves to have obligations to God, it is hardly true that people have abandoned guilt and bad conscience. We still feel remorse for injuring others, and consider those who lack such bad conscience to be sociopathic or defective. Feeling guilty is unpleasant and self-devouring, as the word ‘remorse’ (“biting oneself”) indicates. This does not prove that it is a disease. Such self-flagellation might be a necessary impetus for us to improve ourselves, avoiding more egregiously destructive behavior in the long run. Nietzsche, like the liberals, asserts without proof that guilt is bad for people. He assumes that it is a religious invention, but its persistence even in secularized cultures suggests there may be a deeper psychological or biological reason for its existence.

Unlike the liberals, however, Nietzsche recognizes a constructive value in the tyranny of morality against animal nature. He does not assume that freedom from restraint or laisser-aller is natural and that tyranny is forbidden, for that itself is an arbitrary moral. Creativity requires that we operate under a set of rules or discipline rather than act without restraint. A poet follows rules of metre and rhyme. When an artist acts under inspiration, he follows a thousand rules or laws, so much so, that it is the following of such laws rather than freedom from restraint that deserves to be called natural. The discipline of thinking in accordance with Aristotelian premises and ecclesiastical rules to interpret everything, though violent, arbitrary and dreadful toward animal freedom, proved to be “the disciplinary means whereby the European spirit has attained its strength, its remorseless curiosity and subtle mobility.” [BGE, 188] This “stupidity” educated the spirit, proving that even slavery is indispensable to education. This applies to all systems of morals, which provide a salutary “narrowing of perspectives” to immediate duties, enabling us to focus on creative tasks. “Thou must obey some one, and for a long time; otherwise thou wilt come to grief, and lose all respect for thyself.” This is the moral imperative of nature, addressed to the animal species “mankind.” [Loc. cit.]


15.6 Turning Bad Conscience against Idealism

“To enable a sanctuary to be set up a sanctuary has got to be destroyed: that is a law— show me an instance where it has not been fulfilled!” [GM, 2nd, 24] Naturally, the pagans did build temples to new gods without necessarily destroying others tit-for-tat. What Nietzsche means here is that when you set up a new ideal, some other ideal has to be sacrificed or at least subordinated, so that it is no longer the ideal.

In order to create a new ideal for ourselves, we cruelly dissect our previous incarnation. We vivisect conscience, practicing cruelty on our animal selves. Our natural proclivities are given an “evil eye,” so they become affiliated with bad conscience. Instead, Nietzsche says, we should affiliate “bad conscience” with unnatural proclivities, transcendental aspirations, all past and present ideals, which are opposed to life. This bad conscience, like any other, is self-inflicted. The asceticism he proposes is to purge all unnatural aspirations or ideals. Even if he persists in unnatural aspiration, the natural world will still accept him. [Loc. cit.]

Nietzsche does not find fault with self-cruelty as such, only with its misdirectedness. All high culture involves such spiritualized cruelty. Even though it is turned against the animal nature, cruelty itself is the life of the wild beast supposedly slain. The thrill and delight of self-cruelty is found not only in ecstatic religious self-denial, but also in the seeking of knowledge, where we will ourselves to believe against what we would desire to be true. [BGE, 229] By expanding the definition of cruelty beyond delight in the suffering of others, Nietzsche places the noblest self-denying virtues of European idealists on the same plane as the Roman arena.

Healthy spirits are rendered potent through wars, victories, conquest, adventure, danger, and pain, all the things that the sickly idealist calls evil. Though he does not use the term here, Nietzsche clearly sees that the unnatural ideal of man must be surpassed by a superman who is as ashamed of ideals as present man is ashamed of his animal nature. This “man of the future” penetrates into reality through solitude, redeeming reality from the curse of the old ideal, “and its corollary, the will to nothingness, Nihilism. He is Antichrist and Antinihilist, conqueror of God and Nothingness.” [GM, 2nd, 24] Here we see that Nietzsche’s opposition to Christianity and theism is based on his perception that they epitomize idealism. They reject and disparage the natural world in favor of something unnatural. Since, for Nietzsche, there is no other world than that of nature, such idealism practically implies nihilism.

This mention of a person “whose solitude is misunderstood by the people” would seem to be a not-so-humble self-reference, but Nietzsche denies that he is the Superman or the one to usher in the age of the Superman. He must keep silent, lest he trespass on the domain of one younger than himself, stronger, more of the future, “Zarathustra the godless.” Nietzsche undoubtedly perceived in himself many vestiges of idealistic aversion toward animal nature, and so counted himself incapable of being fully free from the old habits. Given his biological view of behavior, he likely considered it would take more generations of breeding to expunge idealism. On the other side, the world was not yet ready to receive the prophecy of Zarathustra. It was still too full of “gods,” i.e., ideals.

This distinction between Zarathustra and Nietzsche accounts for the use of the poetic form in Also sprach Zarathustra. Nietzsche himself does not know the full revelation of Zarathustra, so he only touches on those aspects that he has seen, much as the author of the Apocalypse described his visions without grasping the fullness of the reality they signified.


Continue to Part VII

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