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03 April 2007

Some Thoughts on Nietzsche's Second Essay in The Genealogy of Morals

I thought I had read this book before, and maybe I did, but the full force of it never hit me as it has on this (re-)reading...

I re-read Ecce Homo, after seeing so many references to it in Kaufmann's Discovering the Mind. That was interesting, funny, and a bit sad in its megalomania, not all of which, I think, can be explained away.

But in the same volume (Kaufmann, of course), I started on Genealogy. The first essay was good: thick with thoughts. But the second, which I just finished, is one of the most brilliant, perceptive, fruitful essays I have ever read. I think that Nietzsche gets the broad outlines of guilt, gods, conscience, etc., right. I think he'd be horrified to hear that I, for one, saw a point of connection between his truly inspired association of guilt and debt, and his tracing of morality to economic exchange between classes (and individuals, to be sure), and of resentment, etc., with Marx and Engels. I'm sure Kaufmann would be horrified, too, but it strikes me as so obvious that I cannot imagine I'm the first to notice it, despite Nietzsche's still-annoying anti-democratic, anti-socialistic predisposition.

But even though Nietzsche's rejection of all things "conscience-laden" goes too far -- he gives real love, well, no shrift, and he does glorify war, no matter what Kaufmann says -- it is a work of genius, true genius. The closest Nietzsche comes to a more balanced, less over-reactive position toward morality is when he describes the notion of the strength required not to need punishment for the "guilty"; and his true insight that the subalterns ("slave class") had their freedom stolen from them. In fact, "instinct for freedom" is a better term, I think, than "will to power," which, if nothing else, has bad connotations since Hitler. Nietzsche (via Kaufmann, of course) offers it as a synonym himself on page 87 (section 18), and in that term, I see a link-up with the post-classical-liberal anarchist and libertarian socialist strands I've been immersed in of late. Yes, Nietzsche held anarchism in special contempt as the omega point of decadent democracy, but I simply part ways with him on that. Yes, smash the idols, by all means; but one will still have love and fellowship, I think. Free from guilt, from "neighbor-love" in the negative, hypocritical sense, but one would think that the logical, or at least plausible, conclusion of Nietzsche's thinking is that after we kill off guilt, the gods, etc., and free ourselves from our own cages (excellent extended metaphor), we will surely have a purer love and fellowship left over. I think he erred there, and his overman is really just what he says: an Anti-Christ -- a knee-jerk reaction, in my humble opinion.

But Nietzsche did say, like his Zarathustra, that we should not follow him! I trust any thinker who says that.

I have purposely referred obliquely and incompletely to Nietzsche's themes; I can't do them justice. Read the essay -- and the book!

Some free associations:

  • Stephen Jay Gould did give priority to Nietzsche on the necessary separation of current utility from historical origin (in his last book, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory; a grad student of his pointed it out). This is in section 12, and specifically deals with the evolutionary theory of the day, as well as with historiography in general.
  • Foucault, I must say, is a very weak plagiarist, at best, of Nietzsche -- surely someone has noticed this!
  • Nietzsche was spot on about monotheism. Freud's great error was to consider monotheism progress, someone once told me; I agree.
I think I need to re-read Zarathustra (this will be the third or fourth time)...maybe it will make more sense. Following Kaufmann, Genealogy is in a sense the "prose" version of Zarathustra. The latter is more a novel, and a highly poetic one at that.

Pull out the "rabble" talk; ignore the misogyny; roll one's eyes at the glorification of war (I think he's more on target with a good hike up a mountain, and living dangerously in other senses), and Nietzsche still has plenty to teach us. No wonder Freud stopped reading him! He'd thought of so much already! Plus, what an immensely gifted writer. I cannot read him in the original, but if Kaufmann is correct, Nietzsche's German leaves Kaufmann's English in the dust, which is saying quite a lot.

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