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Nietzsche study guide
a) What is significant about the title On the Genealogy of Morality?
This title is significant because, by saying that morality has a "genealogy," Nietzsche is implying
that we have not always believed in morality, that morality had "ancestors," governing concepts
which preceded it. Thus, with this provocative title, Nietzsche is suggesting that there is no
"universal" morality, and that it is a concept created by humans which is not inherent in human life.
See part 2 of the Introduction.
b) What is irony? How does Nietzsche employ irony to overturn our moral standards? By turning
traditional dualisms/oppositions on their head, are these concepts simply subjected to a role
reversal? In what way does Nz demonstrate not only the interdependence of these seeming
opposites, that the meaning of each is founded upon concealing from view the role the other plays,
but also that this kind of deception is essential to their practical functioning and efficacy? Can you
give an example of Nz’s playful overturning of concepts or values?
Irony is when you say the opposite of what you mean and use opposites to add emphasis. Nietzsche
uses irony when he talks about "the good man" versus "the evil man" in conventional morality. He
overturns the conventional understandings of "good" and "evil" by proposing that a "good" action
might actually have unforeseen "bad" consequences in the future, and vice versa, demonstrating
that the concepts of "good" and "bad" are ahistorical because they are presumed to be eternal and
never to switch roles with changes in circumstance. Nietzsche shows that what might be "good" at
one time could be considered "bad" later in history, and that "good" and "bad" could switch
entirely. Thus, claims Nietzsche, the only inherent definition of "good" and "evil" is their nature as
opposites, meaning that that which is not "good" must be "evil," and vice versa. See part 6 of the
c) What is the significance of Nz grounding his a priori in a skepticism concerning the pure origins
of our moral concepts? In what way is Nz serious in calling this his a priori (in what way is his a
priori prior to experience insofar as it structures his experience)?
The significance of Nietzsche claiming that his "a priori" was a skepticism in the pure origins of
morals is that it is in direct contradiction to most people's "a priori"; most people take the existence
of universal morals as their "a priori," the idea that some actions are inherently good or bad. This "a
priori" structures Nietzsche's experience because he spends his time trying to discover, even from
an early age, the origins of moral concepts. See part 3 of the Introduction.
d) What is so strange about Nz’s claim that he is inquiring into the value of morality? If an inquiry
into morality is an inquiry into human values, what might it say about Nz’s view of the character of
this historical project such that Nz is not engaging in an inquiry into human value, but instead
investigating the value of this project?
This is a strange claim, because how does Nietzsche plan on evaluating morality without making
moral judgments? "Value" is usually seen as "moral value"; as deeming something to be "good" or
"bad," positive or negative. Thus, one might see Nietzsche's investigation as an attempt to assign a
value to the quest for the genealogy for morality that eschews moral categories.
e) What is nihilism? How is Nz’s investigation into the Western project of founding values a
response to the threat of nihilism?
Nihilism, like Nietzsche's philosophy, says that all moral concepts (and other values) are created by
humans and that nothing actually exists or has meaning. However, Nietzsche is opposed to
nihilism. He hopes to bring the fact that morals are constructed by society to the attention of his
readers so that they can be conscious of the process of creating morality and create their own moral
code and meaning for their lives which is not dependent on the power dynamics of society. Thus,
they are not supposed to live without morals like a nihilist, just to create their own moral code
f) According to Nz, are the values that Western philosophy has traditionally celebrated values that
are discovered or values that are created? That is, are these values a product of history, or are they
Nietzsche says the Western philosophy in general has always been transhistorical. It searches for
immutable, eternal truths and does not admit the possibility that values can change through history.
See part 2 of Essay 1.
g) Who are the English Psychologists? What was unusual about these English psychologists in
reference to their patter of inquiry into morality? Do the English psychologists work under the
assumption that human values are transhistorical? Insofar as they maintain that human values
emerge out of history, that morality has historical origins, how did they challenge a central premise
of the traditional Western moral outlook?
Nietszche says that the "English Psychologists" are the only people looking into the origins of
morality in a historical way, that is that they work under the assumption, like Freud, that
classifications such as "good" and "bad" have not always existed or had the same meaning as they
do today. This challenges the premise of the Western moral outlook that morality is based in
Christianity (and Plato, Nietszche adds)--that there is a universal moral code that has always
existed and which we were just waiting to have revealed to us. See part 1 of Book 1.
h) According to Nietzsche, what makes these English psychologists so interesting? How does Nz’s
interest in these thinkers go beyond the claim (not entirely novel in Nz’s day) that morality has a
historical dimension? Where or in what faculty did the English psychologists seek out the origins
of human value and morality? In what way did the English Psychologists debase that which is
highest in humanity (that feature which we have traditionally claimed to be most god-like in
Nietzsche finds these English psychologists interesting because he sees them as morbidly interested
in exposing the baser side of humanity. He wants to know why they reject the explanations for the
origin of morality offered by Christianity and Plato. Instead, the English psychologists link the
origins of the concepts of "good" and "evil" with the idea of "usefulness" and altruism. They claim
that "good" was originally used to describe actions which were beneficial to the people acted upon,
indicating an act of altruism. The English psychologists debase the idea that humans have an
inherent sense of morality by proposing that we are merely following the example of our ancestors
by labeling certain unegoistic actions as "good," without really understanding why. See parts 2 and
3 of Book 1.
i) According to influential philosopher’s of Nz’s day, most significantly Hegel, what was said to be
driving history? If reason is said to be driving history, and our values are a product of history, what
still was said to lay at the heart of morality? How was this outlook (that reason is the source of
morality and value) challenged by the English psychologists?
According to Hegel and other influential philosophers of Nietzsche's day, the political entity
employs reason, and the history of a political state is the history of the maturation of its rational
process. If values were products of history and history was the product of reason, then that would
mean that humans found "good" and "evil" using reason, that they used reason to discover a preexisting system of morality. The English psychologists challenged the idea that humans used
reason to define morality by suggesting that humans "forgot" the origins of the terms "good" and
"evil" and that these terms were settled upon due to "error." See part 3 of Book 1.
j) How does Nietzsche criticize the genealogy offered by the English Psychologists? Why does Nz
claim that the English Psychologists are bad historians? Why does Nz claim that the English
Psychologists are bad psychologists? Does Nz believe that the idea of the good has a univocal,
constant, trans-historical meaning? How does Nz challenge the assumption made by the English
psychologists that there is a single, logical, universal strain that drives history (that history has an
origin as opposed to origins)? In what way are the English psychologists guilty of the same error
made by those who would claim that it is reason which is the sole agent in history?
Nietzsche criticizes the genealogy offered by the English psychologists because they do not
consider the basic rules of history in their use of "utility" in determining the origin of "good" and
"bad." They say that those for whom "good" actions were performed characterized their benefactors
as "good," but this assumes that the recipients of "good" actions were in the position to decide the
morality for all of society. It is more realistic, Nietzsche points out, that the benefactors, the ones
with the power in society, are the ones that wrote the history, who decided what would be called
"good" and what would be called "bad," and that the only way "utility" came into the equation was
in regards to the "utility" of actions for their perpetrators. The people in power defined the actions
which were useful for them as "good," not what was useful for the less powerful people. While the
psychologists do propose that morality has origins, they still maintain that the meaning of "good"
and "bad" since those origins has always stayed the same, and that "good" has always referred to
that which is "unegoistic," which is against Nietzsche's belief that the meanings of "good and "bad"
change through the course of history. Nietzsche also points out that English psychologists' claim
that people have since forgotten the connection between "good" and "useful" does not make sense,
that this connection is in fact reinforced each time someone performs a "good" action and sees
benefits come from it. Thus, the English psychologists are more similar to the Hegelian
philosophers who see reason as the driving force of history than they claim to be. See parts 2 and 3
of Book 1.
k) Define etymology. What does Nz’s etymology of the word ‘good’ reveal to him?
Etymology is the origins of our usage of words to mean certain things. Nietzsche conducts
etymological research on the word "good" and finds that the word "good" derives in every language
from words for "noble" or "aristocratic." This is further proof for his idea that the ruling class
created our concept of morality, because they classified themselves as the "good" people. See part 4
of Book 1.
l) Describe the ‘noble ideal.’ Why is the noble ideal associated with a predatory animal? In what
way is the noble ideal thoughtlessly self-referential? is the noble ideal active? In what way is it
grounded simply in activity (in whatever happens to be done by those who declare themselves
members of the nobility)?
The 'noble ideal' that the men in power would be strong, blond warriors. The noble ideal is
associated with a predatory animal because those who are members of the noble caste feel that they
can commit violent crimes without being categorized as "bad," because it is they who create the
moral code. The noble ideal is self-referential because it is defined as whatever definition the
nobles want to give it; it is as changeable as the ideas of "good" and "bad." It is also inherently
grounded in activity, because it can expand to include anything which the nobles do. It is constantly
dynamic, because anything done by the nobles, who define "goodness," is automatically "good"
and part of the ideal. See part 11 of Book 1.
m) Describe the priestly ideal. Why is the priestly ideal associated with a domesticated animal? In
what way does the priestly ideal hide itself and lie to itself (and others)?
Nietzsche says that the priestly ideal split off from the noble ideal and eventually became its
opposite. It is characterized by a spiritual hatred of the warriors, which transforms into love of God.
The priestly ideal is associated with a domesticated animal because the nobles control them like
domesticated animals by holding them to their standards of morality.
n) What role did ressentiment play in the ‘slave-revolt’ in morality? What does this tell us about
those factors that drive history? What are some of the ironic reversals that come out of Nz’s
discussion of ressentiment? In what way is the imagination said to be a driving force in history as
opposed to reason? In what way are lies operative in history as opposed to the truth? In what way
are our morals a product of accidents rather than what was intended? In what way is history a
record of human submission and resignation rather than human agency? In what way are human
values a product of disavowals and rejections rather than a product of affirmations? In what way
does ressentiment constitute a creative process?
o) What is the ‘slave revolt’ in morality? What does Nz mean when he claimed it has succeeded?
What does Nz ‘love’ about this success (what is the ‘poison’ that he loves)? How did the slave
revolt make us interesting? What does Nz abhor about this success (why is he not satisfied with the
contemporary portrait of morality)?
p) How does the distinction between good and bad become transformed into a distinction between
good and evil? Why does Nz claim that this invention gives humanity depth?
q) How has the creation of these values (captured by Nz in terms of the transition from ‘good and
bad’ to ‘good and evil’) led humanity to the brink of nihilism? How has the slave revolt in
morality led humanity to the denial of life? In what way has slave morality led humanity to yet
another lacuna where the values we had placed our faith in no longer hold sway? What does
humanities willingness to deny everything in life (as Nz phrases it, our willingness to will
nothingness) tell us about humanities need to find meaning/purpose in existence?