Literary Review: The Genealogy of Morals

An analysis of Nietzsche's theory of resentment

Photo courtesy of Giammarco Boscaro

Photo courtesy of Giammarco Boscaro

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s book, “The Genealogy of Morals,” consists of three interrelated essays discussing his understanding of the origins of human morality and offering a critique of their development. He writes the book in the year 1887 within the context of a newly unified Germany, which, despite prevailing national optimism, Nietzsche characterizes as “nihilistic” — that is, lacking moral principles. In the first essay, “Good and Evil,” “Good and Bad,” he asserts that the current concept of morals was ultimately caused by a resentment that is no longer warranted — a resentment that leads people to believe that what is not egotistic is morally good. Nietzsche suggests otherwise, arguing that moral actions are really those that promote one’s will to power. His argument correctly asserts that humanity’s moral code assumes that what is good is good in-and-of itself; however, he falls victim to assumption himself by believing that what provides power is purely egotistical in nature, and further, that power is the even ideal.

In the beginning of the first essay, Nietzsche condemns English psychology for assuming that there exists a universal notion of “good” and “evil,” and claims that those who practice it lack historical spirit. This prevailing assumption, he says, has developed out of human habit, which misunderstands what is “good” to be good in and of itself. He writes:

“Now it is plain to me, first of all, that in this theory the source of the concept ‘good’ has been sought and established in the wrong place: the judgement ‘good’ did not originate with those to whom ‘goodness’ was shown! Rather, it was ‘the good’ themselves, that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradiction to all the low, low-minded, common plebian.”

This argument could be valid, because in it Nietzsche asserts the truth that morality is primarily based in assumption. That is, the assumption that what is “good” is good inherently, when the irony is that no living person lives to tell the ultimate consequences of human actions. Nietzsche would say this finite state that humanity searches for doesn’t exist, i.e. there is not afterlife or final judgement and religions are an attempt to find meaning in a meaningless world. He suggests that to overcome this nihilistic perspective one must seek his/her will to power.

Building off this, Nietzsche explains where the common understanding of what is “good” and what is “bad” originated. He says that history has proven the existence of two types of values, which he distinguishes as “master” vs. “slave” morality. Master morality is active and bases what is good in consequence, i.e. what promotes power and growth is good, while slave morality is reactive and is based in “ressentiment” — a negative response to the forces that oppose it. An example of this in the present day could be, in a general sense, capitalism (noble morality) versus socialism (slave morality). He writes: “The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge.” According to Nietzsche, a noble man’s “good” is precisely what a man of ressentiment considers “evil.” This is unreasonable, he argues, because you cannot separate a person (or animal, in his example) from his/her essence, though grammar has shaped the mind to separate a subject (actor) from its predicate (deed). He opposes such resentment, saying that to criticize one for being “strong” is to blame them for existing.

Again, this is a fair argument. Not only does Nietzsche assert that truth that all morality is based in assumption, but he points out that therefore what is considered “good” – that is, what is characterized by humility, patience and perseverance through suffering – might not actually be ideal. As he points out, history has proven that oppression causes revolt and consequently, the direct opposition towards the interests of the oppressors. Ultimately, Nietzsche argues that people need to exercise their power — whatever that is. Therefore, what is good and what is bad can be distinguished by what is active and what is reactive — not what is or isn’t egotistic. 

Photo Courtesy of Alex Block

Photo Courtesy of Alex Block

Nietzsche believes that while the gap between “the noble” and “the slave” needed to be closed, society has unnecessarily maintained a slave morality based in fear. He says humanity must overcome this mentality and start asserting its power to act by acting courageous, confident and determined. This overcomes nihilism without relying on the man-made hope of religion, which again, he views as an escape from reality. Indeed, ideally it also overcomes resentment, however it is unrealistic to think that one can always replace the emotional effects of oppression with self-perseverance. That of course also brings up fact that oppression will always exist, even on a minor level, for example, a friend who’s late to lunch will negatively impact the schedule of the other person, decreasing his/her power to act.

Further, herein lies the issue with Nietzsche’s argument. Hypocritically, he false victim to the assumption that there is an attainable “ideal” upon which humanity should base its moral code. What good in the end is courage, confident and determination? Because everyone’s personal interests will inevitably conflict, therefore seeking those things will never result in a universal good. Additionally, what might empower someone else might also empower the individual, so the concepts of slave and noble morality are not black and white — but blurred. One could argue that the exercise of power and humility can both act in one’s interest and the interest of society, however that is not the root of the issue. The real question is a matter of the grounds for criticism, the grounds for characterizing “ideals.” Ironically Nietzsche asserts that these cannot be evaluated — but that’s another book for another time.