100 books, book review, books, classics, Nietzsche, philosophy
Wow, it is November 30th. Eleven months down, and I just limped through book sixty-seven. Gone is the energy of January and February. Vanished is the optimism of July. All that remains is the harsh reality of December. I am thirty-three books short of my goal, with thirty-one days remaining in the year. The odds don’t look great. That said, I intend to soldier on and try to make my final count as respectable as possible.
Book sixty-seven should help in that regard. I returned to Nietzsche, this time choosing his polemic On the Genealogy of Morals. This book is primarily concerned with issues surrounding the origin of our moral prejudices, and builds off of his earlier thoughts as expressed in Human, All Too Human and Beyond Good and Evil. Genealogy consists of a preface explaining why Nietzsche felt compelled to produce this particular work and three essays exploring different aspects of historical morality.
The first essay is entitled “Good and Evil, Good and Bad”. In it, Nietzsche explores the origin of the terms comprising the title. He locates the origin of ‘Good and Bad’ in the distinction between the nobility and the commoners. The nobility began by calling themselves ‘good’, and by association their actions were deemed ‘good’. In contrast, the commoners and their respective actions were ‘bad’. The distinction here is not explicitly moral. Instead it is a purely social dichotomy, with bad merely indicating a low-born status. The terms ‘Good and Evil’ have a much different origin. According to Nietzsche, ‘good and evil’ developed from a slave morality, where the individuals lacking all power came to resent the powerful. These weaker individuals viewed themselves as good, and therefore designated the powerful (and their respective attributes) as evil. This is a moral distinction, and contributed to the development of Judaism (and subsequently Christianity). Nietzsche vehemently disagrees with equating strength to evil. The actions of the strong, in his opinion, stem only from their inherent power, not from malice. For this reason, it is a mistake to condemn them by virtue of their strength alone.
The second essay bears the title “Guilt, Bad Conscience, and the Like.” Nietzsche first explores the origins of punishment, which he locates in the creditor/debtor relationship. Man recognized the ability to harm another as a form of payment for a broken promise. There are a variety of uses for punishment, but inspiring remorse in the offender is not a realistic one. Instead, the bad conscience is created from the imposition of community standards and expectations that limit the freedom of the individual will. The feeling of remorse that accompanies violations of those standards is the repressed instinct for freedom. It is therefore a self-destructive tendency that Nietzsche opposes.
The final essay is titled “What is the meaning of ascetic ideals?” This essay explores the urge to asceticism as it exists in a variety of groups, including artists, philosophers, and priests. The artist is always beholden to some ideology to serve a framework for his products, and is therefore not a significant concern. Instead, one must look to the philosopher’s relationship to the ascetic ideal. The philosopher is attracted to asceticism as the best possible environment to maintain an independence of thought and spirit. Originally the philosopher disguised himself as the ascetic priest in order to avoid suspicion. The remnants of that identification are still evident as philosophers tend to embrace the chastity, poverty, and humility of the priest. The true ascetic priest, by contrast, uses the ascetic ideal as license to minister to and save the deformed and the damned. By excusing himself from the pleasures of the world, the priest places himself below the powerful. At the same time, the fact that this is a willing subjugation grants him a superiority to the lower castes, who are weak without any choice. The priest uses this position to attempt to deaden the continuous pain of living as one of the weak among society. As a result, the priest (and his religion) gained a tremendous amount of power and influence. Society has thus embraced the will to truth represented by the priest (who equates truth with God, or with ultimate being). Neither science nor history have questioned the value of truth, instead predicating their respective views of the world on that very assumption. Nietzsche concludes by calling for an examination of the value of truth itself.
As you might have guessed, this book is quite an undertaking. The relative brevity lures you in, and then the sheer power of Nietzsche’s intellect bludgeons you. I am a long way from offering my own thoughts on this book. It demands rumination. I know that I don’t agree with everything Nietzsche says, but it will be a while before I am ready to articulate what and why. If you are interested in a book that calls for that kind of contemplation, give this one a try.
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I liked your book review and I also liked your idea of not sharing your personal impressions while sharing Nietzsche’s thoughts. If man is understood as a multicellular organism, the concern about good and evil, or right and wrong primarily relate to the requirement of supporting or sustaining man’s physical existence. Man is comprised of trillions of individual, independent living cells and each displays these characteristics of discernment using their cognitive abilities. It is not the issue of Master and Slave or that of Rich and Poor. The cell recognizes the presence of a variety of molecules, living cells and matter present in its external environment. The living cell actively attracts molecules of matter that are useful for its existence. The cell also recognizes the presence of foreign protein molecules and rejects or reacts to the presence of molecules considered to be bad. The function called Immunity or Immunological Surveillance depends upon the ability to recognize molecules and knowing if they are good or bad. Without this ability, man cannot defend his existence from invasion by viruses, bacteria, protozoa, fungi and other pathogens. Nietzsche’s ideas of ascetic ideal have no relevance to this ability of discernment that is concerned about existence. For example, the red blood cells display the characteristics of ascetism or altruism in their functional subservience. They merely live their individualistic, short lifespans to provide some benefit to the rest of the human organism. They do not behave like the priests that Nietzsche speaks about. His idea about the origin of punishment is also flawed. The living cell has the ability to detect the mutations or harmful changes that occur in its genetic material called DNA. The cell attempts to repair its own damaged DNA. If it fails to repair the damaged DNA, the cell tries to initiate a process to kill itself to end its existence. The cells with damaged DNA are also recognized by the cells that perform the Immune functions and they act to punish the damaged cells and wage a battle to destroy them. In modern medical practice of Oncology, the medical interventions must be understood as acts of punishment; we punish the bad cells and defend the good cells. In terms of human existence, good and bad is not about creditor vs debtor relationships. I may forgive those debtors and ask others to forgive my debts, but I cannot ignore the existence of bad or evil. If I have to exist, I have no choice other than that of retaliating against the bad and evil and I may live if and only if I win in that battle for my existence.