July 15, 2006

How I spent my summer vacation XVI

Nietzsche, On the genealogy of morals, part I

Friedrich Nietzsche is one of my favourite philosophers; it should therefore not be a surprise that he is a post-Kantian German with a radical critique of his philosophical peers and a remarkably obscure writing style. This writing style -- deeply ironic, often indirect, and involving some fairly precise literary imagery -- makes translating Nietzsche even more of a artistic endeavour than usual, and a faithful synopsis quite a demanding feat. Still, I'm willing to give it a shot.

On the genealogy of morals is probably less well-known than Also sprach Zarathustra [Thus spake Zarathustra], but is much more familiar to Intro students because the former is significantly shorter and easier. Oddly (or perhaps not), the assigned reading is only the first of three parts, which presents the weakest argument and in which Nietzsche (ironically) comes off as the sort of raving anti-Semite the Nazis read him as. As in most of his other works, Nietzsche's purpose is polemical, and his target is the utilitarian/common-sense approach to ethics that spread from Britain through the rest of Europe during the nineteenth century. Nietzsche considers this `morals of mores' stifling and antithetical to virtue in the Classical, Greek sense of arete (recall from Aristotle that this word can be more aptly translated as `excellence').

In particular, Nietzsche argues in part I of the Genealogy that the fundamental moral dichotomy has become perverted and turned on its head by a `slave revolt in morals'. Superficially, this is presented as an etymological point: our moral language reflects an `aristocratic value equation' where `good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = blessed'; the Ancient aristocrats used the language of 'good' to describe themselves, while the language of 'bad' originally described the commoners. But the priestly castes -- themselves aristocrats, but only in virtue of their control over the commoners -- perverted this into 'good' and 'evil', where 'good' praises the submissive, mediocre, fearful, and impotent qualities of the commoners, while 'evil' is used to damn those who would refuse to submit to society's strictures, ie, the aristocrats. Pace Nietzsche's liking the aristocrats to predators and birds of prey, he doesn't have in mind a Hannibal Lecter sort of sociopath or stereotypical hedonist (Nietzsche is a fierce opponent of nihilism), but instead the Aristotelean virtuous man or great artist. While later existentialists would radically differ from him in this respect, Nietzsche is a fierce essentialist and apologist for aristocracy: the bird of prey is simply superior to the rabbit, and the virtuous man is simply superior to the mediocre commoner.

Interesting philosophical link: Prostitution and unemployment benefits

Total pages read: 2,337

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