An Analysis of the Genealogy of Morality
by Marc Geddes
Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Canvas, a student politics journal for which I was the Founder and Editor between 2010 and 2012. The article is available here.
Friedrich Nietzsche is one of the most important philosophers of our modern day and age. He has had an impact on the social sciences, the arts and the humanities. In particular, our arguments take us into his realm of political philosophy, an arena which he has completely reshaped following the publication of the Genealogy of Morality. Although some have dismissed the Genealogy as nothing more than philosophical musings, this article will infer a number of political statements, in order to build up an image of Nietzsche’s overall meaning for politics, not to mention his aims for politics. It will be useful to look at the relationship between contemporary society versus the ideal society; his thoughts on freedom and coercion; and the crudely divided and unequal humanity which Nietzsche advocates.
In general, Nietzsche can be seen to be concerned exclusively with the politics of greatness. He paints a harsh reality of society in the Genealogy in which he argued that ‘moral and social structures were disguised structures of domination’ that suppressed human flourishing (Tracy Strong: 1996, p.127). Here, Nietzsche refers to the so-called “slave morality” of European society – in which Christian moral values undermine, even subjugate, greatness to the will of the mediocre and weak. This understanding is crucial to Nietzsche’s thought concerning political society, as he believes that politics is an art, primarily concerned with the creation of great works that would endure. There is much here to be seen to be related with post-modernism, in which morality would also be criticised as the main bulwark of traditionalism and enslavement of humanity. It is of great interest to many whether such a system of thought makes much sense. Even today, some argue that society is paralysed by its insistence on certain moral values that do not let society flourish. Rather, moral enslavement has bred mediocrity and bland art.
In turn, Nietzsche argues that there can be only one solution: to open up society and shake off its shackles of dependence on Christian morality. Nietzsche cared nothing for equality or freedom of choice or expression. Rather, he cared only for cultivated aesthetic creations that would last aeons. Whilst it would be difficult to see here any way in which Nietzsche would not advocate or desire a totalitarian form of government, he does want to see a powerful and philosophic aristocracy.
This is largely down to his belief of human nature – there are those who are the weak, small, and do not recognise the courage to be higher human beings. Then there is the minority of great leaders and great people who must be commended for their love of life and their will to power. In other words, his reading of society is based on the idea of ‘higher beings’ and of the ‘herd instinct’ (Nietzsche: 1887 (2007), p.25). In his ideal state, he denies the idea of free will, because the so-called “herd” would be under the total control of the higher beings. Grand politics would be about aesthetic achievements, not practical goals such as equality or freedom of choice – something which philosophers are traditionally concerned about. Equality and freedom are totally removed from him, for ‘men, as Nietzsche saw them, were not naturally equal, did not naturally love one another, and were not naturally free’ (Walter Kaufmann: 1974, p.170). Instead, the quality of one’s life depends on their achievements in life. This is something to be admired. Most philosophers by-pass examining the principle of the concept ‘quality of life’, displacing it with ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’. The crude way in which the Genealogy presents life is not as a means, but as an end in which each life is valued according to its content, not its principle. Some would say that this invites prejudice and discrimination to the doors of dictators and legitimises their racist or discriminatory actions, whilst also undermining fundamental principles of democracy. Contrarily, in order to live well does not mean to live freely; it means valuing your life and doing something with it. This principle cannot, or at least ought not, be undermined.
Nietzsche advocates a form of politics that demands education, progress and cultivation – not totalitarianism. The ultimate aim for humanity is greatness. What makes us human is what we make of it. What makes us human is our will to power; our will to be great. There is almost too much evidence which resonates with Nietzsche’s kernel of truth: our present-day obsession with celebrity culture, our demanding interest in brand-names and hypocritical nature of “equality” and “freedom” by imposing our Western culture on the rest of the world.
Nietzsche’s work has shaken political philosophy to its core, by asking a fundamentally basic question – what is politics for? What he recognises about politics more than other philosophers, perhaps, is his remarkably simple solution: to let power flourish into greatness.
Geuss, R., ‘Nietzsche and Morality’, European Journal of Philosophy, 5 (1997)
Strong, T., ‘Nietzsche’s Political Misappropriation’, The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, B. Magnus (ed.), (Cambridge, 1996)
Abbey, R. & Appel, F., ‘Nietzsche and the Will to Politics’, The Review of Politics, 56 (1998), pp.83-114
Warren, M., ‘Nietzsche and Political Philosophy’, Political Theory 13 (1985), pp.183-212