On the Genealogy of Morals
A Polemical Tract
Friedrich Nietzsche

[This document, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. Editorial comments and translations in square brackets and italics are by Ian Johnston; comments in normal brackets are from Nietzsche's text]

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We don't know ourselves, we knowledgeable people—we are personally ignorant about ourselves. And there's good reason for that. We've never tried to find out who we are. How could it ever happen that one day we'd discover our own selves? With justice it's been said that "Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also." Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as if we were born winged creatures—collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are basically concerned with only one thing, to "bring something home." As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call "experience"—which of us is serious enough for that? Who has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we've been "missing the point."

Our hearts have not even been engaged—nor, for that matter, have our ears! We've been much more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at once wakes up and asks himself "What exactly did that clock strike?"—so we rub ourselves behind the ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and embarrassed "What have we really just experienced? And more: "Who are we really?" Then, as I've mentioned, we count—after the fact—all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, our lives, our being—alas! in the process we keep losing the count. So we remain necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we have to keep ourselves confused. For us this law holds for all eternity: "Each man is furthest from himself." Where we ourselves are concerned, we are not "knowledgeable people."


My thoughts over the origin of our moral prejudices—for this polemical tract is concerned about that origin—had their first brief and provisional expression in that collection of aphorisms which carried the title Human, All-too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, a book which I started to write in Sorrento, during a winter when I had the chance to pause, just as a traveller stops, to look over the wide and dangerous land through which my spirit had wandered up to that point. This happened in the winter 1876-77, but the ideas themselves are older. In the main points, they were the same ideas which I am taking up again in these present essays. Let's hope that the long interval of time has done them some good, that they have become riper, brighter, stronger, and more complete!

The fact that today I still stand by these ideas, that in the intervening time they themselves have constantly become more strongly associated with one another, even to the point of growing into each other and intertwining, that has reinforced in me the joyful confidence that they may not have originally developed in me as single, random, or sporadic ideas, but up out of common roots, from some fundamental will for knowledge ruling from deep within, always speaking with greater clarity, always demanding greater clarity. In fact, that's the only thing appropriate for a philosopher. We have no right to be isolated in any way: we are not permitted to make isolated mistakes or to run into isolated truths. Our ideas, our values, our affirmations and denials, our if's and but's—these rather grow out of us from the same necessity which makes a tree bear its fruit—totally related and interlinked amongst each other, witnesses of one will, one health, one soil, one sun. As for the question whether these fruits of ours taste good to you, what does that matter to the trees! What concern is that of ours, we philosophers!


Because of a quirk in my own nature, to which I confess reluctantly, for it concerns itself with morality, with everything which up to the present has been celebrated on earth as morality, a quirk which came into my life early, so uninvited, so irresistibly, in such contradiction to my surroundings, my age, the examples around me, and my origin, that I almost have the right to call it my "a priori"—because of this, my curiosity and my suspicions soon enough had to pause at the question about where our good and evil really originated.

In fact, already as a thirteen-year-old lad, I was confronted with the problem of the origin of evil. At an age when one has "half childish play, half God in one's heart," I devoted my first childish literary trifle, my first written philosophical exercise, to this problem. And so far as my "solution" to the problem at that time is concerned, well, I gave that honour to God, as is reasonable, and made him the father of evil.

Is that what my "a priori" demanded of me precisely, that new immoral, at the very least unmoral "a priori" and the cryptic "categorical imperative" which spoke out from it, alas, so anti-Kantian, which I have increasingly listened to ever since—and not just listened to? Luckily I soon learned to separate theological prejudices from moral ones, and I no longer sought the origin of evil behind the world. Some education in history and philology, along with an inherently refined sense concerning psychological questions in general, quickly changed my problem into something else: Under what conditions did men invent for themselves these value judgments good and evil? And what inherent value do they have? Have they hindered or fostered human well-being up to now? Are they a sign of some emergency, of impoverishment, of an atrophying life? Or is it the other way around—do they indicate fullness, power, a will for living, courage, confidence, the future?

From there I came across and proposed all sorts of answers for myself. I distinguished between ages, peoples, different ranks of individuals. I kept refining my problem. Out of the answers arose new questions, investigations, assumptions, probabilities—until at last I had my own country, my own soil, a totally secluded, flowering, blooming world, like a secret garden, of which no one had the slightest inkling . . . Oh, how lucky we are, we knowledgeable people, provided that we know how to stay silent long enough!


The first stimulus to publish something of my hypothesis concerning the origin of morality was given to me by a lucid, tidy, clever, even precocious little book in which for the first time I clearly ran into a topsy-turvy and perverse type of genealogical hypothesis—a genuinely English style. It drew me with that power of attraction which everything opposite, everything antipodal contains. The title of this booklet was The Origin of the Moral Feelings. Its author was Dr Paul Rée, and it appeared in the year 1877. It's likely I have never read anything which I would have denied, statement by statement, conclusion by conclusion, as I did with this book, but without any sense of annoyance or impatience.

In the work I mentioned above, on which I was working at the time, I made opportune and inopportune references to statements in Dr. Rée's book, not in order to prove them wrong (what have I to do with preparing such refutations!) but, as is appropriate to a positive spirit, to put in the place of something unlikely something more likely, in the place of some error in detail some other error.

At that time, as I said, for the first time I brought into the light of day my hypotheses about genealogy, to which these essays have been dedicated—but clumsily (as I will be the last to deny), still fettered, still without my own language for these concerns of mine, and with all sorts of retreating and vacillating. For particular details, you should compare what I said in Human, All-too Human, on p. 51, about the double nature of the prehistory of good and evil (that is, in the spheres of the nobility and the slaves); similarly, pages 119 ff concerning the worth and origin of ascetic morality, as well as pages 78, 82, and 2.35 concerning the "Morality of Custom," that much older and more primitive style of morality, which lies an enormous distance from the altruistic way of valuing (which Dr. Rée, like all English genealogists of morality, sees as the very essence of moral evaluation); similarly, p. 74 of the Wanderer, and p. 99 of The Dawn concerning the origin of justice as a compromise between approximately equal powers (equality as a precondition of all contracts and therefore of justice); likewise concerning the origin of punishment in Wanderer, p 25, 34, for which an intent to terrify is neither the essential thing nor the origin (as Dr. Rée claims—it is far more likely first brought in under a specific set of conditions and always as something incidental, something additional).


But basically even then the real concern for me at heart was something much more important than coming up with hypotheses about the origin of morality, either my own or from other people (or, more precisely stated—this latter issue was important to me only for the sake of a goal to which it was one path out of many). For me the issue was the value of morality—and in that matter I had to take issue almost alone with my great teacher Schopenhauer, to whom, as if to a contemporary, that book, with its passion and hidden contradiction, addressed itself (for that book was also a "polemical tract"). The most specific issue was the worth of the "unegoistic," the instinct for pity, self-denial, self-sacrifice, something which Schopenhauer himself had painted with gold, deified, and projected into the next world for so long that it finally became for him "value in itself" and the reason why he said No to life and even to himself.

But a constantly more fundamental suspicion of exactly this instinct voiced itself in me, a scepticism which always dug deeper! It was precisely here that I saw the great danger to humanity, its most sublime temptation and seduction. But in what direction? To nothingness? It was precisely here I saw the beginning of the end, the standing still, the backward-glancing exhaustion, the will turning itself against life, the final illness tenderly and sadly announcing itself. I understood the morality of pity, which was always seizing more and more around it, even the philosophers which it made sick, as the most sinister symptom of our European culture, which itself had become sinister, as its detour to a new Buddhism? to a European Buddhism? to nihilism? . . . This modern philosophical preference for and overvaluing of pity is really something new. Concerning the worthlessness of pity philosophers up to now were in agreement. I name only Plato, Spinoza, La Rochefoucauld, and Kant—four spirits as different from one another as possible, but united in one thing, in the low value they set on pity.—


This problem of the value of pity and of the morality of pity (I'm an opponent of the disgraceful modern immaturity of feelings) appeared at first to be only something isolated, a detached question mark. But anyone who remains there for a while and learns some questions, will experience what happened to me—a huge new vista opens up before him, a possibility grips him like an attack of dizziness, all sorts of mistrust, suspicion, and fear spring up—his belief in morality, in all morality, starts to totter, and finally he hears a new demand.

Let's proclaim this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, and we must first question the very value of these values. For that we need a knowledge of the conditions and circumstance out of which these values grew, under which they have developed and changed (morality as consequence, as symptom, as mask, as hypocrisy, as illness, as misunderstanding—but also morality as cause, as means of healing, as stimulant, as scruples, as poison), a knowledge of the sort which has not been there until now, something which has not even been wished for.

People have taken the worth of these "values" as something given, as self-evident, as beyond all dispute. Up until now people have also not had the least doubts about or wavered in setting up "the good man" as more valuable than "the evil man," of higher worth in the sense of the improvement, usefulness, and prosperity of mankind in general (along with the future of humanity). Now what about this? What if the truth were the other way around? What if in the "good" there lay a symptom of regression, something like a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, something which makes the present live at the cost of the future? Perhaps something more comfortable, less dangerous, but also on a smaller scale, something more demeaning? . . . So that this very morality would be guilty if the highest possible power and magnificence of the human type were never attained? So that this very morality might be the danger of all dangers?


For me it was enough that once this insight revealed itself to me, I had a reason to look around for learned, bold, and hard-working comrades (today I'm still searching). It's a matter of traveling through the immense, distant, and so secretive land of the morality which was really there, the land of really living morality, with nothing but new questions and, as it were, new eyes. Isn't that almost like first discovering this land?

In this matter, I thought of, among others, the above-mentioned Dr. Rée, because I happened to have no doubts at all that by the very nature of his questions he would be driven to a more correct methodology in order to arrive at any answers. Have I deceived myself in all this? At any rate, my desire was to provide a better direction for such a keen and objective eye as his, a direction leading to a true history of morality and to advise him in time against the English way of making hypotheses by staring off into the blue.

For, indeed, it's obvious which colour must be a hundred times more important for someone seeking a genealogy of morals than this blue—namely, gray, in other words, what has been documented, what can be established as the truth, what really took place, in short, the long, difficult-to-decipher hieroglyphic writing of the past in human morality. This was unknown to Dr. Rée. But he had read Darwin, so that to some extent in his hypotheses the Darwinian beast and the most modern modest and tender moral sensibility, which "no longer bites," politely extend their hands to each other in a way that is at least entertaining—with the latter bearing a facial expression revealing a certain good-natured and refined indolence, in which is mixed a grain of pessimism and exhaustion, as if it is really not worth taking all these things, the problems of morality, so seriously.

For me things appear reversed—there are no issues which are more worth taking seriously—among the rewards, for example, is the fact that one day perhaps people will be permitted to take them cheerfully. For cheerfulness, or, to say it in my own language, the gay science, is a reward, a reward for a lengthy, brave, hard-working, and underground seriousness, which, of course, is not something for everyone. But on that day when from full hearts we say "Forward! Our old morality also belongs in a comedy!", we'll have discovered a new complication and possibility for the Dionysian drama of "the fate of the soul." And we can bet that the grand old immortal comic poet of our existence will put it to good use!. . .


If this writing is incomprehensible to someone or other and hurts his ears, the blame for that, it strikes me, is not necessarily mine. The writing is sufficiently clear given the conditions I set out—that you have first read my earlier writings and have taken some trouble to do that, for, in fact, these works are not easily accessible. For example, so far as my Zarathustra is concerned, I don't consider anyone knowledgeable about it who has not at some time or another been deeply wounded by and profoundly delighted with every word in it. For only then can he enjoy the privilege of sharing with reverence in the halcyon element out of which that work was born, in its sunny clarity, distance, breadth, and certainty.

In other cases the aphoristic form creates difficulties which stem from the fact that nowadays people don't take this form seriously enough. An aphorism, properly stamped and poured, has not been "deciphered" simply by being read. It's much more the case that only now can one begin to explicate it—and that requires an art of interpretation. In the third essay of this book I have set out a model of what I call an "interpretation" for such a case. In this essay an aphorism is presented, and the essay itself is a commentary on it. Of course, in order to practice this style of reading as an art, one thing is above all essential—something that today has been thoroughly forgotten (and so it will require still more time before my writings are "readable")—something for which one almost needs to be a cow, at any rate not a modern man—rumination.

Sils-Maria, Oberengadin
July 1887

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