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Published 1 November 2001

Philosophy

"The Genealogy of Morals", by Friedrich Nietzsche

A discussion between Thomas and Vincent

We agreed on a common reading that would result in short essays about specific aspects of Nietzsche’s text. As we are in no way philosophy experts, we chose to focus more particularly on educational reflections that could be developed after Nietzsche’s ideas. We based our reading on the following initial questions:

1- Does Nietzsche’s text deny any form of projective ideal, or can one still believe in the possibility of a desirable future within Nietzsche’s theoretical scope? What ’principles of life’ can one possibily stick to if
one follows Nietzsche’s thoughts?
2- What would be a primary or secondary school that would materialize Nietzsche’s principles?

Here are our contributions:


THOMAS:

What kind of goals are possible in the Nietzsche Elementary School?

All Elementary Schools function on educating the whole child. This means the school is there to develop the full emotional,social,spiritual, intellectual and physical potential of all its pupils. The question therefore becomes one of whether such a function is possible in the N. universe. It is my belief that it would not be possible to educate the whole child in N’s world. There is a dark element in N.s thought that would make such a pedagogical project impossible.

Learning requires an environment where all individuals are encouraged to develop their own questions and pursuits for the truth. N. would certainly not be against the construction of such an environment. His whole Genealogy of Morals is an attempt at getting us to start thinking about what we should value in our society and about how we should approach morals in general. In his preface he states that "We are unknown to ourselves" and that "We have misunderstood ourselves". As an educator, his challenge is one of reexamination. In our society, the notion that cherished truths should be scrutinized over and over again makes sense. We would still be worshipping the sun and believing the Earth was flat if our instinct to know was stunted by some absolute system of thought. N. asks us to take a fresh approach to all our inquiries. He does not assume the truth as it may be stated in various noble domains is always free from bias. As a teacher, one is all too aware of how so called truths throughout history do not come so easily. They are often obscured by the powerful or by other interests. N. Genealogy is clear on this confusion of knowledge when he describes his book’s aim as the search of the origin of prejudices. He develops this notion further by pointing to a real or imagined yet effective time in our history when all "good" stemmed from the White or Blond man and all "bad" came from the Black or "common" and "simple" man. This racial stereotyping of morals does not have an educational place in today’s
classroom. And, as a flashpoint of N’s universe, one can argue that such an origin has no long lasting ground in his world either! The master who builds on a shabby foundation where his intellect becomes enslaved to prejudices only ends up enslaving himself no matter what the social, political or educational context may be. N’s fresh approach to our so called truths allows us momentarily to envision a pedagogy where the whole child can be nourished. In a contemporary classroom the practical outlets are numerous.Teaching our youth to open their minds and examine the biases and falsehoods behind numerous endevours undertaken in the last 100 years, not to mention the last 1000 years would make for exciting instruction. The difficulty in seeing where N can be integrated in the Elementary School rests not in his approach to learning. His call for an open mind free from deference to abusive priests, tyrants or other brutes should be at the bottom of all school curriculums. His Genealogy makes this crystal clear. Having reported on the good in N does not imply there is no bad hidden in N’s world. If we are to take his approach seriously, the School needs to be aware of the limits inherant in this philosopher’s mode of thought.

My idea of educating the whole child can find a beginning in N’s world but unfortunately the end lies outside its boundaries. N was slavishly opposed to democracy. He saw in its development the destruction of a higher type of individual. Although he is unclear about what constitutes such an individual, he is clear that such a being should be amoral and free from things like a consience or a sense of guilt. Much of what N writes in the Genealogy is an attack on civilizing ideals regarding justice, equality, freedom and respect. For N, these type of ideals are sickly and nihilistic. According to N, the pure naked will for life is shackled and sucked try by these values. His three essays in the Genealogy repeat this theme over and over again. At times, N.s language becomes so absolutist in its structute - not to mention its hate- that one begins to wonder what type of system of thought or anger he has enslaved his mind to. In his third essay N constantly describes the Europe of his time as "full of sick people" posing a threat to mankind. These people are described as the "Greatest danger on Earth". One begins to think N has lost his marbles. Has he become the great Doctor who can see all of society’s ills. His tantrums become perilously close to the tantrums of a dictator who is looking for the next social purge or pogrom. It is in this new light of seeing N as a man full of hate that one begins to see the limits of his world. He writes without compassion which is no surprise since pity to him is a base and low value held by the weak. In this context one begins to question how true N.s own thinking is. Is he free from prejudice?

In a world where the need for tolerance and equality have become increasingly important ideals in civilizing society one cannot but reject the dogmatic and debasing assessments behind the Genealogy of Morals. The whole child can learn when we as educators emphasize the importance of knowledge and the right to pursue truth and make individualized inquries free from obstacles. But clearly, the whole child will not be able to flourish in an environment where other important humanizing values are thrown out the window. N’s attacks on the weak, the religious, and the social minded have no room in a classroom if it is to be free of hate. Unfortunately, N failed to come to terms with his own prejudices in his zealous attempt to point out the shortcomings of others. As such, one cannot but conclude the impossibility of nourishing a truly free minded and whole individual in the Nietzchian universe.
Thomas Recke


VINCENT:

Reading Nietzsche is not a relaxing experience. His language is blunt and uncompromising, haunted by some sort of frantic fever. The way his sister and her nazi connections paved the way for a twisted interpretation of his work are also necessarily present in our minds more than one century later, after tragedies that loaded some words with dreadful echoes; except for far-right theorists, no author would nowadays ingenuously take the risk of having some ambiguous sentences about Jews or races excerpted from their context and turned into racist or anti-semitic mottos. Nietzsche clearly denounces anti-semitism in his text, and when he refers to "Jews", he means the biblical notion of a "Chosen People". Nietzsche does NOT develop the thesis of the natural superiority of a specific ethnic group on others: the people he opposes are today’s people, nourished by two millennia of Christian morals - or other religious moral moulds -, and the re-constructed image of original people living the genuine intensity of natural life without metaphysical complex. Nietzsche does not claim at all that some people of our days are superior and should dominate others: he is committed to the hyper-critical process of undermining the accepted grounds of morals which prop up questionable relations of domination. The "disease" that he virulently denounces as opposed to "strength" is the existential schizophrenia that splits the body and the soul, in metaphysical philosophy as in religion; even at a post-Christian stage, it leads man into self-destructive impasses such as nihilism - a poisonous state in which the suffering of the soul freed from the relieving illusion of God negates life itself. Nietzsche is not developing a morally-biased conception of the world, in which atheistic goodies would be oppressed by religious baddies that should be exterminated to reinstate freedom on earth; in fact, he highlights how religion and philosophical truth worked out great achievements, among which the relief of providing people with an answer to the first metaphysical question "why suffer?". However, his main goal is to demystify this answer. I think it requires virulence and energy to knock down idols, but Nietzsche doesn’t display personal hatred against people: on the contrary, he shows he was a true lover of life in its totality and complexity, and his essential grievance towards religion and philosophy is that they negated fundamental dimensions of life to simply re-model the initial relations of power on questionable grounds. The moral process is a reality though, and undermining its absolute power does not mean it can be or should be ruled out completely to start again from scratch.

Nietzsche’s text is highly valuable from an educational point of view; first because it highlights the importance of a critical approach of knowledge and the necessity of regarding knowledge not as dead matter that can be purely and simply "transmitted" from the master to the slave (I mean student); knowledge is a complex process whose grounds can always been questioned to reach a higher degree of insight. They even NEED to be questioned in order to be genuinely UNDERSTOOD. This approach puts the students in an infinitely more active situation, where they truly have something to conquer and maybe to knock down. They are not simply submitted to a huge machinery of conditioning called school. Their individual power of thought and independence is at stake, and one can claim that such an objective is a decent ideal for modern citizenship, at a time when the democratic process is dangerously threatened by the pressure of conformity, hypocrisy, mediatic superficiality, and absence of true stakes in politics that lead a majority of people to merely stay away from the polls. How could it be otherwise? Statistical surveys seem to be able to predict what is going to happen before people have expressed themselves, and politicians and the media completely base their reflection and action on those scientific surveys, which seem to make real votes totally redundant... If the answers of 1000 people to a set questionnaire is enough to establish what everybody wants on major issues, why should society be ruled by more than 1000 people? The seeds of oligarchy are sown in the soil of democracy, because our democracies still refer to moral patterns that are inherently hypocritical, segregational and oligarchical, and Science will readily serve the oligarchical ideal of Morals. That’s the true message we can draw from Nietzche’s text. If we don’t root our democratical process in a true respect for life in its complexity and totality over the moral schemes inherited from the past, we should not be surprised to perpetually re-generate an oligarchical tendency of our democratical process.

Nietzsche’s analysis of the moral bases of justice and punishment, taken up and developed by Foucault, are a substantial illustration of that, and the death penalty, massively reactivated in the most powerful democracy of the world, the USA, epitomizes Nietzsche’s point. Institutionalized vengeance in a context of moral fundamentalism leads to a negation of life at the very core of the democratic process. The repressive environment of school, in which the students are ordered to conform to a mould without the possibility of making it evolve differently, even though they don’t fit in, is a more common example of the coercitive and undemocratic mechanism lying in the process of moral democracy. Of course there are justifications to such practices and doing otherwise is not easy, but there are at least good reasons for supporting another conception of democracy today, in which true citizenship would not simply be a rhetorical euphemism for social conformity and gregarious passivity (or its current avatar, consumerism). The future of democracy is at stake there.

In conclusion, I simply want to say that Nietzsche’s essays open our eyes on the inherent hazards at the core of moral democracy, which fundamentally nourishes an oligarchical form of power behind the appearance of equality for all. In his very blunt and personal language, Nietzsche scrutinizes this mechanism linked to the religious and philosophical grounds of our society, and explains why it is so. He doesn’t promote a new social order; but no doubt this insightful analysis of our modern political system encourages us to take our responsibilities and invent new forms of democratic processes, which won’t rule out their genealogical roots but which may be somehow truer to the fundamental value of life. I think school and the way it manages to produce truly autonomous and emancipated citizens is a central cog to the new gears we may want to set up. This is a struggle for the future that deserves to be fought.

Vincent Smith


THOMAS:

Dear Vinnie, I just want to congratulate you on an excellent essay. I really enjoyed reading it. I think we agree on N’s approach to knowledge and the Truth. He definitely holds some importance for educators today. I also think we agree on N not being antisemetic or an ethnic nationalist. Our difference lies in the so called dark element of N’s philosophy. I don’t see
him as a tolerant, liberal, open minded egalitarian. I am not sure if there is anything positive in his attacks against pity, compassion or equality. Sure one can question the origins of these values till one is blue in the face but should one really dismiss them entirely? What should we put in their place? When I re-read N 10 years after first reading him, I was
struck by how suffocating and full of spite his words are. I am sure they are even more charged in the German language. I am not conviced that his blunt language is simply a style issue. Part of me thinks the bluntness is a reflection of his own biases and prejudices. I didn’t mean to say N was a pre Hitler kind of guy. I guess I don’t feel comfortable anymore by someone who writes against so much in our society - about our times- in a tone that sounds absolutist and righteous. Yes I agree with some of his points against religion but it seems to me there is much that is positive in religion or spirituality that is overlooked by N’s destructive blasts. I agree with what you said about the need to bring down certain conforming
idols. But I am not sure I agree with your premise that our Christian morals somehow pattern forms of contemporary oppression in society. I would love to hear more on this point. How do you envision this process? Is this what you meant by democratic oligarchy? I thought we lived in a secular democracy. Church attendance is down all over the Western world. Can we really blame social forms of oppression on religion? I am also a little unclear about your critique of imprisonment and capital punishment. Your essay describes the USA as being funtamentalist in morality - a country that denies others life by imprisoning them and killing them at a much higher rate than other countries. But who is being denied life here? Are our
prisoners the types of role models who love life? I believe a measure of fundamental individual responsability is needed to temper your critique. In other words, I am not convinced that America is a good example here to illustrate the point: morals = oppression = N is right on the mark with his attacks against life denying Christianity and its split of body and soul metaphysics. We would have an upside down world here where killers become our citizens who love life more than the people who want them punished. Makes no sense to me. It seems to me that a greater case could be made here
against our century’s dominant colonial powers in Europe. It seems they have created moulds of oligarchy and patterns of moral oppression at a far greater rate than Christian morality or morals. The basis of life deprivation in our century does not stem from a religious split of body and soul as N would have it but rather in the economic exploitation of the powerful over the weak. On this point N does not appear to have much to say.In anycase, again, congratulations on a highly interesting and enjoyable essay. Your work illuminated many aspects of N’s work for me in a clear and dynamic way.


VINCENT:

Oh, oh, when I read "great essay. I love it" from you, I can already see the black eye shining out of your frowned brows and the steam squaring your jaws and I know I’m going to have a rough time getting out of that situation... I’ll try to do my best to find answers to your challenging reactions.

I don’t see Nietzsche as a "tolerant, liberal, open-minded egalitarian" either. I assume he hated ganging in any form of ideological party, and didn’t care about his image and didn’t believe in the feasibility of equality. He probably despised the load of hypocrisy and concealed strategies behind good feelings. He was a loner, obsessed with the deconstruction of the philosophical form and the system of morals inherited from the religious stranglehold on the structuration of man’s consciousness. He carried out a theoretical revolution, questioning the value of what had been the accepted basis of philosophy, truth, and what had been the practical basis of religion, morals. That requires some kind of virulence, and even violence. He shook up the very form of intellectual systems that fashioned our modern societies. One cannot find everything in his essays though. He was no political leader, he didn’t claim to promote a new ideal social order. I guess he didn’t care about having disciples. He is so unclassifiable that he has influenced thinkers on the entire political scale - from the left-wing to the right-wing. His blunt language is definitely not a question of style - depicting him as a great stylist has often been a way of neutralizing the subversive power of his thought. Of course torpedoes don’t look like rabbits, just as death doesn’t look like Heavens. And taking Nietzsche as a role model would be just as crazy as worshipping a God whose love would have a strong taste of enslavement. Trying to build a "Nietzschean world" would be just as phoney and harmful as turning Marx’s criticism of the capitalistic system into a social order, necessarily as oppressive and cruel as ever. Nietzsche was very critical of Rousseau, who inspired many principles of the French revolution and wrote very interesting texts about the "social contract". I think Nietzsche considered that what has mainly fashioned societies is the work of the egoistic will-to-power rather than the common aspiration for equality: the weak gather to be stronger than the strong, and the pattern repeats itself. However over-simplified here, the process definitely echoes some real phenomena. Nietzsche does acknowledge the positive that religion brought: he explains that it relieved the suffering of men by providing them with an answer to the question of why they suffered, instead of letting them go through their absurd suffering. The positive aspect of Christian spirituality and of metaphysics is explicitly dealt with in Nietzsche’s text. The sense of superiority showed by many atheists or liberals towards believers is also shattered by Nietzsche who underlines atheism is an ultimate stage of the religious process of Christianity. He doesn’t defend the superiority of a category over the others: through a very complex and insightful reversal of values, he simply demystifies the absoluteness of such values as Good and Truth. The elementary process on which he bases his hyper-criticism is the will-to-power, the elementary instinct of life, which is neither good nor evil. He could have elaborated on what pity, compassion and the claim for equality have brought to mankind, but his book aims at questioning supreme values in a system of thought; he cannot be blamed for holding to his objective!

Of course, morals and religion don’t have the monopoly of coercition and violence; they simply carry their load of inherent violence and cruelty in an absolutistic system that insidiously conceals its "dark side". They have been central to the structuration of our societies; and their influence and pressure must have been infinitely more directly sensitive and suffocating when Nietzsche wrote his essays than today. Many liberties were gained through struggles and suffering, but the source of oppression that had so painfully restrained them is easily forgotten as its yoke does not hurt that much any more. In the context of school though, morals are still a very important issue, even in the French secularized environment: should morals be "reinstated" to solve the educational predicament of today’s youth? Haven’t morals continued to prop up the actual practice of teaching through various avatars? What are the pros and cons? The question is complex, but if morals are raised to the status of supreme values, it implies that their inherent but insidious principles of violence and coercition are also enforced as supreme social values... Are we now confronted with a "crisis of moral values" that should be corrected or are we simply experiencing the ultimate backlash of the very mechanism of Morals? Of course, many aspects of my first contribution corresponded to personal projections of Nietzsche’s analyses on our modern world, because I think he helped me understand many things better. I just need now to clarify my comments on the USA and the death penalty.

I must first insist on the fact that I am not anti-American at all; the USA is a land of outstanding contradictions and resources in which I am particularly interested. There is a true process of plurality for instance in the US, a true sense of individual freedom too, and an efficient balance of powers in which the press plays a valuable role... More transparence than in Europe in many fields as well. In short, many tremendous qualities... I don’t feel superior as a European either. However, a hyper-critical approach of the values, systems and principles the US promotes and tries to impose on others is all the more justified today as it is the current dominant super-power (shoot the sheriff, not the deputy...). And some aspects of the US life deserve to be denounced and fought. I totally agree with you about the case that could be made against colonial powers in Europe; just the same sort of violence as the eradication of the native Indians on the American continent, or the segregation and discrimination of the black slaves’ descendants. No nation has the monopoly of violence and cruelty, unfortunately. In that field, violence and domination are everywhere and victims can easily turn into executioners, which doesn’t contradict Nietzsche’s ideas anyhow. Criticizing aspects of the US does not make it inferior to Europe; and denouncing the death penalty does not make positive heroes of criminals - when the death row convicts are indeed the authors of the crimes they are killed for. The killers are killers, but killing them has nothing to do with justice. It is just institutionalized vengeance. The only difference with an individual murder is that the State will not be "punished" for killing someone. The moral notions of fault, punishment, innocence and guilt make the institutional murder look good and relevant, but through capital punishment, the state does what it forbids people to do, undermining the very reason for forbidding it. It makes new victims to make up for the suffering of victims, and thereby simply perpetuates the natural violence of men behind the hypocritical veil of morals. I thought God had ordered not to kill; how can religious people advocate capital punishment? A candidate for the White House would compromise his future if he claimed to be an atheist; but he would also compromise his future if he spoke against capital punishment, which infringes one of God’s most sacred commandments... How come?

To have a more complete and genuine overview of Nietzsche’s work, we should naturally go further into readings and also pay attention to some major commentaries on his works. Every passage that I re-read in the Genealogy of Morals opens so many perspectives and makes me ask myself so many questions that I feel at once stimulated and discouraged by the developments that should still be explored. I think feeling uneasy with Nietzsche’s texts is a very natural and positive reaction. Would we understand anything in his thinking if we simply swallowed his words as if he were a modern God to be worshipped? And if his writings were smooth and consensual, what change or questioning could they operate on us? Their roughness is a factor of friction and heat, whose sparkles are so many chances to light new fires. Fire burns things. But fire also lights torches that may lead our way and enable us to see at night. In fact, the ultimate question is what we decide to do with the new perspectives that Nietzsche has opened and what we have understood of his subversive work. We cannot blame him for writing more than one century ago; however, I think his writings are extremely fruitful in the search for a higher insight into our modern world. Like Shakespeare, he accounts for the complexity of reality, which cannot be categorized in clear-cut moral values and judgements. Oxymora, metaphors and music can often be seen as truer to reality than moral categories or metaphysical truths. I think Nietzsche doesn’t associate morals with the "baddies" while some "goodies" would wait to be designated: he is committed to a process of deconstruction, no to a moral judgement of morals. Our religious and metaphysical roots are fundamental parts of our inheritance, but we need to understand what lies behind the stage if we want build a better future.

I don’t know if you will be convinced by anything I have written here; we don’t need to reach an agreement on what we have understood in The Genealogy anyway. However, I don’t fully grasp why what you found fruitful 10 years ago should suddenly be downsized and regarded as "dogmatic". Nietzsche warns us against the traps of many ideals that we may be tempted to consider as possible Heavens; it doesn’t prevent us from working for a better and fairer social organization.

I have written for too long and I feel incapable of any sharpness now. But I’m determined to go progressively further into Nietzsche’s works. To roam now and then in his works, at a leisurely but motivated pace.