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  • Writer's pictureWalter

Nietzsche and the Death of God

“Under what conditions did Man invent for himself those judgments of values, “Good” and ‘Evil”? ˗˗Nietzsche

The three essays in Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals showcase the philosopher’s most consistent and solid work, which aligns with his foundational critique of Christian morality set forth in Beyond Good and Evil. However, the focus of this paper will be framed within the first two essays, “Good & Evil, Good and Bad” (Essay I); and “Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters” (Essay II). This paper will summarize their key points, how they relate to the nature of our course, and an analysis of the texts including Nietzsche’s works that support his thesis. It is important to note that if Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals seems somehow obscure to the reader, we can presuppose that they have not yet read Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-85), or better yet, Beyond Good and Evil (1886).

The culmination of Nietzsche’s writing in The Genealogy of Morals had “its genesis as a reaction to a book by his then very close friend Paul Rée,”[1]who is not mentioned in Nietzsche’s preface. Rée’s book, entitled Origin of Moral Feelings, fascinated Nietzsche with its rejection of an existence of a universal principle of ‘right and wrong,’ something we also find decades later in deconstructuralists such as Jacques Derrida, whose argument against Hegel stresses his dualistic positions on ‘right versus wrong’ or ‘good versus evil.’ Though Nietzsche disagreed with much of his friend’s book, its principle sustaining that what was considered ‘good’ had evolved over time, what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ might have “different moral values in every society, based on its needs and cultural conditions”[2] was a turning point in the history of his moral philosophy.[3] Yet the subject at hand that Nietzsche proposes goes deeper and affirms that we need to excavate the meanings of words; we need to be archaeologists who engage in a genealogical quest and trace how words changed meanings over time, along with subsequent social transformations as a result. In a long but careful dissection, Nietzsche provides substantial indications for the transformation of the meaning for ‘good,’ which meant an egoistic goodness and was actually defined by the upper classes (the nobility), those that deemed themselves to be of a superior nature. He examines the etymology of ‘good and bad’ in European languages and finds evidence that originally, a good man meant ‘strong’ and a bad man meant ‘simple and weak.’ However, “this idea of political superiority, where the highest cast is at the same time the priestly caste, changed with the revolts of the Jews, the revolt of the slaves.”[4] This includes the question of ‘values’ and how this is viewed differently after the Judaeo-Christian “redemption of the human race, where the morality of the vulgar man has triumphed.”[5] Then, what are Christian values?

The Seven Deadly Sins within the Christian teachings, “first compiled by Pope Gregory I around the year 600: envy, gluttony, greed or avarice, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath,”[6] could be summed up as a warning not to overindulge, to fight ‘evil.’ A deconstructuralist like Nietzsche would suggest that this list is a clear example of social-constructed values, as the ‘teachings’ are not specifically mentioned in the Christian Bible. The counter proposal side features matters such as patience, humility, compassion, or charity (values embodied in our welfare states). These values are a guide for how to live a ‘good life;’ they have significance in some way whether psychological, spiritual, or rational. They are sometimes argued to be Western values, even if they are not always articulated as Christian anymore. However, fundamental philosophical questions arise: Are these just natural human values? Were they God-given? Were they rational? What if they were none of these? From the first lines of The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche sets up the basic argument that will be carried out throughout the rest of the book. In his unique, though ironic, writing style, Nietzsche reminds the reader that contemporary humanity does not really know itself, that “the essential truths that we accept about the world are not only false, but also a distraction from a more careful analysis of the origins, or genealogy, of values.”[7] Nietzsche starts the preface of The Genealogy of Moralswith the line “we are unknown to ourselves, we know us even to ourselves;”[8] he is asking whether some of the things we presume to know require a deeper look. He ponders whether what seems rational or obvious on the surface might have a deeper or hidden meaning: “under what conditions did man invent for himself those judgments of values, “Good” and “Evil?”[9]

Prior to the advent of Judeo-Christianity, humanity understood ‘good’ to be associated with strength and power. Conversely, what was considered ‘bad’ was its nemesis, which is to say, weak, humiliating, and impoverished. Nietzsche closely associates this ancient and “aristocratic notion of goodness with creativity; he, who has the will and the power enough to create his own values, assigns meaning to the world.”[10] He argues that this ancient conception of ‘good-evil’ was first challenged and eventually replaced by the Judeo-Christian conception of ‘good-evil.’ What happened was that the priestly caste took revenge on the nobility by simply inverting their values. For Nietzsche, ‘good-evil’ is based on the resentment, or ressentment [rəsɑ̃timɑ̃],[11] that slaves in the Roman Empire felt towards their masters; this resentment is a poison. In this “new slave morality, ‘good’ came to be everything that the slave was: passive, submissive, and humble;”[12] conversely, the image of ‘evil’ came to be everything that the masters were (i.e. violent, strong, and greedy). He claims that the (just described) historically specific conception of morality has been handed down to the European cultures of his own day, but contemporary humanity has forgotten the historical origins of their morality, instead mistaking it as a universal-essential morality:

The two opposing values, “good and bad,” “good and evil,” have fought a dreadful, thousand-year fight in the world, and though indubitable the second value has been for a long time in the preponderance, there are not wanting places where the fortune of the fight is still indecisive. It can almost be said that in the meanwhile the fight reaches a higher and higher level, more and more intense, more and more psychological. [13]

Clearly, what he means is that the symbol of this fight is still the remains of “Rome against Judӕa, Judӕa against Rome.”[14] He stresses that the revolt of slaves and morality occurs when resentment itself turns creative, and gives birth to values comprised of the resentment of those who, being denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. However, it is not black and white for Nietzsche. He thinks we need to re-inject an element of noble morality into our culture so that we do not just become restrained or controlled.

When Nietzsche says that the slave’s revolt in morality begins with the “Jews who said only those who suffer, the poor, the powerless, the deprived, the sick, and the ugly, are the only pious people,”[15] this passage along with others have been used as evidence for Nietzsche's anti-Semitism but many passages in Nietzsche's overall tone puts this into question; for example, he adds that “the history of mankind would be far too stupid a thing if it had not had the intelligence of the powerless injected into it.”[16] Nietzsche is not unconditionally rejecting the ‘slave morality,’ but is nevertheless asking us to put it into question. Although he famously used the phrase “God is dead”[17] he is not necessarily an anti-theist. What he means is that the belief in God was dying, and used the phrase to express his idea that the Enlightenment had eliminated the possibility of the existence of God, and to reflect “the nihilistic sentiment within Europe in his time.”[18] It is one of the many examples where readers take sentences out of context or use literalistic hermeneutics. Nietzsche is considered an antimatter physical thinker because he argues that we should always question values and ethics (i.e. metaphysical systems) and think more about human experience, and there is no doubt that Nietzsche would replace the values of God with the values of the strong, the aristocratic “the new übermensch.”[19] His criticism on Christianity is about its dogmatisms that do not admit to criticisms; the dogmatism that takes any claim as an absolute truth that does not need justification. We had read this criticism in “Part Three” of Beyond Good and Evil where Nietzsche sees “Christianity as a philosophical system that praises suffering and pain”[20]and its God lacks strength as he is a weak God. Religion for him is anti-natural because demands the renunciation of freedom, pride, and self-confidence of spirit; as “God was sacrificed, the next logic step was to sacrifice our self”[21] and the sacrifice of the body. The spirit of sacrifice has been refined so that we no longer sacrifice others (like in primitive religions) and now we sacrifice ourselves instead. According to the philosopher, adding egalitarian elements along with the virtue of pity is what the Judeo-Christian tradition has accomplished. The price society has paid for entering into this inversion of morality is called ‘schuld’ (‘guilt’).

Though Nietzsche’s words in Essay II, “Guilt, Bad Conscience, and Related Matters,” are considered by many as a difficult reading and far-reaching essay (not surprising from this end), the essay still has an enormous influence that is beyond doubt, both philosophically and historically. If I may offer a synthesis of this essay, its general arguments might be summed up like this: guilt is the price humans have paid for entering society and morality has its roots in power, not justice. Nietzsche highlights that schuld can be found “in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship there is, in the relationship of buyer and seller, creditor and debtor”[22] and the punishment that comes with it, especially for the debtor. The philosopher concludes that if we only think about those centuries before the history of mankind, “the evolution of a feeling of guilt [in those times] was most strongly impeded through punishment,”[23] and within the Judeo-Chrisitian circle, says Nietzsche, priests are not only the artisans of the creation of punishment through guilt, but also “their best instrument of power.”[24] Clearly, he is linking man's conscience and guilt growing out from tribal times to the power of control, or better yet, fear used as an instrument of control. Furthermore, a debt of yours which is to be paid to a creditor, and a promise to do something in return if this promise is fulfilled, seems to address the fear of punishment that involves the subject of eschatological retribution and the afterlife reward; the “debt/guilt before God (as animosity, insurrection, rebellion against the ‘master’, the ‘father’, himself as the contradiction of ‘God’ and ‘Devil’,”[25] says Nietzsche, where God is the creditor, the punisher, but also the sole redeemer:

We have here a sort of madness of the will showing itself in mental cruelty which is absolutely unparalleled: man’s will to find himself guilty and condemned without hope of reprieve, his will to think of himself as punished, without the punishment ever being equivalent to the level of guilt, his will to infect and poison the fundamentals of things with the problem of punishment and guilt in order to cut himself off, once and for all, from the way out of this labyrinth of ‘fixed ideas’, this will to set up an ideal – that of a ‘holy God’ –, in order to be palpably convinced of his own absolute worthlessness in the face of this ideal.. [26]

His argument, if we consider it in the context of the Essay I, is that our understanding of morality is based on the weak protecting themselves against the strong, leading to a negative conscience and guilt. In short, if Christian morality is based on weakness and humility, then our conscience is weak and we crave a morality based on strength: the übermensch. It could be argued that Nietzsche wants a community based on everyone's strength; the very structure of a morality based on weakness is the one that keeps us weak, while the one based on strength will make us strong. However, he is not saying that he has all the answers as that would be ironic and cynical. We might agree that Nietzsche’s main purpose in The Genealogy of Morals is to move away from our understanding of morality to a genealogical model. In other words, we are inclined to think of moral concepts such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ as stable. Nietzsche challenges our moral concepts by underlining that they have always been fluid, to the point that the word ‘good’ has had contrary meanings to different people; this is what his friend Paul Rée affirmed in Origin of Moral Feelings. Our moral concepts have a long genealogy and are by no means fixed, and by removing the idea that ‘good’ and ‘evil’ endure independently of our wills, Nietzsche incites us to embrace a greater sense of agency with regard to our moral lives. So, going back to our original inquiry, the philosophical question is the following: “who is really evil according to the meaning of the morality of resentment?”[27]

Due to constraints in the length of this paper, and also because Nietzsche’s postulates are vast, I will try to summarize the concept of the evil,or enemy, as the basis of ressentment, just as good is basic to the noble man. And just as the noble man develops the concept of ‘bad,’ so too is the concept of ‘good’ created as an afterthought by the man of ressentiment to represent himself. Let me interject here and restate that the “slave” morality, as Nietzsche defines it, arrived primarily as a result of Judeo-Christian dogmas; this morality originates with priests, who despise and condemn the upper class, the warrior caste, and sentence their lustful power as evil, while calling their own state of poverty and self-denial ‘good.’ Driven by a feeling of ressentiment, or resentment, slave morality is much deeper and more refined than master morality. Its crowning achievement is Christianity: “Christian love is born from hatred.”[28]The Christian ‘slave morality’ of the priestly caste focuses our attention on the evil of others and on the eschatology, distracting people from enjoying the present and improving themselves. Nietzsche worries that it has rendered us all mediocre.

[1] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, “Essay I: Good & Evil, Good and Bad; Essay II: Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters,” in On the Genealogy of Morality, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, 9-67 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) iii. [2] Nietzsche, Genealogy, iv. [3] It is worth noting that the subject of Natural Selection brought up by Charles Darwin in On the Origin of Species (1859), had had an enormous influence for an evolutionary thinker such as Nietzsche. [4] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 15-17. [5] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 18. [6] Shawn Tucker, The Virtues and Vices in the Arts: A Sourcebook (Eugene, OR: Stock Publishers, 2015) 4-5. [7] Ibid., 5-6. [8] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 1. [9] Ibid., 3. [10] Ibid., 23-23. [11] According to the existentialists, ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed toward an object which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one's frustration. [12] Nietzsche, Genealogy, 22. [13] Ibid., 31. [14] Ibid. [15] Ibid., 17. [16] Ibid. [17] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Thomas Common, and H. James, Thus Spake Zarathustra (Prometheus Books: Buffalo, N.Y. 1993), 211. [18] Ibid., 25. [19] Nietzsche's idea of “the overman” (übermensch) is one of the most significant concept in his thinking. Even though it is mentioned very briefly only in the prologue of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it might be sensible to conceive that Nietzsche had something in his mind about how a man should be more than just human-all-too-human, regardless if he was one or not. [20] Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Helen Zimmern, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 46. [21] Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 55. [22] Ibid., 45. [23] Ibid., 54. [24] Ibid., 68. [25] Ibid., 64. [26] Ibid. [27] Ibid., 22 [28] Ibid., 119.


Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. “Essay I: Good & Evil, Good and Bad; Essay II: Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters.” In The Genealogy of Morality, edited by Keith Ansell-Pearson, 9-67. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

———, and Helen Zimmern. Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

———, Thomas Common, and H. James. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Prometheus Books: Buffalo, N.Y. 1993.

Shawn Tucker. The Virtues and Vices in the Arts: A Sourcebook. Eugene, OR: Stock Publishers, 2015.

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