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Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: A Critical Précis

In Art, Artist, Arts & Letters, Ethics, Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Western Civilization, Writing on September 1, 2011 at 11:44 pm

Allen Mendenhall

We remain unknown to ourselves, we seekers after knowledge, even to ourselves: and with good reason.  We have never sought after ourselves—so how should we one day find ourselves?  It has rightly been said that: ‘Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also’; our treasure is to be found in the beehives of knowledge.  As spiritual bees from birth, this is our eternal destination, our hearts are set on one thing only—‘bringing something home.’

                                             —    Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche employs an aphorism to open the third essay of On the Genealogy of Morals (GM).  That approach seems fitting for this critical précis, the aphoristic epigram to which quotes none other than Nietzsche himself.

The opening declarative here—“We remain unknown to ourselves”—signals the ancient Greek imperative: “Know thyself.”  That Nietzsche converts the imperative to a declarative is suggestive.  The imperative expresses a command: the emphatic utterance of an authoritative demand (“do this”).  The declarative is a descriptive assertion: the positive utterance of fact or opinion.  The imperative, if issued by the right person and not meant as merely advisory, presupposes the power to enforce or induce the substance of the command.  A speaker that commands another to know himself assumes that the other will act, can act, or ought to act in accordance with what he, the speaker, orders.  The speaker of a declarative statement, on the other hand, conveys information; the transmission of data from the speaker to the listener does not necessarily signify a desire that the listener act, or refrain from acting, in accordance with the data or the speaker’s wishes. 

Nietzsche uses the declarative to describe our epistemic state or to posit an idea about our epistemic state.  His articulation necessarily undermines the idea that we already have answered the call to know ourselves.  Either we have ignored the command to know ourselves (“We have never sought after ourselves”), or we have failed to comply with it—or both.  To the extent that Western philosophy could, at Nietzsche’s moment, be reduced to these two words—“know thyself”—Western philosophy had, if we believe Nietzsche’s declaration, failed or decayed.  What Nietzsche seeks to posit, in more assertive or, one might say, more declarative terms, is a radical rewriting and reinterpretation of knowledge itself.  To know ourselves, we must know what we know and how we know it, or know what we think we know and how to overcome it.  We have blurred the distinction between knowledge and morals; we have internalized weak epistemic truth claims across time; a genealogy of morals is necessary to trace and thereby illuminate our understanding of ourselves.

The phrase “beehives of knowledge” is pregnant with possibility.  Whether it is lodged in the cavity of a tree or hanging suspended from a branch, the beehive is, as Nietzsche suggests, home.  It is where the noisy industry of cooperative bees produces honey.  Knowledge is, the old adage goes, honey; and home is where we produce and cultivate knowledge, it being the place where we reside, the space in which we, most of us, are most comfortable and pensive.  Nietzsche refers to us humans as “spiritual bees” probably because of his atheism or disenchantment with Christianity and other so-called slave moralities.  For him, the ultimate reward is not heaven, but the production of knowledge—strong, constructive knowledge unmediated and unadulterated by the feeble ideals of pity, transcendence, and universality.  

Where are we “bees” to find knowledge, according to Nietzsche?  We are not to find it in the Judeo-Christian conception of the cosmos; nor, for that matter, in Platonic idealism and the like.  In Nietzsche’s view, these philosophies depend upon appeals to meekness and selflessness: appeals that have more to do with the will to power than with purity or vitality of thought.  Nietzsche examines the ways in which historical narratives service the ideological ends of the conniving slave class, which resents the stronger and nobler aristocratic class—hence the word “genealogy” in his title.  These narratives may seek to reveal truth or morals, but for Nietzsche these words are not, or ought not to be, necessarily tied together.  Truth and morals are, for him, products of cultural phenomena, including and especially historiography: the recording of our gradual submission to meekness and humility rather than to power and domination. 

Nietzsche considers genealogy not, as is often thought, as a tracing back to origin, especially family origin, but rather as a reading of the many factors and forces that lend meaning to cultural phenomena (e.g., punishment).  If we think of Nietzsche’s project as the construction of a family tree—perhaps one that hosts “beehives of knowledge”—then we ought to think of the roots of the tree as the ever-growing, subterranean thoughts that sustain the trunk and foliage that together make up cultural or familial solidarity, or that absorb (read: internalize) priestly rather than natural waters.

GM objects to the celebration of Enlightenment and Judeo-Christian values as universal and absolute.  These values are not inherently right or superior, according to Nietzsche; rather, they gained currency by winning out over their competition.  This victory, like all victories, came through the systematic and relentless use of force—mostly rhetorical and ideological force—motivated by the will to power and slave ressentiment and carried out, as I have suggested, by the “priestly class.”  To put this struggle in more concrete terms, Nietzsche refers to “aristocratic morality” and “slave morality.”  These motifs, like the declarative “We remain unknown to ourselves” with which he opens GM, harken back to antiquity and Greek philosophy: the starting-point or, depending on how you look it at, ending point, of the genealogy—that is, of the mapping of the origin of the values that we privilege even over our own selves, which we do not know, but which we are fully capable of knowing.  Slave morality, underpinned by resentment, has taken over, and humanity has regressed as a result.  Nietzsche wants us to know ourselves so that we may reverse course and “bring something home,” so that we who live in a world of ressentiment might nevertheless answer the noble and virile call to know ourselves.

  1. Fascinating! A great blog, by the way.
    Let me know what you think of mine . . .
    Keep on writing!

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