Moral Compass US

This is the last (for the moment) of the snippets I have been publishing from The Quest for a Moral Compass. Taken from Chapter 14, ‘The Death of God, the end of morality’, it  discusses a very different history of morality to mine – Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.


From The Quest for a Moral Compass, pp 241-246

Beneath the light and the froth and the absurd self-regardof Nietzsche’s work lay an engagement with the most profoundly unsettling issues of the day: the ‘death of God’ and the moral chasm that now seemed to have opened up. Nietzsche gave voice with startling insight to the spiritual disorientation of fin-de-siècle Europe. Few spoke to the dilemmas of modern nihilism with as much force and clarity. One of his last books, Twilight of the Idols, is subtitled ‘How to Philosophize with a Hammer’. Nothing could better express both Nietzsche’s method and his impact on subsequent moral thinking.

Nietzsche’s starting point was the recognition that the death of God had created a moral vacuum. Traditional values had ceased to make sense, and philosophy was in a state of crisis, faced as it was by an inherently meaningless universe. This was not, as Dostoevsky, whom Nietzsche greatly admired, thought, because without God everything was permitted. It was, rather, because religion, and Christianity in particular, had themselves destroyed morality. Christianity was, for Nietzsche, at the core of the modern sickness – ‘the one immortal blemish of mankind’, he called it. While Christian belief in the next world had led to a moral devaluation of this one, and hence to a false spirituality, it also had come to embody values destructive of moral life.

The death of God had opened up exhilarating new possibilities for humankind. But it had also created a great despond. Humans could not exist without attributing meaning to their lives. For more than two millennia that meaning had derived from an individual’s relationship to God. Now that this relationship had been ripped asunder, little wonder that Europe felt itself as if trembling at the edge of a moral chasm. Worse, while God might be dead, ‘there will perhaps be caves for millenniums yet, in which people will show his shadow.’ Modern moral thought, from Kantian notions of duty to utilitarian concepts of happiness, and contemporary political demands, from the liberal belief in democracy to socialist ideals of equality, were simply reworked forms of Christian eschatology. It was necessary not simply to kill God, but ‘to overcome his shadow’ too.

The roots of the moral malaise of the modern world lay, for Nietzsche, in the triumph of Christianity over the Greeks. In that victory the very idea of morality, and of good and bad, became overturned, or ‘transvalued’. To understand how this had come about, it was necessary to understand the history of moral thinking. Nietzsche, like many post-Romantic thinkers, was driven by idea that the past held the key to the present and to the future.

In On The  Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche laid out his history of morality. It is a highly original work, in which philosophy, psychology and philology interweave in Nietzsche’s quest to trace the origins of Western moral thought. In the modern world, Nietzsche observes, we think of ‘good’ as meaning an act that is altruistic or just, or in Nietzsche’s language ‘unegoistic’, and ‘bad’ as describing that which is cruel or unjust. It is morally good to protect the weak, give alms to the poor, treat all people with dignity and respect. It is morally bad to be self-regarding, to be cruel to those with less power, deliberately to harm or injure. These, however, were not the original meanings of good and bad. For the early Greeks, the ones of whom Homer wrote, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ referred to different types of humanity. The nobility was ‘good’, as were the dispositions of character necessary to be noble and aristocratic, dispositions such as courage, strength and pride. ‘Bad’ referred to the ‘herd’, and to the characteristics of the masses, such as vulgarity, untruthfulness and cowardice. This was the world of Achilles and Agamemnon, of Hector and Odysseus.

The celebration of nobility Nietzsche calls the ‘master morality’. It began to erode within Greek culture itself. In his first published work, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche draws a contrast between two aspects of the Greek psyche: the wild irrational passions personified in Dionysus and the disciplined and harmonious beauty represented by Apollo. The triumph of Greek culture was to achieve a synthesis between the two. Dionysus is the explosive, ungoverned force of creation, Apollo the power that channels that force into creative wonders. The Greeks were both cruel and creative, brutal and innovative, physically savage and aesthetically sensitive. Abandon the brutality, Nietzsche suggests, and one foregoes the creativity. As the eponymous prophet puts it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, ‘The highest evil belongs to the highest goodness: but that is creative’.

One is reminded here of Orson Welles’ famous line in Carol Reed’s film The Third Man. Welles plays Harry Lime, a drug racketeer in postwar Vienna who has made a fortune out of death and misery by stealing penicillin from hospitals, diluting it and selling the adulterated drug on the black market. He is tracked down by his old friend Holly Martins for a confrontation on the Riesenrad, Vienna’s giant ferris wheel. Martins is outraged at the immorality of Lime’s actions. ‘In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed’, Lime responds with a smile, ‘but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

nietzsche photo

It is with Socrates, Nietzsche suggests, that the rot set in. Socrates was driven neither by Dionysus nor Apollo, but by reason and dialectics. Socratic reason crushes Dionysian passion, enchains it, and so leads to the disintegration of Greek art and drama and, eventually, of Greek civilization itself. Reason, for Nietzsche, is superficial. What really drives human beings are passions and instincts. ‘Everything good is instinct’ he wrote in Twilight of the Idols. ‘Every mistake’, on the other hand, ‘in every sense, results from a degeneration of instinct, a disgregation of the will’.

Socratic reason began the process by which heroic values were tamed. It took the monotheistic religions truly to replace the ‘aristocratic morality’ of self-affirmation with the ‘slave morality’ of envy. In this process the meanings of good and bad become transformed. ’It was the Jews’, Nietzsche writes, ‘who, with awe-inspiring consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = beautiful = happy = beloved of God)’, establishing in its place ‘the principle that “the wretched alone are the good”’ while ‘the powerful and the noble, are, on the contrary, the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity, the unblessed, accursed and damned’. With the Jews ‘begins the slave revolt in morality, a revolt which has a history of two thousand years behind it and which we no longer see because it has been victorious’.

If the slave revolt began with the Jews, it was left to the Christians to bring it to fruition by exalting the virtues of the weak, the humble, the poor, the oppressed. With Christianity, the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ became transmuted into that between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, a distinction primarily not between different kinds of characters but between divinely sanctioned and divinely forbidden behaviours. Christianity, Nietzsche observes, ‘presupposes that man does not know, cannot know, what is good for him, what is evil: he believes in God, who alone knows it.’

Christianity, in Nietzsche’s eyes, was driven not by a love of the poor and the dispossessed but by a rancorous hatred of nobility and strength. Nietzsche describes this as a process of ressentiment, a term he borrowed from the Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, and by which he meant the projection onto an external scapegoat of the pain that accompanies one’s sense of personal inferiority. It is not simply a psychological process. It is also the means by why which the inferior being substitutes an inverted, and perverted, moral code for the values of the superior being. The success of Christianity led to the degeneration of civilization and, indeed, of the human race. Pity, for Nietzsche the archetypical Christian value, was a poison that had infected the healthy body of civilization with a horror of human suffering. Compassion for the weak was debilitating for the strong. Contemporary humans had lost the will to be truly human. ‘The strongest and most evil spirits’, Nietzsche observed, ‘have so far done the most to advance humanity’.

Nietzsche Munch

Nietzsche’s is an audacious account of the history of morality that possesses a kernel of historical truth, but a truth degraded and distorted by Nietzsche’s particular prejudices and preoccupations, in particular his scorn for democracy, his contempt for the ‘herd’, his veneration of aristocratic morality and his visceral disgust of Christianity. The key turning points that Nietzsche identifies – the emergence of the classical Greek philosophical tradition, the triumph of monotheistic religion, the breakdown of the religious moral framework – are also important turning points in the story told in this book. In place of the complexities of Greek, Jewish and Christian history, however, Nietzsche, creates a stark black and white contrast between the original Greek aristocrat and the slave-loving Jew and Christian. It is a story in which historical truth becomes so interwoven with Nietzsche’s moral obsessions that Socrates, for instance, comes to be seen not as laying the groundwork for a new, more reflective form of moral thought, but as signalling the corruption of the very idea of morality.

Nietzsche’s genealogy reflects his own preoccupations, but also those of the age in which he was writing. It expresses his own prejudices, but also the pessimism of the late nineteenth century. Nietzsche’s relationship to his age was deeply ambivalent. He was acerbically hostile to many of the major tendencies of his time, whether progressive or reactionary: imperialism, nationalism, anti-Semitism, liberalism, socialism, Kantianism, utilitarianism. Yet he both nurtured and was nurtured by the ground soil in which many of these tendencies flourished. It was an age shaped not simply by a crisis of faith, but also by a ‘crisis of reason’ – the ebbing away of Enlightenment optimism, the disenchantment with ideas of progress, the disbelief in concepts of truth. And no one expressed that twin disenchantment more acutely than Nietzsche.

In one sense Nietzsche’s deicide completed the task begun by Spinoza, Hume and Marx. Yet Nietzsche’s excoriation of Christianity had little in common with the anti-clericalism of the Radical Enlightenment or the humanism of the Young Hegelians. For the Radical philosophes, opposition to God was rooted in their commitment to reason and emerged out of their desire for social progress. For Marx, too, challenging religion was only a sideshow to the task of transforming society and establishing it on a more rational basis. Nietzsche was as dismissive of the Enlightenment philosophes, and of socialist ideologues, as he was of God and of religion. He might have been the high priest at God’s funeral. He was also the chief celebrant at reason’s wake. The death of God was part of a growing broader estrangement in the nineteenth century from classical notions of truth, reason and universal human values, notions that were embodied in both certain strands of traditional religion and in the Enlightenment critique of faith. It was not until the following century that such disaffection would fully blossom. Nietzsche’s brilliance at giving voice to the growing disaffection with both faith and reason would eventually turn him in the twentieth century into a key figure of the postmodern assault on the Enlightenment project.


  1. A generally good introduction, but your criticism that the view is, ‘but a truth degraded and distorted by Nietzsche’s particular prejudices and preoccupations, in particular his scorn for democracy, his contempt for the ‘herd’, his veneration of aristocratic morality and his visceral disgust of Christianity’ is only valid as a criticism if you do not accept his argument that our morality is a legacy of Christianity. If you do, you could not see these rejections as necessarily personal. Perhaps Nietzsche would say that you have not quite shed the slave-morality of which he speaks.

    My take:

  2. DFC

    A good introduction in its presentation and clarity of writing. Perhaps, and I say perhaps, there evokes in the essay a view of N that is negative. Even before Christianity there existed all sorts of malicious barbarism as we call it nowadays. The last two thousand years, especially the last century, demonstrated what humans can inflict upon others because of the number increase in the population. Maybe by comparison limiting the population to a sample of what it was two-three thousand years ago, might produce the same numbers of wars, deaths, and the rest of what humans have committed against one another. As for modern malaise, that too seems to be not so modern at all. The first writings that have endured are indicative of man’s difficulties in what Rilke calls, “having escaped from fate…” He also writes a brilliant poem where man is ventured further by nature than the other animals in their “dim delight”, but protected in his ability to turn and be drawn always back to the center of nature’s updraft. Thanks for the essay.

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