Genealogy of Morality: An Explanation of Two Moralities

Friedrich Nietzsche has been a massive influence in the discipline of modern Philosophy and has relevance among postmodern philosophers. Genealogy of Morals is an essential text to understanding Niezsche’s characterization of morality. Within the text Nietzsche charts the development of two Moral systems one called “Good and Bad” and the other called “Good and Evil”. Within the first essay Nietzsche discusses how these two systems developed and how “Good and Evil” has triumphed over “Good and Bad”. Drawing on a few historical examples Nietzsche implicitly sides with “Good and Bad” in its struggle against “Good and Evil” and in some sense mourns the loss of its influence.

Nietzsche begins by setting stating to find the origin of morality and he sets out by first looking for the origin of the word good. In the second section he chastises philosophers for “bungling” the origin of Good. He appears to quote someone when he voices the opinion of these philosophers.

Originally—so they decree—one approved unegoistic actions and called them good from the point of view of those to whom they were done, that is to say, those to whom they were useful; later one forgot how this approval originated and, simply because unegoistic actions were always habitually praised as good, one also felt them to be good—as if they were something good in themselves. (Nietzsche, 25)

Nietzsche reverses this theory by saying the “source of the concept “good” has been sought and established in the wrong place” (Nietzsche, 25). Nietzshce maintains it was a type of people, “the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rain, in contradistinction to all the low” (Nietzshce, 26). This, according to Nietzshce, is called the “pathos of distance” (Nietzsche, 26). Where these people “seized the right to create values and to coin names for values” (Nietzsche, 26). This is the origin of Good in the “noble-caste” affirming itself and values that distinguishing it as the “good”. The Bad is understood as everything that is not affirmed by the “noble caste” “in contradistinction” that is everything associated with the “low, low-minded, common and plebian”. (Nietzsche, 26)

The way Nietzsche establishes what these values are for the good is a theory of etymology, which traces the word good in various languages. Nietzsche traces good “to the same conceptual transformation that everywhere

noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,” “noble,” “with a soul of a high order,” “with a privileged soul” necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “Plebeian,” “low” are finally transformed into the concept “bad.”(Nietzsche, 28)

This is how Nietzsche justifies terming this morality in a social class context. The words he claims that are associated with good are a “noble” and “aristocratic” class and “bad” is found to be what is distinctly different and that is the “plebian” and lower classes.

The next development within this morality of “good and bad” comes in the priestly caste, which essentially makes distinctions like the nobles, but only different distinctions. They make distinctions of “pure” and “impure”, which comes from an “unsymbolic” meaning. That is a “pure one’ is from beginning merely a man who washes himself, who forbids himself certain foods that produce skin ailments, who does not sleep with the dirty women of the lower strata” (Nietzsche, 32). Nietzsche criticizes this as something unhealthy.

There is from the first something unhealthy in such priestly aristocracies and in the habits ruling in them which turn them away from action and alternate between brooding and emotional explosions, habits which seem to have as their almost invariable consequence that intestinal morbidity and neurasthenia which has afflicted priests at all times; but as to that which they themselves devised as a remedy for this morbidity must one not assert that it has ultimately proved itself a hundred times more dangerous in its effects than the sickness it was supposed to cure? (Nietzsche, 32)

The priestly seem to be erratic a lot less stable than their noble counterparts. And in this erratic attitude the thing in which seemed to stabilize them is “nothingness (or God” (Nietzsche, 32). What remains though is a depth where “everything becomes more dangerous”. The depth of thinking of the priestly caste has suspicion on things and this is where according to Nietzsche, “that only here did the human soul in a higher sense acquire depth and become evil and these are the two basic respects in which man has hitherto been superior to other beasts!” (Nietzsche, 33) The reflection of the priests seeing in them something bad has begun to characterize such things as not just “bad” but “evil”.

An antagonism begins to develop with branching of the knightly-aristocratic caste and the priestly-aristocratic. The antagonism as Nietzsche sees it comes from the two castes with different values, which put them in “Jealous opposition to one another and are unwilling to come to terms.” (Nietzsche, 33) The knightly-aristocratic value “a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which preserve it: war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous , free, joyful activity.” (Nietzsche, 33) The warriors look upon the priestly caste as disadvantageous for war (Nietzsche, 33). The priestly hate the warrior caste because of their own impotence (Nietzsche, 33). It’s something the priests’ lack, which makes them according to Nietzsche the best haters in the world (Nietzsche, 33).

It’s this kind of hatred, which Nietzsche begins to develop as essentially to the morality of “Good and Evil”. He here turns to a historical example of a priestly peoples the “Jews”. The Jews are a “Priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values” (Nietzsche, 34). This inverse value system says, “The wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God, blessedness is for them alone and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary evil” (Nietzsche, 34). This is where priestly hatred develops into a slave morality. That the slave caste develops from priestly thinking into a slave morality. The slave morality defines itself by what is opposite of the noble and calls what values that are “noble” evil. What distinguishes “evil” from “bad” is what Nietzsche calls in French “ressentiment”. The “Good and bad” morality made distinctions but held nothing against the person who is “bad” that is not noble, they were simply just different. Whereas in a morality of “Good and evil” the “slave” looks upon the noble and holds it against them that they are not like them. This is in short how the term “ressentiment” is employed. Nietzsche employs an analogy of birds of prey and lambs to illustrate how “ressentiment” works between the two moralities the birds of prey in his analogy act as those operating under “good and bad”. They see nothing wrong with Lambs, they see lambs are different. They even say “we don’t dislike them at all, these good little lambs; we even love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb.” (Nietzsche, 45) The lambs on the other hand act the opposite way, they represent those operating under “Good and Evil”. The lambs say “these birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey, but rather its opposite, a lamb—would he not be good?” The lambs react against the birds of prey because the birds of prey eat the lambs. (Nietzsche, 44)

Nietzsche makes claim that the morality of “Good and Evil” is the one that is triumphant today. What Nietzsche calls the “slave revolt has a history of two thousand years behind it and which we no longer see because it—has been victorious.” (Nietzsche, 34) Nietzsche represents the two moralities of “Good and Bad” and “Good and Evil” between two places Rome and Judea. Rome the home everything “noble” and “Judea” home of the “Priestly” hatred. “The symbol of this struggle, inscribed in letters legible across all human history, is “Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome” (Nietzsche, 52). What happened according to Nietzsche is that the Romans gave in to Christianity, which had its origins in Judaism and embodies this “Good and Evil” morality. This he calls the “Judaizing of Rome”. (Nietzsche, 53) With particular event the world then was given over to a morality of “Good and Evil” from the power and influence of Rome. There are periods of history where “Good and Bad” have a sort of revival like in the renaissance. They ultimately were squashed out by reactions to this like in the Reformation.

Nietzsche in this essay has great sympathy for the moral system of “Good and Bad”, but sees it as impossible to go back to. Two thousand years of good and evil made it hard to go back to such a system, thinking in such a way seems impossible. In the end he only implies his own sympathies he never purposes a way beyond “Good and Evil” that he attempts to outline in other works.


Nietzsche, Friedrich, Walter Kaufmann, R. J. Hollingdale, and Friedrich Nietzsche. On the Geneaology of Morals ; Ecce Homo. New York: Vintage, 1989. Print.


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