Study Questions on Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals,
Selections in Cahn and Markie, eds., Ethics, pp. 362-394

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last updated November 7, 2010

A note for students considering writing their second major paper on Nietzsche. It would probably be taking on too much to attempt to discuss On the Genealogy of Morals as a whole, but it might be possible to do a careful study of the first essay or second essay in that work. Each of the essays has a kind of internal integrity that lends to that kind of study. As usual, study questions are provided so that you will "slow down" as you consider N's thoughts and, as he recommends, "ruminate"!—J.G.


§ 3

1. What questions does N. pose in this §? (362.1)

§ 6

2. What "new demand" does N. articulate here? What value has up till now been accepted without question? (Note which feeling or "moral" capacity N. opposes.) (362.2) What possibility is N. willing to consider about the "good man"? (363.1)

§ 8

3. Why does N. say that to practice reading as an art "one must be practically bovine"? (He is being clever and metaphorical.)

First Essay

§ 2

1. Why does N. accuse "historians of morality" and (most) philosophers of lacking the historical spirit?

2. What explanation of the origin of morals does N. describe at 363.2 top? (What author we have read this semester does this desciption more or less fit?)

3. From whom does the concept "good" derive according to N? (363.2) What "pathos of distance" do they experience? (See also 363.2 bottom where N associates distance with nobility.) What do they "arrogate" (claim for themselves)? What do judgments regarding good at this point express? (364.1)

4. What conceptual link common today does not exist for them? (364.1)

5. What moral notions does N. seem to associate with mean the "herd instinct"? (364.1)

§ 3

6. What is Spencer's view about the origin of "good" and why does N. regard it as superior to the view mentioned at 363.2 top?

§ 4

7. What did the study of the etymology of words meaning "good" in various languages reveal to Nietzsche, according to him, about the original meaning of the meaning of "good" and associated words? (364.2)

(Note: Nietzsche might have discovered a widespread pattern of early set of meanings, which have since been overturned and suppressed, as he suggests, without having discovered the earliest meanings. Riane Eisler suggests that there may have been a very different culture before the patriarchal culture N. seems to be thinking about.)

8. What parallel development regarding the term "bad" does N. hypothesize? (§ 4)

§ 5

9. With what characteristics are terms like "good" and "true" originally associated? How does N. make use of the apparent similarity between "good" and "godly"? between "bonus" (Latin for "good") and "duonus," which N. suggests meant "man of conflict"?

§ 6

10. What (linguistic) rule does N. assert here? How does he explain the origin of the spiritual meaning of words like "pure"?

(Note. 20th century researchers in cognitive linguistics, such as George Lakoff, have partly confirmed N's observations by studying spiritual and moral meanings as metaphorical.)

11. What is there about priestly aristocracies that N. finds unhealthy (365.2 middle) and even "dangerous" (365.2 toward the bottom) for mankind? With what religious practices and ideas does N. associate with these priests?

12. With what does N., in a moment of "fairness," credit these priests? (366.1 top)

§ 7

13. What conflict does N. consider in this section? Why are priests "the most evil enemies"? (This is a backhanded complement, coming from N.)

14. With what reversal does N. credit "the Jews"? (He is thinking of the Jews of the period from the Babylonian captivity through, say, 100 A.D., which includes the period in which the books of the Hebrew Bible were given their current form. It is true that the "Judaeans" of this period were socially dominated by their priestly elements, at least if we can assume that the books of the Hebrew Bible were respected during this period.)

15. How long a history has "the slave revolt in morality"? Why has it dropped out of sight"? (366.2)

§ 8

16. What things are hard to see? (N. is trying to teach us to think historically here.) What "deepest and most sublime" emotion does it take to create ideals? From what did "the deepest and most sublime" kind of love grow? (366.2-367.1) Is this love the antithesis of its root, according to N?

17. Does N. see Jesus, as portrayed in the New Testament Gospels, as an expression of "Israel" (i.e., the Jews)? In what form has "Israel's revenge…triumph[ed] over all other ideals"?

§§ 10-11

18. What psychological process or emotion does N. credit here with the invention of new sets of values? What is the relationship between this process and the "evaluating gaze" of the warrior aristocrats? How, according to N., does the morality of the priestly type differ from that of the nobles, expressed in modern times by Mirabeau.

19. What is the origin of the value term "evil" according to N's analysis? Who is the originator of this term? (Compare with what N. says about the originator of the term "bad.") (end of § 10, § 11)

20. What positive behavioral traits does N. appear to attribute to the ancient nobles, when they are relating among themselves ("inter pares"), and what violent traits when they are "in the wilderness" (away from home?)? (368.1)

§ 13

21. How is the meaning of "good" transformed when it is opposed to "evil" rather than "good"?

22. What philosophical error are "the common people" making when they attribute the violent conduct of the nobles to their personal agency, their action as "subjects"? How does this error even infect modern science? (last half of § 13)

§ 16

23. What seems to be the most decisive mark of the spiritual nature today? The conjunction of which two culture names symbolizes this? What point does N. make about the supposed authorship of the Book of Revelations ("the Apocalypse") and the apostle of love (he means the author of the Gospel of John.—JG)? What is his evidence as to which of the two cultures has triumphed?

§ 17

24. What do "all tables of commandments" require? What do they await? What question in particular should be asked? What distinctions regarding ends (purposes) does N. make here?

Second Essay

In this essay, N. discusses the genealogies of specific moral ideas. Unlike the explanation of the origin of justice that we find in Hume, N. does not assume that the primary meanings and purposes of moral institutions that now seem important to us were always purposes that they had. People can reinterpret old institutions in new ways—this is the "will to power" at work— so, if we trace the sequence of meanings of key moral terms or of purposes of moral institutions over time, we can find dozens of non-equivalent meanings. N does this most dramatically with punishment in § 13 of this essay. The upshot of this seems to be "there is no goal" of historical progress. But N. does believe that it is possible, if conditions are ripe and enough people like him help prepare the way, that a higher type of human being than has appeared on earth up till now, one that people like himself could genuinely admire, can eventually emerge.

§ 1

1. In what sense is "forgetfulness" an active capacity? (370.1-2) How does it help us "make room for the new"? (370.2) For what valuable functions does it make room? For what valuable experiences does it make room? Why does N claim that forgetting is "a strength"? (370.2)

2. Why is memory called "a counter-faculty"? How does it making promising possible? What series of mental actions does promising require? What must be "presupposed" in order to "dispose of the future in advance"? (N clearly regards "the breeding (evolving?) of an animal … entitled to make promises" as a significant achievement of human prehistory.)

§ 2

3. What first step was necessary in this process? (371.1) How did man gradually become "calculable"?

4. What happens when "society and the morality of custom" reveal "the end to which they were merely a means"? (371.1) (Note: Nietzsche does not think that a conscious deity planned this process, but it becomes possible retrospectively to see earlier phases as necessary for a valuable or interesting result.)

5. How does the type of person being described here, this "liberated man, … this master of free will," relate to the human types described in the first essay who first have the power to define good and bad? (371.1-2)

6. What "extraordinary privilege" does this type possess? How does it relate to consciousness of freedom? Why does N speak of "power over oneself and over fate" in this context? What name does N suppose this "sovereign man" gives this knowledge? (371.2)

§ 3

7. What general point does N. make about the ways in which human beings learn to remember things?

§ 4

8. What present-day moral assumption thought does N. claim is a recent and refined form of human judgment and logic?

9. Why was punishment exacted "throughout the longest period of human history"? (372.2) How was it held in check? From what has this "by now ineradicable idea … of the equivalence between damage and pain" drawn its strength? (372.2) (Note: Recent studies by cognitive linguists of the metaphorical logic of everyday moral utterances confirms the importance of debtor and creditor ideas, to which Nietzsche has drawn attention here.)

§ 5

10. How do N's points about promising, the making of memory, and the logic of debtor and creditor come together in this section?

11. What pleasure is conceded to the creditor as a form of repayment when a person who has made a promise cannot keep it?

§ 6

12. In what sphere does the moral conceptual world of "guilt," "conscience," "duty," etc. originate? (Note how Nietzsche seems to assume, however hypothetically, the conceptual framework of the Domination model of reality and social relationships. To this extent, he confirms the kinds of thing Riane Eisler has said in her writings, without projecting as a positive alternative a society based on partnership relations, or hypothesizing, as she does, that there may have been a period in the past not characterized by partnership relations between the genders.)

13. What "might one add"? (373.1)

14. What are now perhaps inextricably entangled?

15. To what extent can suffering compensate for "debt" (guilt)? Note Nietzsche's experimental, tentative approach, which is partly inspired by Socrates'. (373.2)

§ 7

16. What possibility does N entertain here? What evidence for this does he draw from observing the pleasure people take in contemplating the suffering of others and in religions built around the suffering of a redeemer figure?

17. What aspect of suffering causes outrage according to N? How does this lead to the invention of gods and supernatural beings? For what trick did life then demonstrate its aptitude?

§ 8

18. What claim regarding the origin of moral terms does N make at the start of this section? What empirical generalization would have to be true if he is right?

(Note how easy it would be to infer from this the universality of monetary relationships, which would tend to support the anti-Marxist view it is human nature to engage in buying and selling, but the historical evidence is that money as a medium of exchange is relatively recent, going back to around the 7th century BCE. On the other hand, the linguistic evidence is that the association of guilt with debt is very old and, fairly close to being culturally universal, although this evidence depends upon sources from the age of writing which only goes back so far (2-3 millennia BC)? It would be useful to consider whether ancient humanity may have an idea of debt that did not depend on an actual experience of buying and selling using money? If they did, then the introduction of money would have provided a concrete representation of the degree of debt and therefore the degree of guilt would have been easier to conceive.)

19. In what may justice have consisted "at the earliest stage of its development"? (374.1)

§ 9

20. How does N explain the moral relationship of the individual to the community? Which party is the debtor, which the creditor? How is the criminal conceived? What treatment at the hands of the community can he then expect? What, then, is "punishment"? (Note that the italicized word minus is a printer's mistake; it should be mimus, as in note 29 on p. 395.)

§ 10

21. What modification in the community's response to the criminal takes place as the community's power increases? What is it not impossible to conceive? What concept whose name begins with "g" is Nietzsche explaining?

§ 11

22. How does N. contrast the just man, with a judging eye, to the man of ressentiment, who invented "bad conscience"?

23. What Hobbesian idea does N. seem to endorse in this section? (375.1 bottom) Why is it senseles to talk of right and wrong as such?

24. From the biological point of view (which N. himself likes to adopt, even though it is "more disturbing" to most people), what may legal conditions be?

§ 12

25. What two problems (or questions) that ought to be distinguished are often (wrongly) conflated (merged)? Between what two things is there "a world of difference"? Once a human institution exists, what can then happen? (375.2 bottom)

26. How does this capacity that exists in human beings relate to a more general process that occurs in the organic world (world of living organisms)?

27. What has been believed "from time immemorial"? (376.1 top) Nietzsche is a staunch opponent of this belief, which goes back to Aristotle and is generally associated with a teleological view of reality. Modern philosophers like Hobbes and Spinoza, who were associated with the "new science" and thus disposed to be critical of Aristotelianism, revived the ancient Epicurean critique of Aristotelian and Stoic final causes (telê). Closer to Nietzsche's time, Darwinism is anti-teleological.

28. All aims, all uses are merely signs of what? (376.1, line 18) How does N. prefer to understand the "entire history of a 'thing,' a custom, an organ"? What does he mean when he says "the form [of a 'thing,' etc.] is fluid, but the 'meaning' even more so …" (376.1 bottom)

29. Can death and destruction serve life and power? (376.1-2) Explain.

30. What possible future "application" of this principle does N. consider? (Note that this is something the Nazis misappropriated when they tried to interpret N. as a predecessor of their ideology—what N might have understood but attacked as a perverse reinterpretation of his ideas.) (376.2, lines 9-13)

31. What view of reality does N prefer to the view of nature as utterly random and believing in "the mechanistic senselessness" of all that happens? (376.2) Note how does he combine these remarks with an attack on "democratic prejudice." (376.2)

§ 13

32. This § is primarily an illustration of his point in the previous § that an institution with a single name and many applications, such as punishment, probably does not have a single use (or a single essence). Into what does the whole history of punishment crystallize? (377.1, near bottom)

33. What kind of concepts escape definition? (ibid.) What list of purposes does N. discover for punishment when studying the uses it has had in various societies over time? (Are there under a dozen—or many more?) (377.2)

§ 16

34. What does N take bad conscience to be? (378.2) What were those "half-animals" unable to use any longer? What were they reduced to doing? What happened to their old instincts? (379.1) How does this explain the development of what is later called "soul" in man? In what way has soul expanded over time, according to Nietzsche? What role has the state organization played in this process? (379.1)

§ 17

35. Was this change a voluntary one? A peaceful one? A contractual one? Are the founders of such states conscious artists?

36. What grows up when they appear? Do these people know guilt, responsibility, consideration? (These three "things" seem to be close to the center of what N means by "bad conscience.")

37. Would "bad conscience" have grown up without them?

38. How does Nietzsche understand the origin of bad conscience? (379.2 near bottom)

§ 18

39. Does the interior life of conscience have a cruel and ugly aspect according to Nietzsche? (380.1) Has this costly side of the interior life produced anything new and beautiful? (ibid.)

§ 19

40. To what does N. compare bad conscience in the first sentence of this §?

41. In the (hypothetical) original community, what creditor-debtor relationship is already taken for granted? Into what does the forefather eventually get transformed? (380.2) Is this attitude toward ancestors a natural piety or some rather more visceral emotion? As the community grows in power, what tends to happen to the emotion felt toward the forefather? (We might interpret this process as a kind of alienation corresponding to the lack of power experienced by the individual, even dominant individuals, in relation to the institutions of the society itself that were inherited by the present generation.)

§ 20

42. What does N. say about the sense of guilt toward the divinity in this §? How does it correspond to the development of Christianity? (Growing up in Germany, living in Switzerland and Italy, and earning an advanced degree in what we would now call the humanities, which would include study of religious texts from diverse traditions, Nietzsche was not only familiar with Protestantism, especially Lutheranism and Calvinism, and with Catholicism but also Buddhism, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism, as well as the religious ideas of the Homeric and classical Greeks.)

§ 21

43. N. says that the goal is now to "make the gaze ricochet," to "recoil from the iron impossibility" of what? What would repayment of the "debt" consist in? (381.2, very top)

44. Against whom are these concepts turned back "ultimately"? How is the infinite debt to be paid off? (381.2 middle) What theological doctrine, shared by Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, and sometimes attributed to the Apostle Paul, is N. discussing here? Is he able to believe it?

§ 22

In this section N. summarizes the last several sections. He reminds his reader of the psychological history he has just told, starting from "locking" [the formerly wild] man unburdened by guilt and bad conscience into the state and proceeding up till the time of the foundation of Western Christianity in its familiar Augustinian form.

§ 24

44. What point about the setting up of an ideal does N. make at 382.1 top?

45. In what do "we modern men…have our greatest experience, our artistry"?

46. What has become interwoven with "bad conscience"?

47. What does N. mean by the "unnatural inclinations"? (This is a rather obscure passage, but I think his point is that there is an inherent connection between "bad conscience" and the unnatural inclinations; to "weave this connection" is to put the words together that would expose it to the light of reason, which of course he is trying to do.)

48. It would require a person of great "health" to do it, a person whose psyche is described in the last several lines of 382.1. Such a person is further described in 382.2. From what will the "man of the future" of which N is speaking redeem us?

Third Essay

§ 13

1. How does N. explain the emergence of the ascetic ideal? Does he associate it with the master type or the slave type? (387.1)

§ 14

2. What diagnosis of present European civilization does N. make in this §? What does he mean by "nihilism"? How is it linked, in his mind, to disgust and compassion?

3. Does this amount to a critique of all modern ethical systems? Is there anything plausible about it? Is it a rationally persuasive critique? Explain.

4. What recommendation is Nietzsche making for the superior or "well-constituted" type of person whom he seeks to address in his writings?