Study Guide

On the Genealogy of Morals

by Friedrich Nietzsche

On the Genealogy of Morals Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, published late in his career, demonstrates the philosopher’s academic roots in nineteenth century classical philology. Divided into three interrelated essays subdivided by sections, the work is a relatively compact but provocative examination of morality and ethics. Subtitled “A Polemic” in certain editions, the work undertakes a radical break with previous examinations of moral philosophy. Both for its style and its argument, many contemporary philosophers judge On the Genealogy of Morals to be among Nietzsche’s most important works. Many notable modern English translations exist, and scholars generally regard the 1968 German-language version of On the Genealogy of Morals by Italian editors Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari to be the standard German edition of the work.

On the Genealogy of Morals inaugurates Nietzsche’s genealogical critique (which is about something other than tracing family histories). The philosophical method of genealogy, for Nietzsche, problematizes fundamental assumptions about morality and moral theories through a careful differentiation between origin and purpose. In other words, morality is viewed not as an unassailable, static set of facts or as an ideal realm of transcendental essences. Instead, the meaning and value of morality emerge from a sequence of shifting contexts that reveal and obscure a long, complicated chain of nonlinear historical developments and blurred psychological states. For Nietzsche, the most prominent “facts” about morality are its contingency and its hidden though recognizable development.

As a prejudice, morality is itself an interpretation of life, making it uniquely suited to genealogical interpretation. In other words, previous thinking on morality stopped at a crude empirical level or, conversely, posited supernatural authorization. According to Nietzsche, both these approaches distort and oversimplify a cultural hieroglyph. Through a moral genealogy, Nietzsche proposes to go behind these putative sources of moral valuation to get at something more fundamental and entirely human. Though not consistently expressed in On the Genealogy of Morals, clues in support of this critique can be found in etymology and in a kind of conjectural sociology of value formation, an approach partly based on allegorized history. Nietzsche seeks to describe and highlight the types of agency that create morality. He also wants to show how agency is constituted so that it manufactures guilt and enforces punishment.

Nietzsche’s preface is typical of his prose. By turns conversational and aggressive, challenging and witty, he suggests that this book is the culmination of a train of thought that began in his youth and that appears in all of his writings up to this point. The value of morality, and in particular the value of pity and the creative power of ressentiment (a negative, reactionary mode of moral interpretation rooted in suffering and malice), came to occupy his thoughts as he considered previous theories on this...

(The entire section is 1270 words.)

On the Genealogy of Morals Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Acampora, Christa Davis, ed. Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals”: Critical Essays. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006. Similar to Richard Schacht’s book, this collection of contemporary essays examining On the Genealogy of Morals has sections on the idea of genealogy, analyses of specific passages, critiques of the genealogical method, and a section on politics and community.

Conway, Daniel. Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morals”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2008. By offering a section-by-section textual commentary with a student apparatus, including section summaries, this book is suitable for classroom use. Shows how On the Genealogy of Morals construes morality as constitutive of agency.

Deleuze, Giles. Nietzsche and Philosophy. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson. 1962. Reprint. New York: Continuum, 2006. A classic, sophisticated conceptual analysis of force and power in Nietzsche’s ontology and in the book On the Genealogy of Morals. Argues that Nietzsche’s signal philosophical insight was to conceive of values and morality as expressive of primordial existential states.

Hatab, Lawrence J. Nietzsche’s “On the Genealogy of Morality”: An Introduction. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. A synthetic, section-by-section analysis of the work placed in the larger context of Nietzsche’s other writings and his overall political philosophy.

Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 4th ed. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. The publication of the first edition of this book in 1950 transformed Nietzsche’s reception in the English-speaking world through a careful examination of his life and the development of his philosophy. Places Nietzsche’s thought in the mainstream of Western philosophy and in the tradition of perennial philosophical problems.

Ridley, Aaron. Nietzsche’s Conscience: Six Character Studies from the “Genealogy.” Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998. Persuasive study of the notional figures in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals: Slave, Priest, Philosopher, Artist, Scientist, and Noble. Indicates what these abstractions reveal about value and the transformative power of the will to affirm and creatively utilize suffering. Claims the genealogy to be the most important work of moral philosophy since that of Immanuel Kant.

Schacht, Richard, ed. Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality: Essays on Nietzsche’s “Genealogy of Morals.” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. A collection of essays by philosophers examining On the Genealogy of Morals and immoralism as well as analytical philosophy, stoicism, and a variety of other topics. An indispensable collection.