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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.

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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 subject. Apart from the seductive, expressionist quality of Nietzsche’s style, his philosophical argument becomes especially interesting when he suggests that victorious “herd” moralities may constitute a grave danger to the very conditions that make morality a positive, adaptive mechanism for enhancing human flourishing.

The first essay contrasts the linguistic origins of the binary terms “good and evil” and “good and bad.” Rejecting utilitarianism and its corollary, “unegoistic” acts, as taking priority in the formation of morality, Nietzsche asserts that these binary oppositions are primordial and originally conceived by ruling elites (nobles) to distinguish between and among themselves and an undifferentiated mass of people unlike themselves. A digression on word origins indicates the emergence of...

(The entire section contains 1656 words.)

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