What Nietzsche Taught

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The second section of "The Genealogy of Morals," called "'Guilt,' 'Bad Conscience,' and the Like," is another important document, the reading of which is almost[Pg 209] imperative for the student who would understand the processes of thought which led to Nietzsche's philosophic conclusions. In this essay Nietzsche traces the origin of sin to debt, thereby disagreeing with all the genealogists of morals who preceded him. He starts with the birth of memory in man and with the corresponding will to forgetfulness, showing that out of these two mental qualities was born responsibility. Out of responsibility in turn grew the function of promising and the accepting of promises, which at once made possible between individuals the relationship of "debtor" and "creditor." As soon as this relationship was established, one man had rights over another. The creditor could exact payment from the debtor, either in the form of material equivalent or by inflicting an injury in which was contained the sensation of satisfaction. Thus the creditor had the right to punish in cases where actual repayment was impossible. And in this idea of punishment began not only class distinction but primitive law. Later, when the power to punish was transferred into the hands of the community, the law of contract came into existence. Here, says Nietzsche, we find the cradle of the whole moral world of the ideas of "guilt," "conscience," and "duty"; and adds, "Their commencement, like the commencement of all great things in the world, is thoroughly and continuously saturated in blood."

Carrying out the principle underlying the relationship of debtor and creditor we arrive at the formation of the community. In return for protection and for communal advantages the individual pledged his good behaviour. When he violated this contract with the community, the community, in the guise of the defrauded creditor, took its revenge, or exacted its payment, from the debtor, the[Pg 210] criminal. And, as was the case in early history, the community deprived the violator of future advantages and protection. The debtor was divested of all rights, even of mercy, for then there were no degrees in law-breaking. Primitive law was martial law. Says Nietzsche, "This shows why war itself (counting the sacrificial cult of war) has produced all the forms under which punishment has manifested itself in history." Later, as the community gathered strength, the offences of the individual debtors were looked upon as less serious. Out of its security grew leniency toward the offender: the penal code became mitigated, and, as in all powerful nations to-day, the criminal was protected. Only when there was a consciousness of weakness in a community did the acts of individual offenders take on an exaggerated seriousness, and under such conditions the law was consequently harshest. Thus, justice and the infliction of legal penalties are direct outgrowths of the primitive relation of debt between individuals. Herein we have the origin of guilt.

Nietzsche attempts an elaborate analysis of the history of punishment, in an effort to ascertain its true meaning, its relation to guilt and to the community, and its final effects on both the individual and society. It has been impossible to present the sequence of this analysis by direct excerpts from his own words, due to the close, synthetic manner in which he has made his research. Therefore I offer the following brief exposition of pages 88 to 99 inclusive, in which he examines the causes and effects of punishment. To begin with, Nietzsche disassociates the "origin" and the "end" of punishment, and regards them as two separate and distinct problems. He argues that the final utility of a thing, in the sense that[Pg 211] revenge and deterrence are the final utilities of punishment, is in all cases opposed to the origin of that thing; that every force or principle is constantly being put to new purposes by forces greater than itself, thus making it impossible to determine its inception by the end for which it is used. Therefore the "function" of punishing was not conceived with a view to punishing, but may have been employed for any number of ends, according as a will to power has overcome that function and made use of it for its own purpose: in short; punishment, like any organ or custom or "thing," has passed through a series of new interpretations and adjustments and meanings—and is not a direct and logical progress as to an end.

Having established this point, Nietzsche endeavours to determine the utilisation to which the custom of punishment has been put—to ascertain the meaning which has been interpreted into it. He finds that even in modern times not one but many uses have been made of punishment, and that in ancient times so diverse have been the utilisations of punishment that it is impossible to define them all. In fact, one cannot determine the precise reason for punishment. To emphasise this point, Nietzsche gives a long list of possible meanings. Taking up the more popular supposed utilities of punishment at the present time—such as creating in the wrong-doer the consciousness of guilt, which is supposed to evolve into conscience and remorse—he shows wherein punishment fails in its object. Against this theory of the creation of remorse, he advances psychology and shows that, to the contrary, punishment numbs and hardens. He argues also that punishment for the purpose of making the wrong-doer conscious of the intrinsic reprehensibility of his crime, fails because the very act for which he is[Pg 212] chastened is practised in the service of justice and is called "good." Eliminating thus the supposed effects of punishment, Nietzsche arrives at the conclusion (included in the excerpts at the end of this chapter) that punishment makes only for caution and secrecy, and is therefore detrimental.

In his analysis of the origin of the "bad conscience," Nietzsche lends himself to quotation. Therefore I have been able to present in his own words a fair resume of the course pursued by him in his examination of the history of conscience. This particular branch of his research is carried into the formation of the "State" which, according to him, grew out of "a herd of blonde beasts." The older theory of the state, namely: that it originated in the adoption of a contract, is set aside as untenable when dealing with a peoples who possessed conquerors or masters. These masters, argues Nietzsche, had no need of contracts. By using the "bad conscience" as a ground for inquiry, the causes for the existence of altruism are shown to be included in the self-cruelty which followed in the wake of the instinct for freedom. (This last point is developed fully in the discussion of ascetic ideals which is found at the end of the book now under consideration.) Nietzsche traces the birth of deities back along the lines of credit and debt. First came the fear of ancestors. Then followed the obligation to ancestors. At length the sacrifice to ancestors marked the beginning of a conception of duty (debt) to the supernatural. The ancestors of powerful nations in time became heroes, and finally evolved into gods. Later monotheism came as a natural consequence, and God became the creditor. In the expiation of sin, as symbolised in the crucifixion of Christianity, we have this same[Pg 213] relationship of debtor and creditor carried out into a more complex form through the avenues of self-torture.

The most important essay in "The Genealogy of Morals" is the last, called "What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?" Nietzsche examines this question in relation to the artist, to the philosopher, to the priest, and to the race generally. In his examination of the problem in regard to artists he uses Wagner as a basis of inquiry, comparing the two phases of Wagner's art—the Parsifalian and the ante-Parsifalian. Artists, asserts Nietzsche, need a support of constituted authority; they are unable to stand alone—"standing alone is opposed to their deepest instincts"—and so they make use of asceticism as a rampart, as building material, to give their work authority. In his application of the ascetic ideal to philosophers, Nietzsche presents the cases of Schopenhauer and Kant, and concludes that asceticism in such instances is used as an escape from torture—a means to recreation and happiness. With the philosopher the ideal of asceticism is not a denial of existence. Rather is it an affirmation of existence. It permits him freedom of the intellect. It relieves him of the numerous obligations of life. Furthermore, the philosophic spirit, in order to establish itself, found it necessary to disguise itself as "one of the previously fixed types of the contemplative man," as a priest or soothsayer. Only in such a religious masquerade was philosophy taken with any seriousness or reverence.

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