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German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche is most remembered for the jarring statement, “God is dead,” but to reduce him to such a slogan would be to truncate an intricate and complex critique of morality into just three short words. Nietzsche saw the morality of his own social context as a sickness inherited through a series of generations. In his 1884 work The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche traces the roots of morality and thereby explains the origin of its pathogen. In this essay, I will first explicate Nietzsche’s critique of morality and explain his proposed alternative to the modern system. Second, I will evaluate author Alasdair MacIntyre’s claim that Nietzsche’s denouncement of contemporary moral beliefs closely parallels Hawaiian King Kamehameha II’s abolishment of kapu, or taboo, in 1819. I will conclude with the assertion that Nietzsche’s argument is valid because it recognizes the necessarily non-foundational nature of morality. Unlike the “taboo morality” of Enlightenment thinkers, Nietzsche recognizes that morality — though grounded in one concept — is spontaneous and irrational. For this reason, MacIntyre’s linkage between Nietzsche and Kamehameha II is not only brilliant — it is additionally well-founded.
Nietzsche’s Critique of Morality
Nietzsche did not only think that the morality of his respective society was faulty or misguided. He thought it was sick. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche argues that his civilization has inherited an acute illness from prior generations. The purpose of his “genealogy,” in essence, is to thoroughly trace the pathogen that affects his world — and thus blow the whistle on the Enlightenment project.
In the introductory sections of his first essay, Nietzsche embarks on an assault of the “English psychologists,” like utilitarian John Stuart Mill, whom he believes have shielded their eyes from the truth of morality. Nietzsche claims that “these analysts … have specifically trained themselves to sacrifice what is desirable to what is true, any truth in fact, even the simple, bitter, ugly, repulsive, unchristian, and immoral truths — for there are truths of that description.” (10) He harshly criticizes the psychologists of his time because they are not historians of morality. They think the concept “good” was developed by those who had such goodness, he says, but in reality it arose from a culture of self-affirming aristocrats. Nietzsche pinpoints the fault of these thinkers in order to provide the foundation for his own argument. “The whole train of their thought runs, as was always the way of old-fashioned philosophers, on thoroughly unhistorical lines,” (10) he says before diving into an intricate genealogical critique of morality.
Nietzsche begins his history lesson in the time period spanning Homeric Greece through the 8th century BC. During this era, the concept of good was exclusively coined by the aristocracy. For the most powerful members of society, “good” was merely a self-affirming term to describe the very traits they and only they possessed: physical strength, nobility, wealth and the like.
The judgment “good” did not originate among those to whom goodness was shown. Much rather has it been the good themselves, that is, the aristocratic, the powerful, the high- stationed, the high-minded, who have felt that they themselves were good, and that their actions were good, that is to say of the first order, in contradistinction to all the low, the low-minded, the vulgar, and the plebian. (11)
As a secondary and complimentary definition, “bad” was ascribed to those individuals who did not express the traits of the aristocracy and was used to define those characteristics of the lower classes. Nietzsche says the “fundamental instinct of a higher dominant race coming into association with a meaner race, an ‘under race,’ this is the origin of the antithesis of good and bad.” (11)
On the grounds of this distinction, Nietzsche argues that the origin of “good” is “far from having any necessary connection with altruistic acts.” (11) He sharply criticizes the widely-held belief that the definition of “good” aligns itself with such deep, morally good characteristics. Instead, goodness rests on the “arch-trait,” or the concept that aristocrats believe themselves to be of a higher order than the rest. (13) To further buttress this claim, Nietzsche cites historical examples of the “arch-trait” as embodied by past cultures — the Greeks meaning “the truthful” and the Goths stemming from the German word, “gut,” or god-like. (13) He also discusses how words with negative connotations, like “dark” and “black,” were most likely derived from the dark-haired European peoples who were overtaken by the fair-haired Aryans. As a rule, Nietzsche concludes, political superiority necessarily implies a psychological superiority. (15)
The next phase in Nietzsche’s genealogy addresses the usurpation of power by the priestly class, which is marked by a movement against some of the most fundamental characteristics of the former noble class. Ironically, he says, the priestly mode originated from the aristocrats but quickly named them the chief moral enemy. Pure and impure became opposites to associate with good and bad, and the self-affirming morality of the aristocracy was transformed into a morality largely shaped by self-denial. Nietzsche disparages this new morality, and says “humanity itself is still diseased from the effects of the na?vet?s of this priestly cure.” (15) Amid his scorn for the priestly mode, however, Nietzsche maintains that one positive outcome did result. With this shift in morality, human beings became more complex due to the introduction of the concept of the “soul” — something that sets man apart as “an interesting animal,” he says. (16)
Nietzsche blames his final phase for the modern illness in morality. The slave morality, which stressed the battle of good vs. evil, was spurred by the Nietzschean concept of ressentiment. This term goes beyond “resentment,” as it requires a non-optimal situation coupled with the inability to escape such a situation. Nietzsche says it is ressentiment that drives the self-denying slave morality, which is founded not on love — as many tend to believe — but rather on its direct antithesis. The weakness of the slaves “ causes their hate to expand into a monstrous and sinister shape, a shape which is most crafty and most poisonous,” he says. (16) Nietzsche calls the embittered slaves the worst enemies namely because they are the weakest individuals and the greatest haters. The slave revolt in morality precedes the rise to power of the priestly class, in which the upper class is convinced to adhere to a new self-denying morality in the place of the self-affirming one. Nietzsche says, “the slave morality says ‘no’ from the very outset to what is ‘outside itself,’ ‘different from itself,’ and ‘not itself’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.” (19) This “radical transvaluation of values” (17) came about because of the deeper desire of the slave class to achieve ultimate revenge against their oppressors.
“The wretched are alone the good: the poor, the weak, the lowly, are alone the good; the suffering, the needy, the sick, the loathsome, are the only ones who are pious, the only ones who are blessed, for them alone is salvation — but you, on the other hand, you aristocrats, you men of power, you are to all eternity the evil, the horrible, the covetous, the insatiate, the godless; eternally also shall you be the unblessed, the cursed, the damned!” (17)
Nietzsche contrasts the two modes of morality to further elucidate his deep-seeded distaste for the mode employed by the slave class. He says the slave morality — “an act of cleanest revenge” (17) — was caused by ressentiment, which gravely differs from how the self-affirming morality of the aristocrats was originally created. “The ‘well-born’ felt themselves ‘the happy’; they did not have to manufacture their happiness artificially through looking at their enemies,” he says. They didn’t have to “lie themselves” into happiness, unlike the slave classes. (20) Furthermore, the aristocratic man “lived in confidence and openness with himself”, while the “resentful man” is neither sincere nor honest with himself. (21) The slave revolt conceives and fabricates a notion of an “evil” man — though Nietzsche argues this man should be honored — and creates a “contrasting and corresponding figure” in himself. (21)
In his concluding points, Nietzsche argues that the basis of all forms of civilization is to “domesticate” man and bring him down to the level of other lowly animals, and that ressentiment is a mere “tool of civilization.” (23-24) Moreover, the severe wrongs of the slave morality go unnoticed by the masses and have “moved out of our sight” only because they have “achieved victory.” (17) Like other long-term processes, Nietzsche says the modern mode is difficult to recognize. “The ‘redemption’ of the human race is progressing swimmingly; everything is obviously becoming Judaised, or Christianised or vulgarized,” he says. (18-19) Throughout his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche is more sympathetic to the aristocratic viewpoint though he also admits the faults of such a stance. He is clearly more critical of the slave morality because, though he commends its innately introspective nature, he says it is based on a foundation of vengeance.
Nietzsche’s Morality Ideal
As an alternative to the morality Nietzsche identifies in his own society, he proposes a new a mode — a “sigh of hope” — that will manifest “a glimpse of man that justifies the existence of man, a glimpse of an incarnate human happiness that realizes and redeems, for the sake of which one may hold fast to the belief in man!” (25) Nietzsche’s advocacy for such a morality is supplanted by his unforgiving outlook on modern culture, as we have effectively lost “the will to be man.” (25) The central and most devastating problem in European society, he argues, was rampant Nihilism.
Nietzsche’s proposed morality is founded on his desire to return to the self-affirming moral narrative of ancient times while still maintaining the somewhat accidental benefits of later slave morality — that is, the notion of culture and complex introspective nature of human beings. Thus, the challenge for Nietzsche in how to reconcile these two necessary elements of his proposed morality. Nietzsche advises his contemporaries to look to his own heroes — like brilliant poets and composers — and not what he calls “the lost men” for a model of this new morality. The way man must manifest himself in the world and the way man must act as a moral agent, he argues, lies in the ever-important “will to power.” Nietzsche describes this phenomenon in his 1886 work Beyond Good and Evil:
“[Anything which] is a living and not a dying body … will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant — not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power … which is after all the will to life.” (Section 259)
Nietzsche lays the groundwork for the will to power theory in his Genealogy of Morals when he draws the distinction between lambs and birds of prey. It is understandable and entirely natural for a lamb to perceive birds of prey as evil creatures, but he says this standpoint is neither well-founded nor valid. For Nietzsche, the bird’s action of preying upon a lamb is merely an expression of its strength — the deed and the “doer” are thus separate entities. It would be wrong to distinguish the bird’s strength from its capacity to kill. He argues that “’the doer’ is a mere appendage to the action” and, furthermore, “the action is everything.” (26) The lamb perspective of Nietzsche’s contemporaries is precisely what is wrong with morality, he says. “Man has been tamed,” his greatness stifled by ressentiment, pity and invalid sympathy. (31)
A critic might argue that if Nietzsche is attacking morality on moral grounds, his argument will be severely weakened, if not obliterated. After all, if Nietzsche finds incommensurable flaws in the entire history of human morality, what makes his proposed mode any different? Furthermore, because Nietzsche finds defect in the Enlightenment project — or the search for the foundation of morality — a critic would say it is hypocritical for him to form his own morality grounded in the “will to power.”
But to make this argument is to fail at comprehending the entire Nietzschean project. For Nietzsche’s moral foundation for mankind, the “will to power, ” is not really a foundation after all. The will to power is at once spontaneous, irrational and illogical. Unlike the moral foundations of Hume, Kant and Kierkegaard — passion, reason and choice, respectively — Nietzsche’s “non-foundation” is only a groundwork in that it drives us all. Though the will to power indeed is universal for all men, its manifestations are not. In other words, though each man is endowed with a will to power, it will invariably be played out in different ways for different people. Therein lies the fundamental difference between Nietzsche and the Enlightenment project thinkers he refutes in his Genealogy of Morals. In After Virtue, MacIntyre says Nietzsche wants us to become “autonomous moral subjects by some gigantic and heroic act of the will.” This “new table” for morality must be constructed entirely from the individual. (114)
MacIntyre, Nietzsche and Kamehameha II
Nietzsche attacks the “taboo” morality of his own cultural context. The contemporary mode, he argues, seeks to rationalize the innately irrational character of mankind’s will to power. In other words, the morality of Nietzsche’s time is merely a futile attempt to justify the unjustifiable. Nietzsche’s proposed morality is a mode which hearkens back to an ancient morality while still incorporating the positive, albeit accidental, benefits of the severely faulty morality of the “slave revolt.” Most central to this new morality is necessity to recognize and understand why morality is fundamentally irrational. In After Virtue, MacIntyre describes the force of the Nietzschean position as contingent on “the truth of one central thesis”: “[T]hat all rational vindications of morality manifestly fail and that therefore belief in the tenets of morality needs to be explained in terms of a set of rationalizations which conceal the fundamentally non-rational phenomena of the will.” (117) Additional, he explains Nietzsche’s argument as follows:
“[I]f there is nothing to morality but expressions of will, my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights , utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I must myself now bring into existence ‘new tables of what is good.’ … The rational and rationally justified moral subject of the eighteenth century is a fiction, an illusion.” (114)
From here, MacIntyre claims that the irrationality of Nietzsche’s will to power — and the consequent justification of the unjustifiable — is at the heart of the modern taboo morality. This feature, he argues, is what allows for Nietzsche to assume the position of the Kamehameha II of the European tradition. MacIntyre explains the voyages of Captain Cook and his seamen and their perplexed discovery of the Polynesian notion of taboo. The seamen simply did not understand the rationale behind certain rules and societal customs of the natives. “But when they enquired further what taboo meant, they could get little information,” MacIntyre recounts, “Clearly, taboo did not simply mean prohibited; for to say that something — person or practice or theory — is taboo is to give some particular sort of reason for its prohibition.” (111)
But if there did exist a reasoning behind the foreign rules, why were Cook and his men unable to grasp it? MacIntyre argues that it is because of the anachronistic nature of taboo. These rules and prohibitions are merely survival mechanisms from past cultures and are embedded in a context such that they are intelligible. “[D]eprive the rules of their original context and they are at once apt to appear as a set of arbitrary prohibitions,” MacIntyre says. When “resources of culture are too meager” to allow for reinterpretation, taboo rules become obsolete and justification becomes impossible. (112) Not surprisingly, Kamehameha II was able to eradicate such rules “without any social consequence.” (111) MacIntyre then asks:
“Why should we think about our modern uses of good, right and obligatory in any different way from that in which we think about late-eighteenth century Polynesian rules of taboo? And why should we not think of Nietzsche as the Kamehameha II of the European tradition?” (113)
The deontological character of moral judgments is the “ghost of conceptions” of objective moral law — something that is “quite alien to the metaphysics of modernity,” MacIntyre says. Furthermore, if the teleological character is simply a “ghost,” then conceptions of human nature will be cloudy and intelligible. (111) The parallels MacIntyre draws between modern morality and the notion of taboo are indisputable. Although Kamehameha II effectively absolved Hawaii of taboo rules, and Nietzsche effectively failed at his similar project, the two men indeed shared a comparable goal. MacIntyre’s claim, which he backed with exhaustive explanation and detail, is both laudable and well-founded.
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