On the Genealogy of Morals: Preface and First Essay (“Good and Evil,” “Good and Bad”) by Friedrich Nietzsche — A Summary

Title: Preface and First Essay (“Good and Bad,” “Good and Evil”) 
Author: Friedrich Nietzsche
Book: Friedrich Nietzsche (1887) On the Genealogy of Morals trans. Walter Kaufmann and RJ Holllingdale (1989)



We are perpetually in search for knowledge but we fail to look at our own selves. We are “unknown to ourselves”.


The Genealogy investigates the origin of “moral prejudices”, of morality.


Where did “evil” originate? From God! — I proclaimed as a 13-year old. But this metaphysical answer, informed by my “theological prejudice”, soon appeared inadequate. Instead, I began to look for “moral prejudices”. I asked: “under what conditions did man” — not a transcendental being — “devise these value judgements good and evil? and what value do they themselves possess? Have they hitherto hindered or furthered human prosperity?”


What I am questioning is the “value of morality”, that is, the conventional Judeo-Christian morality characterised by “the instincts of pity, self-abnegation and self-sacrifice” so revered by Schopenhauer.

It was precisely here (in conventional morality) that I saw the great danger to mankind, it's sublimest enticement and seduction ... it was precisely here that I saw ... the will turning against life, the tender and sorrowful signs of the ultimate illness.


We need a critique of moral values, the value of these values must first be called into question.

All prior assumptions about “good” and “evil” are to be re-examined. Why? Because moral values are not absolute givens. They have “evolved and changed”. But people assume them to be given and beyond question.

The investigation disputes the assumptions and asks uncomfortable questions. “What if a symptom of regression were inherent in the “good” … so that precisely morality would be to blame if the highest power and splendor actually possible to the type man was never in fact attained? So that precisely morality was the danger of dangers?


There is nothing more worth taking seriously than this investigation even if for a reward no better than the ability to exclaim “Onwards! our old morality too is part of the comedy!”.

First Essay
“Good and Evil,” “Good and Bad”


Only the “English psychologists”[1] have attempted a history of the origin of morality. But in this endeavour, they have concentrated solely on the shameful and inactive aspects of human behaviour — “habit, forgetfulness, mechanistic hooking-together of ideas”.


The English psychologists — lacking, as they do, the historical spirit — have “decreed”:

Originally, one approved unegoistic actions and called them good from the point of view of those to whom they were done, that is to say, those to whom they were useful; later one forgot how this approval originated and, simply because unegoistic actions were always habitually praised as good, one also felt them to be good — as if they were something good in themselves.

You see it, don’t you? those “typical traits of the idiosyncrasy of the English psychologist”— “useful, forgetting, habit” — which inevitably lead to “error”.

This evaluation seeks, and finds, “good” in the wrong place. It was not, as the genealogists claim, the low-minded and powerless who ascribed goodness to actions of which they were beneficiaries. It was actually the high-minded and the powerful who determined their station and characterised their actions as good. What was at work was the pathos of distance[2] and not considerations of “utility” or concern with “unegoistic” actions.


[Also, if “good” is equivalent to “unegoistic actions”, how can the benefit of such actions be forgotten? Such an assertion is a “psychological absurdity”. If anything, it (the benefit of unegoistic actions ) would become more entrenched.]


Look at the etymology of the word good in different languages. The social connotation of the word “noble”, as an obvious example, impels the conclusion that “good” had everything to do with stations of privilege and power. The opposite is most convincing in the German word for ‘bad’ (schlecht), which is identical to that for ‘plain’, ‘simple’ (schlicht). So, “bad” has everything to do with the plain and common man, the man of low social status. This is the fundamental insight.


In addition to their power and wealth, the nobles also appropriate a typical character trait: truthful[3]. They use this to distinguish themselves from the lying common man.[4]


What if the powerful and the privileged class is constituted by the priests? When the priestly class is at the top, the powerful vs powerless opposition shifts to “pure” vs “impure” — purity being just a function of abstinence from certain practices and nothing more. Another shift is in the meaning of “good” and “bad” which are no longer based on social station.

There is … something unhealthy in such priestly aristocracies and in the habits ruling them which turn them away from action and alternate between brooding and emotional explosions. … With the priests, everything becomes more dangerous … arrogance, revenge, acuteness, profligacy, love, lust to rule, virtue, disease — but it is only fair to add that it was on the soil of this essentially dangerous form of human existence, the priestly form, that man first became an interesting animal, that only here did the human soul in a higher sense acquire depth and become evil — and these are the two basic respects in which man has hitherto been superior to other beasts!


The nobles, being strong and free-spirited, delight themselves in war and adventure. The priests, on the other hand, being powerless, resort to brooding and censure.

The priests are the most evil enemies — but why? Because they are the most impotent. It is because of their impotence that in them hatred grows to monstrous and uncanny proportions, to the most spiritual and poisonous of hatred. The truly great haters in world history have always been priests; likewise the most ingenious haters: other kinds of spirit hardly come into consideration when compared with the spirit of priestly vengefulness,

The powerlessness and its attendant hatred is the genesis of the most sinister yet most intelligent revenge upon the nobles. This most spiritual revenge is extracted by perverting the value system of the nobles: by labelling those in misery, poverty and subjugation as “good”[5] and those in positions of power and wealth, the nobility, as “evil”.

This inversion, this “revaluation”, is most visible in the triumph of the Christian religion.


From the trunk of this vengefulness, the profoundest and sublimest kind of hatred, grows the profoundest and sublimest kind of love, not as a resistenace to that hatred but as its (hatred’s) ultimate crown.

This Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate gospel of love, this “Redeemer” who brought blessedness and victory to the poor, the sick and the sinners — was he not this seduction in its most uncanny and irresistible form, a seduction and a bypath to precisely those Jewish values and new ideals?]


A “free spirit” might ask, ‘So, what if Christianity — even if built upon this lie — has triumphed? Aren’t we all intoxicated, benefited even, by the victory of this inversion of values? Why the fuss?’


The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment[6] itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge.

The morality of the nobility, “master-morality”, is that of triumphant self-affirmation. But the morality of the priests, “slave-morality”, is that of resentful self-negation. Master-morality is spontaneous, active and seeks its antithesis only for its own affirmation. Slave-morality is deliberate, reactive and depends upon its antithesis for its own existence.

The nobles find happiness in activity whereas the priests see happiness as “narcotic, drug, rest, peace, ‘sabbath’”, as passivity. The nobles are prone to impulse and recklessness, sometimes even to resentment, but these passions are quickly fulfilled, exhausted and they (the nobles) are free to pursue happiness. The priests, on the contrary, are prone to scheming. They bide their time and learn how not to forget, how to — for the moment, at least — remain humble. They are never liberated from resentment.


The noble man actively conceives himself as “good” and then creates the idea of “bad”. The priest, the man of resentment, in contrast, conceives the “evil enemy” and then attaches himself as the “good one” as an afterthought. In the former case, “bad” is unimportant — “an after-production, a side-issue, a contrasting shade” — but in the latter, “evil” is the definitive object — “the original thing, the beginning, the decisive deed”. How vast is the gap between bad and evil!

“Evil” in other words is the very basis of Christian morality.

The nobles have not always been the standard bearers of civilised behaviour. Quite the contrary, the noble races — “the beast(s) of prey, the splendid blond beast(s)” — have, thanks to their savage exploits when outside their societies, left to us the concept of the “barbarian”.

Now, assuming that the goal of culture has been to tame and civilize this “beast”, something approving might be said of the “instincts of reaction and ressentiment” that are the staple of the priests. These instincts might even be considered as the instruments of culture.

But it is the reverse that is true. You might justifiably fear the “blond beast” because, at least, that fear is followed by the possibility of admiration. But the bearers of these “instincts”, they who eternally seek revenge, represent the regression of mankind. Their instincts are a disgrace to man and a counter argument against, rather than instruments of, culture. The man of resentment — “tame, hopelessly mediocre, insipid” — cannot be feared at all and he is making Europe “stink”.


I can endure the sorrows and sufferings of the world. For that is my fate, the human condition. At the end of all that, the suffering, all I ask for is sight of a “man who justifies man”, something noble, something that inspires awe and fear. And I will be satisfied. But this celebration of mediocrity, this worship of the meek and “ill-constituted” figure of the European man — these are sights I cannot endure. I am tired of man.


The nobles are marked by strength and vigour. To brand them “evil”, as the priests do, because they are powerful and tend to dominate is akin to calling a bird of prey evil because it preys on hapless lambs. It is in their nature. You are welcome to dislike them, but it is no reason to blame them.

Strength cannot but express itself as strength. Yet, the priests often separate strength from expressions of strength and blame the strong for being strong. The “vengeful cunning of impotence”, based on this unfair charge, fabricates the lie that the “good” is one who does not “outrage, harm or attack” anybody but leaves “revenge to God”.]


Also, you only have to look into the masters of resentment to see how hollow their claims of “goodness” are. For they express a most sadistic account of what it means to be admitted into Paradise, that place of “eternal bliss”.[7]

Dante, I think committed a crude blunder when, with a terror-inspiring ingenuity, he placed above the gateway of his hell the inscription “I too was created by eternal love” — at any rate, there would be more justification for placing above the gateway to the Christian Paradise and it “eternal bliss” the inscription “I too was created by eternal hate” — provided a truth may be placed above the gateway to a lie!


The two moralities have been in struggle for millennia. This struggle is legible in history as ‘Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome’.[8] Judea has won the war. In Rome itself, Judea reigns as it does over half the world. Rome woke up during the Renaissance, but was soon put to sleep by Judea thanks to the Reformation.

The French Revolution too is a triumph of Judea over Rome. But its results have put Rome incarnate, Napoleon, on the throne.


How this struggle will end or whether it will ever end — I cannot say. The least we can do is to look beyond and to try to transcend “Good and Evil”.


[1] “An umbrella term which Nietzsche uses to designate empiricist psychology (Locke), Utilitarian ethics (Mill and Bentham) and the evolutionary theory of development (Darwin), al associated in his view with the science and scholarship of Victorian England.” (From the notes to the Oxford World Classics edition of The Genealogy, translated by Douglas Smith.)

[2] “The difference between the noble and servile, referring to both differences in social status and values.” (From the notes to the Oxford World Classics edition of The Genealogy, translated by Douglas Smith.)

[3] “The root of the word coined for this, esthlos, signifies one who is, who possesses reality, who is actual, who is true.”

[4] “[That] is how Theognis takes him to be and how he describes him.”

[5] The Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 3–12) is an obvious example.

[6]Ressentiment is the essence of slave morality, a purely reactive mode of feeling which simply negates the active and spontaneous affirmation of values on the part of the morality.” (From the notes to the Oxford World Classics edition of The Genealogy, translated by Douglas Smith.)

[7] Nietzsche quotes substantial passages from Aquinas and Tertullian which describe, in horrifying detail, the “spectacle” of suffering that the “blessed in the kingdom of heaven” will “delightfully” witness as the non-believers — illustrious monarchs, philosophers, poets —  are subjected to the infernal fires of Hell.

[8] Rome, of course, representing the “master morality” of “good and bad” and Judea, “slave morality” of “good and evil”.


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