On the Genealogy of Morals: Second Essay (“Guilt”, “Bad Conscience”, and Related Matters) by Friedrich Nietzsche — A Summary

Title: Second Essay (“Guilt”, “Bad Conscience”, and Related Matters)
Author: Friedrich Nietzsche
Book: Friedrich Nietzsche (1887) On the Genealogy of Morals trans. Walter Kaufmann and RJ Hollingdale (1989)

I & II

The creation of an animal with the right to make promises: this is the paradoxical task of nature. And she has succeeded.

But how could she succeed? How was the faculty of forgetfulness[1] overcome? Because promises depend upon man ‘not’ forgetting. And to make an animal that doesn’t forget, he has to be made, to a certain degree “necessary, uniform, like among like, regular and consequently calculable”.

Forgetfulness was overcome by cultivating a “real memory of the will”. This is an active desire not to forget, and not simply a passive ability to remember. This cultivation, the process of making man calculable, was made possible through the “morality of mores”.

The process has been at work for millennia and its “ripest fruit” is the “emancipated” sovereign individual. He is the free-willed, self-aware man — the man of “reason” and responsibility. He is the man who has the “right to make promises” and he is aware of his right. This awareness that the sovereign man has of this right, of his responsibility, is his conscience.


But remember that the cultivation of memory is no easy and harmless task. Fruits hang unripe and sour for a long time before they ripen! The impression of memory was effected through punishment[2] and the infliction of pain — “stoning, breaking on the wheel, piercing with stakes, quartering, boiling criminals in oil, flaying” are all techniques that enabled the creation of a “nation of thinkers” (Germany) — so that ideas are made “inextinguishable” and “unforgettable”, so that man can finally see “reason” and engage in “reflection”.

Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over the affects, the whole somber thing called reflection, all these prerogatives and showpieces of man: how dearly have they been bought! How much blood and cruelty lie at the bottom of all “good things”!


The moral concept of guilt is rooted in the material concept of debt. Punishment too is rooted in the idea of debt — that of the “sphere of legal obligations” or the contractual relationship between the creditor and debtor.[3] And it is this relationship that gives rise to the idea that everything has a price and that everything can be paid for. It is this idea that enables the cultivation of memory by enforcing it upon those who make promises, i.e., enter into contracts.

This idea of exchange or that of, to repeat what has already been said, the contractual relationship between the creditor and debtor, is universal and is found in even the most rudimentary societies. And it is in this sphere that arises the insight that repayment can be enforced through some surety — “body, life, wife, freedom” — over which the creditor would have full powers of humiliation and torture should the debtor default on his debt.

And finally, it is in this idea that “guilt and suffering” become entangled. The suffering of the defaulter — or the pleasure of the creditor — becomes compensation for guilt i.e., debt, the inability to repay what had been borrowed.[4]

The bloodshed and horrors, nay, the festivals, that this relationship between suffering and guilt led to in the past should not be concealed by the domesticity of the present.

To see others suffer does one good, to make others suffer even more: this is a hard saying but an ancient, mighty, human, all-too-human principle to which even the apes might subscribe; ... Without cruelty there is no festival: thus the longest and most ancient part of human history teaches — and in punishment there is so much that is festive! —

Those were “cheerful” days. It is only the soft and dyspeptic “angels” of today that finds these instincts repugnant. Suffering is not an argument against life. It is the seduction of life. What is repugnant is in fact not suffering as such but the “senselessness” — or “meaninglessness” — of suffering. This forced man to invent gods — “the friends of cruel spectacles” — who would then serve to give meaning to and justify suffering.


The community serves as a creditor to its members, the debtors, by giving them “protection, care, and peace”. If someone breaks his pledges to society, he is punished through pain of excommunication leaving him without protection or honour.

But as communities advance and become more powerful, punishment becomes moderate until the community becomes so powerful that punishment becomes, as it were, unimportant. The community sees itself in a position to let the culprit go unpunished. Mercy is born.


Justice does not emerge from ressentiment — that is, from reactive feelings. (For what does justice mean to the man driven by emotion? A wronged person has no space for thinking about what is just.) Rather, the genesis of justice lies in the institution of law. Law is a creation of the powerful who are clear-headed enough to see through the fog of reactive emotions and codify what counts as just and what is unjust. Justice is thus distanced from reactive personal emotions and tied to impersonal standards. Only after the instituting law can we talk about what is “just” or “unjust” meaningfully.


The origin and aim of punishment are not one and the same. The “purpose” of punishment should not be understood as the cause of its origin. The uses that are ascribed to punishment evolve over time.

Whatever exists, having somehow come to being, is again and again reinterpreted to new ends, taken over, transformed, and redirected by some power superior to it; all events in the organic world are a subduing, a becoming master, and all subduing and becoming master involves as fresh interpretation, an adaptation through which any previous “meaning” and “purpose” are necessarily obscured or even obliterated.

Also, evolution does not necessarily mean progress, much less progress towards a particular goal. To see purpose where there is none or, more correctly, where there are innumerable or to see “increasing strength and perfection” through adaptation[5] is to negate the very essence of life: the overarching will to power.


The techniques of punishment are relatively enduring but its purposes are, as already pointed out, fluid. There is a whole synthesis of purposes that can be ascribed to this fluid aspect of punishment so that it defies definition.[6]

Today it is impossible to say for certain why people are really punished: all concepts in which an entire process is semiotically concentrated elude definition; only that which has no history is definable.

All the more reason, then, to disregard the uninformed obsession with punishment as a form of awakening the feeling of guilt in a person. Punishment doesn’t awake guilt; rather, punishment deadens guilt. Punishment doesn’t weaken resolve: rather, it strengthens the power of resistance. And if punishment does awaken guilt and brings about self-abasement, is such a result even desirable?

People submit to punishment as they would to a volcano — out of a lack of choice. Punishment doesn’t make men better; it simply tames him. At best, it makes him prudent.


As man is separated from his animal life and thrust into the “state” (see next section), into society, he suffers unimaginably as he has to learn to think, infer and reason while his animal instincts — of freedom, hostility, cruelty and the will to power — lie unabated. These instincts, therefore, have to be repressed, internalised i.e., turned against himself. This is the origin of “bad conscience”.

Thus began the gravest and the uncanniest illness, from which humanity has not yet recovered, man’s suffering of man, of himself — the result of a forcible sundering of his animal past.


This separation was not a gradual nor an organic process but a sharp break instigated and brought to its end using violence by the “state”.

The “state” refers to “some pack of blonde beasts of prey” who have the ability to organise, dominate, and who arrive inexorably like fate. Bad conscience emerges not from these but out of their domineering actions which force the weak, the dominated, to scurry for cover and vent their frustration at themselves. Bad conscience is the instinct of freedom forcibly made latent.

And it is the repression of the instinct of freedom, this redirection of anger inwards rather than outwards, this denial of the self, “bad conscience” in short, that gives value to selflessness, self-sacrifice and the unegoistic.

Bad conscience, as the womb of all ideal and imaginative phenomena, also brought to light an abundance of strange new beauty and affirmation, and perhaps beauty itself. — after all, what would be “beautiful” if the contradiction had not first become conscious of itself, if the ugly had not first said to itself: “I am ugly”?


Bad conscience is an illness. What has made it reach such a terrible pitch (see next section)?  Ancestral debt. The idea of ancestral debt in which the present generation is indebted to its ancestors because, and so goes the argument, it is only through the sacrifices of the ancestors that the present generation exists. Over generations then, debt accumulates and payments have to be made in the form of “sacrifices, feasts, music, honours, obedience”. As the power of society increases, the esteem of the forefathers increases too until it increases to such an extent that they are turned to gods.

This sense of guilt, of being indebted to forbears or deities, has accumulated over millennia. The arrival of the Christian God as the foremost figure of godliness is a reflection of the maximum sense of guilt.


This sense of guilt has grown so much, the quantum of guilt accumulated so heavy, that only God, the creditor himself, would be able to repay it, by sacrificing His own begotten son at the cross. The internalisation of guilt, this bad conscience, becomes so great that it is turned outwards onto God himself!

This “psychical cruelty” is without equal. To will himself unatonable, and therefore to will himself eternally punished, to will all things as guilty, and then to will the ideal of a “holy God” compared to which he will always be unworthy — this is the state of man. What a miserable beast!

Oh this insane, pathetic beast — man! What ideas he has, what unnaturalness, what paroxysms of nonsense, what bestiality of thought erupts as soon as he is prevented just a little from being a beast in deed!


This sad affair need not lead to degradation of the imagination. The Greeks — may they be blessed! — have used gods for less nefarious ends. They have used gods to justify man and to project noble qualities, to ward off “bad conscience”.

Much blood has been shed, many lies have been sanctified and many shrines have been destroyed in the process of creating these “ideals”. Who will reverse this? Who can attempt to separate man from his bad conscience? The Antichristian, the Antinihilist.

As for me, I will stay silent. Only Zarathustra has a right, Zarathustra the godless.


[1] That active and positive faculty lacking which we will have “no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hope, no pride, no present”. Forgetfulness is what enables us to clear out things and make room for new ones

[2] “Pain is the most powerful aid to mnemonics.”

[3] The contemporary view on and justification of punishment that the criminal is responsible for, and therefore guilty of, his crime in so far as he could have acted otherwise is only a “late fruit” (III) because responsibility comes into being when the sovereign individual finally becomes ripe. For most of history, punishment was imposed simply out of anger at someone who caused injury as a form of reprisal. It had no connection to guilt. Instead it was based on the material concept of debt: the equivalence of injury (suffered by the victim/creditor) and pain (inflicted upon the criminal and debtor).

[4] I can’t understand this sudden equation of debt and guilt — he asks: “to what extent can suffering balance debts or (emphasis mine) guilt?”. Nietzsche asserts the idea that debt gave rise to punishments not out of guilt (V) but rather as a form of “requital”. How does being in debt become equivalent to being guilty? (I might have to reread the Genealogy yet again)

[5] This is an attack on the Darwinian theory of evolution.

[6] Nietzsche lists as many as 11 “meanings” that can be ascribed to punishment adding that a lot more could be added: “prevention, compensation, isolation, deterrence, repayment, expulsion, festival, making memory, payment for protection, compromise, war”.


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