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”.

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”.