Guilt, Bad Conscience, and Related Matters
To breed an animal that is entitled to make promises—is that not precisely the paradoxical task nature has set itself where human beings are concerned?Isn’t that the real problem of human beings? . . . The fact that this problem has to a great extent been solvedmust seem all the more astonishing to a person who knows how to appreciate fully the power which works against this promise-making, namely forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is not merely a vis interiae [a force of inertia], as superficial people think. Is it much rather an active capability to repress, something positive in the strongest sense, to which we can ascribe the fact that while we are digesting what we alone live through and experience and absorb into ourselves (we could call the process mental ingestion [Einverseelung]), we are conscious of what is going on as little as we are with the entire thousand-fold process which our bodily nourishment goes through (so-called physical ingestion [Einverleibung]). The doors and windows of consciousness are shut temporarily; they remain undisturbed by the noise and struggle with which the underworld of our functional organs keeps working for and against one another; a little stillness, a little tabula rasa [blank slate] of the consciousness, so that there will again be room for something new, above all, for the nobler functions and officials, for ruling, thinking ahead, determining what to do (for our organism is arranged as an oligarchy)—that is, as I said, the use of active forgetfulness, a porter at the door, so to speak, a custodian of psychic order, quiet, etiquette. From that we can see at once how, if forgetfulness were not present, there could be no happiness, no cheerfulness, no hoping, no pride, no present. The man in whom this repression apparatus is harmed and not working properly we can compare to a dyspeptic (and not just compare)—he is “finished” with nothing. . . . Now, this particular animal, which is necessarily forgetful, in which forgetfulness is present as a force, as a form of strong health, has had an opposing capability bred into it, a memory, with the help of which, in certain cases, forgetfulness will cease to function—that is, for those cases where promises are to be made.This is in no way a merely passive inability ever to be rid of an impression once it has been etched into the mind, nor is it merely indigestion over a word one has pledged at a particular time and which one can no longer be over and done with. No, it’s an active wish not to be free of the matter again, an ongoing and continuing desire for what one willed at a particular time, a real memory of one’s will, so that between the original “I will,” “I will do,” and the actual discharge of the will, its action, a world of strange new things, circumstances, even acts of the will can be interposed without a second thought and not break this long chain of the will.But how much all that presupposes!In order to organize the future in this manner, human beings must have first learned to separate necessary events from chance events, to think in terms of cause and effect, to see distant events as if they were present, to anticipate them, to set goals and the means to reach them with certainty, to develop a capability for figures and calculations in general—and for that to occur, a human being must necessarily have first himself become something one could predict, something bound by regular rules, even in the way he imagined himself to himself, so that finally he is able to act like someone who makes promises—he can make himself into a pledge for the future!
Precisely that development is the long history of the origin of responsibility. That task of breeding an animal which is permitted to make promises contains within it, as we have already grasped, as a condition and prerequisite, the more precise task of first making a human being necessarily uniform to some extent, one among others like him, regular and consequently predictable. The immense task involved in this, what I have called the “morality of custom” (cf. Daybreak 9, 14, 16)—the essential work of a man on his own self in the longest-lasting age of the human race, his entire prehistorical work, derives its meaning, its grand justification, from the following point, no matter how much hardship, tyranny, monotony, and idiocy it also manifested: with the help of the morality of custom and the social strait jacket, the human being was made truly predictable. Let’s position ourselves, by contrast, at the end of this immense process, in the place where the tree at last yields its fruit, where society and the morality of custom finally bring to light the end for which they were simply the means: then we find, as the ripest fruit on that tree, the sovereign individual, something which resembles only itself, which has broken loose again from the morality of custom, the autonomous individual beyond morality (for “autonomous” and “moral” are mutually exclusive terms), in short, the human being who possesses his own independent and enduring will, who is entitled to make promises—and in him a consciousness quivering in every muscle, proud of what has finally been achieved and has become a living embodiment in him, a real consciousness of power and freedom, a feeling of completion for human beings generally. This man who has become free, who really is entitled to make promises, this master of free will, this sovereign—how is he not to realize the superiority he enjoys over everything which is not permitted to make a promise and make pledges on its own behalf, knowing how much trust, how much fear, and how much respect he creates—he “is worthy” of all three—and how, with this mastery over himself, he has necessarily been given in addition mastery over his circumstances, over nature, and over all less reliable creatures with a shorter will? The “free” man, the owner of an enduring unbreakable will, by possessing this, also acquires his own standard of value: he looks out from himself at others and confers respect or contempt. And just as it will be necessary for him to honour those like him, the strong and dependable (who are entitled to make promises)—in other words, everyone who makes promises like a sovereign, seriously, rarely, and slowly, who is sparing with his trust, who honours another when he does trust, who gives his word as something reliable, because he knows he is strong enough to remain upright even when opposed by misfortune, even when “opposed by fate”—in just the same way it will be necessary for him to keep his foot ready to kick the scrawny unreliable men, who make promises without being entitled to, and to hold his cane ready for the liar, who breaks his word in the very moment it comes out of his mouth. The proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness of this rare freedom, of this power over oneself and destiny, has become internalized into the deepest parts of him and grown instinctual, has become an instinct, a dominating instinct:—what will he call it, this dominating instinct, assuming that he finds he needs a word for it? There’s no doubt: the sovereign man calls this instinct his conscience.
His conscience? . . . To begin with, we can conjecture that the idea “conscience,” which we are encountering here in its highest, almost perplexing form, has a long history and changing developmental process behind it already. To be entitled to pledge one’s word, and to do it with pride, and also to be permitted to say “Yes” to oneself—that is a ripe fruit, as I have mentioned, but it is also a late fruit:—for what a long stretch of time this fruit must have hung tart and sour on the tree! And for an even much longer time it was impossible to see any such fruit—no one could have promised it would appear, even if everything about the tree was certainly getting ready for it and growing in that very direction!—“How does one create a memory for the human animal? How does one stamp something like that into this partly dull, partly flickering, momentary understanding, this living embodiment of forgetfulness, so that it stays current?” . . . This ancient problem, as you can imagine, was not resolved right away with tender answers and methods. Indeed, there is perhaps nothing more fearful and more terrible in the entire prehistory of human beings than the technique for developing his memory. “We burn something in so that it remains in the memory. Only something which never ceases to cause pain remains in the memory”—that is a leading principle of the most ancient (unfortunately also the longest) psychology on earth. We might even say that everywhere on earth nowadays where there is still solemnity, seriousness, mystery, and gloomy colours in the lives of men and people, something of that terror continues its work, the fear with which in earlier times everywhere on earth people made promises, pledged their word, made a vow. The past, the longest, deepest, most severe past, breathes on us and surfaces in us when we become “solemn.” When the human being considered it necessary to make a memory for himself, it never happened without blood, martyrs, and sacrifices, the most terrible sacrifices and pledges (among them the sacrifice of the first born), the most repulsive self-mutilations (for example, castration), the cruellest forms of ritual in all the religious cults (and all religions are in their deepest foundations systems of cruelty)—all that originates in that instinct which discovered in pain the most powerful means of helping to develop the memory. In a certain sense all asceticism belongs here: a couple of ideas are to be made indissoluble, omnipresent, unforgettable, “fixed,” in order to hypnotize the entire nervous and intellectual system through these “fixed ideas”—and the ascetic procedures and forms of life are the means whereby these ideas are freed from jostling around with all the other ideas, in order to make them “unforgettable.” The worse humanity’s “memory” was, the more terrible its customs have always appeared. The harshness of the laws of punishment, in particular, provide a standard for measuring how much trouble people went to in order to triumph over forgetfulness and to maintain a present awareness of a few primitive demands of social living together for this slave of momentary feelings and desires. We Germans certainly do not think of ourselves as an especially cruel and hard-hearted people, even less as particularly careless people who live only in the present. But just take a look at our old penal code in order to understand how much trouble it takes on this earth to breed a “People of Thinkers” (by that I mean the European people among whom today we still find a maximum of trust, seriousness, tastelessness, and practicality, and who, with these characteristics, have a right to breed all sorts of European mandarins). These Germans have used terrible means to make themselves a memory in order to attain mastery over their vulgar basic instincts and their brutal crudity: think of the old German punishments, for example, stoning (—the legend even lets the mill stone fall on the head of the guilty person), breaking on the wheel (the most characteristic invention and specialty of the German genius in the realm of punishment!), impaling on a stake, ripping people apart or stamping them to death with horses (“quartering”), boiling the criminal in oil or wine (still done in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), the well-loved practice of flaying (“cutting flesh off in strips”), carving flesh out of the chest, and probably covering the offender with honey and leaving him to the flies in the burning sun. With the help of such images and procedures people finally retained five or six “I will not’s” in the memory, and, so far as these precepts were concerned, they gave their word in order to live with the advantages of society—and it’s true! With the assistance of this sort of memory people finally came to “reason”!—Ah, reason, seriousness, mastery over emotions, this whole gloomy business called reflection, all these privileges and showpieces of human beings: how expensive they were!How much blood and horror is at the bottom of all “good things”! . . .
But then how did that other “gloomy business,” the consciousness of guilt, the whole “bad conscience” come into the world?—And with this we turn back to our genealogists of morality. I’ll say it once more—or have I not said anything about it yet?—they are useless. With their own merely “modern” experience extending through only a brief period [fünf Spannen lange], with no knowledge of and no desire to know the past, even less a historical instinct, a “second sight”— something necessary at this very point—they nonetheless pursue the history of morality. That must justifiably produce results which have a less than tenuous relationship to the truth. Have these genealogists of morality up to now allowed themselves to dream, even remotely, that, for instance, that major moral principle “guilt” [Schuld] derived its origin from the very materialistic idea “debt” [Schulden]? Or that punishment developed as a repayment, completely without reference to any assumption about freedom or lack of freedom of the will?—and did so, by contrast, to the point where it always first required a high degree of human development so that the animal “man” began to make those much more primitive distinctions between “intentional,” “negligent,” “accidental,” “responsible,” and their opposites and bring them to bear when meting out punishment? That idea, nowadays so trite, apparently so natural, so unavoidable, which has even had to serve as the explanation how the feeling of justice in general came into existence on earth, “The criminal deserves punishment because he could have acted otherwise,” this idea is, in fact, an extremely late achievement, indeed, a sophisticated form of human judgment and decision making. Anyone who moves this idea back to the beginnings is sticking his coarse fingers inappropriately into the psychology of older humanity. For the most extensive period of human history, punishment was certainly not meted out because people held the instigator of evil responsible for his actions, and thus it was not assumed that only the guilty party should be punished:—it was much more as it still is now when parents punish their children out of anger over some harm they have suffered, anger vented on the perpetrator—but anger restrained and modified through the idea that every injury has some equivalent and that compensation for it could, in fact, be paid out, even if that is through the pain of the perpetrator. Where did this primitive, deeply rooted, and perhaps by now ineradicable idea derive its power, the idea of an equivalence between punishment and pain? I have already given away the answer: in the contractual relationship between creditor and debtor, which is, in general, as ancient as the idea of “legal subject” and which, for its part, refers back to the basic forms of buying, selling, bartering, trading, and exchanging goods.
It’s true that recalling this contractual relationship arouses, as we might initially expect from what I have observed above, all sorts of suspicion of and opposition to older humanity, which established or allowed it. It’s at this particular moment that people make promises. At this very point the pertinent issue is to create a memory for the person who makes a promise, so that precisely here, we can surmise, there will exist a place for harshness, cruelty, and pain. In order to inspire trust in his promise to pay back, in order to give his promise a guarantee of its seriousness and sanctity, in order to impress on his own conscience the idea of paying back as a duty, an obligation, the debtor, by virtue of a contract, pledges to the creditor, in the event that he does not pay, something else that he still “owns,” something else over which he still exercises power, for example, his body or his woman or his freedom or even his life (or, under certain religious conditions, even his blessedness, the salvation of his soul, finally even his peace in the grave, as was the case in Egypt, where the dead body of the debtor even in the tomb found no peace from the creditor—and among the Egyptians, in particular, such peace certainly mattered). That means that the creditor could inflict all kinds of ignominy and torture on the body of the debtor, for instance, slice off the body as much as seemed appropriate for the size of the debt:—and this point of view early on and everywhere gave rise to precise, sometimes horrific estimates going into the smallest detail, legally established estimates about individual limbs and body parts. I consider it already a step forward, as evidence of a freer conception of the law, something which calculates more grandly, a more Roman idea of justice, when Rome’s Twelve Tables of Laws decreed it was all the same, no matter how much or how little the creditor cut off in such cases: “let it not be thought a crime if they cut off more or less.”* Let us clarify for ourselves the logic of this whole method of compensation—it is weird enough. The equivalency is given in this way: instead of an advantage making up directly for the harm (hence, instead of compensation in gold, land, possessions of some sort or another), the creditor is given a kind of pleasure as repayment and compensation—the pleasure of being allowed to discharge his power on a powerless person without having to think about it, the delight in “de fair le mal pour le plaisir de le faire” [doing wrong for the pleasure of doing it], the enjoyment of violation. This enjoyment is more highly prized the lower and baser the creditor stands in the social order, and it can easily seem to him a delicious mouthful, in fact, a foretaste of a higher rank. By means of the “punishment” of the debtor, the creditor participates in a right belonging to the masters. Finally he also for once comes to the lofty feeling of despising a being as someone “beneath him,” as someone he is entitled to mistreat—or at least, in the event that the real force of punishment, of executing punishment, has already been transferred to the “authorities,” the feeling of seeing the debtor despised and mistreated. The compensation thus consists of an order for and a right to cruelty.
In this area, that is, in the laws of obligation, the world of the moral concepts “guilt,” “conscience,” “duty,” and “sanctity of obligation” has its origin—its beginning, like the beginning of everything great on earth, was watered thoroughly and for a long time with blood. And can we not add that this world deep down has never again been completely free of a certain smell of blood and torture—(not even with old Kant whose categorical imperative stinks of cruelty)? In addition, here that weird knot linking the ideas of “guilt and suffering,” which perhaps has become impossible to undo, was first knit together. Let me pose the question once more: to what extent can suffering be a compensation for “debts”? To the extent that making someone suffer provides the highest degree of pleasure, to the extent that the person hurt by the debt, in exchange for the injury as well as for the distress caused by the injury, got an extraordinary offsetting pleasure: creating suffering—a real celebration, something that, as I’ve said, was valued all the more, the greater it contradicted the rank and social position of the creditor. I have been speculating here, for it’s difficult to see through to the foundations of such subterranean things, quite apart from the fact that it’s embarrassing. And anyone who crudely throws into the middle of all this the idea of “revenge” has buried and dimmed his insights rather than illuminated them (—revenge itself, in fact, simply takes us back to the same problem: “How can making someone suffer give us a feeling of satisfaction?”). It seems to me that the delicacy and, even more, the Tartufferie [hypocrisy] of tame house pets (I mean modern man, I mean us) resist imagining with all our power how much cruelty contributes to the great celebratory joy of older humanity, as, in fact, an ingredient mixed into almost all their enjoyments and, from another perspective, how naive, how innocent, their need for cruelty appears, how they fundamentally think of its particular “disinterested malice” (or to use Spinoza’s words, the sympathia malevolens [malevolent sympathy]) as a normal human characteristic:—and hence as something to which their conscience says a heartfelt Yes!* A more deeply penetrating eye might still notice, even today, enough of this most ancient and most fundamental celebratory human joy. In Beyond Good and Evil, 229 (even earlier in Daybreak, 18, 77, 113), I pointed a cautious finger at the constantly growing spiritualization and “deification” of cruelty, which runs through the entire history of higher culture (and, in a significant sense, even constitutes that culture). In any case, it’s not so long ago that people wouldn’t think of an aristocratic wedding and folk festival in the grandest style without executions, tortures, or something like an auto-da-fé [burning at the stake], and similarly no noble household lacked creatures on whom people could vent their malice and cruel taunts without a second thought (—remember, for instance, Don Quixote at the court of the duchess; today we read all of Don Quixote with a bitter taste on the tongue; it’s almost an ordeal. In so doing, we would become very foreign, very obscure to the author and his contemporaries—they read it with a fully clear conscience as the most cheerful of books. They almost died laughing at it). Watching suffering makes people feel good; creating suffering makes them feel even better—that’s a harsh principle, but an old, powerful, and human, all-too-human major principle, which, by the way, even the apes might perhaps agree with as well. For people say that, in thinking up bizarre cruelties, the apes already anticipate a great many human actions and are, as it were, an “audition.” Without cruelty there is no celebration: that’s what the oldest and longest human history teaches us—and with punishment, too, there is so much celebration!
With these ideas, by the way, I have no desire whatsoever to give our pessimists grist for their discordant mills grating with weariness of life. On the contrary, I want to state very clearly that in that period when human beings had not yet become ashamed of their cruelty, life on earth was happier than it is today, now that we have our pessimists. The darkening of heaven over men’s heads has always increased alarmingly in proportion to the growth of human beings’ shame before human beings. The tired, pessimistic look, the mistrust of the riddle of life, the icy denial stemming from disgust with life—these are not the signs of the wickedest eras of human beings. It’s much more the case that they first come to light as the swamp plants they are when the swamp to which they belong is there—I mean the sickly mollycoddling and moralizing, thanks to which the animal “man” finally learns to feel shame about all his instincts. On his way to becoming an “angel” (not to use a harsher word here), man cultivated for himself that upset stomach and that furry tongue which not only made the joy and innocence of the animal repulsive but also made life itself distasteful:—so that now and then he stands there before himself, holds his nose, and with Pope Innocent III disapproves and makes a catalogue of his nastiness (“conceived in filth, disgustingly nourished in his mother’s body, developed out of evil material stuff, stinking horribly, a secretion of spit, urine, and excrement”).* Now, when suffering always has to march out as the first among the arguments against existence, as its most serious question mark, it’s good for us to remember the times when people judged things the other way around, because they couldn’t do without making people suffer and saw a first-class magic in it, a really tempting enticement for living. Perhaps, and let me say this as a consolation for the delicate, at that time pain did not yet hurt as much as it does nowadays. That at least could be the conclusion of a doctor who had treated a Negro (taking the latter as a representative of prehistorical man) for a bad case of inner inflammation, which drives the European, even one with the best constitution, almost to despair, but which does not have the same effect on the Negro. (The graph of the human sensitivity to pain seems in fact to sink down remarkably and almost immediately after one has moved beyond the first ten thousand or ten million of the top members of the higher culture. And I personally have no doubt that, in comparison with one painful night of a single hysterical well-educated female, the total suffering of all animals which up to now have been interrogated by the knife in search of scientific answers is simply not worth considering). Perhaps it is even permissible to concede the possibility that that pleasure in cruelty does not really need to have died out. It would only require a certain sublimation and subtlety, in proportion to the way pain hurts more nowadays; in other words, it would have to appear translated into the imaginative and spiritual and embellished with nothing but names so unobjectionable that they arouse no suspicion in even the most delicate hypocritical conscience (“tragic pity” is one such name; another is “les nostalgies de la croix” [nostalgia for the cross]). What truly enrages people about suffering is not the suffering itself, but the meaninglessness of suffering. But neither for the Christian, who has interpreted into suffering an entire secret machinery for salvation, nor for the naive men of older times, who understood how to interpret all suffering in relation to the spectator or to the person inflicting the suffering, was there generally any such meaningless suffering. In order for the hidden, undiscovered, unwitnessed suffering to be removed from the world and for people to be able to deny it honestly, they were then almost compelled to invent gods and intermediate beings at all levels, high and low—briefly put, something that also roamed in hidden places, that also looked into the darkness, and that would not readily permit an interesting painful spectacle to escape its attention. For with the help of such inventions life then understood and has always understood how to justify itself by a trick, how to justify its “evil.” Nowadays perhaps it requires other helpful inventions for that purpose (for example, life as riddle, life as a problem of knowledge). “Every evil a glimpse of which edifies a god is justified”: that’s how the prehistorical logic of feeling rang out—and was that really confined only to prehistory? The gods conceived of as friends of cruel spectacle—O how widely this primitive idea still rises up even within our European humanity! We might well seek advice from, say, Calvin and Luther on this point. At any rate it is certain that even the Greeks knew of no more acceptable snack to offer their gods to make them happy than the joys of cruelty. With what sort of expression, do you think, did Homer allow his gods to look down on the fates of men? What final sense was there basically in the Trojan War and similar tragic terrors? We cannot entertain the slightest doubts about this: they were intended as celebrations for the gods: and, to the extent that the poet is in these matters more “godlike” than other men, as festivals for the poets as well. . . . Later the Greek moral philosophers in the same way imagined the eyes of god no differently, still looking down on the moral struggles, on heroism and the self-mutilation of the virtuous: the “Hercules of duty” was on a stage, and he knew he was there. Without someone watching, virtue for this race of actors was something entirely inconceivable. Surely such a daring and fateful philosophical invention, first made for Europe at that time, the invention of the “free will,” of the absolutely spontaneous nature of human beings in matters of good and evil, was created above all to justify the idea that the interest of gods in men, in human virtue, could never run out? On this earthly stage there was never to be any lack of really new things, really unheard of suspense, complications, catastrophes. A world conceived of as perfectly deterministic would have been predictable to the gods and therefore also soon boring for them—reason enough for these friends of the gods, the philosophers, not to ascribe such a deterministic world to their gods! All of ancient humanity is full of sensitive consideration for “the spectator,” for a truly public, truly visible world, which did not know how to imagine happiness without dramatic performances and festivals. And, as I have already said, in great punishment there is also so much celebration!
To resume the path of our enquiry, the feeling of guilt, of personal obligation has, as we saw, its origin in the oldest and most primitive personal relationship there is, in the relationship between seller and buyer, creditor and debtor. Here for the first time one person moved up against another person, here an individual measured himself against another individual. We have found no civilization still at such a low level that something of this relationship is not already perceptible. To set prices, to measure values, to think up equivalencies, to exchange things—that preoccupied man’s very first thinking to such a degree that in a certain sense it’s what thinking itself is. Here the oldest form of astuteness was bred; here, too, we can assume are the first beginnings of man’s pride, his feeling of pre-eminence in relation to other animals. Perhaps our word “man” (manas) continues to express directly something of this feeling of the self: the human being describes himself as a being which assesses values, which values and measures, as the “inherently calculating animal.” Selling and buying, together with their psychological attributes, are even older than the beginnings of any form of social organizations and groupings; out of the most rudimentary form of personal legal rights the budding feeling of exchange, contract, guilt, law, duty, and compensation was instead first transferred to the crudest and earliest social structures (in their relationships with similar social structures), along with the habit of comparing power with power, of measuring, of calculating. The eye was now adjusted to this perspective, and with that awkward consistency characteristic of thinking in more ancient human beings, hard to get started but then inexorably moving forward in the same direction, people soon reached the great generalization: “Each thing has its price, everything can be paid off”—the oldest and most naive moral principle of justice, the beginning of all “good nature,” all “fairness,” all “good will,” all “objectivity” on earth. Justice at this first stage is good will among those approximately equal in power to come to terms with each other, to “come to an agreement” again with each other by compensation—and in relation to those less powerful, to compel them to arrive at some settlement among themselves.—
Always measured by the standard of prehistory (a prehistory which, by the way, is present at all times or is capable of returning), the community also stands in relation to its members in that important basic relationship of the creditor to his debtor. People live in a community. They enjoy the advantages of a community (and what advantages they are! Nowadays we sometimes underestimate them); they live protected, cared for, in peace and trust, without worries concerning certain injuries and enmities from which the man outside the community, the “man without peace,” is excluded—a German understands what “misery” [Elend] or êlend [other country] originally means—and how people pledged themselves to and entered into obligations with the community bearing in mind precisely these injuries and enmities. What will happen with an exception to this case? The community, the defrauded creditor, will see that it gets paid as well as it can—on that people can rely. The issue here is least of all the immediate damage which the offender has caused. Setting this to one side, the lawbreaker [Verbrecher] is above all a “breaker” [Brecher], a breaker of contracts and a breaker of his word against the totality, with respect to all the good features and advantages of the communal life in which, up to that point, he has had a share. The lawbreaker is a debtor who does not merely not pay back the benefits and advances given to him, but who even attacks his creditor. So from this point on not only does he forfeit, as is reasonable, all these good things and benefits—but he is also now reminded what these good things are all about. The anger of the injured creditor, the community, gives him back again to the wild outlawed condition, from which he was earlier protected. It pushes him away from itself—and now every form of hostility can vent itself on him. At this stage of cultural behaviour “punishment” is simply the copy, the mimus, of the normal conduct towards the hated, disarmed enemy who has been thrown down, who has forfeited not only all legal rights and protection but also all mercy; hence it is a case of the rights of war and the victory celebration of vae victis [woe to the conquered] in all its ruthlessness and cruelty:—which accounts for the fact that war itself (including the warlike cult of sacrifice) has given us all the forms in which punishment has appeared in history.
As it acquires more power, a community no longer considers the crimes of the single individual so serious, because it no longer is entitled to consider him as dangerous and unsettling for the existence of the totality as much as it did before. The wrongdoer is no longer “outlawed” and thrown out, and the common anger is no longer permitted to vent itself on him without restraint to the same extent as earlier— instead the wrongdoer from now on is carefully protected by the community against this anger, especially from that of the immediately injured person, and is taken into protective custody. The compromise with the anger of those particularly affected by the wrong doing, and thus the effort to localize the case and to avert a wider or even a general participation and unrest, the attempts to find equivalents and to settle the whole business (the compositio), above all the desire, appearing with ever-increasing clarity, to consider every crime as, in some sense or other, capable of being paid off, and thus, at least to a certain extent, to separate the criminal and his crime from each other—those are the characteristics stamped more and more clearly on the further development of criminal law. If the power and the self-confidence of a community keep growing, the criminal law also grows constantly milder. Every weakening and deeper jeopardizing of the community brings its harsher forms of criminal law to light once again. The “creditor” has always became proportionally more humane as he has become richer. Finally the amount of his wealth even becomes measured by how much damage he can sustain without suffering from it. It would not be impossible to imagine a society with a consciousness of its own power which allowed itself the most privileged luxury which it can have—letting its criminals go without punishment. “Why should I really bother about my parasites?” it could then say. “May they live and prosper; for that I am still sufficiently strong!” . . . Justice, which started with “Everything is capable of being paid for; everything must be paid off” ends at that point, by shutting its eyes and letting the person incapable of payment go free—it ends, as every good thing on earth ends, by doing away with itself. This self-negation of justice: we know what a beautiful name it calls itself—mercy. It goes without saying that mercy remains the privilege of the most powerful man, or even better, his beyond the law.
A critical comment here about a recently published attempt to find the origin of justice in a completely different place—that is, in ressentiment. But first a word in the ear of the psychologists, provided that they have any desire to study ressentiment itself up close for once: this plant grows most beautifully nowadays among anarchists and anti-Semites; in addition, it blooms, as it always has, in hidden places, like the violet, although it has a different fragrance.* And since like always has to emerge necessarily from like, it is not surprising to see attempts coming forward again from just such circles, as they have already done many times before—see above, Section 14 [First Essay]—to sanctify revenge under the name of justice—as if justice were basically only a further development of a feeling of being injured—and to bring belated honour to reactive emotions generally, all of them, using the idea of revenge. With this last point I personally take the least offence. It even seems to me a service, so far as the entire biological problem is concerned (in connection with which the worth of those emotions has been underestimated up to now). The only thing I am calling attention to is the fact that it is the very spirit of ressentiment out of which this new emphasis on scientific fairness grows (which favours hate, envy, resentment, suspicion, rancour, and revenge). This “scientific fairness,” that is, ceases immediately and gives way to tones of mortal enmity and prejudice as soon as it deals with another group of emotions which, it strikes me, have a much higher biological worth than those reactive ones and which therefore have earned the right to be scientifically assessed and respected first—namely, the truly active emotions, like desire for mastery, acquisitiveness, and so on (E. Dühring, The Value of Life: A Course in Philosophy, the whole book really).* So much against this tendency in general. But in connection with Dühring’s single principle that we have to seek the homeland of justice in the land of the reactive feeling, we must, for love of the truth, rudely turn this around by setting out a different principle: the last territory to be conquered by the spirit of justice is the land of the reactive emotions! If it is truly the case that the just man remains just even towards someone who has injured him (and not merely cold, moderate, strange, indifferent: being just is always a positive attitude), if under the sudden attack of personal injury, ridicule, and suspicion, the gaze of the lofty, clear objectivity of the just and judging eye, as profound as it is benevolent, does not itself grow dark, well, that’s a piece of perfection and the highest mastery on earth—even something that it would be wise for people not to expect here; in any event, they should not believe in it too easily. It’s certainly true that, on average, among the most just people themselves even a small dose of hostility, malice, and insinuation is enough to make them see red and chase fairness out of their eyes. The active, aggressive, over-reaching human being is still placed a hundred steps closer to justice than the reactive person. For him it is simply not necessary in the slightest to estimate an object falsely and with bias, the way the reactive man does and must do. Thus, as a matter of fact, at all times the aggressive human being, as the stronger, braver, more noble man, has had on his side a better conscience as well as a more independent eye; by contrast, we can already guess who generally has the invention of “bad conscience” on his conscience—the man of ressentiment! Finally, let’s look around in history: up to now in what area has the whole implementation of law in general as well as the essential need for law been at home on earth? Could it be in the area of the reactive human beings? That is entirely wrong. It is much more the case that it’s been at home with the active, strong, spontaneous, and aggressive men. Historically considered, the law on earth—let me say this to the annoyance of the above-mentioned agitator (who once even confessed about himself “The doctrine of revenge runs through all my work and efforts as the red thread of justice”)—represents that very struggle against the reactive feelings, the war with them on the part of active and aggressive powers, which have partly used up their strength to put a halt to or to restrain the excess of reactive pathos and to compel some settlement with it. Wherever justice is practised, wherever justice is upheld, we see a stronger power in relation to a weaker power standing beneath it (whether with groups or individuals), seeking ways to bring an end among the latter to the senseless rage of ressentiment, partly by dragging the object of ressentiment out of the hands of revenge, partly by setting in the place of revenge a battle against the enemies of peace and order, partly by coming up with compensation, proposing it, under certain circumstances making it compulsory, partly by establishing certain equivalents for injuries as a norm, into which from now on ressentiment is directed once and for all. The most decisive factor, however, which the highest power carries out and sets in place against the superior numbers of the feelings of hostility and animosity—something that power always does as soon as it is somehow strong enough to do it—is to set up law, the imperative explanation of those things which, in its own eyes, are generally considered allowed and legal and things which are considered forbidden and illegal, while after the establishment of the law, the authorities treat attacks and arbitrary acts of individuals or entire groups as an outrage against the law, as rebellion against the highest power itself, and they steer the feeling of those beneath them away from the immediate damage caused by such outrages and thus, in the long run, achieve the reverse of what all revenge desires, which sees only the viewpoint of the injured party and considers only that valid. From now on, the eye becomes trained to evaluate actions always impersonally, even the eye of the harmed party itself (although this would be the very last thing to occur, as I have remarked earlier).—Consequently, only with the setting up of the law is there a “just” and “unjust” (and not, as Dühring will have it, from the time of the injurious action). To talk of just and unjust in themselves has no sense whatsoever; it’s obvious that in themselves harming, oppressing, exploiting, destroying cannot be “unjust,” inasmuch as life essentially works that way, that is, in its basic functions it harms, oppresses, exploits, and destroys, and cannot be conceived at all without this character. We have to acknowledge something even more disturbing: the fact that from the highest biological standpoint, conditions of justice must always be only exceptional conditions, partial restrictions on the basic will to live, which is set on power; they are subordinate to the total purpose of this will as individual means, that is, as means to create larger units of power. A legal system conceived of as sovereign and universal, not as a means in the struggle of power complexes, but as a means against all struggles in general, something along the lines of Dühring’s communist cliché in which each will must be considered as equal to every will, that would be a principle hostile to life, a destroyer and dissolver of human beings, an assassination attempt on the future of human beings, a sign of exhaustion, a secret path to nothingness.—
Here one more word concerning the origin and purpose of punishment—two problems which are separate or should be separate. Unfortunately people normally throw them together into one. How do the previous genealogists of morality deal with this issue? Naively—the way they have always worked. They find some “purpose” or other for punishment, for example, revenge or deterrence, then in a simple way set this purpose at the beginning as the causa fiendi [creative cause] of punishment and—they’re finished. The “purpose in law,” however, is the very last idea we should use in the history of the emergence of law. It is much rather the case that for all forms of history there is no more important principle than that one which we reach with such difficulty but which we also really should reach—namely that what causes a particular thing to arise and the final utility of that thing, its actual use and arrangement in a system of purposes, are separate toto coelo [by all the heavens, i.e., absolutely] from each other, that something existing, which has somehow come to its present state, will again and again be interpreted by the higher power over it from a new perspective, appropriated in a new way, reorganized for and redirected to new uses, that all events in the organic world involve overpowering, acquiring mastery and that, in turn, all overpowering and acquiring mastery involve a new interpretation, a readjustment, in which the “sense” and “purpose” up to then must necessarily be obscured or entirely erased. No matter how well we have understood the usefulness of some physiological organ or other (or a legal institution, a social custom, a political practice, some style in the arts or in a religious cult), we have still not, in that process, grasped anything about its origin—no matter how uncomfortable and unpleasant this may sound in elderly ears. From time immemorial people have believed that in demonstrable purposes, in the usefulness of a thing, a form, or an institution, they could also understand the reason it came into existence—the eye as something made to see, the hand as something made to grasp. So people also imagined punishment as invented to punish. But all purposes, all uses, are only signs that a will to power has become master over something with less power and has stamped on it its own meaning of some function, and the entire history of a “thing,” an organ, a practice can by this process be seen as a continuing chain of signs of constantly new interpretations and adjustments, whose causes do not even need to be connected to each other—in some circumstances they rather follow and take over from each other by chance. Consequently, the “development” of a thing, a practice, or an organ has nothing to do with its progressus [progress] towards a single goal, even less is it the logical and shortest progressus reached with the least expenditure of power and resources—but rather the sequence of more or less profound, more or less mutually independent processes of overpowering which take place on that thing, together with the resistance which arises against that overpowering each time, the changes of form which have been attempted for the purpose of defence and reaction, as well as the results of successful counter-measures. Form is fluid; the “meaning,” however, is even more so. . . . Even within each individual organism things are no different: with every essential growth in the totality, the “meaning” of the individual organ also shifts—in certain circumstances its partial destruction, a reduction of its numbers (for example, through the obliteration of intermediate structures) can be a sign of growing power and perfection. What I wanted to say is this: the partial loss of utility, decline, and degeneration, the loss of meaning, and purposiveness, in short, death, also belong to the conditions of a real progressus [progress], which always appears in the form of a will and a way to a greater power and always establishes itself at the expense of a huge number of smaller powers. The size of a “step forward” can even be estimated by a measure of everything that had to be sacrificed to it. The humanity as mass sacrificed for the benefit of a single stronger species of man— that would be a step forward . . . . I emphasize this major point of view about historical methodology all the more since it basically runs counter to the very instinct which presently rules and to contemporary taste, which would rather still go along with the absolute contingency, even the mechanical meaninglessness, of all events rather than with the theory of a will to power playing itself out in everything that happens. The democratic idiosyncrasy of being hostile to everything which rules and wants to rule, the modern hatred of rulers [Misarchismus] (to make up a bad word for a bad thing) has gradually transformed itself into and dressed itself up as something spiritual, of the highest spirituality, to such an extent that nowadays step by step it is already infiltrating the strictest, apparently most objective scientific research, and is allowed to infiltrate it. Indeed, it seems to me already to have attained mastery over all of physiology and the understanding of life, to their detriment, as is obvious, because it has conjured away from them their fundamental concept, that of real activity. By contrast, under the pressure of this idiosyncrasy we push “adaptation” into the foreground, that is, a second-order activity, a mere reactivity; in fact, people have defined life itself as an always purposeful inner adaptation to external circumstances (Herbert Spencer). But that simply misjudges the essence of life, its will to power. That overlooks the first priority of the spontaneous, aggressive, over-reaching, re-interpreting, re-directing, and shaping powers, after whose effects the “adaptation” then follows. Thus, the governing role of the highest functions in an organism itself, the ones in which the will for living appear active and creative, are denied. People should remember the criticism Huxley directed at Spencer for his “administrative nihilism.” But the issue here concerns much more than “administration.” . . .*
Returning to the business at hand, that is, to punishment, we have to differentiate between two aspects of it: first its relative duration, the way it is carried out, the action, the “drama,” a certain strict sequence of procedures and, on the other hand, its fluidity, the meaning, the purpose, the expectation linked to the implementation of such procedures. In this matter, we can here assume, without further comment, per analogium [by analogy], in accordance with the major viewpoints about the historical method we have just established, that the procedure itself will be somewhat older and earlier than its use as a punishment, that the latter was only first injected and interpreted into the procedure (which had been present for a long time but was a custom with a different meaning), in short, that it was not what our naive genealogists of morality and law up to now have assumed, who collectively imagined that the procedure was invented for the purpose of punishment, just as people earlier thought that the hand was invented for the purpose of grasping. Now, so far as that other element in punishment is concerned, the fluid element, its “meaning,” in a very late cultural state (for example in contemporary Europe) the idea of “punishment” actually presents not simply one meaning but a whole synthesis of “meanings.” The history of punishment up to now, in general, the history of its use for different purposes, finally crystallizes into a sort of unity, which is difficult to untangle, difficult to analyze, and, it must be stressed, totally incapable of definition. (Today it is impossible to say clearly why we really punish; all ideas in which an entire process is semiotically summarized elude definition. Only something which has no history is capable of being defined). At an earlier stage, by contrast, that synthesis of “meanings” still appears easier to untangle, as well as even easier to adjust. We can still see how in every individual case the elements in the synthesis alter their valence and rearrange themselves accordingly, so that soon this or that element steps forward and dominates at the expense of the rest; indeed, under certain circumstances one element (say, the purpose of deterrence) appears to rise above all the other elements. In order to give at least an idea of how uncertain, how belated, how accidental “the meaning” of punishment is and how one and the same procedure can be used, interpreted, or adjusted for fundamentally different purposes, let me offer here an example which presented itself to me on the basis of relatively little random material: punishment as a way of rendering someone harmless, as a prevention from further harm; punishment as compensation for the damage to the person injured, in some form or other (also in the form of emotional compensation); punishment as isolation of some upset to an even balance in order to avert a wider outbreak of the disturbance; punishment as way of inspiring fear of those who determine and carry out punishment; punishment as a sort of compensation for the advantages which the law breaker has enjoyed up until that time (for example, when he is made useful as a slave working in the mines); punishment as a cutting out of a degenerate element (in some circumstances an entire branch, as in Chinese law, and thus a means to keep the race pure or to sustain a social type); punishment as festival, that is, as the violation and humiliation of some enemy one has finally thrown down; punishment as a way of making a conscience, whether for the man who suffers the punishment— so- called “reform”—or whether for those who witness the punishment being carried out; punishment as the payment of an honorarium, set as a condition by those in power, which protects the wrong doer from the excesses of revenge; punishment as a compromise with the natural condition of revenge, insofar as the latter is still upheld and assumed as a privilege by powerful families; punishment as a declaration of war and a war measure against an enemy to peace, law, order, and authority, which people fight with the very measures war makes available, as something dangerous to the community, as a breach of contract with respect to its conditions, as a rebel, traitor, and breaker of the peace.
Of course, this list is not complete. Obviously punishment is overloaded with all sorts of useful purposes, all the more reason why people can infer from it an alleged utility, which, in the popular consciousness at least, is considered its most essential one—faith in punishment, which nowadays for several reasons is getting shaky, still finds its most powerful support in precisely that. Punishment is supposed to be valuable in waking the feeling of guilt in the guilty party. In punishment people are looking for the actual instrument for that psychic reaction called “bad conscience,” “pangs of conscience.” But in doing this, people are misappropriating reality and psychology, even for today, and how much more for the longest history of man, his prehistory! Real pangs of conscience are something extremely rare, especially among criminals and prisoners. Prisons and penitentiaries are not breeding grounds in which this species of gnawing worm particularly likes to thrive:—on that point all conscientious observers agree, in many cases delivering such a judgment with sufficient unwillingness, going against their own desires. In general, punishment makes people hard and cold. It concentrates. It sharpens the feeling of estrangement; it strengthens powers of resistance. If it comes about that punishment shatters a man’s energy and brings on a wretched prostration and self-abasement, such a consequence is surely even less pleasant than the typical result of punishment, characteristically a dry, gloomy seriousness. However, if we consider those thousands of years before the history of humanity, without a second thought we can conclude that the very development of a feeling of guilt was most powerfully hindered by punishment—at least with respect to the victims onto whom this force of punishment was vented. For let us not underestimate just how much the criminal is prevented by the very sight of judicial and executive procedures themselves from sensing that his act, the nature of his action, is something inherently reprehensible, for he sees exactly the same kind of actions committed in the service of justice, then applauded and practised in good conscience, like espionage, lying, bribery, entrapment, the whole tricky and sly art of the police and prosecution, as it manifests itself in the various kinds of punishment—the robbery, oppression, abuse, imprisonment, torture, murder, all done, moreover, as a matter of principle, without even any emotional involvement as an excuse— all these actions are in no way rejected or condemned in themselves by his judges, but only in particular respects when used for certain purposes. “Bad conscience,” this most creepy and most interesting plant among our earthly vegetation, did not grow in this soil—in fact, for the longest period in the past nothing about dealing with a “guilty party” penetrated the consciousness of judges or even those doing the punishing. By contrast, they were dealing with someone who had caused harm, with an irresponsible piece of fate. And even the man on whom punishment later fell, once again like a piece of fate, experienced in that no “inner pain,” other than what might have come from the sudden arrival of something unpredictable, a terrible natural event, a falling, crushing boulder against which there is no way to fight any more.
At one point Spinoza became aware of this issue in an incriminating way (something which irritates his interpreters, like Kuno Fischer, who really go to great lengths to misunderstand him on this matter), when one afternoon, he came up against some memory or other (who knows what?) and pondered the question about what, as far as he was concerned, was left of the celebrated morsus conscientiae [the bite of conscience]—for him, the man who had expelled good and evil into human fantasies and had irascibly defended the honour of his “free” God against those blasphemers who claimed that in everything God worked sub ratione boni [with good reason] (“but that means that God would be subordinate to Fate, a claim which, in truth, would be the greatest of all contradictions”). For Spinoza the world had gone back again into that state of innocence in which it had existed before the invention of bad conscience. So with that what, then, had become of the morsus conscientiae? “The opposite of gaudium [joy],” Spinoza finally told himself “is sorrow, accompanied by the image of something over and done with which happened contrary to all expectation” (Ethics III, Proposition XVIII, Schol. I. II). In a manner no different from Spinoza’s, those instigating evil who incurred punishment have for thousands of years felt, so far as their “crime” is concerned, “Something has unexpectedly gone awry here,” not “I should not have done that”—they submitted to their punishment as people submit to a sickness or some bad luck or death, with that brave fatalism free of revolt which, for example, even today gives the Russians an advantage over us westerners in coping with life. If back then there was some criticism of the act, such criticism came from prudence: without question we must seek the essential effect of punishment above all in an increase of prudence, in an extension of memory, in a will to go to work from now on more carefully, more mistrustfully, more secretly, with the awareness that we are in many things definitely too weak, in a kind of improved ability to judge ourselves. In general, what can be achieved through punishment, in human beings and animals, is an increase in fear, a honing of prudence, control over desires. In the process, punishment tames human beings, but it does not make them “better”—people could with more justification assert the opposite. (Popular wisdom says “Injury makes people prudent,” but to the extent that it makes them prudent, it also makes them bad. Fortunately, often enough it makes people stupid).
At this point, I can no longer avoid setting out, in an initial, provisional statement, my own hypothesis about the origin of “bad conscience.” It is not easy to get people to attend to it, and it requires them to consider it at length, to guard it, and to sleep on it. I consider bad conscience the profound illness which human beings had to come down with under the pressure of that most fundamental of all the changes which they ever experienced—that change when they finally found themselves locked within the confines of society and peace. Just like the things water animals must have gone though when they were forced either to become land animals or to die off, so events must have played themselves out with this half-beast so happily adapted to the wilderness, war, wandering around, adventure—suddenly all its instincts were devalued and “disengaged.” From this point on, these animals were to go on foot and “carry themselves”; whereas previously they had been supported by the water. A terrible heaviness weighed them down. In performing the simplest things they felt ungainly. In dealing with this new unknown world, they no longer had their old leaders, the ruling unconscious drives which guided them safely—these unfortunate creatures were reduced to thinking, inferring, calculating, bringing together cause and effect, reduced to their “consciousness,” their most impoverished and error-prone organ! I believe that never on earth has there been such a feeling of misery, such a leaden discomfort—while at the same time those old instincts had not all of a sudden stopped imposing their demands! Only it was difficult and seldom possible to do their bidding. For the most part, they had to find new and, as it were, underground satisfactions for themselves. All instincts which are not discharged to the outside are turned back inside—this is what I call the internalization [Verinnerlichung] of man. From this first grows in man what people later call his “soul.” The entire inner world, originally as thin as if stretched between two layers of skin, expanded and extended itself, acquired depth, width, and height, to the extent that what a person discharged out into the world was obstructed. Those frightening fortifications with which the organization of the state protected itself against the old instincts for freedom—punishments belong above all to these fortifications—brought it about that all those instincts of the wild, free, roaming man turned themselves backwards, against man himself. Enmity, cruelty, joy in pursuit, in attack, in change, in destruction—all those turned themselves against the possessors of such instincts. That is the origin of “bad conscience.” The man who, because of a lack of external enemies and opposition, was forced into an oppressive narrowness and regularity of custom impatiently tore himself apart, persecuted himself, gnawed away at himself, grew upset, and did himself damage—this animal which scraped itself raw against the bars of its cage, which people want to “tame,” this impoverished creature, consumed with longing for the wild, which had to create out of its own self an adventure, a torture chamber, an uncertain and dangerous wilderness—this fool, this yearning and puzzled prisoner, became the inventor of “bad conscience.” But with him was introduced the greatest and weirdest illness, from which humanity up to the present time has not recovered, the suffering of man from man, from himself, a consequence of the forcible separation from his animal past, a leap and, so to speak, a fall into new situations and living conditions, a declaration of war against the old instincts, on which, up to that point, his power, joy, and ability to inspire fear had been based. Let us at once add that, on the other hand, the fact that there was on earth an animal soul turned against itself, taking sides against itself, meant there was something so new, profound, unheard of, enigmatic, contradictory, and full of the future, that with it the picture of the earth was fundamentally changed. In fact, it required divine spectators to appreciate the dramatic performance which then began and whose conclusion is by no means yet in sight—a spectacle too fine, too wonderful, too paradoxical, to be allowed to play itself out senselessly and unobserved on some ridiculous star or other! Since then man has been included among the most unexpected and most thrillingly lucky rolls of the dice in the game played by Heraclitus’ “great child,” whether he’s called Zeus or chance.* For himself he arouses a certain interest, a tension, a hope, almost a certainty, as if something is announcing itself with him, something is preparing itself, as if the human being were not the goal but only a way, an episode, a bridge, a great promise . . .
Inherent in this hypothesis about the origin of bad conscience is, firstly, the assumption that the change was not gradual or voluntary and did not manifest itself as an organic growth into new conditions, but as a break, a leap, something forced, an irrefutable disaster, against which there was no struggle nor even any ressentiment. Secondly, however, it assumes that the adaptation of a populace hitherto unchecked and shapeless into a fixed form, just as it was initiated by an act of violence, was carried to its conclusion by nothing but acts of violence—that consequently the oldest “State” emerged as a terrible tyranny, as an oppressive and inconsiderate machinery, and continued working until such raw materials of people and half-animals finally were not only thoroughly kneaded and submissive but also given a shape. I used the word “State”: it is self-evident who is meant by that term—some pack of blond predatory animals, a race of conquerors and masters, which, organized for war and with the power to organize, without thinking about it, sets its terrifying paws on a subordinate population which may perhaps be vast in numbers but is still without any form, is still wandering about. That is, in fact, the way the “State” begins on earth. I believe that fantasy has been done away with which sees the beginning of the state in a “contract.” The man who can command, who is by nature a “master,” who comes forward with violence in his actions and gestures—what has he to do with making contracts! We do not negotiate with such beings. They come like fate, without cause, reason, consideration, or pretext. They are present as lightning is present, too fearsome, too sudden, too convincing, too “different” even to become merely hated.
In the first essay of Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals (OGM), he lays out his famous accusation: Christianity is the religion of the downtrodden, the bullied, the weak, the poor and the slave. And this, precisely, is why it is so filled with hatred. For there is nothing quite as explosive as the sort of bottled up resentment that the oppressed feels towards their oppressor. It's all there in the Bible.
Consider Psalm 137. It begins with the cry of an enslaved people:
By the Rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion'
Such circumstances are a breeding ground for fantasies of violence and revenge. And so the Psalm concludes: " ... happy shall be he who takes your children and smashes their heads against the rock." For Nietzsche, this frustrated anger is the essence of Christian morality. It is the very engine of the church. Christianity is a religion of hatred.
Nowhere is this more obvious, Nietzsche insists, than with the invention of the idea of hell. For hell is a fantasy of the weak that enables them to imagine compensatory revenge against the strong. Evidencing this, he points to Aquinas who wrote that "the blessed in the heavenly kingdom will see the torment of the damned so that they may even more thoroughly enjoy their own blessedness." The whole theological architecture of heaven and hell is, for Nietzsche, the product of "hatred" dressed up to look like love.
But the vengefulness of the pious slave goes a great deal further than simply twisting the idea of God into an instrument of revenge. For Nietzsche's contention is that the very origins of morality itself – and secular morality just as much as its Judeo-Christian predecessor – can be understood as springing from the same impulse. Socialists beware: he thinks this is your story too.
Don't look for proper history here. In a sense, Nietzsche is re-narrating the myth of the fall. In the beginning, so he says, there was nothing much wrong with the notion of God. Yahweh represented a culture at ease with itself and its prosperity. The festivals of religion were about exuberance, the means by which life was to be celebrated. But then came slavery and deportation into exile. And with this, the whole idea of God was re-imagined. Instead of being an expression of abundant confidence, God was transformed into a vehicle for desired revenge.
It was the Jews who, rejecting the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = blessed) ventured, with awe inspiring consistency, to bring about a reversal and held it in the teeth of their most unfathomable hatred (the hatred of the powerless), saying:
Only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people, the only ones saved, salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble and powerful, you eternally wicked cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless, you will be eternally wretched, cursed and damned. (OGM 1:7)
With slavery, all values are reversed. "Blessed are the poor" says Jesus. Everything vibrant and life-affirming is redescribed as "bad" so as to undermine the authority of the strong. Morality is a put-down. And with this revolutionary redescription, Nietzsche contends, humanity degrades itself. Humanity withers.
It may be worth nailing the jibe that Nietzsche was antisemitic. Certainly, his talk of "the Jews" in the above reference will make many of us squirm. And his famous friendship with Wagner and the fact that he became Hitler's favourite thinker do nothing to ease this discomfort. Yet, the truth is, Nietzsche loathed antisemites. He thought them vulgar and often said as much. In Beyond Good and Evil he muses: "It would perhaps be a good idea to eject the antisemitic ranters from the country."
Despite the fact that all this is widely accepted by scholars, many who read Nietzsche still experience some residual anxiety that his celebration of the powerful and his denigration of the weak has proto-Nazi overtones. In OGM he speaks approvingly of the "magnificent blond beast avidly prowling around for spoil and victory" in contrast to the "failed, sickly, tired and exhausted people of whom today's Europe is beginning to reek". This is not a reference to Jews. Even so, I think Nietzsche apologists have been far too indulgent of his celebrated rhetorical flamboyance. This sort of language stinks.
But although there are several occasions when the modern reader will want to hold their nose whilst reading Nietzsche, it is worth persevering. For there is much here to ponder, not least the familiar idea that those who are bullied and abused in one generation can often turn into the bullies and abusers of the next. With Nietzsche, this thought becomes the guiding thread of cultural history. The impact of suffering cascades down the generations, finding its way into all aspects of life, cultural and psychological. Yes, he is out to expose the vast weight of poisonous anger that lurks behind that hideous evangelical smile. But his ambition is much greater than this. For Nietzsche contends that Judeo-Christianity has shaped European culture to such an extent that the inversion of values that it promotes has permeated the entire way we see the world. When things are this far gone, a simple declaration of "the death of God" will do little to change things. In fact, it may simply mask the root of the illness. For Nietzsche, atheism is no simple prophylactic against slave morality.
Rev Dr Giles Fraser is the vicar of Putney. He was formerly a lecturer in philosophy at Wadham College, Oxford. His books include Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief (Routledge, 2002)