Who was Friedrich Nietzsche?

Why Was He Writing?

The New Socrates?


Friedrich Nietzsche (Nee'-Cha) was born in 1844 in Germany. It might be helpful to think of him as following in the footsteps of Socrates. Like Socrates, Nietzsche engages in dialogue in order to make us question our conventional ways of understanding truth, morality, and the world around us. He challenges what he sees as the great errors of the modern age: the perception that technology and science are limitless, the belief in objective morality, and the ideals of nationalism. And also like Socrates, he gives lots of criticisms but few clear answers! This is partially because both philosophers start from a humble standpoint: Socrates admits that "All he knows is that he knows nothing," and Nietzsche reminds us that we are all animals, animals approaching any problem from a certain biased perspective. 

Conflict Breeds Creation

Alas! What are you, after all, my written and painted thoughts!... You have already doffed your novelty, and some of you, I fear, are ready to become truths, so immortal do they look, so pathetically honest, so tedious! And was it ever otherwise? (Beyond Good & Evil, section 296)

Nietzsche is part philosopher, part psychologist, part comparative linguist, and part historian, but above all he is an artist. He does not present his work as the Truth, nor does he want you to throw away your uncritical beliefs and uncritically accept his. Rather he wants to present you with an alternative picture of life -- a new perspective -- and he wants you to put your beliefs in strife with this new picture. This is why you will often see him using flagrant and hyperbolic language uncharacteristic of other philosophers. He does this to immediately force you, the reader, into a defensive position, where you must think critically in order to defend your beliefs or abandon them. His exaggerated and often cryptic language forces you to think for yourself, rather than blindly follow him. 

Was He a Nazi?

Nietzsche's Sister

Late in his life, Nietzsche suffered a mental breakdown, and was transferred to the care of his sister, Elizabeth Förster-Nietzsche, despite Nietzsche's many falling outs with her. Elizabeth, along with her husband Bernhard Förster, were virulently anti-Semitic. So much so, in fact, that they even eventually founded a Utopian "Aryan" colony in the Paraguayan jungle called Nueva Germania in 1887 (needless to say, it did not last long. Bernhard committed suicide in 2 years and Elizabeth returned to Germany in 6).

Once Nietzsche was placed in their care, they began doctoring his works and publishing them to take advantage of his popularity in order to further their Aryan-supremacist agenda. They added passages of their own writing, removed Nietzsche's passages that were explicitly against anti-Semitism, and otherwise changed passages to align his philosophy with theirs. Elizabeth even falsified letters he wrote later in life. Of the collection of 505 of her brother's letters that Förster-Nietzsche published in 1909, just 60 were the original versions and 32 of them were entirely made up (source). 

This tragic misrepresentation of Nietzsche's philosophy has stained his legacy. Hitler and the Nazi party selectively read Nietzsche's works in order to bolster their regime, and white supremacists today do much the same thing. So read his works carefully, and be weary of media portrayals of Nietzsche.

"It must be taken into the bargain, if various clouds and disturbances - in short, slight attacks of stupidity - pass over the spirit of a people that suffers and WANTS to suffer from national nervous fever and political ambition: for instance, among present-day Germans there is alternately the anti-French folly, the anti-Semitic folly, the anti-Polish folly..." (Beyond Good & Evil, section 251)

“This most anti-cultural sickness and unreason there is, nationalism, this nervose nationale with which Europe is sick, this perpetuation of European particularism, of petty politics…is a dead-end street.” (Ecce Homo)

"Since then I’ve had difficulty coming up with any of the tenderness and protectiveness I’ve so long felt toward you. The separation between us is thereby decided in really the most absurd way. Have you grasped nothing of the reason why I am in the world?…Now it has gone so far that I have to defend myself hand and foot against people who confuse me with these anti-Semitic canaille; after my own sister, my former sister, and after Widemann more recently have given the impetus to this most dire of all confusions. After I read the name Zarathustra in the anti-Semitic Correspondence my forbearance came to an end. I am now in a position of emergency defense against your spouse’s Party. These accursed anti-Semite deformities shall not sully my ideal!!" (draft of a letter from Nietzsche to his sister)

Key Principle What is a Genealogy?

We are reading selections from Nietzsche's On The Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil. In these works, he gives a "genealogy" of our modern conception of morality, which he believes is dominated by Christianity. So what exactly does a "genealogy" of a concept such as morality look like?

Conventional histories and philosophical texts often trace many disparate facets of modern life back to one single event or fundamental principle or trace the linear evolution of a concept over time. For example, a historian might look at the crucifixion of Jesus, and trace its many impacts on political, social, and economic life throughout history. Or a linguist might look at when the word "good" first became used and trace the meaning of this single word in isolation up to the modern use of the word "good".

A genealogy, on the other hand, shows how a single modern concept has its roots far back in the past in many disparate events and ideas, much like a family tree shows how one person today is the product of many disparate ancestors. Rather than giving arguments in premise-conclusion form, a genealogy tells a story of how a concept, such as the Christian moral worldview, came to be. Nietzsche urges philosophers to acknowledge a crucial fact about ideas: they are historically rooted. Ideas like Christian morality, or the Enlightenment, or Social Darwinism, do not develop in isolation from their historical, political, social, and economic context.  Quite the opposite - they arise largely as a result of this context. The ideas of the Enlightenment - self-determination and individual freedom, emphasis on science over faith, democracy over absolutism, etc - evolved as a result of the Age of Exploration, the invention of the printing press, and the growth of capitalism. In the same way, Nietzsche claims that modern morality evolved from distinct historical trends and psychological phenomena.

Most importantly, a genealogy is descriptive - it describes a narrative arc without saying that this development is right or wrong, good or bad. Nevertheless, if Nietzsche can show you that a concept like your moral worldview does not actually come from where you think it does, and in fact has a rather unflattering history, this might be cause to question why you believe in it.  Hence, Nietzche -- like Socrates -- can be interpreted as engaging in a kind of skeptical project.

Genealogy of Prince William

The most common form of genealogy is a family tree, starting from distant ancestors and moving forward through generations to grandparents, parents, and ultimately to a single person.

Screenshot 2018 03 20 At 2


Genealogy of Rock and Roll

Genealogies can also be given to concepts. This genealogy -- courtesy of the timeless classic movie School of Rock -- traces the changes in Rock & Roll over time and how these changes influenced each other. 

Genealogy Of Rock


Key Principle Bad Conscience

The Genealogical Picture

Here we see a portion of Nietzsche's genealogy of morality, culminating in one of his key concepts: the bad conscience. We'll look at the details supporting each of these boxes in the following tabs

Nietzsche Essay Bad Conscience


Social Responsibility

The relationship of a debtor to his creditor in civil law, about which I have written at length already, was for a second time transformed through interpretation, in a historically extremely strange and curious manner, into… the relationship of the present generation to their forebears. Within the original tribal association… the living generation always acknowledged a legal obligation towards the earlier generation, and in particular towards the earliest, which founded the tribe. There is a prevailing conviction that the tribe exists only because of the sacrifices and deeds of the forefathers, and that these have to be paid back with sacrifices and deeds: people recognize an indebtedness… What can people give them in return? Sacrifices, feasts, chapels, tributes, above all, obedience – for all traditions are, as works of the ancestors, also their rules and orders. Do people ever give them enough? This suspicion remains and grows: from time to time it exacts a payment on a grand scale - the infamous sacrifice of the first-born, for example… (Genealogy 2:19)

[Explain creditor-debtor] There exists in virtually every society, Nietzsche claims, a tendency to honor and remember their ancestors, especially the founders of the society, and to tell stories in praise of their feats and abilities. These two concepts combined to form the idea of ancestors and founders as creditors and descendants as debtors. He says people feel they owe a debt to the people who came before them, and this is repaid through various feasts, monuments, and above all obedience to tradition and laws. 

Seem far-fetched? Consider America's relationship to its own founders. Is it not true that Americans feel indebted to them, seek to carry on their traditions, and build monuments honoring them? We even refer to them as our "Fathers"!

[Pic of Mount Rushmore]

The Internalization of Man

All instincts which are not discharged outwardly turn inwards – this is what I call the internalization of man: with it there now evolves in man what will later be called his ‘soul’. The whole inner world, originally stretched thinly as though between two layers of skin, was expanded and extended itself and gained depth, breadth and height in proportion to the degree that the external discharge of man’s instincts was obstructed. (Genealogy 2:16)

Nietzsche is making a claim here about the fundamental psychology of a human being. He claims that when our urges, instincts, and desires are thwarted - say, if we lack the courage to carry them out or the object of our desires can't be found - they don't just dissipate. Rather, they turn inward and inflict harm on our psyche. This is the basic process of self-reflection at work, and it causes this psyche, or inner realm, to grow in the size and strength.  Eventually, it becomes so big that people think of it as its own entity, separate from the body, which they call the "soul." Not exactly the description you heard in Theology class, is it!? 

Sound familiar? Psychologists have called this inner realm Nietzsche is describing by many names, such as "consciousness," your "conscience," and the "self." Most notably, Sigmund Freud describes this repression of instincts and desires, or the "id," as the origin of the "ego" and the "superego." Like Nietzsche, he also claims that the failure or prevention of the satiation of desires and instincts causes harm to the psyche, and makes us do all sorts of things to rationalize and ignore our urges, things which he calls "defense mechanisms." In fact, many aspects of Freud's theories are prefigured in Nietzsche. Freud, who did the bulk of his writing shortly after Nietzsche, insists that he never read Nietzsche's works. I have my doubts!

Bad Conscience

I look on bad conscience as a serious illness to which man was forced to succumb by the pressure of the most fundamental of all changes which he experienced – that change whereby he finally found himself imprisoned within the confines of society and peace… Old instincts had not suddenly ceased to make their demands! But it was difficult and seldom possible to give in to them: they mainly had to seek new and as it were underground gratifications... Those terrible bulwarks with which state organizations protected themselves against the old instincts of freedom – punishments are a primary instance of this kind of bulwark – had the result that all those instincts of the wild, free, roving man were turned backwards, against man himself. Animosity, cruelty, the pleasure of pursuing, raiding, changing and destroying – all this was pitted against the person who had such instincts: that is the origin of ‘bad conscience’. Lacking external enemies and obstacles, and forced into the oppressive narrowness and conformity of custom, man impatiently ripped himself apart, persecuted himself, gnawed at himself, gave himself no peace and abused himself, this animal who battered himself raw on the bars of his cage and who is supposed to be ‘tamed’; man, full of emptiness and torn apart with homesickness for the desert, has had to create from within himself an adventure, a torture-chamber, an unsafe and hazardous wilderness – this fool, this prisoner consumed with longing and despair, became the inventor of ‘bad conscience’. With it, however, the worst and most insidious illness was introduced, one from which mankind has not yet recovered; man’s sickness of man, of himself. (Genealogy 2:16)

It is not easy to get a hearing for this hypothesis and it needs to be pondered, watched, and slept on. (Genealogy 2:16) 

No kidding, Nietzsche! This passage is at once beautiful, horrifying, and hard to understand! So let's break it down: Bad conscience is the internalization of man that happens when people form a society.  In order to form a peaceful society, people must curtail some of their basic instincts in exchange for safety, community, and mutual assistance. No more taking whatever you want, mating whenever you can, or flinging feces around like our primate cousins - we live in a society now, with rules and painful consequences for breaking those rules. Our instincts are further curtailed by our feeling of indebtedness to the founding ancestors of our society, and the need we feel to carry on their customs and repay our debts to them. But our brains are not adapted to live in this world of office buildings and traffic lines; we still have the instincts and desires from our days wandering the African plains. And as society curtails more of these instincts, the inner realm grows in size and intensity, creating ever more disdain for oneself and one's natural urges. Bad conscience is precisely this internalized self-hatred caused by the entrance of people into a society which blocks them from expressing all of their instincts and desires. 

Key Principle The Origin of 'Good' and 'Evil'

The Genealogical Picture

Here is another piece of Nietzsche's genealogy, starting from his concept of the "Will to Power" and ending with the distinction between 'good' and 'evil'. Learn more in the following tabs.



Will to Power

That imperious something which is popularly called "the spirit," wishes to be master internally and externally, and to feel itself 
master... [It is] a binding, taming, imperious, and essentially ruling will. It's requirements and capacities here, are the same as those assigned by physiologists to everything that lives, grows, and multiplies. The power of the spirit to appropriate foreign elements reveals itself in a strong tendency to assimilate the new to the old, to simplify the manifold, to overlook or repudiate the absolutely contradictory; just as it arbitrarily re-underlines, makes prominent, and falsifies for itself certain traits and lines in the foreign elements, in every portion of the "outside world." Its object thereby is the incorporation of new "experiences," the assortment of new things in the old arrangements - in short, growth; or more properly, the FEELING of growth, the feeling of increased power - is its object. (Beyond Good and Evil section 230)

The Will to Power is perhaps Nietzsche's most quoted and most misunderstood concept. Nietzsche is claiming here that the fundamental drive for all living things is the urge to obtain and exercise power. Now, Nietzsche is not thinking of power purely in the sense of physical, political, or economic domination, although those are forms the Will to Power can take. A plant taking in energy from the sun and incorporating it into itself is also a form of power, or a lion consuming a zebra. Even a scholar gaining knowledge about a particular object, time, or phenomenon is a way of exerting power over that thing. Anything that makes you feel like you are master over something can be the object of your Will to Power.

In practice, this will builds up a system of knowing and interacting with the world, and as you experience new things, your Will to Power incorporates these new things into your already constructed system. This is why the Will to Power is sometimes self-deceiving - it highlights or ignores certain aspects of the world in order to fit it into your preconceived system and maintain your feeling of superiority. Think of psychological concepts like cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and echo chambers. What do you do when reality does not mesh with your prior notions? Do you reinterpret reality or rethink your notions about reality?

Nobles, Ignobles, and Ressentiment

[In sections 4-11 of part 1 of Nietzsche's Genealogy,]

{Nietzsche claims that there are two fundamental tendencies of humans, the noble and the ignoble. Of course, both tendencies exist in all modern people in varying degrees. But to present a more simplified narrative, Nietzsche creates a thought experiment, similar to social contract theorists like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, in which he imagines a hypothetical distant past where the two tendencies existed separately in a purely noble class of people and an purely ignoble class. The Will to Power existed in both classes, but it manifested itself in different ways.} 

[The Nobles had a "superabundance" of natural power so that whatever they desired they could obtain (Their will to power was never thwarted, and thus they never had to self-reflect, or reinterpret the world in self-deceiving terms). Consequently, they acted without pre-meditation, they gave little thought to slights against them, and they lived a life of luxury, activity, self-absorption, and blissful ignorance. Whatever they did, they described as 'good,' and whomever could not do what they did were simply lacking, or 'bad.' These were not moral terms, but merely descriptions of reality.]

[Characteristics of the Noble]

[The Ignoble, on the other hand, are both oppressed and constitutionally weaker than the Nobles, and their Will to Power is blocked at every turn by these oppressors and weaknesses; Consequently, they are unable to spontaneously see themselves or their lives in any affirmative way, as intrinsically "good," like the Nobles can. The Ignoble develop a reactive and negative sentiment towards the oppressive Nobles which Nietzsche calls ressentiment. Because the slaves' Will to Power is thwarted at first, the Ignoble are driven to self-reflect, and reimagine the world in a way that makes them still feel like they are masters.  The form this reimagination will take is the invention of a new concept and an associated new form of valuation: ‘evil’.] [Ressentiment is resentment plus creative]

[Characteristics of the Ignoble]


Good and Evil

Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self ’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed… This reversal of the evaluating glance – this essential orientation to the outside instead of back onto itself – is a feature of ressentiment: in order to come about, slave morality first has to have an opposing, external world, it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all, – its action is basically a reaction… Imagine ‘the enemy’ as conceived of by the man of ressentiment – and here we have his deed, his creation: he has conceived of the ‘evil enemy’, ‘the evil one’ as a basic idea to which he now thinks up a copy and counterpart, the ‘good one’ – himself! … One should ask who is actually evil in the sense of the morality of ressentiment. The stern reply is: precisely the ‘good’ person of the other morality, the noble, powerful, dominating one, but re-touched, re interpreted and reviewed through the poisonous eye of ressentiment. (Genealogy 10-11)

[This is perhaps the most pivotal moment in the history of Western thought for Nietzsche. The Ignoble, finding their Will to Power thwarted at every turn by their own weakness or the oppression of the Nobles, whom they resent deeply for their freedom to exert their Will however they please, reimagine the world in a way that makes them the masters. To do this, they look at the Noble way of life and say "No, we would not choose to be that way. That way is evil." In doing this, they make themselves and the Nobles into conscious, freely choosing subjects who are responsible for what effects they choose to cause. Thus, the Ignoble create a whole new system of values, this time not merely descriptive but "normative," in that the Noble way of life is a choice the Nobles made, not their nature, and their choice is the wrong one. By contrast, the Ignoble way of life is moral and "good." Confidence becomes vanity, taking what you want becomes greed and gluttony, leisure becomes sloth, being passionate becomes wrath. By contrast, not getting what you want becomes temperance, being unattractive becomes chastity, having to work all day becomes diligence, not taking revenge becomes composure, etc. etc. ]

Argument Guilt, Sin, and Modern Moraliity

The Genealogical Picture

Here is a more complete picture of Nietzsche's genealogy, combining the previous sections we learned about and culminating in the birth of modern morality.

Nietzsche Essay Full


Modern Morality

The Emergence of the Priests

In sections 6 and 7 of part 1, Nietzsche describes a split in the noble class between what he calls the "warriors" and "priests." The warriors base their conception of superiority (what separates them from the slaves) on physical power, and thus desire things to maintain this vigor, such as war, adventure, dancing, and "everything else that contains strong, free, happy action." The priests base their superiority on an obsession with purity, and thus desire cleanliness, reservation, safety, and all things that prevent the soiling of their purity.

Guilt and Sin

The main contrivance which the ascetic priest allowed himself to use in order to make the human soul resound with every kind of heartrending and ecstatic music was – as everyone knows – his utilization of the feeling of guilt. The previous essay indicated the descent of this feeling briefly – as a piece of animal-psychology, no more: there we encountered the feeling of guilt in its raw state, as it were. Only in the hands of the priest, this real artist in feelings of guilt, did it take shape – and what a shape! ‘Sin’ – for that is the name for the priestly reinterpretation of the animal ‘bad conscience’ (cruelty turned back on itself) – has been the greatest event in the history of the sick soul up till now: with sin, we have the most dangerous and disastrous trick of religious interpretation. Man, suffering from himself in some way, at all events physiologically, rather like an animal imprisoned in a cage, unclear as to why? what for? and yearning for reasons – reasons bring relief –, yearning for cures and narcotics as well, finally consults someone who knows hidden things too – and lo and behold! from this magician, the ascetic priest, he receives the first tip as to the ‘cause’ of his suffering: he should look for it within himself, in guilt, in a piece of the past, he should understand his suffering itself as a condition of punishment. (Genealogy 3:20)

What do you get when you combine bad conscience, Ignoble morality, and the priestly class? SIN. The priests, obsessed with self-purification, buy into the moralizing system of the Ignoble, in which actions are not merely the results of nature but the effects of subjects who made a conscious choice to be as they are. The Ignoble, now convinced that they are "good," yet still suffering because they cannot fully express their instincts, desires, and Will to Power, long for release or at least justification for their suffering. The priests give this to them by telling them they suffer not simply because their desires were unfulfilled or their Will did not conquer its object, but because they desired wrongly, they exercised their will wrongly, and they are being punished for it. The priests redirect ressentiment from outward at the Nobles to inward at the Ignoble themselves: it is your fault that you suffer. Your suffering is punishment for your wrongdoing, your sins. And who could possibly have the power to set and enforce objective standards of right and wrongdoing? God. God, the primeval ancestor, is created as an omnipotent, judgemental being who punishes the sinners and rewards the pure.

Christianity and the Secular World


Is Nietzsche wrong about human nature, about the fundamentals of reality, about the history of Western thought? If you think he is, then provide an alternative story! Tell us where Christianity really came from, explain history in a different way, give an alternative account of human nature that does not include repressed instincts or the Will to Power. 

If you suspect Nietzsche may be onto something, explore this history further! See where history and biology support his claims, and where his speculations were off. Remember that just because Christianity has this history does not necessarily mean it is wrong to follow it, provided that you are honest with yourself about what it is and what it does for you.

[Jesus stuff] Finally, live like Jesus lived! Question authority! Live a life of action! Love everyone, and don't be judgemental of others or of yourself.

The Secular World

"That which philosophers called "giving a basis to morality,"... has proved merely a learned form of good faith in prevailing morality, a new means of its expression... in its ultimate motive, a sort of denial that it is lawful for this morality to be called in question." (Beyond Good & Evil section 186)

It might seem like Nietzsche was only describing a particular religion's worldview, but in fact he believed all of Western society was infected with the germ of Christianity. The slave morality ultimately won, and democratic nations, philosophers, scientists, and even atheists of his time were all various iterations of the same moral paradigm - a paradigm in which reason and truth are valued above everything else, instincts and passions are suppressed and scorned, and unseen, transcendental, objective morals and supernatural beings are outside of the world yet govern the world. This paradigm is the problem; Christianity is merely the progenitor. Everywhere the paradigm is given new phrasing and justification, but nowhere is the paradigm itself questioned. 

"We have found that in all principal moral judgments, Europe has become unanimous, including likewise the countries where European influence prevails, in Europe people evidently know what Socrates thought he did not know, and what the famous serpent of old once promised to teach - they "know" today what is good and evil." (Beyond Good & Evil section 202) 

So what should we do?

"Where have we to fix our hopes? In New Philosophers - there is no other alternative: in minds strong and original enough to initiate opposite estimates of value, to transvalue and invert 'eternal valuations'" (Beyond Good & Evil section 203)

So if this whole moral paradigm is wrong because it abstracts from the reality of experience, it causes us to feel guilt and to hate ourselves and our instincts, and it compels us to think we possess objective morals that can be used to judge and exclude others, what alternative way of life does Nietzsche propose? 

Well, he certainly does not think the answer is a return to master morality and purely obeying any and all of our instincts. First of all, Nietzsche does not even think this is possible - humans have lived in society too long and are too corrupted by the Christian moral paradigm to go back to living like animals. Second, living like animals is ugly! The slaves' self-reflection, self-consciousness, and self-torture, Nietzsche says, are what made the human animal beautiful and interesting! Without it, there would be no science, no religion, no philosophy, no culture, no art - all things that make human life worth living.

The problem is slave morality created this rich life out of an unhealthy mindset - guilty conscience and ressentiment. So what we should strive for, then, is a rich, self-reflective life created from a more positive mindset that is not laden with all these life-denying and self-hating notions. A mindset that affirms life, that takes its guidance for action not from some external realm of gods and objectivity, but from within the world, within experience, and within the fullness of our instincts. A mindset that is above all a creator of values. Does this mean that we lose "Objective" morality? Well, yes, but Nietzsche would say we never had it to begin with! We were living under an illusory master we created ourselves, and now we have the knowledge, the experience, and the mental fortitude to turn our backs on this master. That is what Nietzsche meant when he declared: 

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.


Want to learn more?

Here is a more in-depth, interactive version of Nietzsche's full genealogy of Christianity. You can make the interface full-screen by clicking the arrows in the bottom right-hand corner. Use the sideways arrows in the center on the bottom to take the recommended path through the genealogy, or click on any circles to jump to info about that subject.

The New Philosopher, Creator of Values