Nietzsche, On the Geneaology of Morals

NIETZSCHE, On the Geneaology of Morals (1887)


The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this No is its creative deed. This inversion of the value-positing eye—this need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself—is of the essence of ressentiment; in order to exist, slave morality always first needs a hostile external world; it needs, physiologically speaking, external stimuli in order to act at all—its action is fundamentally reaction.

One should not overlook the almost benevolent nuances that the Greek nobility, for example, bestows on all the words it employs to distinguish the lower orders from itself; how they are continuously mingled and sweetened with a kind of pity, consideration, and forbearance, so that finally almost all the words referring to the common man have remained as expressions signifying “unhappy,” “pitiable” (campore deilos, deilaios, poneros, mochtheros, the last two of which properly designate the common man as work-slave and beast of burden) [Greek: The first four mean wretched; and also, deilos: cowardly, worthless, vile; deilaios: paltry; poneros: oppressed by toils, good for nothing, worthless, knavish, base, cowardly; mochtheros: suffering hardship, knavish]—and how on the other hand “bad,” “low,” “unhappy” have never ceased to sound to the Greek ear as one note with a tone-color in which “unhappy” preponderates: this as an inheritance from the ancient nobler aristocratic mode of evaluation, which does not belie itself even in its contempt (—philologists should recall the sense in which oïzyros [woeful, miserable, toilsome; wretch], anolbos [unblest, wretched, luckless, poor], tlemon [wretched, miserable], dystychein [to be unlucky, unfortunate], xymphora [misfortune] are employed). The “well-born” felt themselves to be the “happy”; they did not have to establish their happiness artificially by examining their enemies, or to persuade themselves, deceive themselves, that they were happy (as all men of ressentiment are in the habit of doing); and they likewise knew, as rounded men replete with energy and therefore necessarily active, that happiness should not be sundered from action—being active was with them necessarily a part of happiness (whence eu prattein [To do well in the sense of faring well] takes its origin)—all very much the opposite of “happiness” at the level of the impotent, the oppressed, and those in whom poisonous and inimical feelings are festering, with whom it appears as essentially narcotic, drug, rest, peace, “sabbath,” slackening of tension and relaxing of limbs, in short passively.

While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself (gennaios [high-born, noble, high-minded] “of noble descent” underlines the nuance “upright” and probably also “naïve”), the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, his security, his refreshment; he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble. A race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree: namely, as a condition of existence of the first importance; while with nobler men cleverness can easily acquire a subtle flavor of luxury and subtlety—for here it is far less essential than the perfect functioning of the regulating unconscious instincts or even that a certain imprudence, perhaps a bold recklessness whether in the face of danger or of the enemy, or that enthusiastic impulsiveness in anger, love, reverence, gratitude, and revenge by which noble souls have at all times recognized one another. Ressentiment itself, if it should appear in the noble man, consummates and exhausts itself in an immediate reaction, and therefore does not poison: on the other hand, it fails to appear at all on countless occasions on which it inevitably appears in the weak and impotent.

To be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long—that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mold, to recuperate and to forget (a good example of this in modern times is Mirabeau [Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749-1791), a French Revolutionary statesman and writer], who had no memory for insults and vile actions done him and was unable to forgive simply because he—forgot). Such a man shakes off with a single shrug many vermin that eat deep into others; here alone genuine “love of one’s enemies” is possible—supposing it to be possible at all on earth. How much reverence has a noble man for his enemies!—and such reverence is a bridge to love.— For he desires his enemy for himself, as his mark of distinction; he can endure no other enemy than one in whom there is nothing to despise and very much to honor! In contrast to this, picture “the enemy” as the man of ressentiment conceives him—and here precisely is his deed, his creation: he has conceived “the evil enemy,” “the Evil One,” and this in fact is his basic concept, from which he then evolves, as an afterthought and pendant, a “good one”—himself!


This, then, is quite the contrary of what the noble man does, who conceives the basic concept “good” in advance and spontaneously out of himself and only then creates for himself an idea of “bad”! This “bad” of noble origin and that “evil” out of the cauldron of unsatisfied hatred—the former an after-production, a side issue, a contrasting shade, the latter on the contrary the original thing, the beginning, the distinctive deed in the conception of a slave morality—how different these words “bad” and “evil” are, although they are both apparently the opposite of the same concept “good.” But it is not the same concept “good”: one should ask rather precisely who is “evil” in the sense of the morality of ressentiment. The answer, in all strictness, is: precisely the “good man” of the other morality, precisely the noble, powerful man, the ruler, but dyed in another color, interpreted in another fashion, seen in another way by the venomous eye of ressentiment.

Here there is one thing we shall be the last to deny: he who knows these “good men” only as enemies knows only evil enemies, and the same men who are held so sternly in check inter pares by custom, respect, usage, gratitude, and even more by mutual suspicion and jealousy, and who on the other hand in their relations with one another show themselves so resourceful in consideration, self-control, delicacy, loyalty, pride, and friendship—once they go outside, where the strange, the stranger is found, they are not much better than uncaged beasts of prey. There they savor a freedom from all social constraints, they compensate themselves in the wilderness for the tension engendered by protracted confinement and enclosure within the peace of society, they go back to the innocent conscience of the beast of prey, as triumphant monsters who perhaps emerge from a disgusting [Scheusslichen] procession of murder, arson, rape, and torture, exhilarated and undisturbed of soul, as if it were no more than a student’s prank, convinced they have provided the poets with a lot more material for song and praise. One cannot fail to see at the bottom of all these noble races the beast of prey, the splendid blond beast prowling about avidly in search of spoil and victory; this hidden core needs to erupt from time to time, the animal has to get out again and go back to the wilderness: the Roman, Arabian, Germanic, Japanese nobility, the Homeric heroes, the Scandinavian Vikings—they all shared this need.

It is the noble races that have left behind them the concept “barbarian” wherever they have gone; even their highest culture betrays a consciousness of it and even a pride in it (for example, when Pericles says to his Athenians in his famous funeral oration “our boldness has gained access to every land and sea, everywhere raising imperishable monuments to its goodness and wickedness”). This “boldness” of noble races, mad, absurd, and sudden in its expression, the incalculability, even incredibility of their undertakings—Pericles specially commends the rhathymia [original meaning: ease of mind, without anxiety; also: carelessness, remissness, frivolity.] of the Athenians—their indifference to and contempt for security, body, life, comfort, their hair-raising [Entsetzliche] cheerfulness and profound joy in all destruction, in all the voluptuousness of victory and cruelty—all this came together, in the minds of those who suffered from it, in the image of the “barbarian,” the “evil enemy,” perhaps as the “Goths,” the “Vandals.” The deep and icy mistrust the German still arouses today whenever he gets into a position of power is an echo of that inextinguishable horror with which Europe observed for centuries that raging of the blond Germanic beast (although between the old Germanic tribes and us Germans there exists hardly a conceptual relationship, let alone one of blood).

I once drew attention to the dilemma in which Hesiod found himself when he concocted his succession of cultural epochs and sought to express them in terms of gold, silver, bronze: he knew no way of handling the contradiction presented by the glorious but at the same time terrible and violent world of Homer except by dividing one epoch into two epochs, which he then placed one behind the other—first the epoch of the heroes and demigods of Troy and Thebes, the form in which that world had survived in the memory of the noble races who were those heroes’ true descendants; then the bronze epoch, the form in which that same world appeared to the descendants of the downtrodden, pillaged, mistreated, abducted, enslaved: an epoch of bronze, as aforesaid, hard, cold, cruel, devoid of feeling or conscience, destructive and bloody.

Supposing that what is at any rate believed to be the “truth” really is true, and the meaning of all culture is the reduction of the beast of prey “man” to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal, then one would undoubtedly have to regard all those instincts of reaction and ressentiment through whose aid the noble races and their ideals were finally confounded and overthrown as the actual instruments of culture; which is not to say that the bearers of these instincts themselves represent culture. Rather is the reverse not merely probable—no! today it is palpable! These bearers of the oppressive instincts that thirst for reprisal, the descendants of every kind of European and non-European slavery, and especially of the entire pre-Aryan populace—they represent the regression of mankind! These “instruments of culture” are a disgrace to man and rather an accusation and counterargument against “culture” in general! One may be quite justified in continuing to fear the blond beast at the core of all noble races and in being on one’s guard against it: but who would not a hundred times sooner fear where one can also admire than not fear but be permanently condemned to the repellent sight of the ill-constituted, dwarfed, atrophied, and poisoned? And is that not our fate? What today constitutes our antipathy to “man”?—for we suffer from man, beyond doubt.

Not fear; rather that we no longer have anything left to fear in man; that the maggot “man” is swarming in the foreground; that the “tame man,” the hopelessly mediocre and insipid man, has already learned to feel himself as the goal and zenith, as the meaning of history, as “higher man”—that he has indeed a certain right to feel thus, insofar as he feels himself elevated above the surfeit of ill-constituted, sickly, weary and exhausted people of which Europe is beginning to stink today, as something at least relatively well-constituted, at least still capable of living, at least affirming life.


At this point I cannot suppress a sigh and a last hope. What is it that I especially find utterly unendurable? That I cannot cope with, that makes me choke and faint? Bad air! Bad air! The approach of some ill-constituted thing; that I have to smell the entrails of some ill-constituted soul!

How much one is able to endure: distress, want, bad weather, sickness, toil, solitude. Fundamentally one can cope with everything else, born as one is to a subterranean life of struggle; one emerges again and again into the light, one experiences again and again one’s golden hour of victory—and then one stands forth as one was born, unbreakable, tensed, ready for new, even harder, remoter things, like a bow that distress only serves to draw tauter.

But grant me from time to time—if there are divine goddesses in the realm between good and evil—grant me the sight, but one glance of something perfect, wholly achieved, happy, mighty, triumphant, something still capable of arousing fear! Of a man who justifies man, of a complementary and redeeming lucky hit on the part of man for the sake of which one may still believe in man!

For this is how things are: the diminution and leveling of European man constitutes our greatest danger, for the sight of him makes us weary.— We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent, more Chinese, more Christian—there is no doubt that man is getting “better” all the time.

Here precisely is what has become a fatality for Europe—together with the fear of man we have also lost our love of him, our reverence for him, our hopes for him, even the will to him. The sight of man now makes us weary—what is nihilism today if it is not that?— We are weary of man.


Translation by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, ©1967 Random House.

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