Friedrich Nietzsche

On the Genealogy of Morals
A Polemical Tract

[This translation by Ian Johnston of Vancouver Island University, Nanaimo, BC, has certain copyright restrictions.  For information please use the following link: Copyright.  For comments or question please contact Ian Johnston. Editorial comments, translations in square brackets and italics, and endnotes are by Ian Johnston; comments in normal brackets are from Nietzsche’s text. This text (2014) is a revised version of an earlier translation (2009).

[Table of Contents for Genealogy of Morals]



We don’t know ourselves, we knowledgeable people—we are personally ignorant about ourselves. And there’s good reason for that. We’ve never looked for ourselves—how could it happen that one day we’d discover ourselves? With justice it’s been said, “Where your treasure is, there shall your heart be also.”1 Our treasure lies where the beehives of our knowledge stand. We are always busy with our knowledge, as born winged creatures and collectors of intellectual honey. In our hearts we are concerned with really only one thing—to “bring something home.” As far as the rest of life is concerned, what people call “experiences,”—who of us is serious enough for that? Or has enough time? In these matters, I fear, we’ve been “missing the point.”  Our hearts have simply not been engaged with that—nor, for that matter, have our ears! Instead we’ve been more like someone divinely distracted and self-absorbed into whose ear the clock has just pealed the twelve strokes of noon with all its force and who all at once wakes up and asks himself  “What exactly did that clock strike?”—so now and then we even rub our ears afterwards and ask, totally surprised and completely embarrassed— “What have we really just experienced?” And more: “Who are we really?” Then, as I’ve mentioned, we count—after the fact—all the twelve trembling strokes of the clock of our experience, of our lives, of our being—alas! in the process we keep losing count . . . We remain simply and necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not understand ourselves, we must be confused about ourselves. For us this proposition holds for all eternity: “Each man is furthest from himself”—where we ourselves are concerned, we are not “knowledgeable people” . . .


My thoughts about the origin of our moral prejudices—for this polemical tract is concerned about that origin—had their first brief, provisional expression in that collection of aphorisms which carried the title Human, All-too Human: A Book for Free Spirits, which I started to write in Sorrento, during a winter when I had the chance to pause, just as a traveller stops, and to look over the wide and dangerous land through which my spirit had wandered up to that point. This happened in the winter of 1876-77, but the ideas themselves are older. In the main points, they were already the same ideas which I am taking up again in the present essays:—let’s hope that the long interval of time has done them some good, that they have become riper, brighter, stronger, and more complete! But the fact that today I still stand by these ideas, that in the intervening time they themselves have constantly become more strongly associated with one another, in fact, have grown into each other and intertwined, that reinforces in me the joyful confidence that they may not have originally developed in me as single, random, or sporadic ideas, but up out of a common root, out of a fundamental will for knowledge ruling from deep within, always speaking with greater clarity, always demanding greater clarity. For that’s the only thing appropriate to a philosopher. We have no right to be isolated in any way: we are not permitted either to make isolated mistakes or to run into truths in isolation. By contrast, our ideas, our values, our affirmations and denials, our if’s and whether’s grow out of us from the same necessity which makes a tree bear its fruit—totally related and interlinked amongst each other, witnesses of one will, one health, one soil, one sun.—As for the question whether these fruits of ours taste good to you—what does that matter to the trees! What concern is that to us, we philosophers!


Because of a doubt peculiar to my own nature, which I am reluctant to confess—for it concerns itself with morality, with everything which up to the present has been celebrated on earth as morality—a doubt which came into my life so early, so uninvited, so irresistibly, in such contradiction to my surroundings, my age, precedent, and my origin, that I would almost have the right to call it my “a priori[before experience]—because of this, my curiosity as well as my suspicion had to pause early on at the question of where our good and evil really originated. In fact, already as a thirteen-year-old lad, my mind was occupying itself with the problem of the origin of evil. At an age when one has “half children’s play, half God in one’s heart,” I devoted my first childish literary trifle, my first written philosophical exercise, to this problem—and so far as my “solution” to it at that time is concerned, well, I gave the honour to God, as is reasonable, and made him the father of evil. Is that precisely what my “a priori” demanded of me, that new immoral, at the very least unmoral “a priori” and the “categorical imperative” which spoke out from it, alas, so anti-Kantian and so cryptic, which I have increasingly listened to ever since—and not just listened to?2 Luckily at an early stage I learned to separate theological prejudices from moral ones, and I no longer sought the origin of evil behind the world. Some education in history and philology, along with an inherently refined sense concerning psychological questions in general, quickly changed my problem into something else: Under what conditions did people invent for themselves those value judgments good and evil? And what value do they inherently possess? Have they hindered or fostered human wellbeing up to now? Are they a sign of some emergency, of impoverishment, of an atrophying life? Or is it the other way around? Do they indicate fullness, power, a will for life, its courage, its confidence, its future? To these questions I came across and proposed all sorts of answers for myself. I distinguished between ages, peoples, and different ranks of individuals. I kept refining my problem. Out of the answers arose new questions, investigations, assumptions, and probabilities, until at last I had my own country, my own soil, a totally secluded, flowering, blooming world, a secret garden, as it were, of which no one could have the slightest inkling. O how lucky we are, we knowledgeable people, provided only that we know how to stay silent long enough!


The initial stimulus to publish something of my hypotheses concerning the origin of morality was given to me by a lucid, tidy, clever, even precocious little book, in which for the first time I clearly ran into a topsy-turvy, perverse type of genealogical hypotheses—a genuinely English style. It drew me with that power of attraction that everything opposite, everything antipodal, contains. The title of this booklet was The Origin of the Moral Feelings, its author was Dr Paul Rée, and it appeared in the year 1877.3 I have perhaps never read anything which I would have denied, statement by statement, conclusion by conclusion, as I did with this book, but entirely without any annoyance or impatience. In the work I mentioned above, with which I was engaged at the time, I made opportune and inopportune references to statements in Dr. Rée’s book, not in order to prove them wrong—what have I to do with preparing refutations!—but, as is appropriate to a positive spirit, to put in the place of something unlikely something more likely and, in some circumstances, in the place of some error another error. In that period, as I said, for the first time I brought into the light of day those hypotheses about genealogy to which these essays have been dedicated—but clumsily, as I myself would be the last to deny, still fettered, still without my own language for these concerns of mine, and with all sorts of retreating and vacillating. For particular details, you should compare what I say in Human, All-too Human, p. 51 [Section 45], about the double nature of the prehistory of good and evil (that is, in the spheres of the nobility and the slaves); similarly, pages 119 ff. [Section 136], concerning the worth and origin of ascetic morality, as well as pages 78, 82, and II, 35 [Sections 96, 99, and Volume II, Section 89] concerning the “Morality of Custom,” that much older and more primitive style of morality, which lies toto coelo [by all the heavens, i.e., absolutely] from the altruistic way of valuing (which Dr. Rée, like all English genealogists of morality, sees as the very essence of moral evaluation); similarly, page 74 [Section 1.92]Wanderer, page 29 [Section 26]; and Daybreak, page 99 [Section 112], concerning the origin of justice as a compromise between approximately equal powers (equality as precondition of all contracts and therefore of all law); likewise concerning the origin of punishment in Wanderer, pages 25 and 34 [Sections 22 and 33], for which an intent to terrify is neither essential nor original (as Dr. Rée claims:—it is far more likely first brought in under a specific set of conditions and always as something incidental, something additional).4


Basically at that point the real concern for me at heart was something much more important than coming up with the nature of hypotheses about the origin of morality, either my own or from other people (or, more precisely stated—this latter issue was important to me only for the sake of a goal to which it is one way out of many). For me the issue was the value of morality—and in that matter I had to take issue almost alone with my great teacher Schopenhauer, the one to whom, as if to a contemporary, that book, with its passion and hidden contradiction, addresses itself (—for it, too, was a “polemical tract”).5 The most specific issue was the worth of the “unegoistic,” of the instincts for pity, for self-denial, and for self-sacrifice, of things which Schopenhauer himself had painted with gold, deified, and projected into another world [verjenseitigt] for so long that they finally remained for him “value as such” and the reason why he said No to life and even to himself, as well. But a constantly more fundamental suspicion of these very instincts voiced itself in me, a scepticism which always dug deeper! It was precisely here that I saw the great danger to humanity, its most sublime temptation and seduction.—But in what direction? To nothingness?—It was precisely here I saw the beginning of the end, the standing still, the backward-glancing exhaustion, the will turning itself against life, the final illness tenderly and sadly announcing itself. I understood the morality of pity, which was always seizing more and more around it and which gripped even the philosophers and made them sick, as the most sinister symptom of our European culture, which itself had become sinister, as its detour to a new Buddhism? to a European Buddhism? to—nihilism? . . . This modern philosophical preference for and overvaluing of pity is really something new. Concerning the worthlessness of pity, philosophers up to now have been in agreement. I cite only Plato, Spinoza, La Rochefoucauld, and Kant—four spirits as different from one another as possible, but united in one thing, in the low value they set on pity.—6


This problem of the value of pity and of the morality of pity (—I’m an opponent of the disgraceful modern effeminacy of feeling—) appears at first to be only something isolated, a detached question mark. But anyone who remains here for a while and learns to ask questions will experience what happened to me:—a huge new vista opens up before him, a possibility grips him like an attack of dizziness, every kind of mistrust, suspicion, and fear springs up, his belief in morality, in all morality, totters—and finally he recognizes a new demand. Let’s proclaim this new demand: we need a critique of moral values, we must first question the very value of these values—and for that we need a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances out of which these values grew, under which they have developed and changed (morality as consequence, as symptom, as mask, as Tartufferie [hypocrisy], as illness, as misunderstanding, but also morality as cause, as means of healing, as stimulant, as scruple, as poison), a knowledge of a sort that has not been there up to this point, that has not even been wished for. We have taken the worth of these “values” as given, as self-evident, as beyond all dispute. Up until now people have not even had the slightest doubts about or wavered in setting up “the good man” as more valuable than “the evil man,” of higher worth in the sense of improvement, usefulness, and prosperity with respect to mankind in general (along with the future of humanity). What about this? What if the truth were the other way around? Well? What if in the “good man” there even lay a symptom of regression, like a danger, a seduction, a poison, a narcotic, something which, for example, made the present live at the cost of the future? Perhaps in greater comfort and less danger, but also on a smaller scale and in a more demeaning way? . . . So that morality itself would be guilty if the inherently possible highest power and magnificence of the human type were never attained? So that morality itself might be the danger of dangers? . . .


Suffice it to say that once this insight revealed itself to me, I had reasons to look around me for learned, bold, and hard-working comrades (today I’m still searching). It’s a matter of travelling through the immense, distant, and so secretive land of morality—morality which has really existed, which has really been lived—with nothing but new questions and, as it were, with new eyes. Isn’t that almost like discovering this land for the first time? . . . In this matter, it so happened that, among others I thought of, the above-mentioned Dr. Rée, because I had no doubts at all that by the very nature of his questions he would be driven on his own to a more correct methodology in order to arrive at any answers. Did I deceive myself in this? At any rate, my desire was to provide a better direction for such a keen and objective eye as his, a direction leading to a true history of morality, and to advise him in time against such an English way of making hypotheses into the blue. For, indeed, it’s obvious which colour must be a hundred times more important for a genealogist of morality than this blue: namely, gray, in other words, what has been documented, what can be established as the truth, what really took place, in short, the long and difficult-to-decipher hieroglyphic writing of the past in human morality.—This was unknown to Dr. Rée. But he had read Darwin:—and so to some extent in his hypotheses the Darwinian beast and the most modern modest and tender moral sensibility, which “no longer bites,” politely extend their hands to each other in a way that is at least entertaining—with the latter bearing a facial expression revealing a certain good-natured and refined indolence, in which is even mixed a grain of pessimism and exhaustion, as if it is really not worth taking all these things—the problems of morality—so seriously.7 But for me things appear reversed: there are no issues at all which provide more incentives to take them seriously; among the rewards, for example, is the fact that one day perhaps people will be permitted to take them cheerfully. For cheerfulness, or, to say it in my own language, the gay science, is a reward, a reward for a lengthy, brave, hard-working, and underground seriousness, which, of course, is not something for everyone. But on that day when, from full hearts, we say “Forward! Our old morality also belongs in a comedy!” we’ll have discovered a new complication and possibility for the Dionysian drama of “the fate of the soul”:—and we can bet that he will put it to good use, the grand old immortal comic poet of our existence! . . .


If this writing is incomprehensible to someone or other and hurts his ears, the blame for that, it strikes me, is not necessarily mine. The writing is sufficiently clear given the conditions I assume—that people have first read my earlier writings and have taken some trouble to do so, for, in fact, these works are not easily accessible. For example, so far as my Zarathustra is concerned, I don’t consider anyone knowledgeable about it who has not at some time or another been deeply wounded by and profoundly delighted with every word in it.8 

For only then can he enjoy the privilege of sharing with reverence the halcyon element out of which that work was born, its sunny clarity, distance, breadth, and certainty. In other cases the aphoristic form creates difficulties. These stem from the fact that nowadays people do not take this form seriously enough. An aphorism, properly stamped and poured, has not yet been “deciphered” simply by being read. It’s much more the case that only now can one begin to explicate it, and that requires an art of interpretation. In the third essay of this book I have set out a model of what I call an “interpretation” for such a case.—In this essay an aphorism is presented, and the essay itself is a commentary on it. Of course, in order to practice this style of reading as art, one thing is above all essential, something that today especially has been preferably forgotten—and so it will require still more time before my writings are “readable”—something for which one almost needs to be a cow, at any rate not a “modern man”—rumination.

Sils-Maria, Oberengadin
July 1887



1The quotation is from Matthew 6.21. [Back to Text]

2a priori: This phrase refers to some idea or capacity one possesses inherently, something not provided by experience (like the ability to reason without taking the senses into account). The phrase is commonly associated with the theories of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) the great German philosopher; categorical imperative: the key phrase in Kant’s morality, the idea that moral action consists of acting upon a principle which could become a rational moral principle without creating a moral contradiction (“Act so that the maxim [which determines your will] may be capable of becoming a universal law for all rational beings”). [Back to Text]

3Paul Rée (1849-1901): a German philosopher and friend of Nietzsche’s. [Back to Text]

4Human, All-too Human was published in 1878, Wanderer in 1880 and Daybreak (or Dawn) in 1881. [Back to Text]

5Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860): German philosopher, whose work exercised a significant influence on Nietzsche, especially his emphasis on the importance of the human will. [Back to Text]

6Plato (428-348 BC): the most important of the classical Greek philosophers; Baruch de Spinoza (1632-1677): Dutch philosopher; Francois de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680): French author, famous for his maxims. [Back to Text]

7Charles Darwin (1809-1882): English natural scientist whose Origin of Species was published in 1859. [Back to Text]

8Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra was written between 1883 and 1885. [Back to Text]



[Back to johnstonia Home Page]
Page loads on johnstonia web files
20,775,454 counter statistics
View Stats