A Christian Response to Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals
A major debate in apologetics centers around the origins of morality. Those of us at Apologetics Press have argued that the very existence of morality proves the existence of God (see Jackson, 1995). On the other hand, Friedrich Nietzsche was “a German philosopher of the late 19th century who challenged the foundations of Christianity and traditional morality” (Wicks, 2010). It is important for Christians to understand Nietzsche’s perspective, as it still is regularly taught as an important critique of religion (e.g., Solomon, 2008, pp. 177-182).
He wrote The Genealogy of Morals in 15 days (2003 reprint). This work developed some of the ideas he introduced in previous works (see “The Perspectives of Nietzsche,” n.d.). A statement of Nietzsche’s nihilist thesis is repeated in the last line of the work: “I said at the beginning—man will wish Nothingness rather than not wish at all” (p. 118). Nietzsche concluded that animals and men share the fundamental ability to exert their will, and that such a willingness is the primary function of both animals and men (2006, p. 355; see Cavalier, n.d.). This article will explicate Nietzsche’s position concerning the origins of morality, showing how they conflict with Christianity. Then, areas of Christian agreement with Nietzsche will be noted. Finally, his assessment will be critiqued from a Christian standpoint.
Nietzsche made clear from the outset his goal to assess the relative value of values. He believed such an assessment is possible via a study of the origins of morality itself: “[F]or this purpose a knowledge is necessary of the conditions and circumstances out of which these values grew, and under which they experienced their evolution and their distortion (morality as a result, as a symptom, as a mask…as disease, as a misunderstanding; but also morality as a cause, as a remedy, as a stimulant, as a fetter, as a drug)” (p. 5, parenthetical item in orig.).
Nietzsche attached value to that which affirms life rather than anything life-denying. “No one has, up to the present, exhibited the faintest doubt or hesitation in judging the ‘good man’ to be of a higher value than the ‘evil man,’ of a higher value with regard specifically to human progress, utility, and prosperity generally, not forgetting the future” (p. 6). Nietzsche made clear his conviction, that human morality prevents man from reaching the “maximum potentiality of the power and splendour of the human species” (p. 6). In this way, Nietzsche introduced the possibility that morality may be “the danger of dangers” (p. 6). That which is of value is that which is beneficial to the race in a physical way, not that which is “good” by any moral standard (see p. 10). Nietzsche emphatically asked, “Under what conditions did Man invent for himself those judgments of values, ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’? And what intrinsic value do they possess in themselves? Have they up to the present hindered or advanced human well-being?” (p. 3, emp. added).
As a practical example of his general value system, Nietzsche accepted the “worthlessness of pity” (p. 5). For Nietzsche, to feel pity is to do two things: (1) assume a status elevated above the one being pitied, and (2) share the concern of another. Since neither of these things specifically promotes the strength of human life and the development of the species, Nietzsche rejected pity (see p. 5).
Nietzsche accounted for the development of morality in a physical world controlled by nature (developing according to natural selection). Essentially, Nietzsche believed that good and evil, as concepts, were brought into being by weaker individuals who developed a clever method of placing guilt—a sense of indebtedness—upon stronger individuals. This was the method used by the weak to make themselves equal to those superior in power.
For Nietzsche, the ancient Hebrews embodied this approach. “It was the Jews who, in opposition to the aristocratic equation (good = aristocratic = happy = loved by the gods), dared with a terrifying logic to suggest the contrary equation, and indeed to maintain with the teeth of the most profound hatred (the hatred of weakness)” (p. 17, parenthetical items in orig.). It is possible for the weak to hate and eventually overcome the strong in some cases, as evinced by the children of Israel escaping Egyptian slavery (see p. 17). “[I]t was, in fact, with the Jews that the revolt of the slaves begins in the sphere of morals; that revolt which has behind it a history of two millennia, and which at the present day has only moved out of our sight, because it—has achieved victory” (p. 17).
Similarly, Nietzsche thought that Christians are guilty of perverting the natural order, because Christianity sprung forth from Judaism. “This Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate gospel of love, this ‘Redeemer’ bringing salvation and victory to the poor, the sick, the sinful—was he not really temptation in its most sinister and irresistible form, temptation to take the tortuous paths to those very Jewish values and those very Jewish ideals?” (p. 18). On Nietzsche’s view, only through Christ has Israel “really obtained the final goal of its sublime revenge, of a far-seeing, burrowing revenge, both acting and calculating with slowness…so that all the enemies of Israel—could nibble without suspicion at this very bait” (p. 18). Christ brought what Nietzsche called the dangerous “revolt of the slaves in morals” to the whole world (p. 19; cf. p. 21). Nietzsche illustrated his position in a historical fashion:
The symbol of this fight, written in a writing which has remained worthy of perusal throughout the course of history up to the present time, is called “Rome against Judaea, Judaea against Rome.” Hitherto there has been no greater event than that fight, the putting of that question, that deadly antagonism. Rome found in the Jew the incarnation of the unnatural, as though it were its diametrically opposed monstrosity, and in Rome the Jew was held to be convicted of hatred of the whole human race: and rightly so, in so far as it is right to link the well-being and future of the human race to the unconditional mastery of the aristocratic values, of the Roman values (p. 31).
The analogy of Rome versus Judea served Nietzsche because Rome was the very essence of strength and aristocracy.
Nietzsche thought that part of the reason why the weak won at various times such a magnificent victory is the strong people’s inability to “take seriously for any length of time their enemies, their disasters, their misdeeds” (p. 21). The weak, on the other hand, busy themselves creating an enemy, in order that they may fulfill their goal of loving their enemies. Weak people call themselves good and consider their enemies evil (p. 21). “And when the lambs say among themselves, ‘Those birds of prey are evil, and he who is as far removed from being a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—is he not good?’” (p. 25). According to Nietzsche, the lambs’ assessment is wrong because their standard of good and evil is imaginary. They should, according to Nietzsche, respect and emulate the strong because only this way may excellence in the human race be advanced. To accuse the stronger of wrongdoing is to reject the natural order of human development, and to attempt to prevent the advent of the “superman.”
Nietzsche located as the ultimate rejection of human growth and progress, and most obvious promotion of morality, the ascetic ideal. This ideal, according to Nietzsche, “has no meaning” (p. 71; cf. Wimbush and Valantasis, 1998). “[P]olitical superiority always resolves itself into the idea of psychological superiority, in those cases where the highest caste is at the same time the priestly caste, and in accordance with its general characteristics confers on itself the privilege of a title which alludes specifically to its priestly function” (p. 15). It is at this point that “there develops a ‘good’ and a ‘bad,’ in a sense which has ceased to be merely social” (p. 15). Nietzsche explained how ascetics construe their philosophy as affirming life (p. 86), but maintained that the ascetic life actually is life-denying. “[I]t can fairly be stated that it is on the soil of this essentially dangerous form of human society, the sacerdotal [priestly or relating to asceticism—CC] form, that man really becomes for the first time an interesting animal, that it is in this form that the soul of man has in a higher sense attained depths and become evil” (p. 16). Man is interesting, according to Nietzsche, because he is able to deny himself (see p. 16), and become self-destructive (see p. 87).
For Nietzsche, the ultimate glorification of suffering came in the concoction of the notion of “sin”:
Imagine man, suffering from himself, some way or other but at any rate physiologically, perhaps like an animal shut up in a cage, not clear as to the why and the wherefore!… [L]o and behold, he gets a hint from…the ascetic priest, his first hint on the ‘cause’ of his trouble: he must search for it in himself, in his guiltiness, in a piece of the past, he must understand his very suffering as a state of punishment…. The sick man has been turned into the ‘sinner’ (p. 102).
As Nietzsche developed his concept of guilt as it relates to the faultiness of the ascetic ideal, he turned to the origin of a specific, traditionally accepted moral virtue, namely justice. “[P]unishment developed as a retaliation absolutely independently of any preliminary hypothesis of the freedom or determination of the will” (p. 39). According to Nietzsche, the “cardinal moral idea of ‘ought’ originates from the very material idea of ‘owe’” (p. 39). There was no abstract moral ideal of justice (let alone a divinely ordained standard of justice), but only a sense of retaliation based on debt:
Throughout the longest period of human history punishment was never based on the responsibility of the evil-doer for his action, and was consequently not based on the hypothesis that only the guilty should be punished;—on the contrary, punishment was inflicted in those days for the same reason that parents punish their children even nowadays, out of anger at an injury that they have suffered, an anger which vents itself mechanically on the author of the injury—but this anger is kept in bounds and modified through the idea that every injury has somewhere or other its equivalent price, and can really be paid off, even though it be by means of pain to the author (p. 39).
This relationship between “creditor and ower,” according to Nietzsche, is the origin of traditional justice. The justice Nietzsche would prefer consists of the strong imposing their will upon the weak (see p. 47). This accords with the Darwinian principle of the survival of the fittest (cf. Thompson, n.d.).
Nietzsche expands his idea that Christian morality requires destruction: “The two opposing values, ‘good and bad,’ ‘good and evil,’ have fought a dreadful, thousand-year fight in the world” (2003, p. 31). Nietzsche also misrepresents Thomas Aquinas as suggesting that the saved will glory in the destruction of those who will be condemned (p. 29; cf. Aquinas, pp. 93-94).
POINTS OF AGREEMENT
Before critiquing Nietzsche, it is essential to note several points from The Genealogy with which the Christian would agree. First, the ascetic ideal may be abused and may not be the highest ideal (however, the ascetic ideal does not necessarily imply nihilism or a glorification of suffering). Second, there is little debate concerning Nietzsche’s historical point that up to his time, “the ascetic ideal dominated all philosophy, because Truth was fixed as Being, as God, as the Supreme Court of Appeal…” (p. 111). Third, Nietzsche is wholly correct in his minor observation that science is not without presupposition (p. 110).
POINTS OF DISAGREEMENT
There are many levels on which Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian conception of the origins of morality (as far as it goes in The Genealogy) fails. Such problems may be summarized in three general objections. First, Nietzsche was wrong to base his moral philosophy solely upon a rejection of the supernatural, and especially a supernatural origin of morality. Only in such an atheistic framework can Nietzsche’s ideals succeed, because they presuppose that humanity may continue to evolve until a superman emerges as the result of many natural selections. However, Nietzsche merely assumed the naturalist perspective in The Genealogy, without offering justification.
For Nietzsche, God is imaginary, and heaven is a “phantasmagoria” (2003, p. 28). This conviction was influenced largely by Darwinism (see p. 6). If, however, it can be proven that God exists (and it can; see Warren and Flew, 1977), and if there is a spiritual realm that is superior to the merely natural realm, then Christianity immediately becomes superior to Nietzsche’s naturalism, because Christianity’s central focus is helping man to prepare for a greater, immortal existence after earthly life ends. Furthermore, one wonders why Nietzsche feels it is his right to critique Christianity, if Christianity is merely an authentic, natural result of evolution. Perhaps Nietzsche senses that something like Christian morality could not exist if there is no God.
Perhaps the naturalistic feature of Nietzsche’s critique explains why Nazis used some of his principles in developing their ideology, which had as its goal the preservation of a superior race (see Santaniello, 1994 pp. 144ff.). The Nazi goal was a secular, humanistic objective that required the validity of atheism as a philosophical ground. Nietzsche ironically rejected antisemitism in his own day, at least partially due to his assessment of Nazism itself as “a slave revolt” (see Santaniello, p. 138). Nietzsche’s frustration with ancient Jewry conflicts with his sympathy for modern Jewry in such a way as to make the philosophy in The Genealogy inconsistent, not to mention unappealing to anyone wishing to avoid racism.
Second, Nietzsche was wrong when he disallowed that there is any strength other than brute, physical power. Inherent in this rejection is a contempt for “that earthly life ‘in faith,’ ‘in love,’ ‘in hope’” (2003, p. 28). Nietzsche is forced to deny that there is any good at all in the ascetic ideal. For example, Nietzsche denies that strength is involved in grace.
The justice which began with the maxim, “Everything can be paid off, everything must be paid off,” ends with connivance at the escape of those who cannot pay to escape—it ends, like every good things on earth, by destroying itself.—The self-destruction of Justice! We know the pretty name it calls itself—Grace! It remains, as is obvious, the privilege of the strongest, better still, their super-law (p. 47).
In response, consider the sacrifice of Christ on the cross as the primary expression of grace in the religious context. Christ showed a great deal of spiritual and psychological (not to mention physical) strength as he willingly accepted death by crucifixion (Luke 22:39-23:47). Christianity does not exalt weakness in itself, but neither does it exalt physical strength in itself. Rather, the human being is to care for his body in order to use it in religious service, recognizing that spiritual strength is more important than bodily strength (1 Timothy 4:8; cf. John 6:27; Matthew 6:19-34). The New Testament calls for us not to be supermen, but humble servants who will receive glorification in the life to come (Matthew 16:26-27; 25:31-40; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Pity, considered in the context of compassion, is laudable and not a sign of weakness (see Matthew 18:23-35; 20:34; Mark 1:41; cf. Jonah 4:11).
Third, Nietzsche was wrong in his conviction that Christianity is responsible for atrocities. While some have evoked the name of Christ as they have carried out sinful actions, a careful study of the Bible reveals that righteous living is never responsible for unjust destruction (see Butt, 2009, cf. Colley, 2010). Furthermore, for all of Nietzsche’s criticism, expression of ascetic ideals frequently has been characterized by features of stoicism, and many ascetics who style themselves Christian have been peaceful (Hardman, 1921, pp. 33-34,186ff.). Would Nietzsche have ascetics assert themselves in the name of fitness, or retreat in peacefulness in order to absolve religion of the charge of vicious wrongdoing?
Nietzsche’s naturalist account of the origins of morality turns the biblical account on its head, and may seem plausible on first reading. However, further study reveals that it is based upon false assumptions. Nietzsche thinks the biblical God is “god of the sick, God as a spider, God as spirit…among the most corrupt concepts of the divine the world has ever accepted” (1990, p. 140). Christians must be prepared to answer such charges, while wishing that Nietzsche had taken more care to examine the contours of God’s nature and of the goodness He prescribes, and to conform his life and philosophical work to them.
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