Friederich Nietzsche’s first essay in his work “On the Genealogy of Morals” is a piece titled, “Good and Evil, Good and Bad. ” The essay seeks to trace the origin of morals, specifically the distinction made between good and bad and the subjective difference separating evil and bad. He elaborates that in the modern world the way we define good and bad is never questioned since we assume those definitions were reasonably created. Over time, Nietzsche argues, we lost sight of the origin of these words, pinpointing this moment as “when aristocratic value judgments declined” (Nietzsche 26).
Nietzsche holds the ruling aristocratic class responsible for originally defining good and bad, while the common lower class followed with their own definition of good and its antithesis, evil. The focus of Nietzsche’s essay is the search to define good, bad, and evil, and the response of the weak class to classifications of good and bad made by the powerful class. It is the resentment or as he calls the ressentiment of the commoners or the “slaves” to the noble class that creates the opposing idea of what constitutes good and what is bad or evil.
The original definition of good given by the powerful aristocratic class caused resentment among the lower classes. This weaker lower class turned the tables, claiming the actions of the nobles were not simply bad, a clear turn from good, but evil, and instead the inaction and weakness inherent in the lower classes was in fact good. Nietzsche argues that the commoner’s resentment of the powerful is more aggressive than the aristocratic contempt for the weak. This deep resentment further enslaves the weak into a downcast role since the weak only define their goodness by the evil nature of the powerful.
The powerful noble class maintains their definition of good without going as far to say that the weak are evil; instead they are pitiable. The weak are unable to challenge the strong and therefore define their position as good despite their inaction, while the strong and powerful noble class is free to live in a world of activity void of constant comparisons to their counter part, the weak. Nietzsche believes time has distanced and blinded man from the original conceptions of morality that are good and bad.
The modern conceptions of good and bad come from a practical and believable story where “one approved unegoistic actions and called them good from the point of view of those to whom they were done, that is to say, those to whom they were useful…” (Nietzsche 25). Nietzsche continues that “…later one forgot how this approval originated and, simply because unegoistic actions were always habitually praised as good, one also felt them to be good- as if they were something good in themselves” (Nietzsche 25).
This is how we define good in the modern day, Nietzsche says, because once the true origin of good was ditched along the path of history, man invented a definition that seemed appropriate. He continues stating, “ The judgment ‘good’ did not originate with those to whom ‘goodness’ was shown! Rather it was ‘the good’ themselves, that is to say, the noble, powerful, high-stationed and high-minded, who felt and established themselves and their actions as good, that is, of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian” (Nietzsche 25).
The definitions of good and bad were constructed by the noble class who looked to themselves for examples of goodness and then invented a casual explanation of bad as only a contrasting necessity. Nietzsche strengthens his argument that the moral values of good and bad were defined by the noble class in a discussion of the origin of the words good and bad in multiple languages. He asks the question, “What was the real etymological significance of the designations of ‘good’ coined in the various languages?
I found they all led back to the same conceptual transformation- that everywhere ‘noble,’ ‘aristocratic’ in the social sense, is the basic concept from which good… necessarily developed” (Nietzsche 27-28). Nietzsche wishes to firmly establish that the powerful class elucidated original morality. The action to establish what is good and bad by the noble class is followed by a refutation of these establishments by the weaker class.
Nietzsche affirms that it was specifically the Jews, the priestly people of the earth, who were the first to flip the roles of good and bad in the debate of what constitutes moral behavior. The priest and the noble aristocrat are in opposition to each other. Nietzsche thought this obvious and says, “One will have divided already how easily the priestly mode of valuation can branch off from the knightly-aristocratic and then develop into its opposite; this is particularly likely when the priestly caste and the warrior class are in jealous opposition to one another and are unwilling to come to terms” (Nietzsche 33).
It is important to understand why Nietzsche focuses on the Jews in particular for being the people who reinvent the terms of morality. Nietzsche alludes to the history of the Jews as repressed people who are taken advantage of by the powerful and cruel warrior class of aristocrats. It is due to this history that “…the Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge” (Nietzsche 33-34).
This section of Nietzsche’s first essay is directed at examining the context in which the value of good was redefined, shedding light on why the revaluation of morals by the weak is insufficient and lacking conviction and merit. The trend was begun by the Jews and soon turned to the more general “slave revolt in morality” (Nietzsche 34). The slave can be the priest, the peasant, simply the overall commoner who is weak and defined by impotence.
The Jews though, were the first to “invert the aristocratic value-equation… saying ‘the wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious… and you, the powerful, noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed, and damned” (Nietzsche 34)! The definition of good has been transformed to support the inaction and inferiority of the weak.
Nietzsche does not value this change in moral standards not because he believes they are inherently wrong, but by the process in which they were constructed. The man of resentment, to which we may now refer to in place of the Jew, the priest, the commoner, or the weak, has positioned himself to be seen as good because the powerful aristocratic class is evil, cruel, and damned. This is where the problem lies and where it is seen that the argument of goodness coming from the man of resentment, although plausible and not without merit, is superficially constructed and gives no real convincing advantage to the morality of the weak.
This slave morality that is created by the man of resentment exists only from vengeance of the external idea of good created by the class of nobles that is also external to the weak and resentful. Herein lies the problem. While the powerful noble class has found what they consider good by looking in on themselves, out of their action and their values, the men of resentment on the contrary have only conjured a lucid definition of good by their blind opposition to the conceived good of the nobles.
Nietzsche says, “The 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” (Nietzsche 36-37).
The need for an opposing view of what is moral and good is needed for the man of resentment to redefine what he thinks is moral and good, yet Nietzsche argues that the slave morality does not consist of its own definition; it simply labels what was good as evil and assumes this will be a convincing argument for the goodness of those who can define the evil powerful class. The constant comparison the men of resentment make of themselves to the powerful is a fault since the slave morality these men wish to prove is void of real tangible evidence of good and can only define goodness in contrast to the evil of the powerful.
These powerful are given the upper hand because of the way they define their goodness. Whereas the men of resentment form their slave morality by the external examination of the powerful, “The reverse is the case with the noble mode of valuation: it acts and grows spontaneously, its seeks its opposite only so as to affirm itself more gratefully and triumphantly- its negative concept ‘low,’ ‘common,’ ‘bad’ is only a subsequently-invented pale, contrasting image in relation to its positive basic concept” (Nietzsche 37).
The difference is in the contempt the powerful have for the weak as opposed to the resentment the weak have for the powerful. The contempt of the weak is weak itself, where it is only a product of the original definition of good. Yet the resentment of the weak is a force that defines them instead of seeing this resentment as only valuable to define what is evil or bad after a self-created concept of good is in place. The man of resentment therefore places value in his opposition to evil.
While the evil of the powerful noble class manifests itself in actions of cruelty at times, the powerful are also more capable of better things, as they “…felt themselves to be ‘happy’; they did not have to establish their happiness artificially by examining their enemies, or to persuade themselves, deceive themselves, that they were happy” (Nietzsche 38). The man of resentment on the contrary is burdened by his constant comparison to the evil, continuously having to convince himself that he is indeed good instead of just living that way.
The man of resentment is in an unfavorable and unfortunate disadvantage. His opposition to the powerful noble always defines his livelihood and happiness, whereas the noble lives a life more free, void of constant comparison. The man of resentment defines the moral values of good and evil out of vengeance and in contrast to the self-established morality of the powerful aristocratic class. These men of resentment, who Nietzsche argues are naturally weak, define goodness not by looking to themselves but by examining the external world of the powerful, which they perceive as evil.
The weak superficially construct strength and power from their inferior position by defining good as their humble and peaceful attitude, a substitution for their natural weakness and inability to challenge the strength of the powerful noble class. These men of weakness have historically succeeded in defining their inferiority as good by demonizing the powerful, but this self-deception constrains the livelihood of the weak as they are weighed down by their constant resentment of the powerful that only hold indifferent contempt for the weak. The weak are only redefining the form of slavery that is weakness with a self-deceptive concept of good.