Exegesis and Critique of Nietzsche’s Conception of Guilt In The Second Essay of On the Genealogy of Morality

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Exegesis and Critique of Nietzsche’s Conception of Guilt In The Second Essay of On the Genealogy of Morality

In the Second Essay of On the Genealogy of Morals (titled ““Guilt,” “Bad Conscience,” and the Like”), Nietzsche formulates an interesting conception of the origin and function of guilt feelings and “bad conscience.” Nietzsche’s discussion of this topic is rather sophisticated and includes sub-arguments for the ancient equivalence of the concepts of debt and guilt and the existence of an instinctive joy in cruelty in human beings, as well as a hypothesis concerning the origin of civilization, a critique of Christianity, and a comparison of Christianity to ancient Greek religion. In this essay, I will attempt to distill these arguments to their essential points.

Near the beginning of the Second Essay ““Guilt,” “Bad Conscience,” and the Like” of On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche asserts that forgetting is absolutely necessary for “all the nobler functions and functionaries” (2.1) and even the present to be possible. Furthermore, according to Nietzsche, memory, which inhibits the above functions, is not merely an inability to forget, but an active will not to forget (2.2).

Primeval man acquired the faculty of memory, according to Nietzsche, in response to his sudden enslavement at the hands of a master race (2.17). These masters set as their task the imposition of a few general rules of civilized existence (otherwise known as the morality of mores) upon their subjects, who had been “slaves of momentary affect and desire” (2.3) before their enslavement. This project, according to Nietzsche, necessitated the searing of these basic rules into the minds of the populace by means of immensely cruel acts and resulted in t...

... middle of paper ... way implies that Nietzsche is presenting the ideas of the Genealogy in bad faith; he certainly believes that they have some truth to them-but perhaps not to the extent that they are definitive. Thus, it is possible that Nietzsche, in writing his polemic, has other goals than the mere straightforward elucidation of a philosophical system. If this view is adopted, many of Nietzsche’s radical notions and unsupported assertions become easier to stomach. Of course, such a softening of the impact of Nietzsche’s claims may destroy the fundamental mind-opening project that lies at the heart of the book, since the shock of encountering such views is clearly essential to that project.

Works Cited:

Nietzsche, Friedrich On the Genealogy of Morals contained in: Nietzsche Basic Writings Of Nietzsche translated and edited Walter Kaufman. New York: The Modern Library, 1992.
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