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What has Nietzsche done to morality?

Image of Nietzsche's head

Nietzsche is unsual as a philosopher, to say the least. He does not come out of any specific tradition and did not found a tradition or school of thought himself, although many thinkers an writers claim to have been influenced by him, all the way from existentialists to postmodernists.

His style also is unusual for a philosopher. He does not stand above and beyond human emotion with detached reason but argues passionately and polemically. In fact his passion is so fierce at times one wonders whether he is making a serious, rational point or simply trying to have a therapeutic effect on his readers.

Probably his most profound contribution is to thinking about morality, not by providing a theory but by challenging its very grounds. Nietzsche examines the pyschological, historical and cultural development of morality and concludes that it is a lie told by the weak to control the strong. To liberate themselves and to flourish the strong must see through the illusion of morality and re-evaluate all their values.

The best exposition of Nietzsche’s view of morality is given in his short book On the Genealogy of Morals and also in Twilight of the Idols and The Anitchrist.



Articles on Nietzsche

E-texts of Nietzsche's works on morality

On the Genealogy of Morals

On The Genealogy of Morals is made up of three essays, all of which question and critique the value of our moral judgments based on a genealogical method whereby Nietzsche examines the origins and meanings of our different moral concepts.

The first essay, “’Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad’” contrasts what Nietzsche calls “master morality” and “slave morality.” Master morality was developed by the strong, healthy, and free, who saw their own happiness as good and named it thus. By contrast, they saw those who were weak, unhealthy, and enslaved as “bad,” since their weakness was undesirable. By contrast, the slaves, feeling oppressed by these wealthy and happy masters, called the masters “evil,” and called themselves “good” by contrast.

In the second essay, “’Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the like” Nietzsche traces the origins of concepts such as guilt and punishment, showing that originally they were not based on any sense of moral transgression. Rather, guilt simply meant that a debt was owed and punishment was simply a form of securing repayment. Only with the rise of slave morality did these moral concepts gain their present meanings. Nietzsche identifies bad conscience as our tendency to see ourselves as sinners and locates its origins in the need that came with the development of society to inhibit our animal instincts for aggression and cruelty and to turn them inward upon ourselves.

The third essay, “What is the meaning of ascetic ideals?” confronts asceticism, the powerful and paradoxical force that dominates contemporary life. Nietzsche sees it as the expression of a weak, sick will. Unable to cope with its struggle against itself, the sick will sees its animal instincts, its earthly nature, as vile, sinful, and horrible. Unable to free itself from these instincts, it attempts to subdue and tame itself as much as possible. Nietzsche concludes that "man would rather will nothingness than not will."

The Antichrist

The Antichrist (German: Der Antichrist) was originally published in 1895. Although it was written in 1888, its controversial content made Franz Overbeck and Heinrich Köselitz delay its publication, along with Ecce Homo. The German title can be translated into English as either The Anti-Christ or The Anti-Christian, depending on how the German word Christ is translated.

The reference to the Antichrist is not intended to refer to the biblical Antichrist but is rather an attack on the "slave morality" and apathy of Western Christianity. Nietzsche's basic claim is that Christianity (as he saw it in the West) is a poisoner of western culture and perversion of the words of and practice of Jesus. In this light, the provocative title is mainly expressing Nietzsche's animus toward Christianity, as such. In this book, Nietzsche is very critical of institutionalized religion and its priest class, from which he himself was descended. The majority of the book is a systematic, logical and detailed attack upon the interpretations of Christ's words by St. Paul and those who followed him.

Twightlight of the Idols

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