Assessment of The Genealogy of Morality

Genealogy of Morality (APA Citation)

The Genealogy of Morality

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“the Genealogy of Morality”

In the modern world the term “genealogy” has taken on the connotation of the study of a family history, or a list of ancestors and offspring of a particular family. While this definition is the most common, there is another definition of the term “genealogy” which involves an account of the origin and historical development of something. It is easy to see how the study of a family’s history has evolved from this term, since it too is the origin and development of a series of relatives. But it is the more general definition of genealogy, studying the origin and historical development of something, that Friedrich Nietzsche used for the title of his book On The Genealogy of Morality. The book contains three individual essays involving a discussion of morals within modern society and the evolution of those morals over time. In other words, in the book Nietzsche traces the origin and historical development of our modern sense of morality.

In discussing the historical development of something, one must describe the thing at the beginning of a period of time, and then trace it as it is transformed over a period of time. The first essay is a discussion of the idea of morality and “what origin our terms good and evil actually have.” (Nietzsche, 2007, p.4) Nietzsche is beginning his discussion of the development of morality at the beginning, by exploring the origins of the terms “good” and “evil.” He proposes that early in the development of human civilization, when people were organized in a rudimentary manner based on strength and weakness, good and evil were defined by one’s place within society. “Master morality” and “slave morality” originated from the point-of-view of the person making the moral judgment.

From the earliest form of human society, master and slave, Nietzsche traces the development of morality into the concept of guilt and conscience. What began as a form of debt, guilt then evolved into a moral judgment through its assimilation into the slave morality. In an attempt to study this genealogically, the evolution of debt into the realm of morality is traced by Nietzsche from the earliest civilizations, through the Egyptians and on to the Romans. (Nietzsche, 2007, pp.40-41) The concept of punishment is also explored in this manner, beginning with the origin of punishment as compensation and into the idea that punishment is associated with morality and the idea of “good.” Once he discusses the origin and development of debt and punishment, Nietzsche then tackles the idea of self punishment, or conscience. He views conscience as beginning with the “instinct of freedom, forcibly made latent…,” or in other words, the denial of natural human aggression through social mores to which individuals must adhere. (Nietzsche, 2007, p.59) But bad conscience then evolves through the Christian period into a system by which sinners owe a payment to God as a punishment for their immoral deeds.

Each of Nietzsche’s individual essays traces a moral concept from it’s beginnings to its understanding in the modern world. But each essay also builds on the arguments of the earlier ones while describing the evolution of morality in totality. For instance, his first essay starts the discussion of morality at the very beginning of human civilization and takes it through the earliest societies, comprised mainly masters and slaves. It traces the how the idea of “good” and “evil: evolved from one’s position within society into a moral concept. From this point the second essay begins with the idea of “master morality” and “slave morality” and discusses how it’s concept of “good” and “evil” then became associated with the idea guilt; which itself evolved from a form of payment into a moral judgment. Finally in the last essay the various concepts discussed are shown to have been incorporated during the Christian Era into a system of where “good” and “evil” have been blended with the ideas of guilt and conscience into a system of morality.

By tracing the evolution of morality over time, Nietzsche is using a genealogical method of studying it; beginning with the earliest forms of the concepts and then describing how they changed over time. But the organization of the essays is also based on a genealogical approach. Nietzsche not only traces the history of individual moral concepts over time, but also how new moral concepts were founded on the earlier ones. Like tracing the line of a family, On The Genealogy of Morality traces how the modern understanding of moral concepts came into being over time.


Nietzsche, Frederich. (2007). On The Genealogy of Morality. New York, Cambridge UP.

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