guilt and bad conscience


In Part II of The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche treats us to an analysis of guilt and bad conscience. Essay II is often regarded as the least successful of the book’s three essays, but read politically it may, in fact, be the most interesting.


He starts by going back to antiquity and shows that here we find an unapologetic cruelty, a malice that man was not ashamed of. The penalties were more severe, and violence was more common. In Rome, the ruling classes threw people to the lions, and people witnessed outsiders and rebels being executed as a kind of entertainment; a sort of tribute to the existing order.


But the further we skip ahead in time, towards safe and civilized societies, the more we lose sight of this unapologetic cruelty. Instead, we begin to find values ​​such as tolerance and empathy for the weak. People born and raised in such societies have never directly witnessed the starting point that initially made such societies possible in the first place. Thus, the person formed by such societies has never known anything but a degree of comfort that is unique in a historical and global context. Many end up subscribing to an anthropology where empathy and compassion are regarded as humanity’s defining characteristics, and they intuitively project this view of humankind to the rest of the world.


Another effect of the civilizing process is that man’s ability to stand by his promises and agreements is gradually reinforced through sociality. The perception of humanity’s capacity to behave consistently over time is strengthened. The view of man’s being in the world moves from arbitrary to causal.


Like Hume, Nietzsche thus sees the liberal, atomized individual as a product of the historical process, and not a pre-existent ontological entity. Man’s ability to extend his will causally across time is closely associated with the civilizing process and is one of the clearest variables between societies. Of course, the differences are the most clearly visible between the West and the rest of the world. But even comparing Northern and Southern Europeans, we can observe differences in the view of man’s ability to stand by his agreements over time.


Through strong states that were initially unbelievably cruel – using torture, executions, and public desecration of dead bodies – man finally learned to make one big promise: behave nicely and do not act on your instincts. When the state is an effective punisher, people ultimately internalize the struggle they originally had against their competitors. The conflict becomes meaningless as the sovereign is ubiquitous and strong. The struggle for asserting oneself against one’s fellow human beings is transformed into a struggle to be accepted by the sovereign. It becomes a battlestruggle against one’s own impulses, as it were, and thus a struggle against oneself. In Nietzsche’s eyes, this was how man developed conscience.


Cruelty was not unique to the European states, but the extent of executions and the states’ control of deviants within their territories were. It is thus fully compatible that the European states are today the most compassionate and that they were once the most cruel.


The man who is shaped by modern society sees only empathy and tolerance. He has forgotten the cruelty that was the prerequisite for such tenderness. He has absorbed a view of morality that is fundamentally passive; where the sum of morality consists exclusively in refraining from conduct that may awaken upset others (crime and skimping on one’s promises, but also racism, sexism, xenophobia, and, ultimately, criticism of those who are different). Morality is not seen as a community affair, but something personal. The enforcement of the basic order of society, as well as the responsibility to expel or punish those who do not want this order, is hard to grapple with for the man who is essentially passive.


For such people it is safer to remain passive while proclaiming their alleged moral qualities to the world – respect, tolerance, inclusion, and co-operation. In this way, the passive man signals that he is a desirable subject whom the magistrates of the state would want as their tax base. Likewise, passive man also signals that he is not a threat to anyone. Politics with an iron fist is left for others to take care of.


In the past, this attitude made good sense, since power was concentrated in the hands of a sovereign who had a direct, personal, and concentrated interest in the preservation of his realm. But it works less well in a democracy where people with this passive view of morality can organize themselves politically and come together to pay tribute to what they regard as the positive (that is, respect, tolerance, and inclusion) while confirming to each other that it is wrong to deal with the negative (that is, decisions that require a measure of the cruelty that was originally the prerequisite for order and which, throughout history, has often become a renewed necessity when people from different stages of the civilizational process are made to live side by side). In other words, morality works best for the passive man when someone makes the really difficult decisions on his behalf and takes the out of his hands.


The reactive person perceives morality as a struggle against his own impulses. According to Nietzsche, this means that he will inevitably run into problems, as he will from time to time recognize the original human instincts in himself – instincts such as aggression, self-assertion, cruelty, and reluctance to accept those who are different. Because of his passive view of morality, this type man is overwhelmed by feelings of guilt when it happens.


Since for the passive man what is to be avoided is active, the virile action, such a man is fundamentally unable to address those societal problems that really require action and courage. Uncomfortable in his own skin but cut off from action, the passive man’s obvious course of action for type of man is to transfer his bad conscience onto others; to find scapegoats that can be denounced as immoral and be expelled from the flock.


If one has bought into morality as a passive – a sort of catalogue of behavior, one must simply passively seek to avoid – the one who is active becomes the obvious scapegoat. Thus, passive man ends up directing his resources –  not against those societal problems that are seriously difficult to solve – but against the impetuous people proposing effective solutions to them.


As products of safe and civilized societies, such people prefer to forget the cruelty and celebrate the achievements of the civilizational process – tolerance, empathy, compassion, and charity. They are like an oak tree that does not want to hear that it was once an acorn, or t. The butterfly, who  will not acknowledge that it was once a caterpillar. In other words,   they are moral free riders who cannot themselves solve the problems their freeriding creates while simultaneously making it difficult for others to do so.