Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals – The Evolution of Meaning

When we talk about genealogy, the first thing that comes to mind is, of course, kinship, lineage and ancestry – and aptly so, for genealogy is the study of all these things – family ties and family trees, kin and ancestor, bloodlines and relations.

There is, however, a book that uses genealogy in quite a different way from how we’ve always come to understand it. Instead of studying genealogy as a form of tracing the root and kinship of a person, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals tackles instead, the genealogy of morality, its terminology and the meanings attached to it as morality evolved in time. Published in 1887, the book has gained popularity the world over for its deep philosophical insight and for the way it’s author, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, has challenged our established views on Christianity and morals.

Three essays make up the body of the book, namely “Good and Evil, Good and Bad”, “Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters” and “What do Ascetic Ideals Mean?” The three essays chronicle the evolution of morality as it takes on different meaning in different periods of time throughout history.

Nietzsche’s book points out that it is precisely because of its long history that morality takes on different meanings as it lives out its course in time. As he traces its genealogy, Nietzsche finds that different groups of people in different situations and contexts in history bend morality’s meaning to their collective will, making it conform to the norms of the times. For example, the concept of what is “good” will have a different meaning among healthy, strong people like barbarians, while that very same concept will change to suit the will of a group of weak ascetics.

Another way of looking at it is by taking the example of slavery into consideration. In the past, there was no question on the morality of slavery. It was taken as the norm and was considered part of life and of the society’s moral principles. Now, society has evolved and the meanings attached to the concept of slavery have evolved as well. Today, it is considered not just immoral but also inhuman and is generally frowned upon if not considered outright illegal in almost all parts of the world.

Exploring the genealogy and history of morality has led the author to believe that there can be no absolute truth or absolute meaning. Meaning changes to suit the times and the people who are involved, therefore, our current concept of morality should not be so rigid or set or structured. Instead, we should be open to accepting the fact that many different groups of people throughout history have influenced our current meaning and to take it at face value would be a great error in judgment.

Other subtopics such as guilt, conscience and asceticism are explored further in the book. Although deeply philosophical, and a challenging read, On the Genealogy of Morals is a fascinating study on human morality, its evolution in time and man’s indefatigable “will to will” that, as Nietzsche discovered, cannot be denied. It’s not your average paperback novel, but with an open mind a curiosity for things philosophical, you might find this a worthwhile read.