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The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 29 (2005) 35-45

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Guilt Before God, or God Before Guilt?

The Second Essay of Nietzsche's Genealogy

The second essay of Nietzsche's "polemic," On the Genealogy of Morals, is a rich and elusive piece, full of valuable hints and suggestions, but difficult finally to pin down. The essays that flank it are, in their own ways, more straightforward, and have attracted the lion's share of critical attention—the first essay for its account of the slave revolt in morality, the third for its account of the principal fruit of that revolt, the ascetic ideal. But the second essay is absolutely central, both as glue to hold essays 1 and 3 together and as a source of answers to questions that its companion pieces either elide or leave hanging. In my book, Nietzsche's Conscience: Six Character Studies from the "Genealogy," I offered a reading of the second essay in which I tried to clarify its main theme—the bad conscience—and to show how it fitted in with and illuminated the other two essays.1 Mathias Risse, in a recent article, has objected to that reading.2 The immediate issue between us—and one central to an understanding of the essay as a whole—concerns the transformation, by a process that Nietzsche calls "moralization," of the concept of debt into the concept of guilt. My view is that the moralizing process, on Nietzsche's account, is essentially independent of transcendental presuppositions, and is logically prior to the invention of (the Christian) God. Risse disagrees. According to him, a moralized concept of guilt necessarily presupposes God, and so is transcendentally informed from the start. But the difference between us is not merely one of exegesis. If Risse is right, the scope of Nietzsche's insights into the process of moralization is restricted to it as it occurs in certain quite narrowly theocratic contexts. If I am right, the scope of those insights is potentially far wider. To this extent, our disagreement is a disagreement about Nietzsche's continuing importance. I begin by setting out my own position (section 1). I then turn to Risse's reading, which depends on three considerations, none of them, in my view, convincing: a postcard that Nietzsche wrote (section 2); an issue about translation (section 3); and the development of ideas culminating, according to him, in section 21 of the Genealogy's second essay (section 4). I conclude by explaining why it matters, in the larger scheme of things, that my reading is right (section 5).

1. In section 4 of the second essay, Nietzsche asks, "But how did that other 'somber thing,' the consciousness of guilt, the 'bad conscience,' come into the [End Page 35] world?"3 His answer, when it arrives, involves two distinct stages.4 The first stage concerns what he calls "the internalisation of man"—the result of the suppression of instinct engendered by enclosure "within the walls of society and peace": "All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward ... : thus it was that man first developed what was later called his 'soul.' The entire inner world, originally as thin as if it were stretched between two membranes, expanded and extended itself, acquired depth, breadth, and height, in the same measure as outward discharge was inhibited" (GM II.16). This new inner space is presented by Nietzsche as a theater of self-laceration, an arena in which man vents his instinct for cruelty inwardly, upon himself, and Nietzsche refers to this condition as the "bad conscience." Initially, at least, bad conscience is not evenly distributed: those at the apex of the social order (the nobles) experience less repression of instinct, and so are less internalized and less subject to the sufferings of self-cruelty than those at the bottom (the slaves). But even those at the top "are held ... sternly in check ... by custom, respect, usage" (GM I.11); and so even they are subject to some degree of bad conscience.5 At...


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