- On God and Guilt:A Reply to Aaron Ridley
1. Let me begin by distinguishing two conceptions of guilt. The first conceives of guilt as an experience of reprehensible failure in response to specific actions. I feel guilty if I break a promise for reasons that cannot justify this transgression. This conception of guilt as a responsive attitude, which I call locally-reactive guilt, captures a tension in one's agency that arises from a local failure. The second conception understands guilt as a condition that shapes one's whole existence. Guilt, on this view, is a persistent feeling of imperfection. Such guilt, existential guilt, presupposes a reference point vis-à-vis which one's life is so experienced. This reference is most plausibly a shared understanding of moral perfection within a community that is so demanding as to make it hard or impossible to live up to its standards. While the adoption of the Christian God offers one explanation for the emergence of such a shared understanding, other explanations of existential guilt are possible (see section 5 below). Existential guilt manifests itself especially in locally-reactive guilt, but there can be locally-reactive guilt without existential guilt.
I submit that Nietzsche is not particularly interested in locally-reactive guilt, and that his vision of the future of humanity can accommodate such guilt. That conception of guilt, at any rate, is not tied to the Christian sittliche Weltordnung that Nietzsche attacks, or to other thick metaphysical or ethical views. Locally-reactive guilt merely presupposes that some set of expectations is in place and perceived as binding. What Nietzsche is interested in is existential guilt. As far as the Genealogy is concerned, this is to some extent a hermeneutical preconception based on my understanding of the German-speaking or otherwise European culture in which Nietzsche operated—a culture in which religious diversity generally amounted merely to the joint presence of Catholics and Lutherans (or, in some places, other Protestants) in the same area, interspersed with relatively small groups of Jews, and in which the Christian legacy was prevalent across all sections of culture. Existential guilt as it appears in Christian hereditary sin, or under the description of mea culpa, mea magna culpa, mea maxima culpa in the Catholic confession, was familiar, and it was this notion, alongside ressentiment and the ascetic ideal, that Nietzsche sets out to explore in the Genealogy. He never bothers to explain this, but if I am right it is easy to see why not: he was firmly embedded in the culture of his day—and so, of course, [End Page 46] were his original readers, as well as those of his contemporary readers who share with him much of the same cultural background (including, in particular, the connotations of the German language).
Yet this understanding of guilt is not a mere preconception. Passages in the Genealogy make it plausible that Nietzsche was interested in existential guilt, rather than locally-reactive guilt. He introduces guilt by talking about a "Bewusstsein der Schuld," a consciousness of guilt (section 4), and links it to the "bad conscience." By talking about "the" bad conscience, I emulate the quasi-institutional understanding present in German, according to which "the" bad conscience is like the voice of God in our minds. That same bad conscience is then, in section 16, characterized as a "deep illness" of humankind that accompanied the "most thorough of all changes" that humankind had ever undergone, and in section 21 Nietzsche says about guilt that it "fixes itself firmly, eats into him [the debtor], spreads out, and grows like a polyp in every breadth and depth." Such passages, in particular this last one, render it plausible that Nietzsche talks about existential guilt. Nietzsche's é"bermenschen, for example, may well display guilt in the locally-reactive sense, since they do, after all, have duties toward each other—but while Nietzsche would have no qualms acknowledging that much, he would not describe what guilt they are susceptible to along such lines. GM II, then, seems to be concerned with existential guilt.
I have more or less assumed as much in my 2001 article, but I have taken it so much...