On Guilt and Domestication
In Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, the nineteenth century philosopher describes the transition of humanity, from animal to man: the religious domestication of individuals into the herd, turning our will to power inward, rather than outward. In the first essay of the Genealogy, Nietzsche sets the foundation for understanding the change from master morality to slave morality, and in doing so challenges the moral framework in conceiving issues as either good or bad, and good or evil. However, it is in the second essay where we find the deeper consequences of, what I’ll call the mastery over the self, leading not only to guilt, or bad conscience, and ultimately to a state of domestication.
Nietzsche begins by, at least somewhat, praising of the “breeding of an animal that can promise” (Genealogy, Essay II, §1, pg. 211), insofar as it becomes a major accomplishment on the road to mastery over the self. But for Nietzsche’s sense of naturalism to be balanced, he makes forgetfulness, or rather, the act of forgetting, an integral function on that same road to mastery. The act of forgetting is important, not just because it allows us to incorporate an imperfect memory, but for the fact that it is an active process that we carry out; it reinforces our memory and makes the world bearable, but also reinforces our responsibility.
One has to consider why responsibility is even a value in the first place, and why it has been with our society for so long; let alone the motivations for its promotion. For Nietzsche, there is no ‘objective morality’, but merely a ‘morality of custom’ (Genealogy, Essay II, §2, pg. 212). What this means is that culture, not a deity, nor inheritance, sets forward the rules and traditions of the time. This is of course not to say that Nietzsche is taking a stance against evolution, as the Genealogy was especially influenced by the work of Charles Darwin, but that throughout our history as a species, emotions in reaction toward the real world like disgust, fear, anger, lust, and honor, were reinforced by the respective tribe of humans in order to best suit their survival. When it comes to the value of responsibility, we can look to two instances in our history: 1) the discovery of our self, or conscience, ultimately leading to the understanding of our will to power, and 2) the turning inward of our will, stemming from the desire to have mastery over the self. Unfortunately, the only hint that Nietzsche leaves for us as to why this takes place, is the emergence of a slave morality, where the morals of the masters is turned on its head. Slaves, or maybe the hierarchical bottom of society, felt a deep oppression, which fueled what Nietzsche refers to as ressentiment, or resentment. This resentment informed the lower class of society to deep specific human qualities as evil, and in doing so, found within them a desire to punish men who sought and committed acts of evil. And as I’ll show later on, it’s an ethic that has been preserved into the present.
As this ethic persisted from ancient times and into medieval Europe, it took on an economy of its own. Made possible by the Catholic Church, society (not only the plebeians, but the aristocracy as well), adopted life-denying, or rather ascetic principles, to guide one’s life. This is made clear by the laws and customs which we still track up to today, but also the very ethos of personal responsibility and autonomy. The sovereign individual is one who has attained mastery over the self, but with that comes a kind of moral baggage that one can be held standard to. This is where guilt and a desire to punish becomes important. If one outwardly exercises their will to power, whether it be for legitimizing political power, or for creative power, in differentiating yourself from the herd, this could be viewed as selfish, or potentially worse as evil. Because of this, we are made to feel guilty when acting for ourselves. This guilt is then reinforced by way of making a creditor and debtor relationship with the world. Feeling guilt leads to bad conscience, and forces us to take on debt when we promise to behave and obey, or act in such a way that does not deviate from society. This debt commonly taken as the extraction of monetary value or resources, but sometimes literally taken as a pound of flesh; we have a particular memory or image of medieval times, as a brutal and draconian era, because of this fact. So, what then, is the motivation behind enacting such an ethic, aside from the feeling of resentment? The mitigation of suffering.
It does not appear to be a bad thing, as far as humanity goes, to mitigate suffering, to the best of our abilities, so why does Nietzsche condemn the Christians for doing this? Nietzsche regards “bad conscience as the serious illness which man was bound to contract under the stress of the most radical change which he has ever experienced - that change, when he found himself finally imprisoned within the pale of society and of peace” (Genealogy, Essay II, §16, pg. 233). This illness of bad conscience is so serious, because man takes a moral precedence of society over the individual, and a repression of the will to power. He goes on in Section 16 to describe how when the water animals, in the history of evolution, had to adapt to walking on land, and deal with the oppressive encumbrance of gravity and walking upright, on two feet. The only option it seems was adapt our old instincts toward our new environment, even with some of the selfish, ‘warlike’ instincts coming with us; invariably leading to the internalization of sin, not having mastered our emotions and gut instincts. Herein lies the problem that Nietzsche is so worried about: the widespread adoption of ascetic principles, and a slowly degrading culture of mediocrity.
If an attempt to reduce suffering for the whole of humanity is made your goal, especially for the safeguarding of your eternal soul, then by Nietzsche’s standards, you become less of a person; more man than animal. Aside from Nietzsche’s strong support for the Dionysian over the Apollonian in his earlier works, he is recognizing that Europe, especially its Christian sect, has fallen into nihilism. The idea that if we redeem all of our earthly sins, only to be rewarded in an afterlife is descriptively life-denying. Moreover, Nietzsche is playing the prophet, and warning future generations, specifically the people of the twentieth century, not to fall into that same nihilism. With the rise of the postmodernism and the existentialist philosophers in the twentieth century, a new era of post-Truth and atheism was born. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead. He remains dead. And we have killed him.” The message here to take away is that without finding deeper meaning in a religious experience, humanity is bound to find meaning in lesser, material matters of the world.
That materiality is the final nail in the coffin. In the twenty-first century, where Capitalism has led to many prosperous times, it has also led to a pernicious consumerism and desire for comfortability. With every aspect of our lives transformed into modern conveniences, we no longer have to bear the suffering of our ancestors, in working toward meaning. Rather than standing tall and embracing creativity and ambition, we simply blend into the herd.