14 Apr 2009

Fighting the Universal Spider in Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals, Third Essay, section 9

Friedrich Nietzsche

On the Genealogy of Morals.

Third Essay


Philosophers are fond of ascetic virtues. One might conclude that philosophy began on the basis of ascetic ideals.

We notice certain tendencies in philosophers:
a) doubting,
b) denying,
c) suspending judgment,
d) analyzing,
e) investigating,
f) seeking,
g) daring, [in the Johnston translation: " to take chances"]
h) comparing and balancing,
i) being neutral and objective
j) being impartial and dispassionate.

The philosopher seems to be distant from himself. This is probably because he strives for what is forbidden, and he wants not to be reminded of that. (548-549) We are proud of our modern accomplishments. But they too are the products of hubris and striving for the forbidden.
Our whole attitude toward nature, the way we violate her with the aid of machines and the heedless inventiveness of our technicians and engineers, is hubris; our attitude toward God as some alleged spider of purpose and morality behind the great captious web of causality, is hubris – we might say, with Charles the Bold when he opposed Louis XI, "je combats l'universelle araignée" [I fight the universal spider.] (549b)
Our attitudes toward ourselves is hubris too. Just as we take nature apart to understand her inner workings, we do the same in our self-examinations.
All good things were formally bad things; every original sin has turned into an original virtue. (549d)
Consider marriage for example. For a long time, it was deemed a transgression against the community. For in marriage, one claims exclusive rights to a woman. Even human law itself was originally considered a violent violation against natural law. To bow to the law was to consent to something forbidden. (550b)

Humans have advanced to the point where we are rational and free. But before we got to this point, we lived under much wilder conditions. Before society developed the moral laws we have now, virtues were traits that aided survival in the wild, for example, cruelty, dissembling, and revenge. Also during these earlier times, well-being, thirst for knowledge, peace, and pity were dangerous. Being pitied and work were disgraceful, but madness was divine. (550d)

From the Ian Johnston translation:

A certain asceticism, as we have seen, a hard and cheerful renunciation in the best wills, belongs to those conditions favourable to the highest spirituality and is also among its most natural consequences. So, of course, it's no wonder that philosophers in particular never treat the ascetic ideal without some bias. A serious historical review demonstrates that the tie between the ascetic ideal and philosophy is even much narrower and stronger. We could say it was in the leading reins of this ideal that philosophy in general learned to take its first small steps on earth—alas, still so awkwardly, alas, still with such a morose expression, alas, so read to fall over and lie on its belly, this small, tentative, clumsy, loving infant with crooked legs!
At the start, with philosophy things played themselves out as with all good things: for a long time it had no courage for itself—it always looked around to see if anyone would come to its assistance and yet was afraid of all those who gazed at it. Just make a list of the individual desires and virtues of the philosopher—his desire to doubt, his desire to deny, his desire to wait (the "ephectic" desire), his desire to analyze, his desire to research, to seek out, to take chances, his desire to compare and weigh evenly, his will for neutrality and objectivity, his will to that "sine ira et studio" [without anger and partiality]—can you not understand that all of them went against the demands of morality and conscience (to say nothing at all about reason in general, which even Luther liked to call Mrs. Clever, the Clever Whore) and that if a philosopher had come to an awareness of himself, he would have necessarily felt that he was the living manifestation of "nitimur in vetitum" [we search for what's forbidden] and thus taken care not to "feel himself," not to become conscious of himself? . . .
As I've said, the case is the same with all the good things of which we are nowadays so proud. Measured by the standards of the ancient Greeks, our entire modern being, insofar as it is not weakness but power and consciousness of power, looks like sheer hubris and godlessness; for the very opposite of those things we honour today had for the longest period conscience on their side and god to guard over them. Our entire attitude to nature today, our violation of nature, with the help of machines and the unimaginable inventiveness of our technicians and engineers, is hubris; our attitude to God is hubris—I'm referring to our attitude to that alleged spider spinning out purposes and morality behind the fabric of the huge safety net of causality—we could say with Charles the Bold in his struggle with Ludwig XI, "Je combats l'universealle araignée" [I am fighting the universal spider]; our attitude to ourselves is hubris, for we experiment with ourselves in a manner we would not permit with any animal and happily and inquisitively slit the souls of living bodies open. What do we now care about the "salvation" of the soul? We cure ourselves later. Illness teaches us things—we don't doubt that—it's even more instructive than health. The person who makes us ill appears to us nowadays to be more important even than medical people and "saviours." We violate ourselves now, no doubt about it, we nut crackers of the soul, we questioning and questionable people, as if life were nothing else but cracking nuts. And in so doing, we necessarily become every day constantly more questionable, more worthy of asking questions, and in the process perhaps also worthier—to live? . . .
All good things were once bad things; every original sin becomes an original virtue. For example, marriage for a long time seemed to be a sin against the rights of the community. Once people paid a fine for being so presumptuous as to arrogate a woman to themselves (that involves, for instance, the jus primae noctis [the right of the first night], even today in Cambodia the privilege of the priests, these guardians of "good ancient customs"). The gentle, favourable, yielding, sympathetic feelings—which over time grew so valuable that they are almost "value in itself"—for the longest period were countered by self-contempt. People were ashamed of being mild, just as today they are ashamed of being hard (compare Beyond Good and Evil, p. 232). Subjugation under the law—how the noble races throughout the earth had to fight their conscience to renounce the vendetta and to concede the power of the law over them! For a long time the "law" was a vetitum [something prohibited], a sacrilege, an innovation—it appeared with force and as force, something to which people submitted only with a feeling of shame for their conduct. Every one of the smallest steps on earth in earlier days was fought for with spiritual and physical torture. This whole historical point, "that not only moving forward, no, but all walking, moving, and changing necessarily involved countless martyrs," nowadays sounds so strange to us.
In The Dawn, pp. 17 ff. I brought out this point. "Nothing has come at a higher price," it says there on p. 19, "than the small amount of human reason and feeling of freedom, which we are now so proud of. But because of this pride it is now almost impossible to sense how that huge stretch of time of the 'morality of custom,' which comes before 'world history,' is the really decisive and important history which established the character of humanity, where people recognized suffering as a virtue, cruelty as a virtue, pretence as a virtue, revenge as a virtue, the denial of reason as a virtue and, by contrast, well being as a danger, the desire for knowledge as a danger, peace as a danger, sympathy as a danger, being pitied as a disgrace, work as a disgrace, insanity as divinity, change as untraditional and inherently pregnant with ruin."

Citations from:
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. in Basic Writings of Nietzsche. Ed. and Transl. Walter Kaufmann. New York: The Modern Library, 1969.

Text reproduction from:
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Transl. Ian Johnston. Copyright information can be found here.
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