The greatest recent event – that “God is dead,” that the belief in the Christian god has become unbelievable –is already beginning to cast its first shadows over Europe. For the few at least, whose eyes – the suspicion in whose eyes is strong and subtle enough for this spectacle – some sun seems to have set and some ancient and profound trust has been turned into doubt; to them our old world must appear daily more like evening, more mistrustful, stranger, “older.” But in the main one may say: The event itself is far too great, too remote from the multitude’s capacity for comprehension even for the tidings of it to be thought of having arrived as yet. Much less may one suppose that many people know as yet what this event really means – and how much must collapse now that this faith has been undermined because it was built upon this faith, propped up by it, grown in it; for example, the whole of our European morality. This long plenitude and sequence of breakdown, destruction, ruin, and cataclysm that is now impending – who could guess enough of it today to be compelled to play the teacher and advance proclaimer of this monstrous logic of terror, the prophet of a gloom and an eclipse of the sun whose like has probably never yet occurred on earth?Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book 5, Section 343:
I call Christianity the one great curse, the one enormous and innermost perversion, the one great instinct of revenge for which no means are too venomous, too underhand, too underground and too petty – I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind.According to Nietzsche, the philosopher ‘has a duty to suspicion today, to squint maliciously out of every abyss of suspicion’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S34). Squinting suspiciously at religion, he writes that, ‘[i]n former times one sought to prove that there is no God – today one indicates how the belief that there is a God could arise and how this belief acquired its weight and importance: a counter-proof that there is no god thereby becomes superfluous’ (Daybreak, S95).
He calls his hermeneutics of suspicion “genealogy,” a method of inquiring into the origins of beliefs and practices unconsciously concealed by self-deceit and hypocrisy. Genealogy is not archaeology, since it seeks not a transcendent origin or archē (beginning, first cause) ‘behind the world’ but, rather, origins within the world. These immanent origins are not found at the surface of things, however, since beliefs and practices ‘are never what they appear to us to be!’ (Daybreak, S116). Nietzsche therefore describes himself as a ‘subterranean man’ and a ‘solitary mole’ that ‘tunnels and mines and undermines,’ concerning himself with searching for the conditions out of which religious beliefs and practices emerged and, in particular, out of which moral values arose (Preface to Daybreak, S1).
This involves putting into question the very criteria by which we evaluate values and, therefore, the ways in which we come to prize the moral values that we do. Since he is willing to question the very formation of morality, which many might consider immoral, Nietzsche calls himself an “immoralist.”
He asks whether the act of adopting moral values is done for reasons that accord with the very morality being adopted, noting in the process that the operative motives for espousing a certain morality are, on the one hand, historically conditined and, on the other, ‘uncontaminated by moral restraint and, just for that reason, repressed and unconscious’ (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.222).
The more Freudian element in Nietzsche is due to their shared pessimism regarding the essentially tragic nature of humanity. For Nietzsche, this finds expression in his ontological or metaphysical theory of “the will to power.”
Both the individual and the community are driven by ‘the psychical extravagance of the lust for power’ (Daybreak, S113). The individual body and the body politic,
if it is a living and not a dying body… will have to be an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant because life simply is will to power… “Exploitation” does not belong to a corrupt or imperfect and primitive society; it belongs to the essence of what lives, as a basic organic function; it is a consequence of the will to power, which is after all the will of life (Beyond Good and Evil, S259).The will to power is joined by a more Marxian element in Nietzsche, which seeks to identify the historical or sociological origin of beliefs and practices, and finds expression in what he calls “the morality of mores.”
Nietzsche’s “genealogy of morals” illustrates the ways in which ‘morality is nothing other (therefore no more) than obedience to customs’ (Daybreak, S9). For him, ‘[t]o be moral, to act in accordance with custom, to be ethical means to practice obedience towards a law or tradition established from of old’ (Human All Too Human, S96). Mores, customs and traditions emerge from a community’s sense of self-preservation, and morality is nothing more than obedience to these norms.
This means that morality is plural; different communities have different self-interests which give rise to different values and therefore different moralities. When morality is the ‘social straitjacket’ a given community enforces to preserve itself, its socially conditioned nature means that different moral virtues will be useful to different societies in different situations (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, S2). In other words, ‘[h]e is called good because he does what is customary,’ yet what is customary will differ (Human All Too Human, S96).
In relation to the morality of our adoption of morals, then, Nietzsche writes that, ‘[t]o become moral is not in itself moral… Subjection to morality can be slavish or vain or self-interested or resigned or gloomily enthusiastic or an act of despair, like subjection to a prince: in itself it is nothing moral’ (Daybreak S97).
Together, these essentialist (the will to power) and historical (the morality of mores) theses form Nietzsche’s central argument that what is operative in any given morality is that community’s will to power.