But, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?

by John Holbo on January 4, 2005

I’m preparing to teach Nietzsche and am rereading Genealogy of Morals. Here’s a bit from §7 of the first essay.

One will have divined already how easily the priestly mode of valuation can branch off from the knightly-aristocratic and then develop into its opposite; this is particularly likely when the priestly caste and the warrior caste are in jealous opposition to one another and are unwilling to come to terms. The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity. The priestly-noble mode of valuation presupposes, as we have seen, other things: it is disadvantageous for it when it comes to war! As is well known, the priests are the most evil enemies – but why? Because they are the most impotent. It is because of their impotence that in them hatred grows to monstrous and uncanny proportions, to the most spiritual and poisonous kind of hatred. The truly great haters in world history have always been priests; likewise the most ingenious haters: other kinds of spirit hardly come into consideration when conpared with the spirit of priestly vengefulness. Human history would be altogether too stupid a thing without the spirit that the impotent have introduced into it.

A couple things struck me about this old familiar passage this time around. (But you tell me.)

First, how incredibly, um, stock the story line is. OK, you’ve got some sort of blond beast. Let’s call him The Lion King. And he’s got a vigorous Lion Prince of a son. Much vigorous pouncing and  rough-housing in Act I. In Act II, enter some evil, scheming weakling advisor – who’s got evil, scheming weakling written all over him. There’s sure to be a scene in which the lovable prince bowls over this priestly figure, quite by accident, to general jollity and acclaim. The priest barely manages to feign genial, avuncular indulgence long enough to escape to his lair, where he howls and seethes with a kind of rage that would simply never occur to the others.

Somehow the big blond beasts – lovable dopes – fail to see it. As Terry Pratchett writes somewhere – Interesting Times, Sourcery? – never trust a Grand Vizier. Ah, Amazon ‘search inside’:

After a while a tall, saturnine figure appeared from behind the pavilion. He had the look of someone who could think his way through a corkscrew without bending and a certain something about the eyes which would have made the average rabid rodent tiptoe away, discouraged.

That man, you would have said, has got Grand Vizier written all over him. No one can tell him anything about defrauding widows and imprisoning young men in alleged jewel caves. When it comes to dirty work he probably wrote the book or, more probably, stole it from someone else. (Sourcery)

And, even more appropriately:

Once you were in the hands of a Grand Vizier, you were dead. Grand Viziers were always scheming megalomaniacs. It was probably in the job description: "Are you a devious, plotting, unreliable madman? Ah, good, then you can be my most trusted minister." (Interesting Times)

All Nietzsche is saying is what every script doctor at Disney knows by instinct. You root for the Lion King, but the plot doesn’t really thicken until you get some Grand Vizier twirling his moustache and laughing mirthlessly. You need both, aesthetically. They complement each other dramatically. To this you add the stock Shakespeare line about ‘all the world’s a stage’, i.e. what’s true about art is true of life itself.

OK, in Nietzsche there are two important twists in the corkscrew of cyclical spiritual development. The Lion King is not good and the Grand Vizier is not evil. More precisely, among aristocratic equals these beasts behave themselves well enough, playing and generally taking joy in strength. But:

Once they go outside, where the strange, the stranger is found, they are not much better than uncaged beasts of prey. There they savor a freedom from all social constraints, they compensate themselves in the wilderness for the tension engendered by protracted confinement and enclosure within the peace of society, they go back to the innocent conscience of the beast of prey, as triumphant monsters who perhaps emerge from a disgusting procession of murder, arson, rape, and torture, exhilarated and undistrubed of soul, as if it were no more than a students’ prank, convinced they have provided the poets with a lot more material for song and praise.

In short: they drive their enemies before them and hear the lamentations of their women. So it is not exactly surprising that those who get driven eventually come to resent this arrangement.

Now this does complicate the script. Instead of the Lion King as a figure of conventional justice and harmony in the jungle … well, let’s just say a Tarantinoesque scene in which young Simba learns what it means to be king by slaughtering a bunch of innocent animals joyfully … would not be Disney. Circle of Life indeed. Also, if it were explained that the Grand Vizier/Scar character resents the king because his whole family was cruelly slaughtered; if it were revealed that the king appointed him because he didn’t even remember slaughtering the family … that would hardy be Disney. But it would be Nietzsche. ("To be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long – that is thte sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mold, to recuperate, and to forget.")

Yes, I suppose it would make the movie more … interesting. Oh, and the Grand Vizier wins.

OK, so that’s how I’m going to explain Nietzsche to my undergraduates, unless I can think of a simpler analogy than a Tarantinoesque ressentiment revenge rewrite of The Lion King. (Suggestions?) But here’s my thought for the night.

I’ve always taken these sort of cartoonish tales of blond barbarians clashing with priests as evocative myths. Myths in the Platonic sense, if you like; but standing Plato on his head. These savage little scenes are the basic platform on which Nietzsche proceeds to sketch, much more subtly than the above passages suggest, certain dynamics of psychological struggle, of Will to Power, that are so important to his account. (Psychological struggle doesn’t say it all, but that’s a start. Morality as an adaptive trait of the priests, which eventually calls forth in response a higher and more complex Blond Beast, this time a vastly more spiritually subtle artist-type. So it goes. The Circle of Life. Eternal Recurrence, even. Amor Fati. Hakuna Matata.)

But this time I was struck by the inconsistency of my view with the note at the end of the essay.

I take the opportunity provided by this treatise to express publicly and formally a desire I have previously voiced only in occasional conversation with scholars; namely, that some philosophical faculty might advance historical studies of morality through a series of prize-essays – perhaps this present book will serve to provide a powerful impetus in this direction. In case this idea should be implemented, I suggest the following question: it deserves the attention of philologists and historians as well as that of professional philosophers:

"What light does linguistics, and especially the study of etymology, throw on the history of the evolution of moral concepts?"

On the other hand, it is equally necessary to engage the interest of physiologists and doctors in these problems (of the value of existing evaluations); it may be left to academic philosophers to act as advocates and mediators in this matter too, after they have on the whole succeeded in the past in transforming the originally so reserved and mistrustful relations between philosophy, physiology, and medicine into the most amicable and fruitful exchange.

The slightly antic tone is classic Nietzsche, but the proposal is evidently serious. I guess what I’m wondering tonight – it’s really a simple question, but I now don’t know what I think the answer is: does Nietzsche think his fable about the blond beasts vs. the priests is in some sense literally, historically true; as opposed to being a sort of evocative myth? (Yes, of course, it does depend on whether he believes in truth. And, if so, in what sense. I’m not a bleating epistemological lambkin here, you know, Nietzsche-wise.) What do you think?



pup 01.04.05 at 4:15 pm

My anonymous 2 cents: yes, absolutely Nietzsche believed in the historicity of his “racial” projections, in just the same way that Christians believe in the historicity of Jesus. I’m one who sees Nietzsche as a sort of disappointed Christian. And, though I can’t back it up, only to the extent that we can believe that he sincerely thought it was about historical reality can we be assured that it was all “really” psychologically autobiographical. Thanks for posting this, Nietzsche’s an incredibly interesting figure.


Scott McLemee 01.04.05 at 4:23 pm

It feels like maybe there is an allegory about Bush and Wolfowitz in there, somewhere, trying to get out.


Scott Martens 01.04.05 at 4:43 pm

Well, perhaps linguistics can answer offer some discussion of the evolution of moral concepts. I would offer the following approaches for exploration:

Etymology: The Germanic word king comes from the same Indo-European root as the word knee. Prostration – literally taking up a position of physical weakness as a sign of respect – has been present since the dawn of monarchy, or at least since the era when the Balto-Germans and the Italo-Celts went their separate ways. It may well date back to the dawn of political power. The link between the physical supperiority of the king and his political power does, therefore, possess supportable linguistic roots. Minister, in constrast, has textually supported roots in the Latin minus, minor in conjunction with the well attested Greek diminutive suffix -teros. Thus: a lower-level priest. The evolution of European terminology for governance really does fit Nietsche’s model.

Pragmatics: Lakoff has been on about cognitive framing for years now. While I don’t buy into him without some serious caveats, it seems his approach might offer something to Nietsche’s project. This fable of blond beasts and scheming priests is clearly present and readily accessible to people. Remembering the Reagan administration, I would say that there are probably plenty of examples of present day politicians willing to invoke the story to excuse themselves. The origins of these frames does not fall within the purview of Lakoff’s work, but certainly these kinds of mythological cognitive frameworks have been believed to be history by people. It’s not totally implausible to suggest that they are the boiled down version of a real event.

Semantics: Anna Wierzbicka’s program for cutural lexicography may be enlightening in this respect. By constructing non-recursive definitions we can create an implicit ontology of concepts and partially order them. To undertake such a project comprehensively for the vocabulary of an entire language, we might well find the very vocabulary of morality is indescribable without having already defined a vocabulary of power. This would, I suspect, have made Nietsche quite happy. Of course, this hypothesis might not be true, or – more likely still – natural language would prove lend itself to diverse ontological bases in which some defined morality in terms of power and others defined power in terms of morality.

I dunno. This is just sort of off the top of my head. German racial theory is old – it long predates the Nazis – and is bound up in some very poor thinking. I wouldn’t push the idea too far.


Spirit of Basle 01.04.05 at 4:44 pm

This quote

The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity…

seems nothing less than a petitio principia … in what sense does war or even war gaming preserve health??? Why should these activities merit the descriptors ‘free’ and ‘joyous’ ??? Surely all of this is simply meant as a provocation, a rhetorical gesture to undermine a more ‘civilized’ picture of virtu … And surely Nietzsche’s fellow Basle academic, Jacob Burckhardt amply covered the histrorical desideratum set forth at the end of the above quoted essay both in talking about Renaisaance Italy, Constantine the Great, Classical Greece…Just shows how dated Tarantino is…


Filter 01.04.05 at 4:53 pm

Honestly, I don’t think your students will understand why Nietzsche, stock stories apart, is important. As far as I see, the question “does Nietzsche really believe in this fable?” misses what a genealogical approach is about: showing how abstract conceptions are rooted in the flesh of humans. And, by the way, this “does Nietzsche really believe in” is also stock: I didn’t read much about Nietzsche, but I remember having already bumped into “Does Nietzsche really believe in Eternal Recurrence?” and “Does Nietzsche really believe in superhumans?”.


Rasselas 01.04.05 at 5:07 pm

As for war preserving health, I would speculate that Nietzsche had in his mind’s eye, as a portrait of the health of the warrior class, what John Keegan describes, in the introduction to A History of Warfare, as the male counterpart to the female character that finds its fulfillment on the stage.


rasselas 01.04.05 at 5:11 pm

But the preceding comment should no be taken, as I fear it may, as endorsing the approval of war, etc., that may be implied in either Nietzsche’s or Keegan’s remarks.


jholbo 01.04.05 at 5:13 pm

Filter: what about my post makes you think I don’t understand what a genealogical approach is about? Just that the post isn’t about that? But there are lots of important things about Nietzsche my post isn’t about. No, seriously: understanding what it means to say that ‘abstract conceptions are rooted in the flesh of humans’ is not straightforward and simple. It’s not like that formula answers all our questions. (Yes, I know, you reply.) And one way to understand that formula a little better might be to ask to what degree Nietzsche thinks he is doing real history and to what degree he is consciously peddling myths. After all, merely mythic flesh is a lot more abstract that really real flesh.

As to ‘does he really think that?’-type questions. Yep. Can’t throw a rock without hitting Zarathustra in the head with one of those.


Matt Weiner 01.04.05 at 5:30 pm

Also, if it were explained that the Grand Vizier/Scar character resents the king because his whole family was cruelly slaughtered; if it were revealed that the king appointed him because he didn’t even remember slaughtering the family

I’ve always thought that the priestly-nobles weren’t the people whose families were getting slaughtered–but rather that priestliness was a different and less healthful avatar of nobility. The priestly-nobles would then be a transition to the slave revolt. I’m no Nietzsche scholar, tho’. (On a more nitpicky point: The lions don’t hear the lamentations of the women. They get no kicks from that sort of thing, I’m pretty sure.) Anyway, I do like this story.


Anderson 01.04.05 at 5:35 pm

I think N. believes he’s telling us something that really happened. The “blond beast” is plausible enough; he’s the guy who finds nothing ironic in Peacock’s “War Song of Dinas Vawr”:

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it,

etc. Obviously, in societies like this, priest-types have arisen, at the sufferance of the barbarians; which is enough to get the ressentiment flowing. The rest follows in Disneyesque fashion.


Jim Harrison 01.04.05 at 6:11 pm

Nietzsche tells a whole bunch of just-so stories in the Genealogy. The blond beast bit is one of many. Relating these narratives to the historical/archaeological record is problematic; but the same difficulties obtain when you try to figure out how Norbert Elias’ schematic view of history maps into the Valois and Bourbons or try to get literal with Rene Girard’s scapegoat tale.

One other note: everytime I encounter Nietzsche’s question, “What light does linguistics, and especially the study of etymology, throw on the history of the evolution of moral concepts?” I’m reminded that he was the son of a Lutheran pastor. Etymologies don’t obviously prove anything except the way in which old meanings are routinely lost, but they are indespensible in the fabrication of homelies—recall, for example, the interminable bit about atonement as at onement.


rasselas 01.04.05 at 6:52 pm

The son *and* grandson of Lutheran ministers. As he says, “A Protestant minister is the grandfather of German philosophy.”


rasselas 01.04.05 at 6:53 pm

The son *and* grandson of Lutheran ministers, as I recall. As he says, “A Protestant minister is the grandfather of German philosophy.”


Filter 01.04.05 at 7:04 pm

John, I’m sure you know what a geneological approach is about! I only worry about the best way to pass it to undergraduate students. I easily figure them draw the conclusion that, since Nietzsche’s genealogy is (a) historically inaccurate, (b) stock as an evocative myth, then it isn’t worth that much. As far as I can see, genealogies are tales, tales about the birth of concepts: you may have a lot of historical investigation in it (see Foucalt), pretty none (see Plato’s myths), or something in between, and that’s Nietzsche (or so I understand him, of course). I read the quotation of Nietzsche about “physiologists and doctors” as simply a call for more research: a Nietzsche being aware of the limits of his genealogies, and feeling the need to move to the kind of work that Foucault and others attempted (and still attempt) a century later… I remember this is more or less the position Nietzsche also had about Eternal Recurrence: he talked about it in myhtical terms, but spent a lot of time investigating scientific theories about the universe (I haven’t references at hand now, but I’m aware of a (scant) literature on “Nietzsche and science”). Not that I don’t understand how difficult is to put into this kind of things into a lecture…


jlm 01.04.05 at 7:11 pm

Nietzsche certainly offers little (or nothing)to distinguish between evocative myth and literal truth. But perhaps this is a false dichotomy. Nietzche’s writing here, as it does in so many other places, reaches for what strikes me as a kind of gnomic, aphoristic historia akin to the writing of Heraclitus that he seemed to admire.


Lee Scoresby 01.04.05 at 7:59 pm

The important point is the question, not the answer. After they read section III, simply ask them (not all at once):

1) Does he really believe his genealogy?
2) If he does believe it can he credibly assert that it is “true” given what he’s just argued about the nature of objectivity?
3) Then what’s the point of the genealogy in the first place?

If you’ve got decent students, you shouldn’t have to say very much for the rest of the class.

Although the idea is not mine – a colleague suggested it – I was able to use the first Matrix film quite effectively in teaching Genealogy of Morals. The catch is that your students really should have read some Hegel, and the essay question that went over well – whether Neo is a “Knight of Faith” or the “SIngle Stronger Species of Man” presupposes they’ve also read Fear and Trembling. I also don’t know how well this would work if the other movies.


Maynard Handley 01.04.05 at 8:16 pm

Literally true?

WRT idiot king vs cunning vizier, the standard storyline for invention of agriculture is that it is “soon” (as these things go) followed by a priestly class who watch the stars to tell everyone when to sow, who husband the grain for the lean times, who device and cause the construction of irrigation, and so on. But of course these priests can’t get to do that in the absence of muscle — people were not then, and are not now, reasonable enough to do things that are in their own best interests all the time.

From this, of course, one can draw pretty much any moral one wants.
* The kings and the priests are two sides of the same coin, and each needs the other.
* The kings hate the priests bcs (pretty much by definition) the kings are stupid (if they weren’t they’d be priests); and being stupid it looks to them like the priests get to have a whole lot of priviliges without actually doing very much. The fact that what they do is incomprehensible but apparently indispensable adds to the resentment.
* Kings and priests are together decent people trying to protect their indolent flock from their own worst natures, and we’d all be better off reverting back to this arrangement.

Another take on this literally true angle would be to consider other cultures. For example what was the timeline of events in India? There we had light-skinned Aryans imposing their will on the Dravidians, followed by a spectacularly successful religio-cultural self-loathing-creator that did a fine job of keeping everyone in their place. But exactly how did each step follow from the previous one?


john c. halasz 01.04.05 at 8:47 pm

“To be incapable of taking one’s enemies etc…”- A bit OT, but this line reminded me of the character of Stavrogin in Dostoyevsky’s “The Possessed”. The contrasting irony, if that’s what it is, is that Stavrogin is so replete with “power”, with supernal strength, that he is essentially paralyzed, incapable of acting, aimless. It’s the conniving scoundrel Piotr Verkhovensky, a kind of uebermenschlich Uriah Heep, who leads him on.

But the main question as to what Nietzsche believed/intended about his tales strikes me as slightly beside the point. I take the basic, “foundational” move by Nietzsche to be a thorough-going, radicalized aestheticism: that the world, existence, is to be “justified” solely as an aesthetic phenomemon. (This would also make the notion that psychological meanings are the “true” meaning a bit beside the point. It’s true that Nietzsche makes frequent resort to the psychological, but I think he uses the term rather like he uses the notion of physiology, as a contrastive place-holder, rather than a theoretical locus.) Nietzsche should be understood in relation to Kant, (and as an outrider to the contemporaneous rise of Neo-Kantianism/positivism.) His basic move is to reduce all judgments to judgments of taste. (Hence the strategic leverage gained for the ultra-pragmatic notion of “truth” as a useful or adaptive fiction. But useful for whom?) The kicker is that in removing the differentiated rational infra-structure that Kant constructed to justify the notion of the rationality of aesthetic judgments, judgments of taste themselves become unjustifiable, irrational: it is no longer possible to distinguish good taste from bad taste. (This, in the end, shows up in Nietzsche’s advocacy of active nihilism as the “solution” for the crisis of nihilsm: if it is, indeed, a solution, then there is not really a crisis, but if there is a crisis, the “solution” can amount only to its intensification.) The upshot is that Nietzshe’s peculiar cachet is to serve up all those half-truths that are repressed by the overweening, foursquare Kantian conception of Reason. (Roughly, the schema is that the “will-to-power” is the “synthetic unity of apperception” or transcendental synthesis, the Uebermensch is the transcendental ego, and eternal recurrence is the categorical imperative gone bezerk.) And, as Justice Holmes once said, half-truths are like half a brick- you can throw them farther.

So the question as to whether Nietzsche’s histoiography or genealogy is to be taken in an empirical/literal or a mythic/heuristic sense seems to me to be not so much unanswerable, whether on his terms or one’s own, as misplaced. Does one believe in works of art? Are they true or false? (Genuine would be the Nietzschean test of value, n’est ce pas?) The final irony regarding Nietzsche’s foregrounding and (over-)generalization of the transformative power of art is that perhaps nothing is more born of impotence and impotent than art itself.

The formal and sober tone of Nietzsche’s final philological query- it was, after all, his professional discipline, on which he staked his methodical claim to being “scientific”- suggests to me that, after all that precedes it, it was intended ironically.


pierre 01.04.05 at 8:54 pm

does Nietzsche think his fable about the blond beasts vs. the priests is in some sense literally, historically true; as opposed to being a sort of evocative myth?

Of course he thinks it’s true. It’s the Hegelian Dialectic, which lives in the real world behind this world of appearances.

Note also that Apollo is the god of the priests, and Dionysus is the god of the blond beasts. There aren’t that many ideas in Nietzsche.


NickS 01.04.05 at 8:56 pm

The personal analogy that I have always used for the “blond beast” is Karl Malone.

He is, in many ways, a violent player (I know there have been a couple of players that have been hit with his elbows, knocked out, and missed several games with concussions — but the only one I remember is David Robinson 5 or 6 years ago) but he’s never struck me as cruel or sadistic. He plays the game a certain way and plays that way against everyone he faces. He certainly doesn’t fear competition and has been good friends with some of his toughest competitors.

He’s prone to tantrums and outbursts in the press, but doesn’t seem to hold grudges (see the history of his relationship with Jazz owner Larry Miller).

He comes across as a figure of enormous physical power who acts and suffers neither guilt nor the need to bully as a way to continually assert his power.

Perhaps Shaq would be a better analogy for a contemporary student, but he strikes me as being more manipulative. I think of Karl Malone as more of a pure case.


dsquared 01.04.05 at 9:54 pm

CuChulainn in the Irish myths is rather this way; he comes across as thoughtful and heroic and noble, but when you actually follow the plot, it’s a story about killing people so you can steal their cows.


dsquared 01.04.05 at 9:58 pm

Thinking about it, the life of Lee Kuan Yew and the historical development of Singapore offers ample illustrations of Nietszchean themes which is presumably why he’s on the syllabus.


Anderson 01.04.05 at 10:02 pm

I take the basic, “foundational” move by Nietzsche to be a thorough-going, radicalized aestheticism: that the world, existence, is to be “justified” solely as an aesthetic phenomemon.

This is a common understanding of N., but I think it’s mistaken. That’s N. in his first book. Later, N. rejects any question of the “justification” of existence as a sign of decadence, together with the art that such would-be-justifiers cling to.


WeSaferThemHealthier 01.04.05 at 10:54 pm

John Holbo ( actually, anybody with the answer ),

Could you remind me why, if the knights are stronger than the priests, the priests won? How could the priests get a handle on the knights if they’re really knightly?


George 01.04.05 at 11:00 pm

John H: fascinating post, thank you. Don’t know a ton about Nietszche, but I’m struck by the assumption that knights and priests are natural types rather than social constructs. The English rule of primogeniture (IIRC) dictated that first sons were knights, second sons were clergy, and third sons were out of luck. In fact, at the moment I can only think of a few historical cases that fit N.’s archetypal situation, even poorly: maybe Emperor Frederick and the Pope, or Henry II and Thomas Becket. The really epic schemers (Richard III, Rasputin) have taken advantage not of “blond beasts” but of weak figureheads.

Lee S: Extraordinary to hear that you draw so much Nietszche from the first Matrix movie, since I’ve always remarked upon that film’s similarities to the Christ story. Though I suppose that could make perfect sense, at some level.


Mark Eli Kalderon 01.05.05 at 3:47 am

Doesn’t Nietzsche’s tale of the clash between the priestly and military sub-castes have to do with a problem with his main philological hypothesis of the first section, namely, that moral terms derive etymologically from political terms? Potential counterexample: purity. What does purity have to do with power? Speculative answer: Nietzsche hypothesizes a clash between the priestly and military sub-castes of the nobility. Once this clash arises, the priests begin explicitly to distinguish themselves from the warriors by adopting the rituals of purity–only eating certain foods, only sleeping with “clean” women, etc. So talk of “purity” did have a political significance after all, and the alleged counterexample is no counterexample at all. Given that the historical speculation that Nietzsche is engaged in is in defense of his philology, it strikes me that it has everything to do with his suggestion about a prize essay. As to its speculative nature, it is less fictional history than it is inference to the best explanation.


radek 01.05.05 at 4:04 am

“CuChulainn in the Irish myths”

I think this goes back to the whole “what is a hero/is Achilles a hero?” controversy from a while back.

On the other hand there is Egill of the Icelandic Eddas who combines the two characters within one person quite well. Or Odysseus for that matter. In fact I’m reasonably sure that most kings, nation builders and conquerors were both the knight and the priest – that’s how they got things done.(Someone mentioned Constantine a few post back).


radek 01.05.05 at 4:07 am

I don’t know, asking questions like “What did Nietzshe really think?” is a bit like asking historical counterfactual “What if?” questions.

Sometimes when the question is specific and well formulated, when a good deal of primary material exists and when the answerer has a thorough knowledge of the subject this type of inquiry can be taken semi-seriously (“Would slavery have survived in the South if not for the Civil War?” – “What precisely did Marx mean by capital”). But a lot of the time there isn’t much that can be said except that the guy’s dead and we can’t ask for a clerification.
(or for the historical what if: “What would’ve happened if Hitler died at age 2?”)
Even if, I don’t think your average undergrad knows enough Nietzshe to be able to answer that question.
Why not ask them if THEY think it literal or allegorical? Ask for historical/mythical examples and counterexamples.


Ajax 01.05.05 at 6:19 am

The only women in any of this were lamenting, strangely enough. Or being raped.


john c. halasz 01.05.05 at 6:39 am


I did not say that Nietzsche amounted to a typical late 19th century aesthete, privileging the special sphere of art and the “beautiful” above all else, but, to the contrary, that he made a radicalizing move, displacing a basically aesthetic normativity on to the whole, or, better, all, of existence as such, (in both the existential and positivist senses of existence.) Obviously then, there is no longer any sense of privileging art and the beautiful, nor merely of emphasizing the separateness and hence amorality of their criteria, let alone of leveraging them into Flaubert’s ambition to be a “great demoralizer”, -(no doubt, a source of Nietzsche’s identification of aestheticism with decadence.) Rather I take Nietzsche’s self-designation as an “immoralist” to indicate he intends his position to have a distinctively ethical,- (not to say, evangelical),- cast.

But the basic point I was making is that once one makes such a thorough-going, “aestheticizing” move, standard philosophical/cognitive questions about truth or belief- “games of truth and falsehood”, Foucault would say- and the supposed (relativistic) paradoxes involved don’t quite apply with full force. The opposition between empirical reality and myth, so natural to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, is shifted. Hence, the effort to extort “psychological” truth from Nietzsche’s tales and deliverances amounts to an attempt to reduce him to terms he treats with parodic irony. (His “aestheticism” is supremely a subjectivism, but it is precisely not psychologistic: “transvaluations” are distinctive acts, not expressions of laws or tendencies.) But the attempt to portray him as a myth-monger is even worse, as in his early 20th century reception, whether aesthticized or politicized, that viewed the deliberate creation of myths as necessary to the restoration of “meaning”. The whole point of Nietzschean “genealogy” is that a recursion or return to an “origin”, an “organic” whole, a state in which human beings could be unproblematically “at home”, is an impossiblity. No such thing could escape the “play” and conflict of “forces”. “Genealogy” amounts to an excavation of a present, not a rooting in a past. (Did not Nietzsche speak of a “cause-finding superstition”?) In this, for all his antiquarian tones, he remains most modern.

Still, the effort to rationally understand Nietzsche’s work, even given is anti-Platonic, anti-systematic position, can not be foresworn in favor of an idolatry of the work. The recognition of his generalized deployment of a basically aestheitic normativity, (which had its roots in a collapsed, but still aestheticized German Idealism), I would maintain is essential to that effort. Otherwise, the “Dionysian” becomes a willful embrace of chaos,- (the deepest fear of the Kantian mind),- and the “will-to-power” becomes a celebration of unchecked violence and brute domination. Was not one of Nietzsche’s standard rhetorical moves the deliberately ironical invitation to such misunderstanding, through the deployment of a naturalistic vocabulary? If Nietsche’s thought amounts to a species of counter-Enlightenment criticism, it is staged on thoroughly Enlightened premises.

Rather than asking Prof. Holbo’s misplaced question as to what exactly Nietzsche actually believed, let alone presuming to answer it, it would be better to ask the properly Nietzschean question as to what in our beliefs is and remains genuine. In this age of (once again) triumphant delusion, Nietzsche remains our uncanniest guest.


plover 01.05.05 at 12:19 pm

For the genealogical project, isn’t The Gay Science §7 (“Something for the industrious”) a vital reference? The note from the end of Genealogy I seems like a stab at beginning those “cyclopic buildings” invoked in the earlier work – an attempt to move the idea from a broad vision to a more concrete proposal.


bellatrys 01.05.05 at 12:45 pm

Good old Nietzsche – playing Procrustes and conveniently ignoring the whole IE business of the Ksatriyas and the Brahmans being one and the same, and the historical unity between priestly and kingly/warrior classes throughout the ancient world, and the developing ethics which are embodied in the angst of the Mahabharata and the ease with which warrior-princes segue into becoming ascetic mystics throughout the Eurasian tradition…

Something Nietzsche really has little excuse for, because all this comparative mythology/language/culture stuff was getting going back then – *and* popular, in a pop-culture way, too. Yes, it brought us the Lemurians and the Thetans and assorted New Agey weirdnesses – but it also brought us The Golden Bough and on a wider scale, the idea that things we think are unique about Christianity and/or Western Culture™ really aren’t.


Njorl 01.05.05 at 2:53 pm

I think the conflict between king and priest is quite literal. It may be that Nietzsche was trying to make some other point, and using the idealized version to do so, but the conflict is manifest. One objection I have is to his calling priests impotent. While they may have less immediately disposable physical power, the flogging of Henry II, among many other examples, demonstrates that the priests are not impotent. This lack of impotence is not limited to religious priests. Michael Moore and Rush Limbaugh are essentially priests in this context, though more in the line of Savanarola than Richelieux.

I think it is also interesting to see what happens in the exceptional case – when the King and Priest are the same man. Literally, this was essentially true in Henry VIII. While he did have Cranmer, his bitterness and pettiness, spawned from jealousy for power that he actually did posess, led to great cruelty. Such a circumstance also plagued Richard Nixon. There is probably no president in modern times who was more of his own “Vizier” than Nixon.


Anderson 01.05.05 at 5:53 pm

Anderson: I did not say that Nietzsche amounted to a typical late 19th century aesthete, privileging the special sphere of art and the “beautiful” above all else, but, to the contrary, that he made a radicalizing move, displacing a basically aesthetic normativity on to the whole, or, better, all, of existence as such, (in both the existential and positivist senses of existence.)

Oops. Never thought you said N. was a typical anything. I thought you wrote that N. held that the world, existence, is to be “justified” solely as an aesthetic phenomemon. Oh, wait, that is what you wrote.

Regardless, I take your 2d comment as a withdrawal or refinement of the word “justified.”

Of course, you may have been right the first time, and N. may never have abandoned his effort to “justify” existence aesthetically. Which makes him a decadent by his own description–in fact he alludes to this sometimes, though I think in the context of “boy, did I ever used to be a decadent/nihilist, but I’m so much better now!” It would be very Nietzschean to be skeptical of this rhetoric of recovery, particularly when it requires so many repetitions.


Rowen Blake 01.06.05 at 2:45 am

Ah, now I remember why I got out of philosophy! Thanks, guys. Please don’t use the Lion King story–egads, there’s little enough pleasure in the world. Those students have positive, even tender, associations with the LK–and the story just breaks down as you proceed towards the relationship analysis. Isn’t it possible that N. believed in the genealogy even whilst suspecting it a myth? In our vain self-awareness, we act out mythical constructs which hide insipid, common stories.


thisacademiclife.blogspot.com 01.10.05 at 2:58 pm

Not sure that the concept of “literal truth” makes much sense when reading Nietzsche. Weber got it right, IMHO: “empirics” in a post-Enlightenment world is a form of disciplined fact-creation based on ex ante value-commitments that can’t be justified rationally or evaluated “scientifically.” [Pragmatically, now, there’s a different question altogether.] So although asking whether Nietzsche thinks that his story is “literally true” is a good way of getting students into a serious discussion about genealogy, I would be very wary of trying to answer that question in any definitive way.

Also, I’d be very careful treating the first essay of GM in isolation. After all, as the book goes on, the priests are revealed to be a) the coocoon of the philosophers; b) the introduction of the most productive tension in human life, the one that makes man an interesting animal; and arguably c) the necessary step to the production of the higher man and the saving of the will (“the human being would rather will nothingness than not will” — although this translation misses the verbal parallel in the German between “Nichts” (“nothingness”) and “nicht wollen” (“not will”)…ah well).

Punchline: you’re right that the Grand Vizier isn’t “evil” in anything like a Disney sense, but he doesn’t “win” either. He’s neither good nor evil; pardon the Nietzschean cleverness, but in historical perspective he’s “beyond good and evil.” He’s just another cog in a vast historical machine that has no meaning except that which we choose to impose on it in retrospect. What’s interesting here is the imposition of meaning, and in that respect I think that the best use of The Lion King would be to see the film itself as an exercise of the priestly will-to-power in taming the savage beast — the Circle of Life as the Spirit of Gravity, so to speak, and Simba’s kid as the Last Man (blink. blink.).

Or show them the whole Matrix trilogy and ask them whether Agent Smith is evil.

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