Notes From Underground shines a light on The Genealogy of Morals


While Dostoevsky was unaware of Nietzsche, Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn, having chanced upon Notes From Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-7. Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals and Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground both explore the distinction between two human types. As a brilliant novelist, Dostoevsky depicts the shortcomings of both. Nietzsche, on the other hand, tries to describe someone who was everything Nietzsche was not; a picture of health and a man of action, which ends up being about as plausible as the hero worship an eight year old might have for his friend’s sixteen year old, motorcycle riding, brother. Notes From Underground is a diagnosis of the mindset driving Nietzsche’s admiration of the “master,” while being himself much more of a “slave.” Dostoevsky also had more in common with the “slave” in real life, and could see what attraction being a “master” might have for such a person, while categorically not falling for this fantasy. Dostoevsky’s ability as a novelist to inhabit a character without identifying his own ego with it would have been a big help in this regard.

Dostoevsky was short, epileptic, and a compulsive gambler. Nietzsche was perpetually sick with chronic headaches and digestive problems. Reading and writing, his main occupations, strained his eyes and made both conditions worse. He was generally in pain while writing. Unlike Dostoevsky, Nietzsche was unread and unloved in his lifetime. He would typically print five hundred books or so at his own expense and end up giving most away.

In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche refers to “mastery morality,” to be contrasted with “slave morality,” the German Christian morality of the nineteenth century. Annoyingly, Nietzsche does not attack the best of Christian thinkers, but the uninspiring Christian-influenced German ethos of hoi polloi of his time. The opposite thing happens when someone finds an insightful quotation from some Native American chief or other and imagines that all Indians were wise, balanced, quasi-philosophers.

According to Nietzsche, the “master” resents no one. He is not a puny, frustrated little worm, fantasizing about switching places with someone of higher rank. The master ignores his social inferiors and has time only for those of his own class. He engages in manly activities associated with vigorous good health like hunting, war,[1] and adventure. Nietzsche is a great analyst and critic of resentment, presumably partly from first-hand experience as an unread author, and sees it as the weak’s impotent rage at the strong turned inward in frustration at not being able to punish its proper target. Nietzsche is right that resentment is indeed an unlovely sentiment but, as Thomas F. Bertonneau pointed out, it is preferable to actual violence. Resentment is the residual emotion of violence deferred.

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Notes From the Underground Shines a Light on The Genealogy of Morals

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Nietzsche – the Diabolical Saint of Acceptance

1Friedrich Nietzsche is a strange mixture of conflicting impulses; so chronically sick that writing was a physical agony for his eyes and his stomach permanently bothered him, yet he wrote paeans to the strong and mighty. A brilliant analyst of resentment, he had every reason to feel ignored being unread during his lifetime and self-publishing books that he mostly could not sell. He admired Dostoevsky, which itself is admirable, writing in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn. Nietzsche first stumbled upon Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-87 and immediately loved it, though Dostoevsky never knew of Nietzsche. Notes from Underground is psychologically and anthropologically penetrating, exploring themes of mimesis and resentment that were of immense interest to Nietzsche.

Unlike Dostoevsky, there is something perennially adolescent about Nietzsche, perhaps because young adults are often trying to decide what values they should hold, often temporarily in contradiction to their parents, as they prepare to make their way in the world on their own. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of values” fits this model nicely. There used to be a certain kind of young man magnetically drawn to Nietzsche’s mixture of cleverness, perversity, sense that he had a secret understanding of things, and man alone and against the world demeanor, and perhaps there still is. Continue reading

Resentment and a World Both More and Less Christian

Thomas Bertonneau’s last posting mentioned that René Girard states that the West is becoming simultaneously more Christian and less Christian. The liberal West has become hyper-aware of the possibility of scapegoating; of picking en masse on an innocent victim. But at the same time the anti-scapegoating message of Christ’s death – making us aware of the ways victims are killed to stop intra-group violence – is missed by the liberal if the victim seems to fall within the class of “persecutor.”

Girard notes in Violence and the Sacred that there are two traditional classes of victim. What one might call the upper and the lower. The lower include all the dispossessed; the POW, the slave, the handicapped, the foreigner; preferably, someone with no family to retaliate when the person is killed. In this manner, the West is more Christian. But the other class of victim found in probably all cultures is the upper; the king or his equivalent social position. When things go wrong, it seems logical to blame the person in charge even if in fact he is innocent. The king is already socially isolated because of his position. The king is exposed and can easily become the minus one against the unity of the mob.

The Christianized West has become aware and solicitous of the lower victims. We pass laws protecting the handicapped and “the weaker sex.” But the West is blind to its tendency to scapegoat anyone belonging to the class of supposed persecutors. It scapegoats with a clear conscience as unaware as any primitive scapegoaters of what they are doing. At times the liberal West makes the same mistake as Nietzsche. It imagines that single victims, the 1%, is the strong, the persecutor, and side with the mob against the few.

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