In the preface to the Genealogy of Morals, we learn that Friedrich Nietzsche is publishing his hypotheses about morality largely in response to Dr. Paul Rée’s Origin of the Moral Sensations. Nietzsche admits that this is one of the few books he fundamentally disagrees with on every proposition and conclusion it put forward. After reading this book, he subsequently becomes more concerned with the Darwinist trend in Europe and its effect on Western thinking, especially amongst modern philosophers. In his preface, Nietzsche is directly addressing these “men of knowledge” and tries to make them realize that there are never “isolated acts of any kind”, let alone an origin of morals (16). These philosophers, whose treasures lie in the beehives of their knowledge, are not distracted by the present, and therefore, they are the only people capable of understanding the position he takes in the Genealogy of Morals. Because truth always transcends time, Nietzsche is asking his readers to detach themselves from their surroundings in order to study ideas, like morality, without the prejudices of their time.
Nietzsche claims our ideas “grow out of us with the necessity with which a tree bears fruit–related and each with an affinity to each, and evidence of one will, one health, one soil, one sun” (16). From this, it follows that our ideas are as connected to one another as the fruits of a tree are connected to the same branch. Nietzsche is overjoyed by this discovery and even asserts that it has always been a part of a philosopher’s nature to believe knowledge stems not from “isolated, capricious, or sporadic things but from a common root, from a fundamental will of knowledge” (16). This common root , however, is not to be confused as an origin of knowledge. Nietzsche cleverly uses the tree analogy to not only illustrate how ideas are naturally intertwined but also how every idea cannot begin on its own. Trees start as seeds from the fruit of other trees. It is a paradox as old as time: which came first, the chicken or the egg? This is the reason Nietzsche considers his work a genealogy and not an origin of morals.
Once he is able to stop looking “for the origin of evil behind the world” is Nietzsche able to study its genealogy instead (17). The word genealogy comes from the Greek words genea and logos, which translated together means the knowledge of generations. When we research a family’s genealogy, we are studying the lineage of that family and tracing its generations throughout history. In order to study an idea’s genealogy, Nietzsche needs to follow the same protocol. Therefore, studying the genealogy of morals means to literally trace the idea through history. In a sense, Nietzsche traces the genealogy of morals like a historian would write out a family tree.
This proves to be a tricky situation for Nietzsche for several reasons. Firstly, each era, each society, and each social class throughout history has created its own definition of morality. What it means to be moral now is not the same as it was 100 years ago, and it did not mean the same thing to different social classes or to different cultures. Religion aside, there has never been a determined set of values that have always been considered good or always been considered evil. “Under what conditions did man devise these value judgements good and evil”, and how do these values reflect back onto society (17)? It is possible that morals are created in response to a sickness within society, but it is also possible that they reflect its strength and growth. While a tree stretches its branches towards the light, its roots continue to grow deeper into the ground. We cannot be certain that every change is made for the better.
Even after his criticisms on the origin of morality, Nietzsche’s real cause for concern is more important that just proving that an origin does not exist. What was at stake for Nietzsche was the value of morality, but somehow, European culture has produced something much worse: the morality of pity. Pity implies a sense of superiority on behalf of the pitier and a belief that a society’s morals are better than those of another culture’s. There is a laziness in Europe to just accept that the way things are the way they are supposed to be: “one has taken the value of the ‘values’ as given, as factual, as beyond all question” (20). No one doubts anymore or questions what makes a man good; they just assume that the European way is the right way. Nietzsche, on the other hand, is concerned about this overwhelming European attitude that morality is somehow “not worth taking quite so seriously” (21).
In the end, Nietzsche calls for a critique of moral values: “there is needed a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances in which they grew, under which they evolved and changed” (20). We need to confront the fact that our morals are the results of both our actions and inactions. They are signs of our prosperity and our letdowns. No matter what time period, morality has always been a gray area. This has shown to be true throughout history, but Nietzsche does not believe that it should go unchallenged. Reminding ourselves that there is not an origin of morals, we still have go forth with an open mind in order to understand why society is the way it is and how our moral traditions came to be.