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Lawrence J. Hatab, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality: An Introduction

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. viii + 282 pp. ISBN 978-0-521-87502-8. Cloth, $86.00. ISBN 978-0-521-69770-5. Paper, $28.00

Reviewed by Michael Ure

Walter Kaufmann initiated a seemingly endless wave of sympathetic interpretations of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Lawrence Hatab’s Cambridge Introduction to GM is another charitable interpretation. However, his book is much more than an introduction to GM. It develops a controversial and important interpretation of Nietzsche’s whole philosophy. Hatab claims that Nietzsche articulates a specifically tragic conception of life. One of the most surprising things about this book is just how little space is exclusively devoted to GM. At least half of this Introduction (Chs. 1, 6-8) focuses on Nietzsche’s other texts. One suspects that Hatab found it difficult to discover in its pages his tragic, unwittingly democratic Nietzsche. He is surely not alone in this predicament.

Hatab identifies what he dubs Nietzsche’s “existential naturalism” as the core of his philosophy (9). He conceives Nietzsche’s naturalism as a philosophical formulation of the moral and political perspective dramatised in ancient Greek tragedy. Nietzsche, he claims, followed the ancient tragedians in attempting to “restore legitimacy to the conditions of becoming” (9). We must surely concede that Hatab’s tragic Nietzsche captures something important about his early works, especially BT. We might wonder, however, what bearing this has on GM, which does not include any significant reference to, let alone celebration of, Greek tragedy.

Hatab’s answer is that “the tragic and the possibility of the tragic hovers in the background of the Genealogy” (21). He defends three key claims: Nietzsche implicitly framed GM in terms of this tragic affirmation of life and its limits; he anchored his whole philosophy in this perspective; and his tragic vision is strongly connected to democratic morality and political practice. It goes without saying that his claims are highly contentious, especially if we consider GM.

Hatab’s first claim requires reading GM very much against the grain. At first (second and third) glance GM appears to be a cranky aristocratic diatribe infused with an odd mixture of erotically charged Homeric hero worship and quasi-Darwinian and Lamarckian tropes. In GM Nietzsche conceives democratic values as symptoms of mass physiological degeneration, which can only be overcome by reawakening the noble ideal embodied in the Roman Imperium and reincarnated in the grand figure of Napoleon (GM I:16). Nietzsche declares, for example, that “mankind in the mass sacrificed to the prosperity of a single stronger species of man – that would be an advance” (GM II:14); that the rare higher types’ “right to exist” is a “thousand times greater” than the “physiologically unfortunate and worm-eaten”; and that the higher types should be segregated from the sick to ensure that they are not victims of “the conspiracy of the suffering against the well-constituted and victorious” (GM III:14). Nietzsche’s hope that the highest type might triumph over the physiologically degenerate seems worlds apart from the ancient Greek tragedians’ perspective and much closer to a wild Social Darwinist theoretical fantasia.

Hatab’s tragic conception of GM largely hinges on his claim that far from expressing a hyper-Darwinian aristocratic elitism, Nietzsche’s championing of master morality in fact demonstrates his commitment to “tragic values.” Nietzsche, he observes, “draws on early Greek heroic values as an embodiment of master morality” (50). This much is indisputable, but Hatab adds that Homeric fatalism prefigures tragic values.

Hatab’s idea is that in the Homeric ethos the fact that human existence is mortal and subject to implacable fate adds to, rather than detracts from, its value. It makes the value of life contingent upon its limits. The drama and beauty of life are tied to its transience, fragility and riskiness. It is these conditions that make life a dangerous adventure that calls forth the specifically mortal virtues of courage (Achilles) and cunning (Odysseus). In the Homeric framework, mortal lives are far more precious and beautiful than immortal lives; and the heroic struggle against fate gives mortal existence a dramatic grandeur that is likewise lacking in the lives of Olympian gods who are without care or sorrow. Homer represented the Olympian gods as enjoying the spectacle of heroic striving. Nietzsche thought that this divine enjoyment was not beyond humanity. In our enjoyment of tragedy, he suggests, we have moved towards the Olympian attitude to mortal suffering, “ideal divine cannibalism” (D 144). Hatab claims that Plato’s classical ideal of self-sufficiency targeted precisely these “heroic/tragic elements in Greek poetry”. Plato’s resistance to the tragic affirmation of finitude, he suggests, culminated in so-called “slave morality,” the source of Western nihilism (50). On Nietzsche’s view, Platonism and Christianity threaten to deprive life of its heroic drama. They lament rather then revel in life as will to power. In GM Nietzsche certainly does not conceal his divine enjoyment of heroic agonism and his contempt for the slavish attempt to limit or banish it.

Hatab downplays Nietzsche’s seemingly unequivocal celebration of heroic agonism by suggesting that he does not “regret” slave morality. (45-6), Yet even if we concede that Nietzsche admires slave morality’s capacity to conquer noble races, it is far from clear that he admires the results of this conquest: “What today constitutes our antipathy to ‘man’? … Not fear; rather that we no longer have anything left to fear in man; that the maggot ‘man’ is swarming in the foreground; that the ‘tame man’, the hopelessly mediocre and the insipid man has already learned to feel himself as the goal and zenith, as the meaning of history, as ‘higher man’” (GM I:11). One would be hard pressed to formulate a more forceful expression of regret about the emergence of slave morality.

Hatab attempts to rescue Nietzsche from his identification with this untrammelled celebration of master morality by suggesting that he identified “higher natures” as battlegrounds between noble and slave moralities. However, that Nietzsche recognises that even his higher types might be infected with slave morality does not demonstrate that he also valued slave morality as the source of “more refined or deeper cultural possibilities” or attributed cultural advance to a mediation of these two value systems (68). Indeed, in the relevant passage, Nietzsche unequivocally maintains that “the salvation and future of mankind” hinges on “the unconditional dominance of aristocratic values, Roman values” (GM I:16, emphasis added). If Nietzsche genuinely thought that slave morality might somehow “open up creative pathways” he would not have promoted the segregation of his higher type from the degenerate type precisely so they could avoid the moral contagion of pity (GM III:14).

Nietzsche’s heroic ethos is not easy to reconcile with Greek tragedy. Arguably Hatab dramatically overstates the convergence of heroic values and tragic morality. As A. W. H. Adkins’ patient, grey etymologies of ancient Greek value terms demonstrates, the tragedies contested the heroic ethos in the name of quieter virtues like pity. Clearly Nietzsche did not believe his commitment to the Homeric ethos also entailed a commitment to quiet virtues. On the contrary, Nietzsche argued that we should blame the morality of compassion for preventing “the type man” from reaching its “highest power and splendour” (GM P:6). For Nietzsche the morality of pity constitutes the tyranny of the sick over the healthy; his “philanthropy” consisted in eliminating the physiologically degenerate so that the rare “lucky hits” might flourish (see A 2). It is this unrelenting assault on compassion that casts most doubt over Hatab’s tragic interpretation of Nietzsche.

If the morality of pity is fundamental to the Greek tragedies, Nietzsche’s resolute and extreme opposition to it suggests that we should classify him as an anti-tragic thinker. Hatab identifies two important ‘moral’ elements characteristic of tragedies: (1) that moral agents take responsibility for their offences despite the fact they are unintended; and (2) the Aristotelian notion that pity (and fear) are the appropriate moral responses to undeserved misfortune (190, 228). Yet, in line with the heroic ethos, Nietzsche flatly rejects both these tragic moral judgements. In GM’s solitary explicit reference to the Homeric epics (Odyssey 1.32ff.), Nietzsche applauds the Greek religion for enabling heroes like the adulterer and murderer Aegisthus to avoid any sense of responsibility for their acts of ‘folly’. By taking the blame for human evil, Nietzsche observes, the gods enabled Greek heroes to avoid guilt so as to rejoice in their freedom of soul (GM II:23). In sharp contrast, Oedipus’s acknowledgement of the confluence of fate and freedom in his actions did not prevent him from taking responsibility for his offences. Nietzsche lauds the ‘heroic’ vision of freedom without responsibility and opposes the tragic notion of responsibility without freedom.

Nietzsche also notoriously rejects any conception of pity. Yet this moral emotion is clearly central to the Greek tragedies. Hatab appears to concur with the Aristotelian view that through tragic pity and fear we learn that human flourishing is vulnerable to misfortune, and this sensitivity to “moral limits” may, as he puts it “enhance our philanthropon” (231). In taking aim at the morality of compassion, therefore, Nietzsche takes aim at the heart of tragic philosophy.

Hatab overlooks Nietzsche’s anti-tragic commitment to his own idiosyncratic notion of self-sufficiency. In the quarrel between Plato and the poets, Nietzsche sides with Plato’s rejection of pity. Far from conceiving tragic pity as a moral emotion through which we might become responsive to human vulnerability, Nietzsche conceives it as a debilitating emotion that we should purge (D 134). Indeed he argues that resurrecting the tragic moral sensibility is the very last thing modern individuals need: they are already far too sensitive to human suffering. Nietzsche repeats Plato’s original gesture: he banishes the tragic poets from the polis! (D 172)

All the same, Hatab claims that the tragic emotions of fear and pity are “implicated with the Dionysian embrace of suffering” (230): “Not in order to be liberated from terror and pity, not in order to purge oneself of a dangerous affect by its vehement discharge – Aristotle understood it this ways – but in order to be oneself the eternal joy of becoming, beyond (über) all terror and pity that joy which included even joy in destroying” (TI “Ancients” 5). While in D Nietzsche counselled us to purge these toxic emotions, in TI he moves beyond pity and terror for the sake of attaining a radically different response to tragedy. This Dionysian response is decidedly not a heightened moral sensitivity to tragic limits. Instead of sharing the hero’s sorrow over his undeserved misfortune (and fearing for their own vulnerability), Dionysian spectators enjoy the tragic drama. Nietzsche’s Dionysian joy is akin to the Olympian gods’ delight in heroic conflict. Nietzsche purges or somersaults the tragic emotions.

In GM and elsewhere Nietzsche’s response to human suffering is in fact systematically opposed to tragic compassion. In the first place, he dismisses most human suffering on the grounds that it is deserved: the weak suffer from life because of their physiological degeneracy. GM does not show how noble individuals unjustly suffer misfortune, but how the physiologically degenerate poison the healthy with their moral bleating. Nietzsche does not counsel compassion for sufferers, but contempt for the biologically inferior.

Second, Nietzsche urges his higher types to make themselves deaf even to undeserved suffering. The problem with tragic pity, he maintains, is that it prevents these rare individuals from living for themselves (GS 338). Nietzsche counsels “the noblest men” to close their ears to human suffering. “I do not wish to keep quiet about my morality, which tells me: “Live in seclusion so that you are able to live for yourself!” (GS 338). Nietzsche formulates an anti-Rousseauian, anti-tragic, moral pedagogy designed to make noble individuals oblivious to undeserved suffering. Three aphorisms before his first declaration of eternal recurrence Nietzsche exhorts them to “lay at least the skin of three hundred years between you and today” (GS 338, 341). Hatab claims that this doctrine entails confronting the endless repetition of tragic limits (198-201). Yet if we adopted Nietzsche’s own morality, we would have an easy time willing eternal recurrence since we would live profoundly untroubled by the world’s sorrows.

Finally, Hatab argues that despite Nietzsche’s aristocratic prejudice, his tragic philosophy actually articulates some of the values proper to agonistic democracy. “Nietzsche’s promotion of agonistics” he therefore suggests “can go a long way toward articulating and defending democratic practices” (256). Hatab claims that Nietzsche failed to “recognise a connection between an agonistic spirit and the emergence of Greek democracy” (258).

Arguably, however, it might be more accurate to say that Nietzsche identified a connection between the spread of the agonistic spirit and the demise of democracy. According to Nietzsche, the State-sanctioned gymnastic and artistic Greek contest system protected democracy from unsustainable political discord by ensuring that the desire for victory discharged itself outside the political domain (WS 226). Like many classicists and sociologists, Nietzsche held that the democratisation of agonistic virtues led to the demise of the Athenian polis.

Against Nietzsche, Hatab maintains that the logic of competition can underwrite principles of fairness. He argues that because in the contest system my value turns on the strength of my opponent, I have a vested interest in promoting my adversaries’ abilities. This agonistic respect, he maintains, ensures that the drive to distinction will not descend into political antagonism. Nietzsche clearly did not share this sanguine belief in the compatibility of agon and democracy. This is partly because he thought carefully about the logic of the affects. According to Nietzsche, in agonistic competition we seek victory over others so that we can savor the pleasure of seeing them mortified with envy at the sight of our triumph and suffering agonies of shame over their own defeat (D 30). Nietzsche recognises that, insofar as the pleasure of victory hinges on inciting others’ envy, agonism is incompatible with democratic order. Envy, he claims, is a world-destroying rage (D 304). If the goal of agon is to incite envy, it cannot engender mutual respect, only the malicious desire to spoil. Nietzsche therefore maintains that the “good victory must put the conquered into a joyful mood, it must possess something divine about it so that it does not put to shame.” There is no shame in losing to the gods. On the other hand, he holds that we “ought not to want to win” if we can only overtake our opponent by a hair’s breadth since defeating an equal engenders toxic shame and envy (WS 344). Civic amity, he implies, is only possible where there is no agonistic shaming.

One might argue then that Hatab’s introduction imports a tragic and democratic sensibility into GM rather than actually finding it there. Ultimately, however, this criticism does not diminish his book’s importance. Hatab’s own tragic philosophy has a philosophical sophistication and seriousness of purpose that merits careful consideration whether or not it can be found in the late Nietzsche. Hatab gives us something much more important than yet another Nietzsche commentary. He gives us a tragic philosophical perspective that is significant in its own right.


The University of Queensland, Australia
m.ure@uq.edu.au