Notes From the 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 1886-1887. Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals and Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground both explore the… The post Notes From the Underground Shines a Light on The Genealogy of Morals appeared first on VoegelinView.
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 1886-1887. 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, however, 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, 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.
The master is supposed to be insouciant and unperturbed. He engages in no scheming or plotting, having no need to do so. No nasty bile eats away his insides, as was happening to Nietzsche. (Nietzsche used a phrase that can be translated into English as “intestinal morbidity.”) The master might strike out against his enemies, but with no great spite. Instead, his enemies are worthy adversaries. Described in this manner, the “masters” have no great moral advantage. It is only their social position that makes their attitude possible. In Nietzsche’s account, the weak then play a trick on these strong few, by making them feel guilty for abusing the weak, introducing slave morality (Christianity). They can then manipulate the strong, wrongfoot them, and take their place, suppressing their betters. The fact that this means that the weak have defeated the strong means these names have been wrongly assigned. The weak are in fact the strong and the strong the weak. In the Old Testament, the Jews are described as passing some city or other on their way to the promised land, and simply razing it to the ground. Quite disconcerting, and difficult to explain to a child to whom one is reading the Bible. In praising the master, it is as though Nietzsche were trying to resurrect the occupants of this old, defeated town, saying, “Those guys were real men.” Yes, very dead, beaten, real men.
One wonders if Nietzsche simply fixated on the wrong reason for societal pathologies. After all, Christianity and aristocracy had managed to co-exist for nearly two thousand years without radical egalitarianism and a cult of mediocrity becoming dominant. It is true that as civilizations become very rich and produce large surpluses, e.g., the Romans, those surpluses (in this case, grain) can end up being distributed to the poor who can now a) survive, and b) successfully have and raise children. Meanwhile, the aristocrats, usually more intelligent than the great mass of people, are for that reason also more environmentally sensitive, and we know that when life is relatively easy, as opposed to living under harsh Darwinian conditions, mortality salience is low, and the desire for children tapers off. When awareness of death is high, people have more children. Low mortality salience is an evolutionary mismatch, since we evolved under severe selection pressures, so the upper classes stop having children and the lower classes, less sensitive to such things, whose children would normally have died when times were difficult, live on thanks to the distributed surplus food, and those children in turn have their own children. Since intelligence levels are 0.8 inheritable, and socioeconomic status is strongly correlated with intelligence, the children of the poor are likely to themselves be not so smart and poor. With low birthrates from the top, and high birthrates at the bottom, there is a general dysgenic lowering of the abilities of the population making civilization unsustainable. It took England a thousand years to reach anything like the levels of prosperity and standard of living they had had under the Romans.
Egalitarian tendencies, which Nietzsche despises, would also have been exacerbated by democracy, invented well before Christianity, and the expansion of suffrage. This expansion occurred partly because of the industrial revolution, with wealthy industrialists becoming more socially and economically prominent, and wanting more political power. The industrial revolution also saw people who would normally have been farm laborers seeking work in cities and in factories. The rise of a new class of people, agriculture ceasing to be the main driver of wealth, and the loss of many of their laborers, meant that by Nietzsche’s time the aristocracy was in severe decline. Thanks to changes in who were having children, and with French Revolution type ideological alterations, which were even anti-Christian, Nietzsche will have witnessed a rise in mediocrity and the beginning of a general lowering of the relatively good health and intelligence associated with those with higher socioeconomic status.
Notes From Underground contains this same dynamic of the weak individual idolizing the strong, in the manner of Nietzsche. However, Dostoevsky is much less conflicted about what is going on. Dostoevsky can see through the unlovely and unadmirable aspects of both types, while Nietzsche insists on eulogizing the “strong,” seemingly against his better judgment. Having described the Untouchables, the lowest members of the Indian caste system, and their awful treatment and living conditions, he then, in bad faith, commends their denigration. If someone writes a list of horrible adjectives concerning some individual and then says, “And what a great guy he is,” the reader is left wondering if he has misread something. No, Nietzsche, the treatment of the Untouchables is quite dreadful as you yourself have just pointed out! It is possible that someone could take Nietzsche at face value, to mean what he writes, but Nietzsche gives every indication of being in inner torment and conflict on the topic. He forces himself to say “Yes” to life in the manner of the eternal return, but he is not remotely convinced. Nietzsche argues that any desire to make life better, not to repeat old mistakes, to learn from experience, is life-denying. One must be prepared to live the same life over, for all eternity, without changing a thing, before one can be said to have affirmed “life.” Christian morality he sees as trying to make things better and to reduce human misery, whereas nature is red in tooth and claw, and thus is seen as saying “no” to life. In fact, “nature” includes motherly and sometimes even fatherly care, concern, and love. It can involve cooperation and team work, so not everything is a desperate self-centered struggle. Since life ideally does involve change, growth, development, learning, in an effort to ameliorate one’s own suffering by doing things better next time, it is the myth of the eternal return that is in fact life denying.
Dostoevsky’s Underground Man thinks too much and is too self-aware. He hopes to strike an impressive figure on the promenade, but he does not have the physique, nor does he have the money to dress well. He has bought himself a beaver fur hat, but of an inferior quality, evident to all who see it. A petty official, he tortures someone with bureaucratic requirements who had clanked his sword, but it turns out that he does not even feel real venom. Rather, he is just playacting spite. The Mouse is too “conscious;” conscious of the rational egoism that is supposed to describe us all and the related laws of determinism that mean no one is responsible for his actions – two popular notions of nineteenth century dunderheads. In part two, he turns up at a dinner with drinks to which his colleagues have intentionally not invited him. He then paces up and down thudding his heels on the ground to draw attention to himself and to punish and annoy those who have ostracized him. He takes out his bitterness on a hapless prostitute, who is someone of even lower rank who he can torment. In part one, having a toothache, he moans loudly and bitterly to inflict his own misery on the entire household, making the occupants despise him, observing, “This is the kind of thing we humans do.”
All this is most revolting. However, the officer who the Mouse, the Underground Man, admires is simply an unthinking brute. He is the type to charge directly at a wall like a bull, rather than to go around it and trying to employ any subtlety. The officer is the strong, the master. And what an unappealing fellow he is. He is stupid and oblivious. Yes, he is tall with great strength of body. He is a man of action mostly because he could not be a man of thought if he tried. Probably, Nietzsche knows all this, but pretends to admire him anyway. As per usual, Dostoevsky has superior insight and honesty, and avoids Nietzsche’s contradictions and nihilism.
Kant refers to “misology,” the hatred of reason, in The Grounding of the Metaphysics of Morals, claiming that instinct is a better guide to happiness than reason. The Underground Man’s reason is certainly having the effect Kant described. All that intelligence has given him insight, but his physical and character flaws, his lack of money and social position, prevent him from doing anything productive. Chasing after him are the ideas of rational egoism and determinism which he finds disgusting and demotivating, and who wouldn’t? We know that a belief in determinism “leads to an increase in antisocial attitudes and behaviors, increases in deceitfulness, aggressive behavior, selfishness, lower achievement levels and increased susceptibility to addiction.”[1] Cynicism and futility have a funny way of contributing to that. And “rational egoism” is the claim that we are all smart and selfish; that we are nasty little parasites on the planet.
At a certain point, Underground Man writes an unsent letter to the Bull, praising him and wanting his friendship. To paraphrase, “With your physical attributes and my intelligence we would be an unbeatable team.”
Underground Man has heard about the Bull throwing patrons out the windows of the local pub and fantasizes about being one of these evictees. What a thrill and privilege to be manhandled by a real man; to be counted as one of his brawling companions! With that aim in mind, he deliberately steps in front of the Bull, blocking his path, hoping to be sent flying down the table and out the window. Instead, without looking at him, the Bull simply picks him up, moves him out of his way, and continues striding forward. It is a though he simply swatted a fly. This would be the behavior of Nietzsche’s master. The Mouse wishes he had merited at least a slap in the face. Knowing that all respectable nineteenth century midwits are supposed to be determinists, he cannot, in his consciousness of this, even justify taking his revenge. Revenge on an automaton is idiotic. Feeling insulted cannot be reconciled with the laws of nature compelling action. We would have to get our revenge on the laws of nature and for the fact of being descended from monkeys.
The Bull is not tortured. He is an insensitive and unintelligent blockhead. In this way, he resembles what René Girard describes in Deceit, Desire and the Novel as the Neo-Romantic hero found in the middle twentieth century. Sartre’s Roquentin in Nausea and Camus’ Meursault in The Outsider are better than everyone else because they are the least mimetic. They do not feel and behave as other men. Strength of feeling is associated with mimesis. By imitating the anger of someone else towards you, for instance, the other person’s anger is made worse in imitating yours, which causes you in turn get even angrier, and so on. Strong feelings thus denote a lack of originality – that modern aim and ambition after the death of God. In the past, artists were not trying to be original, but to be great. Girard points out that in idolizing the unfeeling, he who feels the least, we are admiring the inanimate and the dead. No one feels as little as the unliving. This desire is pathological. But, in admiring the supposed virtues of someone and something further down the scale of thought and feeling from you, the higher esteems the lower, and that is simply perverse.
Nietzsche’s “master” is summed up in Dostoevsky’s Bull. It can seem desirable to feel less when feeling negative emotions like resentment, but a wise person would recognize that though intelligence and sensitivity have their downside, admiring what is worse is masochistic and misguided. Girard notes that one of Proust’s protagonists seeks out the company of stupid young women who are incapable of appreciating his artistic, sensitive, and cultured attributes. In doing so, he is engaging in self-flagellation. If the protagonist were to succeed, to be admired by morons is not only unsalutary for one’s own ego, but a positively negative comment upon one’s qualities.
Girard comments in Nietzsche vs the Crucified that in Thus Spake Zarathustra Nietzsche writes that we have killed God and our long knives are bloody. This describes the scapegoat mechanism. The mob descends on the victim and kills him. Having thus turned the war of all against all into the war of all against one and unified the mob in shared hatred and bloodlust, the victim is retrospectively divinized. He becomes the god who has brought peace. The sacrificial victim is made sacred. The god we kill in this way is Dionysus. He is blamed for instigating the violence and the new victim becomes Dionysus resurrected. Euripides’ The Bacchae describes this process. Dionysus comes to town, produces a drunken, sexualized frenzy among the Bacchants whereupon they rip to shreds anything in their path. In The Bacchae, Pentheus, the king who tried to banish the foreign god Dionysus, is the one dismembered. He will become the new Dionysus. In Christian terms, Satan falsely accuses an innocent victim of being Satan. The victim is murdered, and the real Satan goes on to live another day
Nineteenth century anthropologists loved to note the similarity between the myth of the savior hero figure found all over the world and Jesus. What they failed to notice is that the mythic hero is simply thanked for his supposedly willing sacrifice, whereas Christianity interprets Jesus’ murder as the killing of the innocent, bringing the scapegoat mechanism to light for the first time. From that moment on, we can only kill the innocent victim in bad faith. Thus, guilt for killing “the weak” is introduced into the equation. Nietzsche imagines the “master” as he who kills with a clean conscience, convinced of his superiority, simply following and exhibiting his mental and physical strength and health. How dare the weak, defended by Christians, introduce this psychological sickness and self-consciousness into the psyche of the masters! The weak have turned the Bull into the Underground Man.
The default mode of human organization in times of crisis is the scapegoat mechanism. Unify the chaotic social situation by identifying a common enemy. The crucifixion of Jesus, properly understood, makes this problematic and troubles our conscience. If we are not all uniformly convinced of the guilt of the victim, then no unification takes place. Once we become aware of this universal human tendency for the many to persecute a victim, guilt and a bad conscience interferes with it. This is what Nietzsche is complaining about. Christians and their guilt-trips.
In killing the Christian God and removing self-conscious awareness of the evilness of sacrificial behavior, we return to pre-Christian scapegoating. The uninitiated think that in killing God we will have vanquished God, the gods, and religion forever. This is not the case. We find a new thing to worship, and the God Dionysus is given the unrestricted ability to stride the earth once again, returned to his former Satanic glory. The old God returns.
Nietzsche’s stupid mistake is in thinking that the pre-Christian world is ruled by individual masters. The masters Nietzsche describes in The Genealogy of Morals are relatively unfeeling, unthinking, unselfconscious ciphers. His description of them is oddly unsatisfying. One is left thinking, “Who are these individuals supposed to be again?” “Are they really admirable or just oblivious?” In fact, they do not exist, and they never existed. They resemble Karl Marx’s fantasy of the happy post-communist man, who also hunts and fishes in his considerable spare time. At least the tyrants Plato describes resemble actual human types. The Many persecute the One (mob and victim) and upon reaching the completion of their sacrifice (thyein not askesis), the Many become the One. Not the One of the victim, but the One of the unified mob. The dead victim, in their imaginations, bestows his blessings upon this sanctified singular; praise be his name. Nietzsche is imagining the One as his “master.” But the individual can never defeat the mob. Kings are powerful only if they can command their own mob to do their bidding. The king is not himself a Goliath striding the land.
He who kills with sang-froid is not the Apollonian individual, but the Dionysian chorus. Not Caesar, but his mob of attackers. The latter are victorious. In fact, kings are routinely murdered by their subjects. When things go wrong, it is natural to blame the person who is supposed to be in charge, whether he is truly responsible or not. Sacrificial victims were sometimes even made pretend “kings” for a short period of time, and dressed in royal robes, provided with a throne, fed opulent meals, a crown upon his head, before being stoned to death, or ostracized and exiled.
In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche admires the Greeks for having a Chorus who come on stage wearing masks, turning them into types, not individuals. They are a kind of proxy for the audience. The Chorus comments upon the action. They represent “nature;” that which remains when the Apollonian hero is killed (also wearing a mask and a type). By identifying with the Chorus, according to Nietzsche, the audience imaginatively merges with nature. And nature gives rise to singular figures only for them to remerge into the living world from whence they came. It is a process. The audience members’ own individuality will also cease eventually. But, in identifying with fecund nature, they can reconcile themselves to their own deaths, as partaking in the endless creativity of the world around them, which is in fact a rather lovely and consoling idea.
Nietzsche went on to renounce The Birth of Tragedy and all metaphysics. In rejecting this notion of identifying with the Chorus and finding something soothing in doing so, he is left with the Apollonian, the master. That is, a master who is halfway on a journey towards being an unthinking, immortal rock, who cannot die because he never lived.
Nietzsche hates Christianity, he writes, for defending and identifying with the weak and vulnerable. Well, no one is as weak and vulnerable as the individual relative to the mob; to the Many. Plato’s Socrates made this point thousands of years ago in The Gorgias, in response to Callicles; Nietzsche’s idol from whom he plagiarizes. Callicles’ hero is a master schemer and manipulator who manages to control the mob. Plato points out that the tyrant, to gain and maintain power, must give up his own wishes and desires and to imitate the crowd. He must pander to them and come to like what they like to win them over. This slimy two-faced Machiavellian schemer is not Nietzsche’s “master,” but he is a much more realistic figure with whom we are all familiar.
Nietzsche’s pretended love for the master, is in effect a love for the individual: i.e., he who is weak and vulnerable. Like Callicles, Nietzsche despises the slaves, the rabble, hoi polloi. And the mob are most horrible and potentially murderous. Yet, it is Christianity that defends the defenseless individual against the predations of the strong, and the strong are and always have been the Many; the mob; the Dionysian Chorus. Christianity denounces scapegoating. In wanting shot of it, Nietzsche is not replacing the weak many with the strong few, but ensuring the ultimate victory of the individually weak, but strong in unity, rabble, over the possibly admirable one.
One on one, the Bull, the officer, in Notes From Underground, can defeat the Mouse, the Underground Man. But life is not a UFC cage fight, and the former does not stand a chance against a hundred such mice. An individual Mouse nurses his resentments. He is too conscious and self-aware to simply take revenge on such an idiot as the Bull. Yet a hundred such mice, pathetic physical specimens that they are, could be persuaded to revolt against the Bull and others like him, with their safety in numbers. The Underground Man desperately wants to be liked and accepted and in joining the crowd against the one, he can temporarily feel powerful and to be respected by his peers. He can suppress his misgivings to achieve this. Certainly, no jaundiced eye will be turned in his direction for as long as the persecution of the victim lasts.
And this is what we see today. There is no Christianity to defend the weak, individual, victim from the unnaturally dyed haired and self-righteous crowd.


[1] Iain McGilchrist, The Matter With Things, p. 1138. Vohs KD & Schooler JW, ‘The value of believing in free will: encouraging a belief in determinism increases cheating,’ Psychological Science, 2008, 19 (1), 49-54. Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ & DeWall C, ‘Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness,’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2009, 34 (2), 260-8. Stillman TF, Baumeister RF, Vohs KD et al, “Personal philosophy and personal achievement: belief in free will predicts better job performance,” Social Psychology and Personality Science, 2010, 1 (1), 43-50. And Vohs KD and Baumeister RF, “Addiction and Free Will,” Addiction Research & Theory, 200917 (3), 231-5.

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