On the Genealogy of Morals


Friedrich Nietzsche

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On the Genealogy of Morals Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche grew up in a religious family in Röcken, near Leipzig (in present-day Germany), with his grandmother, mother, and two younger sisters. His father and younger brother died when he was a young boy. Soon after commencing undergraduate studies in theology at the University of Bonn, Nietzsche abandoned his goal because he felt that historical evidence undermined the teachings of Christianity. Nietzsche decided to pursue philology (the study of the history of languages) instead, and he became heavily influenced by Schopenhauer’s philosophy (which had a profound influence on his thought). When Nietzsche was 24 years old, he landed a prestigious academic post in classical philology at the University of Basel, where he worked for 10 years. During this decade, Nietzsche became a close friend of composer Richard Wagner and wrote extensively in praise of Wagner’s work, but he found himself growing disillusioned with Wagner’s nationalist political views during the formation of the German Empire. Nietzsche ended his friendship with Wagner before resigning his post in Basel due to ill health in 1878. For the next decade of his life, Nietzsche lived nomadically, traveling and writing in Europe as a stateless person. He planned to start an academic commune with his close friends Paul Ree and Lou Salome, but his plan failed after Salome rejected Nietzsche’s marriage proposal and distanced herself from Nietzsche. By 1882, Nietzsche was alienated from most of his social acquaintances, as well as his family (particularly his sister Elisabeth, who had grown increasingly anti-Semitic). Nietzsche began habitually using drugs, including opium and chloral hydrate, while his health continued to decline. Shortly after publishing On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche had a mental breakdown and was diagnosed with syphilis in 1889. Nietzsche’s sisters and mother cared for him at home for the final decade of his life. Despite his tumultuous life, Nietzsche published over 15 philosophical books, beginning with The Birth of Tragedy in 1872 and ending with Ecco Homo (written in 1888 but published posthumously in 1906). Nietzsche’s philosophical writing had a profound influence on philosophy, giving rise to existentialism, critical theory, structuralism, and post-structuralist movements that dominated philosophical discourse for the subsequent century. Nietzsche’s writing style is earmarked by his tendency to favor poetic aphorisms and controversial polemics over dry academic writing.
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Historical Context of On the Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche witnessed the formation of the German Empire in 1871, and he was greatly troubled by rising nationalist politics in his lifetime. In much of his writing, Nietzsche cautioned that German culture was in crisis, and he would likely not have been surprised that Germany was involved in two world wars shortly after his death (World War I in 1914–1918, and World War II in 1939–1945). There was also a rising sentiment of anti-Semitism in Germany at the time, which greatly troubled Nietzsche. He fell out with his sister and most of his family over their anti-Semitic and religious beliefs. Though he had no idea at the time, Nietzsche’s anti-Semitic sister Elisabeth began rewriting and editing Nietzsche’s work after his mental decline and circulating it in rising Nazi circles after his death. Nietzsche would have been horrified to learn that the doctored versions of his work had a strong influence on Adolf Hitler and the policies of the Nazi Party in 1930s Germany, which culminated in World War II. Around the same time, Nietzsche’s (unedited) writings gave rise to an intellectual movement known as the Frankfurt School, spearheaded by Marxist-Jewish scholars such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, who were critical of rising fascism in European politics. As such, Nietzsche’s writing has controversially been used to both justify and condemn the horrors of World War II.

Other Books Related to On the Genealogy of Morals

Nietzsche was heavily influenced by Arthur Schopenhauer’s 1818 philosophical book The World as Will and Representation, which he discusses at length in On the Genealogy of Morals. Schopenhauer’s idea that reality is driven by a universal striving sensation shapes Nietzsche’s idea that the human experience is underpinned by instinctive striving urges. Nietzsche was also influenced by Charles Darwin’s 1859 book on evolution, On the Origin of Species, through which Nietzsche derived his idea than humans, like all animals, are driven by primal animalistic urges. Nietzsche also discusses several philosophical books in On the Genealogy of Morals, including Paul Ree’s 1877 book The Origin of the Moral Sensations and Immanuel Kant’s 1790 Critique of the Power of Judgment (both of which Nietzsche disagrees with). Many subsequent social theorists have been influenced by Nietzsche’s work, including Michel Foucault, who leverages Nietzsche’s discussions of punishment and power in European society to formulate his own theories on the role of power in structuring modern society, notably in Madness and Civilization (1961) and Discipline and Punish (1975).
Key Facts about On the Genealogy of Morals
  • Full Title: On the Genealogy of Morals
  • When Written: 1887
  • Where Written: Germany
  • When Published: 1887
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Philosophy
  • Setting: Late 19th-century Europe
  • Climax: Nietzsche argues that the desire to escape life’s suffering by suppressing emotional, bodily, and materialistic urges actually makes people suffer more.
  • Antagonist: Ascetic priest
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for On the Genealogy of Morals

Animal Lover. Nietzsche reportedly had his mental breakdown after seeing a horse being whipped in the street in Turin, Italy in 1889. Nietzsche reportedly ran up to the horse and flung his arms around it, before collapsing in the street and being arrested for causing a public disturbance.

Unlucky in Love. Nietzsche was plagued by romantic failure throughout his life. It’s rumored that he had an unrequited infatuation with his best friend Richard Wagner’s wife for years. Then, he fell in love with Lou Salome, who rejected Nietzsche and ran off with his friend Paul Ree (although she later rejected Ree as well). Popular legend holds that Nietzsche was so frustrated by his romantic failures that he began to frequent brothels and contracted syphilis, which triggered in his mental breakdown.