1. Nietzsche thinks about what’s involved in making promises. First, he thinks that forgetfulness works against keeping promises. Nietzsche argues that forgetfulness is an active, useful capacity of the mind. When someone is digesting something they’ve experienced, forgetfulness blocks other thoughts from entering their consciousness and stops people from becoming mentally overloaded. The opposite of forgetfulness is memory. Memory is also active: it’s an active choice to keep vowing something in between making a promise and fulfilling it, no matter what happens in between those two events. To do so, a person has to be able to anticipate the future and have a reliable conception of themselves so that they can vouch for their future self when making a promise.
Nietzsche has just argued that popular beliefs about what’s “good” and “evil” are relatively new, can be changed, and were different in the past. Now, he’s going to debunk several aspects of 19th-century European culture in similar ways. Nietzsche thinks that many social practices people consider “good”—like keeping promises, implementing justice, and punishing wrongdoers—cause unnecessary suffering, which means that European society is not as progressive as most people think. Having just discussed how moral standards are established over time, it’s likely that Nietzsche’s discussion of memory and promises will relate to how people make moral commitments.
2. Making promises thus depends upon teaching humans to be reliable and predictable, which happens through customs and social constraints. When people feel like they’ve mastered social customs and consider themselves free to make and keep promises, they derive a sense of pride and perfection in knowing that they honor their word and are trustworthy. It’s almost like feeling proud of being responsible. People call this having a “conscience.”
Nietzsche argues that societies use social conditioning to make people commit to their promises. Societies teach people to feel proud for keeping promises and guilty for breaking them, which most people assume is a good habit to acquire. However, given Nietzsche’s distaste for blindly accepting social norms, he likely disagrees with this mindset.
3. It’s obvious to Nietzsche, however, that such a rosy picture of acquiring a good “conscience” obscures its ugly history. Historically, pain, punishment, and fear were used to make people “conquer” their forgetfulness and keep their promises. Germans—who consider themselves a nation of enlightened, uncruel thinkers—originally employed horrific methods to drum social codes into people’s minds, including stoning people, trampling people under horses, and boiling people in oil. With the help of such methods, people were able to remember “five or six ‘I will nots’.” Nietzsche thinks it's funny how much suffering is at the root of things we now perceive as good.
Nietzsche thinks that societies force people to keep promises using fear-based intimidation tactics. People don’t keep promises out of pride—they’re just terrified of experiencing violent and painful punishment (like being boiled in oil) if they break their promises. Social conditioning, thus, isn’t moral or liberating because it’s based upon cruelty and inflicting pain.
4. Nietzsche now wonders how “bad conscience”—essentially, “guilt”—comes into the world. He thinks that many “genealogists” of morals only look at their “modern” experience, which overlooks how the ideas of guilt, retaliation, and obligation are closely related. Punishment was often inflicted out of anger at someone for the injury they caused. Such punishment was framed as inflicting an equivalent amount of pain on the wrongdoer as “compensation” that settled the score. Nietzsche thinks that thinking about punishment this way comes from the notions of “credit” and “debit,” which have been entrenched in human history since people first started bartering and trading with one another.
To Nietzsche, many “genealogists” (scholars of the origins, history, and meaning of social practices) underestimate how much cruelty is actually involved in the history of punishment. Historically, people have treated punishment as a way of getting “compensation” when someone breaks a promise. A person who breaks a promise fails to deliver on something, meaning they owe a “debt” equivalent to what they would have delivered.
5. In order to show that a promise is sincere, the promise-maker pledges something important—such as their life, their spouse, or their freedom—and they owe that as a “debt” if they fail to keep their promise. If that happens, the “creditor” has a legal right to humiliate and torture the “debtor”—for example, cutting off a piece of the debtor’s body equivalent to the size of the debt. The creditor settles the score by getting the pleasurable satisfaction of exercising their power on the debtor. Effectively, the creditor enjoys feeling like a “master” who is entitled to be cruel.
Punishment effectively gives the “creditor” (the person to whom a promise is made) a legal right to inflict pain on the “debtor” (the person who breaks the promise). Nietzsche argues that if the debtor breaks their promise, the creditor doesn’t get to feel the satisfaction of receiving what they were originally promised. Punishment entitles the creditor to experience a different kind of satisfaction instead: the satisfaction of inflicting pain on somebody. It makes them feel powerful, which makes them feel good.
6. Nietzsche wonders why inflicting suffering yields pleasure to humans, and he worries about how this urge surfaces in modern society. Such an idea seems obscene today, but historically, we considered taking pleasure in hurting others to be an accepted human instinct. Royal weddings and public festivals used to include executions as standard, and many aristocratic households typically kept a slave to taunt. Nietzsche knows he’s harsh to say that inflicting suffering is good for humans, but it’s just a fact of history that humans find punishment “festive.”
Nietzsche believes that being cruel (violent, aggressive, and inflicting suffering) is simply part of what it means to be human. Human beings are natural predators who are biologically hardwired to get satisfaction from hunting prey. This is why festivals (like weddings) used to include executions—because witnessing suffering feels inherently “festive” to human beings, even if we don’t want to admit that.
7. Nietzsche doesn’t reference these examples to be discouraging. Rather, he wants to stress that he thinks humanity was healthier when we weren’t so ashamed of our inherent cruelty. Nietzsche believes that shame is what makes people feel disheartened about who we are as human beings. It grows from a “swamp” of harmful conditioning and moralizing that teaches humans to be ashamed of our natural instincts. Historical cultures are very different: for instance, Ancient Greeks believed that even the gods take pleasure in cruelty and human “tragedies” are “festivals” for the gods. Nietzsche says that Ancient Greece was an inherently public society, and that spectacles—including punishment—were simply part and parcel of cultural life in this time.
To Nietzsche, feeling satisfaction from acting aggressively is part of the human survival instinct. Nietzsche thinks that ancient societies acknowledged the fact that human nature involves aggression. They provided public contexts within the culture for violent urges to be expressed and purged through violent sports and festivities. Nietzsche believes that repressing our natural instincts is much worse. Such behavior is going to come out one way or another, so it’s better to have a controlled cultural outlet for aggression so that it doesn’t fester within us like murky growth in a “swamp.”
8. Nietzsche addresses feelings of guilt or personal responsibility. He’s noted that such emotions come from notions of credit and debit, commerce, compensation, and calculation, all of which have been part of human culture for so long that it’s hard for humans to think otherwise. We tend to evaluate things, and we typically assume that there’s some price to pay for everything. Nietzsche thinks this sort of thinking is the root of our concept of justice.
Nietzsche turns to the practice of justice. He aims to show that justice (like punishment) functions in cruel ways in modern society, because it creates a legal context for inflicting pain on people. Nietzsche thinks that rather than being rooted in a sense of true morality, justice is actually centered on collecting debts to society.
9. When communities form, the same mechanism of debit and credit is in play. A person gets protection, peace, and comfort from living in a community, and they pledge to behave a certain way in the community. If they don’t, the community (or creditor) will collect the debt in another way. A criminal is simply someone who’s broken their promise to their community. When somebody becomes a criminal, they are treated like an enemy: they are despised, treated with animosity, and deprived of rights and protection.
When a person joins a community, they implicitly promise to act in certain ways (for example, they promise not to steal). If the person breaks their promise, they owe a debt to the community. Since the person fails to give the community the benefit or satisfaction of good behavior, the community collects the benefit it’s owed in another way: the populace enjoys the satisfaction of seeing the promise-breaker suffer.
10. As a community grows more powerful, the deviant actions of one individual become less threatening to the community’s existence and punishment shifts in format. Instead of inflicting pain, the community isolates the criminal until the offence has been “paid off.” When a community becomes weakened or threatened, however, harsher punishments resurface. In addition, the more wealth a creditor accumulates, the more it takes for an offence to injure them or their livelihood. This is how the concept of “clemency”—or letting people off—emerges. For Nietzsche, clemency (or mercy) is a privilege of the wealthy.
Nietzsche argues that modern legal systems have milder punishments for rule-breakers. Large, strong, rich societies (like Europe) tend to make criminals suffer by isolating them, so criminals pay their debt in time rather than in physical pain. Modern justice systems may seem more progressive, but to Nietzsche, the underlying mechanism is no different: the populace gets the satisfaction of seeing the law-breaker suffer in some way.
11. Nietzsche thinks that some people—like anarchists and anti-Semites—have problematic notions of justice. They base their concept of justice on prejudice and resentment against others, essentially trying to legitimize vengeance by reframing it as justice and saying it’s objective when it’s not. Nietzsche would prefer people to center their concept of justice on what humans can do for themselves—(“active” emotions like ambition and greed), rather than what they want to do to others (“reactive” emotions). In fact, Nietzsche thinks that reactive emotions are the most unjust, because even the most reasonable, levelheaded people can lose their composure when they feel animosity toward others.
Society effectively takes revenge on criminals by making them suffer for breaking the rules. Nietzsche worries about justice systems based on making people suffer (or inflicting cruelty). It allows people (for example, anti-Semites) to think they can manipulate the system to make people they hate suffer (for example, with false accusations). Nietzsche thinks that a justice system based on personal empowerment, rather than making others suffer, would be much better.
Nietzsche thinks about the origins of legal systems. Historically, laws are designed to allow people to be active and aggressive but restrict any urges to be vindictive. For Nietzsche, justice is exercised when the strong establish laws to enforce peace and order, offer an impersonal perspective, and therefore steer people away from any personal desire for revenge. Nietzsche thinks that oppressive and exploitative actions aren’t wrong in themselves because humans are drawn to power and aggression is simply part of human nature. For Nietzsche, laws only make sense if they don’t completely obliterate these human tendencies. He thinks that legal systems aimed at minimizing “conflict” violate human nature and are destructive to humankind.
Nietzsche thinks that people are hardwired to seek power, act aggressively, and exploit others. He believes that the modern European legal system punishes people for acting on such natural instincts, which causes unnecessary suffering. Nietzsche argues that ancient societies acknowledged the aggressive tendencies in humankind and provided other outlets for people to engage in healthy conflict. People in those societies didn’t need to rely on the justice system to satisfy that urge.
12. Nietzsche thinks that customs like punishment don’t progress logically or necessarily become better over time. In fact, they evolve in a haphazard way: society’s dominant people constantly reinterpret and adapt customs for different purposes after they usurp others and seize power. For Nietzsche, genuine progress is not linear, and it entails the “death” of old values and purposes as they’re replaced by new ones. This is obvious to Nietzsche, given how much historical customs differ from contemporary attitudes. Nietzsche thinks that all in all, humanity’s desire for power is driving force of life— suppressing this urge is harmful. Such suppression only leaves room for reactive action—like vindication and resentment—rather than productive aggression in modern society.
Many of Nietzsche’s contemporaries think that societies get more progressive as they modernize, because they improve upon the past. Nietzsche disagrees; when different people seize power (for example, when priests take charge instead of warriors), new customs are put in place based on what behavior the rulers want to encourage in the population. To Nietzsche, a society is only better if the people in power structure the society to encourage flourishing and joy. He thinks that modern European society does the opposite: it denies people the right to be aggressive. Consequently, repressed aggression resurfaces in ways that actually make people suffer more. For example, when a person can’t release their natural aggression, they might subconsciously redirect it toward prejudice and hate, and they can misuse the justice system to persecute the people they are prejudiced against.
13. Returning to the topic of punishment, Nietzsche argues that some components of punishment are permanent (namely, the pain and spectacle of the act), and other components are fluid (namely, the purpose that the act serves). Nietzsche thinks that in the European society of his time, it’s difficult to say exactly what specific purpose punishment is used for. In the past, the various purposes and uses for punishment shifted back and forth in importance, usually with one idea becoming dominant. Nietzsche illustrates that customs are fluid, contrived, and arbitrary by collating a list of possible purposes for punishment.
So far, Nietzsche has argued that morals (like notions of “good” and “bad”) can and do shift as societies change. Justice systems similarly shift based on who’s in power and what behavior they want to encourage. Now, Nietzsche argues that punishment is similar—it also tends to shift in its aim or purpose, based on what the people in power want to use punishment for. For Nietzsche, all social customs are fluid—and they always depend on who’s in power.
Nietzsche lists that first, punishment can be used to make the criminal harmless and unable to commit another offense. Second, it can be used as compensation for the injured party. Third, punishment can be used to isolate a disturbance to the peace of society. Fourth, it can be used to incite fear and deter others from acting the way the criminal acted. Fifth, punishment can be used to eliminate elements of society (such as a class or race). Sixth, it can be used to celebrate the defeat of an enemy by humiliating them. Seventh, punishment can be used to correct a criminal’s problematic behavior. Eighth, punishment can be used as revenge. Finally, punishment can be used as a weapon against people who disrupt the peace or authority figures a society.
Nietzsche has already focused on how punishment functions when it’s intended to collect compensation for a debt. He thinks punishment will function differently if it serves other purposes, and he lists some options here. Nietzsche wants the reader to think about which uses and purposes might be best in their own society, just as he did with moral codes earlier. As before, Nietzsche subtly hints that European society uses customs (like punishment) in ways that cause unnecessary suffering, and he implies that alternative approaches might be better.
14. Nietzsche says that the list goes on. His point is that the most popular purpose for punishment in society might not be the most useful of the options. Nietzsche thinks that punishment is thought to be most useful because it makes the criminal feel guilty or repentant—in theory, it helps them develop a conscience. Yet in reality, the legal system of judiciary procedures and imprisonment doesn’t achieve that aim. If anything, it makes criminals aware that powerful people are permitted to do things that they are not: espionage, bribery, entrapment, and all other methods that police and lawyers use to achieve their aims.
People in 19th-century European society tend to think that punishment is useful because it helps criminals develop a moral compass or conscience, which will supposedly make them behave, succeed in life, and achieve happiness in the long run. Nietzsche disagrees; he believes that the modern European legal system only causes pain, which means that it’s regressive rather than progressive.
15. Nietzsche says that philosopher Spinoza realizes that criminals facing punishment tend to think reflect that something wrong occurred that fell short of their expectations—not that they did something wrong. Punishment just becomes some unfortunate outcome that they have to deal with, like being ill. Nietzsche thinks that punishment is actually used to increase fear and “tame” humans against acting aggressively, but it doesn’t make them better. In fact, punishment leaves humankind worse off.
Nietzsche argues that European society’s leaders actually use punishment as a tool to scare people into denying their natural aggressive tendencies. People are afraid of being punished and suffering, so they force themselves to suppress their aggressive instincts. To Nietzsche, this suppression is unnatural, so it also causes psychological suffering. It turns out, he argues, that this system makes people suffer whether they break the law or not.
16. Nietzsche thinks that feeling guilty is a sickness in humanity. Ancient humans faced a wild world that they explored nomadically; they fought freely and acted without guilt. Modern humans have to adapt to a completely different world: to stay safe in modern society, humans have to perpetually think, evaluate, and calculate. Nietzsche thinks that humans are miserable because modern society doesn’t permit us to express our instinctive drives for exploration and violence. Society forces us to suppress these tendencies. To Nietzsche, this is abusive. We can no longer express our violent or cruel human tendencies outwardly, so we internalize them and torture ourselves through guilt instead.
Nietzsche claims that human beings are instinctively aggressive: he argues that ancient humans were nomadic hunters who used violence and exploration to survive. Human beings are natural predators, and predators instinctively derive some satisfaction from aggressive behavior, as they’re hardwired to feel good when they exert power over their prey. Modern humans have inherited this trait—it’s effectively in our DNA or part of our human nature—but modern European society doesn’t allow people to express predatory instincts outwardly. Nietzsche therefore argues that the only place for the aggression to go is inward. Modern humans internalize their aggression, using guilt to make themselves suffer.
17. Nietzsche thinks that this shift doesn’t come about organically—it has to be imposed with violence. For instance, Europe’s free and wild populace was subjugated by the tyranny of conquerors—the invading “blond beasts”—who arrived and exerted their mastery unexpectedly and unapologetically. The invaders didn’t care about ideas like conscience, guilt, responsibility, or consideration—they simply wanted to organize and create society, and so they exerted pressure and forcefully drove out freedom. The instinctive desire for freedom among the populace has resurfaced in a repressed form, since there’s no safe place in society for people to freely express their desire for power and violence. Instead, it manifests inwardly and psychology—giving rise to guilt and “bad conscience.”
When ancient humans began to form societies, they expressed and applied their violent and exploratory instincts toward the goal of conquest rather than hunting). As societies grow larger and more organized, however, leaders use laws and customs to gradually eliminate spaces where people can act freely. Nietzsche reiterates that eventually, the only place left where a person is “free” to express their instinctive desire for power and aggression is in their own mind. When a person feels guilty, they effectively exert power on themselves instead of something else.
18. This is a difficult truth to acknowledge, but it’s important. Conquerors are motivated by a productive desire for freedom (or power, as Nietzsche thinks they are the same thing). The same desire becomes regressive when people unleash it on themselves (to conquer and “tame” their “animal” self). It makes people suffer and hate themselves for having a natural instinct to take pleasure in inflicting violence or cruelty. When people take pleasure in being or self-sacrificing, they’re taking pleasure in suppressing their cruel nature, which technically means they’re taking pleasure in being cruel to themselves. Nietzsche therefore believes that altruism is really just self-abuse.
Once again, Nietzsche emphasizes that humanity is regressing rather than progressing because modern European society demands that people deny their primal human instincts and suppress their natural urges to be violent, aggressive, and power-seeking. People who try to deny their aggression only end up redirecting it towards themselves: they try to wield power and control over the violent “animal” within. Unlike hunting or conquering, this is a futile effort: our natural instincts can’t be erased. Modern society thus conditions people to perpetually torture themselves, which leaves humanity worse off than in the past.
19. Nietzsche argues that early tribal people considered themselves in debt to previous generations for founding the clan and keeping it going. Usually, this debt was paid back with sacrifices, festivals, and obedience to historical customs. Sometimes, the repayment was more violent and fear-driven, such as human sacrifice. Over time, the idea of paying tribute to the ancestors’ spirits morphed into paying tribute to vague and mysterious forces, which gave rise to belief in deities that people fear and feel they must obey. Nietzsche thinks that aristocratic people pay their debts by embodying the skills of their ancestors, and he finds this approach healthier.
Nietzsche now turns to customs involving religion: he thinks that religious customs evolved from tribal customs which were originally intended to honor a community’s ancestors rather than deities. Nietzsche argues that aristocratic cultures, or warrior-based societies (like Ancient Greece) honored the spirits of their ancestors by emulating their skills. He believes that approach is much healthier than feeling indebted to one’s ancestors or to a god.
20. The idea of being indebted to a deity gets absorbed into society as it expands, even slaves adopt the religions of their masters. Belief in indebtedness grows as the concept of God becomes stronger, and it culminates in the Christian God. Nietzsche thinks that as people start to abandon that belief and become atheists, they free themselves from the feeling of debt.
Nietzsche argues that as societies grow and expand (like Europe has), more and more people adopt the dominant religion and feel indebted to God. Nietzsche believes that this feeling of indebtedness—or religious guilt—causes tremendous suffering, and he’s going to illustrate this with the case of Christianity in Europe.
21. Nietzsche argues that when the concept of guilt (or “bad conscience”) emerges, people turn their cruelty on themselves, and they start to think that they are so evil that they’ll never repay their debts to God. They think their sins are unforgivable, hence the concepts of original sin (the fall from Eden, a sin that mankind can never erase) and hell as eternal punishment. This breeds pessimism and nihilism. At this point, Christianity comes along and says that God (the creditor) pays the debt himself, out of love for his debtor. Nietzsche thinks this idea is ridiculous.
Nietzsche reiterates that modern European society encourages people to feel guilty for feeling aggressive in order to minimize conflict. When people feel guilty, they’re effectively berating themselves for having aggressive instincts in a society that doesn’t permit that. As Christianity grows more popular, people’s feelings of guilt evolve. They start to believe they are evil for having natural violent urges that they can’t erase, which makes them feel like life is depressing (pessimistic) and futile (nihilistic).
22. However, the full truth that lies behind the evolution of religion is that when humans become “incarcerated” in the prison of society, they have no natural outlet for their violent and cruel instincts, so they turn them inwards on themselves as they try to tame themselves. This self-torture is amped up when a person feels indebted to a God: we start to think our animalistic instincts are sinful, and we suppress them further as we try to be good. In fact, the Christian religion is the perfect instrument for self-torture: since no human can ever be as good as a God, we keep torturing and berating ourselves, satisfying our innate desire to express cruelty with perpetual self-abuse.
Nietzsche again stresses that European society prohibits people from being aggressive, which makes people unleash their aggressive urges in their minds: people make themselves suffer for being naturally aggressive. Nietzsche believes that the Christian religion exacerbates this situation because it posits a perfectly good—loving, selfless, and kind—God. In comparison, people feel more inadequate, which leads to suffering when they inevitably berate themselves for having innate aggression.
23. Nietzsche thinks that the concept of gods can be put to better (or “nobler”) use. Ancient Greeks, for example, believed that the gods accept our “animal” instincts, and people were free to express these instincts rather than suppress them. The Ancient Greeks used the concept of deities to alleviate guilt so that they could be psychologically free. In Ancient Greek society, a person could be deemed foolish or stupid (for failing to express themselves), but they never thought of themselves as evil or sinful. In fact, the Ancient Greeks went even further: they assumed that when someone acted foolishly, they were possessed by a god. Any guilt was thus attributed to the gods, leaving humans free to act.
Nietzsche isn’t opposed to religious customs altogether, he just thinks—as with morals, legal systems, and punishment—there are better and worse customs to adopt. Once again, he argues that Ancient Greek customs let people feel more joy than modern European customs do. This time, Nietzsche argues that there was no concept of religious guilt (and the suffering that goes with it) in Ancient Greek culture. When somebody failed to be good, they believed the gods had tricked them or put a spell on them—meaning that their failure wasn’t their fault, but rather the gods’ fault. Thus, they didn’t torment themselves by feeling “evil,” and they suffered less.
24. Modern humans bear the legacy of being cruel to our naturally animalistic selves. Nietzsche thinks that we’ve treated our natural instincts unkindly for too long. He wonders what it would take to turn this situation around. We’d have to connect guilt with our unnatural inclinations—namely, our spiritual beliefs. Nietzsche thinks that in order to do that, we’d need to reconnect with our natural instincts through war, which taps into our natural needs for adventure, danger, and violence. The actual savior is someone who can free humanity from the curse of self-torture. Such a person will essentially be an Antichrist, an Anti-nihilist and a “conqueror of god and nothingness.”
Nietzsche wonders what it would take to liberate people in his time from all the suffering they experience. He thinks that people need to embrace their primal, predatory instincts and find ways to express them, so that they stop torturing themselves for having natural violent or aggressive urges. Nietzsche suggests that people need to abandon Christianity, and they also need to curb any subsequent nihilistic feelings (feelings of emptiness without religion to make their lives feel meaningful). Nietzsche symbolizes this goal by saying people need to conquer both “God” and “nothingness.”
25. Nietzsche thinks he might have gone too far, so he stops himself, concluding that such questions are best left to future generations and that he should remain silent.
Nietzsche knows he’s brought up controversial point, so he ends the essay here. However, he acknowledges that there’s more work to do on the topic of how to rid European culture of its self-imposed suffering.