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The Origin of Morality

Book Extract
H.L. Mencken

The Origin of Morality (from Nietzsche (1908))

It may be urged with some reason, by those who have read the preceding chapter carefully, that the Nietzschean argument, so far, has served only to bring us face to face with a serious contradiction. We have been asked to believe that all human impulses are merely expressions of the primary instinct to preserve life by meeting the changing conditions of existence, and in the same breath we have been asked to believe, too, that the apollonian idea—which, like all other ideas, must necessarily be a result of this instinct—destroys adaptability and so tends to make life extra hazardous and difficult and progress impossible. Here we have our contradiction: the will to live is achieving, not life, but death. How are we to explain it away? How are we to account for the fact that the apollonian idea at the bottom of Christian morality, for example, despite its origin in the will to live, has an obvious tendency to combat free progress? How are we to account for the fact that the church, which is based upon this Christian morality, is, always has been and ever will be a bitter and implacable foe of good health, intellectual freedom, self-defense and every other essential factor of efficiency?

Nietzsche answers this by pointing out that an idea, while undoubtedly an effect or expression of the primary life instinct, is by no means identical with it. The latter manifests itself in widely different acts as conditions change: it is necessarily opportunistic and variable. The former, on the contrary, has a tendency to survive unchanged, even after its truth is transformed into falsity. That is to say, an idea which arises from a true and healthy instinct may survive long after this instinct itself, in consequence of the changing conditions of existence, has disappeared and given place to an instinct diametrically opposite. This survival of ideas we call morality. By its operation the human race is frequently saddled with the notions of generations long dead and forgotten. Thus we modern Christians still subscribe to the apollonian morality of the ancient Jews—our moral forebears— despite the fact that their ideas were evolved under conditions vastly different from those which confront us today. Thus the expressions of the life instinct, by obtaining an artificial and unnatural permanence, turn upon the instinct itself and defeat its beneficent purpose. Thus our contradiction is explained.

To make this rather complicated reasoning more clear it is necessary to follow Nietzsche through the devious twists and windings of his exhaustive inquiry into the origin of moral codes. In making this inquiry he tried to rid himself of all considerations of authority and reverence, just as a surgeon, in performing a difficult and painful operation, tries to rid himself of all sympathy and emotion. Adopting this plan, he found that a code of morals was nothing more than a system of customs, laws and ideas which had its origin in the instinctive desire of some definite race to live under conditions which best subserved its own welfare. The morality of the Egyptians, he found, was one thing, and the morality of the Goths was another. The reason for the difference lay in the fact that the environment of the Egyptians—the climate of their land, the nature of their food supply and the characteristics of the peoples surrounding them—differed from the environment of the Goths. The morality of each race was, in brief, its consensus of instinct, and once having formulated it and found it good, each sought to give it force and permanence. This was accomplished by putting it into the mouths of the gods. What was once a mere expression of instinct thus became the mandate of a divine law-giver. What was once a mere attempt to meet imminent—and usually temporary—conditions of existence, thus became a code of rules to be obeyed forever, no matter how much these conditions of existence might change. Wherefore, Nietzsche concluded that the chief characteristic of a moral system was its tendency to perpetuate itself unchanged, and to destroy all who questioned it or denied it.

Nietzsche saw that practically all members of a given race, including the great majority of those who violated these rules, were influenced into believing them—or at least into professing to believe them—utterly and unchangeably correct, and that it was the main function of all religions to enforce and support them by making them appear as laws laid down, at the beginning of the world, by the lord of the universe himself, or at some later period, by his son, messiah or spokesman. “Morality,” he said, “not only commands innumerable terrible means for preventing critical hands being laid upon her : her security depends still more upon a sort of enchantment at which she is phenomenally skilled. That is to say, she knows how to enrapture. She appeals to the emotions; her glance paralyzes the reason and the will… Ever since there has been talking and persuading on earth, she has been the supreme mistress of seduction.”

Thus “a double wall is put up against the continued testing, selection and criticism of values. On one hand is revelation, and on the other, veneration and tradition. The authority of the law is based upon two assumptions —first, that God gave it, and secondly, that the wise men of the past obeyed it.” Nietzsche came to the conclusion that this universal tendency to submit to moral codes—this unreasonable, emotional faith in the invariable truth of moral regulations—was a curse to the human race and the chief cause of its degeneration, inefficiency and unhappiness. And then he threw down the gauntlet by denying that an ever-present deity had anything to do with framing such codes and by endeavoring to prove that, far from being eternally true, they commonly became false with the passing of the years. Starting out as expressions of the primary life-instinct’s effort to adapt some individual or race to certain given conditions of existence, they took no account of the fact that these conditions were constantly changing, and that the thing which was advantageous at one time and to one race was frequently injurious at some other time and to another race.

This reduction of all morality to mere expressions of expedience engaged the philosopher during what he calls his “tunnelling” period. To exhibit his precise method of “tunnelling” let us examine, for example, a moral idea which is found in the code of every civilized country. This is the notion that there is something inherently and fundamentally wrong in the act of taking human life. We have good reason to believe that murder was as much a crime 5,000 years ago as it is today and that it took rank at the head of all conceivable outrages against humankind at the very dawn of civilization. And why? Simply because the man who took his neighbor’s life made the life of everyone else in his neighborhood precarious and uncomfortable. It was plain that what he had done once he could do again, and so the peace and security of the whole district were broken.

Now, it is apparent that the average human being desires peace and security beyond all things, because it is only when he has them that he may satisfy his will to live—by procuring food and shelter for himself and by becoming the father of children. He is ill-fitted to fight for his existence; the mere business of living and begetting his kind consumes all of his energies : “the world, as a world,” as Horace Greeley said, “ barely makes a living.” Therefore, it came to be recognized at the very beginning of civilization, that the man who killed other men was a foe to those conditions which the average man had to seek in order to exist—to peace and order and quiet and security. Out of this grew the doctrine that it was im- moral to commit murder, and as soon as mankind became imaginative enough to invent personal gods, this doctrine was put into their mouths and so attained the force and authority of divine wisdom. In some such manner, said Nietzsche, the majority of our present moral concepts were evolved. At the start they were mere echoes of a protest against actions which made existence difficult and so outraged and opposed the will to live.

As a rule, said Nietzsche, such familiar protests as that against murder, which laid down the maxim that the community had rights superior to those of the individual, were voiced by the weak, who found it difficult to protect themselves, as individuals, against the strong. One strong man, perhaps, was more than a match, in the struggle for existence, for ten weak men and so the latter were at a disadvantage. But fortunately for them they could overcome this by combination, for they were always in an overwhelming majority, numerically, and in consequence they were stronger, taken together, than the phalanx of the strong. Thus it gradually became possible for them to enforce the rules that they laid down for their own protection—which rules always operated against the wishes—and, as an obvious corollary, against the best interests of—the strong. When the time arrived for fashioning religious systems, these rules were credited to the gods, and again the weak triumphed. Thus the desire of the weak among the world’s early races of men, to protect their crops and wives against the forays of the strong, by general laws and divine decrees instead of by each man fighting for his own, has come down to us in the form of the Christian commandments: “Thou shalt not steal… Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house… Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s.”

Nietzsche shows that the device of putting man-made rules of morality into the mouths of the gods—a device practiced by every nation in history—has vastly increased the respectability and force of all moral ideas. This is well exhibited by the fact that, even today and among thinking men, offenses which happen to be included in the scope of the Ten Commandments, either actually or by interpretation, are regarded with a horror which seldom, if ever, attaches to offenses obviously defined and delimited by merely human agencies. Thus, theft is everywhere looked upon as dishonorable, but cheating at elections, which is fully as dangerous to the body politic, is commonly pardoned by public opinion as a normal consequence of enthusiasm, and in some quarters is even regarded as an evidence of courage, not to say of a high and noble sense of gratitude and honor.

Nietzsche does not deny that human beings have a right to construct moral codes for themselves, and neither does he deny that they are justified, from their immediate standpoint, at least, in giving these codes the authority and force of divine commands. But he points out that this procedure is bound to cause trouble in the long run, for the reason that divine commands are fixed and invariable, and do not change as fast as the instincts and needs of the race. Suppose, for instance, that all acts of Parliament and Congress were declared to be the will of God, and that, as a natural consequence, the power to repeal or modify them were abandoned. It is apparent that the world would outgrow them as fast as it does today, but it is also apparent that the notion that they were infallible would paralyze and block all efforts, by atheistic reformers, to overturn or amend them. As a result, the British and American people would be compelled to live in obedience to rules which, on their very face, would often seem illogical and absurd.

Yet the same thing happens to notions of morality. They are devised, at the start, as measures of expediency, and then given divine sanction in order to lend them authority. In the course of time, perhaps, the race out[1]grows them, but none the less, they continue in force—at least so long as the old gods are worshipped. Thus human laws become divine—and inhuman. Thus morality itself becomes immoral. Thus the old instinct whereby society differentiates between good things and bad, grows muddled and uncertain, and the fundamental purpose of morality—that of producing a workable scheme of living—is defeated. Thereafter it is next to impossible to distinguish between the laws that are still useful and those that have outlived their usefulness, and the man who makes the attempt—the philosopher who endeavors to show humanity how it is condemning as bad a thing that, in itself, is now good, or exalting as good a thing that, for all its former goodness, is now bad—this man is damned as a heretic and anarchist, and according as fortune serves him, is burned at the stake or merely read out of the human race.

Nietzsche found that all existing moral ideas might be divided into two broad classes, corresponding to the two broad varieties of human beings—the masters and the slaves. Every man is either a master or a slave, and the same is true of every race. Either it rules some other race or it is itself ruled by some other race. It is impossible to think of a man or of a people as being utterly isolated, and even were this last possible, it is obvious that the community would be divided into those who ruled and those who obeyed. The masters are strong and are capable of doing as they please; the slaves are weak and must obtain whatever rights they crave by deceiving, cajoling or collectively intimidating their masters. Now, since all moral codes, as we have seen, are merely collections of the rules laid down by some definite group of human beings for their comfort and protection, it is evident that the morality of the master class has for its main object the preservation of the authority and kingship of that class, while the morality of the slave class seeks to make slavery as bearable as possible and to exalt and dignify those things in which the slave can hope to become the apparent equal or superior of his master.

The civilization which existed in Europe before the dawn of Christianity was a culture based upon master-morality, and so we find that the theologians and moralists of those days esteemed a certain action as right only when it plainly subserved the best interests of strong, resourceful men. The ideal man of that time was not a meek and lowly sufferer, bearing his cross uncomplainingly, but an alert, proud and combative being who knew his rights and dared maintain them. In consequence we find that in many ancient languages, the words “good” and “aristocratic” were synonymous. Whatever served to make a man a nobleman—cunning, wealth, physical strength, eagerness to resent and punish injuries—was considered virtuous, praiseworthy and moral, and on the other hand, whatever tended to make a man sink to the level of the great masses—humility, lack of ambition, modest desires, lavish liberality and a spirit of ready forgiveness—was regarded as immoral and wrong.

“Among these master races,” says Nietzsche, “the antithesis ‘good and bad’ signified practically the same as ‘noble and contemptible!’ The despised ones were the cowards, the timid, the insignificant, the self-abasing—the dog-species of men who allowed themselves to be misused —the flatterers and, above all, the liars. It is a fundamental belief of all true aristocrats that the common people are deceitful. ‘We true ones,’ the ancient Greek nobles called themselves.

“It is obvious that the designations of moral worth were at first applied to individual men, and not to actions or ideas in the abstract. The master type of man regards himself as a sufficient judge of worth. He does not seek approval: his own feelings determine his conduct. ‘What is injurious to me,’ he reasons, ‘is injurious in itself.’ This type of man honors whatever qualities he recognizes in himself: his morality is self-glorification. He has a feeling of plentitude and power and the happiness of high tension. He helps the unfortunate, perhaps, but it is not out of sympathy. The impulse, when it comes at all, rises out of his superabundance of power—his thirst to function. He honors his own power, and he knows how to keep it in hand. He joyfully exercises strictness and severity over himself and he reverences all that is strict and severe. ‘Wotan has put a hard heart in my breast,’ says an old Scandinavian saga. There could be no better expression of the spirit of a proud viking…

“The morality of the master class is irritating to the taste of the present day because of its fundamental principle that a man has obligations only to his equals; that he may act to all of lower rank and to all that are foreign as he pleases… The man of the master class has a capacity for prolonged gratitude and prolonged revenge, but it is only among his equals. He has, too, great resourcefulness in retaliation; great capacity for friendship, and a strong need for enemies, that there may be an outlet for his envy, quarrelsomeness and arrogance, and that by I spending these passions in this manner, he may be gentle towards his friends.”

By this ancient herrenmoral, or master-morality, Napoleon Bonaparte would have been esteemed a god and the Man of Sorrows an enemy to society. It was the ethical scheme, indeed, of peoples who were sure of themselves and who had no need to make terms with rivals or to seek the good will or forbearance of anyone. In its light, such things as mercy and charity seemed pernicious and immoral, because they meant a transfer of power from strong men, whose proper business it was to grow stronger and stronger, to weak men, whose proper business it was to serve the strong. In a word, this master-morality was the morality of peoples who knew, by experience, that it was pleasant to rule and be strong. They knew that the nobleman was to be envied and the slave to be despised, and so they came to believe that everything which helped to make a man noble was good and everything which helped to make him a slave was evil. The idea of nobility and the idea of good were expressed by the same word, and this verbal identity survives in the English language today, despite the fact that our present system of morality, as we shall see, differs vastly from that of the ancient master races.

In opposition to this master-morality of the strong, healthy nations there was the sklavmoral, or slave-morality, of the weak nations. The Jews of the four or five centuries preceding the birth of Christ belonged to the latter class. Compared to the races around them, they were weak and helpless. It was out of the question for them to conquer the Greeks or Romans and it was equally impossible for them to force their laws, their customs or their religion upon their neighbors on other sides. They were, indeed, in the position of an army surrounded by a horde of irresistible enemies. The general of such an army, with the instinct of self-preservation strong within him, does not attempt to cut his way out. Instead he tries to make the best terms he can, and if the leader of the enemy insists upon making him and his vanquished force prisoners, he endeavors to obtain concessions which will make this imprisonment as bearable as possible. The strong man’s object is to take as much as he can from his victim; the weak man’s is to save as much as he can from his conqueror.

The fruit of this yearning of weak nations to preserve as much of their national unity as possible is the thing Nietzsche calls slave-morality. Its first and foremost purpose is to discourage, and if possible, blot out, all those traits and actions which are apt to excite the ire, the envy, or the cupidity of the menacing enemies round about. Revenge, pride and ambition are condemned as evils. Humility, forgiveness, contentment and resignation are esteemed virtues. The moral man is the man who has lost all desire to triumph and exult over his fellow-men—the man of mercy, of charity, of self-sacrifice.

“The impotence which does not retaliate for injuries,” says Nietzsche, “is falsified into ‘goodness;’ timorous abjectness becomes ‘humility;’ subjection to those one hates is called ‘obedience,’ and the one who desires and commands this impotence, abjectness and subjection is called God. The inoffensiveness of the weak, their cowardice (of which they have ample store); their standing at the door, their unavoidable time-serving and waiting—all these things get good names. The inability to get revenge is translated into an unwillingness to get revenge, and becomes forgiveness, a virtue.

“They are wretched—these mutterers and forgers—a but they say that their wretchedness is of God’s choosing and even call it a distinction that he confers upon them. The dogs which are liked best, they say, are beaten most. Their wretchedness is a test, a preparation, a schooling—for something which will be paid for, one day, in happiness. They call that ‘bliss.’”

By the laws of this slave-morality the immoral man is him, who seeks power and eminence and riches—the millionaire, the robber, the fighter, the schemer. The act of acquiring property by conquest—which is looked upon as a matter of course by master-morality—becomes a crime and is called theft. The act of mating in obedience to natural impulses, without considering the desire of others, becomes adultery; the quite natural act of destroying one’s enemies becomes murder.

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