WORDS

14 Nov

Nietzsche
In comparison with the mode of life of whole millennia of mankind we present-day men live in a very immoral age: the power of custom is astonishingly enfeebled and the moral sense so rareified and lofty it might be described as having more or less evaporated. This is why the fundamental insights into the origins of morality are so difficult for us latecomers and even when we have acquired them we find it impossible to enunciate them because they sound so uncouth, or because they seem to slander morality!

This is, for example, already the case with the chief proposition: morality is nothing other (therefore no more!) than obedience to customs, of whatever kind they may be; customs, however, are the traditional way of behaving and evaluating. In things in which no tradition commands there is no morality; and the less life is determined by tradition, the smaller the circle of morality.

The free human being is immoral because in all things he is determined to depend upon himself and not upon a tradition: in all original conditions of mankind, ‘evil’ signifies the same as ‘individual’, ‘free’, ‘capricious’, ‘unusual’, ‘unforeseen, ‘incalculable’. Judged by the standard of these conditions, if an action is performed not because traditions command it but for other motives (because of its usefulness to the individual, for example) even indeed for precisely the motives which once founded the tradition, it is called immoral. And it is felt to be so by him who performed it: for it was not performed in obedience to tradition. What is tradition? A higher authority one obeys, not because it commands what is useful to us, but because it commands.

What distinguishes this feeling in the presence of tradition from the feeling of fear in general? It is fear in the presence of a higher intellect which here commands, of an incomprehensible, indefinite power, of something more than personal – there is superstition in this fear – originally all education and care of health, marriage, cure of sickness, agriculture, war, speech and silence, traffic with one another and the gods belonged within the domain of morality: they demanded one observe certain prescriptions without thinking of oneself as an individual.

Originally, therefore, everything was custom, and whoever wanted to elevate himself above it had to become lawgiver and medicine man and a kind of demi-god: that is to say, he had to make customs – a dreadful, mortally dangerous thing!

Who is the most moral man? First he who obeys the law most frequently: who like, the Brahmin, bears a consciousness of the law within him everywhere and into every minute division of time, so he is continually inventive in creating opportunities for obeying the law. Then he who obeys it even in the most difficult cases. The most moral man is he who sacrifices the most to custom.

What, however, are the greatest sacrifices? The way in which this question is answered determines the development of several diverse kinds of morality; but the most important distinction that which divides the morality of the most frequent obedience from that of the most difficult obedience. Let us not deceive ourselves as to the motivation of that morality which demands difficulty of obedience to custom as the mark of morality! Self-overcoming is demanded, not on account of the useful consequences it may have for the individual, but so that the hegemony of custom, tradition, shall be made evident in despite of the private desires and advantages of the individual. The individual is to sacrifice himself – that is the commandment of the morality of custom.

Those moralists – on the other hand, who, following in the footsteps of Socrates, offer the individual a morality of self-control and temperance as a means to his own advantage, as his personal key to happiness, are the exceptions – and if it seems otherwise to us that is because we have been brought up in their after-effect: they all take a new path under the highest disapprobation of all advocates of morality and custom – they cut themselves off from the community, as immoral men, and are in profoundest sense evil. Thus to a virtuous Roman of the old stamp every Christian who ‘considered first off all his own salvation, appeared evil.

Everywhere that a community and consequently a morality of custom exists, the idea also predominates that punishment for breaches of custom fall before all on the community, supernatural punishments whose form of expression and limitation are so hard to comprehend and are explored with so much superstitious fear. The community can compel the individual to compensate another individual or the community for the immediate injury his action has brought in its train; it can also take a kind of revenge on the individual for having as a supposed after-effect of his actions, caused the clouds and storms of divine anger to have gathered over the community. But it feels the individual’s guilt above all as its own guilt and bears the punishment as its own punishment -: ‘customs have grown lax,’ each wails in his soul. ‘if such actions as this are possible!’

Every individual action, every individual mode of thought arouses dread; it is impossible to compute what precisely the rarer, choicer, more original spirits in the whole course of history have had to suffer through being felt as evil and dangerous, indeed through feeling themselves to be so. Under the dominion of the morality of custom, originality of every kind has acquired a bad conscience; the sky above the best men is for this reason to this very moment gloomier than it need be.

Friedrich Nietzsche
Daybreak, 1881

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