NIETZSCHE: Guilty Conscience

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the pangs of a guilty conscience drive Lady Macbeth to madness. Her doctor remarks that medicine cannot cure a sense of guilt. “More needs she the divine than the physician.” Guilt overwhelms Lady Macbeth until she finally commits suicide at the end of the play.

Considering the powerful influence that guilt can have over a person, it is important to explore the origin and nature of this emotion in order to possibly gain some control over it. In this video, we will discuss Nietzsche’s theory concerning the origin of guilt, and we will also explain what it indicates for the future of mankind.

To feel guilty means to feel painful regret for some wrong committed. According to Nietzsche, the concepts of right and wrong arose with the development of societies. He describes guilt as a disease that humanity caught when it formed these social communities. “I look on bad conscience as a serious illness to which man was forced to succumb by the pressure of the change whereby he finally found himself imprisoned within the confines of society and peace.”

When man left the lawless wilderness and entered into societies, he entered into an entirely new world where his old instincts were worthless. Nietzsche compares this radical change experienced by man to the change experienced by the first sea animals to venture onto land. “It must have been no different for man, happily adapted to the wilderness, war, the wandering life and adventure than it was for the sea animals when they were forced to either become land animals or perish – at one go, all instincts were devalued and ‘suspended’. The poor things were reduced to relying on thinking, inference, calculation, and the connecting of cause with effect, that is, to relying on their mind, that most impoverished and error-prone organ!”

Man’s wild instincts, however, did not fade away. Instead, he was forced to turn his instincts for cruelty inwards because the new laws of societies prohibited violence. “Those terrible bulwarks with which state organizations protected themselves against the old instincts of freedom had the result that all those instincts of the wild, free, roving man were turned backwards, against man himself. Animosity, cruelty, the pleasure of pursuing, raiding, changing and destroying – all this was pitted against the person who had such instincts.”

After diverting his cruel instincts towards himself, man began to grow sick of existence. Nietzsche refers to this sentiment as the worst and most insidious illness ever to afflict man, and an illness from which man has yet to recover. “Lacking external enemies and obstacles, and forced into the oppressive narrowness and conformity of custom, man impatiently ripped himself apart, persecuted himself, gnawed at himself, gave himself no peace and abused himself, this animal who battered himself raw on the bars of his cage and who is supposed to be ‘tamed’; man, full of emptiness and torn apart with homesickness for the desert, has had to create within himself an adventure, a torture-chamber, an unsafe and hazardous wilderness – this fool, this prisoner consumed with longing and despair, became the inventor of ‘bad conscience’.”

Despite the dismal diagnosis of civilized man’s illness, Nietzsche regarded the disease of guilt, like all other afflictions in life, to be an opportunity to enhance human excellence. To him, mankind’s ability to turn against itself is indicative of man’s potential to achieve something great in the future – to achieve the meaning of the earth – to achieve the birth of the Ubermensch. “The prospect of an animal soul turning against itself was something so new, profound, puzzling, contradictory and momentous that the whole character of the world changed in an essential way. Man arouses interest, tension, hope, almost certainty for himself, as though something were being announced through him, were being prepared, as though man were not an end but just a path, an episode, a bridge, a great promise.”

To conclude, Nietzsche asserts that a guilty conscience developed when mankind formed societies and established laws. These social institutions forced man to turn his cruel and wild instincts inwards against himself. When man finally overcomes his bad conscience – which is nothing more than contempt for life – he will be one step closer to giving birth to the Ubermensch.

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12 thoughts on “NIETZSCHE: Guilty Conscience

    • I don’t agree that social institutions are the sole cause of guilt. I think that guilt arises from many factors besides the one identified by Nietzsche. For example, biological factors likely play a role in the experience of guilt. Some people are naturally more empathetic than others. There are some people who entirely lack empathy – psychopaths. An empathetic person will likely experience guilt after committing a wrong because he cannot help but reflect upon the pain that he caused the other person.

      Alexander the Great provides a strong counterargument to Nietzsche’s theory. Though Alexander lived within a society, he certainly was not inhibited by any law. He freely discharged his cruelty on anyone he wished. But when he drunkenly killed one of his friends, he felt tremendous guilt afterwards.

      What are your thoughts?

      • Do you think he feels guilty because he caused someone pain or because he thinks he could have acted differently?
        I think I agree with Nietzsche. Without such things as guilt being reinforced by society, we would live as animals that we are.

  1. Do you agree with Nietzsche about guilt? Or do you have a modified view? Is guilt more a culturl invention, with variations dependent upon specific cultures? Is there a universal norm of guilt?

    • I don’t agree that social institutions are the sole cause of guilt. I think that guilt arises from many factors besides the one identified by Nietzsche. For example, biological factors likely play a role in the experience of guilt. Some people are naturally more empathetic than others. There are some people who entirely lack empathy – psychopaths. An empathetic person will likely experience guilt after committing a wrong because he cannot help but reflect upon the pain that he caused the other person.

      Alexander the Great provides a strong counterargument to Nietzsche’s theory. Though Alexander lived within a society, he certainly was not inhibited by any law. He freely discharged his cruelty on anyone he wished. But when he drunkenly killed one of his friends, he felt tremendous guilt afterwards.

      What are your thoughts?

      • Are guilt and remorse the same?

        You suggest that you think empathy is a biological phenomena. Is the lack of empathy a birth defect, similar in nature to the neurological defect of not having a pain response?

      • Guilt and remorse both describe a feeling of regret for a wrong committed.

        A defect is some type of imperfection. Is lack of empathy an imperfection? Well, it depends on one’s goal. A lack of empathy is useful for a soldier in war whose goal is to kill the enemy. It is not useful for a person whose goal is to develop intimate relationships with other people.

      • Empathy is useful when the goal is to force the opposition to surrender or comply with terms, whether, or not, the terms are mutually agreeable. However guilt and/or remorse can also be useful as a tool of coercion., as can an empathetic use of conflict related death and torture.

        Guilt is merely the acknowledgement of responsibility. Remorse is guilt plus a desire to have the deed, idea, or feeling, results, to not be.

        When both guilt and remorse are present, apology, appeasement and restitution can be considered. Without both guilt and remorse, reconciliation of damaging conflicts cannot be completed.

        Just my opinions … Bearspawprint .. 01.19.2014

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