Friedrich Nietzsche Essay

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In the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), justice is understood in a most generous and ethically compelling way. Nietzsche, the creator of genealogical analysis, returns to the origins of sociopolitical phenomena to understand them in the context of their arising in specific historical contexts in response to specific, often localized, socioeconomic conditions. He thus understands the mechanisms of justice in any society to assume the forms that they do in accordance with the society’s sense of its own strength. A society’s capacity for mercy and its ability to deal generously with both internal enemies (criminals) and external enemies varies directly with the existential health of the group, ranging from a “noble” fullness of nature to the ignoble, resentment-driven, weak-natured “man of ressentiment.”

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche was a German philosopher, cultural critic, and classical philologist. His works targeted religion, culture, philosophy, and science, challenging accepted values through the use of metaphor, irony, and aphorism for undermining life energies and fostering unhealthy, reactive, “resentment-riddled” natures, rather than “life-affirmation,” a recurrent theme in his work. Nietzsche challenged many sacred traditions and doctrines for draining life’s expansive energies. His influence remains substantial within philosophy and many consider Nietzsche to be the father of postmodern philosophical method. His radical questioning of the value and objectivity of truth has stimulated extensive commentary by philosophers in the continental tradition.

The Roots of Justice

In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche tracks the ideas that ground the formation of mechanisms of justice to their roots in a people’s nature. In the First Essay, he characterizes “strong, full natures” by their great capacity to shake off insults and affronts, and he contrasts the noble, generous-natured to the “ignoble, resentful natures” who at the slightest offense are driven to hatred and venomous forms of revenge against their enemies, whom they perceive to be evil. The Second Essay goes on to trace the origins of state systems of justice to the most primitive personal relationship, the relationship between buyer and seller, creditor and debtor. From the practices of setting prices, determining values, and measuring equivalencies, the human world and all its relationships came to be modeled on this primitive association. From this primal market relationship, and in accord with the simplest logic that everything has its price and all things can be paid for, derives the oldest and most fundamental moral canon of justice as good-natured, fair, and objective behavior among parties of approximately equal power as they come to terms with each other and carve out their equitable settlements.

Institutional history evolves from this simple vital relation of creditor to debtor. Since communal life offers marked advantages over the life of exile (in German, Elund, meaning “misery”), including protection, mutual trust, and a peaceful context for carrying on affairs, Nietzsche understands citizenship to imply the pledge to keep faith with standards of fairness and goodwill and to refrain from injuries and hostile acts toward other citizens. This pledge between the individual and the community (encoded as the law) guarantees a certain quality of life for all; thus, the lawbreaker is a debtor who has accepted the bond of the community and reaped the advantages of citizenship but failed to keep the promise of goodwill and fairness to the others. Therefore, henceforth the criminal must be denied the communal advantages and through that deprivation, reminded of their worth. Like a cheated creditor, the community withholds the advantages of citizenship from the unfaithful debtor, now seen as an enemy of the state, and returns the culprit to a “savage and outlaw state,” applying punishments whose forms derive from acts of war, directed to external enemies.

However, Nietzsche sees the savagery to which internal enemies are submitted softening and growing increasingly lenient and penal law becoming progressively moderate as the community grows more powerful and its self-confidence increases. With amplified communal vigor, malefactors cease to be viewed as extreme threats, and thus, posits Nietzsche, the focus of the law evolves and shifts from a punitive response to the malefactor toward the protection of the transgressor, with the purpose of moderating the excesses of anger that resentful victims may harbor toward transgressors. Just as creditors become more humane to the extent that their wealth increases, so for Nietzsche states become more humane to the extent that they are stable, strong states.

Nietzsche’s genealogy of justice thus acts as an indictment of cruel penal practices, since societies that practice harsh forms of penal law are construed as weak, ignoble, and savage, while societies that pass more generous laws and practice more lenient punitive forms are construed as noble, strong, and more humane. This movement toward generosity Nietzsche names “the self-overcoming of justice.” Countering the proposition posited by contemporary theorist Eugene Dühring that justice derives from reactive feelings, Nietzsche insists instead that the last sphere to be conquered by the spirit of justice is the sphere of reactive feelings. Justice may arise from primal relations of exchange but its inclinations are more noble than venomous “ressentiment,” which is the mark of lesser, weaker natures. Justice is always positive for Nietzsche, arising from the will of noble men to put limits upon the reactive excesses of lesser men and to move the focus from grudge and rancor to impersonal, objective valuation of deeds.

In this understanding of justice, as evolving from a declaration of war against an internal enemy to a compromise with, and ultimately protection from, the vengeful rage of offended parties, the meanings of punishment evolve in step with this changing conceptual territory: to render harmless, isolate a disturbance, inspire fear of a ruler, secure repayment of a debt, expel a degenerate element to maintain communal purity, festival rape and public mockery of an enemy, and the making of memories for the punished and for witnesses.


  1. Engels, Frederick. Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen in Revolution in Science. Charleston, SC: Forgotten Books, 2012.
  2. Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Alan Sheridan, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
  3. Govier, Trudy. Forgiveness and Revenge. London: Routledge, 2002.
  4. Murphy, Jeffrie G. and Jean Hampton. Forgiveness and Mercy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  5. Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Walter Kaufman, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
  6. Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Walter Kaufman, trans. New York: Vintage Books, 1967.

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