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Journal of History of the Behavioral Sciences, Vol. 38(3), 303–315 Summer 2002
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Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). DOI: 10:1002/jhbs.10064
䉷 2002 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


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This article develops the argument that Friedrich Nietzsche influenced several aspects of
Freud’s later writings by illustrating, in particular, the impact of Nietzsche’s On the Ge-
nealogy of Morals on Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents. The theoretical and con-
ceptual schemes represented in Freud’s Discontents are found to bear a remarkable
similarity to Nietzsche’s Genealogy on a number of highly specific points. It is suggested
that “das Es,” “Uber-ich,” and “bad conscience,” concepts central to Freud’s moral theory
of mind, are at least partly derived from Nietzsche. Moreover, Freud’s phylogenetic theory
of guilt is based upon premises found in Nietzsche, as are specific details relating to ideas
on human prehistory and the ancestral family. Based on this evidence, a re-examination
of the moral and social dimensions of Freud’s “structural” model may be in order. 䉷 2002
Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

The intellectual relationship between Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud has gained
increasing recognition in recent years among scholars, but perhaps has yet to become fully
appreciated. It is, of course, widely acknowledged that Nietzsche was a precursor to many
psychoanalytic concepts, a fact about which Freud himself was well aware. It is also becoming
increasingly accepted that Nietzsche was, in all likelihood, a significant influence on Freud.
There are some excellent recent examples showing both historical and theoretical connections
between Nietzsche and Freud. For good overviews regarding the conceptual similarities be-
tween Nietzsche and Freud, as well as evidence for influence, see: Anderson, 1980; Chapman
and Chapman, 1995; Chessick, 1981; Golomb, 1987; Golomb, Santaniello, and Lehrer, 1999;
Holmes, 1983; Lehrer, 1995, 1996; Mazlish, 1968; Roazen, 1991; Rudnytsky, 1985; Scavio,
Cooper, and Clift 1993; Waugaman, 1973. This article builds on their evidence and argu-
ments, but with a more specific focus on the influence of Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of
Morals on Freud’s moral theory and theory of mind. Since most of the more general simi-
larities between Nietzsche and Freud have already been documented, I will focus on those
instances that point toward viewing the history and conceptual origins of Freud’s theory of
morality in a new, rather Nietzschean light.


Considering the time in which Freud was educated, one might suspect that any similarity
between his work and Nietzsche’s could be accounted for by certain ideas that were “in the
air” during the 1880s and 1890s, since by that time Nietzsche’s ideas were often discussed
in intellectual circles. However, a close look at the historical evidence reveals that Freud
became acquainted with Nietzsche through very direct means.

SCOTT GREER is currently assistant professor of psychology at the University of Prince Edward
Island in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada. He received his B.A. from the University of
Memphis, and his M.A. and Ph.D. from York University in Toronto. His current research interests include
critical history and historiography of psychological theory and practice, including most recently a ge-
nealogical approach to the measurement of the self and self-esteem. Other interests include qualitative
research on questions of identity and moral discourse (e.g., “self-esteem”), especially using phenome-
nological and narrative approaches. short

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The recent publication of many of Freud’s early correspondences can now help better Base of text
establish which of Nietzsche’s works he read and when. Among the more revealing historical
evidence for Nietzsche’s influence are a series of letters, written by Freud before the creation
of psychoanalysis (i.e., 1900). In each case, Freud discusses aspects of Nietzsche’s philosophy
that show he had far more than a cursory familiarity with Nietzsche’s ideas; in fact, he knew
the material intimately and probably first-hand.
As McGrath (1967) has shown, Freud probably first became acquainted with Nietzsche
in the early 1870s through the “Reading Group of Viennese German Students,” a “radical”
reading society which followed the works of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, and (oddly enough)
Richard Wagner. Some of the members wrote letters to Nietzsche, with one member, Joseph
Paneth, becoming friends with Nietzsche in the 1880s, and, according to one of Freud’s letters
to Arnold Zweig, he “. . . got to know him . . . and had written a lot to me about him”
(quoted in E. Freud, 1970, p. 78).
One of Freud’s letters, written to Wilhelm Fliess on 31 May 1897, informed Fliess that
a “presentiment tells me” that “I shall very soon uncover the source of morality” (Masson,
1985, p. 249). Freud then reflected on the origins of guilt and civilization, and in so doing
established his recognition of Nietzsche’s contribution to this area when he offered the fol-
lowing definition of “Holy”:

“Holy” is something based on the fact that human beings, for the sake of the larger
community, have sacrificed a portion of their sexual liberty and their liberty to indulge
in sexual perversions. The horror of incest . . . is based on the fact that, as a result of
communal sexual life . . . the members of the family remain together permanently and
become incapable of joining with strangers. Thus, incest is anti-social — civilization
consists of a progressive renunciation of it. Contrawise the “superman.” (Masson, 1985,
p. 252)

Freud’s use of “holiness” or “saintliness” (Heiligkeit) and “superman” (Ubermensch) clearly

indicated a familiarity with Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, where Nietzsche had
suggested the idea that the origins of guilt and conscience were part of the renunciation of
instinctual gratification. Freud’s “presentiment” was obviously connected to the notion of the
“Holy,” and it is difficult to imagine Freud not having read and drawn on Nietzsche’s Ge-
nealogy of Morals in this regard. Moreover, as noted by Lehrer (1995), earlier in the same
month Freud wrote some of his earliest material on “sublimation” in a letter to Fliess — a
concept not only very important to Nietzsche, but central to his theory regarding the historical
development of morality.
Lehrer (1995, 1996) notes that in another letter to Fliess dated 14 November 1897, Freud
exclaimed that the “gave birth to a new piece of knowledge. Not entirely new, to tell the
truth; it had repeatedly shown itself and withdrawn again . . .” (cited in Masson, 1985, pp.
278 – 279). Freud then reminded Fliess about his “presentiment” earlier in the summer, where
he believed he would discover the source of “normal sexual repression (morality, shame, and
so forth) and then for a long time failed to find it.” Before Freud discussed his insight, he
averred his originality: “Privately I concede priority in the idea to no one. . . .” He then put
forward his idea that as humans began to walk upright “a number of formerly interesting
sensations attached to the earth [became] repulsive. . . . (He turns up his nose ⫽ he regards
himself as something particularly noble)” (p. 279). Following this, Freud linked this unpleas-
ant sensation with the act of “repression”: “To put it crudely, the memory actually stinks just
as in the present the object stinks; and in the same manner as we turn away our sense or- short

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gan . . . in disgust, the preconscious and the sense of consciousness turn away from mem- Base of text
ory. This is repression” (Masson, 1985, p. 280).
The connection to Nietzsche, and Freud’s use of the Genealogy, becomes clear when
we find that Nietzsche wrote:

On his way to becoming an “angel” . . . man has evolved that queasy stomach and
coated tongue through which not only the joy and innocence of the animal but life itself
has become repugnant to him — so that he sometimes holds his nose in his own presence
and . . . disapprovingly catalogues his own repellant aspects . . . hideous stink, se-
cretion of saliva, urine, and filth. (cited in Lehrer, 1996, p. 376)

The case of Nietzsche’s influence on Freud in this regard would seem hard to deny, especially
when one considers that Nietzsche also discussed “repression” in the Genealogy (just before
the above passage), and described it in the following way:

Forgetting is no mere vis inertiae as the superficial imagine; it is rather an active and in
the strictest sense a positive faculty of repression. . . . To close the doors and windows
of consciousness for a time; to remain undisturbed by the noise and struggle of our
underworld of utility organs working with and against one another; a little quietness, a
little tabula rasa of consciousness, to make room for new things, above all for the nobler
functions . . . that is the purpose of active forgetfulness, which is like a doorkeeper, a
preserver of psychic order, repose, and etiquette. . . . The man in whom this apparatus
of repression is damaged and ceases to function properly may be compared . . . with
a dyspeptic — he cannot “have done” with anything. (1968a, II, sec. 1)1

Freud’s connection to Nietzsche continues when we discover in a third letter (also to

Fliess) that Freud had not only avidly read Nietzsche, but even looked to him as a source of
inspiration — something that he perhaps felt he needed during his “crisis” period. In Novem-
ber of 1899 Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published, but hardly anyone noticed. As
a result, Freud felt unsure about his future, and that, as he wrote to Fliess on 1 February 1900,
“Perhaps hard times are ahead, for both me and for my practice.” Then, in a particularly
revealing statement, Freud wrote, “I have just acquired Nietzsche, in whom I hope to find
words for much that remains mute in me, but have not opened him yet” (Masson, 1985, p.
398). This reference most likely refers to Nietzsche’s collected works, which Freud is known
to have bought at some expense in 1900 (Gay, 1988, p. 45). In addition, later that same year
Freud also attended a lecture on Nietzsche given by Georg Brandes, Nietzsche’s first pro-
ponent outside Germany (Holmes, 1983).
Even after psychoanalysis was established, Freud’s interest in and pursuit of Nietzsche
continued: when Nietzsche’s final work, Ecce Homo, was published in 1908, Freud purchased
it immediately (Kaufmann, 1980). It was presumably not by coincidence that during that same
year the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society held two meetings devoted to discussing Nietzsche.


During the early years of psychoanalysis, Freud’s attitude concerning his knowledge of
Nietzsche was quite puzzling and, at times, even contradictory. On more than one occasion,
Freud denied his earlier interest in Nietzsche, as well as any knowledge about him. Several

1. In light of the many different citations of his works, I follow the standard practice among Nietzsche scholars
of referencing quotations from his works in terms of section numbers, rather than page numbers. short

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other writers have noted and discussed Freud’s “denials,” and that the truth about his famil- Base of text
iarity with Nietzsche “slipped” out on more than one occasion (see more detailed accounts
of Freud’s prevarications in Anderson, 1980; Chapman & Chapman, 1995; Lehrer, 1995;
Rudnytsky, 1985; Scavio et al.,1993; and Waugaman, 1973). This was illustrated in a most
striking fashion during two meetings on Nietzsche of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in
1908. For example, the first meeting, on April 1, was a discussion that focussed on Nietzsche’s
On the Genealogy of Morals (a work central to the argument presented here). From this,
many of the participants were struck by the parallels between psychoanalysis and Nietzsche.
Alfred Adler stated that Nietzsche’s writings were closer than those of any other philosopher
to the tenets of psychoanalysis. Freud responded with the blanket assertion that he “. . . knew
nothing of” Nietzsche’s work, and that the attempts he made at reading him were — in a
wonderfully loaded phrase — “. . . smothered by an excess of interest.” Paul Federn contin-
ued by asking, “. . . where has he not come close?” (Federn & Nunberg, 1962, p. 359).
After having just denied any substantial knowledge of Nietzsche, Freud retorted, “. . . he
failed to recognize infantilism as well as the mechanisms of displacement” (Federn & Nun-
berg, 1962, p. 361). This was quite a succinct deduction for someone who knew nothing of
In contrast to his letters to Fliess, Freud was much less forthcoming regarding whom he
read and who influenced his thought after psychoanalysis had become established. This pe-
culiar change in attitude toward possible sources of influence was demonstrated in a 1909
letter to Oskar Pfister. When Pfister asked Freud about the influence of other writers on his
work, Freud responded by acknowledging that he was probably guilty of an innocent form
of plagiarism: “I am really very ignorant about my predecessors. If we ever meet up above
they will certainly greet me ill as a plagiarist. But it is such a pleasure to investigate the thing
itself instead of reading the literature about it” (Jones, 1955, p. 443). This statement is part
of the same pattern of twisted logic that is found repeatedly concerning Nietzsche — his
reading of Nietzsche had been “smothered by an excess of interest,” his “not entirely new”
“new piece of knowledge,” and so forth.
We may have even further cause to doubt Freud’s innocence here. In an earlier letter to
Fliess on 8 October 1895, Freud indicated that he had difficulty during the creative process
in keeping other, external ideas from intermingling with his own: “I do not want to read
anything because it plunges me into too many thoughts and stunts my gratification in dis-
covery” (Masson, 1985, p. 141). Indeed, the “gratification in discovery” was extremely im-
portant to Freud, and, as some have suggested (e.g., Anderson, 1980; Roazen, 1974, 1991;
Rudnytsky, 1985, 1987; Scavio et al., 1993), this may be one of the main reasons for Freud’s
equivocal attitude toward his predecessors.2
Freud did finally admit having some knowledge of Nietzsche in his 1914 work, History
of the Psychoanalytic Movement. However, he clearly intended this recognition to be ac-
knowledging conceptual anticipation rather than influence: “In recent times I have denied
myself the great benefit of Nietzsche’s work, with the express intent that in the gathering of

2. In a remarkable parallel, Nietzsche made almost the exact same comment in a letter to Carl von Gersdorff,
“The hundred books on the table in front of me are so many tongs which pinch out the nerve of independent thought”
(cited in Rudnytsky, 1985, p. 435). Rudnytsky (1985) argues that Freud’s denial of Nietzsche was an Oedipal
phenomenon, meaning that Freud wanted to establish intellectual primacy over any rivals. Rudnytsky also believes
that Freud repressed (or perhaps, suppressed) the memories of reading Nietzsche in his youth, only to find them
surface in his later writings— an idea we find that Freud himself implied. Rudnytsky (1985; 1987) notes further
parallels between Nietzsche and Freud and their interest in and use of the Oedipal myth. Not only in terms of short
philosophical perspectives, but the biographical background of these two men also share some interesting similarities. standard

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psychoanalytic impressions I not be impeded by any conceptual anticipations” (Freud, 1914, Base of text
pp. 14 – 15). Note Freud’s qualifier, “in recent times,” which left open the possibility that he
had read Nietzsche when he was younger.
In his An Autobiographical Study (1925), Freud went so far as to credit Nietzsche and
Schopenhauer with predating him on the concepts of sublimation and repression (respec-
tively), although he still claimed that they had no direct impact on his own theory. Freud
reiterated his claim to have “avoided” Nietzsche for “a long time,” because he saw Nietzsche
as clearly anticipating, “in the most astonishing way,” the findings of psychoanalytic inves-
tigations. Freud then added that he was not so concerned with questions of “priority,” but
with “the preservation of my openmindedness” (cited in Kaufmann, 1974, pp. 182 – 183).
Freud repeated, even more directly, his recognition and appreciation of Nietzsche’s an-
ticipation of psychoanalysis in a 1931 letter to Lothar Bickel. In the letter, Freud explained
why he had tried to disassociate himself from Nietzsche — yet, again, this perhaps also shows
why he had earlier denied any knowledge of him: “I have rejected the study of Nietzsche
although — no, because — it was plain that I would find insights in him very similar to psy-
choanalytic ones” (cited in Gay, 1988, p. 46).
As these tentative and strangely qualified admissions by Freud show, his uneasiness in
recognizing ideas that anticipated his own was quite clear. Each acknowledgment of Nietzsche
brought with it a definite sense of discomfort, as if being influenced by or following someone
else would be a blot on his character or contribution (which I see as clearly supporting
Rudnytsky’s “Oedipal hypothesis”). Yet, Freud’s later acknowledgement of Nietzsche bring
us full circle to the early, crucial, and formative period for psychoanalysis.
In one of his last works, “Analysis Terminable and Interminable” (1937), Freud sug-
gested the possibility that some of his ideas were perhaps the result of “cryptomnesia.” Using
the example of his theory of “life” and “death” instincts, Freud wrote: “Not long ago I came
upon this theory of mine in the writings of one of the great thinkers of Ancient Greece . . . I
can never be certain, in view of the wide extent of my readings in early years, whether what
I took for a new creation might not be an effect of cryptomnesia” (p. 235). Perhaps this was
Freud’s way of making peace with his own “bad conscience”?
In any event, the recent consensus among scholars has been that Freud was influenced
by Nietzsche (indeed, we may even interpret Freud’s own odd denial as an admission). Indeed,
we can see why Henri Ellenberger (1970) wrote, “For those acquainted with both Nietzsche
and Freud, the similarity of their thought is so obvious that there can be no question about
the former’s influence over the latter” (pp. 276 – 277). This conclusion can be seen even more
dramatically in Freud’s later work. Whether through “cryptomnesia” or not, some of Freud’s
later works returned to and developed the ideas found in the Freud – Fliess letters noted earlier.
This marked a return to Nietzsche’s Genealogy, a work of which Freud had displayed an
early keen interest.


While there appears to be a more than adequate case for influence, the extent and specific
nature of Nietzsche’s impact on Freud, especially regarding Freud’s moral theory and theory
of mind, can now be further and more fully explicated. To do this, it is necessary to address
these aspects of Freud’s work and the several direct references he made to Nietzsche.
Freud referred to Nietzsche in numerous places in his writings, but the most significant
references for our purposes begin with a rather curious but subsequently quite revealing short
“misunderstanding” from Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). In this work, Freud did not standard

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cite Nietzsche, but openly employed one of his most basic concepts: “bad conscience.” Freud Base of text
referred to “bad conscience” as the first stage in the development of moral judgment: what
is “bad” is what threatens to take a love object away. Freud (1930) then, in an attempt to
correct the definition, wrote, “This state of mind is called a ‘bad conscience’; but actually it
does not deserve this name, for at this stage the sense of guilt is clearly only a fear of loss of
love, ‘social’ anxiety” (pp. 71 – 72). However, Nietzsche’s use of “bad conscience” in On the
Genealogy of Morals clearly extended beyond a sense of “remorse.” As will be elaborated
below, he conceived of “bad conscience” as part of the larger genesis of consciousness and
moral awareness. In short, Nietzsche described “civilized” moral conduct as brought about
by an “internalization” [Verinnerlichung] of punishment, which has become not only deified
in Christianity, but recognized in our “soul” as guilt. Hence, Freud’s initial understanding of
“bad conscience” was (at least as Nietzsche used it) inaccurate. More to the point, however,
Freud (1930) then extended his notion of “bad conscience” beyond “remorse” to include the
“internalization” [Verinnerlichung] of authority, which he described as evidenced in the feel-
ing of “guilt”:

A great change takes place only when the authority is internalized through the
establishment of a super-ego. The phenomena of conscience then reach a higher stage.
Actually, it is not until now that we should speak of conscience or a sense of guilt. At
this point, too, the fear of being found out comes to an end; the distinction, moreover,
between doing something bad and wishing to do it disappears entirely, since nothing
can hide from the super-ego. (p. 72)

With his description of “internalization” (i.e., Freud’s revised conception of “bad con-
science”), Freud introduced the concept of the “super-ego” as an internalization of external
authority. Although Freud dropped the further use of “bad conscience,” Freud nonetheless,
in the end, rendered it in a way that was very similar to what Nietzsche had originally
conceived.3 In other words, Freud’s revised notion of “bad conscience” had a meaning and
function very similar to that of the “super-ego.” More importantly, the revised notion of “bad
conscience” bore an unmistakable similarity to the actual original meaning of the term, orig-
inally proposed by Nietzsche.
While the concept of the “Uber-ich” (super-ego) appears to have been derived from
Nietzsche’s notion of “bad conscience,” it was The Ego and the Id in 1923 which first intro-
duced the concept along with Freud’s “structural model,” making the influence of Nietzsche’s
“genealogy of morals” even more direct for Freud’s theory of mind. However, the concept
of a “super-ego,” or an internalized self-critical faculty, was not new to Freud’s writings.
Strachey (1961) noted that the earlier notion of an “ego ideal,” the precursor to the “super-
ego,” was first introduced in Freud’s paper “On Narcissism” in 1914. Like the super-ego, the
ego ideal was a “psychic agency” which, among other things, monitored and evaluated the
thoughts and actions of the person. Again, if we recall the 1897 letter to Fliess on “Holiness,”
and the “daringly Nietzschean” sound of Uber-ich (according to Kaufmann, 1980), the con-
ceptual origin and meaning of these concepts begin to take on a definite “Nietzschean” flavor.
Nietzsche’s relevance to the structural model is further reinforced by Freud’s use of “das
Es” (or “the it,” translated by Strachey into “the id”) in The Ego and the Id, which was
explicitly based on Nietzsche’s concept of “das Es.” Nietzsche frequently referred to “das
Es” in his writings as that part of the psyche which is not conscious, yet is its instinctual,

3. Freud evidently borrowed Nietzsche’s use of Verinnerlichung (“internalization”). short


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driving force. Furthermore, when we look at the role of “das Es” in Nietzsche’s psychology, Base of text
we find that it bore a striking resemblance to that of Freud’s.
In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche distinguished between the “ego” and the “it,” ar-
guing that the ego was not the seat of agency, thought, and action that philosophers had long
assumed it to be; that role, in fact, belonged to the it: “I shall never tire of emphasizing a
small terse fact, . . . that a thought comes when ‘it’ wishes, and not when ‘I’ wish. . . . It
thinks; but that this ‘it’ is precisely the famous old ‘ego’ is, to put it mildly, only a superstition,
an assertion, and assuredly not an ‘immediate certainty’” (1886/1968, sec. 17). Nietzsche’s
“it” was obviously very similar to Freud’s. Therefore, when Freud began using this term in
his final structural model, he was continuing and extending “its” role in an extremely Nietz-
schean fashion. What is perhaps just as astonishing is that Freud appears to have realized
Freud stated in a letter to Otto Rank that the adoption of “das Es” in The Ego and the
Id was in part due to the work of Georg Groddeck, a self-proclaimed “wild analyst” (Gay,
1988). Although he differed from Groddeck in the use and meaning of “das Es”, Freud (1923)
concurred with his suggestion that the mind is “lived by unknown and uncontrollable powers.”
Freud, yet again, tipped his hand when he pointed out that Groddeck’s use of “das Es”
originally derived from Nietzsche. Freud’s footnote to this effect in The Ego and the Id
indicates that he recognized this fact on his own: “Groddeck himself no doubt followed the
example of Nietzsche, who habitually used this grammatical term for whatever in our nature
is impersonal and, so to speak, subject to natural law” (1923, p. 23). Freud hardly seemed
averse not only to adopting this Nietzschean concept, but to emphasizing “it” as such. In
short, Freud’s use of “das Es” and “Uber-Ich” make his structural theory sound strikingly
Nietzschean — especially given the time and cultural context of his work.
However, the area where Freud perhaps borrowed from Nietzsche most heavily and
directly takes us back to his letters to Fliess and his nascent theory of morality; a gestation
period perhaps for his Civilization and its Discontents some 35 years later. Here, there is
some rather clear and dramatic evidence that the major components of Freud’s theory on the
emergence of civilization, morality, and conscience can be seen as derived directly from
Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals.


The similarity between Nietzsche’s Genealogy and Freud’s Civilization and its Discon-
tents has been recognized by Anderson (1980), Holmes (1983), Lehrer (1995), and others.
As Ernest Jones (1955, p. 283) remarked, the comparisons between their two theories here
are “truly remarkable.” There are indeed numerous general points of comparison, several of
which are covered below, but the specific theoretical connections between Freud’s writings
and Nietzsche’s Genealogy have not been discussed. Nor has there been an account of how
detailed knowledge of such connections might alter our interpretation of Freud’s moral theory
of mind. Based on the similarities between Discontents and Genealogy, I will argue that not
only is there a clear case for establishing influence, but that Freud’s essay represents his own
“genealogy” on the origins of guilt and the birth of conscience.
Holmes (1983) argued that Freud’s interest in human prehistory was first sparked by
Nietzsche. According to Holmes (1983), “Freud nevertheless became disillusioned with the
vaulting ambitiousness of Nietzsche’s philosophy and his anticipation of psychoanalytic con-
cepts” (p. 197). Yet, the exposure to Nietzsche in Freud’s youth made a lasting impression. short

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Holmes (1983) concluded that, “Essentially, Freud extended Nietzsche’s idea of the archaic Base of text
bad conscience into a full-fledged psycho-anthropological theory of phylogenetic guilt” (p.
199). A more detailed analysis of the works of Nietzsche and Freud will provide a fuller
picture of this connection.
I would argue that Nietzsche’s Genealogy already constituted a “theory of phylogenetic
guilt,” and Freud did not so much add to Nietzsche’s ideas, as he more or less directly
borrowed them and shifted the emphasis of the analysis. In the Genealogy, Nietzsche’s anal-
ysis of contemporary religion and morality traced the development of moral codes from the
social arena to the internalized “sting” of conscience in the individual. Freud started with the
“stinger” itself, the superego, and then, in a “genealogy” of his own through the unconscious,
traced its inception to the “internalization” of rules by the “primal horde.” Although Freud
was interested in the person’s “psychic agency” and their personal history as the starting point
for his own “genealogy of morals,” in the end what Freud shared with Nietzsche was the
focus on the social structure of early humans, the internalization of moral codes, and the
representation of these codes in memory that can dispense mental pain (i.e., guilt) when
appropriate. Freud’s psychoanalysis, in other words, can be understood as a “genealogy of
morals” from the perspective of the unconscious and our “ontological guilt” (cf. May,
As early humans became gradually civilized, the primitive human, as Nietzsche (1887/
1968a) described, “found himself finally enclosed within the walls of society and of peace.”
Our savage instinctual urges had to be restrained in order to maintain a stable social unit.
Instead of discharging these instincts outwardly, they were redirected inward:

All instincts that do not discharge themselves outwardly turn inward — this is what I
call the internalization [Verinnerlichung] of man: thus it was that man first developed
what was later called his “soul.” The entire inner world, originally as thin as if it were
stretched between two membranes, expanded and extended itself, acquired depth,
breadth, and height, in the same measure as outward discharge was inhibited. (Nietzsche,
1887/1968a, II, sec. 16)

According to Nietzsche, this “internalization” of instinct gave rise to feelings of guilt. “Mo-
rality” was born out of these primitive feelings of guilt, as early humans experienced the
conflict between their instinctual urges and the restraints placed on them by social standards:
“Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction — all this turned
against the possessors of such instincts: that is the origin of ‘bad conscience’” (Nietzsche,
1887/1968a, II, sec. 16). These primal instincts, which for eons had driven the human animal,
now had to be suppressed since they could not be escaped: “This instinct for freedom [of
expression] forcibly made latent . . . pushed back and repressed, incarcerated within and
finally able to discharge and vent itself only on itself: that, and that alone, is what the bad
conscience is in its beginnings” (Nietzsche, 1887/1968a, II, sec. 17). Through the “internal-
ization of instinct,” this state of guilt became a permanent part of the human psyche, referred
to by Nietzsche as our “bad conscience.”
As means of enforcing order became necessary, “punishment” came into existence as a
social practice. As Nietzsche explained, punishment, to be effective, had to play on the pre-
disposition of people to feel guilt: “Punishment is supposed to possess the value of awakening
the feeling of guilt in the guilty person; one seeks in it the actual instrumentum of that
psychical reaction called ‘bad conscience’” (1887/1968a, II, sec.14). The capacity for guilt,
that “instrument” of “bad conscience,” was the internal development in human history that short
allowed for some measure of social control and, subsequently, the emergence of civilization. standard

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For both Nietzsche and Freud, “bad conscience” and guilt have developed phylogenet- Base of text
ically in the human species, and therefore represent a state of ontological guilt or a sense of
being “born into sin.” Freud’s writings in Civilization and Its Discontents about “guilt” and
its role in governing behavior mirror Nietzsche almost exactly:
Thus we know of two origins of the sense of guilt: one arising from fear of an authority,
and the other, later on, arising from fear of the super-ego. The first insists upon a re-
nunciation of instinctual satisfactions; the second, as well as doing this, presses for
punishment, since the continuance of the forbidden wishes cannot be concealed from
the super-ego. . . . Thus, in spite of the renunciation that has been made, a sense of
guilt comes about. (Freud, 1930, p. 74)
As both Nietzsche (1887/1968a) and Freud (1930) have pointed out, our “bad conscience” is
the price — and the illness — of civilization.
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud also echoed Nietzsche’s depiction of the origins
of conscience so precisely it hardly seems coincidental:
What means does civilization employ in order to inhibit the aggressiveness which op-
poses it . . . ? What happens in him to render his desire for aggression innocuous? His
aggressiveness is introjected, internalized; it is, in point of fact, sent back where it came
from — that is, it is directed towards his own ego. There it is taken over by a portion of
the ego, which sets itself over against the rest of the ego as super-ego, and which now,
in the form of “conscience,” is ready to put into action against the ego the same harsh
aggressiveness that the ego would have liked to satisfy upon other, extraneous individ-
uals. The tension between the harsh super-ego and the ego that is subjected to it, is called
by us the sense of guilt; it expresses itself as a need for punishment. (1930, p. 70)
The sadistic nature of the human “bad conscience” was also clear to Nietzsche (1887/
1968a): “. . . cruelty constituted the great festival pleasure of more primitive men and was
indeed an ingredient of almost every one of their pleasures; and how naively, how innocently
their thirst for cruelty manifested itself, how, as a matter of principle, they posited ‘disinter-
ested malice’” (II, sec. 6).
As with Nietzsche, Freud’s genealogy found that conscience and guilt have their seeds
in the social nature of human conduct. Freud traced the “internalization” of instinct back to
the primeval family, where instinctual urges were suppressed by the father, who acted as the
external authority. The “internalization” of the father was, according to Freud, a result of the
Oedipal conflict within primeval families. Before the existence of conscience, the sons often
rose up against their father (as head of the family) and killed him. Freud argued that the sons
felt an “ambivalence” toward their father, and after his death, their love for him replaced their
hatred. This caused the image of the father to become internalized, thus instilling the eternal
conflict between the forces of love (Eros) and death (Thanatos) within the individual. A sense
of loss and a feeling of remorse have thus become the paradigm for all feelings of guilt —
which are brought about from the internalized father image, the superego.
As social relations spread beyond the family, the standards of the father, now carried
within the superego, were generalized to other situations. On this, Freud (1930) wrote:
This conflict is set going as soon as men are faced with the task of living together. So
long as the community assumes no other form than that of the family, the conflict is
bound to express itself in the Oedipus complex, to establish conscience and create the
first sense of guilt. When an attempt is made to widen the community, the same conflict
is continued in forms which are dependent on the past; and it is strengthened and results
in further intensification of the sense of guilt. Since civilization obeys an internal erotic short
impulsion which causes human beings to unite in a closely-knit group, it can only achieve standard

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this aim through an ever-increasing reinforcement of the sense of guilt. What began in Base of text
relation to the father is completed in relation to the group. (pp. 79 – 80)
In another remarkable “parallel,” Nietzsche, in somewhat more detail, described the
precise origins of guilt and conscience in terms of the association between “guilt” and “debt.”
Nietzsche (1887/1968a) argued that the origins of conscience began with the human ability
“to promise.” If one is capable of making a promise, then one becomes “calculable, regular,
necessary.” This maker of promises also exercises a “free will” and accepts the responsibility
of making choices. Nietzsche (1887/1968a) wrote:

The proud awareness of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility, the consciousness

of this rare freedom, this power over oneself and over fate, has in his case penetrated to
the profoundest depths and become instinct, the dominating instinct. What will he call
this dominating instinct, supposing he feels the need to give it a name? The answer is
beyond doubt: this sovereign man calls it his conscience. (II, sec. 2)

Nietzsche then asked how do we remember promises? How does our “conscience” —
“that dominating instinct” — remind us of our responsibility? The answer is, quite simply,
pain. According to Nietzsche (1887/1968a), “’If something is to stay in memory it must be
burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in memory’ — this is the main clause
of the oldest (unhappily also the most enduring) psychology on earth” (II, sec. 3). Nietzsche
(1887/1968a) drew upon several examples of how “pain” is used as a form of social practice
to inscribe a memory, and in so doing foreshadowed Freud’s critique of religion:

Man could never do without blood, torture, and sacrifices when he felt the need to create
a memory for himself: the most dreadful sacrifices and pledges (sacrifices of the first-
born among them), the most repulsive mutilations (castration, for example), the cruelest
rites of all the religious cults (and all religions are at the deepest level systems of cru-
elties) — all this has its origins in the instinct that realized that pain is the most powerful
aid to mnemonics. (II, sec. 3)

According to Nietzsche, the regulation of behavior through pain was once physical and
external in origin. As our conscience developed and we internalized our aggressive instincts,
pain and its effects also became internalized, and became embodied in the “stinger” of our
“bad conscience.”
Nietzsche made this point clear when he revealed that the etymological origin of the
concept of “guilt” is the same as the notion of “debt.” In English, we cannot immediately
appreciate this association because the former is derived from an Anglo-Saxon root and the
latter from Latin. In German, however, both “guilt” and “debt” are denoted by the same word,
die Schuld. Nietzsche suggested that the origins of conscience, guilt, and morality itself lay
in the balancing of social relationships. Nietzsche argued that early in human history guilt
had a very materialistic meaning, and was more a description of your economic or “contrac-
tual” relationship with an individual (or sovereign) rather than some remorseful psychological
state. Therefore, if you were in “debt” to someone, you were also, in a very literal sense,
“guilty” and physically liable to that person for repaying the debt.
In describing how this sense of guilt, or debt, became “internalized” into our “bad con-
science,” Nietzsche (like Freud) looked to the primeval family. For Nietzsche, the earliest
sense of “Schuld” comes from the relationship of present generations to their ancestors.
Nietzsche (1887/1968a) wrote:

Within the original tribal community — we are speaking of primeval times — the living short
generation always recognized a juridical duty toward earlier generations, and especially standard

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toward the earliest, which founded the tribe . . . The conviction reigns that it is only Base of text
through the sacrifices and accomplishments of the ancestors that the tribe exists — and
that one has to pay them back with sacrifices and accomplishments: one thus recognizes
a debt that constantly grows greater, since these forebears never cease, in their continued
existence as powerful spirits, to accord the tribe new advantages and new strength. (II,
sec. 19)

Nietzsche concluded that as the tribe became more successful, their debt to their ancestors
was perceived to increase. Thus, the more successful a tribe became the more “guilty” and
“indebted” they felt towards their now idealized forebears. This process, argued Nietzsche,
was how “gods” were first created. “The advent of the Christian God, as the maximum god
attained so far, was therefore accompanied by the maximum feeling of guilty indebtedness
on earth” (Nietzsche, 1887/1968a, II, sec. 20).
As a final note on the theme of “guilty indebtedness,” let us return to Freud and the very
peculiar circumstances in which he developed his notion of “superego” from “bad conscience”
in Civilization and its Discontents. As discussed above, Freud “mis-understood”4 the Nietz-
schean concept of “bad conscience” as “a sense of loss,” and introduced as a “correction” his
own “original creation,” the “superego.” However, Freud’s “superego” has an almost identical
meaning to Nietzsche’s “bad conscience.” This mis-understanding turns out to be quite sym-
bolic in that Freud “found words for what lay mute in him.” Yet, Freud’s inability to ac-
knowledge Nietzsche created a sense of guilt within himself, which preyed upon his own
“bad conscience,” resulting in a Nietzschean-inspired “Uber-ich,” which stings us with guilt.
(One cannot help but succumb to the thickness of the irony!) Although he tried, Freud could
not truly escape Nietzsche or his own sense of indebtedness and obligation to him. Thus,
with “das Es” and the “Uber-ich” perhaps Freud was in his own (and probably unconscious)
way crediting Nietzsche after all! What can we now conclude from this genealogy, which is
fraught with guilt and indebtedness on so many layers?


Based on previous research and the detailed analysis presented here, it becomes apparent
that not only did Nietzsche influence Freud, but that many aspects of Freud’s theories of mind
and morality, especially from Civilization and its Discontents, were a reworking of Nie-
tzsche’s genealogical analysis. Through his ironic relationship with Nietzsche, Freud himself
represented a living example of his own concept of bad conscience. To review the main
features present in both Nietzsche and Freud: the early conflict between living as social
animals and yet having individual, instinctual impulses; the gradual suppression of those
impulses for the good of the community and the “internalization” of aggressive drives; the
incorporation of ancestral ideals as part of the “internalization” process, thus founding internal
goals, standards, and codes of conduct; the emergence of a “conscience” from the “internal-
ization” process that governs behavior through a sense of guilt; a sense of guilt, indebtedness,
and obligation which is strongly connected with one’s ancestors (whether a father or a group
of tribal founders); the evolution and creation of “gods” out of the idealized ancestors of
successful tribes; and finally, the modern notion of a “bad conscience” (or super-ego) which
afflicts civilized society, leaving people in a state of perpetual guilt and ambivalence (or, for
Nietzsche, “re-sentiment”). Given Freud’s apparent knowledge of Nietzsche’s work, there are

4. I use the Derridian-inspired prefix “mis” in this context to illustrate the un-intentionality involved, and that short
even an “incorrect” understanding has meaning. standard

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many compelling reasons to believe that Nietzsche’s Genealogy found its way into Freud’s Base of text
writings — indeed, Freud’s own ironic denials of Nietzsche support this!
Naturally, the specific areas of interest for Nietzsche and Freud were different. Nietzsche
was writing a philosophical work, a “genealogy of morals,” while Freud had a more specific
focus, the psychological development of prehistorical people. Freud also clearly disagreed
with Nietzsche on several points: for example, Freud believed pleasure-unpleasure (Lust-
Unlust) was the most basic drive, while Nietzsche flatly rejected hedonism in favor of power
(i.e., the will to power); Freud believed that re-directing our sexual and aggressive instincts
through “sublimation” was the best we could hope for, and while Nietzsche also referred to
sublimation, he believed that there could be a creative synthesis (i.e., as found in the Uber-
mensch) that would enable us to go beyond common place morality, “beyond good and evil.”
Did Freud consciously realize his theoretical debt to Nietzsche? It is impossible to say —
at least with any real conviction. I am not arguing that the evidence here suggests Freud was
a plagiarist. Even if Freud was covertly relying on a knowledge of Nietzsche, this does not
negate Freud’s contribution, but simply places him within an historical and philosophical
What we can conclude is that Freud agreed with Nietzsche on many points, and there
is now ample reason to believe that he was, perhaps “cryptomnesically,” influenced in some
very specific ways by his ideas on the moral origins and makeup of humanity. Although he
publicly equivocated about his knowledge of Nietzsche, he was apparently never at a loss for
a Nietzsche quotation. Thus, I believe there are grounds for re-examining Freud’s later “struc-
tural” theory of mind, with its emphasis on the social and moral phylogenetic development
of the species. In the end, it seems fair to say that in spite of (or, more so, because of) Freud’s
denial, Nietzsche had a far greater effect on him than he wanted to admit, or perhaps even

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