Nietzsche writes, in The Genealogy of Morals (Treatise I, Ch. 6):

Incidentally, people should be warned not to begin by taking these ideas of “pure” and “impure” too seriously, too broadly, or even symbolically. Instead they should understand from the start that all the ideas of ancient humanity, to a degree we can hardly imagine, are much more coarse, crude, superficial, narrow, blunt and, in particular, unsymbolic. The “pure man” is initially simply a man who washes himself, who forbids himself certain foods which produce diseases of the skin, who doesn’t sleep with the dirty women of the lower people, who has a horror of blood—no more, not much more!

When is Nietzsche dating his ancient humanity from? It seems to me, for his assertion to make sense it must be before the humanity evolved or understood the idea of the symbol. The earliest evidence we have for symbolic representation are cave paintings dating back 40 millenia ago.

(I ask this question, because Nietzsche links this characterisation of the pure man with the figure of the priest in Judaism, a jump of 30,000 years later, in pretty much the next passage).

  • Can you give a more precise location? Then I can look it up in the original. Maybe the German is clearer.
    – jeroenk
    Sep 19, 2013 at 7:10
  • @jeroenk First Treatise, toward the beginning of Chapter 6 (I, 6:2-10 in Clark-Swensen edition). Sep 19, 2013 at 8:30
  • It's 'älteren Menschheit' (old/ancient humanity) so not much help there
    – jeroenk
    Sep 19, 2013 at 8:56

2 Answers 2


I'm just getting seriously into Nietzsche. What I can answer in response to your question is that you might want to look to the Presocratics for answers. Nietzsche was a philologist, and his specialty was in linguistics. He admired the Presocratics (and the Sophists) and despised Plato. If he might refer to in any ancient society, it will most likely be Greek society.

However, I think it is more important not to conflate Nietzsche's ideas with historical facts. In many cases he uses words interchangably to denote the same thing. For instance, he often uses the word 'Jew' or 'Jewish ideas' to denote what is essentially Judeo-Christain ideas and moral philosophy. They have nothing to do with the people per se. Thus, if you try to find a resemblance to facts in reality to what he writes, you run the risk of mis-interpreting him.

One important thing in that passage you referred to is that he is simply relating ideas of 'purity' to certain physical activities in primitive man (or humans). It need not refer to any group or society. What he is saying is that notions or concepts of purity stem from a certain physical fear of unhygienic-ness or dirt. It has nothing to do with a priori concepts of 'pure' or perfection, which is what Christain moral philosophy posits. In other words, Nietzsche is saying that there is a biological/social origin to these concepts which, after many generations, got lost and became thought of as pure by later society, which have forgotten or misconstrued where it originated from.

That is the purpose of the genealogy, to link concepts of pure, perfect, the moral uprighteousness that is an intrinsic part of christian moral philosophy, and to undermine it by linking it to an intrinsically biological/social process, that over time, was inverted from what it initially was: a fear of the dirty, unclean etc. - a very primitive, raw human basis from where it came from.


From the preceding lines it seems he is talking about the priest caste as the highest, aristocrate caste. He probably thinks of Judaism and Hinduism, in the centuries B.C.E.

It don't think you have to go that far back. Nietzsche means here that 'pure' does not mean someone who it spiritually pure, free of sins, etc. (= 'symbolically' or metaphorically pure), but more literal/physically pure: abstaining from certain foods, sex, avoiding contact with blood, etc.

  • The second part of your answer has already been said, the first part is nothing more than an assumption on your part. Can you back this up? Otherwise, it is hardly more than a comment.
    – iphigenie
    Sep 19, 2013 at 11:19
  • @iphigenie The first and second part are from/based on the text gutenberg.spiegel.de/buch/3249/3
    – jeroenk
    Sep 19, 2013 at 12:11

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