It may very well be that the Ancient Greeks did not think in terms of “guilt” as many people have been trained to experience it. Nietzsche, however, sees guilt in the philosophy of Anaximander who asks life this damning question:
What is your existence worth? And if it is worthless, why are you here? Your guilt, I see, causes you to tarry in your existence. With your death you have to expiate it. PTAG 4
Nietzsche goes on to describe how Heracleitus successfully overcame this guilt by denying absolute “being” in favor of an eternal “becoming,” and here we see the development of an idea that only later comes to full bloom in Nietzsche’s thought.
It could be argued that “guilt” is the single issue that most forcefully drives Nietzsche’s philosophy. Remember that Nietzsche descended from a long line of Lutheran priests. He went to the University of Bonn to study theology and to become a priest himself. He was, undoubtedly, immersed in the guilt which he says society and Christianity, in particular, breed. His ultimate project, then, became the overcoming of the guilt which he saw as absolutely destructive to life–in its will to negate life.
Nietzsche’s great gift to humanity, Zarathustra’s gift, may be his attempt to overcome the guilt of the Western world. Life, as Nietzsche describes it, is in direct conflict with the tenets of morality and society. While “life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker, suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation” (BGE 258), morality and society demand the suppression of this nature, thus creating guilt, the sense that one’s natural state of becoming (which wills these things) is “evil.” How can one “deal” with this guilt? The history of humanity can be described as a chronicle of the various answers to that question: putting out one’s eyes and wandering blindly from Thebes, philosophy, Hell, dying on the cross, confession, penance, self-flagellation, purgatory, the “justice” system, psychotherapy, even revenge. All of these are attempts to reconcile human nature with the moral and social restrictions placed upon it.
Nietzsche’s answer to this dilemma is to propose that “life” is fundamentally Beyond Good & Evil. Moral interpretations, he says, are always secondary. What one must do, he suggests, is to completely embrace life in its becoming, and this means all of life, beautiful and ugly alike–love and hate, affection and violence, kindness and injury. All of these, he says, are manifestations of the will to power, which is life itself.
Embracing rather than negating life (as society and morality seek to do) is the key to ending the spirit of revenge (ressentement) created by guilt.
Let me declare expressly that in the days when mankind was not ashamed of its cruelty, life on earth was more cheerful than it is now that pessimists exist. The darkening sky above mankind has deepened in step with the increase in man’s feeling of shame at man.
Part of Nietzsche’s appreciation of aristocratic society stems from its characteristic guiltlessness:
The essential characteristic of a good and healthy aristocracy, however, is that it experiences itself not as a function (whether of the monarchy or the commonwealth) but as their meaning and highest justification–that it therefore accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its own sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments. BGE 258
The aggressive man, as the stronger, nobler, more courageous, has in fact also had at all times a freer eye, a better conscience on his side: conversely, one can see who has the invention of the “bad conscience” on his conscience–the man of ressentiment. GM 2:11
The choice for Nietzsche is very simple. Negating life, saying “no” to instinct and the will to power, leads to guilt, the lessening of humanity, and nihilism. Saying “yes” to the will to power is better, even if it means embracing various becomings that we have been socially and morally trained to read as “negative.” Later thinkers, like Georges Bataille, will take up this theme and continue the argument. What haunts humanity is its hatred of itself, and it is this “guilt” which, more than anything else, must be overcome.
the University of Texas at Arlington, 1996