Nietzsche cannot mean 'witty' (as it is currently used) here, can he? He means 'clever', 'ingenious', 'devious'. 'Witty' has not meant 'ingenious' except as humorous for several hundred years! The nature of the passage (murder by non-violent means) would seem to preclude it. Secondly, people are not 'slanderous'; statements are. Previous translators have 'witty and slanderous' for this pair. Neither is correct is my opinion.

To me, a 'witty' statement is something like this:

'To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.' - Oscar Wilde

Here is the passage:

Die Menschen der Corruption sind witzig und verläumderisch; sie wissen, dass es noch andere Arten des Mordes giebt, als durch Dolch und Überfall,—sie wissen auch, dass alles Gutgesagte geglaubt wird.— Viertens: wenn "die Sitten verfallen," so tauchen zuerst jene Wesen auf, welche man Tyrannen nennt: es sind die Vorläufer und gleichsam die frühreifen Erstlinge der Individuen.

The corrupt are devious, full of cunning and deceit; they know that one can commit murder without resorting to the dagger or to ambush — they know also that whatever is said well is believed. — Fourthly, it is when ‘morals decay’ that the creatures known as tyrants make their initial appearance; they are the precursors of individuals; they are, as it were, precocious first individuals.

The immediately prior passage:

— Drittens pflegt man, gleichsam zur Entschädigung für den Tadel des Aberglaubens und der Erschlaffung, solchen Zeiten der Corruption nachzusagen, dass sie milder seien und dass jetzt die Grausamkeit, gegen die ältere gläubigere und stärkere Zeit gerechnet, sehr in Abnahme komme. Aber auch dem Lobe kann ich nicht beipflichten, ebensowenig als jenem Tadel: nur so viel gebe ich zu, dass jetzt die Grausamkeit sich verfeinert, und dass ihre älteren Formen von nun an wider den Geschmack gehen; aber die Verwundung und Folterung durch Wort und Blick erreicht in Zeiten der Corruption ihre höchste Ausbildung,—jetzt erst wird die Bosheit geschaffen und die Lust an der Bosheit.

— Thirdly, as if to make amends for hurling accusations of being superstitious and weak, it is customary to say of such periods of corruption that they are less trying times, and marked far less by cruelty, than the older, more devout, and sterner period. But I am no more able to praise than to reproach. I concede only that cruelty now becomes more refined, and its older forms are henceforth offensive to the taste; but the art of mutilation and torture by word and glance reaches its pinnacle in times of corruption; it is only now that wickedness, and the enjoyment of wickedness, arise.

  • 1
    Gute Frage. In modernem Deutsch sind "witzig" (funny) und "witty" (geistreich) eher falsche Freunde. Der Duden listet als dritte Bedeutung einfallsreich (ingenious, wie du sagst). Man könnte sich jetzt auf den Standpunkt stellen, dass man eine veraltete Bedeutung im Deutschen auch durch eine veraltete Bedeutung im Englischen wiedergeben kann, aber ich persönlich fände "ingenious" angemessener.
    – dirkt
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 18:56
  • 6
    There is also "gewitzt" (schlau, trickreich), which may be related. That said, with Nietzsche you probably should know what drugs the author was on when he wrote and pop some of the same shit to at least make a tiny bit of sense...
    – Robert
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 20:15
  • Dirk: Certainly 'ingenious' is correct, but 'devious' may be more apt in a context of 'murder'.
    – Ornello
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 22:32
  • @Ornello: Nietzsche doesn't mean actual murder (but e.g. Rufmord, which can be done without assault and knifes). And I don't think the OP is looking for a free translation, but the actual meaning.
    – dirkt
    Commented Dec 27, 2014 at 11:40
  • 1
    dirk: what are you talking about? I put 'murder' in quotes!
    – Ornello
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 15:03

4 Answers 4


I don't have any good references for this, but in my "Sprachgefühl" in more modern German it would probably be "gewitzt" (as mentioned above) which is somewhat similar in meaning to "ausgebufft" or "gerissen" which both may have a distinctly negative connotation to it.

Therefor I would say, and I hope this counts more as a personal experience than as an opinion (this is my first answer), "cunning" (as also mentioned above), "sly" or "savvy" could be reasonable translations.


I agree that it is not meant as "witty". Both "witty" and "witzig" were about genuine intelligence once, before they shifted toward what they are today. I think at Nietzsche's time "witzig" hadn't changed all the way, yet. At no point of the way, though, has "witzig" ever been downright negative and so I think "devious" might be a little strong.

The corrupt are cunning and full of guile...

"Cunning" nicely strikes the balance between not being too negative but at the same time not being innocent either. The guile-part is less specific than "verleumderisch", but it captures the fact that they are good liars, and the sentence later does put a distinct spotlight on "talking shit" anyway, so I think using "guile" isn't too negligent. A possible arguments against it is the fact that "cunning" does, to some extent, imply "guile". But there are examples in literature for "cunning beguiler", so they're not synonymous.

  • I was guessing that both 'witzig' and 'witty' had followed the same path. I was thinking about 'cunning', yes. 'Full of guile'...that may work too, but he uses verleumden and Verleumdung a lot. But how in the world can Walter Kaufmann put 'witty' in a passage about mutilation, cruelty, torture, and murder?
    – Ornello
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 22:24
  • OK, why not both? I have it thus now: The corrupt are devious, full of cunning and deceit; they know that one can commit murder without resorting to the dagger or to ambush. books.google.com/…
    – Ornello
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 22:35
  • @Ornello...the thing is that we don't know what "witzig" meant to Nietzsche but German does have lots of words that are closer to "devious" and I think if this had been his goal he would have used one of those. But instead he went for the more sinister tone by down playing it a notch. I think "devious" is too strong. It does get the message across but not the tone.
    – Emanuel
    Commented Dec 26, 2014 at 23:09

Have a look here:


You need meaning 3: geistreich, einfallsreich, findig


Here are some examples:

cunning and deceit


Main Entry:de£vi£ous Pronunciation:dv**s also -vy*s Function:adjective Etymology:Latin devius, from de from, away + -vius (from via way, road) * more at DE-, VIA

1 : located off the highroad : OUT-OF-THE-WAY, REMOTE, RETIRED shipwrecks upon devious coasts 2 a : deviating from a straight line : WINDING, ROUNDABOUT, CIRCUITOUS a devious path along the ridge b : moving without a fixed course : ERRANT, ROVING devious breezes 3 a : deviating from a right, accepted, or common course : ASTRAY, ERRING devious arguments a devious conscience; often : seeking or advancing toward a right, accepted, or common end by roundabout means the ways of the Lord are devious b : hard to pin down or bring to agreement a devious man; often : SHIFTY, TRICKY, UNSCRUPULOUS, UNFAIR his devious treatment of the allies a devious attack on his character –de£vi£ous£ly adverb
–de£vi£ous£ness noun -es


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