Nietzsche on Master and Slave Morality

14Feb08

Nietzsche began his career as a philologist (student of ancient text and languages) and developed an overriding interest in the Ancient Greeks, who he thought represented the peak of Western civilization before the onset of ‘slave’ or ‘herd’ morality which culminated in Christian, Utilitarian and Kantian systems of ethics (among others). Like Callicles, Nietzsche argued that morality was something developed by ‘weak’ people in order to defend themselves from the ‘strong’.

At this point, we might recall the elitism of Aristotle’s ethics, where moral excellence is only available to the nobility. However, Nietzsche has something rather different in mind. One of the main themes in Nietzsche’s work is that ancient Roman society was grounded in master morality, and that this morality disappeared as the slave morality of Christianity spread through ancient Rome. Nietzsche was concerned with the state of European culture during his lifetime and therefore focused much of his analysis on the history of master and slave morality within Europe (partly through the rise of ‘slave’ religion like Christianity.

The superior person looks with profound suspicion on values such as compassion, pity, and selflessness, as well as on the ideal of equality of all persons. Superior people, in expressing the will to power, embody completely natural human functioning; they live the most completely actualized human lives, and as such, are happy, energetic, and optimistic about the human condition.

Slave morality, by contrast, is pessimistic and fearful. Slaves are victims (the “abused, oppressed, suffering, unemancipated, the weary and those uncertain of themselves”; but according to Nietzsche, most slaves choose to be victims. Slave morality is timid, and favours a limited existence; it “makes the best of a bad situation.” It promotes the virtues that “serve to ease existence for those who suffer: here pity, the complaisant and obliging hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, and friendliness are honored — for here these are the most useful qualities and almost the only means for enduring the pressure of existence. Slave morality is essentially a morality of utility,” i.e., a morality that values the mediocre group over the superior individual.

In slave morality, “good” means “tending to ease suffering” and “evil” means “tending to inspire fear.” (In master morality, by contrast, it’s good to inspire fear.) Nietzsche believes that slave morality is expressed in the standard moral systems (particularly Christianity and utilitarianism). That is, Christianity and utilitarianism both exemplify the same ideology: the ideology of the majority, the herd, the cowardly, the conventional, the less-than-fully-human. Inferior people, who outnumber the superior ones, use ideologies (“slave moralities”) like Christianity, utilitarianism, and Marxism, to try to deny the will to power. They promulgate silly ideas like equality, and urge “virtues” like humility and pity. But they are trying to live a lie; they are trying to deny obvious facts of nature, and trying to make a virtue of their weakness and cowardice. In so doing, they develop artificial boundaries that constrain the strong from reaching their full potential.

Nietzsche thinks slave moralities have pretty much taken over as the official moralities of the Western world; unlike most philosophers, he thinks the triumph of ideals like equality and democracy in modern times is a great tragedy for humanity. Equality and democracy are for Nietzsche the worst, not the best, values; they are the exact opposite of what humans in their hearts actually value, the opposite of what it is natural to value. Inferior people naturally see the superiority of their “natural” masters; hence by nature, they fear them and feel uncomfortable with them. When slave morality takes hold, the inferior ones are suddenly given “moral” license to brainwash and persecute those who try to express the will to power. Thus when the ideal of equality rules, the best specimens of humanity are at risk. Nietzsche would like to revert to an ancient “classical” time when the “natural aristocrats” (those who expressed the will to power) actually ruled.

For Nietzsche, any feelings of guilt are simply the ‘bad conscience’ of unhealthy Christian morality, which ‘turns a blind eye’ to our natural inclinations. He is not critical of all morality, however: he appeals to the ‘higher morality’ that informs the actions of the ‘great man’. What these might specifically be is not explained in detail (for the ‘great man’ creates his own morality) these would be morals which are in some sense ‘life-affirming’.

Under Nietzsche’s interpretation, moral values are symptoms or signs of a deeper physiological condition, psychological state, or attitude toward life. Nietzsche uses various terms to describe the antithesis between two radically opposed attitudes toward life exhibited by moral values in general. ‘Moral’ values are those of denial, sickness, metaphysics, of the reactionary and the plebiscite. The kind of life that Nietzsche thinks is not like this. Instead, a noble life is affirmative, creative, healthy, egoistic and brimming over with vitality. Such a person, for Nietzsche, sees that moral philosophy belongs to slave morality.

So, for Nietzsche, the response to the skeptical question of ‘why should I be moral?’ becomes ‘what kind of life puts value on morality?’. Nietzsche thought that attempts to find a universal, rational morality were simply expressions of the denial of life and the denial of the ‘will to power’.

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18 Responses to “Nietzsche on Master and Slave Morality”

  1. 1 Matthew

    I have little faith in my ability at philosophy and so what I write may be completely wrong but I’ll go for it anyway. Kierkegaard and Nietzsche seem to be very similar in what they are generally saying, the ‘power of the will’ and where religion stands. I fear I am greatly simplifying things but this fits in very nicely with Aristotle. This in turn fits in very nicely with John Stuart Mills’ ‘On Liberty’ for if we take an individual to be in a position to pursue their aspirations as long as they do not ‘harm’ anyone else in the process they should have no restrictions upon them. This seems to me to be a very optimistic position to hold. Is there anything wrong with it?

  2. 2 Michael

    Matthew I think you are mistaken in one area. While John Stuart Mill at times exemplifies the individual as superior to the society in much the same way that Ayn Rand valued the individual Nietzsche differed on quite a major note. In the case of Rand she said that the best society is one where the individual follows their own objective self interest so long as it does not directly harm others, the liberal Mill as you stated had a similar value. Nietzsche on the other hand does not have this caveat. He says the individual ought pursue their own self interest, goals, and ambitions without consideration for others. That people ought not be considered equals, and that the naturally strong ought rule society, and even if they choose to do so oppress the weak, or exploit them to meet their own goals. There is none of this do as you wish so long as it doesn’t harm anyone, Nietzsche for all intents and purposes said do as you wish, be human, peruse your own will to power in whatever form it manifests, and do not hold back for only then can one reach their full potential. A comparable philosophy would be social Darwinism. For Nietzsche superiority is not about birthright, it is about ones own will to succeed, and their end results. Thus those who are strong, deserve power while those who are weak also deserve their station.

  3. 3 Anthony

    Matthew and Michael, I think both have a wrong interpertation of Nietzsches morality. First I apologize for my english, I’m mexican.
    Matthew, Nietzsche and Mill have very few things in common, the only thing that is the same is there valuation of the individual over the masses. The difrence is in that Mill is a utilitarist, a philosophy Nietzsche disspised, you say “if we take an individual to be in a position to pursue their aspirations as long as they do not ‘harm’ anyone else in the process they should have no restrictions upon them”, Nietzsche would agree, in the individual part, except that he doesn’t care if society resticts o doesn’t restrict an action, nor if one get’s in the way, one should dance over any law or slave morality, second, Mill would see an individuals aspiration as pleasure, while Nietzsche would go along and say “only the englishman seeks happiness”, that is to say, an individual doesn’t always seek pleasure or utility.

    Michael, Nietzsche would laugh at the simple mention of an OBJECTIVE self intrest, it doesn’t make any sense. Nietzscheanism isn’t the same as social darwinism, while the latter justifies that “strong” individuals take power in institutions, business, political parties, etc, Nieztsches concept of power is more complex and vital, it’s about feeling life, affirming it, feeling the power of life, the contruction of a world, feeling you dominate the world (understanding it with ones truth), that you expand, that’s will to power, not the survival of the fittest, but expantion of life.

    • 4 Max Hydrogen

      Antony, soy absolomente en acuerdo con tu. Entiendes bien la filosofia de Nietzsche. Nietzsche no iguala Social Darwinism (ni Darwin!) Nietzsche no dijo de mate los infermos. Leyeste bien sos obros.

      Max

  4. the naturally strong ought rule society, and even if they choose to do so oppress the weak, or exploit them to meet their own goals.

    No sir, that’s what Nietzsche would call a perversion of the will. Imposing your will, especially to the point of oppression or exploitation of others is contrary to the will to power.

  5. 6 Catherine

    I am the less capable person to talk about philosophy without bias opinion, because I live in it. A Chinese saying: The person soaks into the situation, won’t be able to see the situation clearly.

    It is interesting to see different people talking about the same thing, and yet, the facet is many. I prefer Anthony and his interpretation of Nietzsche’s concept of power……”it’s about feeling life, affirming it, feeling the power of life, the contruction of a world, feeling you dominate the world (understanding it with ones truth), that you expand, that’s will to power, not the survival of the fittest, but expantion of life.”

    However, I would like to emphasize that, the “world” has different interpretation too. When we are in the realm of philosophy, i believe the world we are talking about is our inner-self world, which we need to dominate, not the physical world that will be War!

  6. 7 Rose

    Can i just say that i think Nietzsche is trying to say that morality is nonsense and we should learn to deal with that. he is saying that christian morality is life denying and and it only came from the hatred in Judaism. I am writing a thesis on Nietzsche and would love to no ur opinions

    • Is it true that Nietzsche is against all morality? After all, he does think that some ways of life are better than others… doesn’t he?

    • You can say it, but you’d be incorrect since Nietzsche identified himself as a moralist and morality was at the core of all of his writing.

      Perhaps what you meant to say was that the prevailing morality of his age was nonsense. That would be closer to his intent, but really his core message goes back to the revaluation of all values, where it is for each individual to examine everything of value, especially moral values, and decide for themselves what is good or bad.

      Btw, I hope when writing your thesis you spell check and use capitalization where applicable. ;)

  7. 10 jasmine

    Is there any one know that the role of ressentiment in Nietzche’s history of morality? I actually know the meaning of ressentiment but i havnt enough information to answer the question… i am very glad if anyone help…..

    • I believe he used it primarily to point to the flaws of Christian morality. The weak, victimized by the strong, shape a morality that labels strong as evil and weak as good rather than being able to recognize the values of being strong. In other words, they’re blind to the positives of those who are over them by their dissatisfaction of being weak and inferior. He objected to this relabeling of inferior as superior. Aside from pointing to Christianity, he also used the English as an example of this upside-down morality, often citing them as examples of the “last man”, the epitome of this misguided morality.

      YouMadeMeSayIt.com

  8. Nietzsche’s master-slave moralities appear to me to be based only on the assumption that a social hierarchy, with differentials of power and status, is intrinsic to human nature. This, of course, is a false assumption as, before the agrarian revolution, i.e. in Palaeolithic times, all social communities were principally egalitarian, with no differentials of power or status. The status of group leaders of these much smaller band communities were only in name and usually assumed by the oldest and often the wisest of the group, so survival depended on cooperation rather than competition, which we now have with social hierarchies. The egalitarian system worked well for millions of years and still does in a few radidly diminishing isolated areas of the world.
    Hierarchical organisations, with their implied ‘master-slave’ implications in all forms of government, social services and commercial employment have created untold bigotry, resentment and misguided value-judgements of human behaviour, yet we still call it ‘progress’!!!

    • and you know this how? Intrinsic to the human condition is humans are not all equal. Some stronger, some smarter, etc. In your utopian view of Paleolithic times, there was inevitably the one who was the better hunter and he was the leader, at least when it came time to hunt. No doubt elders were leaders as well due to their advanced knowledge coming from greater experience.

      Let’s not forget that humans are generally fearful and are comforted by confidence and certainty, even if the source is illusionary (ie – drugs, alcohol, religion, etc.). It’s easier and more comforting for most to look to another for guidance and reassurance so leaders satisfy a basic human need.

      So between the need by most for guidance and the fact that we simply are not all equal, it would seem it’s you who are making a false assumption, not Nietzsche.

      • I didn’t mean to suggest band communities were Utopian but they were certainly principally egalitarian. How do I know this? Only from the numerous anthropological studies of these fast-disappearing groups and of those of our closest non-human primates – the chimpanzees and apes (Flack & de Vaal et al).
        Yes, all individuals had, and still have different skills but they were uses more for division of labour and overall group survival, not for dominance and bullying, which, when it reared its ugly head, was always transient because otherwise it destroyed group cohesion and the group died out. In these days, in which we think ‘self needs’ are more important than ‘group needs’, it’s difficult to appreciate that that cooperation was once more important for survival than competition by means of self-promotion.
        We have become so conditioned by the organisational hierarchies within which we live, based on public ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ that it is the ‘I’ that now struggles to compete to survive, not the ‘we’ . If, therefore, there is any merit in these thoughts, the ‘reward’ goes to the non-judgemental group of social anthropologists who have exposed this problem.

  9. I didn’t mean to suggest band communities were Utopian but they were certainly principally egalitarian. How do I know this? Only from the numerous anthropological studies of these fast-disappearing groups and of those of our closest non-human primates – the chimpanzees and apes (Flack & de Vaal et al).
    Yes, all individuals had, and still have different skills but they were uses more for division of labour and overall group survival, not for dominance and bullying, which, when it reared its ugly head, was always transient because otherwise it destroyed group cohesion and the group died out. In these days, in which we think ‘self needs’ are more important than ‘group needs’, it’s difficult to appreciate that that cooperation was once more important for survival than competition by means of self-promotion.
    We have become so conditioned by the organisational hierarchies within which we live, based on public ‘rewards’ and ‘punishments’ that it is the ‘I’ that now struggles to compete to survive, not the ‘we’ . If, therefore, there is any merit in these thoughts, the ‘reward’ goes to the non-judgemental group of social anthropologists who have exposed this problem.

  10. This is an old thread, so allow me to correct some things. First, we’re talking past one another and that’s my fault. I don’t agree with the authors depiction of the master and slave relationship, which is what I believe you’re objecting to, and not what I see as Nietzsche’s interpretation of it. The master and slave relationship need not be negative. A master who enslaves by force or similar oppression would be one whose will is perverted. The ubermensche leads by example, and those who are inferior to him fall in behind him. To Nietzsche, this is the natural order. Any objection to democracy would be if the system interfered with that natural order and promoted the less capable above the more capable (which sadly feels commonplace here in the US).

    I disagree with your assertions that studies show egalitarianism as a predominance in “fast-disappearing groups and of those of our closest non-human primates”. Despite theories to the contrary, democracy and despotism appear to go 50-50. I mentioned ability and the natural desire by most to follow, but there are other factors such as age, and an individual’s superior social bonds (by charisma, family, etc). What may appear to be a consensus decision may well be one driven my a leader or a few leaders whose opinions others simply follow. Now again, Nietzsche would have no problem with this since it’s how it should be, the less capable fall in line behind the more capable. What he would object to would be that leader or leaders subjugating others against their will.

  11. “I don’t agree with the authors depiction of the master and slave relationship, which is what I believe you’re objecting to, and not what I see as Nietzsche’s interpretation of it. The master and slave relationship need not be negative. A master who enslaves by force or similar oppression would be one whose will is perverted. The ubermensche leads by example, and those who are inferior to him fall in behind him. To Nietzsche, this is the natural order.”

    I don’t believe that you should construe ‘master’ morality as like a person who has a lot of follwers who are his slaves. ‘Master’ morality and ‘slave’ morality are more like different ways of being, different value-laden ways of relating to the world. It’s worth noting that, for Nietzsche, the true Ubermensch neither has nor requires followers. As Hegel’s dialectic of the lord & bondsman shows, in a master/slave relationship the master is actually more dependent on the slave (http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/hegel/works/ph/phba.htm). So, it’s not right to impute that, for Nietzsche, masters lead and slaves follow; this would be more like the idea of natural justice associated with Callicles in Plato’s Gorgias or Thrasymachus in The Republic.


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