Nietzsche on Master and Slave Morality
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’.
Filed under: Ethics, Indirect Responses, Nietzsche, Philosophy | 18 Comments