Nietzsche’s Master-Slave Moralities: A Deep Dive

Although Friedrich Nietzsche makes references to it in much of his earlier writings, his first essay of On the Genealogy of Morals most thoroughly outlines the philosopher’s famed concept of the disparity between master-slave moralities that are found within human societies, and how this disparity—and the ensuing conflict from it—greatly influences our perception of moral values in modern times.

Nietzsche begins his prose by denouncing the basic tenants of utilitarianism, the ethical position that the value of an action’s goodness is innately correlated with the utility it holds for maximizing the collective well-being or happiness of a group, as nothing more but the ‘idiosyncrasy of the English psychologists”[1] (undoubtedly, a reference to English utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but also sociologists like Herbert Spencer).

Nietzsche’s attack on utilitarianism is noteworthy for two reasons: 1. It distances him from the other leading secular moral philosophies of his day, ensuring no confusion will arise in the reader’s mind about Nietzsche’s allegiances on account of his own irreligious convictions. 2. It gives him the opportunity to explain the primary objective he is hoping to achieve through his essay. The first reason is self-explanatory, and a minor add-on to the greater context. The second, on the other hand, cuts to the core of the matter in how Nietzsche’s criticism of utilitarianism stems from his desire to seek the origin of human morality (to trace its genealogy), and explain how and why good and bad have come to be assigned the values they currently possess; the modern function of moral values—defining good as that which increases happiness—is of no importance to Nietzsche’s project.

To Nietzsche the claim that utility is the measure of morality would have been something to reject instinctively, since he spent a great deal of time showing how mankind willingly subjects itself to a number of moral virtues that hold no utility to its happiness whatsoever (his extensive critique of religion is a good example of this); hence, he would argue, that to maximize utility could not have been the origin of our morality, but exists solely as an arbitrary ethical maxim of modern times.

Instead, Nietzsche proposes a far simpler origin for moral values, one in which what he calls the aristocratic nobility “seized the right to create values and to coin names for values.”[2] To support his proposition, he makes large use of the etymological roots found across differing languages in relation to the moral conception of good:

I found they all led back to the same conceptual transformation—that everywhere “noble,” “aristocratic” in the social sense, is the basic concept from which “good” in the sense of “with aristocratic soul,” “noble,” ‘with a soul of a higher order,” “with a privileged soul” necessarily developed: a development which always runs parallel with that other in which “common,” “plebeian,” “low’ are finally transformed into the concept “bad.”[3]

Here, Nietzsche is plainly stating that modern thinkers are approaching the issue of moral values backwards, mistakenly attributing the origin of concepts like good to the lower ranks of society, rather than the high-ranking nobility, who alone [according to Nietzsche] held the creative aptitude to assign meaning to such values. The reason why this is little explored is explained by Nietzsche as a result of the ineptness of modern thinkers to contemplate the topic objectively due to their reasoning having been polluted.

With regard to a moral genealogy this seems to me a fundamental insight; that it has been arrived at so late is the fault of the retarding influence exercised by the democratic prejudice in the modern world toward all questions of origin.[4]

In other words, most of us are too blinded in out idealistic devotion to populist sentiments about the virtue of egalitarianism, and other such “democratic prejudices,” to ever consider the possibility that the origin of moral values resides within a much more exclusionary, hierarchal framework—that it is the privileged who rightly define the good, because the downtrodden are too sickly in conscience to possess the capability to do any such thing; hence, all they create will by definition be bad.

This line of reasoning reinforces much of the same preference for the individual few, over the herd-instinct masses, found throughout Nietzsche’s other writings. As Nietzsche probably sees it, his willingness to bluntly state that the lowly, underprivileged members of society are a representation of the decadency—not the preservation—of good moral values, would have been an affirmation that, unlike his contemporaries, he is not afraid to explore the genealogy of human morality from all conceivable angles. To support his case, Nietzsche makes extensive use of his academic training as a philologist, and offers up a plethora worth of linguistic examples to support his aristocratic-origin proposition (sections 5, 10, 11, 15, and a brief note on the importance of linguistics on the subject, by Nietzsche himself, can be found in section 17).

A fair criticism of Nietzsche’s method would be to point out that (with the exception of a handful of examples) the etymological evidence he presents is largely Eurocentric, and therefore might be deemed as insufficient to explain the origin of all moral values. Of course, it is unlikely that Nietzsche would have seen this critique as much of a counter to his ideas, since his goal is to show the true origin of the modern values we currently hold. And given the influence Westernization has had on the rest of the globe (even by Nietzsche’s time) the philosopher would most likely have made the point that the morals of Europe have also largely been imposed as the morals of the world [for better or for worse].

As mentioned, Nietzsche points out that the origin of words like good, light, noble, courageous, all trace to an aristocratic root, whereas words like “bad,” “ugly,” “dark,” “cowardice,” all trace back to the lower plebeian masses. It is clear that Nietzsche sees more worth in aristocratic over plebeian values, however he does also state that this highest caste will also inevitably splinter itself into contending knightly and priestly sects,[5] out of which a conflict between concepts of “pure” and “impure” will emerge, causing a rift in the aristocratic value judgment. Given Nietzsche’s hostility towards all things religious, a decent argument can be made how this description is a subtle critique of this perceived higher aristocracy, whose superiority the philosopher appeared to have been praising hitherto, but is now admitting to a defect in its structure; namely, the emergence of this priestly aristocracy:

There is from the first something unhealthy in such priestly aristocracies and in the habits ruling in them which turn them away from action and alternative between brooding and emotional explosions, habits which seem to have as their almost invariable consequences that intestinal morbidity—must one not assert that it has ultimately proved itself a hundred times more dangerous in its effects that the sickness it was supposed to cure?[6]

It is telling that Nietzsche does not attempt to blame the emergence of the priestly aristocracy on a corruption of the higher caste by the lower masses, leading to the conclusion that this unhealthy sect is a natural product of the nobility itself—leaving room for the assessment that the noble aristocracy is ultimately unstable. As to why Nietzsche chooses not to state this observation openly, one can only speculate that since he sees the influence of the priestly morality as a far more detrimental force on the values of the modern world, he reasoned that its direct refutation held more urgency. Or, perhaps, this subtle hint of a critique against aristocratic morals was an appetizer to an upcoming larger work Nietzsche was planning (i.e. his never written tome The Reevaluation of All Values), which might have included a broader critical assessment of the higher caste, too. Whatever the case, Nietzsche is clear in his assessment that the priestly aristocracy is a natural branch-off from what he calls the knightly-aristocracy:

The knightly-aristocratic value judgments presupposed a powerful physicality, a flourishing, abundant, even overflowing health, together with that which serves to preserve it: war, adventure, hunting dancing, war games, and in general all that involves vigorous, free, joyful activity. The priestly-noble mode of valuation presupposes, as we have seen, other things: it is disadvantageous for it when it comes to war! As is well known, the priests are the most evil enemies—but why? Because they are the most impotent.[7]

At this point Nietzsche’s narrative can become a bit murky, and care must be taken in order to thoroughly follow along, without falling into the trap of generalizing and misreading key parts of the text.

Having proposed that the aristocratic nobility is the only plausible contender to serve the role of being the original arbitrators of goodness, and subsequently all moral values, Nietzsche then goes on to suggest that the perversion of this true origin of moral concepts must have arisen from within the aristocratic caste, too—namely, the impotent priestly aristocracy—because the lower masses are not capable of assigning any sort of unique value judgment on their own, unless they are guided by the corruption or stupidity of greater minds.

Now, is the part where Nietzsche’s essay gets very controversial, by which I mean statements like the following:

The Jews, that priestly people, who in opposing their enemies and conquerors were ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical evaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge. For this alone was appropriate to a priestly people, the people embodying the most deeply repressed priestly vengefulness.[8]

Famed Nietzschean writer, Walter Kaufmann, is adamant about the fact that Nietzsche’s views here should not be confused with the ramblings of a bigoted anti-Semite, on account that Nietzsche’s reference to the ancient Jewish people places them amongst the superior aristocratic nobility, and not with the inferior herd-like plebian masses. In chapter 10 of his biography of the philosopher (conveniently titled Nietzsche) Kaufmann explains that, to Nietzsche, ancient Jerusalem (and its inhabitants) served as a representation of the priestly-aristocratic values, in contrast to ancient Rome’s (and its inhabitants) knightly-aristocratic values. Thus, Nietzsche’s mistakenly attributed anti-Semitism is actually just his desire to give historical context to his ideas. And, of course, Nietzsche, who sees himself as the foremost opponent of Abrahamic values, decided to go right to the originators of what he deems to be the cause of today’s ignorance and degeneration of moral values.

[Note: Personally, I don’t consider it my job to defend Nietzsche’s views against charges of bigotry, and the fact that the man often seemed to go to great pains to be misunderstood by the layperson is his problem, not mine. Having read his writings, and being aware of his personal bouts with everyone from his sister, to former friend Richard Wagner, to even his own editor, over their adherences to anti-Semitic prejudices, it would be disingenuous of me to act as if I find the charge of this specific bigotry against Nietzsche in the least bit convincing. On the other hand, it is no secret that Nietzsche openly professed a deep prejudice against all things religious, in particular all things Christian. Thus, as he must have seen it, since his aim is to attack the heavily Christian influenced morality of his day, it would be incomprehensible for him to not mention (and denounce) the precursory faith to Christian values.]

To Nietzsche, what sets the (“knightly”) aristocracy apart from the masses is its ability—one might even say compulsion—to exhibit a great sense of physicality to meet its need for self-affirmation, to act in accordance to one’s creative impulses, and to do so unashamedly. The priestly-aristocracy is different, in that it’s impotence on matters of physical assertion causes it by necessity to retreat to the concocted realm of spirituality, in a spiteful attempt to satisfy its creative compulsion. In doing so, the priestly aristocracy inverts the aristocratic values-equation by surreptitiously redefining moral concepts into spiritual terms. Meaning that where it was once understood that it is the strong, the noble, the cunning, and the healthy that stand as embodiments of the morally good, it is now perverted to a monstrosity of contrary assertions:

Wretched alone are the good; the poor, impotent, lowly alone are the good; the suffering, deprived, sick, ugly alone are pious, alone are blessed by God / and you, the powerful and noble, are on the contrary the evil, the cruel, the lustful, the insatiable, the godless to all eternity; and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed, accursed, and damned![9]

This, Nietzsche argues, is the birth of the slave revolt in morality. And he attributes its origin squarely on the emergence of Abrahamic moral virtues, beginning with Judaism, but perfected by Christianity, with its emphasis on the meek and mild, and the wish to place hope in the sheepish entrance of a heavenly kingdom, rather than an affirmation of life incarnate. Leading to Nietzsche’s proclamation, “What is certain, at least, is that sub hoc signo (lat. “Under this sign”) Israel, with its vengefulness and revaluation of all values, has hitherto triumphed again and again over all other ideals, over all nobler ideals.”[10] And this is the moral tradition the modern world has inherited today.

Nietzsche anticipated the protestation that such an assertion would bring out in his contemporaries, and faces the charge of anti-egalitarianism that his views are guaranteed to arouse headfirst. The philosopher attributed this reflexive defensiveness as a symptom of how deep the poison of the slave revolt in morality has permeated into the core of social consciousness; declaring that even his fellow irreligionists (so-called “free spirits”) are also helpless to its affect, mockingly stating, “Apart from the church, we, too, love the poison.”[11]

Nietzsche summarizes the psychological development of this slave mentality as follows:

The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this No is its creative deed.[12]

It would be a mistake to translate Nietzsche’s usage of ressentiment to refer to a simple emotion of “resentment” or jealousy exhibited by the impotent priestly aristocracy against their active knightly counterparts. It is better thought of as a mode of reaction against hostile external stimuli. The priestly slave moralists are too impotent to act spontaneously and are therefore entirely dependent on perpetually exerting themselves against what they perceive to be hostile external forces. In contrast to their noble counterparts, whose moral mode of valuation does not seek out an opposition in order to validate its own convictions, slave morality tries to compensate for its inferior position by reassigning its own weaknesses into purported strengths, which is done by decrying the strengths of its superiors as wicked and sinful—everlastingly depending on the acts of the supposed sinner to give itself relevance. All of this causes a shift in the moral pendulum, and a subversion of what was once good (being strong and active), to mean what is now good (being meek and passive). This subversion is at the heart of ressentiment.

Nietzsche acknowledges that this does not mean that the noble mode of valuation is infallible, in any sense, only that when it commits, “blunders and sins against reality, it does so in respect to the sphere with which it is not sufficiently familiar, against a real knowledge of which it has indeed inflexibly guarded itself.”[13] Meaning that the noble mode of valuation makes mistakes, but out of ignorance, not malice.

This sounds like another subtle criticism by Nietzsche against the noble aristocracy, expressing that their disposition can cause them to express a certain degree of naiveté about the common man of the lower orders. Presumably, because when one looks at an opponent from a higher plane, it becomes too easy to forge a falsified image of one’s enemies. However, this does leave the question open as to why the noble aristocracy seems to not be able to properly evaluate the morally corrupt priestly (“slave moralist”) caste, which resides within the same higher ranks of the intellectual hierarchy? The answer Nietzsche gives to this question is that since noble man “live in trust and openness with himself,” he is left defenseless against the underhanded slave moralist, because, “a race of such men of ressentiment is bound to become eventually cleverer than any noble race; it will also honor cleverness to a far greater degree.”[14]

Despite common misconceptions, Nietzsche does not see cleverness as a needed trait of the noble individual, seeing it as less essential to a healthy mind than the possession of sound instinctive cognition. Another point of clarification is also the issue of whether or not ressentiment ever appears in the psych of the noble man. Nietzsche’s position is that if it does, the great physical exertion of the nobility will cause it to be exhausted before it has any chance to corrupt the noble man’s mind. The inactive, and impotent, slave moralist, on the other hand, has no means to relieve this poison from its body, and thereby inevitably becomes consumed by it.

Nietzsche is thoroughly convinced that modern culture is completely infiltrated by its unwavering devotion to slave morality, as demonstrated by the domestication of man:

The meaning of all culture as is the reduction of the beast of prey “man” to a tame and civilized animal, a domestic animal, then one would undoubtedly have to regard all those instincts of reaction and ressentiment through whose aid the noble races and their ideals were finally confounded and overthrown as the actual instruments of culture.[15]

For Nietzsche, the cultural progression of mankind over the centuries has in reality been a regression of man’s true nature. With every step forward representing a step further into the abyss of a decadent moral framework:

We can see nothing today that wants to grow greater, we suspect that things will continue to go down, down, to become thinner, more good-natured, more prudent, more comfortable, more mediocre, more indifferent.[16]

The slave revolt of morality has spread its impotence over the masses, in fact, has given leverage to the lowly plebian ranks, and now we lie content with our mediocrity and herald our indolence as a show of virtue against barbarianism:

To demand of strength that it should not express itself as strength, that it should not be a desire to overcome, a desire to throw down, a desire to become master, a thirst for enemies and resistance and triumph, is just as absurd as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength.[17]

Our egalitarian sentiment, according to Nietzsche, is a result of the poison we have all blindly swallowed. Our demand for universal moderation, for the value of humility, our aversion to boastfulness as being too impolite in the presence of weaker, stupider individuals, and our desire to reduce the feeling of inadequacy from an opponent’s failures, are all manifestations from the original slave revolt of morality that is promulgated by those who seek to vindicate the virtue of their inferiority by means of social cohesion—to rationalize away personal failure in favor of mass victimization.

Also, according to Nietzsche, religious and spiritual expressions are the primary venue by which this slave revolt, this ressentiment, was made possible. The moral shift of emphasis on an unearthly paradise, the call to be mild and meek in face of opposition, while simultaneously proclaiming one’s spiritual superiority on account of one’s physical weakness. And, above all else, to claim this faux-superiority by proxy of an otherworldly Being, who will issue a final judgment on the submissive slave’s behalf, is to Nietzsche the perfect expression of what he calls ressentiment; primarily, because this is the very origin of the slave revolt of morality:

In faith in what? In love of what? In hope of what?—These weak people—some day or other they too intend to be the strong, there is no doubt of that, some day their “kingdom” too shall come—they term it “the kingdom of God,” of course, as aforesaid: for one is so very humble in all things![18]

Or, as the philosopher put it in a more historical context:

“Rome against Judea, Judea against Rome”:–there has hitherto been no greater event than this struggle, this question, this deadly contradiction.

Personally, I remain largely unconvinced by Nietzsche’s a priori attempt to glorify ancient Rome as a last remnant of sound moral value,[19] as it ignores the fact that much of Rome’s claim to conquest was shrouded in myth and superstition. Which brings up the subsequent issue of whether Nietzsche’s emphasis on physical assertion as a buffer against spiritual thinking holds much weight under historical scrutiny (though it should be acknowledged that Nietzsche is right about ancient Rome not placing much value on passive-aggressive virtues like humility and modesty).

As I mentioned earlier, Nietzsche’s statement that a corrupt priestly caste will branch off from the aristocratic-value judgment, is a base admission that the noble aristocracy is not all too stable to withstand long-term opposition, in particular because it exhibits no trait in wanting to subvert its moral opposition. Bringing up the question of just how superior their moral-value truly is, if it is incapable of surviving the assault of a weak and impotent foe? But, undoubtedly, these would have been seen by Nietzsche as minor objections to his primary goal of overturning the popular conception that what we in the modern world perceive as morally good, is an absolute reflection of reality, and to contemplate about the possibility that our judgment has been clouded through generations worth of social conditioning. Furthermore, I will give credit to Nietzsche for not laying claim to the final word on the subject, and urging readers to not cease the quest for the origin of moral values here:

Whoever begins at this point, like my readers, to reflect and pursue his train of thought will not soon come to the end of it.[20]

[1] Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals, “First Essay: ‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad,’” 1887, section 2.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, section 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid, section 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, section 7.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, section 8.

[11] Ibid, section 9.

[12] Ibid, section 10.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid, section 11.

[16] Ibid, section 12.

[17] Ibid, section 13.

[18] Ibid, section 15.

[19] Ibid, section 16.

[20] Ibid, section 17.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s