What does Nietzsche mean when he talks of slave morality and why does he think we ought to cast it off?

Posted on April 23, 2013

Last updated on May 7, 2014

In this essay, we look at Friedrich Nietzsche’s master-slave morality dichotomy, his archaeological approach to getting to the roots of what is meant by “good” or “bad”, the rise in popularity of slave morality, and his reasons for why we need to abandon it. We conclude with Nietzsche’s vision of an extra-moral future.

Nietzsche takes an archaeological approach to explore morality. He believes that all concepts, for example human beings and knowledge, are inherently historical and cannot be studied by just looking at the present. Concepts are not stable and can change meaning over time; what in one era is meant by “good” or “bad”, might be different from what is meant by those terms at a different time. If that’s the case, then there is no objective definition of “good” or “bad”. This historical approach to morality is presented in Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality (GM).

Nietzsche looks at the etymology of the word “good”, and finds that it developed from the concepts “noble”, “aristocratic”, “spiritually highminded”, and similarly, “bad” developed from “common”, “plebeian”, “simple” [@GM §1.4]. This is how the words were used in Ancient Greece. There was the strong, smart, aristocratic, noble caste who naturally thought of themselves as good, and then there was the majority, the common people, the simple and weak, who, since they weren’t like the nobility, were simply thought of as “not good”, or “bad” (but not in the “evil” sense - Nietzsche makes a distinction between “bad” and “evil”, we look at it later). Nietzsche names this scheme “master morality”, of which the essence is nobility and other traits such as truthfulness, courage, open-mindedness, and a core concept in Nietzsche’s philosophy, “will to power”, a concept that encapsulates our wishes of ambition, self-improvement, and self-transcendence.

It is instructive to look more at Ancient Greece. At that time, gods were perceived as similar to humans in many respects (although they lived in the clouds and on mountains), and hence the nobility didn’t really have anyone to look up to for directions on how to live, and in a sense was forced to forge their own life path and morality; the “good” people at that time were their own masters, and didn’t look anywhere for a definition of morality.

Soon though, there was a shift in how we perceived the gods. From the rather weak gods that acted as models for us, there was a move to belief in transcendent gods, perfect gods that we cannot understand or approach, and who inhabit the immaterial world. Under this idea of an immaterial world where perfect forms reside1, some believed that behind all your actions is an ego, or a Cartesian “self” that’s part of this other world and drives you. Similarly then, morality is sourced from a set of rules telling us how to live, and these rules reside in this transcendent world. Nietzsche said that this was one way to look at things, but it’s just a historical invention. In a moment, we will see how this shift in thinking might have caused what Nietzsche describes as “slave morality”. Interestingly, until his early twenties, Nietzsche was a Christian and was planning on studying theology, until encountering the atheistical philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer; he then promptly decided to abandon Christianity, and switched his studies to philology. At 20, in a letter to his sister, Nietzsche writes “if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire…” [@letters]. It’s due to this will to inquire that Nietzsche set out on a path to analyze human morality.

The current concepts of “good” and “bad” are different from those presented in the master morality theory. We now think of a “good” person as someone humble, simple, common, and the “bad” (or more strongly, “evil”), as those that want power, are strong, or aristocratic. Definitely then, with their changing meanings, “good” and “bad” are not absolute. How did we arrive at these new definitions, and why is it a bad thing according to Nietzsche?

In Beyond Good and Evil (BGE), Nietzsche describes the Jews’ “slave rebellion in morality”, and how they managed to invert values as prescribed by the master morality.

The Jews, a people “born for slavery”, “the chosen people among peoples,” as they themselves said and believed, achieved the amazing feat of inverting values, thanks to which life on earth for two millennia has possessed a new and dangerous appeal. Their prophets fused “rich,” “godless,” “evil,” “violent,” and “sensuous” into a unity. In this inversion of values (to which belongs the use of the word for “poor” as a synonym for “holy” and “friend”) lies the significance of the Jewish people: with them begins the slave rebellion in morality. [@BGE §195]

We do not paraphrase and include the whole quote since Nietzsche has a certain passion and vigour to his writing that’s instructive to look at. The reader can feel strong emotions in the above quotation2; it sounds like he is genuinely angry at the Jews for this. What has happened is what Nietzsche names inversion of values, and it led to new meanings of “good” and “bad”, a slave morality. The Jews, weak and oppressed, seemingly had no way to become “good”. They developed a negative sentiment and distaste for the masters, which Nietzsche names “ressentiment” (not to be confused with resentment). Ressentiment is a hostility directed at the cause of one’s frustration; the ego wants to insulate and protect itself from something that’s causing it a sense of weakness and jealousy, and as a means to an end, the ego redefines the value system and creates a new morality such that it attacks the source of one’s frustration. Nietzsche claims that it is when this ressentiment turns creative and gives birth to values, the slaves’ revolt in morality begins [@GM §1.10].

The Jews’ ressentiment became creative; their trick was to first apply ressentiment to redefine themselves as “good” and the pre-revolt “good” as “evil”, but furthermore, to make the revolt work, they had to make the pre-revolt “good” hate themselves, the values they follow, and get them to see themselves as evil. They managed this partly due to the shifting belief in a transcendent world; the slaves were able to invoke God, a transcendent source of morality for many at the time, and simply redefine “good” to express the qualities they possessed - humble, weak, simple. The masters bought in into this belief (after all, it came from God), and started seeing themselves in a completely different light - they were now not only “bad”, but “evil”.

The distinction between what Nietzsche means by “evil” and “bad” and the role of fear is central to understanding master-slave morality. The pre-revolt “good” did not fear the “bad”, but the post-revolt “good” feared the “evil”. “Evil” is used to refer to the masters in a disapproving way; under slave morality, the slaves’ “good” does not refer to a life of vitality that masters lead, but rather to “not-evil”[@GM §0.xxi]. As Nietzsche writes “Everything which lifts the individual up over the herd and creates fear of one’s neighbour from now on is called evil.”

Ultimately, Nietzsche doesn’t believe in any kind of transcendent source of morality, and sees a moral climate simply as an expression of power relations in society. The slaves, outnumbering the strong, and with the help of God, were able to conjure the inversion-of-values trick, and bring Europe to a “herd animal morality”[@BGE §202].

From the style of some of the above quotations, it is clear that Nietzsche does not approve of slave, or herd, morality and would like us to cast it off in favour of a morality beyond good and evil. What is meant by that?

Firstly, Nietzsche doesn’t see the slaves’ ressentiment as inherently wrong; it only becomes problematic when the strong masters are poisoned by the resulting morality. The concept is illustrated in a parable of lambs and birds of prey; the lambs, taken away and eaten by birds of prey, consider the birds “evil”, and “whoever is least like a bird of prey and most like its opposite, a lamb, is good”, for how could the birds of prey be good, they are eating the poor, weak lambs! But the strong birds of prey, almost derisively, reply that they have no problems with lambs, they love them, they are very tasty[@GM §1.13]

Nietzsche wants us to realize that the lambs are naturally weak and can’t do anything about it, and the birds are simply inherently and objectively strong. The lambs should see themselves as weak, simply because they are, but calling the predators “evil” is going too far; Nietzsche argues that “it is just as absurd to ask strength not to express itself as strength, not to be a desire to overthrow, crush, become master, to be a thirst for enemies, resistance and triumphs, as it is to ask weakness to express itself as strength”[@GM §1.13]. The problem that Nietzsche has with slave morality is that the weak slaves, by the creativity of their ressentiment, have made everyone equal, equally weak, and hence, paradoxically, the weak became the most powerful. Nietzsche argues that such slave morality should be abandoned, as it is unnatural and leads to a general weakening of humanity.

Therefore, Nietzsche’s core argument against slave morality is that it is unnatural, and incongruent with what he calls will-to-power, a natural, innate drive for self-improvement that everyone has. “It is the lack of nature, it is the utterly ghastly fact that anti-nature itself has received the highest honours as morality…” [@EH p66] writes Nietzsche, displeased with the anti-nature of slave morality.

For Nietzsche, slave morality is life-denying instead of life-affirming, and hence completely unnatural. Slave morality, as portrayed by Islamic, Christian or Judaic moralities, is all about a separation of the mind and body, and hate and contempt for the meek physical body. These moralities say that sex, vanity, power, are bad, to which Nietzsche argues that they are all completely natural and part of the will-to-power - “the holy pretext of ’improving’ mankind as the cunning to suck out life itself and to make it anaemic. Morality as vampirism…” writes Nietzsche about Christian morality in Ecce Homo. To define the above qualities as good is to deny what we are - simple beasts, fundamentally like animals. The slave morality puts us in a constant debilitating war with ourselves, and is fundamentally unhealthy; it appears we have invented a system that makes us loathe ourselves and wants us to feel guilty for just being alive - “…betrays a will to the end, it denies the very foundations of life.”[@EH p67]. Morality should be life-affirming, we should embrace power, strength, adventure, and anything with a strong happy method, and feel fantastic about it.

Nietzsche is clearly unhappy about herd morality because it represses our nature and is life-denying. What should our moral values be instead? For Nietzsche, there is no realm from which objective morals come from, it is up to us to invent values and make morality. What we value cannot be captured in a set of rules that will guide your actions; the moral values have to be evaluated according to an understanding of their place in the development of humanity [@bge_guide p151]; this is an extra-moral system envisioned by Nietzsche in BGE§32 as the successor to the current system of values. Nietzsche’s Übermensch, the overman, from Thus Spoke Zarathustra is a characterization of this extra-moral future Nietzsche envisions. The overman recognizes that there is no final set of rules, that morality is just our invention, and that it is up to us to forge it and create values. We are to live in such a way, that we would want to relive this life infinitely many times - this is what Nietzsche calls the eternal recurrence. Importantly, we would not ask Nietzsche a question such as “How should I live?”, as to that, he might respond “I bid you to lose me and find yourselves; and only when when you have all denied me, will I return to you”.[@EH foreword]

Via Nietzsche’s historical approach we went through a history of what “good”, “bad”, and “evil” meant at various periods; how the weak, because of their ressentiment, were able to invert values and poison Europe with a slave morality; the reasons why Nietzsche despises slave morality; and finally, a brief vision of Nietzsche’s extra-moral future and the value-creating overman that’s not enslaved by a debilitating morality. In some ways, Nietzsche’s philosophy is similar to Sartre’s and other existentialists; life is a work of art, and it is up to us, as we go along, to construct a beautiful life.

  1. This is due to Plato and the Theory of Forms

  2. It’s important to try not to over-analyze Nietzsche’s excerpts out of context. You can easily try to read Nietzsche between the lines, and hence reinforce your own ideologies with the writings of the prominent philosopher. This is how, after his death, and with the help of his anti-Semitic sister, Nietzsche came to be the primary philosopher of the Third Reich and Nazism.

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