In Of the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche sought to provide context for what he saw as the central value system of the society in which he lived: slave-morality. Nietzsche saw morality as reflective of the conditions in which its proponents were brought up. He saw the roots of slave morality in oppression and slavery, and posits that it grew as a reaction to the morality of the masters of the time. What follows is a simplified account of Nietzsche’s master-slave dichotomy, and what he saw as the dire consequences for human progress should the pervasiveness of slave morality be allowed to remain at the expense of the master.
I will argue that although religion and slave morality may have had significant influence in Nietzsche’s day, his fears about the stagnation of mankind through its adherence to slave morality are exaggerated and largely unfounded. I will also briefly discuss the applicability of slave-master morality to contemporary life. Nietzsche’s account of master and slave morality springs from a time of actual master-slave relationships. Master morality is found in those who have the power to create their own values to live by, without the need for approval from others.
In Nietzsche’s own words, the master “honours everything he sees in himself. ” They understand themselves as having an integral function in the universe, as resembling a kind of god, and therefore see goodness in those attributes which they find in themselves, and goodness in the values they themselves create. They see no reason to refer to others or seek another’s approval. Nietzsche’s idea of the Master comes from nobility, and so the central tenet of master morality is nobility; that those attributes found in a noble person are those that can be considered good.
In master morality, a person is considered good if s/he is autonomous, strong-willed, brave, powerful, proud, able and happy in themselves. They see badness as a lack of that which is good-that is, a lack of the noble characteristics. Co-dependence and conformity are bad because they are not autonomy, weakness is bad because it isn’t strength, poverty is bad because it isn’t wealth, cowardice is bad because it isn’t bravery, and so on. The master respects his or her hierarchical equals, but the wellbeing of common folk is not his/her concern.
The moral badness of the master’s subordinate does not have a significant impact on the master’s happiness or security, but only reinforces what he already knows: that s/he is a vastly superior being than those under him/her. In terms of actions, master morality is consequentialist: it judges the goodness of an action by its outcome. It is a morality of instinct and individualism, whereby the fulfilment of one’s animal desire is seen as a positive outcome no matter what actions were taken to obtain this fulfilment. Any action which leads to a positive outcome is seen as being a good action.
Any action which has negative consequences for the master is seen as being inherently bad, regardless of the intentions behind it. In practice, this morality glorifies self-regard, greed and ruthlessness because these attributes lead to the best outcomes for the person who displays them. Nietzsche sees the basis for his master archetype in the violent and brutal emperors, warriors and warlords in ancient imperial civilizations: “Roman, Arab, German, Japanese nobility, Homeric heroes, Scandinavian Vikings” who represent “the blond beast splendidly roaming around in its lust for loot and victory.
Master moralists are rarely unhappy, as the primary goal of their actions is their own wellbeing and happiness. They are able enjoy to the fruits of their various conquests, unburdened by the weaknesses guilt or remorse. Slave morality could not exist without master morality, as it is first and foremost a reaction to it, a “revolt” against it. Slave morality stems from ressentiment or resentment the slave feels towards the master. The master feels, at most, condescension or smug pity towards the slave.
By contrast, the slave is consumed by hatred and bitterness towards the master, and sees the master as responsible for his or her misfortune. This resentment and bitterness leads to the slave adopting a mentality which demonises the master, and which holds up as good those attributes which are unlike that of the oppressor. Characteristics shown by the master are “evil” and goodness is seen in the traits which oppose them, e. g. Humility, obedience, restraint, self-denial, modesty, patience and acceptance of one’s fate.
Slave morality does not aim for self-ascension or self-gratification. Its aims centre on utility: the reduction of suffering for the greatest number of people. It sees evil in the self-aggrandizement and the ruthlessness and violence of the master. Where master morality is for the elite few, slave morality is a value system for the masses. The values inherent in slave morality, not coincidentally, are almost synonymous with Judeo-Christian moral ideals; Judaism and Christianity were, in the past, religions of the poor and the oppressed.
Nietzsche sees, in the reactionary nature of slave morality and its dishonest demonization of its oppressors, a desire to make slaves of the masters. Violence and vengefulness are anathema to slave morality, however, if the slave moralists can universalise their value system – through religion, for example – they can convince the masters that they are evil, and in doing so lessen their power and take revenge for past evils. Nietzsche sees slave morality, especially the universalisation of it through religion, as harmful and damaging to human progress.
However, he does not see it as an unreasonable reaction to oppression, and suggests that the slave is in fact cleverer than the master, even if this cleverness is often exercised through self-deception. In contrast to the consequentialism of master morality, slave morality can be seen as a deontological morality. It determines an action’s goodness by looking at the actor’s intention: to slave moralists, the ends do not, necessarily, justify the means. The nature of acts and their actors plays an important role in Nietzsche’s discussion of morality.
Slaves believe in and strive for freedom and see evil in the masters’ oppression of them, as they believe they perform these acts of oppression of their own free will. They believe that, because the masters are free agents, they should be held responsible for their actions and criticized for them. Nietzsche disputes this view, and demonstrates his argument using the analogy of the eagles and the lambs: “That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no ground for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs.
And if the lambs say among themselves: ‘these birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey, but rather its opposite, a lamb – would he not be good? ‘ there is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal, except perhaps that birds of prey might view it a little ironically and say ‘we don’t dislike them at all, these good little lambs; we even love them: nothing is more tasty…”. Nietzsche claims that asking masters to act with humility or restraint is akin to asking a bird of prey not to hunt to feed itself.
He believes that slaves separate the being from the action and in doing so are able to condemn the masters for the supposed evils they perform. Nietzsche believes the slaves are dishonest in this, because the master acts in strength not because he wants to cause harm to the others, but because he is strong and powerful and should not be expected to act as if he is otherwise. It would be against the eagle’s nature to act against his own self-interest, and the same applies to the master.
He believes the slaves are practicing self-deception in claiming goodness is theirs because they choose to be humble when, in fact, slaves are only humble and restrained because these traits were forced upon them through slavery, or through their own inherent weakness. He does not blame the slave for being this way – the slave performs these acts of self-deception in order to survive and affirm his/her own existence as worthwhile – but, again, sees the increasing prevalence of the slave mindset as harmful for society as a whole.
He saw, in the democratic fight for equality, a movement towards mediocrity and stagnation. Nietzsche saw the move towards democracy in the western world as a logical continuation of slave morality’s influence, calling the democratic movement “…the heir of the Christian movement. ” (BGE 151) The principle of equality on which democracy in based was profoundly unreasonable to Nietzsche, given the obvious inequalities within the human race.
He believed that in order to enforce equality, strong men are lowered to the value of weak men, to the point where ambition and ingenuity goes unrewarded and progress stagnates. He looks back on times of scarcity and warfare, when enterprise and domination were rewarded and respected because they were necessary. Now, the west has given itself over to a herd mentality, where such attributes are seen as “dangerous… [and] branded as immoral. ” When an individual does raise his or herself above the herd through ambition or excellence, the community’s self-confidence is diminished.
The herd takes comfort in the fact that, in their eyes and/or the eyes of their god, this individual must be immoral. Judeo-Christianity was the dominant religion in the west during the 19th century, and democracy did become the dominant political system during this time. However, although most of the sentiment behind it seems to hold true, there are flaws in Nietzsche’s argument that this is evidence of the overarching adoption of slave morality, and that this adoption created a stagnation of ambition or progress.
Put simply, Nietzsche must argue the following: 1. Slave morality has triumphed over master morality in the west. 2. Progress stagnates under slave morality because excellence is not rewarded but condemned, 3. Progress has stagnated and excellence is condemned in contemporary western society. But we can look to the history of the late 19th century to see that the progress made in that time was not insignificant.
The invention of the motor car, the telephone, the light bulb, among other things, is a sign that creativity and ambition was certainly not altogether stifled. While democracy provided the political framework, capitalism (primarily an individualistic economic system) flourished and rewarded enterprise and ambition with money and influence. This shows one of two things to be true: slave morality’s influence over western society was not as pervasive as Nietzsche claims OR its influence was not as damaging to human progress as he believed it was.
If, as Nietzsche claims, master morality is a necessary condition for the advancement of society, it must not have been defeated entirely, for society was and is advancing. Nietzsche’s account of the master-slave dichotomy is more difficult still to apply to modern western society, although I doubt Nietzsche himself would try to do so. While our individual morality may still come from external sources, these days the sources are likely to be many and varied, rather than from a single religious viewpoint. Individual morality grows and evolves from experience.
And while the culture of our society may endorse elements present in Nietzsche’s slave morality (compassion, modesty and patience, for example, are certainly not seen as bad things,) we also see a culture where achievement and ambition is not stifled but rewarded. We see celebration of athletes, who embody the strength, beauty and pride present in a Nietzschean master. We want our leaders to be honest, active, strong willed and brave, but raise concern if they are seen to lack compassion, or are too boastful, or do not seek to reduce suffering.
Nietzsche’s Genealogy is convincing in its methodological approach to understanding the opposing moralities it discusses. It is logical that masters, the strong and elite, should seek no comfort or endorsement from external sources when they have total faith in themselves. That slaves sought out comfort in a morality based in religion, which holds up piousness and selflessness as virtues, makes sense as a survival strategy and as a way for these slaves to carve out meaning in their difficult lives.
In discussing the impact on society in his time, Nietzsche despairs that of these two moralities, the slaves are winning, through the growth of democracy throughout the west. Perhaps, instead, the growth of democracy led to an evolution of western morality. Through the evolution of our class system beyond master and slave, our culture has become more multifaceted. Our relations with those above and below us has become more nuanced, and so too has our morality.