Critically Examine Nietzsches Juxtaposition Of Master And Slave Moralities

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In the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche seeks to provide an historical account of the origin of moral values, so that he may offer an analysis of the distinctive moral forces that history reveals. Nietzsche’s account shows the influence of his expertise in philology, and his keen interest in antiquity, plus a particular anthropological view which can be seen to have ultimately shaped his ideas. His notions of “master” and “slave” moralities are derived and formulated from his historical account.

In the Preface to the Genealogy of Morality Nietzsche displays his disdain for, what he deems to be, the speculative attempts at outlining the origins of morality made by the ‘hypothesis-mongering’ English. He then asserts his firm intentions to expose a real history of morality. In this vein, he goes on to make several historical claims in the First Essay. The first of these is made initially in the second aphorism, and then more properly in the fourth aphorism. It is that the original meaning of the term “good” was used with reference to individuals; individuals of nobility, and in particular to distinguish themselves from the common and the plebeian. This is in contrast to the historical belief that judgements of ‘good’ were applied principally to acts and properties, which Nietzsche rejects. Thus, the rulers bestow noble goodness upon the conventions and traditions of noble living. An enquiry into the etymological history of the terms “good” and “bad” relate the former with a sense of developed aristocracy and the latter always with the simple and base. For Nietzsche, the meanings of “good” denoted a particular strength of character, and such traits were possessed by the aristocracy.

The historical elite, Nietzsche observes, were also ethnically distinct from the plebeians. He speaks of the all-conquering blond haired Aryan race, distinguished from the lower, dark skinned inhabitants of Europe who became subjugated by this far more advanced master race. In the sixth aphorism, he comments that at times the highest caste is also the clerical or priestly caste, characterized in their class superiority not by strength and warlike traits, but rather by a kind of ritual purity. The clerical classes are contrasted from the warlike chivalric-aristocratic classes for Nietzsche, in such a way that exposes their lack of health (both physically and psychologically). He brings out this contrast clearly at the start of the seventh aphorism. The powerlessness of the priestly classes, entrenched in their austere practices of ritual and abstinence, renders them prone to a deep-seated hatred. To this effect Nietzsche states:

‘The greatest haters in world history, and the most intelligent, have always been priests: – nobody else’s intelligence stands a chance against the intelligence of priestly revenge.’

It is this notion of revenge that fuels the reactive element of slave morality, and for Nietzsche, it is the Jews that have most significantly displayed this lust for vengeance throughout history. Only the Jewish reprisal consisted of an act of reversal, a radical revaluation.

‘It was the Jews who, rejecting the aristocratic value equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = blessed) ventured, with awe-inspiring consistency, to bring about a reversal and held it in the teeth of their unfathomable hatred (the hatred of the powerless), saying “Only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good; the suffering, the deprived, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people, the only ones saved, salvation is for them alone, whereas you rich, the noble and powerful, you are eternally wicked, cruel, lustful, insatiate, godless, you will also be eternally wretched, cursed and damned!”’

And in perhaps dangerously emphatic words Nietzsche treats this revaluation as a declaration of war, a ‘revolt’ in morality set in motion by the Jews. The central weapon in this act of vengeance is Jesus, and for Nietzsche the crucifixion was a calculating piece of Jewish manipulation, a ‘circuitous route’ to Jewish values and ideals, spread in the slightly veiled form of Christianity throughout the world. The power of the ‘horrible paradox’ of a ‘God on the Cross’ coupled with the ‘unthinkable final act’ of self-crucifixion, for the sake of the salvation of mankind, cemented, according to Nietzsche, the triumph of the slave morality over the master morality.
This process of revaluation, epitomised by the Jews, is termed ressentiment by Nietzsche. It is a form of imaginary revenge. It is reactive insofar as it takes the negative form, saying ‘no’ to all that is other, therefore it requires that something other, an opposing external set of values to react against. This renders such ressentiment parasitic and distorted for Nietzsche. The noble master morality is of course wholly positive by contrast. Such values Nietzsche sees as spontaneous and necessarily active. The master morality refers to its plebeian opposite only ‘so that it can say: “yes” to itself even more thankfully and exultantly.’ Such is the creative and passionate force of the original noble values. At the end of the eleventh aphorism, Nietzsche remonstrates angrily about how the slave morality represents the decline of humanity. By contrast with the nobles, even characterised in ‘blond beast’ form, the slave morality is constituted by the: ‘disgusting spectacle of the failed, the stunted, the wasted away and the poisoned.’ . Nietzsche then, in the twelfth aphorism, expresses his longing to encounter a brilliant individual that might ‘redeem’ and restore our faith in mankind.
So it is that for Nietzsche the master morality is the original and natural expression of the will. Slave morality is a glorification of weakness; it is the lamb resenting its predator, which maybe is understandable for the lamb, but it does not grant him the right to impose unnatural restrictions upon the predator under the guise of morality. Nietzsche emphatically asserts that such a morality is distorted. He states:

‘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.’

It is clear that to Nietzsche the strong and noble are naturally strong and noble, and that the weak are also constituted as weak naturally. What offends him is the notion that the nobles should be required by slave morality to limit themselves, whilst the slaves make pretences of choosing to be weak in some voluntary act of humility. Slave morality seems, for Nietzsche, to take the form of a ‘dragging down’ to the level of slavish weakness.
There is no doubt that Nietzsche’s conception of morality is egoistic in its rationale. Naturally, to an egoist, any notions of personal restriction; of moral universality which would subordinate the individual; would appear abhorrent. Nietzsche would of course claim that all moral discourses have been corrupted by the distortion inherent in slave morality, but his historical case does seem somewhat shaky. It seems a little arbitrary to deem an etymological enquiry into the terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ as bearing conclusive force with regard to moral discourse. Plus, there is no evidence to suggest that the Aryans of ancient Europe were in fact blond and fair-skinned. It is also generally accepted that the ancient aristocracy condemned arrogance and encouraged humility (if only before the gods).
Historical facts aside, though, it is unclear why ‘originality’ should be the criterion used to gauge the validity or worth of a particular morality. The fact that Aristotelian physics came first chronologically does not grant such theory precedence in the universities and laboratories of today (and who’s to say it did properly ‘come first’ anyhow?) But of course from the importance of originality follows the derivative and parasitic status of the secondary and reactive movement. Even if we were to concede to Nietzsche’s assertion that to be reactive is to be lesser or to distort or corrupt, we can have no cogent assurance from him or anyone that such reaction does not take place within the faction of the nobles. Indeed history itself does not lend credence to the notion that the aristocracies and nobilities were individualistic in their constitution. It would also seem pertinent to point out the group-orientated conformism of much ‘noble’ culture and custom, which might strike one as rather arbitrary and intolerant of individual expression. Nietzsche would seem misguided if he really were trying to convince us that the master morality is faithfully conducive to strong individual expression.
Finally, we might charge Nietzsche to be guilty of the very sin he preaches against. The Genealogy is nothing if not reactive in tone; certain passages seeming almost like a rallying call to troops. His criticism of the Jewish in particular seems far from a balanced appraisal of history, and more a kind of anti-Semitic rant. Perhaps we could just as easily read much of Nietzsche’s work as a reactive case for egoism – ‘the need to impose Being … on the process of Becoming,’ – against the historical establishment of normative morals.


Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, Ed. by Keith Ansell-Pearson, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994)

Nietzsche, Friedrich, Beyond Good and Evil, Ed. by Marion Faber, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1998)

Blackham, H. J., Six Existentialist Thinkers, (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961)

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