“The slave revolt in morality begins, when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values.”(Nietzsche cited in Solomon 2006:180)
Nietzsche lived during the post enlightenment period which set the stage for modernity. One of the goals of the enlightenment project was to erect everything anew on rationality and not on dogma (presumably Christianity). Nietzsche saw himself as primarily as a psychologist whose task it was to firstly show how much the enlightenment project was still deeply imbued in the “shadow of God” even though they were responsible for the “death of God”. Secondly to unmask the true motives and reasons behind 19th century Europe’s philosophical systems and particularly its traditional moral principles (Solomon 2006:180). This essay will expound on Nietzsche’s critique of morality showing that it (1) relied on his adherence to perspectivism and most importantly (2) its genealogical origins in slave morality. I will argue that his genealogical critique fails in two ways: Firstly it does not demonstrate how slave morality can arise to usurp master morality. Secondly, it fails to show how slave morality necessarily leads to a stifling of human progress and development.
There is only perspective
Friedrich Nietzsche rejected the idea that human beings could possess objective and absolute truth. He had two main reasons for his doctrine of perspectivism; all claims to truth are always from a perspective (Solomon 2006: 195). Firstly, as individuals our knowledge is always within the context of our history, society, language and values. Our knowledge is conditioned by our entire surrounding context and therefore it is never universal and objective. Secondly, there is no God and therefore there is no transcendent realm of objective rationality, morality, values and truth. As humans we create our own values, morals and truths. Nietzsche’s perspectivism becomes integral to his critique of traditional morality.
Traditional morality, according to Nietzsche, is rooted in Christian morality. Secular liberalism which sought to ground its moral claims apart from God; nonetheless still drew its ideas from the Christian worldview. Thinkers such as Kant who grounded morality in rationality and Mill who grounded it in the greatest utility still retained the essential Christian presuppositions of morality: its universal applicability and egalitarianism. Nietzsche argued that Western culture and thought during his time was going through a secularisation but did not realise the full implications of how radical the change was and how deeply imbued in the Christian worldview it is, “…God is dead:but given the way of humanity, his shadow will remain on the walls of the caves for thousands of years. And we still have to conquer his shadow as well” (Ally 2010: 104).
His first major critique of traditional morality was its presupposition of being absolute and universal. Morality takes itself to be general and applicable to all and fails to see itself as one contingent perspective amongst others. I would argue that Nietzsche rejected metaphysics precisely because it was committed to the idea that eternal, universal principles exist which humans can know through rational enquiry. Perspectivism says “there are no facts, only interpretations” and is therefore antithetical to classical metaphysics (Solomon 2006:196). Nietzsche found egalitarianism problematic because it presupposed classical metaphysics and the Christian worldview in that human beings have an eternal soul. It is this eternal soul, according to Christian tradition, in virtue of being made in the image of God and being the object of salvation that make all souls equal in value and dignity. Nietzsche rejected classical metaphysics and therefore any grounds of human equality that came with it.
The Genealogy of the slave
The most important class of criticisms against traditional morality that Nietzsche held stemmed from historical, psychological and sociological reasons which can be termed the genealogical critique. Nietzsche rejected the Christian worldview and its moral tenets, but he still had to explain how and why such a perspective came to be so dominant and for so long in Europe.
Nietzsche thought there are two basic types of moralities: slave morality and master morality which are expressions of the human will to power (Wilkerson n.d.). The concept of the “will to power” is highly contested by scholars and no clear consensus exists on how it should be interpreted (Wilkerson, n.d.), (PORTER 2005). At a basic and crude level the will to power implies that there are power centres whose activities and interactions are driven by or predisposed to increasing their power (Anderson, 2017). Nonetheless in human beings the will to power, whatever we may think of it, expresses itself through slave and master morality as well as through our perspectives and chosen interpretations.
Master morality is exemplified by the aristocrats of ancient Greece who saw themselves as noble masters vastly superior to others. The noble requires no external justification, they are self-confident, self-affirming, prideful, bold, courageous, amd intelligent. The progress of humanity has depended on the noble and powerful excelling and dominating the weak and less intelligent (Ally 2010:105) of society. Slave morality is the antithesis of master morality because it originates from resentment and is reactionary; it is life denying and is motivated by weakness (Solomon 2006: 180).
Nietzsche argued that Christian/traditional/slave morality originates primarily from resentment (SALAQUARDA 2006:103). The weak and marginalized people (such as Jews and persecuted Christians) resented those that oppressed them (the masters) and in a radical act of the transvaluation of values inverted the master morality by classifying it as bad and slave morality as good. Thus, the slave morality of humility, compassion, and equality became the highest ideals. Goodness became an internal condition of the heart rather than actual external attributes possessed by the nobles such as strength, power, influence, beauty and wealth. Nietzsche sums up the genealogy of slave morality:
“The act of most spiritual revenge.” It was the Jews who, with awe-inspiring consistency, dared to invert the aristocratic value-equation (good = noble = powerful = beautiful = happy = beloved of God) and to hang onto this inversion with their teeth, the teeth of the most abysmal hatred (the hatred of impotence), saying, “the wretched 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, the accursed, and damned!” (Solomon 2006:201)
The slave strikes back
Nietzsche’s genealogy does not adequately explain why slave morality could arise and dominate master morality. According to Nietzsche, slave morality arose amongst the weak and marginalized because of resentment but leaves unexplained how the noble masters come to adopt it and internalise it themselves. The inversion is only truly successful once the nobles internalise it as well and seem themselves also bound by slave morality. For as long as the nobles hold onto their master morality they could always dismiss slave morality as precisely what it is -slave morality arising from resentment because of our superiority as nobles. Nietzsche’s genealogy leaves unexplained why and how the nobles traded their master morality for slave morality. One could argue that the nobles felt guilty for their marginalization of the weak but the problem with that is that guilt is a slave morality concept. The reasons for the nobles internalizing the slave morality and abandoning the master morality must be found in the nobles themselves and their master morality – but what could that possibly be? How could the slave morality once it arose have influenced the master morality to a point where it collapsed? Nietzsche provides no answers on this and nor could he possibly. Solomon (2006:210) states that according to Nietzsche the noble/powerful could are incapable of feeling the “ugly” and “bitter emotion” of resentment which is what gave birth to slave morality.
Nietzsche rejects the idea of equality of human beings because it reduces the higher, nobler and more intelligent to the average and mediocre person. It aims to expunge individuality by making all people alike; it is a “levelling of all down to the mediocrity of the herd” (Ally 2010:109). The concept of equality is itself a highly contested concept in ethical and political thought and Nietzsche does not define what he has in mind by equality (Gosepath 2011). One could firstly argue that it is perfectly possible within Christian tradition and thought to maintain the metaphysical and moral equality of all human beings without being committed to equality in a sociological, physiological and individual sense. Secondly, one could argue that any society in order to flourish and allow exceptional, creative individuals to emerge and bring progress; requires at a minimum, preventing some members from arbitrarily using others as means to their own ends through coercion and force. If some arbitrary rule was enacted that Germans should be enslaved or do manual work only – Nietzsche’s own genius would never have emerged. Universal recognition of the moral worth and value of human beings is certainly not identical to reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator. The greatest discoveries in science emerged within a society that Nietzsche considered to permeated with equality and slave morality – how then was it not an obstacle to innovation and scientific advancement? Nietzsche’s critique of equality is misguided and historically false.
I have demonstrated that Nietzsche’s genealogical critique of traditional morality, or slave morality, fails for two major reasons. Firstly, Nietzsche’s genealogical critique failed to explain how slave morality which arose from the resentment of the weak was able to then dominate the master morality. There is nothing within master morality that could explain why they would internalise the slave morality and abandon their own. Secondly, Nietzsche rejected the notion that human beings are equal because he thought it was a concept used to level down the nobles and more intelligent to the mediocre herd level. The problem with the claim is that a society that recognizes the value of all humans, and does not treat them arbitrarily as means, is the one most likely to be stable enough to allow the exceptionally gifted and intelligent to flourish and bring progress. Lastly, I argued that his own society which was steeped in “slave morality equality” was still able to produce the greatest advances in science and technological innovation than ever before. Clearly then slave morality was not an obstacle to human progress and advancement, it does not seem to be life-denying as Nietzsche thought. Nietzsche’s thought however does lead us to pause and become suspicious of people claiming to be driven by pure altruism and selflessness; who claim to be acting for the good of others, the good of the poor for example. Nietzsche reminds us that there is within all of us the “will to power” yearning to express itself and no action of ours is ever untainted by it; we must be self-conscious enough to recognize that our actions and motives are not as noble and virtuous as we judge them to be.
- Ally, M., 2010. Advanced Western Philosophy, Pretoria: University of South Africa.
- Anderson, R. L., 2017. Friedrich Nietzsche. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/nietzsche
- Gosepath, S., 2011. Equality. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/equality/
- PORTER, J. I., 2005. Nietzsche’s Theory of the Will to Power, in A Companion to Nietzsche edited by K. A. PEARSON, s.l.:Blackwell Publishing.
- SALAQUARDA, J., 2006. Nietzsche and the Judaeo Christian tradition, in Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche edited by B. Magnus & K. M. Higgins, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 90-118.
- Solomon, R. C., 2006. Nietzsche ad hominem: Perspectivism, personality and ressentiment*, in Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, edited by B. Magnus & K. M. Higgins, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 180-222.
- Wilkerson, D., n.d. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). http://www.iep.utm.edu/nietzsch/