To me, Nietzsche was a very passionate philosopher. His prose is a very raw and intimate transposition of his thoughts to paper and you often get the feeling that he is confiding in you and you alone. He was also known as the “attack philosopher”: Socrates, Plato, his teacher Arthur Schopenhauer, Democracy, Religion (specially the Judeo-Christian traditions) were some of the targets of his blunt and sometimes vicious criticism. Nietzsche also often exaggerated his arguments, leading to misinterpretations in the past:
One of his recurring concerns was the concept of Good and Evil, and the moral frameworks necessary for such notions to arise and develop. In the book “On the Genealogy of Morals” – not surprisingly subtitled “A polemic” – Nietzsche describes his effort in tracing back the origins of good and evil while playing off his perspectivism against the notion of morals: if ideas are all construed from a perspective, there is not a single moral construct, but several. And so he distinguishes the concepts of Master and Slave morality:
The Masters can easily be found in the great ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, that Nietzsche deeply admired and loved though he focused on the Pre-Socratics and the great warriors of Homer’s epics (“Iliad” and “Odyssey”). They were, for the most part, a small group of aristocrats and other privileged elements of the society, supported by a very large number of merchants, peasants and, most of all, slaves.
At the top of this very large pyramid base, the Masters pursued excellency, compared themselves to no one (one must be careful here and note that they keyword is pride, not vanity), created their own values, created themselves. They considered what they did as good, noble and the actions of “lesser” people as bad, weak, pathetic. Nietzsche clearly distinguishes “good and evil” (something Masters were beyond of) from “good and bad” (strong and weak). They were also very focused on this world, which is something that plays an important role in Slave Morality.
Slave morality is, on the other hand, a response to Master Morality. Its creators were, for the most part, actual slaves, who deeply resented their masters.
Theirs was a moral of reaction, of subversion, of self-denial, where the values of their masters were turned upside down, viewed as evil. Note here how “evil” in the slaves’ perspective is about something strong while “bad” in the masters’ view is about weakness. You can see how quickly excellency, pride, creativity, being strong willed and even egoistic can be turned into mediocrity, humbleness, resentfulness, altruism and self-deception. Seeking knowledge and perfection was no longer admirable and ignorance almost became..bliss.
The Judeo-Christian religions heavily contributed and stood by the side of Slave Morality, offering an alternative to this world, valuing humility, self-restriction and self-denial:
Another interesting property to be noted is that, while masters created values for themselves, slave morality tries to put everyone under the same beliefs (again a very religious, single point-of-view moral perspective).
Society has come to widely accept Slave Morality as desirable and this is something Nietzsche was very concerned about as he wrote the book. Defining yourself through the opposite of what you resent is clearly harmful, though we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss Slave morality entirely (or Master morality) for it might have something to teach us about how we behave ourselves and how we respond to our environment.
So to finish this long post, here’s a homework for today: try to spot a behavior that you clearly identify as “Slave Morality” and another that follows the Master mentality!