Master and Slave Morality in Friedrich Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals

This is an overview of Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas of master and slave morality from the Genealogy of Morals.

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, our morality stems from a primeval time which eventually evolved into our morality that we still have in place today. Centuries ago and beyond, there were dominant classes that Nietzsche calls “masters” that created a moral code that the subordinates of their societies had to follow. These masters created this code because they affirmed themselves from the beginning, and they would affirm the self and everything related to the self.

This is the primary phenomena for their morality, which they enforced amongst everyone that was below them in society. In this way, masters love their enemies for the sole reason that their enemies resemble the self that is being affirmed, but they despise things that are unlike the self. Things that are unrelated to the self are considered secondary to the masters, and they do not need an anti-master to define themselves. 

These masters realize that there are non-masters which are secondary and insignificant, and they consider these people in society contemptible. In this sense, the masters consider themselves and things related to the self “good,” and they consider the non-masters and things unrelated to the self as “bad.” The non-masters in the society may accept this and even follow the master’s morality code, and they may realize that they are not as great as these masters.

Nietzsche recognizes the problems with master morality, and though he thinks it is better than the other type of morality that I will speak of next, he does not advocate master morality.  Masters do not think outside of the norm like a free spirit does. They believe that the doctrines which they have created through their self-affirmation are supreme, and they are not willing to accept the idea that throughout time they may obtain more knowledge that could essentially change their views. These masters are close-minded and their morality is also close-minded and final, and this is not the way that a free spirit lives their life, therefore Nietzsche is opposed to master morality.

As a result of master morality, another type of morality is formed and this is called slave morality. Slave morality arises when a society or group of people are in a negative social situation, but it is not limited to the socially subordinate. This type of morality starts with an idea that something is “evil” which can be defined as power that hurts the victims. The “good” for slave morality is equivalent to niceness and these people affirm themselves by thinking that it is profound to be nice and treat people as equals, which is absent for the masters. 

The qualities that define good for master morality are the qualities that define evil for slave morality. The victims of this social situation create a concept that they call ‘free will’ and they say that the master morality has free will, and this leads to their justification for why their slave morality is superior to the master morality. They justify their moral superiority by stating that they are better people since they do not desire to cause harm and coercion to others, and they create a moral code based on doing the opposite of what the masters are doing to them. 

They define themselves as anti-masters. This is paradoxical in itself because they are exercising their power over the masters through their created moral code, while they oppose the power and coercion that the masters exercise over them in which they created the moral code in the first place. For Nietzsche, this is an act of hypocrisy and inconsistency, since the slaves are acting upon their will to power just like the masters are, even though they try to hide it through the definition of their morals.

Nietzsche is opposed to slave morality because of their hypocrisy. Slave morality is weakness and it is still a manifestation of the will to power, despite their supposed opposition to the will to power. According to Nietzsche, slave morality has a unique cultural origin and this is ancient Judaism, and anywhere else that this type of morality exists can be traced back to ancient Judaism. The ruling class of the Jews created this morality possibly in response to being overrun by Babylon and other colonialism. 

Ancient Judaism was the only whole slave morality culture and this led to Christianity, the triumphant slave morality which preached the same ideals as Judaism. Nietzsche thinks that the masters were tricked into Christianity by Jesus, who was one of the Jews, and also by Saint Paul, who spoke of atonement and the suffering of masters from a crippling sense of guilt. All of this led to Christianity overtaking Europe and the elimination of master morality for the substitution of slave morality. Now, and when Nietzsche was alive, slave morality was and still is the dominant morality that Western culture has accepted as universal.

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Auron Renius
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Posted on Jan 6, 2011