Does Nietzsche Favor Master Morality Over Slave Morality?

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Prima facie, this question appears to have a straightforward answer; surely one can judge merely from the names Nietzsche has chosen that he favors the former over the latter. However, the picture is more complex than that. While he frequently uses scornful terms of slave morality, he also sees it as at least a cunning striving for power, which he is forced to admire to some extent.

Master morality has some of the characteristics of being a self-generating force of nature, which paradoxically makes it admirable and not admirable at the same time. It would be admirable because it does not exhibit the weakness of reference to the external; and yet by this same token it shows itself almost as something automatic and an inevitable consequence of how things are. We do not admire a tree for being a tree; it has no choice in the matter.

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On balance however, the weight of Nietzsche’s contempt for slave morality is decisive. It is nevertheless too simple to argue that this entails that he favors master morality.

Nietzsche has a clear historical analysis of how the two moralities evolved. Examination of the terminology he uses will be useful in assessing which of the moralities he favours. Master morality emerges first, with slave morality being a reaction to it.

Master morality is the domain of the strong; it is “knightly-aristocratic”, appropriate to a “warrior caste” in possession of “powerful physicality” devoted to “war, adventure, hunting, dancing, war games, and, in general, everything which involves strong, free, happy action”. Its exponents exercise their privileges without concern for the consequences; they are almost extra-moral or pre-moral. They come closest to the purest expression of the will-to-power, which is Nietzsche’s variant on Schopenhauer’s view of the noumenal.

Slave morality emerges as a response and in the form of an alternate power structure. There will be some members of the privileged classes who are unable to maintain their position by exercise of physical strength because they do not possess it. These will be the priests, who “are the most evil of enemies—[…] [b]ecause they are the most powerless”. Since they are unable to impose themselves, their resentment is repressed, generates hatred, and is turned inwards, as opposed to being expended on the world.

The development of slave morality proceeds by an inversion of values: “only those who suffer are good; the poor, the powerless, the low are the only good people”. This is illustrated with an example from nature of lambs and birds preying upon them. Nietzsche agrees that it will be highly natural for the lambs to both resent the predations of the stronger, and identify the negation of such predation as good. And yet “[t]o demand from strength that it does not express itself as strength […] is just as unreasonable as to demand from weakness that it express itself as strength”.

Nietzsche regards the Jews as responsible for the revolt that created slave morality. If it were then the case that he could be convicted of anti-Semitism, then we would have an argument that he held slave morality in disfavor. While there is a general view that Nietzsche is in fact anti-Semitic, this has more to do with the misuse by his sister of writings that he had not himself chosen to publish, and his posthumous adoption by the Nazis. Regarding Nietzsche himself as a Nazi seems to require further evidence, when we note that Nietzsche was insane in 1889, dead in 1900 and Hitler was not elected Chancellor until 1933. But as Tracy Strong reminds us, anti-Semitic contemporaries complained of Nietzsche making negative judgments about anti-Semites, and he also viewed the entire outlook as being driven by ressentiment.

There are complex loops of self-reference here. Ressentiment is Nietzsche’s special term for that source and product of slave morality that impotently hates the powerful. An analytical problem is produced in that if it is true that Nietzsche opposed anti-Semitism, then one of his reasons for doing so could have been that he also disfavored those who expressed ressentiment, which would then be capable of extension into the view that he disfavors slave morality. Then there is an inconsistency problem to the extent that if he disfavors slave morality, then he might be expected to be open to anti-Semitism on the grounds that he ought to oppose those he holds responsible for the introduction of a disfavored development.

Under these circumstances, we can only let Nietzsche speak for himself. In response to her marriage plans, Nietzsche wrote to his sister “[y]our association with an anti-Semitic chief expresses a foreignness to my whole way of life which fills me again and again with ire or melancholy”. So it seems that Nietzsche is not a generic anti-Semite, even though he does appear to blame the Jews for what he says they did historically.

Therefore we must look elsewhere for evidence as to Nietzsche’s favor or disfavor of slave morality. And we again come up against apparent inconsistency. The revaluation of values that constituted the slave revolt was a “huge and immeasurably disastrous initiative”. And yet, “[h]uman history would be a really stupid affair without that spirit which entered it from the powerless”.

These two statements can only be reconciled if we note Nietzsche’s most famous aphorism “what does not kill him, makes him stronger”. Thus, the introduction of slave morality, while disastrous, did provide something against which to struggle. And the struggle itself makes people strong. Also, because those partaking of slave morality cannot use force, they must use patience and cunning to prevail: “[a] race of such men of ressentiment will necessarily end up cleverer than any noble race.”

We must note here that the Clark translation has ‘more prudent’ for ‘cleverer’. This is feasible in terms of the sense of the sentence and consistent with Nietzsche’s view at this point, but is in my view not an optimal translation of klüger, which is the word used by Nietzsche. In evidence for this, I note the usage “aus jdm. nicht klug werden”, meaning to be unable to figure someone out. This is scarcely comprehensible with prudence, becoming prudent about someone is much less smooth a fit to ‘figuring them out’ than becoming clever about them. In any case, the key point here is that Nietzsche allows that die Klugheit is a virtue and that those partaking of slave morality will of necessity develop this virtue.

Nietzsche is passionately opposed to democracy, equality and utilitarianism. We should not try to raise everyone to the same level, because this inevitably involves penalizing the best. All rules applied generally will harm some. The institution of a level playing field is disadvantageous for those who can score goals against the slope. The function of the bulk of humanity is to serve as adjuncts to those rare geniuses that can advance culture. Opposing this on equality grounds is to think, falsely, “as though slavery were a counterargument, and not rather a condition of every higher culture, of every elevation of culture”. Nietzsche is here writing of women, but this does not detract from the point that for Nietzsche, some subjugation is necessary and beneficial.

There is an interesting parallel to Heidegger, which proves instructive because on close inspection, it is the same question and the same ambiguity, and it derives in Heidegger from Nietzsche. Heidegger claims in his evaluation of ‘fallenness’ that “the term does not express any negative evaluation”. There is much discussion as to the extent to which he can be taken seriously in this claim, because he then treats the concept with undisguised contempt.

For Heidegger, fallenness means the tendency of social creatures to absorb passively the culture, mores and behaviors of society without analyzing them, without a critical approach. This is “guided by idle talk”, “inauthentic”, “tempting and tranquillizing” and represents a “downward plunge” into “groundlessness and nullity”. Heidegger’s only countervailing line is to accept that there is a certain inevitability to fallenness.

All of this is exactly parallel to the question at hand about Nietzsche, and this is so because in fact it is the same question. For what is fallenness for Heidegger other than the unavoidable and yet undesirable ascent of slave morality? Both philosophers see clearly the unfortunate effects of this slavishness and yet neither quite manage to be inhumane enough to condemn what the herd seems incapable of escaping.

Nietzsche’s least ambiguous attack on slave morality comes in the third treatise of GM, where he deals with asceticism. His total distrust of that part of Schopenhauer’s recommendation for nullifying the will reflects his identification of the central paradox in Schopenhauer, “an attempt is being made to use one’s power to block up the sources of that power”. While this is less immediately contradictory than a simple concept of the type ‘use of energy to destroy itself’, it remains ultimately self-defeating. This is because the power being used to attack its own sources will be weakened precisely to the extent that it is successful.

And here we learn Nietzsche’s unambiguously negative views on the priests who are the embodiments of asceticism and who are only made possible by slave morality and the “diseasedness” of humans. The weakest, who are the slaves, are “the ones who most undermine life among humans, who most dangerously call into question our confidence in life, in man, in ourselves. […] Here the worms of vengeful and grudging feelings teem […] here the web of the most vicious conspiracy spins itself constantly – the conspiracy of the sufferers against the well-formed and the victorious.” So the priests minister to the sick and allow the herd to pretend to themselves both that their suffering is not of their own doing and that they will be compensated in another life. Whether this is comforting or not does not bear on its truth.

To what extent can we now identify the opposition to this conspiracy with master morality and argue that Nietzsche favors it? This is in fact too simple. For we have already learned that the exponents of master morality are like “a wild beast of prey, as joyful monsters, who perhaps walk away from a dreadful sequence of murder, arson, rape, and torture with an exhilaration and spiritual equilibrium”. This hardly seems like a endorsement or a recommendation to return to the heroic world of Homer that is “marvelous but, at the same time, horrifying and violent”.

In addition, the despised priests represent an element of master morality emerging from within slave morality: “We need to look on the ascetic priest as the preordained healer, shepherd, and advocate of the sick herd […] The ruling power over suffering people is his kingdom […]”; he is to be “the master over suffering people at all times”.

There is only one way to resolve this: to say that Nietzsche does not favor either morality because he is opposed to all moralities – or at the very least, all moralities existing at the time he wrote. This is the sense in which he is an immoralist. Here again is the parallel to Heidegger’s opposition to fallenness, which is the uncritical adoption of any morality. Nietzsche enlists us as psychologists, and says that a psychologist “detests that disgraceful moralizing way of talking, which effectively covers in slime all modern judgments about human beings and things”.

Deleuze has been criticized for arguing that Nietzsche “was a great philosopher because he was mad”. If Deleuze is recommending our attendance at asylums in order to benefit from deranged ravings, then his recommendation has little to be said for it. On the other hand, Deleuze has noted that Nietzsche’s central insight is the extent to which morality has been inculcated in us at such a deep fundamental level that it has become a part of who we are. Perhaps some madness is needed merely in order to question morality.

This would fit with Nietzsche’s recognition that even those who are to advance this questioning are infected with morality. “We are probably sacrificial victims and prey, as well, made sick by this contemporary taste for moralizing, no matter how much we also feel we’re its critics—it probably infects even us as well”. To the extent that madness is the self in conflict with itself, then perhaps Deleuze can well argue that some madness would do us good. Or better yet, place us beyond good and evil.

We can confirm this view that Nietzsche was opposed to both master and slave morality be consulting the rather poetic Zarathustra, which may also give us some oblique clues as to what he wishes to set up in their place. The sentence “[w]hen I came unto men, then found I them resting on an old infatuation: all of them thought they had long known what was good and bad for men” is a clear indication that Nietzsche is here referring to the prevailing systems of morality and their lack of groundedness. We know also he is referring both to slave and master morality from the previous mention of “And where there is sacrifice […] there also is the will to be master. By by-ways doth the weaker then slink into the fortress, and into the heart of the mightier one—and there stealeth power”. What is to replace these faded moralities we learn only vaguely: “These masters of to-day—surpass them, O my brethren—these petty people: THEY are the Superman’s greatest danger!” By ‘masters’ here, Nietzsche means the slaves who have re-valued their values so as to become the new masters, thus also enslaving the previous masters. The superman is to supersede both. The doctrine of the superman and of eternal recurrence, which only he has the strength of will to affirm, are key to Nietzsche’s prescriptions. While space is lacking to describe them here, it is clear that the superman is not an exponent of either slave or master morality and so neither is Nietzsche.

See Also:

What Is “Theory Of Mind?”

Does Nietzsche Support A Collective Memory Type?

Nietzsche on `What I Owe the Ancients’: Summary

Does Nietzsche Favor Master Morality Over Slave Morality?


  • F Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality, Tr. M Clark & A Swensen, Hackett Publishing Co. Inc., 1998 (“GM”), p. 16 B Magnus & K Higgins, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Nietzsche, Cambridge University Press, 1996, (“CC”), p. 131
  • F Nietzsche, Collected Letters, Christmas letter (1887) in Vol. V, #479
  • F Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, Tr. R J Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 1992, p. 11
  • F Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, Tr. R J Hollingdale, Penguin Books, 2003, p. 168
  • M Heidegger, Being and Time, Tr. J Macquarrie & E Robinson, Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 1962, (“BT”), p. 220
  • F Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra,, (“Z”), LVI.2