Greek examples of the warlike, master class and Jesus Christ, the champion of the slave morality
Why do we say that helping other people is good? Why do we assume that egotistical actions are evil? After all, wouldn’t acting egotistically be good for us?
These are some of the questions Nietzsche tries to answer in his book On the Genealogy of Morality. After reviewing some absurd answers that were offered in his day, Nietzsche rejects them and starts anew, with the goals not only of answering that question, but of determining where the ideas of good, bad, and evil even come from.
In his attempt to answer these questions he draws some shocking conclusions that have tremendous implications for how we view ourselves and the lives we choose to lead.
A tale of two moralities
To explain his ideas, Nietzsche gives us a story. He describes an ancient society with two classes, the Masters and the Slaves.
The Masters are strong, creative, wealthy, and powerful. They can do whatever they like. They love themselves and see themselves as good. They name the opposites of themselves, the weak and feeble, as bad. Being bad is just how a person is, they didn’t choose to be that way; they’re just losers.
The Slaves are less well off. Oppressed by the Masters, they cannot do what they like. They are weak, poor, and resentful. They initially view themselves as bad, as the Masters do, because they lack the concepts to do otherwise.
However, Nietzsche suggests that after some time, a “slave revolt” occurs. This is not a physical revolution, as the salves are too weak for that kind of revenge, but a moral one. In this revolt, the slaves decide that they can only endure their suffering if they redefine it as both being good and a choice. The slaves begin to praise the meek, the poor, and those who are unable to end their suffering.
The Masters are dubbed evil for choosing to be wealthy, powerful, and capable. The Slaves become good for being the opposite of the Masters. This gives them the psychological strength to carry on and allows them to get back at the Masters by undermining the values system that encouraged them to exhibit their strengths.
What does the master morality entail?
The Master morality involves those with strengths of both mind and body seeing themselves as good. It values things like wealth, glory, ambition, excellence, and self-actualization. It affirms life and everything in it.
Since the master morality is favored by the powerful or those with some strength, its followers are few. However, those few are unconcerned with the disapproval of the many. This also means the masters are creative, as they have no desire to follow a prescribed life plan and are willing to experiment with new life choices that suit them despite widespread disapproval.
An example of a morality that tends towards this would be that of the Ancient Greeks. Aristotle’s ethics, for example, pay no mind to the poor and praise the powerful man who can live life fully. The Greek heroes are strong, glorious characters who make their will into reality no matter the cost. This might be why they turned the phrase “the strong do what they will, the weak suffer what they must.”
That seems a little harsh.
It is, but not all “Masters” would be vicious and oppressive. Nietzsche also places all the great artists, philosophers, and prophets in this category. This system isn’t a blank check for sociopathy, but it does have the issue where some people might need to step on others to actualize themselves. Nietzsche compares the problem to hawks having it in their nature to eat lambs. It is harsh, but it is also what the hawk needs to do to fully be a hawk.
A hawk catches a fish for dinner. Nietzsche suggests that holding both the hawk and the fish to the same morality means one of them won’t flourish. (SAM YEH/AFP/Getty Images)
What about the slave morality?
On the other hand, the slave morality condemns the strength that the hated masters possess and praises the weakness that they have. It is this act, the transvaluation of values, that Nietzsche sees as the key achievement of the slave revolt; he even praises it as an act of brilliance which succeeded in dominating western thinking for two thousand years.
After this revolt, things that the masters had were considered evil because the slaves used to lack them and the lack was made into something good. For example, Chasity was praised because the people writing the moral code couldn’t get the sex they wanted. Humility was held to be a virtue because they had nothing to be proud of. Endless generosity was praised because they needed help themselves. The slave morality is sour grapes made into a values system…