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Master and Slave

Master and Slave

Jason Ticknor-Schwob

10 Mins
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March 7, 2011

This commentary is part of The Atlas Society's 2000 online "CyberSeminar" entitled " Nietzsche and Objectivism ."

Abstract: I attempt to explore Nietzsche’s procedure of genealogy and his concepts of master and slave morality, relating them wherever possible to material from Ayn Rand ’s corpus. Before starting, I explain in clear terms that the assigned section deals only with master and slave morality, and barely scratches the surface of Nietzsche’s thought on “human nature and values.” Then I begin my analysis, first exploring Nietzsche’s method of genealogy as a historical means of uncovering a “frozen abstraction” and attempt to show how Nietzsche anticipates the pre-moral question that is the beginning of the Objectivist ethics . I try to explain and analyze Nietzsche’s concepts of master and slave morality, emphasizing that master morality is not Nietzsche’s main word on values and that Nietzsche is basically trying to acquire the broad life-affirming attitude that master morality includes but slave morality lacks. I offer an unconscionably brief exorcism of Nietzsche’s psychological monism. Lastly, I present a number of excerpts from Rand’s work and comment on their echo of Nietzsche’s concepts of master and slave morality. Throughout, my general purpose is to present the best side of Nietzsche as it relates to master and slave morality. I am more interested in showing how Nietzsche has already taught Objectivism something worthwhile--and perhaps can teach it more--than I am in debating whether Nietzsche does or does not hold some evil idea which merits his dismissal.

Nietzsche’s writings are full of words that shift meanings and passages that are meant more to jar us out of ordinary sensibilities.

When I first began my research for this essay, it was my intention to present a general overview of Nietzsche’s theory of values, gathering material from a large number of his works in order to present his thought as a unified, if unfinished, vision. Unfortunately, during my preparations I discovered that the total length of my typed notes and relevant quotations were themselves approaching the 3,500-word limit for review essays in this seminar. A proper treatment of Nietzsche’s full philosophy of values is impossible to even summarize within present time and space limits. I have therefore narrowed my focus as much as possible to the issues addressed directly in our specific readings. I feel a number of misgivings in doing so, and I insist on taking some time to elaborate my concerns. Nietzsche is a philosopher whom it is crucial to read in context. One cannot, as with Kant or Descartes, read an excerpt or single work from his corpus and take this as a handle on the author’s broader philosophy. Nietzsche’s writings are full of words that shift meanings, concepts more fully explicated in other works, and passages that are meant more to jar us out of ordinary sensibilities than advocate a literal position. Nietzsche clearly warns us that

“If this writing be obscure to any individual, and jar on his ears, I do not think that it is necessarily I who am to blame. It is clear enough, on the hypothesis while I presuppose, namely, that the reader has first read my previous writings and has not grudged them a certain amount of trouble: it is not, indeed, a simple matter to get at their essence” (GM 8).

In my opinion, the selections chosen in the syllabus represent an important, but very partial and one-sided, picture of Nietzsche. They certainly are not representative of his most important statements on “human nature and values.” Even on the subject of master and slave moralities, as apparent in my review, these writings lack many crucial qualifications and statements found in later works. Furthermore, and far more importantly, Nietzsche’s concepts of master and slave moralities cannot be understood without reference to other crucial concepts in his philosophy, in particular his notions of the will to power, self-overcoming, the death of God, overman, and the eternal recurrence. These concepts are, moreover, more crucial to Nietzsche’s thinking (and in many cases, to Ayn Rand ’s) than the master and slave issues.

What must first be understood concerning his master and slave morality theses is that they are primarily, though not exclusively, descriptive. Though Nietzsche certainly has an agenda in mind, his purpose here is primarily to show us a new way to look at morality, not to explicate his particular views. This description, particularly if considered in historical context, is intended to shake up a complacent moral status quo, and prepare us for the need of “value-legislation.” Most importantly, Nietzsche’s advice is neither primarily nor only to cast off slave morality and accept a master morality as an alternative.

The selections from The Genealogy of Morals and Beyond Good and Evil are certainly among Nietzsche’s more systematic reflections, and lend themselves most to contemporary analysis. But Nietzsche, who distrusted systems in general, is not necessarily at his best while systematic. Nietzsche wishes to be analyzed, yes, but first encountered: Many of his insights are meant to take the form of shocks to get us to consider the world from new angles. (This does not necessarily mean that Nietzsche is an irrationalist or indifferent to the truth of his theories.)

Since I do not feel the material I will comment on is adequate to the subject of Nietzsche’s views on “human nature and values,” it is my intention to write a commentary on the subjects absent here as soon as possible and post it to this CyberSeminar. Until then, please take my review as a narrow commentary on the issues of master and slave morality. For those wishing to get a broader view on Nietzsche’s theories on “human nature and values,” I suggest the following selections: The Birth of Tragedy, sections 4 and 15; The Gay Science, section 341; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First Part; Twilight of the Idols, “Morality as Anti-Nature”; The Antichrist, sections 1-11; and Walter Kaufmann’s Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, all selections from Nietzsche.

In writing The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche is attempting not primarily to illustrate the truth of a moral theory but to bring into question a common way of dealing with “morality.” The Genealogy opens up with a polemic against Paul Ree’s The Origin of the Moral Emotion, a work which purports to demonstrate a certain origin of “morality.” According to this theory, altruistic acts were praised and called “good” by those who received aid; subsequently, this description was elevated from a description of useful practices to the level of a “moral” act good in and of itself. (One may think Ree’s theory an obscure and inconsequential target, but Mill makes a similar claim in Utilitarianism.)

Nietzsche hopes to dispel the aura of morality “in itself” and any intuitive morality of altruism.

Nietzsche criticizes this as hopelessly inadequate. His particular objection is not the content but the implicit principles behind this sort of theory. Nietzsche criticizes this as nothing more than a product of an unexamined abstraction of “morality.” If one presumes the existence of morality and identifies this with altruism and utilitarianism, then by definition the origin of morality must be something along these lines. “[T]he initial derivation contains all the typical and idiosyncratic traits of the English psychologists--we have ‘utility,’ ‘forgetting,’ ‘habit,’ and ‘error’....” (GM 3). Nietzsche proposes to do responsibly what Ree does irresponsibly: to inquire into the origins of morality without assuming an ahistorical continuity of definitions or reading current views back into the past. Michel Foucault writes in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” that

“[I]t is obvious that Paul Ree was wrong to follow that English tendency in describing the history of morality in terms of a linear development--in reducing its entire history and genesis to a concern for utility. He assumed that words had kept their meaning, that desires still pointed in a single direction, and that ideas retained their logic; and he ignored the fact that the world of speech and desires has known invasions, struggles, plundering, disguises, ploys” (Foucault 141).

While Foucault puts an unnecessarily postmodernistic twist to his statement (“ideas retained their logic”), the central point remains valid. Meanings change over time, concepts become blurred together, a word with one connotation overtakes a similar word with another. The interpretation of constitutional law, for example, is heavily dependent on the precise meanings of words such as “liberty” or “welfare” at a given place or time. One cannot simply take the word “liberty” and apply its current connotations to all concepts to which this word has been given (consider “liberty vs. power,” “liberty vs. license,” “liberty vs. duty,” “liberty vs. security”). This is particularly the case when a word--in this case, “morality”--lies at the center of a scheme of values.

Nietzsche uses philological evidence in an attempt to demonstrate that our concept of “morality” has no such easy origin. Persons such as Paul Ree run together the concept of “morality” with a word that has itself evolved and suffered multiple translations. By searching for other ways in which morality has been framed, particularly its original framing, one tears the mask off the automatic equation of “altruism” and “morality.” The linguistic fiction perpetrated from the accepted synonymy of these terms shields contemporary morality from even the very possibility of criticism. (Consider the games Kant was able to play--and what conclusions he managed to smuggle in--with the word “morality” in the Grounding for the Metaphysic of Morals.)

Nietzsche’s genealogy serves, first, to separate the content of morality from the subject itself, by showing the actual, historical development of different and indeed opposite conceptions of morality in history. The second purpose is to show the historical contingency of “moral” valuations altogether; that, is, Nietzsche hopes to dispel the aura of morality “in itself” and any intuitive morality of altruism by showing the purposes for which morality has been used, and by showing that morality originated in pursuit on values.

“There is no other way: the feelings of devotion, self-sacrifice for one’s neighbor, the whole morality of self-denial must be questioned mercilessly and taken to court--no less than the aesthetics of ‘contemplation devoid of all interest’ [see Kant’s Critique of Judgment] which is used today as a seductive guise for the emasculation of all art, to give it a good conscience” (BGE 33).

In Objectivist terms, the first purpose “reveals a fallacy which may be termed the ‘fallacy of the frozen abstraction’... in this case, substituting a specific ethics (altruism) for the wider abstraction of ‘ethics’” (V 81) As for the second purpose, Rand reminded us that “to challenge the basic premise of any discipline, one must begin at the beginning. In ethics, one must begin by asking: What are values? Why does man need them?” (V, 15) Chris Sciabarra argues that for Rand:

“[I]n the history of normative philosophy the primary question of ethics has usually been: What values ought one to pursue? But for Rand, to begin ethical theory with this question is to commit the fallacy of reification. Rand explained that most philosophers have taken the existence of ethics for granted, reifying the historically given codes of morality, but never considering their existential function” (Sciabarra 237).

Walter Kaufmann writes that “Nietzsche revolutionized ethics by asking new questions. As he saw it, his predecessors had simply taken for granted that they knew what was good and what was evil. Moral judgments had simply been accepted as incontrovertible facts, and the philosophers had considered it their task to find reasons for them” (Shakespeare 208).

Hence Rand’s approach to morality is anticipated by Nietzsche. As Objectivism stresses, almost all of the “new” moral codes that developed as Christianity atrophied (Hume, Smith, Kant, Comte, Mill, etc.) amounted to a secularization of a Christian moral content. That content was thus able to remain unchallenged because “morality” was assumed necessarily to be about being nice to others and the only question was about how to justify it. Whatever else one may say about Nietzsche, in this case he serves as a direct precursor.

Nietzsche proposes to show that morality as a concept, contra defenders of the status quo, has a history; that moral principles have been different in degree and in kind; they are not necessarily altruistic. Secondly, Nietzsche wants to attack the notion that morality is something to be pursued in a deontic manner. “One becomes moral--not because one is moral. Submission to morality can be slavish or vain or selfish or resigned or obtusely enthusiastic or thoughtless or an act of desperation, like submission to a prince: in itself it is nothing moral” (D 97). Genealogical and philological evidence indicate that “morality” was originally associated with what are called “prudential” actions and are not grown from any “moral faculty.” People build and maintain moralities in order to do something. Particularly, Nietzsche hopes to demonstrate that “altruistic” moral commitments have their origins in not-so-innocent roots, and that these codes persist and remain because of what they accomplish, not because of any intrinsic “morality” to them.

Rand’s approach to morality is anticipated by Nietzsche.

Nietzsche, who believes that all human drives are a form and fulfillment of a “will to power” (meaning, essentially, the feeling of success, overcoming struggle, asserting will over one’s current state, one’s environment, one’s society, etc.), posits the origin of master and slave moralities in the circumstances which confront an individual or group. Master morality is, at it were, the “natural” expression of the will-to-power. When an individual does not have the power of others crushing down upon him, he is free to challenge himself, and develops a morality of power seeking. This morality begins with the positing of “good.” Nietzsche’s best presentation of this viewpoint is in The Antichrist:

“What is good? Everything that heightens the power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is being overcome. Not contentedness but more power; not peace but more war; not virtue but fitness (Renaissance virtue, virtu, virtue that is moraline-free)” (A 2).

To a master morality, good, it is important to note, is a primary. “Bad” is a negative, a mere lack or failure to experience the good. Master morality does not see “bad” as something attractive, but merely pathetic. At the risk of sounding un-academic, one could say that for master morality, everything that isn’t cool simply sucks.

It is worth noting that master morality is a category of moralities, not a single morality itself. What master moralities have in common is their focus on a positive goal. Beyond this, they do not necessarily agree, and Nietzsche details many priestly, ascetic, and tyrannical moralities that obviously do not fit any of his own preferences. It is crucial to note that Nietzsche does not approve of all master morality. Kaufmann stresses Nietzsche’s portrait of Indian morality under “the law of Manu,” clearly characterized as a “master morality,” which is obviously despised by Nietzsche (TI 3) (how, for Nietzsche, one chooses a more specific morality must wait for another time).

By contrast to master morality, slave morality begins among the oppressed, those whose ability to express their will to power is blocked, usually due to being oppressed by others.

The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction; that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’; and this No is its creative deed (GM 10).

Slave morality is essentially reactive. The first experience of the slave is not the fullness of life but the terror at the oppressor: hence the oppressor becomes the focus and becomes known as “evil.” “Evil” is thought as a primary: it is powerful, attractive, “sexy” and forbidden. “Good” is that which is left to the slaves: meekness, weakness, herd-spirit, which serve to further the survival of slave qua slave. The slave, since he cannot achieve anything in life, creates a “heaven,” a “moral universe,” where the order of real life is termed upside down. Everything lowly that the slave cannot on earth rise above is glorified as an eternal, spiritual good. Everything that aids the slave in getting a few crumbs from the oppressors, charity, altruism, pity, is likewise canonized. The idea is essentially parallel to Ayn Rand ’s analysis of the New Left; when the leftists found out that they were incapable of producing shoes, they made it a virtue to go barefoot.

Ressentiment is a key term for Nietzsche. It indicates the envious eye of the inferior who gazes up at the superior and becomes consumed with revenge. It is his primary objection to socialism, Christianity, and much else: all these belief systems entail a heaping of scorn upon everything good. This concept can also be found in Ayn Rand ’s writings, though under a new name: hatred of the good for being the good. In the “Age of Envy” and elsewhere, Rand presents this phenomenon as the worst of all evils. She defines it as “hatred of that which one regards as good by one’s own (conscious or subconscious) judgment. It means hatred of a person for possessing a value or virtue one regards as desirable” (O, 1). In my opinion, these concepts are identical.

Nietzsche does not believe that the matter of master and slave morality is simply a matter of either/or. “There are master morality and slave morality--I add immediately that in all the higher and more mixed cultures there also appear attempts at mediation between these two moralities, and yet more often the interpenetration and mutual misunderstanding of both, and at times they occur directly alongside each other--even in the same being, within a single soul” (BGE 260). “[L]east of all,” Kaufmann writes, “does he claim, as is often supposed, that every man is either a master or a slave” (Shakespeare 213).

Nietzsche believes that all human drives are a form and fulfillment of a “will to power.”

To sum up: master and slave morality are the manifestations of the same will to power among those capable and incapable of expressing it. If power can be expressed, the result is a master morality that places “good” first and views bad as the failure of the good. Slave morality, however, confronts a life of suffering and concludes that everything powerful, successful, and ultimately life itself are evil. Good is the lack of evil, it is renunciation, made into a “sour grapes” virtue by those who can achieve nothing else. Slave morality is poisonous because it turns back upon itself, because it leads to a denial of the earth and is characteristically nay-saying. Master morality is to be preferred, but just living by a master morality is not enough; the question of what values to create is not answered in the Genealogy and only somewhat explained in Beyond Good and Evil.

Nietzsche’s theory is open to one very important, and in my view correct, Objectivist objection. The problem lies in the psychological monism of Nietzsche’s concept of the “will to power.” Nietzsche’s claim that everyone is at all times motivated by a desire for power (unless “power” is construed so broadly as to be meaningless) seems arbitrary. Nathaniel Branden’s article “Isn’t Everyone Selfish?” seems to deal adequately with this sort of argument, other objections aside. There are other ways to construe the concept of a will to power. Nietzsche sometimes speaks of it as a cosmological principle, and at other times presents it not as the particular nature of human desire but rather a way of understanding desire generally.

These speculations, however, are beyond the scope of this essay. However, this should not be taken to automatically sink Nietzsche’s philosophical effort. A genealogy, to succeed in its endeavor, need not be literally true: it need only provoke us into “thinking otherwise,” to use a phrase from Foucault’s The Order of Things. Nietzsche’s genealogy certainly allows us to “unfreeze” the abstraction of morality and opens up the possibility of a non-altruistic morality. This, of course, is not a lesson Objectivists need to learn, but it serves as an indicator of Nietzsche’s and Rand’s similar thinking on this subject, and should point to the possibility that Nietzsche is deserving of serious study by Objectivist scholars. Nietzsche’s presentation of master and slave morality is another matter. While Nietzsche’s arguments based on psychological egoism may fail, Rand presents nearly identical concepts based on an ethical egoism rooted in her ontology of human consciousness. Nietzsche’s conception of what an individual will do or fail to do and Rand’s conception of what an individual should do if she doesn’t want to fail are quite similar. The remainder of this essay will explore some of the parallels that relate to Nietzsche’s master morality/slave morality alternatives.

Rand worked on--and eventual abandoned, a treatise to be entitled The Moral Basis of Individualism between writing The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged . The foundational principle of this work was to be man’s primary alternative of accepting a ‘life principle’ or a ‘death principle.’ The life principle is expressed in “the nature of man--the primary matters of his existence--the rational process--the particular qualities of man as creator...Show how the ‘action spark’ has the same application today as in the primeval jungle” (J 244) The death principle, by contrast, is “The only other possible way of survival--through the brains of others” (244). In other places, Rand characterizes these divisions as Active Man and Passive Man, producer and parasite, creator and second-hander. The central theme of The Fountainhead is the opposition of Howard Roark, the creative architect, to various varieties of the ‘second-hander.’

Rand abandoned the use of the language of the ‘life principle’ and ‘death principle’ later in life, probably because she thought it would be an implicit endorsement of some form of subjectivism in ethics. (I intend to write at another time on Nietzsche’s degree of “subjectivism.”) Yet the climactic speech of Atlas Shrugged contains the following very Nietzschean passage,

“Damnation is the start of your morality, destruction is its purpose, means and end. Your code begins by damning man as evil, then demands that he practice a good which it defines as impossible for him to practice. It demands, as his first proof of virtue, that he accept his own depravity without proof. It demands that he start, not with a standard of value, but with a standard of evil, which is himself, by means of which he is then to define the good: the good is that which he is not” (AS 1025).

Just as much as Nietzsche, Rand defines a slave morality whose essence is life-denial. Notice that in defining the altruist morality she sets up evil as the primary concept, evil as the negative derivative: precisely in the image of slave morality’s “good and evil,” according to Nietzsche. Altruism, for Rand as well as for Nietzsche, is slave morality’s primary manifestation. Rand sometimes uses language that suggests a perverted will to power. “The moral imperative of the duty to sacrifice without beneficiaries,” she writes, “is a gross rationalization for the image (and soul) of an austere, ascetic monk who winks at you with an obscenely sadistic pleasure--the pleasure of breaking man’s spirit, ambition, success, self-esteem, and enjoyment of life on earth” (PWNI 19). This is Nietzsche’s method of uncovering motives.

To Rand, the ‘mystics of spirit’ realize the death principle by claiming that the good “is God, a being whose only definition is that he is beyond man’s power to conceive--a definition that invalidates man’s consciousness and nullifies his concepts of existence” (AS 1027). The idealists of religion and Platonism, in Leonard Peikoff’s words, “regard reality as a spiritual dimension transcending and controlling our world of nature, which latter is regarded as deficient, imperfect--in any event, only partly real” (Peikoff 30). “There are those born of consumption of the soul,” says Nietzsche of the metaphysical idealists, “hardly are they born when they begin to die and long for doctrines of weariness and renunciation” (Z 157). Nietzsche and Rand both complain about this exiling of value to another world and as a result bemirsching this one. Nietzsche described such world-views as “latent nihilism.” Rand’s objections to Christianity are similar.

Of Christian sin, Nietzsche writes that it is a “form par excellence of the self-violation of man, was invented to make science, culture, every kind of elevation and nobility of man impossible; the priest rules through the invention of sin” (WP 90). Nietzsche argued that Christianity’s concept of sin is a device to torture and enslave the higher men, those who do not think like slaves. “To declare that man is a free, moral, independent, and responsible entity--and then to load him with the responsibility of some undefined sin which he did not commit, that is, to load him with guilt and evil about which he has no choice,” writes Rand to Isabel Paterson in 1948, “is a monstrous thing in terms of morality” (L 209). When Rand systematically rejects every principal element in Christianity one can clearly hear the Xerox machine running in the background.

“What is the nature of the guilt that your teachers call his Original Sin? What are the evils man acquired when he fell from a state they consider perfection? Their myth declares that he ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge--he acquired a mind and became a rational being. It was the knowledge of good and evil--he became a moral being. He was sentenced to earn his bread by his labor--he became a productive being. He was sentenced to experience desire--he acquired the capacity of sexual enjoyment. The evils for which they damn him are reason, morality, creativeness, joy--all the cardinal values of his existence” (AS 1026).

This is from Atlas Shrugged , Rand’s major work--in the only place where she explicit comes out and tells Christianity to go to Hell. With this in mind, consider this passage from Nietzsche:

“Christianity...has waged deadly war against this higher type of man; it has placed all the basic instincts of this type under a ban; and out of those instincts it has distilled evil and the Evil One: the strong man as the typically reprehensible man, the ‘reprobate.’ Christianity has sided with the all that is weak and base, with all failures; it has made an ideal of whatever contradicts the instinct of the strong life to preserve itself; it has corrupted the reason even of those strongest in spirit by teaching men to consider the supreme values of the spirit as something sinful..." (A 571).

This is certainly not the last thing one can say on the subject of master and slave morality considering Rand and Nietzsche. Certainly, the specific conclusions they reach are rather different. There is, however, only so much one can do in one essay. It is a workable beginning.

A note on references:

In most cases, citations of Nietzsche’s works are references by section number or passage title, not page number, in order to accommodate those using a variety of editions and translations. I have used Walter Kaufmann’s translations by preference, though I have been able to find the full text of the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo only in an anthology of inferior translations.

Other authors cited, including Rand, have been referenced on more traditional lines. Authors cited from an anthology are cited by the author’s name and the page number of the anthologized version.

Works by Nietzsche (in many editions)
A The Antichrist
BGE Beyond Good and Evil
D The Dawn
EH Ecce Homo
GS The Gay Science
Z Thus Spoke Zarathustra
GM Towards a Genealogy of Morals
WP The Will to Power

Works by Rand
AS Atlas Shrugged , Random House 1957.
J Journals of Ayn Rand, Harriman, Ed., Dutton 1997.
L Letters of Ayn Rand, Michael S. Berliner, Ed., Dutton 1994.
O The Objectivist, volume 10, Number 7, July 1967.
P Philosophy, Who Needs It, Signet 1984.
V The Virtue of Selfishness, Signet Books, NY, 1964.

Other authors
Foucault, Michel. Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews, Cornell University Press, 1977. Kaufmann, Walter. From Shakespeare to Existentialism, Anchor Books, 1959.
The Portable Nietzsche
, introduction, Penguin Books, 1982.
Peikoff, Leonard. Objectivism, The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, Meridan 1993.
Sciabarra, Chris. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.  

Response by Eyal Mozes and others

Response by Thomas Gramstad

Back to  Part One, On Human Nature and Values