On Human Nature and Values

On Human Nature and Values

4 Mins
March 4, 2011

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

Essays and Comments on Nietzsche's View of Human Nature and Values:

1. Jason Ticknor-Schwob, "Master and Slave"

2. Diana Hsieh, "'Birds of Prey': Freedom of the Will and the Value of Genealogy"

3. "Does Nietzsche Believe in Morality?"

4. David Potts, "Friedrich Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals 2nd and 3rd Essays"


Our purposes in this course are to learn more about Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy and to compare it to Objectivism .

To that end we will be reading a representative sample of Nietzsche’s writings. As we proceed through the readings and discussion, we will attend to standard interpretive questions about Nietzsche, such as whether he is a systematic thinker, a determinist, a relativist, an egoist, an individualist, a nihilist, a proto-Nazi, an anti-Semite, and so on.

Attending to those questions will help to prepare us for our discussion ofthe similarities and differences between Nietzsche’s and Ayn Rand ’s views.To that end I suggest that as we go along we each keep a list of significant similarities and differences.

Our procedure in this CyberSeminar will be different than that in previous ones. Instead of my writing a summary post at the end of each unit, I will write an introductory post at the beginning of each unit. I will suppose that everyone is familiar with the main themes from the readings, and in the introductory post I will highlight those main themes and pose several questions to frame our discussion. This, hopefully, will help us get more quickly to the interesting philosophical and interpretive issues and help us free up time for some focus on issues of method.

Masters and Slaves. BGE [Beyond Good and Evil] contains Nietzsche’s first major presentation ofhis master/slave morality thesis. GM [The Genealogy of Morals], published ayear after BGE, is Nietzsche’s most systematic presentation of themaster/slave thesis.

Nietzsche’s main theses are that:

  1. Moral codes can be divided into two types: master and slave moralities.
  2. Master morality praises strength, creativity, independence, assertiveness, and related traits.
  3. Slave morality praises weakness, passivity, dependence, humility, and related traits.
  4. The two moralities are underlain by different psychological andbiological natures and express themselves in different lifestyles, modes of action, and cultures.
  5. Moral codes are part of a given psycho-biological type’s life strategy of survival and increasing its power.
  6. The battle between the master and slave moral codes is of long genealogy.
  7. Historically, master morality dominated first.
  8. Master morality declined and slave morality ascended.
  9. Currently, the slave morality is winning.
  10. The major symptoms of this are the cultural dominance of socialists, democracts, Judeo-Christian priests, egalitarians, and the like.
  11. The slave morality’s dominance is a threat to the advancement of man.
  12. Master morality or a new form of it needs to be rejuvenated.

Questions for discussion:

On point 1: a) Are the two types either/or or more-or-less characterizations? I.e., for Nietzsche, is everyone deep-down either a slave or a master, or are we all mixes and degrees of the two sets of traits?

On points 2 and 3: b) Nietzsche never praises the masters for their intelligence or deepthinking. Instead, he assigns to the slaves the virtue of intelligence. Heregularly describes the slaves’ leaders as cunning, as having devised long-term strategies, as having interesting depths of mind, and so on. Why is intelligence on the side of the slaves?

On points 4 and 5: c) Nietzsche holds that one’s moral philosophy is an expression of a psychology, and in keeping with his biological focus, that one’s psychologyis an expression of one’s biological heritage. Is this reductionism? Is it deterministic?

d) By emphasizing weakness and passivity, how can the slave morality possibly be a life- and power-enhancing strategy?

On points 6 and 7: e) Why do a genealogy of morals? Why not say instead: Here are the opposed values and virtues of the master and slave moralities, and here is why the slave morality is false and the master morality true? Why should their origins be anything more than of historical interest?

f) What is the point of the philological evidence about words’ original meanings and their difference from contemporary meanings?

g) There is a traditional Athens-versus-Jerusalem opposition in cultural history. What is the significance of Nietzsche’s choosing Rome instead of Athens to oppose to Jerusalem?

On point 8: h) How, given the characteristics of masters and slaves, could the slave morality possibly have won? If everything the slaves stand for is psychologically and constitutionally alien to the masters, how could the masters have given up or bought into the slave morality? Nietzsche said the slaves’ weapon was their moral code, but how could it have been effective?

Why is intelligence on the side of the slaves?

On point 9: i) Nietzsche cites many examples as evidence of the dominance of slave morality. For example, he points out that the chief slave, the Pope, now sits in Rome. (Nothing like planting your flag in the middle of the enemy’s camp to demonstrate your victory.) How good is his reading of the European social climate of his time? Would the vigor of the capitalist economic sector, of science, of technology, of the lively artistic communities count, against him? Is his pessimistic reading of his culture accurate or more an expression of a personal alienation?

On point 10: j) Is Nietzsche offering a psychological or historical/cultural thesis about the origin of slave values? Is he saying, e.g., that all cultures contain members who have weak constitutions, and slave moralities are an expression of those weaker constitutions? Or is his use of the history of Judaism especially significant--i.e., is he saying that our current slave morality is a result of the Jews’ existential situation as slaves in Egypt?

On point 11: k) Does Nietzsche’s supposed reduction of morality to psychology imply a relativism or perspectivalism? Are slaves really bad, or is it just that they seem so from Nietzsche’s alien psychology? E.g., is the increasing numbers or dominance of the bunny population really a decline for organic life, or merely something distasteful from the perspective of another species, e.g., that of the badger?

l) If we take Nietzsche not to be a relativist and to be saying that the slaves really embody everything that is bad in and for man, is Nietzsche saying that mankind would be better off if there were no slaves? Or should we take his biological emphasis this way: a culture’s life cycle has a growth and a decline phase, and the slaves are a necessary part of that cycle, and so to be evaluated simply as one phase in the cycle of life? Or should we say that the slaves are good, because they’re the fertilizer for future growth or because the masters will emerge stronger from the conflict with them?

On point 12: m) Nietzsche doesn’t tell us what form a new or rejuvenated master morality will take. Is it in any way predictable, or do we just have to wait for the Zarathustras to emerge and see what they generate? Please feel free to pick and choose among these questions to address, and to add others.

Response by Thomas Gramstad