In the first essay of Friedrich Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morality, the philosopher outlines the antagonism between what he describes as master morality and slave morality. Nietzsche, living in the latter half of the 19th century, is disgusted by what he sees as the triumph of slave morality in a once great European society. He blames what were originally Jewish ideals for this subversion, although he uses this term in a way that would be alien to most modern readers. From his writing, Nietzsche’s use of the phrase ‘Jewish ideals’ would be near synonymous with the modern term Judeo-Christian. A belief that the doctrines of Judaism and Christianity are so alike that they can be amalgamated into one. Although many would be puzzled at this amalgamation, considering that the Jews were so repulsed by the message that Jesus brought that they had him crucified.
Prior to this subversion of society by Christianity, the values of master morality reigned supreme in ancient Greece and Rome. Master morality originates in a designation of what benefits the strong-willed man in his pursuit of self-actualisation as good, and once this is identified, bad can be easily discerned by looking at the antithesis of what is good.
In ancient Greece and Rome, the strong-willed were the aristocracy, and values that benefited the continuation of their domination of society were the virtues of courage, power, strength, and truth —among many others. As Nietzsche points out in his book, the language of what constitutes good and bad initially came from a designation of the aristocracy as good and the peasants as bad. This lineage can still be seen today with words like noble having positive connotations, and words like plebian being a pejorative. What is considered bad by the strong-willed man is any hinderance to their pursuit of will to power. Timidity, uncleanness, weakness or showing compassion to lowly peasants are all vices to be looked down upon.
The envious weak finally got their revenge through the Priests of the Semitic tradition, with their transvaluation of morality. This slave morality exalts the weak as the truly blessed and pious against the cursed strong who have continually oppressed them throughout the ages. This counter-propaganda mission wasn’t an overt assault on the strong-willed man, they were much more cunning than that, a slow march through the moral institutions was their course of action. The adherent of slave morality doesn’t want to compete with the strong, that would be too much effort. Instead the strong would be pulled down and made to bask in filth, so that the downtrodden’s envious passions could finally be quenched.
The rallying cry of equality being used continually as the perfect term to masquerade the envious masses’ attack on those that have achieved self-actualisation. Nietzsche described this dynamic as the strong basing his foundation on sentiment as opposed to the weak’s basis being re-sentiment. Another antagonistic belief the slave moralists hold is in their belief that the good is defined as what benefits the community, which is at odds with the master moralist assertion that the good has its basis in what benefits them in their pursuit of self-actualisation.
Once the slave moralists made that assertion, the foundations for the democratic movement had been laid. Along with democracy came the twin egalitarian doctrines of liberalism and socialism. According to Nietzsche, a return to tradition was needed to stop this decay. This Nietzschean groundwork for a revolt against the modern world was the groundwork that eventually led on to the doctrine of Fascism.
A possible reconstruction of Nietzsche’s interpretation of master-slave morality
Although Nietzsche is a brilliant author with a remarkably original view on philosophical and political thought, he is blinded to some extent by his hatred of Christianity. Everything is yellow to Nietzsche’s jaundice eye as he incorrectly warps together the egalitarian philosophies of liberalism and socialism with the moral philosophy of Christianity and calls it slave morality.
Nietzsche’s description of master morality needs no alteration, although an update for this moral philosophy is needed in order for it to be properly explained for modern minds. A modern disciple of master morality generally defends the rights of the strong to pursue their mission of self-actualisation. To take one example, in economics they tend to be capitalists, the prerogatives of the rich are mainly focused on at the expense of any discussion of the state of the workers. This belief, quite prevalent in America, starts from the belief that all actions undertaken by the rich are by default good.
Even a vice like greed benefits society at large, as a greedy man must supply a product or service that society wants, and as consensual transactions results in both sides gaining value, greed actually benefits society. Therefore from that axiom, the greedy rich man is actually the most altruistic member of society, as he provides all these jobs and services, while the poor man is selfish for not employing anyone.
The birth of slave morality was arguably the French Revolution with its cry of liberté, égalité, fraternité; today we see a mutation of this revolutionary ideal with what many have dubbed Bioleninism. It has gone from a revolution of the situationally downtrodden (proletariat) to the biologically downtrodden (women, sexual minorities, ethnic minorities, disabled, ugly, fat etc.). This new revolutionary class is more loyal to the doctrines of slave morality as their low social status is biological, not just situational.
The modern slave moralists decry the powerhouse core of every Western country, the cursed straight white male, while at the same time advancing the coalition of the oppressed to positions of authority. As Nietzsche noted, these slave moralists are sly and devious, they will never admit to their envious intentions, instead they justify their actions by explaining they are only trying to protect this group from oppression.
Servant morality, a third way
As I’ve noted earlier, Christianity shouldn’t be considered a slave morality. Some may point out passages like “the meek shall inherit the earth” in the Bible, and argue—as Nietzsche did—that it proves that Christianity’s meek personality was somehow the precursor to the slave morality we see today. These arguments are merely just a misrepresentation of Christian philosophy as exact translations aren’t possible, as well as the way that words slightly change meaning over time. Jordan Peterson explains that the word meek used in the English Bible came from a Greek word, one that roughly translates to those that have a weapon, and know how to use it, but choose not to.
This is the essence of the servant moralist, they have the ability to pursue their own self actualisation but choose to serve society and God. Although there are some—as Nietzsche artfully points out—that call their cowardice humility so as to portray some faux sense of virtue to everyone else. Those that choose the path of the servant moralist soon realise their greatest enemy is their own senses, the worldly desires of the eyes and the lusts of the flesh constantly compete for their attention in a lifelong struggle. Self-control and ordering your desires to the truth are the primary virtues in this doctrine. For the slave moralist, a rapacious king, although high and mighty in society, is a slave to his desires, while a pious peasant, although oppressed by his master, is a master of his desires.
The Persistent Antagonisms between this Moral Trichotomy
In every facet of life, all moral opinions can be deduced into this master-slave-servant moral trichotomy, and that this trichotomy parallels with most important historical political movements. An example to understand the different foundations of these three moral structures is in their view of the body. The master moralist would view the raw beauty of a muscular male figure as the ideal. Although naked, he is unashamed of himself, in fact he is proud, looking forward into the distance in his pursuit of will to power. He has no time to be looking down, for all the pollution emanating from the ugly and maimed would occupy his time.
The slave moralist would view the fat and the disabled as the oppressed and deserving of our praise and honour. The cursed and oppressive are the physically fit for they are only blessed with good heredity. It is unfair that unattractive bodies should have to contend with unattainable beauty standards, and anyway, beauty standards are a social construct that are only there to control us.
The servant moralist would fast regularly to control the desires of the stomach. The man that fasts in secret and gives his extra food to the poor are the truly blessed for their reward will be in the kingdom of heaven. The gluttonous are looked down upon as those that have voluntarily made themselves captive to the lusts of their stomach, while the gladiator-bodied man who pursues the perfect body to attain affection and praise from man is equally looked down upon as someone who has made themselves captive to the sin of pride.
The slave moralist in response to these accusations would denounce the fasting of the servant moralist as an oppressive ideal to follow as we need food to survive, and that if it tastes good then it must be good too. The master moralist would scoff at the semantics of the servant moralist denouncing the desires of his body for the body’s desires are intrinsic to the will. This abrogation from the natural order of things is equivalent to the disorder created by the slave moralist.
Although you may think this parable of the body is overly-simplified, these characters are just there to show the conflicting frameworks that underline this moral trichotomy. It also must be noted that a moralist of a certain persuasion will tend to lump the two opposing moralities into the one group as the human mind tends to work in binaries. Even though they may not make perfect sense, we still have left-wing and right-wing, strong and weak, oppressor and oppressed. But we should not make that mistake as each branch of this trichotomy is unique and antagonistic to the other.
A strict characterisation of someone into one of these moral groups should also be avoided as someone may be a slave moralist in one situation and a master moralist in another. An opinion could also be interpreted from a different standpoint so that you could arrive in a situation where a master moralist and slave moralist both arrive at the same conclusion. An example of this could be someone that is indifferent to abortion as a woman can do whatever she wants to do with her body (master morality: prerogatives of the strong emphasised), while someone else would argue that a woman shouldn’t face societal shame for getting an abortion (slave morality: prerogatives of the weak emphasised).
To answer the question of the article, “whose morality shall triumph”, it tends to be the case that the master moralist will triumph in this world, the servant moralist will triumph in the next, while the slave moralist will triumph last in their heads, as they have made themselves believe that they are the blessed for being oppressed.