Beyond Master and Slave?

Posted on April 24, 2011 by


File:Nietzsche1882.jpgI recently re-read Friedrich Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil (Jenseits von Gut und Böse). Nietzsche has been labelled by some as the philosophical founder of German fascism; glorifying strength and advocating racial superiority. My thoughts are that his morality is disastrously authoritarian, but he is certainly no crude racist and his writing style is a joy.

Misogyny. Vorausgesetzt, dass die Wahrheit ein Weib ist” (“Suppose that the truth is a woman”) begins the book. Nietzsche talks about women quite a lot, and generally not in the most flattering terms:

To be mistaken in the fundamental problem of “man and woman,” to deny here the profoundest antagonism and the necessity for an eternally hostile tension, to dream here perhaps of equal rights, equal training, equal claims and obligations: that is a typical sign of shallow-mindedness

In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man.

Woman has so much cause for shame; in woman there is so much pedantry, superficiality, schoolmasterliness, petty presumption, unbridledness, and indiscretion concealed

Despite my love of his writing style, I cannot empathize with a word here. I fear however, that his dicta lay bare the feelings of many of his contemporaries. He also makes clear that women should, in his view, be prevented from being “emancipated”, not just refrain from being themselves. Here and elsewhere, Nietzsche is fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian.

Authoritarianism. The unpleasantness of the masses can well be attested to by a man who spends two hours a day on the tube. But! To not be allowed to do what one should want?[WU1] To hold the low-born genius back by law, and the high-born fool up by law? This is what destroys societies. This, Nietzsche appears to advocate in his preference for the aristocratic over the “slave” morality:

every aristocratic morality is intolerant in the education of youth, in the control of women, in the marriage customs, in the relations of old and young, in the penal laws (which have an eye only for the degenerating): it counts intolerance itself among the virtues, under the name of “justice”.File:Nietzsche paul-ree lou-von-salome188.jpg

The Nations, Races and Religion. Nietzsche is no Nazi. His caricatures of the nations are beautifully comic and often beautifully accurate. The English are dull drunkards whose religious fervour is all that restrains them from barbarity. The Germans are a mixed bag of everything, with a language of annoying ponderousness. The Jews are a competent and intellectual people, foolishly seen as threatening. The deeper Christianity of the Southern Europeans who have been longer civilized than the northerners. Why did the North produce its Luther and Calvin if not due to a weaker hold of Christianity originally? The Celts are perhaps the only “deep” Northern Christians. All are stereotypes, but none are crude uneducated stereotypes. He lambasts the Germans just as much as any other people, and the Jews less than many.


Beyond Good and Evil? Nietzsche reframes morals. Christianity is “slave morality”. The “evil” of Christianity has much of what an “aristocratic” morality (for example, Plato) might call “good”. Being strong-willed, leading, embracing the world! The aristocrat holds these to be good. The slave morality – the Christian example, according to Nietzsche, born of the Jews’ oppression as slaves – subverts this “Master” morality. Christianity denies the World. To be good is to be meek. Not to want. To be bad is to be greedy, to seek power, to embrace the earthly.

Anything in it? It is an interesting reframing, and one which could well be historically true. Maybe Christianity really was influenced by the Jewish history as slaves, and the Graeco-Roman (and perhaps Nordic?) morality by their history as masters. However, unlike for Nietzsche, the master morality is – for me, just as bad as the pure and extreme slave morality. Masters mean subjugation. Slaves mean subjugation, even if all are slaves to themselves. Cannot all instead be masters of themselves, free to do what they will without stopping another doing the same? The “will to power” has no place. The denial of power also has no place. One can surely embrace the world, but one’s own world – not that of others.

Is this vulgar English egalitarianism? Nietzsche would think so. And I am an alcoholic Englishman after all. But must egalitarianism be dull and plebeian? Cannot we all instead embrace our individual powers? Our power over ourselves? Can we not all rise to aristocratic heights without subjugating another? I also rather like one of Nietzsche’s conceptions – though not for the reasons he does – that of Mitfreude (shared joy) instead of Mitleid (pity). Pity increases the sum of pain; sharing joy increases the sum of joy. The strong should help the weak, but should they pity the weak? Can we perhaps banish jealousy from our heads and instead rejoice in the successes of others?

Writing style? Glorious! Flowing! Free! Philosophy to be read at speed, chuckling – if not laughing outright. None of Wittgenstein’s tortured logic or Locke’s dull wordiness. To learn how to write like a beam of sunshine or a scudding cloud, read Nietzsche.

Altogether? At the time it was a necessary critique of Christian values. Today it may well hold historical truth. Its ethics cannot however be taken seriously today, and nor should they. They are authoritarian, misogynistic, and in an age where war could destroy all life, his glorification of conflict is potentially disastrous. Nietzsche was however no vulgar racist or anti-Semite. He was indeed misconstrued in this regard. His portrayals of nations and his writing style are beautiful and wry. The biggest mistake to make when reading Nietzsche is to take him too seriously.

Have a read…

Despite some hard-to-swallow bits, I would certainly recommend you grit your teeth and have a read. The book is short and best read quickly. Keep a big pinch of salt, recognition of the historical context, and a strong sense of humour handy.

In English:

In German:

Posted in: Philosophy