Nietzsche against Master Morality

The assumption is widespread that Nietzsche’s ethics can be explained as the master morality which he diagnoses in the Essay 1 of On the Genealogy of Morality. The assumption is widespread among those who are semi-informed, and even more disturbingly among those who have some claims to expertise on Nietzsche. As a reaction to Nietzsche, it’s not totally inappropriate, the texts do provoke the reader to think of master morality as something better than slave morality. That is somewhat different from a committment to master morality as a form of ethics.

Nietzsche sometime says he is referring to a philosophy of life rather than ethics or morality. I believe it would be going to far to say that there is no ethics, or moral philosophy in Nietzsche. However, it is important toı recognise that Nietzsche is challenging (which is not the same as rejecting) the bases of ethics or morality. What he is doing is to find something like what Hegel calls immediacy, and Kierkegaard calls wonder in a reaction to nature and human nature. Though whether that means we can classify Nietzshe with contemporary Naturalists of a scientistic reductionist orientation is another thing. Nietzsche looks at the wonder, or immediacy of the master’s view of the world in the most primitive of moralities, the original master morality. That he explains particularly in relation to Homeric heroes, and in general an approach in which mutual obligations are recognised between masters, but not to those outside the relevant group of masters. From this point of view, the masters define themselves as good, beautiful, truthful and so on. The salves are those who have the opposite of those characteristics.

The slaves are not evil, because they behave according to nature in the master world view, they just behave as they do without evil intention. For Nietzsche, the concept of evil is deeply embedded in ideas of soul, strong personal identity, free will and inner intentions. It is the slaves who have a good/evil dichotomy who assume there is strong personal identity and intentionalism. For the master, there are immediate reactions There is no assumption for strong personal identity and all that might go with that: free will, intentionalism, memory over time. These aspects of master morality are clearly part of what Nietzsche advocates, but it is not what Nietzsche advocates as a whole.

Nietzsche is against a metaphysical theory free will, resting as he sees it on a strong sense of personal identity in which the self is a soul thing rather than a combination of forces as Nietzsche thinks. However, he is not against the ideas of autonomy, sovereignty of the self, or self-creation. These are all given great emphasis. Both art and science are taken as products of the creative self, which creates itself as a it creates a perspective on natural forces in nature or the creation of art. The master is not an artist or scientist. Neither of these would be a complete model for Nietzsche. Nietzsche sees value in the life that is like art, he finds that beauty is a product of the desire for happiness. Happiness comes in life led as self-creating and self-legislating. It is here that Nietzsche sees the origin of value, not in the brutishness and borrishness of the master towards the slave. He does not think that value originates in utilitarian calculations of maximised benefits, or any set of abstract principles or social institutions. Nietzsche refers to the master who forgets offence and only takes revenge where it is immediately possible, but he admires the individual with no need to punish or take revenge at all, much more.

One thought on “Nietzsche against Master Morality

  1. Intriguing post. It is true that Nietzsche’s exposition in the first essay of the genealogy is mostly concerned with the method of valuation as opposed to the values themselves. As such, one can say that Nietzsche’s critique stems from a meta-ethical position. Indeed he seems to be making this very explicit in the Preface to the Genealogy where he directs the reader’s attention to his intentions in the form of a new demand: “the value of these values should itself, for once, be examined” S.6. A little further on in the same passage he believes that he can achieve this by looking at roots of these values, “the conditions and circumstances under which the values grew up, developed and changed”.

    This new demand of his and the following expositions in all three essays, but primarily the first two, is perplexing to say the least. The problems he posed himself converge on the points you brought out. First, individual character is not fixed eternae. Second, there’s a history to character, as there is to a peoples, epochs, values, societies, humanity etc. Thirdly, there is an intertwining between the character of the first and the character of the second, a general continuity between the character of a person and that of a culture. These three points frustrate and worry him in the essays, and he voices this frustration by his constant love, appreciation and respect for characters that somehow break the mould so to speak. Those strikes of fortune he so frequently speaks of that shape and reshape both points two and three. Those Napoleons and Goethes; those forces of nature that break the third point and gives rise to new trajectories and histories. Those high points of culture and humanity as he calls them. In light of this then, Nietzsche is more of a cultural critique than a philosopher.

    It would seem Nietzsche is toying in the essays with socio-psychology and socio-biology, as well as an ontology of sorts. He makes a big deal of the immediacy of the masters precisely because of his infatuation with their values for producing these high point of culture: Homer, Pericles, Sophocles, Euripides, Heraclitus and all the other Greek giants he admires from the Greek culture. He also saw its fall and decay with the rise of Socrates and his disciple Plato, and he voices this towards the end of the 4th book of the Gay Science. He termed this as the rise of decadence. I believe his biggest and most unshakable motivation is towards a culture that makes possible great individuals, and the values this culture runs with, as opposed to those individuals themselves. The individuals themselves are his way of seducing us into thinking through the possible rise of the above productive culture. So, his love of immediacy which he seems to share with Kierkegaard and Hegel (although Hegel I think is rather distant from Nietzsche on the value of immediacy) is simply as a seductive tool for the explication of what constitutes and makes these individuals possible: their utter trust and pride in themselves, their faith in their actions and beliefs, their ability to make bring the former to bear on their lives with strength and conviction. And, he has a whole psychology as well as a faint biology of what makes these kinds of individuals possible. His interest in immediacy then is on what it makes possible and what makes it possible, on its naiveté, because for some reason he equates this naiveté with the high point of culture — those strokes of luck.

    Essay 1 shows the slavish mode of valution, that of ressentiment, and the culture it brought about, the emotions that this culture most fashionably courts. Essay 2 brings to light the psychology and behind this culture, its mechanics what makes this culture run, what its values really are. Essay 3 shows the future of such a culture, it’s ultimate promise and end: nihilism and sublimation. His hope is that, as with all things living, it will destroy itself, it will just perish and die.

    When a Nietzsche thinker and scholar approaches the Genealogy to find such elements: we are left perplexed. Simply because all Nietzsche is doing with this book is speaking of certain intriguing elements and then lays a type of conspiracy, a “to come” type of argument. In other words, he doesn’t really say much. He just seems to be digging for an opening to something as opposed to even beginning to tell us what that something is. The only things we can take from him are his distinctions between health and sickness, nihilism and will-to-power, ressentiment and immediacy. From these elements he expects us to build a culture that is more likely to produce stroke of luck individuals.

    I do agree however, that to those who read and understand Nietzsche, who approach him with a dispassionate eye (an eye free of prejudice) can find a lot more in him that is interesting and fruitful. You’re closing lines of the self-creating and self-legislating individual shows this much, also Nietzsche’s GS #290 is a remarkable echo to what you wrote there. But, how easy is such an endeavour with his rhetoric that strikes right at the core of modern cultures’ insecurities and recent past, especially with the labels placed upon him due to recent global events (like the second world war).

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