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Notes on the master/slave relation in Nietzsche

Masters and slaves are a recurring motif throughout Nietzsche’s work, but the relationship between them is laid out most systematically in his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morality. The first of the three essays that comprise the collection sketches out two alternative frameworks for the production of values, one of which is attributed to masters and the other to slaves.

These two frameworks operate by different conceptual schemes – ‘good/bad’ in the case of master morality and ‘evil/good’ in the case of slave morality. Noble castes and races, according to Nietzsche, began by defining themselves, their actions and their way of life as ‘good’, with ‘bad’ simply referring to all that which was not noble – “everything lowly, low-minded, common and plebeian” (OGM, §I.2).

The morality of slaves, in contrast, sets out from a position of weakness rather than strength. It begins by redefining the masters’ values as ‘evil’, with ‘good’ being taken to refer to anything opposed to that ‘evil’. The slaves are incapable of creating their own original values; instead they invert those of their masters.

Master morality is thus active and affirmative, while slave morality is reactive and negating. Deleuze, in his influential 1962 interpretation of Nietzsche, summarises these two positions in terms of contrasting ‘formulae’: the master’s maxim is “I am good, therefore you are bad”, while the slave expresses the logic of ressentiment: “You are evil, therefore I am good.”

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Thus far it seems that the relationship between masters and slaves is one of rivalry, with the two camps locked in combat over their respective valuation frameworks. Indeed Nietzsche sometimes presents things in such a manner: “The opposing values ‘good and bad’, ‘good and evil’ have fought a terrible battle for thousands of years on earth; and although the latter has been dominant for a long time, there is still no lack of places where the battle remains undecided.” (OGM, §I.16)

However, this formulation underplays the profound asymmetry between master and slave morality. We have already seen how noble values are logically prior to servile ones – slaves invert values rather than actively create them, and their morality is thus dependent (parasitic, even) on that of their masters. But Nietzsche also insists on a temporal dimension to this priority. His ‘genealogical’ analysis argues that master’s ‘good/bad’ came first in human history, while the slavish ‘evil/good’ is a more recent invention. Moreover, the period when the masters ruled is consigned to the distant past. Today – paradoxically – it is slave morality that dominates. And between the two periods comes an event that Nietzsche terms “the slave revolt in morality”.

Nietzsche’s evidence for this historical periodisation is fairly scant. There are some philological musings about the origins of moral terminology such as ‘schlecht’ or ‘bonus’. There is some considerably more excruciating speculation about links between ‘race’ and character, in a manner all too typical of 19th century reactionary thought (OGM, §I.5). Nietzsche criticises the histories of morality offered by ‘English psychologists’ for their lack of empirical plausibility (OGM, §I.2 and §I.3). But he seems less concerned to apply these standards to his own account.

What, then, are we to make of Nietzsche’s empirical-historical claims? My own view is that the Genealogy makes little sense if taken at face value as a ‘scientific’ historical account, nor is such a reading compatible with Nietzsche’s own declared doctrine of ‘perspectivism’. The ‘genealogy’ offered by Nietzsche is an interpretation – and should best be understood as a kind of mythic narrative that dramatises his critique of traditional accounts of value and morality.

Consequently, Deleuze is broadly correct to treat ‘masters’ and ‘slaves’ in Nietzsche as archetypes rather than as terms designating empirical masters and slaves: “The slave does not necessarily stand for someone dominated, by fate or social condition, but also characterises the dominators as much as the dominated once the regime of domination comes under the sway of forces which are reactive and not active. Totalitarian regimes are in this sense regimes of slaves, not merely because of the people that they subjugate, but above all because of the type of ‘masters’ they set up.” (Nietzsche and Philosophy, preface).

Nevertheless, we should be careful not to completely cut off Nietzsche’s terminology from its concrete referents. Such a move risks reducing his thought to an intricate network of abstract concepts, thereby domesticating it and rendering it palatable for liberal academic tastes. However refined and subtle Nietzsche’s thinking about masters and slaves may be, it remains mired in the 19th century conservative horror at the French Revolution – as Nietzsche’s constant depredations against democracy, socialism and communism make all too clear.

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To resume – the era of masters is long gone, the slave revolt in morality was victorious, and today it is slavish values that are omnipresent, in our political systems, our scientific understanding, our arts and above all in our religious beliefs (including those beliefs that loudly declare their ‘atheism’ while retaining their essentially religious nature). For the most part Nietzsche decries this state of affairs, speaking fondly of the departed age of the masters and scornfully of today’s degenerated world of inverted values and rampant ressentiment.

Is this dull conservative nostalgia all there is to Nietzsche’s work? Several peculiarities and minor paradoxes complicate this picture. To begin with the relationship between masters and slaves is not exactly reciprocal. While the values of slaves are inseparable from their subjugation to masters, those of the masters do not stem directly from their exploitation or domination of slaves. Noble values arise from aristocratic independence, what Nietzsche calls the “pathos of distance”.

The domination of lower orders enables the production of aristocratic values, but it is not per se caught up in that production. Nietzsche’s parable of the eagles and the lambs also underlines this point – the lambs believe the eagles are evil, but the eagles are indifferent towards the lambs and laughingly insist that they “don’t bear any grudge at all” towards them (OGM, §I.13). The lambs cast the eagles as subjects, but the eagles are something beyond a subject – a lightning flash, a fusion of doer and deed.

Moreover, beneath the dominant conservative theme in Nietzsche’s work that applauds masters and denigrates slaves, there is a counterpoint at work. The masters are strong and noble, but also “naïve” – “cleverness”, in contrast is associated with the men of ressentiment (OGM, §I.10). And in the “dark workshop” where “ideals are fabricated” (OGM, §I.14) we see how “submission to people one hates is turned into obedience” – which implies that it is noble to disobey.

This in turn raises the central problem of the Genealogy – and itself a thoroughly “naïve” question: If the masters were so effortlessly superior to their slaves, how was the triumph of the slave revolt in morality even possible? And if that slave revolt has been triumphant, should we not simply accept that slave morality is stronger and therefore better than its ancient predecessor? What purpose is served by this fractious disquiet with the present state of things?

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Nietzsche answers the first of these two questions through the figure of the ascetic priest. The slave revolt is made possible by a cleft in the aristocracy, a division between warriors and clerics. It is the clerics (exemplified by Jewish priests rebelling against Rome) that push through the reversal of values that constitutes the slave revolt in morality. But the ascetic priest is not merely a negative figure. Nietzsche describes the priest’s advent as making “everything more dangerous” and insists that it is the priest that first makes mankind an “interesting animal”.

This formulation pushes the era of the unequivocal rule of masters even further back in time – into our prehistory, a time when we were not yet human. The generalised servility that Nietzsche rails against thus becomes identified with the span of humanity as such – and the project of overcoming servile morality thus becomes one of overcoming humanity as has been hitherto conceived.

Perhaps most crucially, this overcoming cannot be achieved through a mere second inversion of morality, some kind of reversal of the reversal that would restore the lost world of the masters. It is precisely this course of action that is suggested by the “free-thinker” (OGM, §I.9), who turns Nietzsche’s logic around and cynically suggests that we “bow to the facts” and come to terms with the triumph of slavish ideals, disbelieving religion while accepting its regulatory function.

Nietzsche remarks upon the free-thinker’s hypocrisy, sardonically describing him as “an honest animal… and moreover a democrat”. But his response to the free-thinker is ultimately an enigmatic silence: “As a matter of fact, there is much for me to keep silent about at this point.”

And indeed there is much to be silent about. The reign of the masters cannot be restored. The possibility of extending the slave revolt – a slave revolt beyond morality, or the thought of a slave-as-militant that would be diagonally opposed to the ascetic priest – is blotted out by Nietzsche’s own hyper-conservative political framework. The only option that remains is a mute one – the supra-subjective fusion of doer and deed, of name and act – Nietzsche himself becoming the event that breaks the history of mankind in two – and after that, silence.

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This entry was posted on 5 March 2010 by in Philosophy and tagged .