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What does Nietzsche mean by "master morality" and "slave morality"?

Nietzsche distinguishes between “slave morality” and “master morality”, and he believes the structure of modern society to be rooted in slave morality. “Slave morality” is the morality of the weak and fearful, and “master morality” is the morality of the strong and courageous According to Nietzsche, slave morality is the morality of modern “bourgeois” (commerce-based) society, whereas “master morality” was the morality of ancient caste-based societies. What follows is a paper I recently wrote in which I argue for the legitimacy of the distinction between these two kinds of morality but argue against Nietzsche's contention that contemporary (capitalist or semi-capitalist) society embodies slave morality.

Nietzsche on Slave Morality and Master Morality:

Good Psychology, Bad Sociology

Nietzsche distinguishes between “slave morality” and “master morality”, and he believes the structure of modern society to be rooted in slave morality. “Slave morality” is the morality of the weak and fearful, and “master morality” is the morality of the strong and courageous (Nietzsche 1967, p. 212). According to Nietzsche, slave morality is the morality of modern “bourgeois” (commerce-based) society, whereas “master morality” was the morality of ancient caste-based societies (Nietzsche 1967, p. 51).

In the present work, it will be argued that, although Nietzsche may well be right to hold that some people are natural leaders while others are natural follows, he is wrong in his assertion that slave morality is the morality embodied in the structure of contemporary European-American society, and he is probably equally wrong that master morality was the morality embodied in the structure of premodern aristocracies. What Nietzsche refers to as “slave morality”, so we will argue, cannot possibly be the dominant morality in any functioning society, and “master morality” was likely not the morality of Plato’s Athens or, indeed, of any other explicitly class-based society.

Let us start by defining the terms “slave morality” and “master morality”, as Nietzsche is using them. Master morality is the morality of egoism and action, whereas slave morality is the morality of altruism and submission. “The knightly-aristocratic values”, writes Nietzsche, “are based on a careful cult of the physical, on a flowering, rich, and even effervescing healthiness… on war, adventure, the chase, the dance, the tourney - on everything, in fact, which is contained in strong, free, and joyous action” (Nietzsche 1967, p. 24). According to the morality of the master, “all is good…which proceeds from strength, power, health, well-constitutedness, happiness, and awfulness” (Nietzsche 1989b, p. 128). Master morality “is active, creative, Dionysian” (Nietzsche 1989b, p. 128).

By contrast, slave morality is “passive, defensive---to it belongs the struggle for existence.” passive, defensive--to it belongs the "struggle for existence” (Nietzsche 1989, p. 328). Whereas master morality is the morality of winners and are therefore playing an offensive game, slave morality is the morality of losers who are therefore playing a defensive game. Slave morality is the morality of those for whom life is a state of defeat and constant suffering and whose primary objective is not so much to maximize joy as to minimize suffering, which, according to Nietzsche, is accomplished by advocating an ethics of altruism and self-abasement. “All that will be held to be good which alleviates the state of suffering”, Nietzsche writes. In a word, weak people advocate a morality that makes a virtue of weakness, and strong people advocate a morality that makes a virtue out of strength.

According to Nietzsche, the basis of contemporary European civilization is Christian egalitarianism and, for this very reason, our current social configuration has caused the “emasculation of modern man” (Nietzsche 1968, p. 211). Nietzsche’s position is not that contemporary people of European descent consciously accept Christianity. In fact, he denies this, famously saying that “God is dead”, by which means that Christianity is dead (Nietzsche 2009b, p. 109). Nietzsche’s position is that, by denying the existence of innate moral differences between people, Christian egalitarianism eventually led to the idea that people are nothing but interchangeable economic units, this being the basis of the market-based society in which we now live (Nietzsche 2009, p. 59).

Of course, many people hold that market-societies are conducive to flourishing, and such people would not see it as being to Christianity’s discredit that it led to modern capitalism, supposing arguendo that it did in fact do so. But this is not Nietzsche’s position. Nietzsche holds that people are either aristocrats or slaves by nature and that modern society embodies the contrary position and is therefore a failure, regardless of how economically successful our current social configuration may be (Nietzsche 1967, p. 184). Further, Nietzsche holds that “natural aristocrats” are most able to flourish in societies, such as Plato’s Athens, in which social distinctions are inherited, and least able to flourish in societies, such as ours, where they are not.[i]

This last contention, I will now argue, is false. For argument’s sake, let us grant Nietzsche’s (rather dubious) claim that Christian egalitarianism was at least partly responsible for modern capitalism, as well as his claim that some people are “natural aristocrats” (meaning, ultimately, that they are leaders, not followers) while others are “natural slaves” (meaning, ultimately, that they are followers, not leaders). Granting these assumptions of Nietzsche’s, are we really to believe that natural aristocrats were better in Viking society or in Babylonian society than they are in contemporary American society (or late 19th Century German society)?

This position is based on a confusion. Yes---the “official doctrines” of Viking society were probably more in line with biological truth than is the doctrine that all people are completely interchangeable ciphers, but it doesn’t follow that Viking society actually complied with its own official doctrines. Aristocrats of yesteryear may well have held that they were “naturally superior” to their underlings, but this probably was not true, at least not categorically, given that anyone, no matter how devoid of merit, can inherit a title. Even if yesteryear’s aristocrats were right to claim that some people are naturally superior to others, they were not necessarily right to claim that they were the superior ones—and there is no particular reason to believe that that were.

Contrariwise, a society whose official doctrines are false is not necessarily misconfigured. Yes—the hyper-egalitarianism that is the US’s current official doctrine is probably inconsistent with biological realities, but it does not follow that the structure of American society is similarly inconsistent with biological truth. Bill Gates advocates radical egalitarianism, but he does not practice it. A given society’s propaganda may diverge widely from its actual structure. Societies that advocate Nietzschean views are not necessarily Nietzschean, and societies, such as our own (and, to a lesser extent, Nietzsche’s) that advocate anti-Nietzschean views are not necessarily non-Nietzschean.

In fact, our society only functions because, despite its own propaganda, it is highly Nietzschean. Yes—our legal system is extremely egalitarian in some respects, but it enforces equality of some kinds only in order to allow inequality of other kinds. The law does not give preferential treatment to intelligent person Smith over unintelligent person Jones, but it does not prevent Smith from starting his own firm and becoming Jones’ boss, it being just such inequalities that drive our economy. Contrariwise, when inequalities of one kind are enforced, the result is usually to suppress some other, more productive form of inequality. Suppose, for example, that people who were physically attractive were given legal powers over people who were not physically attractive. This enforced inequality would prevent unattractive but capable people from moving upwards, and it would also prevent attractive but incompetent people from moving downwards, with the result that power was not in the hands of people who deserved it.

In conclusion, Nietzsche’s analysis of morality is insightful and largely correct, but what he concludes about society on the basis of that analysis is not correct. Nietzsche rightly holds that people advocate value-systems that validate their strengths and trivialize their weaknesses. Nietzsche rightly holds that people advocate egocentric individualism when they themselves can practice it and revile it when they cannot. But a society whose ‘official narrative’ is egalitarian may actually have a Nietzschean structure, and a society with a Nietzschean official narrative may have a decidedly anti-Nietzschean structure, and Nietzsche’s of contemporary society, and his praise of premodern Aristocracies, are vitiated by this oversight of his.


Crisp, R. (Ed.). (2014). Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics. Cambridge University Press.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1967). The will to power. Vintage.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1968). The birth of tragedy. Prabhat Prakashan.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1989). Beyond good and evil: Prelude to a philosophy of the future. Vintage.

Nietzsche, F. W. (1989b). On the genealogy of morals. Vintage.

Nietzsche, F. (2009). Ecce homo: how to become what you are. Oxford University Press.

Nietzsche, F. W. (2009b). The gay science (the joyful wisdom). Digireads. com Pub.

[i] “The French Revolution as the continuation of Christianity. Rousseau is the seducer: he again unfetters woman who is henceforth represented in an ever more interesting manner--as suffering. Then the slaves and Mrs. Beecher- Stowe. Then the poor and the workers. Then the vice addicts and the sick--all this is moved into the foreground (even to develop sympathy for the genius one no longer knows any other way for the past five hundred years than to represent him as the bearer of great suffering!). Next come the curse on voluptuousness (Baudelaire and Schopenhauer); the most decided conviction that the lust to rule is the greatest vice; the perfect certainty that morality and disinterestedness are identical concepts and that the "happiness of all" is a goal worth striving for (i.e., the kingdom of heaven of Christ). We are well along on the way: the kingdom of heaven of the poor in spirit has begun.-- Intermediary stages: the bourgeois (a parvenu on account of money) and the worker (on account of the machine)” (Nietzsche 1967, p. 314).

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