Lecture Notes, Philosophy 151

The Slave Revolt in Morality

November 16, 1995

Nietzsche's view of concept-formation is pragmatic: we use the categories we do because of the practical effects of our usage. So it is with ethical concepts such as "good." Nietzsche attempted to trace the "genealogy" of ethical concepts to power-relations that have come and gone in the development of human societies. The end-point of this investigation is the possibility that conventional ethics can be overcome, that some future individuals can find their way beyond good and evil.

On the Genealogy of Morals is one of Nietzsche's most systematic treatises. Most of his other works consist of loosely-connected fragments and aphorisms. (One of his most famous pieces, the so-called Will to Power, was constructed by his sister out of notes left at Nietzsche's death.) In the Genealogy, three questions are asked.

  1. What is the origin of the ethical categories "good," "bad," "evil?"
  2. What is the meaning of the phenomenon of "bad conscience" or "guilt?"
  3. What is the meaning of asceticism, or systematic self-denial?

The first part of the Genealogy contains one of the most celebrated Nietzschean theses: that modern Christian morality is the outcome of a "slave revolt" which resulted in an "inversion" of the dominant "noble" values. Add to this the claim that this revolt was instigated by the Jews and led by ascetic priests, and you have an explosive combination. Nietzsche rightly recognized that his views would be emphatically repudiated by his contemporaries, and that he would only be understood by future generations.

Nietzsche explained that the existence of social structure from amorphous masses of individuals could only be the result of the actions of born leaders, of a nobility comprised of dominating individuals who shaped the "herd" to its own ends. Such nobilities have existed across time and culture, among Greeks, Germans, Japanese, Arabs, Scandanvians. These noble ones discharged their power freely and naturally. They celebrated their status and called themselves "good." Others, lacking in the qualities of nobility, were called "base" or "bad." To call them bad is not to condemn them, but only to describe the others as lacking in those qualities which define nobility.

The society of nobles is not without its value-system. Primarily the relationship is one of strength among equals, which engenders mutual respect and gratitude, as well as mutual suspicion and jealosy. Other characteristics of the nobility include consideration, self-control, delicacy, loyalty, pride and friendship. Against this, the base harbored a deep-seated resentment, resulting in a turn inward. The slave-mentality is one of brooding and morbidity. Unable to discharge its power, the herd is ripe for emotional explosion, the "slave revolt" in morality.

The slave revolt could not occur without leadership, and it is here that a kind of renegade noble, the priest, fills the void. The priest lacks the natural endowments of the nobility but compensates with intelligence.
The priest's characteristic use of cunning rather than force runs counter to the naturalness of the nobility as a whole.

Nietzsche noted that the priest had always been in uneasy alliance or outright conflict with the other nobility. The priest splits from the nobility to find his followers among the herd and is at home with them in their impotence. Still, "if need compels him, he will walk among the other beasts of prey with bearlike seriousness and feigned superiority, venerable, prudent, and cold, as the herald and mouthpiece of more mysterious powers" (Genealogy, Third Essay, section 15). Indeed, it cannot tolerate an independent nobility, but must subjugate it as well.

The conflict is seen most dramatically in the struggle between the secular authority of the Roman Empire and the religious authority of the Jews and Christians. The values of nobility have gradually lost out, most recently in the French Revolution, which wiped out the last traces of nobility. Christianity has been triumphant in this respect: thus the malaise of modern society.

Under the guidance of the priest, the herd adopts a new morality, which is precisely an inversion of the old. What the nobility had called good is now the definition of "evil." Whereas the nobility had glorified its own excessive power, the herd villifies it. The negative characteristics of the base assume the mantle of "goodness" which is left after the nobility has been devalued. Here are some examples:

At the end of the First Essay, Nietzsche posed this question: "What light does linguistics, and especially the study of etymology, throw on the evolution of moral concepts?" Nietzsche supplemented his socio-historical account of the development of morals with a linguistic analysis. For example, the German word "schlecht" (bad) is said to be "identical" with "schlicht" (simple). Similarly, "Schuld" (guilt) is closely related to "Schulden" (debts). The attempt to integrate social and linguistic phenomena is a natural consequence of Nietzsche's account of language as a response to social needs.

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