Friedrich Nietzsche disputed the long-unexamined notion that morality was an absolute. He believed that morality was relative to the condition in which one finds oneself. In Beyond Good and Evil, he defined two moralities. The “master morality” encouraged strength, power, freedom, and achievement, while the “slave morality” valued sympathy, charity, forgiveness, and humility. Those qualities that the master morality deemed “good,” such as strength and power, were a source of fear to the slave morality and were thus deemed “evil.” Nietzsche believed that each person was motivated by the “will to power,” the essential driving force behind human behavior, and that exploitation of the weak by the strong was the very nature of life. Reform movements such as democracy and Christianity, which he associated with the slave morality, tried to negate this basic life function and were thus “antilife.” Nietzsche feared that Western society had been unduly influenced by the slave morality’s resentment and fear of the life-affirming qualities of the master type. Because the achievements of the master class were necessary to human progress, the overall effect was a weakening of the human race. To solve the problem, Beyond Good and Evil suggested that the master class’s will to power should be encouraged and that members of this class should be freed from the debilitating value system of the oppressed so that they could rise above the paradigm of the slave morality; that is, “beyond good and evil.” Thus freed, they could metamorphose into a higher level of existence, which Nietzsche termed “the overman.”
In using the title Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche wanted to emphasize his belief that persons of noble character need an ethical system that is more sophisticated than the rules and principles found in the conventional moralities of both the bourgeoisie and the lower classes. Although sometimes denouncing the very notion of morality, he strongly condemned ethical nihilism, while acknowledging the societal need for standards of “good and bad” in the sense of “noble and despicable.” He insisted, however, that many acts and attitudes that were judged to be “evil” or “sinful” in conventional morality were noble according to his aristocratic criteria. There was an urgent need, therefore, for a thoroughgoing “transvaluation of values.” Certainly Nietzsche reacted strongly against the rigid mores and folkways of the Victorian age, but this was only part of his complaint.
Glorifying the strong “will to power” of superior humans, he distinguished between the “master morality” and the “slave morality.” He viewed the former as an affirmation of life, while the latter was only a grumbling of resentment and weakness. He also described the former as a “life-enhancing” morality and the latter as a “life-denying” morality. One of the reasons for his contempt for Christian morality was his belief that it had evolved out of a slave morality, as epitomized in precepts like “blessed are the meek” and “turn the other...
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In Also sprach Zarathustra (1883-1885; Thus Spake Zarathustra, 1896) Friedrich Nietzsche proclaims in parable and pseudo-prophetical cries the philosophy of the Superman, the being who would transcend humanity in having the will to power, going beyond conventional morality, and making one’s own law. Beyond Good and Evil carries forward, in a somewhat more temperate style, the same basic ideas, but with particular attention to values and morality. The central thesis of the book is that the proud, creative individual goes beyond good and evil in action, thought, and creation.
Ordinary people are fearful, obedient, and slavelike. The true aristocrat of the spirit, the noble, is neither slave nor citizen, but rather is a lawmaker, the one who determines by acts and decisions what is right or wrong, good or bad. The aristocrat is what the novelist Fyodor Dostoevski in Prestuplenya i nakazaniye(1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886) calls the “extraordinary” person. To sharpen his image of the noble, Nietzsche describes two primary types of morality: master-morality and slave-morality. Moral values are determined by either the rulers or the ruled. Rulers naturally regard the terms “good” and “bad” as synonymous with “noble” and “despicable.” They apply moral values to the individual, venerating the aristocrat; but those who are ruled apply moral values primarily to acts, grounding the value of an act in its utility, its service to them. For the noble, pride and strength are virtues; for the “slaves,” patience, self-sacrifice, meekness, and humility are virtues. The aristocrat scorns cowardice, self-abasement, and the telling of lies; as a member of the ruling class he or she must seek the opposite moral qualities. According to Nietzsche, The noble type of man regards himself as a determiner of values; he does not require to be approved of; he passes the judgment: “What is injurious to me is injurious in itself”; he knows that it is he himself only who confers honour on things; he is a creator of values. He honours whatever he recognizes in himself: such morality is self-glorification.
Those who are ruled, the slaves, construct a morality that will make their suffering bearable. They are pessimistic in their morality and come to regard the “good” person as the “safe” person, one who is “good-natured, easily deceived, perhaps a little stupid, un bonhomme.”
Nietzsche concludes that in slave morality “language shows a tendency to approximate the significations of the words ’good’ and ’stupid.’” Perhaps because Nietzsche regards love considered “as a passion” as of noble origin, he maintains in the chapter titled “Apophthegms and Interludes” that “What is done out of love always takes place beyond good and evil.”
A proper interpretation of Nietzsche’s work is possible only if one remembers that Nietzsche is not talking about actual political rulers and the ruled, although even in this particular case something of his general thesis applies. He is speaking instead of those who have the power and will to be a law to themselves to pass their own moral judgments according to their inclinations, and of those who do not: The former are the masters, the latter, the slaves. A revealing statement of the philosophical perspective from which this view becomes possible is the apophthegm: “There is no such thing as moral phenomena, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.”
Nietzsche must be given credit for having anticipated to a considerable extent many of the prevailing tendencies in twentieth century philosophy. He is sophisticated about language: He understands the persuasive function of philosophy, and he is unrelenting in his naturalistic and relativistic interpretation of human values and moralities. If he errs at all in his philosophic objectivity, it is...
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