Nietzsche heralded the death of God with his famous “God is dead.”
This pronouncement concerned our belief in God and the value of the concept of God. Nietzsche’s intended audience — philosophers and scientists — were no longer in a position to maintain belief in God. Just as importantly, the concept of God held no net positive value in the for the individual or society in the eyes of Nietzsche.
The concept of God — specifically the Abrahamic God as propounded by Christianity — was a cultural and societal sickness. In the history of the West, Nietzsche felt we had a healthier example in the ancient Greeks and Romans.
“A person is thought to be great-souled if he claims much and deserves much. He that claims less than he deserves is small-souled. The great-souled man is justified in despising other people–his estimates are correct; but most proud men have no good ground for their pride. He is fond of conferring benefits, but ashamed to receive them, because the former is a mark of superiority and the latter of inferiority. It is also characteristic of the great-souled men never to ask help from others, or only with reluctance, but to render aid willingly; ad to be haughty towards men of position and fortune, but courteous towards those of moderate station. He must be open both in love and in hate, since concealment shows timidity; and care more for the truth than for what people will think; he is outspoken and frank, except when speaking with ironical self-depreciation, as he does to common people. He does not bear a grudge, for it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done himself, even of his enemies, except when he deliberately intends to give offence. Such then being the great-souled man, the corresponding character on the side of deficiency is the small-souled man, and on that of excess the vain man.” (Aristotle, The Nichomachaen Ethics)
The Jewish religion propounded weakness and a hatred for this world. It was a spiritual contempt. Through the person of Jesus Christ, these values ended up overtaking the Western world. Nietzsche saw irony in the Church leadership being based in Rome. It was in his view an inversion of values by which slave morality triumphed over the master morality of the classical world. The notion of an all powerful God dying on a cross was antithetical to the nobles of Rome and Greece.
If we are to speak culturally as opposed to theologically, many of us would locate the positive power of Christianity in its concern for the lesser and its encouragement that we help them. We tend to see a spirit of charity and perhaps even tolerance in the Christian ethos. Thus, many people, even those who do not have a literal belief in the bible or Christian God see it as benign.
Nietzsche did not see Christianity as a religion of compassion. He saw it as one which seeks to glorify weakness and ressentiment against those who are stronger. Christianity is a religion which seeks to ameliorate the individual in favor of what Nietzsche calls the “herd.” This is all rooted in what Nietzsche calls slave morality, as opposed to the moralities we saw before, which he would calls master morality.
What exactly is master morality? Master morality springs naturally from those who are positively inclined towards life and themselves. Master morality affirms the world we live in, and the natures we have.
Masters may be physically or economically strong. The notion that “master” is synonymous with “dictator” or “brute” is erroneous though. A master is not necessarily in charge of anything. Nietzsche uses the term in a psychological, not political sense.
The defining mark of master morality is gratitude. Specifically, gratitude for life and this world.
If masters have a fundamentally positive view of themselves and their world, they will tend to have a set of ethics which encourages their human nature. Things like strength and success will be seen as good.
Masters will seek power in a very open and honest manner. Their enemies will not be objects of hatred but of competition. Their enemies will not be imagined to be evil or weak. Rather, their enemies will be fellow nobles. In defeating their enemies, they will be doing themselves honor, because they have accomplished something great.
The weak, the contemptible, these sort, are simply beneath the masters, they are not worthy opponents.
The masters are capable of great love and great cruelty. They are willing to destroy and take down.
Does this make them evil? According to Nietzsche, not at all. In fact, progress is necessitated by the willingness to destroy.
All of existence for Nietzsche is will to power. This means that all life strives and must strive for power. This includes humans, other animals, and plants. Both masters and slaves seek power. They just do it differently. Masters seek power more openly, which is in Nietzsche’s view, more healthy.
Destruction has a negative connotation though. Is Nietzsche just fundamentally segregated from reasonable individuals when he makes these sorts of claims?
I would argue he is not at all. Nietzsche had good reason to argue for a willingness to destroy.
Democracy in the Western world has destroyed tyranny and the former grip of absolute monarchs.
Technology and enterprise has destroyed many industries, fortunes, ways of life.
Science ruthlessly attacks and questions its own theories.
This is all destruction.
This does not mean that all destruction is good. Certainly, when Nietzsche called for a willingness to destroy, he was not asking for us to be needlessly cruel. Rather, he was reminding us that cowardice is not in and of itself a virtue. We must be willing to overcome ourselves, to destroy what must be destroyed to allow for innovation and renewal.
Yet, culturally, we are quite hesitant. This explains in Nietzsche’s view the durability of Christianity. Christianity, something which at this point offers nothing positive in his view, is still alive and strong.
Nietzsche stated that it is not about having the strength of one’s convictions, but the strength to overcome one’s convictions that is important. Tearing down the edifice which has sustained Western civilization for centuries with no clear alternative could indeed be scary, and uncomfortable. That is not an excuse for intellectuals, and overmen to ignore the challenge.
Only in tearing down these edifices, can new possibilities become clear. Our first commitment must be to the truth, even if that means admitting we are not in full possession of the truth, or that our most basic values may not indeed be supported by the truth that we do find.
Can we overcome it?
As opposed to master morality, is slave morality. This is the morality which springs from the weak. Again though, we must remember that through this sort of morality may exist among those who are politically or economically disenfranchised, it does not necessarily. Nietzsche is using the term in a psychological sense. The best way I can phrase it is by saying that those who inherently have a slave perspective are slaves to their own ressentiment. Their view of the world is fundamentally defensive.
Being defensive, they seek and desire the collective protection of the herd. Going even further, they are quick to ostracize any member of the herd they feel might be too strong.
Hence the notion that the weak will inherit the earth and such. Nietzsche feels that as the most notorious incarnation of slave morality, Christianity is teaching people to hate and fear this world — including even our bodies and minds as being inherently sinful. We are all sinners as compared to a perfect God outside of this world.
Nietzsche pointed out that the Greeks often saw their gods as obnoxious and devious. If someone did something horrible, they would assume that a god must have been manipulating her. They did not ascribe her misdeeds to her character. Christianity does the opposite. Our goodness comes from a God outside of this world, and all of our sin is of this world. It is a very pessimistic view of our natures and our world.
We tend to view — by “we” I am just talking about general contemporary society — the promise of heaven or an afterlife as an essential comfort to believe in, regardless of if it literally exists or not. Nietzsche did not have this positive view of heaven. Nietzsche felt Christianity served two primary purposes: the first being to a method of rewarding the faithful outside of this world, since their God could not make their lives better in this world and more importantly, the afterlife was about punishment. Today, I get the sense that the afterlife is primarily perceived as being about Heaven. Nietzsche’s views based on his readings were that the primary purpose of the concept of the afterlife is placing in hell those people which Christians felt deserved it.
A great comfort for many early Christians was that their enemies, those who often had much more power than they did, would suffer in another life. This is ressentiment.
“The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, in order that their bliss be more delightful for them.—To be precise, what we find in Summa Theologiae, III, Supplementum, Q 94, Art. 1, is this: ‘In order that the bliss of the saints may be more delightful for them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, it is given to them to see perfectly the punishment of the damned’”
Since slave morality is about weakness, the first and foremost consideration is protection. The value of society is collective protection. We will do for others, so that others will do for us.
So is Nietzsche calling for us to return to ancient Rome and Greece? No. Nietzsche detested faith in “opposite values”. This is important to discuss here. Certainly Nietzsche sees master morality as the type of morality exuded by the strong and slave morality as a sickness. However, sickness is not always bad. When speaking about the bad conscience, Nietzsche said it was an illness, but an illness in the sense that pregnancy is an illness. This can easily be extended to his views on slave morality in general.
Slave morality is not necessarily all bad. It is certainly all unhealthy. That does not mean we cannot grow from or learn from some of it.
Nietzsche is not calling for us to choose between master and slave morality, though in fairness, he certainly wants us to err on the side of master morality.
To be more specific, I would say that Nietzsche wants us to embrace the mentality of master morality, while reflecting and learning from what we can of the tenets of slave morality.
A good example of this was the Renaissance. He felt the Renaissance was just this, a return to master morality, albeit, a more complex and reflective than the classical version
Sadly in his view, this spirit was crushed by the Reformation.
“Jesus said to his Jews: ‘The law was for servants–love God as I love him, as his son! What are morals to us sons of God!’” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, page 91)
Slave morality assumes a sinful nature for human beings. If we continue with this assumption, then moral obligations are very important. We need a method by which to obligate people to act contrary to their sinful will.
This is not an assumption that Nietzsche was willing to accept. Yes, we strive for power. Striving for power need not be about injuring others. In fact, such injury is much more likely to inflicted by the defensive type who fears her fellow human.
If instead we look at people as fundamentally good we can look to their natures as a guide for behavior. For instance, as far as I know, no non-human animal has any system of morality. None act out of moral obligation.
Animals kill and love absolutely innocently.
In many ways, our dogs are the overmen Nietzsche famously speaks of.
Should we all seek to become dogs then? Is this Nietzsche’s great answer? Not entirely.
The key difference between us and dogs is our intelligence and ability to reflect. I am not suggesting we sacrifice our intelligence or reflective capabilities.
However, if we move beyond the intellectual realm, there is much we should imitate from our dogs.
Our dogs are not kind or loving because they have an obligation to be such. They simply are such. It would be superfluous to have a moral system which obligated dogs to love the people they are cared for by.
Yet, dogs can also be vicious and violent. Dogs will attack, harm and perhaps even kill a stranger. This might be an unknown other dog or a human intruder. Dogs are predators and might also take joy in perhaps killing a cat, duck, and plenty of other small animals.
Nietzsche would say such violence is a healthy expression of the dog, or a healthy discharge of power. As I said earlier, it kills innocently. There is no shame or regret. The dog forgets quickly.
Certainly, earlier in our prehistory — not that modern humans do not kill wantonly — tribal warfare and fear of the other was quite common. If we were competing with other predators — say bears — or with another tribe of human beings, we would be quick to kill them if we could.
Even if we now recognize that goodness is innate to at least some extent in human beings, as it is in dogs, we still have this problem. Our ancestors and our dogs are both quite willing to kill and inflict pain on the other.
Is this where morality and moral obligations are needed? To perhaps enforce consistency?
In my view, this is where our intellectual awareness and ability to reflect is of decisive importance.
Hume said that the intellect is a slave of the passions. Nietzsche agreed with this. Nietzsche would also agree when Hume went on to say that it is a very useful slave.
In my own words, our intellect is our most powerful tool at our disposal. I do not believe it can create values though. It can only help us to understand the values and inclinations we already have. To the extent that we have conflicting values — say of empathy and lust for dominance — it can help us negotiate between them. Its role as a mediator in these situations is still not tantamount with being the creator of values however.
Throughout human history, I believe we have shown we have the capacity to extend our natural empathy and compassion to wider and wider communities. For instance, we have broken down barriers that have existed in our history of tribe, race, nationalism, gender, and in some cases, species. (for clarification, I am not pretending that any of these problems have been solved or are close to being solved. Rather, I am simply stating that we have numerous examples of progress on these fronts at least being possible, and in some cases, that progress seems to be resilient through time.)
Can these barriers only be solved by convincing ourselves that we are inherently evil or sinful? For instance, that our desire for power is evil?
As stated earlier, Nietzsche was against faith in opposite values. One of the reasons this is so alarming to Nietzsche, that we would call some things good and others evil, is that many “evil” actions are necessary throughout history.
Without the American Revolution, French Revolution, American Civil War, WWI, WWII, and many others, our world would be much different. We might not all agree with these wars, but can we say the world would be fundamentally better if we refused to fight all wars? All wars, regardless of how noble, require the taking of human lives, including civilians.
For Nietzsche, such discussion loses the subtle distinctions and nuances needed to in a sophisticated manner determine what will be the best path forward for our society.
Our drives, including our aggressive ones, are not so easily repressed. A healthier alternative is to sublimate or direct our aggressions towards creation and inquiry. For instance, philosophers have a warlike zeal for truth. So is a warlike inclination always bad?
“There are no moral phenomena at all, but only a moral interpretation of phenomena.” (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil page 85)
If we end up deciding that moral obligations are necessary to curb human evil, then a discussion of punishment is called for.
Nietzsche points out that punishment did not originate as a means of justice or rehabilitation. Punishment often included gruesome torture. The goal being to humiliate and weaken as opposed to rehabilitate.
Nietzsche saw the original relationship being a relationship between creditor and debtor. If I kill a member of another family, I or my entire family is now in the debt of that family. In order to make the debt even, they have the right to kill me or a member of my family.
Since the creditor tends to be more powerful, the revenge could sometimes be absolutely unchecked. With the maturation of the state, different laws and such were put in place to codify just exactly what punishments could pay for which debts.
Eventually, we saw that the person owed a debt not just to the creditor but to the society. Hence the notion that “he has paid his debt to society.”
Though of course, how does one pay a debt by suffering? This certainly goes against the philosophy of Socrates and Plato. The persona Socrates certainly makes this clear in the Republic when he says that punishment only makes weaker and to make someone weaker is to make them less good (this by the way, is master morality. An association of power and goodness, versus slave morality, which equates the good with the weak).
Only later does punishment to at least some extent become about rehabilitation. This only makes sense if one is posited to have free will. So the notion that the criminal should be punished because he has free will is in Nietzsche’s view an afterthought or attempt at rationalization.
We want to separate the offender from his action and say he could have chosen differently. For Nietzsche this is like saying that the cougar could have chosen not to kill the deer and thus stands to be justly punished by a tribunal.
Though determinism is a whole debate unto itself, I will point out that Nietzsche saw determinism as being real and felt that there were no serious arguments for free will. He felt the persistence of free will as a stance owed more to the value the concept has in society — for instance, in justifying punishment — versus any convincing reasoning for it.
Nietzsche also pointed out that the stronger a society becomes, the more confidant it becomes, the less severe its punishments become. Nietzsche felt that this at least was a positive sign. As we become more powerful, those who harm us impact us less and less. It is like an animal deciding she can live with her fleas.
There might be an implied contradiction here. Nietzsche wants us to be willing to destroy, to attack our enemies… but not to punish?
What is punishment other than trying to make someone repay a debt to society or trying to make someone suffer? There does not seem to be much positive value in this.
Does this mean that we cannot seek to stop someone from committing murder? Not at all. Just as we relocate bears, sometimes shoot and kill cougars, et cetera, without calling any of this punishment.
Certainly, if someone is a danger to our society, and we are not strong enough to ignore it, it makes sense that we would stop it.
To pretend we are doing this for the offender, to rehabilitate him, is laughable though.
Nietzsche encouraged forgetfulness. Nietzsche felt that the overman would not forgive. Rather, he would simply forget. Forgiveness is just one more aspect of slave morality. It is the notion that others owe us a debt, and we can makes ourselves stronger by forgiving them. To believe you can forgive someone is to believe that at least in that scenario, you are superior. The other person may not be able to offer you anything else, but in accepting your forgiveness he can at least accept your superiority. This is an example of how the weak pursue the will to power.
A more noble view would simply be that the other person owes you nothing. Nietzsche once said that Jesus should not have died for our sins — he simply kept us in his debt by doing that — what would have been truly noble would have been if he died for our guilt, for our shame. If he died and said we had nothing to be forgiven for.
So to be clear, I am not talking about intellectual forgetting. Rather, about the willingness to let go of perceived wrongs and slights against us.
Nietzsche felt a society with the best sort of memory for these things would be most unpleasant and unhappy. It would be focused on sacrifices and on reliving the pain and suffering. The process he describes strikes me as societal trauma.
It reflects almost perfectly what some contemporary researchers have to say about trauma in the individual. That trauma is a residual energy in our physiology that for whatever reason has not been discharged. In seeking catharsis, we simply relive this trauma –and ritualize it as a society might — and make it worse. We never overcome it and instead become engrossed in it more and more.
We should forget the wrongs done to us, to the extent possible. We should care for others. Not out of obligation or “selflessness”. To do good out of obligation is very contractual in nature. The point might be to get into heaven, to ensure that those we help will help us in return, or simply to makes us feel less “animal.” The very best and most compassionate actions we perform should be the ones in which we are mindful of ourselves.
We should care for others because we recognize ourselves in others. If we love ourselves, we will not want to harm what we see of ourselves in others. For Nietzsche, the slave defined what was good as being whatever is not evil. His first focus is on what is evil. The master or overman however defines first what is good. Good is anything like him and those he respects. Bad is whatever is lowly, whatever is not good.
Nietzsche said that in master morality one only has obligations to one’s equals. Without context this might sound terrifying. He qualifies this by going on to say that, without such obligations, one will treat all those who are weaker than him in accordance with his nature. If he is a noble human being according to Nietzsche, this will she treats them with kindness.
Who are those who are weaker? Nietzsche specifically includes animals, “A noble person has no duties to animals but treats them in accordance with his feelings which means, if he is noble, with pity.” Like Schopenhauer, Nietzsche is a well-known animal lover.
Sadism, cruelty, et cetera springs from dysfunctional people, or sickly people, not from fully realized people. Thus the overman, would lack any spirit of sadism, or cruelty.
I agree with Nietzsche on atheism and determinism. It is hard for me to see how someone could be an atheist and determinist and still disagree with Nietzsche’s critique.
For those who do believe in God or free will, there is obviously much ground for disagreement with Nietzsche. Neither of these topics are anything Nietzsche ever argued much about. He took both atheism and determinism to be given. It is my belief that this is because he felt Kant and Schopenhauer had been authoritative on the matter (for clarification Kant was not an atheist, but his philosophy was further developed in that direction by Schopenhauer who was both atheist and determinist).
Since they were givens for Nietzsche, I did not find it appropriate to try to prove God does not exist or that determinism is real. These are both very important topics in and of themselves and deserve to be treated on their own, and not merely as an aside in a presentation on Nietzsche.
For me then, we should today focus on the societal implications of Nietzsche’s thought.
As opposed to asking if Christianity can be justified scientifically or theologically, I believe we should ask what has been the influence of Christianity on society?
Is punishment humane, especially within the context of determinism?
Is human nature fundamentally good or evil?