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How well does Nietzsche understand the nature of morality?

An answer to this question requires one to clarify precisely what form of “morality” Nietzsche criticises and advocates for. Nietzsche criticises a specific form of morality, referred to hereafter as “Slave morality,” and advocates for a “Noble morality” as a new set of values that will enable the ‘higher type[s]’ (AC,5) of humans to flourish. This essay will argue that Nietzsche does not strive to understand the concept of “morality” in a measured or rational way; instead, he chiefly seeks to expose the negative aspects of “Slave morality,” in a polemical and biased manner, in order to show why a new morality must be adopted. In the first part of this essay, I will outline Nietzsche’s criteria for understanding morality, and his critique of “Slave morality.” I will then demonstrate his chief objections to “Slave morality”: it fundamentally rejects life and the world, presupposes human agency, and is normative, since it assumes it can be applied to all humans equally. The second part of this essay will highlight Nietzsche’s narrow understanding of “Slave morality,” specifically his misrepresentation of Christian ethics. I will show that René Girard’s identification of a Christian soteriological framework within Nietzsche’s supposedly atheistic philosophy highlights his failure to appreciate the influences of a Christian tradition he seeks to reject. In the third part of this essay I will demonstrate Nietzsche’s role as a moralist who advocates for a “Noble morality,” which truthfully confronts suffering with a Dionysian “yes.” The fourth part of this essay will outline objections made to Nietzsche’s understanding of “Noble morality,” namely Giles Fraser’s forceful critique of Nietzsche’s glamorisation of suffering, which he argues develops out of a ressentiment towards everyday life. I will conclude by arguing that Nietzsche’s understanding of morality is flawed due to his extravagant metaphysical assumptions and his “human, all too human” perspective, which lead to inherent contradictions in his thought that are difficult to reconcile into a cohesive and balanced account of morality as a whole.

In order to address how well Nietzsche understands “Slave morality,” one must show the framework which Nietzsche uses to appraise morality. For Nietzsche, a morality should facilitate the conditions necessary for the ‘promot[ion]’ of ‘human flourishing’ (GM, Preface, 3), and should be founded on an honest appraisal of the world in its metaphysical totality. As a result, any balanced understanding of “Slave morality” will necessarily be coloured by Nietzsche’s specific metaphysical assumptions. At the centre of Nietzsche’s metaphysics is the notion of an all-pervading “Will to Power,” indeed he asserts that ‘this world is the will to power—and nothing besides!’ (WP, 1067). This “will” is a drive which fundamentally determines our actions, and is expressed either through direct means (as in the case of the “Noble morality”) or indirect means (“Slave morality”). Being a ‘powerless’ group, Nietzsche argues that slaves were unable to express their power directly, and thus grew resentful and sought revenge on the nobles, which took the form of a ‘slave revolt in morality,’ culminating in a ‘radical revaluation of [the nobles’] values’ (GM, I:7). Nietzsche’s central objection to this ‘revaluation’ is that it rejects life: indeed, the slaves’ ‘creative deed’ begins with saying ‘no’ to an ‘opposing, external world,’ as opposed to the Nobles, who create values from ‘a triumphant saying ‘yes’’ (GM, I:10) to themselves and the world. Thus, the slaves are able to conceive of the ‘noble and powerful’ as ‘evil,’ while believing that ‘only those who suffer are good’ (GM, I:7). Nietzsche also objects to the excessively normative qualities of “Slave morality,” which advocates that all men embrace universal norms such as love, pity and compassion. Given Nietzsche’s conception of different “types” of man, contrasting the ‘highest’ type with the ‘decadent’ (EH, IV:5), it follows that one normative moral system will not mutually benefit all “types” of people; indeed, ‘the demand for one morality for all is detrimental to precisely the higher men’ (BGE,228). Thus, since Nietzsche’s ideal morality is one which facilitates the flourishing of higher men, he understands “Slave morality” to be the ‘danger of dangers’ for these nobles, since it will cause them to internalise false moral norms of good and evil, preventing them from attaining man’s‘highest power and splendour’ (GM, Preface, 6). This ‘reject[ion]’ of the ‘aristocratic value equation’ (GM, I:7) is only possible through a ‘seduction of language,’ which attempts to separate ‘strength from the manifestations of strength’ by positing an ‘indifferent substratum’ behind which the noble could have the ‘freedom’ (GM, I:13) to restrain strength. Nietzsche argues that the slave ‘needs to believe in an unbiased ‘subject’ with freedom of choice’ in order to ‘construe [their] weakness’ as an ‘accomplishment’ (GM, I:13), and thus feel morally superior to the nobles. However, Nietzsche objects to this by arguing for a strictly deterministic view of the universe, wherein any attempt to ‘bear the […] sole responsibility for one’s actions’ would entail the impossible feat of ‘pull[ing] oneself into existence’ without any external influence of ‘God, world, ancestors, chance [and] society’ (BGE, 21), meaning we cannot claim agency for our actions. Moreover, Nietzsche argues that our actions cannot be so readily known to us as “Slave morality” supposes, since he understands all our ‘actions’ to be ‘essentially unknown’ (D, 116) due to our inability to comprehend the ‘totality of drives which constitute’ (D, 119) them.


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I will now show that Nietzsche’s critique of Christian aspects of “Slave morality” is narrowly understood, since he fails to give a nuanced account of the benefits of Christian ethics, and even resorts to importing Christian frameworks into his own moral alternatives. Nietzsche’s objection to Christianity is rooted in its failure to confront suffering, exemplified in the sacrifice of Christ, who resists and thereby ends a perpetual cycle of violence, causing Christians to reinterpret the sacrifice as something to feel guilt (and thus ressentiment) for. Nietzsche instead posits the figure of Dionysus, who embodies true vengeance, as an alternative source of salvation. Yet, as René Girard has argued, this ideal shares religious parallels with Christian soteriology. Whereas the Gospels seek to end the cycle of sacrifice (‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13)) through a sublimation of vengeance into ressentiment, Nietzsche’s attempt to create new ideals (the “Übermensch”) can only be achieved through a distinctly religious framework of ‘festivals of atonement’ and ‘sacred games’ (GS, 125) which result in the sacrifice of the herd. Girard argues that Nietzsche misunderstands ressentiment ‘as the original and primary form of vengeance,’ rather than recognising that that ressentiment is a ‘relatively minor evil compared to […] more violent forms of vengeance.' Thus, the ‘deceptive quiet of [Nietzsche’s] post-Christian society’ renders him unable to appreciate the true dangers of vengeance to such an extent that he ‘unthinkingly…called on Dionysus’ as a ‘cure’ for a much lesser evil found in Christian ressentiment. A large aspect of Nietzsche’s understanding of the harmful aspects of “Slave morality,” such as the ‘poison[ous]’ (GM, Preface, 6) norms of universal compassion and pity, stem from his advocacy for the benefits of ‘self-love’ (EH, IV:7) and egoism. Yet, any balanced view of society can hardly blame a predominance of Slave/Christian advocacy for egalitarianism and compassion as either obstacles to human flourishing or the cause of rampant social inequalities. Indeed, as Frederick Copleston has argued, Nietzsche’s polemic merely takes the ‘outstanding examples of the ‘immoral [noble] character’ and contrasts them with the ‘poorest examples of the moral [Christian] character.’ In doing so, Nietzsche refuses to confront the horror of an ‘egoist on a grand scale,’ who has ‘denied morality’ and ‘despises the common herd.’ Copleston demonstrates that this “higher man” is more ‘hostile to life’ than the Christian of “Slave morality,” who is ‘steadfast and constant in sacrifice,’ and thus affirms ‘a wider and a profounder life’ than any of Nietzsche’s nobles.'

Alongside his role as an Immoralist who critiques existing moral systems, Nietzsche also saw himself as a moralist, arguing for the adoption of a new “Noble morality” in order to facilitate the flourishing of higher types of man. Nietzsche’s central feature of the “higher man” is his ‘affirm[ation] not only [himself] but all existence’ (BGE, 1032), as a means of countering the ‘mediocre and unedifying’ (GM, I:11) ‘Last man’ (Z, Prologue, 5), the latter of whom Nietzsche viewed as the cause of humanity’s degeneracy. When Nietzsche declared ‘God is dead’ (GS, 125), he was announcing the death of all external justifications and objective truth claims, and thus urged society to take an active creative responsibility for their ‘murderous’ destruction of God, thereby ‘becom[ing] gods’ (GS, 125) who ‘determine values’ (WP, 999) themselves rather than passively accepting them. Indeed, in this liberation from divinely ordained meaning, Nietzsche believes he has found the ‘meaning of our cheerfulness’; ‘free spirits’ can embrace the death of God with ‘gratitude, amazement’ and ‘expectation,’ since ‘the horizon appears free to [them] again,’ allowing ‘all the daring of the lover of knowledge [to be] permitted again’ (GS, 343) and a new table of moral values can be created. In doing so, Nietzsche’s “higher man” rejects the ‘millennium old […] Christian belief’ (GS, 344), stemming from Plato, which posits a so-called ‘“true” world’ where suffering is justified, as ‘unattainable’ (TI, IV:4). Instead, this “higher man” must seek to affirm the ‘apparent world’ (TI, IV:6) as the only reality. In a worldview similar to the Stoics, Nietzsche believes the events of the ‘apparent world’ are repeated ‘innumerable times…in the same succession and sequence’ (GS, 341). Therefore, since one must relive ‘every pain and every joy,’ Nietzsche believes the only appropriate response to this is to ‘long for nothing more ardently’ (GS,341) than the life of suffering and joy one must relive. Nietzsche argues that a proper response to suffering in the world was exemplified by Goethe, who ‘affirmed [the world] in the whole’ with a ‘cheerful and trusting fatalism,’ which does not ‘negate’ the world, but rather embraces fate (amor fati) with a Dionysian ‘yes’ (TI, IX:49). When considering Nietzsche’s advocacy for suffering, Arthur Danto’s distinction between ‘extensional […] and intensional suffering’ is important to consider; whereas suffering is a ‘brute,’ existential fact of the world, Danto argues that ‘the main [source of human] suffering’ has been ‘due to certain interpretative responses to the fact of extensional suffering.' Such interpretive responses (such as “Slave morality”) seek to justify this suffering to us through reference to man’s sinful, fallen nature and the promise of divine salvation, yet only add a sense of guilt and shame to man’s suffering. Moreover, as we have seen, while human flourishing is intrinsically valuable for Nietzsche, the ‘discipline of […] great suffering’ is understood as an extrinsic value insofar as it ‘has created all enhancements of man so far’ (BGE, 225). Unlike utilitarian moralities, which ‘renders man ludicrous and contemptible’ (BGE, 225) by ‘obliterating all the [essential] sharp edges of life’ and reducing man to ‘sand’ (D, 174), Nietzsche’s “Noble morality” must, therefore, reject happiness as an ‘end’ in itself, since it is not a necessary prerequisite for the final aim of human flourishing.


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Nietzsche’s advocacy of a Dionysian affirmation of life’s suffering has been robustly rejected by theologians such as Giles Fraser, who sees a sentimentalising of suffering present in Nietzsche, which fundamentally betrays his supposedly truthful engagement with the world without recourse to the false consolations and ressentiment of “Slave morality.” Following Martha Nussbaum’s critique of Nietzsche’s narrow, ‘bourgeois’ understanding of suffering which renders him an ‘armchair philosopher of riskiness,’ Fraser seeks to demonstrate how Nietzsche’s glamorisation of suffering is profoundly misguided in light of the holocaust. Drawing on testimonies from ‘Nazi death camps,’ including Terrence Des Pres’ visceral experience of ‘Excremental Assault,’ Fraser provocatively reframes the ‘problem of evil’ to a ‘problem of shit,’ which Nietzsche glamorises and renders ‘kitsch’ rather than confronting it truthfully. Fraser argues that in order for Nietzsche to believe suffering can have the ‘capacity to edify the noble spirit,’ he must, by necessity, be unaware of ‘the destructive power of excremental assault,’ thereby confining Nietzsche’s ‘prescriptions for redemption’ to ‘a more comfortable age.’ In refusing to view everyday suffering with a Christian sense of compassion, Nietzsche’s joyful affirmation should, according to Fraser, be viewed as a moral weakness, ‘develop[ing] out of a ressentiment against the ‘ordinary’ life’ of the herd, in favour of few cases of human excellence. Indeed, as Keith Ansell-Pearson has argued, Nietzsche’s ‘yearning for a new humanity,’ (embodied in his “Noble morality”) in order to save civilisation from the nihilism of the ‘Last man,’ ‘express[es] the nihilistic condition’ and ‘resentment towards life,’ which Nietzsche sought to reject, by pessimistically rejecting the majority of society and their basic need to avoid suffering. In contrast, Fraser argues that Christianity, contrary to Nietzsche’s understanding, is a morality which is more fundamentally honest in the face of suffering, as seen in Jesus’ healing of the sick in the Gospels, indicating that suffering is something which Christianity addresses in this life. Moreover, in Christ’s crucifixion, ‘Jesus meets and takes upon Himself the full horror and darkness of the world,’ thereby rendering the ‘fulcrum of Christian soteriology’ the point at which ‘God and ‘shit’ meet.’ Thus, Fraser employs the holocaust and other forms of immense suffering unappreciated by Nietzsche as a ‘reality check’ on his faulty ‘soteriological aspirations,’ thereby emphatically reemphasising Christian ethics of compassion as the only truthful response to suffering.

Nietzsche’s understanding of morality is irreconcilably flawed due to contradictions implicit in his metaphysical claims and his own “human, all too human” perspective. The nature of Nietzsche’s polemic means that inconsistencies in his thought, which may undermine his argument, are surmounted through sheer rhetorical force, rather than resolved through rigorous scholarly argumentation. Thus, despite denying the free will of the nobles (‘the doing is everything’) (GM, I:13), Nietzsche’s genealogy depends upon the same assumption of human agency present in the slave revolt, which allows them to change the meanings of good and evil. Indeed, even in advocating for the “higher types” to affirm both themselves and life presupposes a capacity for human autonomy which is elsewhere denied by Nietzsche’s strict determinism. Such contradictions point to the necessarily partial understanding Nietzsche has of morality, whereby his forceful critique of “Slave morality” must exclude any positive aspects of the former in order to make a more strident case for the adoption of a new “Noble morality.” As the first advocate of “Perspectivism” and a denier of any absolute truth, Nietzsche identifies in ‘every great philosophy’ the ‘confession on the part of its author,’ revealing the ‘innermost drives of his nature’ (BGE,6) rather than some universalizable maxim or truth. However, when applying this analysis to Nietzsche, it shows his supposedly unprecedented evaluation of the origins of morality as inexorably tied to his own personal life. Indeed, Nietzsche’s advocacy for suffering as a means of facilitating the flourishing of the “higher types” (a category which Nietzsche placed himself in) seems to stem more from his personal experience than as an idealised normative claim. Nietzsche claims that ‘in the middle of […] exhausting bouts of vomiting,’ he ‘possessed a dialectician’s clarity par excellence’ (EH, 1:1) indicating merely that he himself was able to gain strength by refusing to be a ‘pessimist’ during his years of ‘lowest vitality’ and suffering (EH, 1:2). Moreover, throughout his life Nietzsche experimented with constructed, fantasy identities; he signed his letters to his friends as “Dionysus” or “Christ,” and engaged in what Philip Grundlehner has identified as ‘escapist fantasies’ in his early poetry, which ‘bear witness to [a] vivid world which became a refuge in the midst of an oppressive reality.’ Thus, Nietzsche’s understanding of morality suffers from his own form of wish-fulfilment, wherein he ‘goes on holiday’ to construct a morality in his mind, which conforms to his fantasies of a return to the time of powerful nobles, while failing to address the pressing ethical demands of his own time.

To conclude, I have shown that Nietzsche’s does not understanding morality convincingly in either the positive (“Noble morality”) and the negative (“Slave morality”) sense. We have seen that Nietzsche’s criteria for appraising morality has been the extent to which it facilitates and promotes human flourishing, and this leads to him rejecting “Slave morality” as a dangerous rejection of life, and advocating for “Noble morality” as a means of honestly and joyously affirming the world. We have also seen how Nietzsche’s polemical role as both moral critic and moralist lead him to reject the worst aspects of “Slave morality” in order to promote “Noble morality” more forcefully, highlighting that a balanced or rigorous appraisal of morality has never been the chief  purpose of his genealogy. Thus, I have demonstrated that Nietzsche’s metaphysical assumptions (such as his strict determinism) and personal experiences (including his experiences of suffering) lead him to be predisposed to understand and value morality through a partisan and narrow lens, resulting in contradictions which are difficult to reconcile. Ultimately, it appears that Nietzsche’s understanding of, and advocacy for, aspects of morality are based more on the reactionary wish-fulfilments of a social outcast who never truly fit into his own contemporary moral system, than as an objective philosophical system which should trouble us and our moral beliefs today.



Primary Reading

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, trans. by Carol Diethe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)

—— The Anti-Christ, Ecce Homo, Twilight of the Idols, and other writings, trans. by Judith Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)

—— Beyond Good and Evil, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1990)

—— The Will to Power, trans. by Walter Kaufmann and R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage Books, 1968)

—— The Gay Science, trans. by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage Books, 1974)

—— Daybreak, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)

—— Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. by Adrian Del Caro (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Secondary Reading

Berkowitz, Peter, Nietzsche: The Ethics of an Immoralist (Cambridge, Mass; London: Harvard University Press, 1995)

Copleston, Frederick C., Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosopher of Culture (London: Search Press; New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975)

Danto, Arthur C., Nietzsche as Philosopher (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980)

Fraser, Giles, Redeeming Nietzsche: On the Piety of Unbelief (London: Routledge, 2002)

Girard, René, ‘Dionysus versus the Crucified’, MLN, 99. 4 (1984), 816–835

Grundlehner, Philip, The Poetry of Friedrich Nietzsche, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986)

Richardson, John and Brian Leiter eds., Nietzsche (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001)

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