"Good and Evil Reconsidered" by Friedrich Nietzsche


Some of the most disturbing reflections on the nature of evil and good are contained in the works of the late-nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche was a brilliant philologist and historian, and much of his inspiration grew out of his study of the classical world of ancient Greece.  It was Nietzsche who, in frequently aphoristic and compelling prose, developed the concept of the ubermensch or “superman.” “I am writing,” he proclaimed in his The Will to Power, “for a race of men which does not yet exist: for ‘the lords of the earth.’” Meanwhile, in the world that does exist, Nietzsche distinguished in good aristocratic fashion between masters (or lords) and slaves (or dependents), to whom good and evil mean quite different things. Hence, questions of morality he found to be relative, and he proceeded to demonstrate the consequences of that conviction in writings that were intended to be read only by the lords themselves—those few outstanding people in every culture for whom, Nietzsche felt, different rules should apply. What follows is an extract from his work Beyond Good and Evil, written in 1885.


Good and Evil Reconsidered


1.          By examining the many finer and baser moral systems that have influenced and still influence the world, I have found that certain traits regularly reappear in combination, until finally two basic types have been revealed to me and a basic difference has emerged. There is a master morality and a slave morality. Let me add at once that all higher and more complex cultures make an effort to combine both moral systems. Usually the systems get tangled and misunderstood. Indeed, now and then they even lodge together in the same people, in the same single soul.    

2.         The differences in moral values depend on whether they come from a ruling class, comfortably aware of its detachment from its inferiors, or from the inferiors, slaves and dependents of all kinds. In the first case, if the rulers determine moral values, the idea of “good” means a lofty, proud state of the soul, which serves to distinguish and determine those of rank. The man of rank cuts himself off from creatures in whom the opposite of such a proud, lofty soul appears. He detests them. One understands at once that for this higher moral type, the contrast between “good” and “wicked” is the same as the contrast between “noble” and “common.”

3.         The contrast between today’s so-called good and so-called evil has another origin, for which let us hate the cowardly, jittery, petty man thinking only of security; also the suspicious man with his covert glances, the slavish doglike kind of man who lets himself be whipped, the wheedling flatterer; and above all the liar. A basic belief of all aristocrats is that the common people are liars.

4.         “We honest ones.” --Thus the nobles of ancient Greece described themselves. It is perfectly clear that the standards of moral values were first of all for men, then were later led astray and applied to actions. Thus it is a serious error for historians of morality to start by asking such questions as, “Why should an action involving fellow feeling be praised?”

5.         The noble man looks to himself as the arbiter[1] of values, has no need to be adjudged[2] good. He decrees: “What is harmful to me is in itself harmful.” He knows it is he himself who lends the highest values to things, that he is arbiter of values. He honors everything that he finds in himself. Such a morality is self-ennobling.

6.         In the forefront of this morality stands a taste for monopoly,[3] for power that wants to overflow, for joy at the breaking point, for experience of great wealth that can grant or deprive. The noble man does help unfortunates, but hardly or not at all from fellow feeling, rather from an impulse prompted by the abundance of his power. The noble man honors what is powerful in himself, for he who has power over himself understands what to say and when to guard his tongue, struggles against his own nature with harsh, hard joy, and has reverence for all that is harsh and hard. “Wotan set a hard heart within my breast,” says an old Scandinavian saga. Thus the soul of a proud Viking is truly described. Such a man is proud of not being bred for fellow feeling, for the saga’s hero continues warningly, “He whose heart is not hard in youth will never have a hard heart.” The noble, brave men who think this way are the farthest off from that kind of moral standard that signs of virtue in fellow feeling, in doing good deeds for others, or in being neutral.

7.         Belief in one’s self, pride in one’s self, irony toward and a basic hatred of so-called selflessness belong as clearly to master morality as do quiet contempt for and distrust of fellow feeling and so-called warm hearts. The powerful know what to honor. It is their art, their province of knowledge. Typical of the morality of the powerful is a deep respect for their forefathers and for the past (all justice rests upon this dual respect), belief in the past and prejudice in its favor. And if, demoralized[4] by so-called modern ideas, common men believe almost instinctively in so-called Progress and in a so-called Future, and more and more fail to respect the past, the low origin of these so-called modern ideas has in this way amply betrayed itself.

8.         Master morality is alien and painful to present taste in the harshness of its principles, requiring a man to owe allegiance only to his equals. Here is how fellow feeling fits in: with all creatures of lower rank, with all that is alien, a man may deal as he thinks good or “as his heart wills it,” at all events beyond the common standards of good and evil. The need and ability for greater gratitude and greater hate, both among equals only, the refinements of revenge, the idea of delicacy of friendship, a certain compulsion to have enemies (as a sort of release for affection, envy, viciousness, insolence, in effect, to be able to be a good friend): all these things are typical traits of master morality which, as has been implied, is not the morality of so-called modern ideas. Therefore it is hard to accept today, also hard to uncover and to explain.

9.         The second kind of morality, slave morality, is quite the opposite. Suppose the beaten, the crushed, the suffering, the enslaved, the self-ignorant, the exhausted set up a standard of good and evil. What will the pattern of their moral values be? Probably the expression of a gloomy distrust of man’s entire state. Perhaps a condemnation of man himself together with his state. The slave’s viewpoint condemns the virtues of the powerful. He has skepticism, distrust, a refinement of distrust against all the “good” that ought to be honored. He has to persuade himself that joy itself is not proper. Instead, those traits that serve to ease the existence of sufferers are pushed out in front and spotlighted. Fellow feeling, the obliging helping hand, the warm heart, patience, industry, humility, friendliness, all these come to be honored, for these are the necessary traits of slave morality and provide almost its only means of coping with the pressures of life.

10.        Slave morality is essentially based on security. Here is the source for the creation of that famous contrast between so-called good and so-called evil. The so-called evil of slave morality includes power, awesomeness, a certain terror, elegance and strength, all really unworthy of being despised. According to slave morality, so-called evil inspires. According to master morality, it is the “good” man who inspires fear, and wishes to do so, while the “wicked” man shows himself to be detestable. The contrast is at its sharpest when so-called good, according to the standards of slave morality, takes on an odor of the contemptible, delicate, and well deserved, because the good of the slavish way of thinking belongs of necessity to the purposeless man. He is good-natured, easy to betray, perhaps a little stupid, a goodfellow.

10.        Above all, where slave morality dominates, language narrows and the words “good” and “stupid” come together. A final basic difference: the desire for liberty, the instinct for playing and for all other aspects of the whims of freedom, belong of necessity to slave morality and morals; while art and a passionate devotion to duty form the standard condition of an aristocratic system of thought and values.       


Questions for Response

1) According to Nietzsche, what are the key differences between "master morality" and "slave morality," as well as the most important or essential traits of each type of morality? Moreover, why exactly does Nietzsche favor one type of morality over the other? What does Nietzsche admire most in human beings?


2) To what extent do you agree or disagree with Nietzsche’s ideas regarding morality, good and evil, and right and wrong? Explain why you view Nietzsche's ideas with agreement or disagreement.

3) What connections do you notice between Nietzsche’s ideas and Old School? Discuss all three of these:

A. First, how do Nietzsche's ideas apply to author Ayn Rand  and her novels that are discussed in Old School? What values do both Nietzsche and Rand seem to advocate?

B. How are Nietzsche's ideas related in important ways to the character Gershon and to the Holocaust that was perpetrated by the Nazis?

C. What makes the narrator come to view Hemingway's fiction in a way that contradicts Nietsche's and Rand's view of human greatness? Ultimately, why does the narrator find Hemingway's portrayal of human beings more true-to-life than Rand's portrayal?

[1] arbiter : person authorized to judge

[2] adjudged : regarded as

[3] monopoly : exclusive control

[4] demoralized : having had their morals corrupted.

Last modified: Thursday, April 19, 2018, 1:31 PM