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The Slave Morality: An Alternative Hypothesis

The Slave Morality: An Alternative Hypothesis

The Slave Morality was a famous theory of the origins of “good and evil” proposed by Friederich Nietzsche, which argued that based on the etymological origins of the words “good” and “bad,” the concept of “good” arose as a distinction between the nobility and the commoners. “Good” meant “us,” the aristocrats being the ones with the ability and the right to coin language. Consequently, “good” carried the connotations and values of the patricians. They lived in the moment. They loved life. They overcame suffering through action. They had no need to lie or to concoct elaborate explanations to justify themselves because they had power. Power is good. Not having power is bad.

This was master morality.

Slave morality, by contrast, was how the commoner came to terms with their own condition. Not having power, they had to find some way to justify their own suffering in the form of a moral code that allowed them to survive in a state which the aristocracy could not tolerate.

“…you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must.”

–Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War

And so the afterlife was born. For the slave, the true prize lay in the life which came after death. In this second world, the dead would be judged through a new moral lens, in which “good” meant those who endured their suffering without resistance, who “turned the other cheek,” and who helped others. “Evil,” a new word for a new category, described those who would be judged harshly in this second life. The evil ones were those with power, especially those who were not generous with their slaves and servants.

This slave morality was not designed to undermine the ruling class, though it may have had that effect in some cases. It was designed to make life tolerable for the underclasses.

This is one explanation. Here is an alternative explanation.

Religions, and the stories they derive from and describe, are older than the languages Nietzsche used to analyze the origins of these concepts. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance, is about 4,100 years old. It makes sense then to look rather to the origins of religions themselves, and the proto-religious parables that were gradually aggregated into broader religious systems. For whose interests were these developed, and what sort of morality was it?

The three that first come to my own mind are the stories of Genghis Khan and the Hawk, The Scorpion and the Frog, and The Ant and the Grasshopper (perhaps because I mentioned the first two in my book). All of these are of the same type, yet as a collection, they do not neatly fit into either the master or the slave morality. A case could be made that the Scorpion and the Frog is a proto-master morality story, but it is indirect at best. A similar case could be made that the story of Genghis Khan and the Hawk is a hidden slave morality tale, as it encourages mercy towards the servants and underlings of the masters. Yet this is not entirely different from the advice of Sun Tzu or Robert Greene in their books written explicitly for masters.

A far more sensible and obvious explanation is that these stories were developed–most likely cut away from a broader collection of more detailed stories, like a Michelangelo statue from the stone–by tribes, for the benefit of the next generation.

The evidence for this is in the historical nature of property rights. Land belonged to those who had lived on it the longest. Burying the dead was an important means of claiming right to land (“right,” of course, between relatively equally armed parties), but a collection of stories which documented the lineage of the current occupier, and the ancestral occupation of the same land stretching back for generations, could accomplish the same things. In agrarian, herding, and hunter-gatherer societies, land was life, and so stories of ancestry became life.

But although many of these ancestral stories were purely practical, many of them conveyed wisdom for the benefit of younger generations in addition. The stories of King Arthur, of Beowulf, of the Iliad, the long lines of “begats” in the Old Testament, and as a more modern example, Roots, are all stories of lineage and rights of pride (which translate into socio-sexual hierarchy value for the descendants of the hero), but also convey truths about our orientation towards, and relationship with, the outside world, that transcend master or slave status.

Many of these stories depict various transitions of the hero or the hero’s line through the position of both slave and master.

What this means is that “slave morality” is not older than, and therefore is not a reaction to, the “master morality” of the aristocracy. The name “slave morality” itself would be a misnomer. A better title might be something like “transcendent morality,” as it goes beyond the status and role of its adherents. To avoid confusion with Kant, we can call it “mythopoetic morality.”

“Master morality” is just realpolitik. As soon as you find yourself dispossessed and out of power, the works of Machiavelli and Henry Kissinger lose a substantial part of their value, as does the spiritual energy conveyed in Nietzsche, Ragnar Redbeard, and Aleister Crowley.

In the same vein, mythopoetic morality does not justify resentment and impotence, as the true “slave morality” is supposed to.

The evidence offered for the “slave morality” hypothesis includes the Christian obligations to “turn the other cheek,” to “love our enemies,” and to believe that “the meek shall inherit the earth.” But to take these standalone claims as the entirety of Christian morality is to pretend that the Gospel of Matthew is the entirety of Christianity and the Bible. I’ve written elsewhere of misinterpretations of Christian parables, and others have observed that simplified Christian prohibitions, such as those against hatred, are not theologically grounded at all. But no deep explanation is needed to observe that there are 65 other books in the Bible, and that the truths in Matthew, like the truths in every other book, are contextual.

The “slave morality” theory requires this simplified and decontextualized form of Christianity to be true, but it is not. The “mythopoetic morality” theory predicts elements of both “master” and “slave” moralities to exist within the Bible, in different contexts. This is obviously true. A “master morality” theme can even be found within the king of all slave-morality books: Matthew.

For this reason, the “slave morality” hypothesis is an insufficient and incomplete explanation for Apollonian religions that are designed for (among others) the masses. The cross-generational “mythopoetic morality” hypothesis is sufficient and is simpler as an explanation for moral systems which are not aristocratic in nature.

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