Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Master and the Slave

"We shall wreak our vengeance and abuse on all whose equals we are not"—thus do the tarantula-hearts vow. "And 'will to equality' shall henceforth be the name for virtue; and against all that has power we want to raise our clamor!"
—"On the Tarantulas," from Thus Spoke Zarathustra

There's more to say about rationality and game, but first I want to say a few things about morality.

Friedrich Nietzsche is pretty well known these days for his concept of the Übermensch (or superman or "overman"); and his pithy declaration that "God is dead," is probably more famous than even the man himself. Nietzsche's also famous for (probably) having syphilis and (definitely) going insane. He also had a kick-ass mustache.


One thing he deserves to be better known for, however, is the concept of Master/Slave Morality. Looking back into Western history, Nietzsche identified two basic moral systems that came out of the Eastern Mediterranean and came to dominate European philosophy and religion. The first was Master morality. The second was Slave morality.

To understand Master morality, we look to the ancient Greeks. Master morality pits good versus bad. "Good" in this sense has its most basic meaning, like when we say "This is a good sandwich," or "He's a good shortstop." We don't mean the shortstop is a goody-goody; we just mean he has great range and can hit for average. What is good is what is excellent. The Greeks had a great word for this: arete, or essential virtue.

In Master morality, beauty is good, and ugliness is bad. Strength is good, and weakness is bad. Wisdom is good, and stupidity is bad. Bad things — like weakness or stupidity — must sometimes be crushed and wiped out, but just as often they can be raised up, turned from bad to good. Thus weak can be made strong through discipline and hard work. Ugly can sometimes be made beautiful through health and care and nurture. But at no point must one confuse which is superior. Good is always better than bad.

In Master morality, you cannot get rid of weakness by embracing it. You can only crush it by strength, or transform it by discipline.

Slave morality is the morality of Christianity. Essentially it replaces the struggle of good versus bad, with the struggle of good versus evil. "Good" in this context takes on the moral meaning we usually associate with it in modern times, like when we say "Do good deeds." Goodness in the Christian sense means love, meekness, humility, and charity. It's set against "evil," which is hate, arrogance, brashness, and selfishness.

Note how everything once associated with being a weak person (the "slave" in Nietzsche schema) is now good, and everything associated with being a strong person is now evil. In fact, Slave morality even goes so far as to assert that meekness and humility are the true marks of strength; and that pride and brashness are marks of weakness. Most of us have deeply internalized this way of thinking as to assume it must be true. But the Greek heroes of the Iliad would have been astonished to hear someone assert that.

Seeing this neat flip was Nietzsche's genius. The conflict between Master morality and Slave morality runs throughout Western civilization. I know it runs through me. Slave morality seems to have a lot going for it... I mean, wouldn't it be better if we all loved our neighbors as ourselves?

Perhaps. But the real problem with Slave morality is what it does to those old Greek virtues, that arete. The new system vilifies strength, beauty, and excellence. To be good in that classic Greek sense is considered arrogant, or selfish.

It raises up the pitiable, the weak, and the stupid; it attempts to cast down the admirable, the strong, and the courageous. I say "attempts," because the truly excellent and strong can never be cast down except by their own complicity, or by someone even more excellent and strong. The weak have no real power. Their power lies in convincing the strong that strength is arrogance, and that God (or Mother Nature or the Democratic Party or whatever) wants them to be mewling and ineffective. As long as the Slave morality holds sway, it keeps the Master morality safely contained.

Slave morality was already deeply ingrained in European society when America was first colonized, and so we carry that narrative with us always, too. But in it's first couple of centuries, the colonies and the new nation they birthed were a reinvigoration of Master morality. People had to be strong to survive and grow; they didn't have the luxury of complaining. Strength and beauty and wealth and health once again became good. But in recent decades, Slave morality has crept back in like a serpent, taking new and sicklier forms. Today, it's worse than ever.

But it doesn't have to be that way...

In coming posts in this series, I will talk about the Two Kinds of Assholes, and how this all relates to game.

As a side note.... Whenever I find myself rationalizing my own weakness (rather than just working harder), or resenting greatness in others, or indulging in any of the other sickly Slave morality crap, I always find that a brisk dip in the bracing waters of Ancient Greece snaps me out of it. I highly recommend the Greeks for bringing out the most excellent in any man: Homer and Xenophon are especially great. The image of an enraged Achilles hurtling across the plains of Troy, spilling bodies around him and shining bright like the doom-bringing dog star is perhaps the greatest moment in Western literature. Also, you can always just watch 300.


6 comments:

  1. hella strange that i just used the term ubermensch in my post this morning, and here it is in your post.

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  2. Hey 11,I cant access you older wordpress articles.The Google search no longer provides casched copies.Are you ever going to re-post them?

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  3. I totally agree with his assessment. I actually picked up a book of his after being called an ubermensch myself recently.

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  4. I think you’ve done here the best simple and sympathetic introduction to the core of Nietzsche’s thought that I’ve ever seen. Well done, and illuminating.

    I first read Nietzsche, considered a “dangerous” but also brilliant philosopher then and now, in the mid Pacific ocean, while crossing over from California to Thailand (to start) on a freighter, at the beginning of a year off midway through Stanford undergrad. Many tail end of the boomers years ago. I’d been having a ball at Uni, and aced my freshman year on little work on all the things I was supposed to be studying aside from prodigious cramming, but huge interest in collateral stuff and too many audited classes. Though did a bit less well my second year due to even more trying to learn everything while ignoring obeying anything (started quarter with 3x the courses I could keep, to grab their essence, but didn’t do homework). Lots of partying and driving with girls through the coastal and Sierra foothills. But it had become time to chose a major to stick with and get serious about career choice and acing college, having jettisoned psychiatry / premed after trying out acting as a peer counselor and VA shrink assistant.

    Anyway, I read Beyond Good and Evil and On the Genealogy of Morality mid ocean. Amazingly there was another college kid on this ship (really unusual) from Reed, considerably more lefty than I but also dimmer, and I inveigled him into reading the later. He hated Nietzsche and we argued all across that ocean, but I generally won. Well, I actually cared more about and spent more time winning cred with the hard working class sometimes alpha with girls seamen (well a few were) I was among, which I eventually succeeded at. Which wasn’t so easy. “You’re not so bad for a silver spoon kid.” It was only the good with girls seamen I cared about getting in with though. But this brought me more cred with the others, actually, in a dynamic I only dimly understood then. Of course Reed lefty hippyish guy trotted out the Hitler card, but Nietzsche was actually praising of Jews. Shaming efforts though were his main tactic, after early losses. Prototypically follower lefty. Oh and the working class seamen guys almost universally had contempt for his ass. Triumph. And kinda vindication of Nietzsche to boot.

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  5. My first post here. The level of awareness on this site is astonishing. The emphasis on philosophy is particularly appreciated.
    Pronunciation of "Arete" in French means "backbone".

    Humor is sometimes the only way to share real opinions without getting stopped by the PC filter.
    Craig Ferguson on stupid young people:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0iC5fCBp4s

    PS: please discard the audience.

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