Lecture on Nietzsche

Since antiquity philosophers have tried to figure out how to distinguish good from evil. The question of the evaluation of humans and their actions from the perspective of their goodness or evilness is a moral question. The ultimate urgency has been ascribed to this question. Rendering moral evaluation has been considered the manifestation of the essential ability of human beings, as the ability which distinguishes humans from animals.

In our class we found that for Plato one’s evaluation of good and evil was predicated by virtues and knowledge. To attain the right criteria for this moral evaluation one has to get outside of the Cave. The problem with this evaluation is the authenticity of the outsideness of the cave. How do I know that I am outside of the cave? How do I know that the outside of the Cave is not a phantasmagoria of my vision from inside of the Cave?

In Christianity one derives the criteria for evaluation of good and evil from priests and the Holy Scriptures. But what guarantees the veracity of the Holy Scriptures, which are filled with contradictory messages? And how does one know that the priests are right? After all, there are so many unsavory priests.

Descartes finds the ultimate criteria for faultless evaluation, but his criteria works only for automatons.

Hume derives values of good and evil from experience, but experience is contingent. What is good for one can be evil for another. Everything is conditioned by customs and environment. What tastes good for one does not taste good for another.  What is valuable for one is not valuable for another. One can get used to anything, even to the sight of the cruelest injustice and to call it good.

Kant found the ultimate, universal criteria to distinguish good from evil – the Categorical Imperative. The criteria for evaluation are my own criteria. One can evaluate with the certainty of one’s authority. One’s authority is guaranteed by one’s own legislation. Kant liberated humanity in its moral evaluations from the oppressive tyranny of the state, religion, and customs. It seems that after thousands of years of struggle with the criteria for the proper moral evaluation of humans and their actions, humanity found a solution in Kant. It seems that Kant fully explained to humans what they have to do to be moral and how to evaluate properly.

But philosophy is neither a fairy tale nor a Hollywood movie. In philosophy there are ridiculous endings but there are no happy endings. Immediately after the appearance of Kant’s grandiose solution, questions and objections emerged. How can the anonymous universal law be applied to particular individuals in particular situations? Is not the inner voice of autonomous authority the internalized voice of an external tyranny? It seems that after Kant one cannot be moral without entering Kant’s system of moral evaluation, but one cannot stay there to remain moral.

Nietzsche in Genealogy of Morality refuses to enter Kant’s system of evaluation. With this refusal he revaluates the moral evaluation itself and its history. At the beginning of Genealogy of Morality, he reflects on two basic aspects of the criteria for moral evaluation in western culture, which is for him Platonic-Christian culture. With some modifications, all moral theories since Plato have been founded on self-denial (this includes selflessness; altruism; disinterestedness of actions; love of the neighbor; self-sacrifice for another, for a country, for a cause; castration; etc.) and pity (this includes mercy, compassion, etc.). Some moral theories are grounded on both of these aspects, some only on one. Nietzsche finds these aspects very questionable.

Nietzsche argues that selflessness, which is disinterestedness of actions (remember, Kant argues that my actions can only be moral when they are not determined by goals or inclinations. Speaking otherwise, my actions can only be moral if my actions are not selfish, or when they are disinterested.) is self-contradictory and its possibility is fictitious. If my actions are disinterested what makes me act? What are my motivations? To act is already to have some interest in action. Besides, if the condition of my morality is to sacrifice my own interest for another, I need this other who is ready to accept my sacrifice for her. But in this case, I want the other not to be moral. Because if the other were moral, she would not accept my sacrifice. As a moral person, she would sacrifice her interest for my sake. My moral position demands for its satisfaction her immorality. From her perspective my demand is quite immoral since it blocks the possibility for her to display her morality. In result we are both perpetually stuck in front of an open door telling each other ‘after you!’ without ever being able to cross the threshold.

The notion of pity is even more questionable for Nietzsche. Pity destroys humanity by crossing the law of evolution. Besides, pity is a hypocritical exercise in domination. One pities another to humiliate and control another. Compassion is either hypocrisy or a weapon in the struggle for domination, or both. The familiar expression of compassion “I feel your pain” is nothing but hypocrisy. Nobody can feel another’s pain. One can feel only one’s own pain.

With these revaluations of the significance and the values of the fundamental aspects of moral theories, Nietzsche in his introduction to his work formulates his principal question: What is the value of moral evaluations? Since ancient times, philosophers have tried to figure out how to be moral, to evaluate properly – to distinguish good from evil. Despite many disagreements on how to be moral all wise men have come to the consensus that it is good to be moral. Nietzsche, instead of continuing the hunt for the proper criteria for moral evaluations wants to revalue morality itself. Is morality itself good? Where does morality – the evaluation of good and evil – come from? What is the origin of the value of the good? In his work he traces the genealogy of good and evil.

By tracing the etymology of the word ‘good’ and its opposite ‘bad’ in many languages he comes to the conclusion that at the beginning of the first system of evaluation the good meant strong, noble, lucky, master, and bad meant the opposite – weak, plebs, miserable, slave. The first system of evaluation which he calls the master system of evaluation was created by strong warriors. He traces the origin of this system to ancient Homeric heroes. He finds examples to illustrate this system in Homer’s Odyssey. Good for Homer’s heroes is what makes them feel good. Good means to be good at what one does. To be good is to be a good swordsman that goes into battle and effectively wields his sword. In the master evaluation one’s assertion of one’s goodness does not depend on another’s recognition of one’s goodness. The master authoritatively pronounces his goodness by his strength. His ability to act on his desire and to get what he desires make him good. The others – the weak – are bad. They are not bad because they did something bad to the master. They are bad because they lack strength or luck. This is what makes them slaves. There is nothing personal in the master’s evaluation of slaves as bad. Their badness is the expression of their nature as the master’s goodness is the expression of his nature.

The second system of evaluation emerges out of the first. It is the priestly system of evaluation. Priests are failing masters. They are sick or aged masters. They change the master’s distinction on good and bad into a distinction on pure and impure. They take this distinction literally – everything that makes me vomit and gives me scabies is impure; everything that keeps my body in a pure, healthy state is pure. Eating pork badly preserved in a hot climate can give one diarrhea. It makes me impure. Consequently, pork is impure or not kosher. Sleeping with a dirty woman who can infect one and make one dirty is impure. To abstain from eating easily contaminated food and having sex with questionable partners contributes to the preservation of one’s health – because one’s health is now in danger. Priests are masters who cannot anymore act on their desires. Willing and acting on their desires can make them sick. They learn from the consequence of their actions to suppress their desires – to will not to will their desires. Let me give you an illustration of the emergence of this second will which stops your first will (to act on desires). When you are young, healthy and have a good metabolism you desire a juicy hamburger and French fries. You act on this desire and feel good. You are good. You are the master. You will your desires (the 1st desire).  With aging, declining metabolism and sickening you may still have a desire for a juicy hamburger and French fries. You eat them and you feel bad. The consequences of your eating teach you to suppress your desire the next time – to will (2nd will) not to will (1st will) your desires. To accomplish this split on the 1st will and the 2nd will, priests invented the soul. With the invention of the soul they managed to split humans into body and soul. Plato, an inheritor of the priestly system of evaluation, teaches that to be moral one hast to use reason (the ruling part of the soul) to suppress desires. The priestly system of evaluation has had an enormous influence on the development of western culture. It makes us deep and rational. The power of reflection was developed out of this split. This division and the contemplation of this division separate us from beasts. But, at the same time, priestly medicine – suppress your desires to age well and be healthy – is a dangerous medicine that can make one sicker. The power of reflection can make us broody, defective and miserable animals.

The third system of evaluation is conditioned by the priestly system evaluation. It is the slave system of evaluation. Slave system (Nietzsche traces the origin of this system to the origin of Christianity) reverses the master’s system of evaluation. It starts with acquiescence by slaves of pain and misery. At its foundation there are four principal moments. 1) I realize that I am in pain; 2) the source of pain should be blamed for my pain; 3) the source of pain is blameworthy – he is evil; 4) I am not he, therefore I am good. In the system of the slave evaluation the one who is good according to the master system becomes evil and the one who is bad according to the master evaluation becomes good.

Master system Master is good Slaves are bad
Slave system Evil is master Good is slave


The master in his evaluation does not depend on the slave to know that he is master. He acts his mastery. He evaluates by saying ‘I am master, I am good’. The slave in his system of evaluation depends on the master’s activity. He can assert himself as good only by opposing the master whom he evaluates as evil. Slaves are not able to act on their own. They always react and establish their goodness by negation. Slaves evaluate by arguing: “I am not a master who is evil, therefore I am good’.

With the slaves’ reversal of the master system of evaluation, they conquer the world. The systems of morality developed from Plato through Christianity to the end of the XIX century, according to Nietzsche, are reactionary modifications of slave morality.

The possibility of this grand reversal is rendered by the priests’ division of the soul and the body. This division makes possible the separation of an actor from his action. Nietzsche in section 13 offers a cunning allegory to explain the mechanism of this reversal. The lambs (slaves) in order to protect themselves accuse the birds of prey (masters) of evilness. If the lambs could talk, they would say to the birds of prey ‘You are evil, why do you hate us?’  To formulate this accusation and this question the lambs have to presuppose that the birds of prey are capable to be otherwise – to not eat meat, to be vegetarian. In this presupposition they separate the actor – a bird of prey in this case – from its action – to hunt for meat. To make this separation accomplish the goal of the lambs – to conquer the birds of prey – the lambs invent the idea of freedom. They want to persuade the birds of prey that the birds have the freedom not to eat lambs. The lambs want to persuade the birds of prey that they have the choice to be vegetarians. The lambs argue: ‘Look, we are free, we chose to be vegetarian. You can be free as we are.’ This spurious argument, as I said before, is based on the unwarranted division of the actor from his action, on the lambs’ fictitious claim that to be vegetarian and not aggressive is their choice and not part of what they are. The last stroke of genius on the lamb’s part is the invention of guilt. In their persuasion of the bird of prey to be like lambs they continue: “Listen, if you do not choose to be vegetarian, that is your fault. Since you are free you are responsible for your actions. God gave you freedom and if you sin it is your guilt.” The invention of the idea of freedom leads the lambs to the invention of guilt. By making the birds of prey feel guilty the lambs conquer the birds of prey. Of course, if the birds of prey could talk they may reply to the lambs: “You misinterpret everything. We do not eat you because we hate you. There is nothing personal. We eat meat because we are carnivorous. We cannot separate our acting – eating you – from what we are – aggressive carnivores. In fact, we love you. You are juicy.”

There are a few moments that I have to stress. Nietzsche’s designation of two systems of morality as master morality and as slave morality does not carry judgment values. ‘Master’ does not indicate something good and desirable and ‘slave’ does not indicate something bad and deplorable. These systems of evaluations form our history and our consciousness. Each consciousness is a battlefield of two systems. The slave system of evaluation has dominated the western culture – the practice of understanding and examination of the world, the practice of moral conduct and the practice of aesthetic activity – from Plato to our time. The crucial elements of this evaluation are 1) the separation of the actor from his actions, 2) the dichotomy of the human and the dichotomy of the world, 3) nihilism.

  • Separation of the actor from his action. I have already discussed this separation in the previous paragraph. Here I would simply like to add that this separation makes the production and maintaining of the idea of god possible. In section 5 of the Twilight of the Idols (see the readings on the class website) Nietzsche argues that we still believe in God because we still believe in grammar. He means by this that grammar, which is an arbitrary human invention, binds us to presuppose the idea of god. The basic rule of a basic grammatical unit demands that if there is a verb (predicate) there should be a noun (subject). When we say ‘running’ we have to add a subject that makes ‘running’ to complete sentence – ‘John is running’. We cannot think ‘running’ without a subject – a runner. We cannot think ‘swimming’ without a subject – a swimmer. This logical/grammatical dependency of the predicate on a subject sustains Descartes’ argument: “If there is doubting there should be a doubter.” The same logic makes us to think that there should be a god since grammar demands that when we observe ‘creating’ we presuppose a creator. Nietzsche argues that this presupposition is only an arbitrary demand of an arbitrary grammatical structure. Creating is as raining is. And there is not an invisible creator that precedes creating and is separate from it.
  • Dichotomy. We create another world out of our dissatisfaction with our life in this earthly existence and as revenge on our existence and our enemies. We are miserable here but over there in the heaven everything will be fine and our enemies who prosper here will be punished in hell. We create this other world to give ourselves the purpose to go on, to survive the misery of this world. In the same way we create the idea of the soul out of the dissatisfaction with our bodies. This other world is only a fictional projection of our minds. It never appears. It can never be demonstrated. It does not exist.
  • Nihilism – the practice of negation. We create this world by negating what we have and what we know. We create the idea of heaven by negating the physicality of our earthly existence. We can determine what is in heaven only by negating what is familiar to us here. Here we are aging and getting sick, there we will stay healthy and be young; here we are finite, there we are eternal; here we are miserable, there we will be happy. The same practice we can see in Plato. He cannot say what is Good. He can define it only by what it is not. Kant does the same with his division of Phenomenal and Noumenal. Nihilism is our everyday practice of thinking; we define ourselves against others who are our fictitious projections. This practice of identifying oneself by negating others is at the root of racial, religious or misogynistic ways of thinking.

Nietzsche’s project is to overcome the practice of the separation of actor from acting, of nihilism and dichotomous ways of thinking. In our class we cannot expound his project. We can only try to understand his philosophy as a diagnosis of our society and of our existence.