Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is one of the most controversial philosophers in history. Many philosophers regard him as a top tier thinker, a more intellectually respectable Ayn Rand-type advocate of selfishness and egotism that academics don’t have to be embarrassed to admit they agree with.
On the other hand there are at least as many philosophers who dismiss him as grossly overrated, little more than a fraud who made extreme attention-getting pronouncements and somehow tricked some folks into thinking he was saying something profound. Leo Tolstoy, in What is Religion?, dispensed with Nietzsche thusly: “If anyone doubted that the…world of today has reached a frightful state of torpor and brutalization…, the extraordinary success of Nietzsche’s works is enough to provide irrefutable proof of this. Some disjointed writings, striving after effect in a most sordid manner, appear, written by a daring, but limited and abnormal German, suffering from power mania. Neither in talent nor in their basic argument do these writings justify public attention. In the days of Kant, Leibniz, or Hume, or even fifty years ago, such writings would not only have received no attention, but they would not even have appeared. But today all the so-called educated people are praising the ravings of Mr. N, arguing about him, elucidating him, and countless copies of his works are printed in all languages.” (p. 24)
What is it that Nietzsche claimed, that has so inspired and impressed some, and so offended others? A very brief overview of his moral thought may help to answer this question.
Nietzsche distinguished a “Master morality” from a “Slave morality.” The Master morality is what he believed in, and what implicitly the “winners” in history have always lived by.
Master morality is life-affirming. It regards as good the manifestations of power, the realization of one’s noble, superior status. Masters are uninhibited, bold, open, lacking in self-doubt. They don’t put constraints on how they seek their ends; they just do what’s necessary to get what they want. From a Chinese warlord a thousand years ago, to a mover and shaker on Wall Street today, they’re the ones exulting in the exercise of their power and autonomy, the ones in any given society who tend to end up with the most of whatever that society deems most desirable.
Slave morality is based on the resentment that the powerless feel toward the powerful. It is the morality that Nietzsche detests, the morality of most philosophers and most religions, the philosophy of Christianity (at least the Sermon on the Mount, pacifist sort of Christianity, not the type of pro-militarism, pro-capitalist Religious Right Christianity prevalent in America today).
Slave morality is a morality of excuses. Because they lack the strength, the courage and the guts to attain most of the best of what life has to offer, weak people develop a “sour grapes” attitude toward power, wealth, and success in general, and instead extol the virtues of restraint, patience, consideration for others, altruism, meekness, willingness to suffer without complaint, etc. The only way they can feel any self-worth at all is by insisting to each other that somehow accepting being losers makes them superior to the folks calling the shots. Slave morality is, to Nietzsche, a sickening rationalization of weakness.
Nietzsche is contemptuous of most moral philosophers in history, because in his eyes they advocated various versions of slave morality. They sought to make people ashamed of any success they might achieve in this life. These conventional moral theories Nietzsche saw as world-denying, hostile to life, opposed to sensuality, desirous that people be weak and pitiful rather than strong and feared.
Many see Nazism as the ultimate manifestation of Nietzsche’s ideals. Certainly many Nazis did. On the other hand, Nietzsche’s defenders would say that Roosevelt, Churchill, General Eisenhower, etc., were just as much manifesting Master morality by standing up to and defeating the Nazis, and not putting restraints on themselves in how they went about doing so, just as were the Jews who fought back against the Nazis, and the Zionists who went on to create the country of Israel after the war and have defended it by any means necessary ever since.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Beyond Good and Evil. Translated by Helen Zimmern. New York: Tribeca Books, 2010.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for None and All. Translated by Walter Kaufmann. London: Penguin Books, 1978.
Tolstoy, Leo. What is Religion, of What Does Its Essence Consist?