At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

At the Intersection of Faith and Culture


Nietzsche and the Left

posted by Jack Kerwick

While reading Friedrich Nietzsche’s account of the origins and nature of morality, I got to thinking about our contemporary political situation, specifically as it pertains to the left.

Rejecting as he did the very notion of objectivity, Nietzsche believed that all moralities, far from being the products of rational discovery, were creations, assertions of what he called “the Will to Power”—the desire, that is, of their authors to impose themselves on their surroundings. Invocations of Reason, God, Truth, Right, Good, and the like, are the stuff of the rhetoric of objectivity, smoke screens designed to conceal this desire. 

For example, a Christian, say, knows that he will convince no one to endorse his vision of the world by telling others that it would empower him if they too would become Christians.  So, he must employ language from which first person or subjective references are as far as possible absent.  And what is true of the Christian is equally true of all who endorse a “slave-morality.”  

The slave-morality is the morality of the masses, the morality of the herd.  Not only Christian morality but its secular egalitarian posterity—socialism, liberalism, democracy, communism, etc.—are expressions of the slave-morality, for they presuppose both resentment toward elites as well as denial of the radical inequality of persons and classes of which those elites are a standing—and painful—reminder.

The elites or aristocrats have their own morality, “the master morality.”  The virtues that belong to it are the vices of the slave morality.  Nietzsche writes that in the master morality, a person “has duties only to” his “equals.”  That is, “one may act towards beings of a lower rank, towards all that is foreign, just as seems good to one….”  From this perspective, an aristocrat’s obligations “to exercise prolonged gratitude and prolonged revenge,” “artfulness in retaliation and [refinement] of the idea of friendship,” extend only as far as his equals. 

As Nietzsche says, matters are “otherwise” with the slave morality. The slave morality arose in response to the master morality and as a means by which to subvert it.

“The revolt of the slaves in morals begins in the very principle of resentment becoming creative and giving birth to values….”  Adherents of the slave morality gave birth to the concept of evil, “the original, the beginning, the essential act in the conception of a slave-morality….”  The evil one of the slave morality is “just the good man of the other morality, just the aristocrat, the powerful one, the one who rules….”  The master morality’s “good man” is now “distorted by the venomous eye of resentfulness, into a new color, a new signification, a new appearance.” 

In the slave morality, “those qualities which serve to alleviate the existence of sufferers are brought into prominence and flooded with light: it is here that sympathy, the kind, helping hand, the warm heart, patience, diligence, humility, and friendliness attain to honor….”  Why?  Such qualities “are the most useful qualities, and almost the only means of supporting the burden of existence.” 

In short: “Slave-morality is essentially the morality of utility.”

Lacking the superior strength and intelligence of the adherents of the master-morality, the adherents of the slave-morality, via their resentment toward their betters, seek to vilify the latter while rendering themselves objects of “pity.”

One need not accept Nietzsche’s account of morality, or even deny the insuperable incoherence to which it ultimately leads, in order to acknowledge the insights that it imparts.  Not only am I not a Nietzschean, I enthusiastically embrace the very religious tradition with which he identified the much dreaded slave-morality.  Still, it is hard for me not recall his analysis whenever I consider the frequency and ease with which leftists—liberals, socialists, Democrats, and secular egalitarians of all sorts—charge those with whom they differ with all manner of transgressions: “racism,” “sexism,” “homophobia,” “Islamophobia,” “ageism,” “imperialism,” and “xenophobia,” to say nothing of “greed” and “selfishness.” 

In order to advance his egalitarian or “progressive” vision—an agenda that demands massive redistributive measures to which many are opposed—the leftist relies upon these devices to veil his subjective needs.  Like the proponent of the slave-morality who transforms the good man of the master-morality into “the evil one,” the leftist demonizes his opponents.  Thus, he who rejects race and gender-based preferential treatment policies, i.e. “affirmative action,” on the principled ground that our laws should be neutral with respect to such considerations is vilified as a “racist” and/or “sexist.”  The person who rejects “same-sex marriage” is a malevolent “homophobe.”  Those who believe that illegal immigration is destructive of our nation and who resist all efforts to enact another amnesty, whether it is de jure or de facto, are reduced to “xenophobes.” And so forth.

I don’t mean to suggest that such leftists necessarily are disciples of Nietzsche. I don’t believe that they are.  But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Nietzsche, if he could observe in action the contemporary leftist, would see in him a prime example of exactly the sort of phenomenon on which he wrote.  The psychological, emotional, and professional benefits of being on the left have long been noted by many an observer.  The leftist, in order to continue reaping these fruits, conceals his desire to do so by conveying the semblance of being concerned, not for his own interests, but those who are victims of the sins of his opponents.

We may all be a little guilty of this, but considering that the disposition to demonize and moralize is most salient in the leftist, he is the first person to come to mind in connection with Nietzsche’s exposition of morality.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D.



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