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Brad Viles
Time to Kill: Race, Punishment, Death and Desire
Ressentiment and Slave Morality
Friedrich Nietzsches On the Genealogy of Morals is a very influential and interesting
essay, which argues many different points regarding the basis of our moral system. Nietzsche
can be endlessly studied, and new interpretations and twists to his ways of thinking can always
be found. I will describe in the following pages two closely related theories of Nietzsches that
first come to light toward the beginning of his essay. I intend to explore in this essay the
relationship between master morality and slave morality, the ways in which one is created from
the other through the growth of ressentiment in one faction, and the nuances that the two views
create when placed together within a single political or social system of organization.
Nietzsches view of morality is divided into two related sections; master morality and
slave morality. In order to correctly understand slave morality, one must first understand master
morality. The nobles, the warriors, and the masters of society see themselves as being good,
and consequently things related to them become good as well. Master morality is based on the
sense that to be good and moral is to be healthy, wealthy, and powerful. Thus, by stark contrast,
those who are evil are the frail, the poor, and the powerless.
Nietzsche remarks that there is a fundamental insight into the very birth of the language
used around good and evil that circulates master-slave morality, and that the development of the
language around things which are bad is made to condemn things that are plain, simple, or
commonplace (Nietzsche 28). By contrast, the language surrounding the masters is used to
designate themselves simply by their superiority in poweror by the most clearly visible signs

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of this superiority (Nietzsche 29). Often this is by using words such as powerful or rich to
describe themselves and their class.
Master morality is an establishment of norms of powerful life into the values that are held
as meaningful. Those with the power will validate their actions by saying that because they are
powerful, healthy, and wealthy their actions cannot be evil. The way they comport themselves
must be correct, to be placed at this station in life, and therefore everything that they are not must
be what is truly bad. These assertions are what lead the peasant or slave class to build their
own interpretations of what is good and bad, and to base it in that which the master morality puts
upon them as a claim of their inherent nature.
Slave morality is bounded in this establishment by the master class of the baseness of
the peasant existence. The structure of slave morality is in fact a reaction to the master class
construction of morality. The virtues of the slave morality include sympathy, kindness, and
humility, all seen as weak and lacking in power from the standpoint of master morality.
Nietzsche describes slave morality as being driven by the resentment and hatred of the power
held by the master class. Slave morality therefore fabricates a moral code which gives them a
high ground to put themselves on. By being compassionate and sympathetic, one is simply being
weak, and unable to take action against those who hold power over oneself.
Vanity is also a key in understanding the mentality behind the slave morality. The man of
slave morality will externalize his values in order to receive recognition or praise from others.
The man of slave morality is dependent upon others approval in order to retain his belief in his
own morality. The man of the masters morality will have his own morals created, and know
internally that he is a moral person, not relying on others for his sense of self-worth. In this way
the weak are those who submit themselves to the power of others for judgment on their lives, and

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the strong take their judgment upon themselves, deeming themselves noble, moral people and
remaining independent of the herd.
Slave morality from the outset says No to what is outside, what is different, what is
not itself and in doing so keeps the focus away from the person themselves (Nietzsche 36).
The focal point of slave morality being outside the self allows for weakness in the individual to
be ignored. The individual employing slave morality does not have the power or internal strength
to do anything about their position in life, and so instead it becomes externalized as the lauding
of values attributed to moral people, those of forgiveness and compassion. Forgiveness to
Nietzsche is a sign of weakness, nothing more than the inability to exact revenge upon those who
have done you wrong.
The way in which forgiveness is contrasted with mercy is very interesting, because mercy
indicates that one has the power to exact revenge, but instead chooses to let whatever debts are
owed be deemed paid. Therefore those who are weak, those of the slave morality, must content
themselves with an imaginary revenge, by declaring themselves of strong moral character and
with high values which would deem them able of forgiving their oppressors wrongdoings. This
imaginary revenge still leaves them in the same weak position as before, but it once again
establishes a victory based in nothingness that the man of slave morality can be proud of, and
deem himself just and virtuous.
Nietzsche condemns slave morality as being weak, that it first needs a hostile external
world, thereby making slave morality completely reactionary (Nietzsche 37). The growth of
master morality in a person is contrived through the construction of what is good out of himself
and only then [does he] create for himself what is bad (Nietzsche 39-40). The interesting
dichotomy is that from the slave view of morality, who is bad, is in fact precisely the good

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man of the other moralitydyed in another color (Nietzsche 40). Nietzsche claims that this
view of the powerful is in fact due to ressentiment, a venomous and deep-seated hatred based in
jealousy.
Ressentiment makes its first appearance when the weak grow jealous of the powerful.
Nietzsche claims that this feeling is not unique to the weak and impotent, but rather that when it
appears in the noble souls it consummates and exhausts itself in an immediate reaction, and
therefore does not poison (Nietzsche 39). To be strong means to be incapable of taking ones
enemies, ones accidents, even ones misdeeds seriously for very long, while when these are
allowed to fester by the individual, they eventually brew ressentiment, giving power to those
who did them wrong (Nietzsche 39).
Nietzsche uses an interesting example to explain the idea of ressentiment and slave
morality from both sides. The situation is that of lambs and great birds of prey, where a very
clear power disparity is present. The lambs will harbor ressentiment for the birds of prey, and
see their actions of preying on the lambs as evil, and therefore whoever is least like the birds of
prey must be good, leaving the lambs with a basis for a moral high ground. The perspective of
the birds of prey, however, is simply that the lambs are easy to catch, and tasty to eat, there
seems to be no issue with asserting their power. Nietzsche argues that if an individual is strong,
it will express that, and to demand of strength that it should not express itselfis just as absurd
as to demand of weakness that it should express itself as strength (Nietzsche 44-45). The strong
individual is not at fault for expressing his strength any more than the weak individual is at fault
for failing to stand up to the oppression of the strong.
The idea of slave morality and ressentiment spread politically through the Renaissance
and Reformation movements in Europe. Nietzsche believes that the idea of the master morality

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was defeated beyond all doubt by the rise of such movements (Nietzsche 53). The triumph of
the slogan Nietzsche attributes to ressentiment, the supreme rights of the majority, finally
overthrew the master moral slogan of the supreme rights of the few with the end of the French
Revolution and the downfall of the inhuman and superhuman Napoleon Bonaparte (Nietzsche
54).
As far as it being possible to overcome slave morality, Nietzsche believes that one day
the ancient fire of master morality will once more flare up much more terribly, after much
longer preparation and become a challenger to the slave morality of the Enlightened era
(Nietzsche 54). He believes that in order for this to happen, there must be a conscious and
concerted effort to regain the strength and power once held. Such a person must desire it with
all ones might and promote it to others, becoming so wholly immersed in the idea of master
morality that they may be held as a new standard of what power is (Nietzsche 54). To Nietzsche,
the last of the great examples of master morality died with Napoleon, and it would take such an
iconic figure in order to revive the view.
Friedrich Nietzsche had two very specific views of morality that were irrevocably
intertwined with one another, based off the existence of ressentiment between the two. By being
strong, one incites jealousy and hate in those less powerful, who then create a collective moral
system against the oppressors. This slave morality is fraught with weakness, a lack of selfexamination, an externalization of values and an inability to exact revenge on the powerful,
resulting in an imaginary revenge through exaltation of weak moral practices.

Works Cited: Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm and Walter Arnold Kaufmann. On the
Genealogy of Morals. New York: Vintage, 1967. Print.