NOTES on Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900): The Relativity of Morality


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) is a figure of much interest to many people. He lived a life espousing ideas that were very radical (“God is dead”), and he died insane. Without a doubt, he was a brilliant — and controversial — man.

The Problem

Nietzsche was an ethical relativist. He did not believe in an objective ethics. Instead, he believed that right and wrong differ according to the society in which you live. Right and wrong vary according to the time and place and culture in which you live. What was right in the 1800s in the United States may not be right in the 1900s in the United States.

According to Nietzsche, moralists take for granted the existence of morality itself. They try to “give a basis for morality,” but all they are really doing is giving a justification of the morality that is current in the time and place in which they write. Writers of morality merely attempt to justify the conventional morality they grew up with.

Therefore, Nietzsche writes, more work needs to be done:

What is still necessary is the collection of material, the comprehensive survey and classification of sentiments of worth, distinctions of worth, which live, grow, propagate, and perish; and the attempt, perhaps, to give a clear idea of the recurring and more common forms of these living crystallizations. This is necessary as preparation for a theory of types of morality.

This is what Nietzsche attempted to do as a cultural historian.

A Genealogy of Morals

In Nietzsche’s work as a cultural historian, he discovered what he calls a genealogy (a family history) of morals. Moral systems grow and develop according to a certain pattern. They start out as an aristocratic morality that elevates humanity. According to Nietzsche,

Every elevation of the type ‘man’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society, and so it will always be: a society believing in a long gradation of rank and differences of worth among human beings, and requiring slavery in some form or other.

This is something that we have seen in many ancient cultures. The civilizations of Greece and Rome were ruled early by tyrants, whom the populace later threw out. In the Old Testament, we have many kings, as well as the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” type of morality. Such a morality is harsh:

To be sure, one must cherish no humanitarian illusions about the origin of aristocratic societies. The truth is hard. Every higher civilization has originated in barbarism. Men, barbarians in every respect, men of prey, still in possession of unbroken strength of will and desire of power, threw themselves upon weaker, more moral, more peaceful races, upon old mellow civilizations in which the final vital force was flickering out in brilliant fireworks of wit and depravity. In the beginnings, the noble caste was always the barbarian caste.

However, eventually the civilization achieves security, and a new morality comes into existence. This type of morality is a kinder and gentler morality. According to Nietzsche,

Finally, however, a happy state of security results, and the enormous tension is relaxed. Perhaps there are no more enemies among neighboring peoples; perhaps the means of life and enjoyment are present in abundance. With one stroke the bond and constraint of the old discipline snaps. It is no longer regarded as a necessary condition of existence and survival. If it would continue, it can do so only as an archaizing ‘taste’. Variations appear suddenly in the greatest exuberance and splendor. The individual dares to become individual and detach himself.

Now morality stresses cooperation, humility, and charity — not taking whatever you are strong enough to take. According to Nietzsche,

The lofty, independent spirit, the will to stand alone, are felt to be dangers. Everything that elevates the individual above the herd, and is a source of fear to the neighbor, is henceforth called evil. The tolerant, unassuming, self-adapting, self-equalizing disposition, the middle-of-the-road desires, attain to moral distinction and honor.

The Transvaluation of Values

The new morality represents a transvaluation of values. Suddenly, what was once valued is now hated, and what was once hated is now valued. Instead of “an eye for an eye” revengeful morality, we now have a morality that stresses “love your neighbor.” We see this transvaluation of values not only in the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, but also in the ancient Greek tragedies.

Orestes killed his mother and her lover, and because of this he was condemned to be pursued by the Furies (the old, aristocratic morality). However, in the last of three plays by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena (the new, democratic morality) grants him a respite from being pursued by the Furies, who become known as the Kindly Ones.

Although he was a relativist, Nietzsche much preferred the aristocratic morality to the new, democratic morality.Master Morality

According to Nietzsche, there are two major types of morality: master morality and slave morality. Nietzsche much preferred master morality, which is the morality of the aristocracy. These quotations show Nietzsche’s thoughts about master morality:

  • “In the master morality, when it is the rulers who determine the notion of ‘goodness’, it is the exalted, proud type of character which is regarded as the distinguishing feature, as that which determines the order of rank. The noble man separates from himself the persons in whom these characters are absent; them he despises.”

  • “In master morality the antithesis is between ‘noble’ and ‘despicable’. The cowardly, the timid, the no-accounts, the narrowly utilitarian, the distrusting, the self-abasing, the doglike who submit to abuse, the mendicant flatterers, and above all the liars, are despised.”

  • “A man who says, ‘I like that, I take it for my own, I mean to guard it and protect it’; a man who can carry out a resolution, keep hold of a woman, punish and overthrow insolence; a man who has his indignation and his sword; a man whom the weak, the suffering, even the animals, willingly submit to and naturally belong to; such a man is a master by nature.”

Master morality says “yes” to life, in Nietzsche’s opinion, because life is all about survival. Slave morality says “no” to life.

Slave Morality

Nietzsche believed that present-day morality is herding-animal morality: the morality of sheep, cows, and goats — and of slaves. This is the kind of morality that he despised — the kind of morality that stresses altruism, humility, and charity.

Nietzsche says these things about slave morality:

[…] If the abused, the oppressed, the suffering, the unemancipated, the weary, the uncertain-of-themselves, should moralize, what will be the common element in their moral evaluations?

The slave has an unfavorable eye for the virtues of the powerful. He has skepticism and distrust of everything which they honor. He would fain persuade himself that their happiness is not genuine.

On the other hand, those qualities which serve to alleviate the existence of sufferers are brought into prominence and flooded with light. It is here sympathy, the kind helping hand, the warm heart, patience, diligence, humility, friendliness, attain to honor. For here are the most useful equalities, almost the only means of supporting the burden of existence.

Nietzsche despised this type of morality.

The Emancipation of Women

In a number of areas, Nietzsche had very strong opinions. For example, he detested the idea of feminism and the emancipation of women. He believed that women ought to fear men, and that the purpose of women was to rear healthy children. Nietzsche believed that no woman ought ever to attend a university:

In their efforts to rise to the ideal woman, to the higher woman, they have really wished to lower the general level of women, and there are no more certain means to this end than university education, trousers, and the rights of voting like cattle. Fundamentally, the ‘emancipated’ and the ‘emancipators’ (for example, that typical old maid, Henrik Ibsen) are anarchists, misbegotten souls whose most deep-rooted instinct is revenge.


Nietzsche also hated Christianity, which he regarded as teaching a slave morality. According to Nietzsche, Christianity says “no” to life:

Christian morality is the most pernicious form of the will to falsehood, the denial of life. It is not error as error which infuriates me here. It is not the age-long lack of ‘good will’, of discipline, of decency, of spiritual courage, which betrays itself in the triumph of Christian morality. It is the ghastly fact that what was unnatural received the highest honors as morality, and remained suspended over man as the law of the categorical imperative. This is the great blundering. To teach contempt of the primal life instincts; to set up a ‘soul’, a spirit, in order to overthrow the body; to teach man to find impurity in sex; to look for the principle of evil in the need for expansion; to see a ‘higher moral value’ in ‘self-lessness’, in ‘objectivity’, in ‘neighbor love’; these things are the will to nothingness, the denial of life, the great nay-saying.

In addition, Nietzsche wrote, “After coming in contact with a religious man, I have always to wash my hands.”

The Übermensch (Superman, Overman)

What Nietzsche wanted to bring about was the production and expression of the Übermensch or Superman. To bring about the Superman, he proposed a new transvaluation of values. He wanted us to go back to the old, aristocratic values. This, he believed, would bring about a new breed of Supermen:

My life task is to prepare humanity for a moment of supreme self-consciousness, a great noontide, a transvaluation of all values, an emancipation from all moral values, a yea-saying, a confidence in all that has formerly been forbidden, despised, and damned; when it will gaze backwards and forwards, emerge from the tyranny of accident and priesthood, and for the first time, pose the question of the why and wherefore of humanity as a whole.

Nietzsche on Himself

No one can deny Nietzsche’s ability to write. About himself, he wrote this:

He who would be a creator in good and evil must first be a destroyer, and break values into pieces. I am the most terrible man that has ever existed. But I shall be the most beneficent. I know the joy of annihilation. I am the first immoralist, I am thus the essential destroyer.

A Question

If we accept Nietzsche’s theory, how ought we to live?


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