In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche aims to provide a new philosophical standpoint, one based on the concept of value and its role in how we interpret the world. In the first essay of the book, Nietzsche takes a genealogical approach to this concept and aims to show how value provided the basis for moral thinking, and indeed ‘thinking’ in general. My aim in this essay is first to provide a distinction between the origination of the ideas ‘good and bad’ and ‘good and evil’ and show how Nietzsche reached these ideas based on his etymological approach. I shall then show how these distinctions were caused by the active nature of the ‘noble master’ and the reactive nature of the ‘slave’. Next I shall focus on how the slave’s reactive predisposition led to the formulation of the concept of freedom and thus the soul. Finally I will outline exactly how Nietzsche sees that the values of ‘good and evil’ triumphed over those of ‘good and bad’ and how this has affected our world view, emphasising the spread of morality through Christianity.

Nietzsche begins his first essay with a critique of the ‘English psychologists’ (by whom he means Locke’s empiricist psychology, Mill and Bentham’s utilitarian ethics and Darwin’s evolutionary theory)1 and their attempts to develop a genesis of the history of morality. He accuses them of not only being historically inaccurate when trying to figure out the basis of morality but also amateurish in their plight. This amateurishness is brought to light when they come across the concept of ‘good’. To Nietzsche, the English psychologists outline a concept of good that is defined by those who have been affected by altruistic and un-egotistical actions; it was created by those who found these actions to be valuable and thus branded them as good. This idea was thus carried on habitually throughout time and became the epitome of goodness in the modern world. Nietzsche finds in this a fundamental flaw; to him goodness is not derived from those to whom goodness is shown, instead it is the noble or powerful man who sees his own actions as fundamentally good. The noble man feels himself naturally superior to his opposite, the weak slave, and thus attributes his own actions to be naturally good without any need for reflection on the pain or suffering of the slave. Nietzsche summarises this thought well in his book Beyond Good and Evil: “The noble type of man experiences itself as deter-mining values”2. In other words he actively evaluates himself as good from within his own perspective rather than taking into account an outside perspective as the basis for his evaluation; his evaluation of the slave as bad is drawn from the opposite of himself. Thus the good/bad distinction is a pre-moral distinction, one that is purely concerned with idea of rank and not morality. Those who embody this role of master include the Romans, Greeks, and Vikings; they are the epitome of the Dionysian man; the man associated with “flux, mysticism, and excess”3. As Nietzsche himself states “the enduring, dominating, and fundamental overall feeling of a higher ruling kind in relation to a lower kind, to a ‘below’ – that is the origin of the opposition between ‘good’ and ‘bad’”4.

The origin of the opposition between ‘good and evil’ comes via another means; it comes via the means of a reactive judgement that Nietzsche attributes to the slave. The slave sees the noble master as cruel and violent and therefore evil, so in reaction to this when comparing the master to himself he assumes that he himself must be good. The slave makes the first evaluation here not about himself, but about the master; the slaves own valuation of himself comes as a reaction to his idea of the master, thus the master is the source of his judgement of good and evil. To paraphrase Deleuze: “What Nietzsche calls noble, high and master is sometimes active force” and “What he calls base, vile and slave is sometimes reactive force”5. To Nietzsche the slave does not understand the master’s active valuations that are embodied by his powerful and spontaneous life, the slave is forced to develop intelligence; forced to think, reflect and wait to react (something that the noble masters, with their active force, never have to do). The slaves have to use their thought and cunning in order to account for their weakness. Those most guilty of this to Nietzsche are the ‘priestly people’, namely the Jews, who Nietzsche argues epitomise the “the most intelligent revenge6. Nietzsche’s ideas here seem to draw heavily on the ‘master/slave dialectic’ described in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit7 in which the master and the slave are constantly competing throughout history leading to a progressively more self-conscious being.

However one may be forced to ask the question how does Nietzsche come to these conclusions? He reasons his thoughts through etymology. He gives the examples of the Latin bonus being derived from duonus which signifies a warrior, while malus stems from melas, which designates the common man as the ‘dark coloured one’. Furthermore he outlines that in Gaelic: the word fin “characterizing the nobility, which ultimately meant the good, the noble, the pure, but originally the blond-headed”8 who were the Celtic conquerors of the native ‘swarthy, dark-haired’ inhabitants. Indeed, as Richard White summarises “If we accept Nietzsche’s philology, it now appears that at the very start of history, or the origin of language itself, ‘good’ is the name and celebration of life as it appears in its most powerful exemplars”9. Thus Nietzsche has outlined the genesis of morality through his own speciality of philology, and this is what he believes separates him from the failed attempts of the ‘English psychologists’.

The latter end of Nietzsche’s first essay begins with the slave revolt in morals; a revolt characterised by the slave’s ressentiment (or resentment). This ressentiment has been developed by the slave as a response the master’s active, forceful actions; whereas the master is strong enough and sure enough to trust his own instincts, the slave does not have the power to respond to the master with any meaningful impact. For example if the master were to act violently or cruelly towards the slave, the slave could not act violently back for risk of being killed. Thus the slave cannot trust his own instincts; he must accept the master’s ways. The impact of the master’s cruelty towards the slave does not dissipate however; it boils up under the surface and eventually produces a response. The slave’s ressentiment is what causes this response, it is what brings about the change in morality from the ideas of good and bad to good and evil. A key factor of this change is due to the slave’s development of the idea of freedom; if the slave can choose not to instinctively react to the masters active force then the slave considers that he himself must have a choice over his actions; he must be free to choose whether to respond or not. Therefore the slave comes to invent the idea of subject and object. He assumes that just as he is free not to act, there must be a free subject behind every action, even the actions of the master who now becomes guilty in his eyes; the master becomes the evil in opposition to the slaves passive, reactive goodness (though as we know, to Nietzsche, the master is not free in the same way the slave is. The master cannot choose to be weak in the same way that a bird of prey cannot choose not to eat a lamb. To blame the blame a bird of prey for taking off with a lamb is just as absurd as blaming a lamb for sitting there waiting to be eaten).

The idea of subject that the slave creates Nietzsche attributes to the creation of ‘the soul’: “The subject (or, to adopt a more popular idiom, the soul) has, therefore, been perhaps the best article of faith on earth so far since it enables the majority of mortals, the weak and down-trodden of all sorts, to practise that sublime self-deception – the interpretation of weakness itself as freedom”10. This interpretation of weakness as freedom (through the idea of the soul) is how the Jewish slave first thinks of himself as being triumphant over the master; his own values have allowed him to gain power through cunning; through ressentiment. Furthermore, Nietzsche outlines that “the second value-judgement has long been in the ascendant”11 and that after the initial reversal from ‘good and bad’ to ‘good and evil’ the next stage that slave morality reaches is to spread the values of ‘good and evil’ far enough so that the values of ‘good and bad’ will become seen as barbaric (as many societies see them today) and may eventually disappear altogether.

The way through which the slave achieved this was through religion, namely Christianity. Christianity is the way that the slavish, Jewish values of good and evil spread throughout the world. However, Judaism and Christianity are often seen as polar opposites: the vengeful God of the Old Testament against the Loving God of the New Testament; not accepting Christ as the messiah against accepting Christ as the messiah etc. To Nietzsche Christian ‘love’ is not opposed to Jewish ‘hatred’, in fact he argues: “Love grew forth from this hatred, as its crown”12, by which he means it is the hatred that allowed for this ‘love’ to exist. Christianity is in essence Judaism in disguise; it is a way for the slave’s hatred; the slave’s ressentiment to be spread throughout the world. Indeed it is hidden within the New Testament itself: “that horrific paradox of the ‘crucified god’”13. Christ’s crucifixion for the salvation of mankind serves as way in which Christianity differentiates itself from Judaism; if the anti-Semites see the Jews persecuting Christ they must assume that Jewish values and Christian values differ fundamentally, and in doing so; in accepting Christ, they are accepting the true Jewish values of ‘good and evil’ under the guise Christianity. Nietzsche goes on to argue towards the end of the first essay that we can see evidence of these values triumphing when we go to Rome. Rome, the previous noble civilisation that was fundamentally opposed to Jewish values (“Rome against Judaea, Judaea against Rome”14) is now the central hub of Judaism in the guise of Christianity for who is it that the Christians bow to in Rome? It is in fact four Jews: Jesus, Peter, Paul, and Mary. Thus the Priestly Jew’s will to power, their ressentiment, has spread and is dominating in the modern world, epitomising that beyond good and evil at the very least does not mean beyond good and bad.

In conclusion, Nietzsche lays out an excellent, interesting, and very well thought out essay. His ideas on the value of values when confronting the questions about the genesis of morality provide a brilliant insight into the mind of one of the most important philosophers in history. When considering history of Nietzsche’s terminology it is difficult to dispute his conclusions. Although Nietzsche has attracted much attention due to the apparent ‘anti-Semitic’ allegations he makes, I believe there is definitely some truth to this but, in general, this attention is largely unfounded. Nietzsche uses the idea of the Jew as the best example of an oppressed people who have used their own oppression in their favour to dismantle the hierarchy of their masters through means other than power. In the process of this the Jew’s created a higher form of human intelligence that has potentially led the way for many philosophers to think reflectively rather than purely instinctively. Indeed Nietzsche himself seems to praise the Jews in some sense when he states: “Human history would be a much too stupid affair were it not for the intelligence introduced by the powerless”15. So in summary, the discussion of the values of ‘good and bad’ and ‘good and evil’ is an important one; it outlines an important distinction and paves the way for wholly new way of thinking and it is this that is Nietzsche’s greatest strength.


Deluze, G., (1983) Nietzsche and Philosophy. The Athlone Press: London

Hegel, G. W. F., (1979) Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

Nietzsche, F., (1996) On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Nietzsche, F., (1966) Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Kaufmann. Vintage: New York

White, R., (1988) The Return of the Master: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy of Morals’. In Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 48.


1 F. Nietzsche (1996) On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Pp.139

2 F. Nietzsche (1966) Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Kaufmann. Vintage: New York. Pp. 205

3 F. Nietzsche (1996) On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Pp.xvi

4 Ibid. Pp.13

5 G. Deluze (1983) Nietzsche and Philosophy. The Athlone Press: London. Pp. 51

6 F. Nietzsche (1996) On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Pp.19

7 G. W. F. Hegel (1979) Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

8 F. Nietzsche (1996) On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Pp.16

9 R. White (1988) The Return of the Master: An Interpretation of Nietzsche’s ‘Genealogy of Morals’. In Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 48, No.4. pp. 686

10 F. Nietzsche (1996) On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press: Oxford. Pp.30

11 Ibid. Pp.34

12 Ibid. Pp.20

13 Ibid. Pp.21

14 Ibid. Pp.35

15 Ibid. Pp.19

3 thoughts on “The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: The Role of the Slave In Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals

  1. Pingback: The Good, the Bad, and the Evil: The Role of the Slave In Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals | Reddit Spy

  2. Pingback: 7 Important Facts About Nietzsche’s Genealogy | FreeForAll.org

  3. Pingback: 7 Important Facts About Nietzsche’s Genealogy – FreeForAll.org

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