Saturday, May 12, 2007

Nietzsche and Slave Morality, Ressentiment and Christianity

I'm writing this in response to this post about morality. Nietzsche's name was mentioned thusly:

Nietzsche attacked the universal principles of Judeo-Christian morality. He said it could not not take into consideration the vast differences of individuality, & although it claims to encompass everyone, it is to the advantage of some & the disadvantage of others. I think some negative parts of Christian history illustrate this.

Nietzsche also suggests Christian morality is a "slave" morality, "vengeful, bitter & filled with self loathing."

That in it's self is a whole nother post because the idea is fascinating. But, here's a link on Ressentiment to get an idea.

I opined that Nietzsche was factually wrong and thus his premises untrue, and L>T disagreed. You can see it on the comments, if you care to look. I said that I could critique Nietzsche at great length and would if the world was given. It was given. So I opine. ;)

For what it is worth, for many years I considered Nietzsche to be my favorite philosopher and writer. I've read everything he's written, most things several times over, and a fair bit of scholarly critiques of his work. About a year ago, Nietzsche fell out of my favor while I reading Lyotard's The Post-Modern Condition. Some of the stuff that Nietzsche said is very interesting, and I consider him the father of deconstruction. He is certainly an absolutely brilliant writer. But he's also a racist, sexist and classist pig, whose work (I feel) supports a totally archaic and backwards ethic that praises brutal force and stupidity. While Nietzsche does not ignore the crimes of the aristocratic class, he does ignore the virtues of the lower class and invents calumnies to support the idea that the lower classes are vicious, cruel and filled with hatred. To the extent the argument works, it does so based on Nietzsche's tremendous wit - he is undoubtedly one of the finest writers in any language and in any period. Still, despite it all, he fell pretty hard from my graces.

In specific, one of the things he says about Christianity is that it is a Jewish religion, and Jews are a slave people, and their priestly society was poisonous to aristocracy, and thus to nobility, truth and beauty. This contains two statements that are ahistorical. The first is that the Jews were a "slave people" and the second is that priestly cultures are somehow uniquely Jewish.

OK, the slave people argument. The calumny that Jews were inherently a slave people is a medieval European invention - during which period the Jews were a fragmented people surrounded by enemies without a homeland. This was not the case during the development of Christianity. Indeed, before 135 CE, the Jews were fairly obviously quite a combative people - and even afterwards, really.

Jehovah, the Lord of Hosts, is a primitive Semitic war god, probably of Canaanite origin. This is plausibly supported by the Old Testament. No, excuse me, it is elaborately supported by the Old Testament.

First, because it needs to be dealt with, is the origin of the lie that the Jews were a "slave people" has a tiny bit of support in the OT. Specifically, the time they were in Egypt. They were slaves there. But, y'know, that's just a few brief chapters in Exodus. Once you're out of Exodus you're into the area of PURE JEWISH BLOODSHED.

Seriously, from Leviticus onwards, the Old Testament is filled with one of the most lurid records of absolute brutality ever written. Hardly a page goes by without the Jews fighting some horrible war, slaughtering some people or the other, or being slaughtered after a terrible battle.

The Hebrew Judges were chosen not for their wisdom, but their ability to kick ass. Some very shocking episodes of violence - heads getting nailed to the ground, for instance - can be found, here. And after the kingship is established, it's no better, a relentless record of civil and foreign wars and slaughters.

Even when the Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians, it was only after an extremely brutal war. And during the Captivity, the Jews were not enslaved. At least some of them served in extremely high positions in the Babylonian court.

The Old Testament rounds itself out with the Maccabees overthrowing the Seleucid Persians and establishing an independent monarchy. That monarchy would, itself, be destroyed by the Roman Empire, at which point we're into history.

Even as members of the Roman Empire the Jews were extremely difficult to control. The history of the area is of a number of petty rebellions to Roman power and two major ones. The first, the Great Revolt, between 66 and 70 CE, took four years to bring to an end, and would have been even more bloody if not for the faction struggles inside of Jerusalem. The second, the Bar Kochba Revolt, from 132 to 135 CE, was worse because the Jews were much better organized. They managed to establish an independent kingdom for a couple of years, and resisted Roman arms so fiercely that the Romans had to engaged in a scorched earth policy to defeat them. Dio Cassius said that, ahem, 580,000 Jews were killed, 50 fortified towns were destroyed and 985 villages were burned to the ground. The Emperor Hadrian attempted to destroy Judaism entirely because of the frequency with which the Jews rebelled! The Temple was destroyed and replaced with a pagan temple, the walls of Jerusalem were torn down and Jews were forbidden from entering Jerusalem.

By 135 CE, Christianity was already distinct from Judaism. None of the persecutions of the Jews after the Bar Kochba Revolt was applied to Christianity. So, given that Christianity was already split off from Judaism by that time, where are these non-martial slave Jews? The Judaism of Jesus' day and the 1st century church was extremely violent, and they considered themselves a warrior people. The history of the Jews before 135 CE is one of almost constant warfare.

The idea that the Jews were not, themselves, a warrior people - with a strong reputation, really, for fighting - simply cannot be supported by history. Since it is not the case that Christianity learned slave habits from the Jews, a person has to question if they existed at all. Which will take me to my second point.

When a society does have a priestly class, it's almost always part of the upper class. Interestingly enough, the best example of this are the Aryans -- the very Aryans that Nietzsche calls the master race, yeah, those Aryans.

Most Aryan tribes were caste based and the priestly caste was not only high class, it was the highest caste. Examples of this are the Hindu brahmin class and the Median and Persian magi castes. The habit of putting priests in charge of society was, quite possibly, an Aryan development and the Jews learned it from the Aryans! When Cyrus the Great conquered the Babylonians and freed the Jews, they mimicked the Persians in many ways - including solidifying their hentotheism into monotheism following the model of Persian Zoroastrianism but also in the sense of elevating the priest to the highest of classes.

Nietzsche must have known the power of the priest caste in Aryan history - but he doesn't mention it in his own books, which is an extremely curious lacuna, shall we say. This is even true when he calls Zarathustra - another name for Zoroaster - the wisest of men. Zoroaster was a member of the priest caste and the inventor of monotheism! This also escapes mention in any of Nietzsche's writings.

Also, some of the earliest converts to Christianity were Germanic tribes. In 310 CE or so, Ulfilas was converted to Arian Christianity and he converted the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. Three years later, Constantine would issue the Edict of Milan.

Christianity would not stop the Romans and Germans from tearing themselves apart for the next couple of hundred years. When the Christian barbarians destroyed the Western Roman Empire, the scale of their slaughter was greater than anything they'd ever done as pagans. Then Europe settled into the Middle Ages, which was a thousand years of constant warfare - warfare so complete and total that the development of higher culture was stalled for literally centuries and many technologies were lost to Western Europe. This frenzied orgy of hyperviolence had two nightmarish climaxes. The first were the murderous rampages of the Crusades and the second was the nightmare of the Hundred Years' War.

Nietzsche says that the violence of the Christian aristocracy was a holdover from Hellenic martial virtues. But, like I've already said, the Jews were every bit as much a warrior people as can be imagined, with an elaborate history of intense violence. Who did those medieval knights engaged in their various orgies of slaughter really emulate? Greco-Roman virtues, pre-Revolt Jewish virtues, or barbaric German virtues? As far as I can tell, they were all the same.

Well, Nietzsche might have said, the ideology of Christianity was intrinsically pacifist and weak. L>T said that this was particular to Christianity. Well, that's not true. The idea that the ultimate ruling force of the universe is benevolent is common to most people, not just the Christians. There is nothing, after all, particularly original about any of the ideas inside of Christianity. It was common Greek belief that "God" was a completely benevolent being, as were the gods, and wickedness was a result of human moral degradation. This belief - Epicureans held it - was common in the Roman Empire as well. The promotion of humility as a virtue? All over the ancient world. The Stoics, also popular in the Roman Empire, taught it, for instance, and they weren't the only ones. Everything that Nietzsche and his followers suggest are unique to Judaism and Christianity are also present in Roman philosophy and religion!

Nietzsche might retort that it was the exclusivity of Christianity that enforced "slave virtues". Greeks and Romans might as easily, say, follow the example of Sparta rather than Dionysus. But the same was true of Christianity. Warrior saints and Jesus reified as the "Lion of Judah" appeared almost immediately in Christianity. St. George, for instance, was a soldier who endured torments that made Jesus' look pretty milquetoast in comparison. By the Middle Ages, St. George became a mythic dragonslayer. Christianity started to produce it's own monster slaying superheroes totally in the Hellenic mold immediately. And, just by inspection, it can't be said that Christianity actually stopped people from being violent. The fights between the Christian barbarians and the Christian Romans were not any less vicious because of Christianity - indeed, the violence was probably the greatest seen in Western Europe.

So, historically, the idea that the Jews were a "slave people" doesn't bear up when you study the history of the Jews as informs Christianity. It also neglects the fact that priestly cultures were not in any way uniquely Jewish, or associated with the lower classes in particular. Furthermore, the sustained violence of Christianity puts to a lie the idea that Christians were infected with a pacifist "slave morality" that undermined their martial aristocratic culture. Also, immediately after the death of St. Peter the Christian church came to be entirely dominated by the Greco-Roman upper class.

Okay, now on to ressentiment. Briefly, ressentiment is the idea that the underclass is filled with hatred towards their oppressors and engages in trickery and deceit to overcome their masters, poisoning their glorious aristocratic martial culture with the virtues of slaves - weakness and cowardice. This glorification of aristocracy and vilification of the workers is, again, simply untrue.

First and foremost, aristocrats are some of the most treacherous, back-stabbing bastards there are. Indeed, they're way more treacherous than the working classes. This goes straight back to those Greek epics that Nietzsche loved so much. How can you tell when Odysseus is lying? His mouth is open. Odysseus, one of the paragons of Hellenic aristocracy, was a low-down rotten bastard. He lied, cheated, stole. He possessed all the traits that Nietzsche attributes to the "slaves".

And the real articles weren't any better. For instance, one of the most common things to happen in the internecine warfare of the Greek city-states was for one leader to switch sides (sometimes in the middle of a war), go to Persia and ask for help to overthrow Greece and serve as a Persian vassal, all sorts of craziness.

Alcibiades will serve as an example. During the Peloponnesian War, he switched sides something like four times. He encouraged the Athenians to try to conquer Sicily but when it was obvious it was going badly, he fled to Sparta. In Sparta, he couldn't keep his hands off the Spartan king's wife and then went over to Persia and then he went back to Athens. This is aristocratic loyalty and honor? Not a string of deceptions, cowardice, venality and greed?

I could really go on about aristocrats and their ways for a long time. So, Julius Caesar was assassinated by the Roman Senate en masse because they knew that if they were all guilty of the crime, none of them would be punished. Foolish men. Because the Triumvirate that came into power after Caesar's death engaged in their own program of assassination to consolidate their gains. Again and again, you see aristocrats behaving in cowardly, manipulative, back-stabbing, venomous ways, you see them holding grudges for literally centuries in some cases, you see aristocrats doing all the things that Nietzsche attributes to the "slave morality" that supposedly Christianity brought to aristocracy in the West. And you see them doing these things again and again before Christianity existed!

In addition to ignoring the fact that aristocrats possessed - and have always possessed - the vices of Nietzsche's "slaves", you've also got to ignore the working classes, themselves. The very idea that a member of the working class, even a slave, spent most of their time plotting the downfall of their "masters" is absurd. It ignores the labor of their hands, their families, and their actual values - which tend to stress the importance of hard work, tending to one's family and things of that nature. The notion of the resentful slave plotting the overthrow of their aristocratic masters is a total caricature. It is quite literally the Nazi's image of the weaselly back-stabbing, squinty eyed Jew - a caricature taken straight from Nietzsche.

Lastly, it also sorta ignores that everything of lasting beauty in this world was created by the very working classes that Nietzsche hated so much. We'll say, nigh constantly, things like, "Lorenzo the Magnificent built this" or "the Emperor Trajan built that", but that's not true, is it? The warrior aristocrat class so beloved by Nietzsche didn't build anything. It was built by the workers, now wasn't it? When a person ignores that - as does Nietzsche, who never talks about work - is the only way to say with a straight face that the working classes are in some way opposed to beauty and culture. You have to ignore that they're the primary builders of beauty and culture, even when they're doing it at the orders of some murderous thug.

So, I think that this pretty much says everything I want to say about why I think that Nietzsche's master-slave morality is ahistorical bunk, and why I don't put any faith in the Nietzschian idea of ressentiment as a class construct.

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L>T said...

You are going to make me really think...:) this from the top of my head:
As to factual Jewish history written by historians , that is something I've never studied. I suppose like most(?) people I've assumed what the common perception is. What is funny is, having the opprotunity to study it, I've always thought, I know anough about that. Now you have me realizing I don't.
I have studied historical Christianity from Jesus, through the Crusades anough to have what i consider a good basic understanding .
Was Neitzsche factually wrong? (historically) He very well could be. & does that make his premise untrue? Was his premise based on history or did history just support his premise? Can you seperate the two? I don't know the answers to these questions.

But he's also a racist, sexist and classist pig, whose work (I feel) supports a totally archaic and backwards ethic that praises brutal force and stupidity. You could say that about practically everyone that has shaped western intellectual thought since the ancient philosophers. But we don't throw it all out because of it. We work with it, through it & around it. Put it in context.
Is that where Neitzsche failed? Is this a flaw of philosophy?
Your knowledge of Neitzsche is superior to mine. No contest. I've just begun to get my feet wet. My disagreement is based on the fact that the master/slave morality argument makes sense to me within my own limited scope of knowledge & the ideas of Ressentiment & slave morality really resonate with me.

I know I was talking out my ass a little bit & I knew when I disagreed, I'd get blown out of the water. But, it sounds so damn good!
You know there are people who are smart who disagree with you. People who base their whole Thesis on these ideas. I think i'll go talk to some of them. ;)

The post is awesome & you've thrown some elements in I wasn't considering. I have printed out all 4 pages of your post to mull over, because now I'm left with more questions then answers.

May 12, 2007 8:50 AM  
Chris Bradley said...


In the studies leading up to Simon Peter, one of the things that has repeatedly struck me is how even people who virtually an encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible are almost wholly ignorant of actual history. We all learn about the Jews, Romans and early Christians (it seems to me) from within the religious system and only the religious system. And Christianity is deeply racist against the Jews . . . even as it adopts their culture for their religion. It's confusing to me, hehe. But I have found that even people who are scholars of the Bible are v. limited about the historical knowledge of the period.

That's probably because the history doesn't much match the Biblical record in so many places, and it never validates anythings supernatural. But unlike science, history is more "ignorable". So Christians can, and do, just ignore it. :/

Was his premise based on history or did history just support his premise? Can you seperate the two? I don't know the answers to these questions.

Well, I don't think history does support his premise. Neither does anything else that I know -- not economics, not psychology, not logic, not science. Nothing I know supports Nietzsche's premises -- so conclusions drawn on those premises are really weak, IMO.

It is, after all, the same reason I reject religion. Religion is based on false premises. Even when it's "right", it is coincidence. Same,I feel, with Nietzsche. He says a number of clever things, but about class matters he's just terribly, terribly mistaken about his premises so any conclusions drawn are probably wrong, and if they're right it's a coincidence.

But he's also a racist, sexist and classist pig, whose work (I feel) supports a totally archaic and backwards ethic that praises brutal force and stupidity.You could say that about practically everyone that has shaped western intellectual thought since the ancient philosophers. But we don't throw it all out because of it. We work with it, through it & around it. Put it in context.
Is that where Neitzsche failed? Is this a flaw of philosophy?

And I do call those other guys sexist, racists and classist! :)

There are parts of Nietzsche that I like. I really like deconstruction as a technique. He makes some very interesting points about the classist development of language, though I disagree about his conclusions. And he's a splendid writer. So I'm not, I think, throwing out everything about Nietzsche. I just think how he invents his master-slave morality is wrong.

I don't even think he's wrong to emphasize how dominance and submission have really fucked up society. I just think that choosing a side is daft, especially the side he chose -- the side of a bunch of stupid, murderous barbarians.

Also! Nietzsche has deeply influenced my writing. Whenever I write about an aristocrat, I base the values of the aristocrat off of Nietzsche's view of aristocracy and honor. ;)

And thank you for your kind words!

May 12, 2007 3:43 PM  
L>T said...

well, Now I'm thinking a course on Jewish History & a complete course on Neitzsche would benefit me here.I am extremely interested jewish history now.

When I finally studied Early Christian history & the Historical Jesus, I was really pissed at the Church for being so silent on the facts of their own history & the history of their book. All those years I had gone to Church & accepted that it was all above board & I had really struggled for the truth. I fucking tried for ten years to do it their way, by being a proper Christian & only looking in the places they told me to look. I got to teach adult sunday school classes which I loved. I believed strongly even then in intellectual honesty, so stayed away from teaching what I didn't understand or agree with. I tried not to step over their boundries out of respect. Sometimes it was like walking a tight rope. I worked hard to make my classes thought provoking & interesting.
& I did all this with out secular sources.

I have found that even people who are scholars of the Bible are v. limited about the historical knowledge of the period. this is one thing that is very true about people in church. I realized after I had taken the courses on Christian history, that most of those people in the church(including me) even the ones who really should have know the facts either didn't & if they did, they kept it to themselves. I know there is a bit of that kind of stuff[keeping things to yourself] in Church, because to buck the system is to be ostracized, that's what ultimately happened to me. If a little bit of truth is so dangerous? what does that imply?

Yes, I know Christianity is hostile to Judaism. As Christianity is hostile to everything else it incorporates; First you steal what you want, twist it until it's hardly reconizable, then destroy the source where you got it.

Well, anyway, I am not done with master/slave morality yet. I know Aristotle had a philosophical justifacation for slavery that was not what you'd call racist, I'll start there & work my way up.

May 12, 2007 6:42 PM  
Chris Bradley said...

One of the guys I read during the research of Simon Peter, a retired Episcopalian bishop named Spong, said that there was, functionally, a conspiracy to hide modern history, archeology and science from their parishoners in America. He said that, amongst themselves, they knew, discussed and were quite worried about the advance of history and archeology as much as science that was dismissing the details of the Bible. BUT that these discussions never filt down to the parish. They talk to each other about it and write articles in scholarly journals about it, but don't say things to their parish like . . . "We don't know if Nazareth refers to a town or a sect during Jesus' days. The modern town of Nazareth was founded in the 3rd century, and there is some proof it was to bring in pilgrims for economic purposes. 'Nazareth' might be a mistranslation of 'Nazarite' which referred to a monastic order of Jews with connections to the Essenes." They do not say things like that but overwhelmingly refer to Nazareth as a physical place, even though there is considerable dispute about the truth of that.

(But, y'know, after hiding such details as that they want to teach intelligent design in schools! *snorts*)

So, at least some of the ignorance that American Christians show is intentional, so it is easier for them to cling to their dogma. After all -- and I've had these kinds of discussions with Christians so I can validate it with my personal experience -- if an atheist comes up to a Christian and starts critiquing the historicy of the Bible, most Christians will accuse the atheist of bias and ignore them. But if their preachers did it? Well, it'd be harder to ignore and weaken the faith of some of their parishoners, particularly after being lied to for so long.

So, not a lot of intellectual honesty in Christianity, no. ;)

Oh, I definitely encourage you to read about master-slave morality. It's one of the most important discussions in Western history, finding serious expression in the works of Aristotle, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche and so forth and so on right down to the post-modernists like Lyotard and Foucault and the post-colonialists. It's good stuff. ;)

May 14, 2007 11:20 AM  

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