These two moralities differ in origin, with master morality found among the strong and powerful, and slave morality among ‘the violated, oppressed, suffering, unfree, who are uncertain of themselves and weary’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S260).
But they also differ in content, as Nietzsche’s account of master morality highlights:
The concept good and evil has a two-fold prehistory: firstly in the soul of the ruling tribes and castes. He who has the power to requite, good with good, evil with evil, and also actually practices requital – is, that is to say, grateful and revengeful – is called good; he who is powerless and cannot requite counts as bad. As a good man one belongs to the “good,” a community which has a sense of belonging together… As a bad man one belongs to the “bad,” to a swarm of subject, powerless people… Good and bad is for a long time the same thing as noble and base, master and slave. On the other hand, one does not regard the enemy as evil: he can requite. In Homer the Trojan and the Greek are both good (Human All Too Human, S45).As ‘the soul of the ruling tribes and castes,’ the master morality consists of ‘the evaluative traditions and customs’ of a particular community of the strong and the powerful (Merold Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.233). As such, revenge, which is the power to requite evil with evil in the service of the community, is a virtue, a natural expression of that community’s will to power.
The primary dualism within master morality is good/noble versus bad/base (rather than versus evil) such that even ‘the enemies of the good are themselves good and not evil.’ To designate the enemy or the weak as bad/base is ‘not to signify some harmful quality they possess, some essence they exhibit, but rather to express the “pathos of distance” in which they are recognized as lacking what makes life worth living for the strong, what makes the good good’ (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay 1 S2).
Further, since the primarily value within master morality is good/noble, rather than bad/base, the key to this morality is, as Merold Westphal notes, that ‘the goodness of the good does not depend on the badness of the bad’ (Suspicion and Faith, p.233). As Nietzsche puts it, ‘every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself’ rather than from a denigration of its enemies (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay1 S10). This means that, within master or noble morality, ‘no one is evil’ (S2).
However, Nietzsche observes, ‘[w]hen man possesses the feeling of power he feels and calls himself good: and it is precisely then that the others upon whom he has to discharge his power feel and call him evil!’ (Daybreak S189). This latter point introduces the primary characteristic of a second morality in Nietzsche’s prehistory, slave morality.
That lambs dislike great birds of prey does not seem strange: only it gives no ground for reproaching these birds of prey for bearing off little lambs. And if the lambs say among themselves: “these birds of prey are evil; and whoever is least like a bird of prey, but rather its opposite, a lamb – would he not be good?” there is no reason to find fault with this institution of an ideal, except perhaps that the birds of prey might view it a little ironically and say, “we don’t dislike them at all, these good little lambs; we even love them: nothing is more tasty than a tender lamb.” (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay1 S13).
Within slave morality, then, the wickedness of the wicked is primary, with the goodness of the good emerging in comparison to enemies already designated as evil: ‘He has conceived “the evil enemy, “the Evil One,” and this in fact is his basic concept, from which he then evolves, as an afterthought and pendant, a “good one” – himself!” (S10)
This means that, for Nietzsche, “good” has ‘two diametrically opposed meanings, depending on whether its opposite is bad or evil, or, to be more specific, depending on whether it designates the values perceived by the masters to be in their interest or those perceived by the slaves to be in theirs’ (S11). For example, “justice” (to which we shall return shortly) is understood within slave morality as altruism and equality, but this is because it has much to gain from such a virtue whilst master morality has everything to lose. Accordingly, master morality understands justice in the sense of ‘the primordial law of things’ (Beyond Good and Evil, S265), the way things are and should continue to be, because it is from this that it benefits: ‘Big fish eat little fish’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.235).
But because slave morality is that of the weak, weary, and oppressed, it ‘gives no ground for reproaching’ the evil enemy (On the Genealogy of Morals, Essay1 S13). This means that whilst revenge is a virtue, as it is for master morality – remembering Nietzsche’s will to power thesis, revenge will be all-pervasive in morality – within slave morality the will to power has no means of exacting this revenge. This resentment is, then, ‘the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge,’ whereas in master morality, revenge, ‘if it should appear in the noble man, consummates and exhausts itself in an immediate reaction, and therefore does not poison’ (S10).
In slave morality, resentment cannot be acted upon, is an impotent resentment, and is compensated with what Nietzsche calls an imaginary or ‘spiritual revenge,’ in which resentment festers and grows (S7). Whilst master morality can be honest about its vengeance, slave morality has reason to be ashamed: ‘It is a morality that preaches forgiveness, but whose motivation is revenge, that preaches love of enemies, but is the creation of the enemy as the incarnation of evil’ (Westphal, Suspicion and Faith, p.236).