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  • “Consecration to Culture”:Nietzsche on Slavery and Human Dignity
  • Andrew Huddleston (bio)

“There are some who threw away their last worth [Werth]when they threw away their servitude [Dienstbarkeit].”

–Thus Spoke Zarathustra, I, “On the Way of the Creator.”

1. Introduction

In the Infamous Opening Sections from Part IX of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche celebrates a strident kind of elitism and countenances, in however attenuated a form, the institution of slavery. “Every enhancement of the type ‘man,’” he writes, “has so far been the work of an aristocratic society—and it will be so again and again—a society that believes in the long ladder of an order of rank and difference in worth [Werthverschiedenheit] between man and man, and that needs slavery [Sklaverei] in some sense or other” (257). In the section that follows, Nietzsche describes a “good and healthy aristocracy” as “accept[ing] with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake [um ihretwillen], must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves [Sklaven], to instruments [Werkzeugen]” (258). From these passages taken in isolation, an unsavory picture can emerge of Nietzsche as a defender, indeed a champion, of exploitation of the worst sort: Nietzsche appears to praise a world in which a small elite enhances itself through the subjugation of the rest of mankind, who bear this yoke of servitude and get nothing in return.

The assumption undergirding this reading is a natural one: namely, that whatever benefits it may bring to an elite, whatever cultural achievements it may make possible, slavery is not in the interest of the slaves themselves. But it is not, as I shall argue here, Nietzsche’s own way of looking at things. Far from thinking it is contrary to the interests of “the masses” that they be subjugated, Nietzsche argues that ironically it is in being “reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, [End Page 135] to slaves, to instruments” (BGE 258) that most people—those not part of the tiny aristocracy of Nietzschean great individuals—can come to live what Nietzsche regards as the most flourishing life for them. As I hope to make clear in what follows, the idea of “slavery in some sense or other” (BGE 257) that Nietzsche envisages is far more subtle than one might at first suppose from the connotations of this deliberately shocking word he chooses. In this paper I will spell out what conception of a person’s flourishing Nietzsche is working with, what sense of “slavery” he has in mind, and why he thinks this form of “slavery” is the best sort of life for all but a few exceptional great individuals. My aim here is primarily to explicate Nietzsche’s views, not to evaluate them. But I do hope to suggest that Nietzsche’s remarks about slavery are less odious than they can sometimes seem, even if they ultimately leave us unsettled.

2. Morality and “The Slave Revolt”

Nietzsche casts himself as a critic of morality. In speaking of “morality” in the pejorative sense with which he often uses that word, Nietzsche has in mind an institution that gradually comes to social prominence in the long span of time between the birth of Christianity and the fall of the Roman Empire.1 Mention of this “morality” should, however, come with two main caveats. First, the “morality” that is in Nietzsche’s critical sights is not a unified set of doctrines, but a disparate family of worldviews. It begins with Christianity and later comes to branch into divergent and often more secularized forms, encompassing views as different, both in spirit and in explicit prescription, as those of Aquinas, Kant, Schopenhauer, and Mill. Second, in his charges against “morality,” Nietzsche does not mean to include all non-prudential systems of, broadly-speaking, ethical evaluation under the banner of the morality that he attacks.2 His criticism of morality in fact arises out of his own perfectionistic value commitments. These valorize what is in his view a higher form of life, one in which beauty, creativity, nobility, honesty, striving, self-mastery and self-overcoming, strength of body and of spirit, affirmation of world and of self, exceptional...