Friedrich Nietzsche has made significant and often unorthodox contributions to many fields of Western philosophy, including that of ethics. One of his areas of interest was the development of human perceptions of morality, especially the concepts of good and evil, throughout history. Nietzsche’s background as a philologist prompted him to approach the issue by analyzing the meaning of the terms “good” and “evil” in many languages and societies throughout the long history of humanity. His main conclusion was that the origin of morality was in social distinction and that two types of morality existed – the “master morality” of the ruling class and the “slave morality” of subjects. This historicist approach makes it all the more interesting to apply Nietzsche’s ideas to historical events, such as the French Revolution. From a Nietzschean perspective, the Revolution was a triumph of slave morality preoccupied with ressentiment over the master morality with its pathos of distance, yet also featuring the imitation and even resurgence of the latter.
Before analyzing the French Revolution through the lens of Nietzschean philosophy, it is first necessary to discuss his ideas of morality in some detail, starting with the master morality. According to Nietzsche, the master morality was historically the first to appear, as the high-powered and noble “established themselves and their actions as good” (26). The operative word here is “established” – in master morality, the moral value is not constructed as something good in itself but assigned by the noble and powerful to the things that are characteristic of them and their actions. The key concept for understanding master morality is the pathos of distance – the “protracted and domineering fundamental total feeling” on the part of the noble in relation to the subjugated (Nietzsche 26). The pathos of distance is crucial because it is the source of the distinction between good and bad in master morality. It is the distance between the noble and ignoble, the elevated and base, that signifies the rulings class’s actions and interests as good and opposed to the petty concerns of the subjugated.
The slave morality, on the other hand, has its roots in the state of being oppressed. While rulers, filled with the feeling of power, find the source of all moral judgments within themselves, the subjugated need “a hostile external world” for their morality (Nietzsche 37). This need arises from the feeling of powerlessness and the necessity to assign the suffering from this feeling to an external source. This leads directly to Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment – selecting an external party as a scapegoat for one’s feeling of helplessness. In master morality, it is virtually impossible to hold and nurture grudges because masters, filled with the sense of exalted power, are simply “incapable of taking one’s enemies… seriously for very long” (Nietzsche 39). Only the weak, constantly reminded of the fact of their weakness, would feel the urge to assign blame for that weakness to others through ressentiment and associate these others with evil.
From this perspective, one can definitely interpret the French Revolution as the triumph of slave morality over master morality. Nietzsche himself says as much, describing how the last political noblesse in Europe, that of the French seventeenth and eighteenth century, collapsed beneath the popular instincts of ressentiment” (54). It is fairly evident even in the Revolution’s platform document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen issued in 1789. The name of the document itself would be utterly senseless within the master morality. Masters do not need their rights declared because they have already “established themselves” as having every right by virtue of their excess of power (Nietzsche 26). It is the slaves, ever wary of the “hostile external world,” who would need an additional guarantee for their rights because they could not find it in their own strength (Nietzsche 37). Thus, in Nietzschean terms, the essence of the French Revolution is the victory of slave morality over the master morality.
Interestingly enough, one may also find a slave imitation of the master morality in the Jacobins and their rule of terror. At first sight, one may find some signs of the master morality in Jacobin policies. The cult of Robespierre as the Supreme Being may bring to mind social superiority inherent in the master morality. Moreover, Jacobins’ reliance on terror seems to resonate with the image of the master as someone “capable of arousing fear” (Nietzsche 44). Yet this association falls apart as soon as one examines the Jacobin terminology. Those persecuted and executed by Jacobins are labeled ‘enemies of the people’ rather than, say, ‘enemies of the Jacobins.’ Lacking the noble excess of power, Jacobins do not have the heart to openly proclaim “themselves and their actions as good” and label things injurious to them as bad per se (Nietzsche 26). They hide behind the ‘people,’ from whim they lack the pathos of distance, demonstrating that their morality remains slave morality, and their reign only imitates some aspects of master morality without embracing its essence.
That being said, the French Revolution eventually gives rise to the bearer of the master morality recognized as such by Nietzsche himself. The philosopher characterizes him as “the noble ideal as such made flesh” at the time when ressentiment was triumphant across the continent (Nietzsche 54). Indeed, it is hard to argue that Napoleon is emblematic of master morality. As mentioned above, the defining feature of master morality is the pathos of distance. It allows establishing oneself and one’s actions as those “of the first rank, in contradistinction to all the low, low-minded, common and plebeian” (Nietzsche 26). Napoleon achieved this pathos of distance on the scale rarely demonstrated before, creating kingdoms and appointing kings with a single word, with scarcely anyone able to oppose him. In other words, he established himself as the being of the first rank to those who would normally be beings of the first rank in their own right. The distance between him and lower monarchs was almost as great as between the lower monarchs and the plebeians, and, in this sense, the French Revolution produced one of the greatest examples of master morality.
As one can see, Nietzsche’s approach to morality provides interesting philosophical insights into the French Revolution. From Nietzsche’s perspective, the Revolution was a triumph of slave morality and ressentiment of the powerless over the master morality and the pathos of distance that is emblematic of the powerful. Jacobin terror used the ideas of power and fear but refrained from openly establishing values, which signifies it as a slave morality’s attempt to pick up the vestments of master morality without adopting its essence. The Revolution has paradoxically produced a great example of master morality in Napoleon – a man of such excess of power that he was as distanced from lower monarchs as they were from their subjects.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morals. Translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, Vintage Books, 1989.