Nietzsche famously wrote that the “slave morality,” the ethical code of the weak, is established to overthrow the “master morality,” the ethical code of the strong.

Whereas the “master morality” originates in the strong as a spontaneous affirmation of what is good and noble, the slave morality inverts the values of the strong (values such as strength, a fervent desire for honor, and a desire for excellence and superiority) and enshrines the opposing values of submissiveness and false humility. Because these latter values originate in a derivative fashion, as a reaction to the more spontaneous values of the strong, Nietzsche is largely repulsed by them. Thus, he cries “bad air! bad air!” when he approaches the slave morality’s manufacturing of ideals and its false humility.[i]

Further, Nietzsche argues that the same drive motivating the strong also motivates the weak: the will-to-power. By enshrining the “slave morality,” the weak are doing exactly what the strong do: They are aiming at eminence and superiority. However, the weak aim at these in bad faith; i.e., they seek them without admitting to themselves that they are seeking them—they don’t acknowledge that they too have this drive to superiority. Deceiving themselves, they invert the values of the strong in the name of “humility” or “lowliness,” but, like the strong, they are motivated by the will-to-power. The will-to-power, Nietzsche clarifies, is not only the drive to acquire eminence and superiority, but also the drive to exert and discharge one’s strength.[ii] Thus, as the weak rise in eminence, they seek to exert their strength on the strong by forcing them to conform to the ethical code of the slave morality.

Nietzsche goes on to claim that Christian moral teaching is rooted in the slave morality. He explains this by mapping out a so-called “genealogy” that traces the movement from the aristocratic, noble spirit of the Greeks to the common, democratic spirit of today, arguing that the superior, noble spirit of the Greeks is contrary to the common, democratic spirit of contemporary society and, allegedly, to the history of Christianity. On this point, it seems that Nietzsche is plainly mistaken, not because Christian moral teachers have rejected the virtue of humility, but because the most sophisticated have never rejected the natural drive to eminence and superiority. Indeed, they have taken this drive into account and have even ascribed virtues to those who pursue them in the proper way. These sophisticated thinkers, in other words, have regarded the the mediocre as lesser and noble as higher.

For instance, turning to that lucid expositor of St. Thomas Aquinas, Josef Pieper, we read, “one of the goods in which man naturally seeks fulfillment of his being is excellentia: superiority, pre-eminence, consideration.”[iii] The inclination to excellentia is a natural inclination, like the drives to truth or friendship, and therefore needs to be taken into consideration in our ethical dealings. Following Aquinas, Pieper argues that those who pursue pre-eminence and superiority in the right way are high-minded or magnanimous. “High-minded is the man who feels the potentiality of greatness and prepares for it. The high-minded or magnanimous man is, in a certain sense, ‘selective.’ He will not be accessible to every approach, but will keep himself for the greatness to which he feels akin.”[iv] The magnanimous man, in other words, does not settle for the banal and mediocre. Despite Nietzsche’s claims to the contrary, Christian thinkers have been claiming that excellentia is not an evil to be avoided, but a good to be sought and cherished.

Moreover, Nietzsche and Christian philosophers, such as Aquinas and Pieper, prize the magnanimous man for the same reasons. According to Pieper, the magnanimous man is, in a strong sense, difficult to harm. “The high-minded man does not complain; for his heart is impervious to external evil. High-mindedness implies an unshakable firmness of hope, an actually challenging assurance, and the perfect peace of a fearless heart.”[v] The heart of the magnanimous man is steadfast, never flinching from external setbacks but fixed with an abiding hope.

Now consider Nietzsche’s description: “To be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long—that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mold, to recuperate and to forget … Such a man shakes off with a single shrug many vermin that eat deep into others.” [vi] As usual, Nietzsche’s rhetoric is polemical and somewhat crude, but the content of his description aligns well with Pieper’s description. Neither thinker promotes that obsessive self-abnegation of the weaker man; both promote a certain kind of strength and resilience in character that shrugs off external setbacks and trivial offenses.

Of most interest for the purposes of our investigation is that Pieper places humility and magnanimity logically right next to each other, as if they were two sides of the same coin: “Humility and [magnanimity] not only are not mutually exclusive, but actually are neighbors and akin; and both are equally opposed to pride or pusillanimity.”[vii]  In fact, neither virtue could exist properly in a human being without the existence of the other virtue. Humility without magnanimity is not true humility, and magnanimity without humility is not true magnanimity. The reason for this is clear: “the ground of humility is man’s estimation of himself according to truth.”[viii] A man who does not firmly acknowledge the truth about himself cannot be truly magnanimous, for the magnanimous man is clear-eyed and even-keeled, neither overestimating nor underestimating his own abilities, but perfecting them so that he may reach the heights of virtue and achieve the appropriate honors.

Thus, far from suggesting a flattering and obsequious form of humility, Pieper writes, “Fearless frankness is the hallmark of high-mindedness; nothing is further from it than to suppress truth from fear. Flattery and dissimulation are equally removed from the high-minded … a ‘humility’ too weak and too narrow to bear the inner tension of cohabitation with high-mindedness is not true humility.”[ix] Humility, as the frank recognition of one’s own abilities and capacities, precludes the exaggerated servility that is proper to flattery or sycophancy. Thus, the humble man does not fawn or grovel, but forthrightly acknowledges his own abilities and his own standing. The humble man, moreover, will not suppress the truth out of fear, but speaks the truth modestly even in the most dangerous environments, that is, environments that the weaker man would not be able to handle.

Nietzsche’s definition of humility is clearly foreign to the Thomistic definition. Nietzsche refers to humility as a virtue of the slave morality[x]: It is the cunning and calculating self-deprecation of the weak, oriented to dominating the strong. Nietzsche writes, “while the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself …, the [weak man]is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors … he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble.”[xi] Humility, on Nietzsche’s account, is a power-ploy; it is never a frank acknowledgement, but rather an extension of deceptive cunning directed to gaining dominance over the strong.

Nietzsche deplores this type of “humility” since it is grounded in untruth, and the Christian, it seems, can heartily agree with Nietzsche on this point. For the Christian, however, the “humility” of the slave morality is not humility at all, but the vice of irony. Aquinas explains:

A person belittles himself by forsaking the truth, for instance by ascribing to himself something mean the existence of which in himself he does not perceive, or by denying something great of himself, which nevertheless he perceives himself to possess: this pertains to irony, and is always a sin. … [Sometimes] it happens that a man belittles himself for some … motive, for instance that he may deceive cunningly: and then irony is more grievous [than boasting] (ST II-II, Q. 114, A.1-2).

The “humble” man of the slave morality falls prey to the first form of irony: he ascribes to himself “something mean the existence of which in himself he does not perceive.” For it is characteristic of the weak man of the slave morality (of ressentiment) that he will not acknowledge his weaknesses as weaknesses but, instead, mischaracterizes them as strengths. By being self-deprecating, therefore, he ascribes “something mean” to himself without actually perceiving this weakness within himself. He is ironic. He is vicious.

To the extent that Nietzsche accuses Christianity for enshrining the humility of the slave morality, he seems to be plainly mistaken, for Christianity clearly rejects exactly what Nietzsche rejects: deceptive self-effacement before others to gain power and favor. The Christian account of humility, rather, is the firm acknowledgment of the truth about one’s own person.

This form of humility is precisely what Nietzsche is missing. For without the humility that accounts for one’s own weaknesses, all of our actions degenerate into the will-to-power. For those who seek only superiority, acknowledging one’s own weaknesses is not an option, for it is equivalent to giving others the upper hand and submitting to their domination—unless, of course, it is done provisionally to deceive the strong and gain the upper hand at some point in the future.

Again, we can see the necessity of preserving the tension between humility and magnanimity, for each without the other will, of necessity, degenerate into the endless assertion of the self. It does not matter whether this self-assertion happens by means of callous domination or by means of servile self-abnegation, for both are oriented toward will-to-power. What’s required for the Christian and for Nietzsche’s so-called noble man is always keeping the tension between magnanimity and truthful humility. For only in this tension can each be preserved in its own right without degenerating into vice.




[i] Friedrich Nietzsche. The Genealogy of Morals. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library, 1968. Print. 482

[ii] Friedrich Nietzsche . Beyond Good and Evil. Ed. Walter Kaufmann. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. New York: Modern Library, 1968. Print. 211

[iii]  Josef Pieper. The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Courage, Temperance. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1980. Print. 189

[iv] Ibid 190

[v] Ibid 190

[vi] The Genealogy of Morals 475

[vii] Pieper 189

[viii] Ibid 189

[ix] Ibid 190

[x] The Genealogy of Morals 397, 474

[xi] Ibid 474