“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”, Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote. In this Sprouts special in collaboration with Stephen Hicks, we explore Nietzsche’s division of the world into sheep and wolves, and how our morality, what we consider as good and bad, is the result of brute biological events.
the full story
Nietzsche says: All of organic nature is divided into these two types of species— those who are naturally herd animals and those who are naturally loners — those who are prey and those who are predators. Psychologically and physically, this divide also runs right through the human species.
Some people are born fearful and inclined to join a herd — and some are born fearless and inclined to seek lonely heights. Some of us are born sedentary and sluggish — and some of us are born crackling with purpose and craving adventure. Some, to use Nietzsche’s language, are born to be masters, and some are born slaves.
There is a brute biological fact here: Our traits are evolutionarily bred into us. Just as a sheep cannot help but be sheepish and a hawk cannot help but be hawkish, each of us inherits from our parents a long line of inbuilt traits.
Sheep and wolves
The master types live by strength, creativity and independence. They respect power, courage, risk-taking, even recklessness. It is natural for them to follow their own path no matter what, to rebel against social pressure and conformity.
And by contrast, the slave types live in conformity. They tend to passivity, dependence, meekness. It is natural for them to stick together for a sense of security, as herd animals do.
Nietzsche then turns to morality—good and bad, right and wrong. For a long time we have been taught that morality is a matter of commandments set in stone thousands of years ago. Not so, says Nietzsche: what we take to be moral depends on our biological nature —and different biological natures dictate different moral codes.
Think of it this way: If you are a sheep, then what will seem good to you as a sheep? Being able to graze peacefully, sticking close together with others just like you, being part of the herd, and not straying off. What will seem bad to you? Wolves will seem bad, and anything wolf-like, predatory, or aggressive.
But what if you are a wolf? Then strength, viciousness, and contempt for the sheep will come naturally to you and seem good. There is nothing the wolves and the sheep can agree on morally—their natures are different, as are their needs and goals, as is what feels good to them. Of course, it would be good for the sheep if they could convince the wolves to be more sheep-like, but no self-respecting wolf will fall for that.
So: one’s moral code is a function of one’s psychological makeup, and one’s psychological make-up is a function of one’s biological make-up. Nietzsche is among the first to apply evolutionary concepts to morality: Moral codes are part of a biological type’s life strategy of survival, and the more one looks at the history of morality evolutionarily and biologically, the more one is struck by dramatic changes in moral codes across time.
And this is the key problem, Nietzsche argues, for the historical record shows a disturbing inversion. Formerly, we prized above all excellence and power, and we looked down upon the humble and the lowly. Yet now the meek, the humble, and the common man are the “good,” while the aggressive, the powerful, the strong, the proud are “evil”. Somehow the morality of the weak has become dominant, and the morality of the strong has declined.
This moral inversion is dangerous: the traits of strength and power, those of that ennoble man, are now condemned; and the traits of ordinariness and modesty, those of that weaken man, are praised. Morality, accordingly, has become a bad thing; or, more paradoxically, morality has become immoral. The morality of the weak has somehow become dominant, and the morality of the strong has declined. How is this rather paradoxical state of affairs to be explained?
TO BE CONTINUED
what do you think?
What are your thoughts on Nietzsche’s view of man being born along the spectrum of sheep and wolves? And do you share his concern about an inversion of moral values?
For more information check the descriptions below.
There you’ll also find a link to Stephen Hicks’s full account of the German philosopher.
- More reading on Slave Master Morality -Wikipedia
- Nietzsche and the Nazis by Stephen Hicks -www.stephenhicks.org
- Podcast on Slave Master Morality -Podcasts.nu
Do you feel like a sheep or a wolf? And do you think one is born as such or can one change their nature? Do Nietzsche’s arguments hold true, or at least somewhat true in the 21st century?
Discuss it among friends, family, in school, or let us know in the comments below!