Mental Slavery: Who Shapes European Culture?

Is the specificity of each culture, tradition, and set of customs shaped by concrete mechanisms and behaviors? European culture grew out of three great sources: Greek and Roman mythology and Christianity. According to André Malraux (1901‒1976), a French writer and essayist, it is thanks to culture that we, as human beings, are more than just one of many natural phenomena that are the result of chance. It is true, however, it is worth reversing this question and asking about the influence of Man on the formation of culture. How does Man, with his behavior, the attitude he represents, and the values he chooses, influence the shape of the culture in which he functions?

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844‒1900), an outstanding German philosopher representing the current of the so-called philosophy of life, once made a diagnosis that European culture was substantially doomed to crisis. He believed that it was the product of weak people, for whom any principles and values serve only as a source of defense against those who are stronger than them. In his opinion, it was formerly the stronger ones, i.e. the masters, who ruled the world, setting the binding directions of development. The weaker ones did not like it, and so, using their numerical superiority, they established their morality, elevating values opposite to the values of the masters to the rank of virtues. In this way, the so-called reactive morality took power over Man and led to the ongoing crisis of culture, which Nietzsche defined as a state of decline, falsehood, and hypocrisy.

If one were to ask Nietzsche what the crisis he describes is in practice and how it manifests itself, he would probably first mention the restriction of spontaneous human activity by forcing it into predetermined, artificial norms. According to Nietzsche, the crisis of culture in the ethical sense also means widespread hypocrisy: People preach differently and live differently, so their declarations do not translate into actions in any way. The crisis of European culture, generally speaking, is the victory of the weak over the strong. Does such a diagnosis still accurately reflect the state of mind, thought and action of Man in the 21st century?

The Morality of Masters and Slaves: Still a Valid Thought?

Describing European society, the German philosopher divided people into two groups and, despite the passage of years, one can wonder whether his classification is still not up to date. In Nietzsche’s view, on the one hand, we are dealing with a group of weak people who make up the majority of European societies, and it is they who, from behind the backs of the strong, dictate the direction of humanity’s aspirations.

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Nietzsche did not mean physical, material, or bodily weakness, but a spiritual one. The mentality of slaves – as they are referred to – is based on virtues such as pity, compassion, and altruism, but the decisive vector of their actions is jealousy. Nietzsche believed that the original morality of the world, which once shaped European culture, was based on the attitude of strong individuals, that is, masters, who represented what was truly noble and dignified. The morality of masters refers to strength and power and is realized through dynamism, creativity, and vitalism.

Dignified individuals are not afraid of risk, they take on every challenge with the conviction of winning, they move forward, and despite the falls, they get up and go further. The famous words of Nietzsche: “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger” is the life motto of the morality of the masters. Slaves become discouraged with every failure, and the next challenges only breed fear and anxiety in them. They prefer to watch, from the sidelines, others who break their limitations and dare to create the world according to their scenario rather than take their fate into their own hands.

What Guides Us?

By describing these two types of morality, but also of a certain attitude to life, Nietzsche also pointed to two basic mechanisms that characterize masters and slaves.

Strong individuals, from whom the overman is derived, are guided in their actions by the will to hold power. It is more than the will to live (A. Schopenhauer) or the instinct for self-preservation (C. Darwin); it is the drive for development, the striving for progress, for self-realization in every dimension. Dignified individuals want to assert themselves and express their individuality. Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s guide to the meanders of life, tells him of the necessity of constantly transcending oneself, which is the best explanation of the will to power. An unrestrained and unfettered instinct that tells you to keep going, always moving forward.

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Weak individuals, when confronted with such determination, always lose, feel inferior when comparing themselves to the winners, and as a result, they cannot stand this failure and acknowledge their weakness. Therefore, they diminish the rank of the victory of the masters by activating the mechanism of ressentiment (from the French – dissatisfaction, reluctance, resentment). It is a reaction that grows out of deep-rooted envy and jealousy, which leads to the rejection, or rather a denial of the value of the masters’ winning. The roots of this mechanism were perfectly described by the ancient writer Aesop in his fable about the fox and sour grapes. Fox was very interested in getting the grapes, but since he did not manage to reach them, he gave up and walked away, explaining to himself that they were not worth his effort anyway, because they were sour.

By describing these two fundamental mechanisms for the construction of Man, Nietzsche encourages us to reflect on ourselves. Which attitude is closer to me in my daily choices and decisions? How often, in our daily little failures, does the fox’s way of thinking about “sour” grapes activate in us? Instead of honestly admitting to oneself: “I didn’t make it, I have to try harder to achieve the goal at the next opportunity,” we let it go, artificially depreciating the value of what we cared about. Instead of building up a positive motivation to continue trying and working on our limitations, we often get discouraged and withdraw. But what remains in us – often unconscious ‒ is regret for the world: that it did not meet our expectations, and also resentment toward other people: that they did not help, or maybe even made it difficult.

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Nietzsche warns: It is easier to blame the world and others for one’s failures than to look critically at oneself. Therefore, the German philosopher claims that resentment is also a state of mind that leads to the creation of a reactive morality in Man. Very often, as a result of our failure, we unjustly consider the successes of others to be of little value (because we cannot achieve them ourselves) and as truly worthy of respect – only our priorities. On this path, at least in a psychological way, people have a chance to ennoble their weaknesses and, as it were, take revenge on those who have achieved more than they. Such an approach, however, features only weak people. The opposing mechanism of the will of power makes Man demand oneself. “And what you have called the world shall but be created by you: your reason, your likeness, your will, your love, shall it itself become!” – Nietzsche appeals. Such an attitude emphasizes the eternal and endless creation of new possibilities, new opportunities, and perpetual realization of oneself without fear and limitations. Perhaps it is this attitude that reveals another countenance of Man of the 20th century.

It’s Always Worth Asking

It seems impossible to unambiguously determine which of the discussed mechanisms is more strongly present. Both reactionism and creativity seem to shape contemporary European culture equally. But it would be worth asking a few questions to Nietzsche, whose assessment of it is black and white and seems to overlook important details: Isn’t the morality of the masters, so the stronger ones, also based on ressentiment? Do the masters, when creating something new, constantly overcome the old, not reach for the mechanism of rejection, denial, and often also disregard and contempt? How often is the building of culture not based on the negation of the value of what has already been; it worked in the past, but it no longer fits the current reality.

Another question: Is creation, and so postulated by Nietzsche’s unfettered creationism, a value in itself? On this path, after all, it is possible to generate trends, ideas and specific products that are harmful or even destructive in their effects on humanity. And finally, who would strong individuals be and how could they establish their status if they had no reference to weak individuals and vice versa? Perhaps the existence of masters and slaves is mutually dependent and their characteristics are no longer sufficient to describe the complexity of modern Man. Maybe we should look for new categories to reflect the condition of modern European culture and humans themselves in the 20th century.

Translation: Marcin Brański

Published by

Magdalena Kozak


Deals with contemporary philosophy, mainly French, in the current of existentialism, philosophy of dialogue and relations, and phenomenology. Privately, passionate about Mediterranean vibes, crime stories – preferably Scandinavian and a lover of animals and long walks. In the surrounding world, unfortunately, less and less surprised.

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