Wisdom of the Moderns: Master Kurtz

A primary theme in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche is the duality of master and slave morality. His master morality can be summarized in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s declaration in Self-Reliance that “virtue is Height.” Nietzsche says that slave morality is essentially a psychological trick used by the lower castes of society to take revenge on the nobility for being better than they are. It can be seen that Kurtz from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness is an adherent of master morality rather than slave morality.

For Nietzsche, there have been two competing moralities throughout history; master morality and slave morality. Master morality consists of the values and virtues of the “great-souled” men, the men of high abilities and capacities. These men strive towards and naturally possess nobility, strength, power, and honor. As he says in Beyond Good and Evil, “The noble soul has reverence for itself” (§287). It reveres itself because it recognizes that it is great, and it reveres greatness. Noble souls consciously act for their own benefit and pleasure, unhindered by a consideration for other people. This is the sense in which they are “beyond good and evil.” They do not use the calculus of good and evil to weigh their actions and decisions, but rather beautiful and ugly, or honorable and shameful. An example of this morality can be found in Aristotle. In book four, chapter three of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discuses megalopsuchia, which roughly translates to magnanimity, high-mindedness, or pride. He mirrors Nietzsche when he says, “Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them.” This shows that Aristotle’s central consideration is not humility, but rather greatness.

Slave morality, on the other hand, is a reaction by the slaves against the master. In The Antichrist, Nietzsche says that it is a morality of the “botched” and “bungled” of humanity, who he identifies as Christians. Nietzsche posits that slave morality originated in the resentment of the weaker people for the noble classes. In this way, it cannot exist in itself; it is always only a reaction against master morality. It operates by attempting to destroy the talent and vitality of the noble souls. Humility is an example of this process. Nietzsche would say that in a time long past, the weaklings resented the fact that the strong ones caused them to realize their own weakness, so they invented the concept of humility. When the “bungled” ones imposed humility upon the great souls, the great souls were compelled to lessen or downplay their own greatness, and because this created an illusion of equality, it allowed the slaves to feel good about themselves. This is an example of the manner in which slave morality operates.

Kurtz shows many signs of master morality. The first indicator is that other people recognize the potential for greatness within him. The manager of the first outpost that Marlow visits upon landing in Africa insists, “Mr. Kurtz was the best agent we had, an exceptional man, of the greatest importance to the Company” (p. 22). This is typical of the praise bestowed upon him throughout the novella. Kurtz’s master morality is also evidenced in his control of people. He becomes chief of a tribe, and is essentially worshiped by the natives (p. 50). Nietzsche would say that this shows that his ability to fulfill his will to power is large, and is a sign that he is in the master category. He would also say that it shows that Kurtz has learned to revere himself. Furthermore, he succeeds in going beyond good and evil. When he enters the tribes, he fully enters them, embracing harems, human sacrifice, and possibly cannibalism. A man of slave morality would not have the ability to do this. Another example of Kurtz’s master morality is his outright rejection of the slave morality of his past. He writes an eloquent treatise that was a “moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment” (p. 50). Altruism, Nietzsche would say, is an example of slave morality. However, after Kurtz decided to switch to master morality, he appends his pamphlet with a single sentence; “Exterminate all the brutes!” (p. 50). This shows that he utterly rejected slave morality, in favor of master morality.

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