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Comparison of The Views on Social Stratification by Friedrich Nietzsche and W.e.b. Dubois

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Social stratification does more than distinguish people by wealth and occupation; it also impacts the way people view themselves and analyze others around them. The mental workings of people are of particular interest to philosophers who propose theories on the holistic psychology of different demographics, focusing especially on the psychological development of different demographics that interact with one another.

In Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche explores the psychological development or ressentiment of those who are in the position of a slave in relation to a master. The people who experience ressentiment are those who are in an inferior position and are called various names, including “the slaves”, “the mob”, “the herd”, or “the common man”. The theory Nietzsche presents on the psychological development and thinking processes of slaves both challenges and accompanies near-contemporary W.E.B. DuBois’ explanation of the psychological state of African Americans in 20th Century America, which he describes as the term double-consciousness in his The Souls of Black Folk. Though Nietzsche’s discussion is revolved around the power struggle between the slave and the master, we can still apply this psychological explanation to the limited scope DuBois defines for this specific demographic during a particular time in United States history. In order to better understand how DuBois and Nietzsche interact, we first need to understand the main arguments and context of DuBois in the way in which he discusses double-consciousness.

DuBois describes double-consciousness as the complex psychological state of African Americans who deal with two conflicting identities. He describes African Americans as “a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in the American world.” DuBois continues, “[This world] yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. From this excerpt, DuBois points out a number of aspects to this double-consciousness, directing us to the ideas of the veil and second-sight. The veil that covers the eyes of the black son is something he is born with. It is not something that is achieved through realization or experience, nor can it be removed. As seen in further passages, the veil represents the psychological manifestation of racism. The veil exists in white people’s minds and compels them to structure society according to racist logic. For example, when DuBois is invited to eat dinner with two white men, initially he is surprised by the openness of a white man, even thinking that he is lucky. But once dinner is served, “then fell the awful shadow of the Veil, for [the white men] ate first, then [him] – alone”. For a moment, DuBois thought the veil had been removed from his face, allowing the white men to fully see him as a human or an equal. But he quickly realized that he was still within the veil, within this marginalized part of society due to his race. The veil prevents white people from seeing black people as Americans and from treating them as fully human. In addition to this veil, the black son is “gifted” with second-sight.

DuBois uses the word gifted ironically, for as he reveals, this second-sight is the view the black son sees of himself through the white lens of racism, or the “world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. He views himself through the same veil white people see him through. This means that second-sight relies on the veil, which means that second-sight lasts so long as the veil of racism exists. In addition to this second-sight of viewing himself from white America’s perspective, the black son also views himself as he sees himself, giving him dual perspective or, as DuBois calls it, double-consciousness. The black son grapples with the conflicting views of who he is as white America sees him and who he is to himself. He “feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder”. The life of the black son consists of an inward duel between two opposing perspectives. As one who is born in a white world, he is immediately an outsider. Despite his attempts to assimilate to and participate in this white world, he will never be accepted, for white America will never accept him as fully human and marginalizes him behind this veil. DuBois points to his own personal experience where he, upon his realization of this veil, attempts to surpass his classmates in academic endeavors and physical activities. But “with the years all this fine contempt began to fade; for the worlds he longed for, and all their dazzling opportunities, were theirs, not his”. Even if the black son offers himself to the white world, gets educated in their schools, learns to talk or behave like them, he will never be treated as an equal simply by merit of him being a black man in an America that is already a white world. Similar to the black son who is forced into a distinguished position of inferiority in his world, the slave who undergoes ressentiment also is in a position of inferiority in relation to the master.

Nietzsche begins his analysis of ressentiment by examining the etymological roots of the words “good” and “bad” as they are coined in various languages, noting an alignment of “good” with “aristocratic soul,” “noble,” “a soul of a high order,” and “a privileged soul” and an alignment “bad” with “common,” “plebeian,” and “low”. The development of languages was based on the idea that good was linked to noble and that bad was linked to common. Nietzsche deduces, therefore, that the nobility, who were the ones in power, must have been the ones to define these etymological associations. Through a series chain reaction, the social distinction between the nobles and commoners promoted the development of languages to define good and bad in favor of the nobles, which thereby promoted the moral perception of good and bad again in favor of the nobles, which thereby established a status quo that nobles and their attributes were good and commoners and their attributes were bad. Just as the world DuBois describes is a white America that scrutinizes African Americans, the society Nietzsche describes is ruled by the powerful nobility who define themselves as good and put commoners into the position of bad. It is important to note that the African American DuBois describes is actually the “commoner” or “slave” Nietzsche describes.

Nietzsche’s terms, though used in different contexts and thus switching between “commoner” and “slave”, refer to the same thing and simply represent someone who is inferior or “bad” according to society’s deeming. The African American and the commoner or slaves are simply those who are positionally inferior. Besides being positionally inferior, in order for people to develop double-consciousness and ressentiment, there needs to be the personal recognition of this inferiority. As previously discussed, DuBois describes the veil and the second-sight that cause double-consciousness and are inherent in African Americans upon birth. But African Americans must come to the realization or awareness of this veil. As DuBois recounts from his childhood, it was not until a classmate treated him differently from other white classmates that he realized “with a certain suddenness that he was different from the others; or like, mayhap in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil”. Although he always had a veil, he did not always realize it until he saw its effects.

Later when DuBois reflects on the birth and untimely death of his newborn, he again confirms this when he the presence of the veil when he claims that his son, like himself, was born within the veil and would continue to live within it. Upon his son’s death, DuBois initially grieves, but also acknowledges his son’s death as an escape from the veil’s effects. In his son’s innocence, he “knew no color-line… and the Veil, though it shadowed him, had not darkened half his sun”. DuBois finds comfort in the fact that his son would never experience the harsh cruelties of racism, but simply enjoyed a simplistic and innocent life, unaffected by the veil. The veil is always present over African Americans, yet it is not necessarily always recognized. Since the recognition of the veil causes double-consciousness, a way for double-consciousness to go unnoticed is for people to not realize the veil. Therefore, double-consciousness is only effective so long as the veil is noticed. Likewise, the commoner who undergoes ressentiment must be aware of his inferiority. Ressentiment, “in order to exist,… needs a hostile external world … [as an] external stimuli”. Nietzsche points to the Jews, who, like African Americans, were familiar to oppression and slavery. They were well aware of the domination of their masters who imposed the rules of morality and societal norms upon them (Nietzsche 34). Although double-consciousness and ressentiment both require the participant to be inferior and to have self-awareness of his inferiority, the difference between double-consciousness and ressentiment is how the participant responds to his realization of inferiority.

Double-consciousness initially discourages African Americans, but DuBois points out how people have attempted to escape and can escape from its clutches. First, DuBois shows the negative effects of double-consciousness. Inevitably, double-consciousness brings “self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate”. The internalization of prejudice results in the adoption of self-disparaging judgments directed to the self. As a result, the “powers of body and mind… are strangely wasted, dispersed, or forgotten”. Yet, as Dubois clarifies, this obstruction of human potential and participation in societal life is “not weakness, – it is the contradiction of double aims”. Double-consciousness drains African Americans of their full potential, because they seek to satisfy two unreconciled ideals. Despite this crippling disadvantage, DuBois points to various ways African Americans can and have responded to this psychological distress, noting only one true way to escape from double-consciousness. First, he warns of the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, who compromises African Americans’ political power, civil rights, and higher education for physical comfort. According to DuBois, failure to address these aims is “practically [an acceptance of] the alleged inferiority of the Negro races”. Without this “manly self-respect”, African Americans would be voluntarily surrendering such respect or ceasing their striving for it, and, as seen throughout history, DuBois argues, would make them people “not worth civilizing”. Washington’s program may temporarily secure African Americans’ physical needs but at the expense of their own self-respect and at the risk of losing an escape from the veil.

Second, DuBois warns of the allure of wealth as a goal. DuBois fears that African Americans will direct their strife for “another and a juster world” toward “cash and the lust for gold”. He acknowledges that the ideal of a just world is “vague” and mysterious, whereas wealth is a clear and achievable goal sought after by both sides of the color divide. Yet, wealth is simply a false promise that does not eliminate the veil and distracts from the goal of self-realization and political and cultural participation. Rather than following Booker T. Washington’s philosophy or striving for wealth, DuBois points to self-respect and self-assertion as the only way to resolve the inner turmoil of double-consciousness, which will be later discussed in further detail. Unlike double-consciousness, which causes an inward reflection or change of self, ressentiment is a rebellion against what is outside of the self.

Ressentiment looks to what is outside and “says No to what is ‘outside,’ what is ‘different,’ what is ‘not itself’…This need to direct one’s view outward instead of back to oneself – is of essence of ressentiment”. One seeks to express hostile behavior toward another who is the source of one’s inferiority, rather than reflecting upon oneself. Once ressentiment “itself becomes creative and gives birth to values”, “the slave revolt of morality begins”. This “slave revolt of morality” is an “imaginary revenge,” meaning it takes an ideological form, manifested as ideas and attitudes toward the world and specific aspects of life. Nietzsche points to the Jews as an example. The Jews who opposed their enemies and conquerors were “ultimately satisfied with nothing less than a radical revaluation of their enemies’ values, that is to say, an act of the most spiritual revenge”. Seeking to revert their master’s morality, the Jews, in their slave morality, caused an inversion of values, attributing their own characteristics as good and those of their masters as bad.

Nietzsche’s ressentiment is more than just resentment. Ressentiment has agency and expands until “slave morality” is victorious over the glories of “master morality.” Nietzsche points to Christianity as the pinnacle of Jewish “slave morality,” which took control away from the noble master class of Rome and became the new dogma for Rome. Nietzsche condemns ressentiment as being an “essentially dangerous form of human existence” that made man become “an interesting animal, that only here did the human soul in a higher sense acquire depth and become evil”. Ressentiment first looks to the outside, condemns and hates the “others,” but results in an inward change of the slave into an “animal” with depth and evil, and other “dangerous” attributes, including arrogance, revenge, lust to rule, and virtue.

In contrast to this outward to inward transformation, Du Bois’ double-consciousness manifests itself as an inward to outward transformation. As previously discussed, double-consciousness forces African Americans to analyze themselves from this second-sight of who they are through the white lens of racism. But from this realization can they develop a power of discernment. In this way, Du Bois’ second-sight can be analyzed through Nietzsche, where he claims that “the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity’ be”. The second-sight, though disheartening to African Americans, is still another store of knowledge that African Americans have to acknowledge.

Du Bois criticizes Washington’s acknowledgement of second-sight as a willingness to accept a position of inferiority and instead encourages the acknowledgement of inferiority as a motivation to strive for equality. Du Bois points to Alexander Crummell, who, despite countless struggles with the veil, never stopped fighting and never gave in to hate, despair, or doubt. He uses Crummell as a pattern of how someone can use this second-sight, not as a barrier, but as an incitement to continue learning and continue striving forward despite obstacles. Du Bois’ attitude towards the bishops who refused the admittance of a black priest contrasts the antagonizing attitude of one with ressentiment. He acknowledges that the bishops were “not wicked men,” but were “calm, good men… who strove toward righteousness” and even showed sympathy towards Crummell, despite still treating him as an unequal. Unlike ressentiment, double-consciousness does not try to attack the outsider, but instead acknowledges the current situation as a restriction to life to work around. By using this second-sight as a tool, African Americans can develop their own way of life within this veil. Crummell influenced and inspired others within the veil by “inspiring the young, rebuking the old, helping the weak, and guiding the strong”.

Du Bois established a school to help black students within the veil. Even the sorrow songs Du Bois quotes at the beginning of each chapter represent the development of a unique black culture and a way to record of the history of those within the veil. Du Bois concedes that African Americans will face great challenges and difficulties, but encourages them to use this prejudice as motivation to continue fighting, despite hate, despair, or doubt. By behaving in this way, first reflecting upon oneself and making adjustments to how one behaves in the face of obstacles, Du Bois hopes this will eventually result in an outward change in society. “Surely there shall yet dawn some might morning to lift the Veil and set the prisoned free”.

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Comparison Of The Views On Social stratification By Friedrich Nietzsche And W.E.B. DuBois. (2019, Jun 12). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 9, 2023, from
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