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Bourgeois society enslaves the individual such that any attempt to transcend one’s environmental limitations results in self-destruction. Nietzsche “slave morality” theory is applicable to the works of Dostoyevsky, Mann, and Ibsen, and posits that an individual uprising under a bourgeois blanket leads to reactivity, not activity. Though each man calls for individuals values to be raised in some way (in the case of Nietzsche, by an über-mensch), each understands the impossibility of that under bourgeois rule. Marx argues that the only way to restore individuality is for the proletariat to band together and overthrow the society that hinders its freedom. Only then will slave morality be erased as individuals forge active change.
Nietzsche’s distaste for modern society is evident as he prods his reader to critique moral values, to question the values of our values (First Essay, 6, p.20). He introduces the concept of superiority of the nobility to the common individual through linguistics. He discovers that the word “good” has the “same conceptual transformation” for “noble” and “aristocratic,” whereas “bad” is associated with “common” and “plebeian” (1, 4, p.27-8). With this idea that nobility is in its place for a reason, he moves on to discuss the negatives of a slave morality. He argues that slave morality is the creative offspring of ressentiment, the inversion of values (1, 4, p.36). Saying “No” to the external and different is the creative deed of slave morality; thus, “slave morality always first needs a hostile world; it needs?external stimuli in order to act at all” (1, 4, p.37). As Nietzsche points out, this is not action, it “is fundamentally reaction” (1, 4, p.37). On the flip side, the noble mode of valuation “acts and grows spontaneously,” seeking to develop itself. It is the noble man who “lives in trust and openness with himself”; but “the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naïve nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints” (1, 4, p.38).
Since a common individual is a man of ressentiment who possesses this slave mentality that will only squint and hide, Nietzsche’s condemnation is understandable. However, he does see the need for a certain type of individual to lead society. Only a perfectly superior man can do this, for “we discover that the ripest fruit is the sovereign individual, like only to himself, liberated again from morality of custom, autonomous and supramoral” (Second Essay, 2, p.59). Only through this individual, a “master of a free will,” can our bourgeois society be redeemed, for his “great love and contempt” will deliver us from nihilism and nausea (2, 24, p.96). Nietzsche believes that ultimately it is an individual, but a highly specific one, that will be our savior, yet he calls for no individual set of values from the common individual. Dostoyevsky refutes Nietzsche’s superior man thesis by pointing out the impossibility of solitary existence and the bourgeois morality that enslaves all men.
From the opening of Crime and Punishment Raskolnikov’s slavish demeanor is evident. The cause is highlighted by the third paragraph: “He was crushed by poverty” (Part 1, 1, p.19). This results in his slipping “downstairs as quietly as a mouse” to avoid a guilt-ridden encounter with his landlady. As Marmeladov, who represents the louse of humanity, points out, “For being destitute man is not even driven out with a stick, but is swept out with a broom from the society of decent people in the most humiliating way possible” (1, 2, p.29). Raskolnikov presents a revision of Nietzsche’s über-mensch by arguing that an extraordinary man is “duty bound, to to eliminate the dozen or the hundred people so as to make his discoveries known to all mankind” (3, 5, p.276). This is supported by the fact that the goals of these extraordinary men are altruistic by nature. Thus, Raskolnikov clears himself to murder the landlady, for though “it’s human nature we are dealing with” and “the life of a sickly, wicked old hag amounts to no more than the life of a louse,” he counters that “even human nature can be improved and set on the right path” (1, 6, p.85). This proposes that an individual is allowed to impose his own values on society. However, Raskolnikov’s actions imply that he still operates out of a slave mentality. He eats his soup “in a mechanical sort of way” (1, 6, p.86), and in the murder of the landlady he “almost mechanically struck her” (1, 6, p.96). The crime seals Raskolnikov’s isolation, which is necessary for an extraordinary man to set himself apart from the rest and defeat his slave impulses; he tells his mother and sister, “I want to be alone. Better forget me altogether” (4, 3, p.328). However, even the self-sufficient Svidrigaylov demonstrates a human requirement for the company of others, indicating his own lavishness: “And I shall be your slave for the rest of my life” (6, 5, p.506). Further examples refute Raskolnikov’s theory. He wonders “if man isn’t really a beast man in general the whole human race then all the rest is just prejudice, just imagined fears” (1, 2, p.44). Raskolnikov’s, or any single man’s, inability to rise out of the morass of bourgeois complacency is pointed out by a bar patron, who asks “Would you kill the old woman yourself? If you are not ready to do it yourself, it’s not a question of justice at all” (1, 6, p.86). The Raskolnikov does eventually kill her by himself, the important idea presented here is that no single person has the strength or will to combat bourgeois morality by himself; rather, there must be a group effort. Nietzsche’s über-mensch and Raskolnikov’s extraordinary man are defeated, because individual efforts are still hampered by slave morality, no matter how removed revolutionaries like Svidrigaylov believe themselves to be.
Mann’s Buddenbrooks further inspects the hypocrisy the bourgeoisie is founded on and why it enslaves its members, dooming any individual deviation in the process. Individuality is comprised in the grand scheme of capitalism; the bourgeoisie were not born “to pursue our own small personal happiness, for we are not separate, independent, self-subsisting individuals, but links in a chain” (Part 1, 10, p.144). This anonymity has “enslaved, bound and gagged” the bourgeoisie, thus leading to the slave morality held by all (1, 8, p.134). A successful bourgeois life is entirely contradictory with upstanding morality: “‘Show zeal for each day’s affairs of business, but only for such that make for a peaceful night’s sleep.’ I intend to hold that principle sacred although now and then one may entertain doubts when confronted with people who apparently have better success without such principles” (4, 1, p.173). Thomas attempts to break out of this immoral life, thinking himself a superior man: “Thomas Buddenbrook would ask himself what sort of man he really was and what could still justify his seeing himself as something better than any of his simplehearted, plodding, and small-minded fellow citizens” (10, 1, p.593). His individual attempts and subsequent failure prompts the realization that “Thomas Buddenbrook’s existence was no different from that of an actor” (10, 1, p.597). Thomas could not undermine the slave morality that gripped his bourgeois life, and was thus only reactive. Only his death allows him room for any individuality in an imprisoned society: “Death was the loosening of tormenting chains, the removal of barriers? Did we not, at the very moment of birth, stumble into agonizing captivity?” (10, 4, p.635) Thomas admits that man always functions from a slave morality: “Staring out hopelessly from between the bars of his individuality, a man sees only the surrounding walls of external circumstance” (10, 4, p.635). Ibsen’s plays deal with an individual’s reconciliation with his own failure, and the proper way to rectify bourgeois immorality and slave mentality.
Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler resembles Buddenbrooks in the fatidic qualities of its protagonists. Hedda is immediately seen as a slave to bourgeois convention; she “had to have that trip [an expensive honeymoon]? Nothing else would have done” (Act I, p.269). She married Tesman because she “believed, like everyone else, that he was going to become a really eminent man” (II, p.300). Though her status as a female minimized her individuality, she thought she could preserve it by matrimony with an exceptional man. In this way she is double enslaved, for her husband is not extraordinary and she only indirectly benefits from his triumphs. Hedda acknowledges bourgeois society as the root of her slavery: “It’s this middle-class world that I’ve got into. It’s that that makes life so wretched!” (II, p.306). Hedda was too afraid, too slavish, to remain with Lövborg, her former destitute lover: “And I’m a coward” (II, p.317). Everyone in the play works under bourgeois limitations and strives vainly to conquer them; Brack hopes to be “The only cock in the yard” (III, p.338). In the end, however, only Lövborg proves himself to be extraordinary, and Hedda responds by burning his “child,” the manuscript that affirms his genius (III, p.345). Hedda understands that only “Eljert Lövborg had the courage to live life in his own way he had the strength and will to break away from the feast of life” (IV, p.357). Indeed, it is the absolute breaking away through suicide that allowed his superiority to flourish. Hedda wishes Lövborg had shot himself in his temple, and is dismayed to hear his death was an accidental one through his stomach (IV, p.355). She ends up shooting herself in the temple, to which Brack responds, aghast, “One doesn’t do that kind of thing!” (IV, p.364) Brack echoes the bourgeois notions that limit individuals. Hedda finally managed to individuate herself, but the result was, as in the case of Raskolnikov and Thomas, death. Ibsen’s point is clear: in a bourgeois society, the only way to evade slave morality is to escape through death. His Pillars of the Community offers a less morbid solution, though perhaps one too idealistic.
Pillars emphasizes the hypocrisy of selfish bourgeois poster-boy Bernick, who says “The lesser must give way to the greater; when all is said, the individual must be sacrificed to the majority” (II, p.58). This statement is intended to be ironic as well, for Bernick is out for his own gain. He drills this in again, as he queries “You suggest that I should sacrifice, of my own accord, my family happiness and my position in the community?” (II, p.80) The answer he receives confirms that his individual accomplishments are based on shaky ground: “All this magnificence, and you yourself with it, stands on a quaking bog. A moment may come, a word may be spoken, and you and all your glory will got to the bottom, unless you save yourself in time” (II, p.81). Bernick saves himself by realizing he has used a slave mentality to bring about his own gain: “You have no idea how incredibly lonely I am here, in this narrow, stunted community; how each year I have had to relinquish more and more of my right to a full and satisfying life?We are tools of the community, neither more nor less” (IV, p.120). He understands that bourgeois society enslaves its members “with its false colouring, its hypocrisy and its shams, with its pretended respectability,” and that his efforts to prove himself superior to the others was a reactive measure. Ibsen’s tidy solution is for the entire community to unite in “the spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom,” for only then will slavish individuality fight against others. Though Pillars ends on a positive note with a collective resolution, it doesn’t address the fact that a bourgeois society will always impede individuality. Marx’s Communist Manifesto seeks to overturn society’s very structure that enslaves its masses.
Marx attacks the bourgeoisie because “for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” of the proletariat (475). The proletariat is a prime example of slave morality, for “not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons the modern working class the proletarians” (478). This connects Raskolnikov, Thomas, Hedda, and Bernick people who destroyed themselves with the bourgeoisie’s weapons, who “are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the over-looker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself” (479). Marx understands the futility of individual attempts to destroy bourgeois ideals: “This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier” (481). Only through a class struggle can the proletarian break down the hypocrisy of “law, morality, and religion, [which] are to him so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests” (482). The very nature of a bourgeois society is “incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him” (483). This slave mentality it inflicts upon its masses is why “society can longer live under this bourgeoisie” (483). Though the other thinkers created protagonists who upset the social order, their individuality was still a bourgeois individuality; a Communism society, according to Marx, aims at “the abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom” (485). It eliminates slave mentality because slavery ceases to exist: “Communism deprives no man of the power to appropriate the products of society; all that it does is to deprive him of the power to subjugate the labor of other by means of such appropriation” (486). It is only through this slave-less system that true individuality may blossom, a society “in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (491).
Each aforementioned thinker saw the limitations of modern bourgeois society. Each demonstrated the futility of individuality in such a system, for individuality is always by slave morality of reaction. Those who broke their systems’ barriers doomed themselves, like Raskolnikov, Thomas, and Hedda. From Pillars and Marx we see that a class-based revolution is the only logical solution, for as Raskolnikov admitted, no single person wants to kill the old woman. Only a mass uprising produces the strength and will to overthrow bourgeois morality, and only then will the masses’ own slave morality vanish. The Greeks believed the individual should sacrifice himself for the development of the state, and modern thinkers believe that the development of the state should be sacrificed for the individual. As we forge ahead into the new millennium we must ask ourselves whether Plato’s and Marx’s ideas are contradictory, or if we can synthesize them into a future that feeds the unfettered development of both man and his community.
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