While Dostoevsky was unaware of Nietzsche, Nietzsche wrote in Twilight of the Idols that Dostoevsky was the only psychologist from whom he had anything to learn, having chanced upon Notes From Underground in a bookstore in Nice in the winter of 1886-7. Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals and Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground both explore the distinction between two human types. As a brilliant novelist, Dostoevsky depicts the shortcomings of both. Nietzsche, on the other hand, tries to describe someone who was everything Nietzsche was not; a picture of health and a man of action, which ends up being about as plausible as the hero worship an eight year old might have for his friend’s sixteen year old, motorcycle riding, brother. Notes From Underground is a diagnosis of the mindset driving Nietzsche’s admiration of the “master,” while being himself much more of a “slave.” Dostoevsky also had more in common with the “slave” in real life, and could see what attraction being a “master” might have for such a person, while categorically not falling for this fantasy. Dostoevsky’s ability as a novelist to inhabit a character without identifying his own ego with it would have been a big help in this regard.
Dostoevsky was short, epileptic, and a compulsive gambler. Nietzsche was perpetually sick with chronic headaches and digestive problems. Reading and writing, his main occupations, strained his eyes and made both conditions worse. He was generally in pain while writing. Unlike Dostoevsky, Nietzsche was unread and unloved in his lifetime. He would typically print five hundred books or so at his own expense and end up giving most away.
In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche refers to “mastery morality,” to be contrasted with “slave morality,” the German Christian morality of the nineteenth century. Annoyingly, Nietzsche does not attack the best of Christian thinkers, but the uninspiring Christian-influenced German ethos of hoi polloi of his time. The opposite thing happens when someone finds an insightful quotation from some Native American chief or other and imagines that all Indians were wise, balanced, quasi-philosophers.
According to Nietzsche, the “master” resents no one. He is not a puny, frustrated little worm, fantasizing about switching places with someone of higher rank. The master ignores his social inferiors and has time only for those of his own class. He engages in manly activities associated with vigorous good health like hunting, war, and adventure. Nietzsche is a great analyst and critic of resentment, presumably partly from first-hand experience as an unread author, and sees it as the weak’s impotent rage at the strong turned inward in frustration at not being able to punish its proper target. Nietzsche is right that resentment is indeed an unlovely sentiment but, as Thomas F. Bertonneau pointed out, it is preferable to actual violence. Resentment is the residual emotion of violence deferred.
Notes From the Underground Shines a Light on The Genealogy of Morals
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