Nietzsche suggests that the "slave revolt in morality" begins when ressentiment, or resentment, becomes a creative force. Slave morality is essentially negative and reactive, originating in a denial of everything that is different from it. It looks outward and says "No" to the antagonistic external forces that oppose and oppress it. Master morality, on the other hand, concerns itself very little with what is outside of it. The low, the "bad," is an afterthought and is noticed only as a contrast that brings out more strongly the superiority of the noble ones.
While both slave and master morality can involve distortions of the truth, master morality does so far more lightly. Nietzsche notes that almost all the ancient Greek words denoting the lower orders of society are related to variants on the word for "unhappy." The nobles saw themselves as naturally happy, and any misunderstanding rested on the contempt and distance they held from the lower orders. By contrast, the man of ressentiment distorts what he sees so as to present the noble man in as bad a light as possible, and thereby to gain reassurance.
The noble man is incapable of taking seriously all the things that fester and build in the man of ressentiment: accidents, misfortunes, enemies. In allowing resentment and hatred to grow in him, in having to rely on patience, secrets, and scheming, the man of ressentiment ultimately becomes cleverer than the noble man. This constant brooding and obsession with ones enemies begets the greatest invention of ressentiment: evil. The concept of the "evil enemy" is basic to ressentiment just as "good" is basic to the noble man. And just as the noble man develops the concept of "bad" almost as an afterthought, so is the concept of "good" created as an afterthought by the man of ressentiment to denote himself.
Nietzsche remarks on how different the concepts of "evil" and "bad" are, in spite of both being considered the opposite of "good." He explains this difference by explaining that there are two very different concepts of "good" at work: The noble man's "good" is precisely what the man of ressentiment calls "evil."
Among their own kind, noble men are respectful and subdued, but when they venture out among strangers, they become little more than uncaged beasts-- "blonde beasts," as Nietzsche calls them. "Blonde" here is a reference to lions rather than to hair color, as Nietzsche bestows this name not only on Vikings and Goths, but also on Arab and Japanese nobility. The name "barbarian" is often associated with the violence that occasionally erupts from noble people.
Contemporary wisdom would suggest some sort of progress and refinement from these "blonde beasts" to the humanity of today, but Nietzsche vehemently disagrees. The overthrow of master morality in favor of slave morality is nothing to be proud of. These barbarians may have been fearful, but they were also admirable. Today's world of ressentiment is neither: it is merely mediocre. Nietzsche characterizes the nihilism he detests in contemporary society as a weariness with humanity. We no longer fear humanity, but we also no longer have hopes for, reverence of, or affirmation of humanity. Nietzsche fears that our slave morality has rendered us insipid and dull.
The important concept of ressentiment appears frequently in Nietzsche's writings. This French word is pretty much equivalent to the English word "resentment," and Nietzsche uses it largely because there is no German word for "resentment." It is the central creative force behind Nietzsche's conception of slave morality.
We might better understand the slave's ressentiment by contrasting it with the contempt felt by the master toward the slave. In Nietzsche's view, the "bad" of master morality is an afterthought for the masters' that does not much concern them. They look down on slaves with a shrug of contempt: the thought process rarely goes beyond "sucks to be you." By contrast, the slaves' ressentiment for their masters is a consuming passion, one that poisons them and makes them bitter. Quite contrary to the passing contempt of the masters, this ressentiment is a primary focus of the slaves' energy and attention.
In a sense, the life of the noble man is much simpler: nothing ever stays with him for too long. If he's upset, he lets it slide, and if he's happy, that happiness is a present happiness: the noble man lives in the present.
By contrast, the man of ressentiment allows things to build within him. Injuries against him slowly build as resentful hatred, and he constructs happiness through long thought processes. Because his focus is never on the present, the man of ressentiment also builds hope and cleverness in a way the noble man does not. According to Nietzsche, all this thought and hatred culminate in the invention of the concept of evil and the denotation of the noble man as "evil."
Nietzsche's criticism of slave morality is largely based on the fact that it develops out of hatred, denial, and an evasion of present realities. The hopes of the slave are on a promised afterlife, the focus of the slave is on people who hardly even think of the slave: there is no emphasis on the self or on the present. As a result, a contemporary Europe that has been infected with slave morality has become insipid and dull, having given up all sense of ambition for itself and for the present.
The commentary on the previous section suggested that Nietzsche did not make moral valuations himself, and yet here he seems to be coming down very harshly against slave morality. Perhaps we should refine that remark by suggesting that while Nietzsche does judge systems of morality, he does not judge them from the vantage point of a particular preferred system of morality. His judgments are not based on particular values that he admires or detests so much as they are based on a vision of the kind of person created by the different systems of morality. Nietzsche despises slave morality for the manner in which it devalues life. Because ressentiment brings our attention away from ourselves and away from the present, we become less creative, less assertive, and less motivated. It creates people that are no longer driven to improve themselves.
Walter Kauffman argues forcefully against the claim that Nietzsche disparages slave morality in favor of the master morality of the "blonde beast," the barbarian, that maims and slaughters. While it seems clear that Nietzsche would prefer these barbarians to contemporary Europeans, his other writings suggest that his ideal is far from this master morality as well. That Nietzsche does not align himself with master morality is consistent with the claim that he does not align himself with any system of morals. In the later essays, we shall see how Nietzsche values the drive to refine oneself, to control oneself, and to affirm oneself. While master morality is better off for lacking ressentiment, it lacks the discipline and self-control necessary to fit Nietzsche's ideal. For instance, Nietzsche suggests that the man of ressentiment is cleverer than the noble man: either Nietzsche does not think the noble man is perfect, or he thinks that being clever is a weakness.
We might want to offer a brief criticism of Nietzsche's analysis. Perhaps he gives in a bit too much to his weakness for polemic, but the dichotomy between master morality and slave morality seems a bit simplistic. If slave morality is based on a ressentiment felt toward the masters, and now the whole world has succumbed to slave morality, who are the masters that we all resent? While masters and slaves make up a convenient opposing pair, it seems highly unlikely that the world is divided quite so cleanly, as if there were nothing between masters and slaves. We find Nietzsche being more careful in Beyond Good and Evil, section 200, where he characterizes both the dominant slave morality and the praiseworthy exceptions of the modern world as arising from a complex mixture of drives and values.