Untermenschen: Nietzsche on slavery – and what it means to be human

Does modern capitalism produce new forms of slavery? What can human flourishing mean in a globalized system of extreme exploitation, coercion and dependence? How have philosophers re-defined moral and political commitments in the light of such radical inequality? These questions lie at the heart of the research I hope to carry out at STIAS. The distinctive aim of my project is to critically examine the problem of slavery through the lens of Nietzsche’s philosophy. I want to show that in spite – perhaps because – of his deep-seated distrust of liberalism and humanism, Nietzsche can offer us unique insights into very topical issues of moral and political philosophy such as justice, rights, autonomy, the good life, and what it means to be human.
For too long, Nietzsche’s defence of slavery has been either ignored or read metaphorically. Especially scholars eager to claim him as a champion of emancipation and self-determination have tiptoed around it. This has left us with an impoverished understanding of his most central – and most radical – philosophical arguments: about moral universalism, the notion of a shared humanity, human greatness, and the value of human life after “the death of God”. My goal is to relate Nietzsche’s reflections on slavery to some of the themes (e.g. origins, race, values) currently explored at STIAS as part of the “Being Human Today” project. In doing so, I intend to globalize them and to open them up to the aims and methods of other disciplines, notably political theory, history and anthropology. In particular, I want to investigate the specifically African contexts that shaped Nietzsche’s ideas and the ways in which the latter were subsequently used, on the African continent, to justify severe forms of subjugation and servitude.

Project leader(s):
  • Martin Ruehl (Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, University of Cambridge)

Leave a Reply