Might vs. Right in the Western Intellectual Tradition

The question of might versus right is one that has received a variety of answers from thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition. There are, on the one hand, those who hold firmly to the idea that a thing is true or good if those with political, military, or other power claim the opposite. This especially seems to be the case among the ancients in the biblical tradition and the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. On the other hand, more recent thinkers of the Western tradition have taken different approaches to the question. Niccolo Machiavelli perhaps initiated this movement by introducing the idea that a ruler need not use his might to attain to the right. Friedrich Nietzsche continues this line of thinking in a refined form in what amounts to an assertion that might does indeed make right. Karl Marx presents a more complicated approach to the question that attempts in some ways to cling to the older understanding of right being undetermined by might, yet only maintains this older belief tenuously and in a manner that may not be entirely consistent with his philosophical outlook as a whole. Each of these thinkers provides an inlet to a deeper engagement with the question of what makes something right, whether it is somehow the nature of the thing itself or the ability of the powerful to enforce it.

At the foundations of both of the major strands of Western Civilization, the biblical tradition and the tradition of Greek philosophy, stands the insistence that right stands apart from might. Among both the Jews and the most influential Greek philosophers, a distinction was drawn between those with power and the higher truths of the created order that even these could not violate. In both instances, it seems that this sense of the tension between might and right grew out, at least to some extent, out of the experience of injustice and persecution as the hands of those more powerful.

In the biblical tradition, the insistence on the superiority and independence of right to might almost certainly finds its origins in the experience of persecution by the Jewish people. This is true both in their civilizational origin story of enslavement and exodus from Egypt as well as the experience of conquest and colonization at the hands of more powerful empires, such as the Babylonians and the Persians. As a result of these experiences and perhaps other aspects of their experience and the development of their thought, the ancient Jewish people developed an understanding of the right as superior to all might, including even that of the king.

It is remarkable that in a time when the kings and rulers of the various kingdoms and empires surrounding them in Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt claimed to be gods or the emissaries of gods, the Jews placed great emphasis on the subordination of their kings to their God and his law. As evidence of this, the story of David and Bathsheba is of note. Stories of kings running astray of the rules laid down by their gods are hardly something new. The Epic of Gilgamesh may very well be the oldest story in the world and it features just such a plot in Gilgamesh’s continual defiance of the gods and especially in his rejection of the advances of the goddess Ishtar. In these stories, however, the king is often represented as something like an equal or at least justly barely subordinate to the gods. Jewish tradition holds that David penned Psalm 51 with its supplication to “have mercy on me, O God” (Psalm 51:1, ESV) in response to his punishment by God for murder and adultery in his affair with Bathsheba. This is a long way from a prayer that one could reasonably imagine Gilgamesh or another king like him ever reciting and does a great deal to demonstrate the absolute subordination of the king, as a human being, to the supremacy of God and the laws of moral right that he has ordained. While Gilgamesh and Enkidu can kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the gods to wreak havoc in Uruk, there is no might that can overcome the right ordained by the God of the Jews.

With this in mind, the opening of the Book of Proverbs is highly significant. There, the author, ostensibly David’s son Solomon, who has become King of Israel, addresses the work to an unnamed son so that this son can “know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight” and “to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity” (Proverbs 1:1-3, ESV). That this is traditionally believed to have been written by a king addressing a son who will presumably one day be king himself is important to understanding the significance of this address. This future king must learn about wisdom, righteousness, justice, and equity. It is not his decree that makes it so, but, rather, these things exist apart from and above his word and he must not run up against them. Might must become right; it cannot create right.

The origins of a similar insight in the philosophy of Plato bear a noteworthy resemblance to the development of this idea among the Jewish people. Plato’s Apology and Republic can be seen as extended arguments against the notion that might makes right in the various forms in which this idea has appeared. In Plato’s case, this insight derives from the injustice perpetrated by the people of Athens against his teacher Socrates. Having been condemned to death, Socrates reproaches those who have so voted, reminding them that the right is superior to their collective might: “if you suppose that by killing human beings you will prevent someone from reproaching you for not living correctly, you do not think nobly.” While the citizens of the Athenian democracy may be able to vote to take away the life of Socrates, the truth is not determined by popular vote. In short, they are not “correct,” or right, because of their might.

In the Republic, Plato once again confronts the problem of might versus right as it is introduced by Thrasymachus with the assertion that “the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” Thrasymachus’s explanation of his position is particularly telling when the comparison with Jewish kingship and the unjust punishment of Socrates is kept in mind; he explains,

Each ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage; a democracy sets down democratic laws; a tyranny, tyrannic laws; and the others do the same. And they declare that what they have set down—their own advantage—is just for the ruled, and the man who departs from it they punish as a breaker of the law and a doer of unjust deeds. This, best of men, is what I mean: in every city the same thing is just, the advantage of the established ruling body. It surely is master; so the man who reasons rightly concludes that everywhere justice is the same thing, the advantage of the stronger.


This is clearly the thought of the ancient kings of Babylon, Persia, and Egypt on the nature of justice. What is right is, in short, what might proclaims to be right.

Socrates refutes this idea, in its presentation by Thrasymachus, by pointing out that what is decreed by those with the might may not always be in their own interest; there is, then, the problem of whether what is right is what is decreed by the mighty or what is actually in their interest, making the entire proposition self-refuting. This refutation, in turn, becomes the basis for most of the rest of the argument of the Republic, in which Plato-via-Socrates attempts to demonstrate, in a noteworthy similarity to the attitude of the Book of Proverbs, that the rulers of a state must discover the right rather than attempt to create it. Their might is not the source of the right, but instead must be used to find it and implement it. Its existence and nature are, however, not dependent upon their decrees.

Plato’s student Aristotle, while departing from his teacher in some interesting ways, continues in this line of thought laid out by Socrates. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle advises that “perhaps it might be held to be better, and in fact to be obligatory, at least for the sake of preserving the truth, to do away with even one’s own things, especially for those who are philosophers. For although both are dear, it is a pious thing to honor the truth first.” The separation between “one’s own things” and “the truth” made explicit here places Aristotle in direct continuity with the Socratic/Platonic separation of might from right. For Aristotle as for Plato, truth is a thing to be searched for rather than a thing to be decreed by any authority no matter how powerful.

This line of thinking that dominated Western thought on the relationship of might to right because of its simultaneous and seemingly independent origins in both its biblical and its Greek philosophical foundations came under serious question beginning in the early modern era. In many ways, Machiavelli ushered in early modernity by opening up this relationship between might and right to question in The Prince. There, Machiavelli writes, “It is necessary for a prince, if he wishes to maintain himself, to learn to be able to be not good, and to use it according to necessity.” In this simple statement, Machiavelli undermined the entire Western tradition of separation between might and right.

Implicit in his statement is the belief that what is right morally may not always be what is right practically. Such a pragmatic approach to right by those with might, in turns, calls into question the entire tradition of thinking that places the definition of right outside of the control of the powerful. If the ruler determines that the right thing to do practically speaking is not what is right according to a supposedly transcendent moral law, the importance of this moral law is diminished. There seems to be no reason to continue to affirm that there is such a transcendent moral law if it is no sense a guide for action.

While Machiavelli does not seem willing to entirely follow through on the implications of such thinking, other, later thinkers certainly did. Friedrich Nietzsche is undoubtedly foremost among these. In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche declares, in what amounts to a nearly full circle return to the proclamations of Thrasymachus, that the “the will to power” is in fact the very “essence of life.” In this declaration, Nietzsche follows Machiavelli’s thought through to its logical conclusions. While Machiavelli had severed the relationship of might to right that had prevailed in Western thought up to him, which claimed for might a submission to the dictates of right, Nietzsche abandons the idea of right altogether. For Nietzsche, the only eternal and immutable law is the law of the will to power and it is this that leads to determinations of right and wrong by those who are more powerful. What is right is, in essence, what those with the might claim it to be.

Karl Marx represents an interesting and noteworthy deviation from the modern ideas about the relationship between right and might represented by the words of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. According to Marx, it is the prevalent economic forces of a given society that in fact possess the might and therefore determine the right. Marx writes, “since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges all things, it is the general confounding and compounding of all things—the world upside-down—the confounding and compounding of all natural and human qualities.” Nearly all aspects of a culture, including its arts and religions, are the products of economic forces, according to Marx’s understanding of the world.

While affirming the supremacy of the economic forces over all other aspects of human life, however, Marx also sees the injustice of the unequal distribution of wealth caused by capitalist economics and, while positing an inevitability to the end of the capitalist system, also seeks to lay out the program for an end to capitalism and the transformation into a communist social and economic system. The introduction of the ideas of injustice, inequality, and the possibility that an economic system can be dehumanizing, all things that Marx claims of the capitalist system, however, introduces a degree of incoherence into Marx’s philosophy. If indeed right is determined by the might of the impersonal economic forces of the time, an appeal to a universal moral law of justice and equality as well as an innate human nature implied by Marx’s critique have no place of origin or philosophical foundations that fit within the Marxist paradigm. Marx attempts to appeal to a universal and transcendent right while giving it no place to perch or operate within his system of thought, thereby rendering his philosophy incorrectly inconsistent. In his attempt to reconcile the ancient and modern views on the relationship of might to right, Marx creates the conditions for a refutation of his philosophy.

While Marx’s philosophy is internally incoherent and Plato’s refutation of Thrasymachus stands as a solid rebuttal of the thought of Machiavelli and Nietzsche on the question, there remains what seems to be a lingering problem in the thought of both the biblical and Greek philosophical traditions on the matter of might versus right. This problem is that in attempting to place right in a superior position to might, both traditions found it necessary to appeal to a superior might as the source of right. In the case of the biblical tradition this is the God of Israel and in the case of the Greek philosophical tradition this is more ambiguously pointed to as the realm of the Forms or, in Aristotle’s philosophy, some other vaguely defined realm of transcendent truth and, importantly, superior power. In both traditions, it is posited that right is determined above the level of human might but that this right is also enforced either through the direct activity of God upon the world and through the laws that are written into the nature of the world. Whichever of these two alternatives one looks to, it is the case that right is determined by might, though that might is utterly transcendent to the might of any human ruler. It would seem, then, that might indeed makes right, though this might is not the might of kings or democratic assemblies but rather the might of an Almighty God or a universal truth.

The Cause of Evil

One of the several defining features of the twentieth century has been the utopian thrust of political and social movements worldwide. As far flung and widely ranged as the Boxers and, later, the Maoists in China, the Leninist-Stalinists in Russia, the Fascists in Italy and Spain, and the National Socialists in Germany, the dominant theme has been the belief that by changing laws and structures a perfect society can be created, freed of the age-old problems of poverty and crime. This notion pervades even the less extreme segments of political thought, including most American twentieth century politics. In his 1924 Democracy and Leadership, Irving Babbitt traces the genealogy of this idea to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s abandonment of the idea of sin in favor of the belief that the causes of evil lie in society.

Writing of Rousseau, Babbitt claims, “in general, his notion that evil is not in man himself, but in his institutions, has enjoyed immense popularity, not because it is true, but because it is flattering.” The thought that was “central to [Rousseau’s] world view,” according to philosopher Christopher Bertram is the idea “that humankind is good by nature but is corrupted by society.” The causes of the evils that afflict human life, then, are not to be found in individuals, their actions, and motivations, but rather in society itself and its effects upon its members. Presumably, if one can alter the social structures which have produced these ills, one can alleviate, perhaps even altogether obviate, these ills.

Ultimately, what Rousseau accomplished was the overturning of the Christian doctrine of sin. Appealing to St. Paul’s use of the term “old man” to refer to the nature of human beings, inclined to sin, Babbitt argues that the Rousseauistic abandonment of this notion “undermine[s] moral responsibility.” Whereas one had previously been encouraged to look within oneself for the source of evil in the world, the responsibility could now be shifted away from himself and toward others. This is, of course, as Babbitt says, “flattering.” One need not admit one’s own flaws nor take responsibility for them; evil is external, rather than internal. “Hell is other people,” as Jean-Paul Sartre was to write in the middle of the twentieth century.

Influenced by this supposition, the last two centuries, and the twentieth century in particular, have been rife with grand schemes to overturn existing social structures in the hopes of creating a perfected society free of the evils that have plagued earlier societies. Each, in succession, has, of course, been a tremendous failure. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who had been a supporter of one of these movements, Marxism-Leninism in Russia, early in his life, later became one of its victims as a prisoner in the Soviet gulags. After being released from gulag, Solzhenitsyn wrote in his 1974 three-volume work Gulag Archipelago,

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

The failure of the social revolutions of the twentieth century stems, as Babbitt presciently wrote even before most of these revolutions had fully taken shape, from the deadly flaw within their basic premises, their flattering assertion that man is good and it is his institutions that make him bad. “The hope of civilization,” however, “lies not in the divine average, but in the saving remnant.” Any attempt to eliminate evil through social engineering is doomed to fail. It is only through the small, but significant, individuals who are able to develop within themselves the discipline necessary to overcome the “old Adam” that any good may be accomplished.

Primary Source: Exodus 20:1-17 (The Ten Commandments) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.7)

1 And God spoke all these words, saying,

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

“You shall have no other gods before me.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.

 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

 12 “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

 13 “You shall not murder.

 14 “You shall not commit adultery.

 15 “You shall not steal.

 16 “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

 17 “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.”

A History of a Hatred: Anti-Hebraism, Anti-Judaism, and Antisemitism

The hatred of the Jews as a people and of their religion, culture, and, later, even their blood, has been a nearly ubiquitous force throughout the history of Western Civilization. This paper will trace the evolution of this hatred from its beginning in the first contacts between the Greeks and the Jews in the fourth century BCE through to the modern day, attempting to both follow its developments and discover its roots. Although this hatred of the Jews is often described as “Antisemitism” regardless of which historical period is being referred to, this paper will attempt to use more precise terminology. The application of a term like “Antisemitism,” which refers to the hatred of those who fall in the Semitic racial category, to earlier cultures which carried no such notions is at best a misleading anachronism. In the interest of avoiding such inaccuracies, this paper will instead refer to three separate but related phenomena: anti-Hebraism, anti-Judaism, and, following these, Antisemitism.

6th Century BCE through 1st Century CE: Anti-Hebraism

Similarly to the misapplication of the word “Antisemitism” to earlier periods than those in which such a term is meaningful, it is tempting to see the beginning of Anti-Hebraism at a much earlier date than its actual first appearance. The Babylonians and other ancient peoples who warred with or, as the Babylonians did, conquered the people of Israel are often presented as case studies in the early hatred of the Jews. This approach, however, is one that does a disservice to the historical record. While the Babylonians of the sixth century BCE and the other ancient peoples with whom the Israelites fought may have had some “hatred” of their Hebrew or Jewish enemies, the important point here is that this hatred was not a special and unique dislike for a certain people. Neither the Babylonians nor any other ancient enemy of the Jews seems to have regarded the Jews as an exceptional people; they regarded and treated, and this of course means that they hated, the Jews just as they did any other nation against whom they battled.

The view which the Jews held of themselves from a very early date as “a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth” who had been “chosen” by God “to be a people for Himself” must be distinguished from the indifference with which their early enemies treated this claim.1 Because they viewed themselves as a chosen people, the Jews tended to see everything that happened to or around them in these terms and as a result of this special place, and this Jewish view of themselves has colored the way that some historians view the actions of other ancient peoples.

The Book of Daniel is one outstanding example in this regard. The stories in Daniel take place during the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BCE, but the book itself was probably written in the second century BCE, as many as 400 years later. As a result, Daniel, the Jewish hero of the story, is treated as an exceptional figure by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and Jewish religious practices and taboos are treated as having a special significance even by non-Jews. These stories, however, record far less about the actual Babylonian view of the Jews than they do about the Jewish view of themselves in relation to the nations who became their captors. The Book of Daniel is also reflective of and an important historical account of Jewish feelings during the time period in which it was written, namely, the reign of the Greek Seleucid Empire over the Jews.

The real beginning of Anti-Hebraism is probably best placed in the fourth century BCE. It is at this time, with the conquest of Judea by Alexander the Great and the imposition of Greek rule on the Jews, that the Jews can be definitively said to have been viewed as an exceptional people by their non-Jewish rulers and neighbors. The Jews, with their unique ritual and social practices such as circumcision and their insistence upon religious exclusiveness, were viewed with a great measure of suspicion and skepticism by their Greek conquerors and overlords in the fourth through second centuries BCE. While most were willing to tolerate and even protect the Jews as an exceptional people, some rulers, such as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, attempted, however unsuccessfully, to force the Jews to Hellenize and renounce their unique religious practices and beliefs.2

The Greek distrust and dislike of the Jews was continued among the Romans, who conquered both the Greeks and the Jews in the second and first centuries BCE. While the Romans were willing to accept and make exceptions for unique Jewish beliefs and practices and large numbers of Jews emigrated throughout the Roman Empire, Jews were consistently mocked and looked down upon by Romans, who saw practices like circumcision as barbaric and the exclusive Jewish monotheism as potentially seditious.3 According to Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, “from the Roman point of view, the Jews proved themselves congenitally incapable of either cooperating with the Roman provincial authorities … or coexisting peaceably with the Greeks.”4 The defining feature of this period, which can be most accurately referred to as Anti-Hebraic, was an opposition to and a dislike of the numerous unique aspects of Jewish culture. This negative view of Judaism continued, and was even strengthened in many ways, when the Roman Empire gradually became Christianized beginning in the fourth century CE.

1st Century CE through 18th Century CE – Anti-Judaism

Christianity emerged from a particularly unpleasant split with Judaism in the first century CE. Christians were viewed by the Jews as treacherous and heretical and, as a result, often suffered persecution and expulsion from the synagogues. This hostility on the part of mainstream Jews toward the Christians in their midst precipitated a final split between Judaism and Christianity. It also led to a great deal of vociferously hostile words making their way into the mainstreams of both Jewish and Christian literature and thought about the other. As Calvin J. Roetzel points out, for example, “Matthew’s Gospel … interprets the destruction of the temple in 70 C.E. as punishment for the rejection of Jesus by some Jews.”5

When Christians began to assume power in the Roman Empire several centuries later, these ideas about the Jews combined with the popular Roman prejudices to strengthen Roman anti-Hebraic attitudes into what would most appropriately be called Anti-Judaism.6 These anti-Jewish attitudes, a combination of the Greco-Roman prejudices and Christian theological and historical disagreements, became the predominant view of Judaism throughout Europe for many centuries.

Medieval Christians came to see the Jews as “graceless, blaspheming rebels who had long ago closed their eyes to the light of the Gospel, deicides and ‘Christ-killers’ … whose very survival testified either to the Wandering Jew’s well-deserved homelessness or to the Christian charity of those who tolerated them in their midst.”7 Because of their rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, a point which seemed patently obvious to Christian interpreters of the Old Testament who juxtaposed its prophecies with the life of Christ, the Jews were seen as being blind to apparent truth and possibly even in active rebellion against it. Just as in earlier times under the pagan Greeks and Romans, the Jews, due to their rejection of what others saw as the obvious as well as the insular nature of their communities, were often viewed as dangerous and as potential sources of insurrection.

Early apparitions of this way of viewing the Jews by Christians seem rather more like commonsense than the bigotry they are often portrayed as by some modern historians. As Angelos Chaniotis points out, for example, “if the early Christian fathers, like John Chrysostom and Ephraim the Syrian, never tired of warning their Christian flock not to attend the synagogue, it is because many Christians did.”8 Although the split between the Church and the synagogue had been a messy one with hard feelings on both sides, many Christians, especially the very large group who converted from Judaism, maintained close contacts with Judaism and Jews. At the time, about 400 CE, when John Chrysostom delivered his vociferous sermons against the Judaizers, a group of people who tried to practice both Judaism and Christianity, one could find a small but not insignificant group who attended both the Paschal Feast in the local Christian church and the Passover at the local synagogue. The warnings of such early Christian leaders as John Chrysostom and Ephraim the Syrian were warnings against a very real threat to the Christian Church.

Later manifestations of Christian Anti-Judaism, however, often crossed the line into the absurd and bizarre. In 1144, in France, for instance, the accusation was leveled that Jews kidnapped Christian infants and used their blood in the matzoh they consumed as part of the celebration of Passover.9 This strange rumor continued to circulate throughout the Middle Ages and continues to have currency in some places in the Muslim world to this day. Interestingly, this accusation made by Christians against Jews in the High Middle Ages is nearly the same rumor which had spread among pagan Romans regarding early Christians in the first through third centuries. In their writings, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and many other early Christian authors of that period address the charge made against them by Romans that they kidnapped Roman babies and used their flesh and blood as the “flesh” and “blood” consumed in the Eucharist.

It is notable in all of this that none of these prejudices or disagreements revolve around Judaism or Jews as a race or ethnicity, but as a specific religious group which one can join and leave by changing belief and custom. This began to change, however, in the early modern period. One element of the Reconquista in Spain was the forced conversion or expulsion of the Jewish population.10 When given the option of converting to Christianity or leaving, many Spanish Jews chose to convert. These conversos, as they were called, came to be viewed with a great deal of envy and suspicion by their Christian neighbors. Many suspected that, because they had converted under duress, their conversion had only been affected for appearances and that they secretly continued to practice Judaism. In addition, many whose families had been Christians for centuries viewed with envy the children and grandchildren of conversos who were able to attain important places in both secular government and in the the Church, including places as governors, mayors, and bishops. As a result, the name of converso came to be applied, however improperly, even to those whose grandparents had converted to Christianity and the stigma of sedition attributed to the Jews continued to be attached to these conversos even after generations as Christians. What had been a difference in religion was coming to be viewed as a difference in race.

18th Century CE through Today – Antisemitism

With the era of the Enlightenment in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, Europeans came to focus more attention and importance on science than on religion. Whereas the emphasis of the Middle Ages had been a primarily religious emphasis, which the denizens of the Enlightenment saw as superstitious, the emphasis of the Enlightenment was one of science and rationality. Rather than actually shucking superstition, however, many instead simply adopted a new set of superstitions or rephrased old superstitions in the new, more acceptable terminology. This can be seen especially in the rise of Antisemitism from Anti-Judaism, as constructed by people like Wilhelm Marr. According to Karl A. Schleunes, Marr was among the first of those who “assigned to Jews the attributes of a race” and was the first, in 1873, to use the term “anti-Semitism” to describe this position.11 While an intellectual living in the wake of the Enlightenment could not take religious differences seriously, or, at least, as seriously as they had been taken previously, he could take supposedly scientific ideas like race seriously; Judaism, then, became no longer a religion, but a race, and all of the same superstitions and conspiracies which had formerly surrounded the Jewish religion were transferred to the new Jewish race. This view became extremely popular in spite of the obvious historical difficulty: many Jews were the descendents of people who converted to Judaism in the ancient and Medieval world and many non-Jews were the descendents of Jews who had converted to Christianity or Islam.

The culmination and most extreme outburst of modern Antisemitism was the Holocaust under the Nazi Party in Germany in 1933-1945. One of the greatest ironies of the Nazi obsession with race is that they, while taking up this “scientific” view on Judaism as a race, re-translated it into religious terms. For the Nazis, race became a religious concept. As one Nazi ideologist, Arthur Rosenberg, wrote in his The Myth of the 20th Century: “A new faith is awakening today: The faith that blood will defend the divine essence of man; the faith, supported by pure science, that Nordic blood embodies the new mystery which will supplant the outworn sacrament.”12 The Greek incredulity at what they saw as the bizarre customs of the Jews, the Roman suspicions toward Jewish exclusivity, and the Christian theological and historical differences with Judaism, all of which had been matters of cultural and religious opposition, became, for the Nazis, attributed to an insidiousness inherent in Jewish blood. This was contrasted with the inherent superiority and goodness of pure Aryan blood, as difficult as such a thing might be to find. The Nazis took up a heritage of Anti-Judaism and a pseudoscience of race to create their own unique racial religiosity which lay at the heart of their entire philosophy and practice.


As different as the phenomena discussed in this paper have been, there has been, throughout the history of the hatred of the Jews, whether in its Anti-Hebraic, Anti-Judaic, or Antisemitic forms, a single thread that binds this “ghoulishly fascinating” story together.13 Thomas Cahill accurately and succinctly summarizes this common thread that runs throughout the history of the hatred of the Jews:

The people being excoriated are presumed to exhibit the unyielding qualities of God himself—the same God whom Christians claimed to worship and whose sacred scriptures they revered. … The hatred of Christians for Jews may have its ultimate source in the hatred of God, a hatred that the hater must carefully keep himself from knowing about.14

Although Cahill is here referring specifically to Christian Anti-Judaism, his words apply equally as well to the pre-Christian Anti-Hebraic Greeks and Romans as well as the later Antisemitic Christians, atheists, and others. What seems to be at the center of all manifestations of hatred toward the Jews is really a hatred of their God – the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and of his imposing ethical demands on human beings.

Cahill’s moving description of the commandments of this God as given in the Torah presents us with a powerful summary of these ethical demands; according to Cahill, “the constant bias is in favor not of the powerful and their possessions but of the powerless and their poverty; and there is even a frequent enjoinder to sympathy. … This bias toward the underdog is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”15 In stark contrast to this description of the demands of the Jewish God stand the words of Adolph Hitler, which might accurately summarize the position, whether implicit or explicit, of all those who have hated and persecuted the Jews simply for being Jews: “Close your hearts to pity! Act brutally! … The stronger man is right. … Be harsh and remorseless! Be steeled against all signs of compassion! … Whoever has pondered over this world order knows that its meaning lies in the success of the best by means of force.”16

In his closing address before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany, on 26 July 1946, Justice Robert H. Jackson, prosecuting attorney for the Americans, eloquently encapsulated the psychological and philosophical motivation for and effects of the Nazi’s rabid Antisemitism when he said that they had tried to “renounce the Hebraic heritage in the civilization of which Germany was once a part” and in so doing, they had “repudiated the Hellenic influence as well.”17 In their fanatical hatred of all things Jewish, a hatred of the Jewish God and of his demands which led them to a hatred of his people, they had attempted to strip Christianity of all of its Jewish heritage, they had decimated the Christian churches, and they had murdered as many as 13 million people, including six million Jews. In so doing, the Germans had renounced not only the Hebrew legacy of faith and the idea of God which makes up such a great part of Western Civilization but the Greek legacy of reason which consists of the other half. As Donald Kagan has eloquently put it, “if both religion and reason are removed, all that remains is will and power, where the only law is the law of tooth and claw.”18 In the end, their Antisemitism had led them to renounce and attempt to destroy Western Civilization entirely.


1 Deuteronomy 7:8, New King James Version.

2 Martin Goodman, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilization (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), 49.

3 Ibid., 278-9.

4 Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), 170.

5 Calvin J. Roetzel, The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition(Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 36.

6 Goodman, 551.

7 Gabriel Sivan, The Bible and Civilization (New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973), 46.

8 Angelos Chaniotis, “Godfearers in the City of Love,” Biblical Archeology Review, Vol. 36, No. 3 (May/June 2010): 32-44.

9 S. Zeitlin, “The Blood Accusation,” Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 50, No. 2 (1996): 117-124.

10 David M. Gitlitz, Conversos and the Spanish Inquisition, ed. David Rabinovitch, PBS.org, accessed 19 May 2012, http://www.pbs.org/inquisition/pdf/ConversosandtheSpanishInquisition.pdf.

11 Karl A. Schleunes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933-1939 (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990), 24-5. 

12 Arthur Rosenberg, Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts (Munich, 1931), 114. Quoted in Schleuenes, 52.

13 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.

14 Ibid., 152-3.

15 Ibid., 154-5.

16 Adolph Hitler, speech to Nazi leadership in 1939. Quoted in William L. Shirer, Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany(New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990), 532.

17 Robert H. Jackson, Closing Statement at the International Military Tribunal in Case No. 1, The United States of America, the French Republic, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics v. Hermann Wilhelm Göring, et al. 

18 Donald Kagan, “Introduction to Ancient Greek History: Lecture 1 Transcript,” Open Yale Courses. (6 September 2007) http://oyc.yale.edu/classics/introduction-to-ancient-greek-history/content/transcripts/transcript1-introduction (Accessed 20 May 2012).


Cahill, Thomas. The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels. New York: Anchor Books, 1999.

Chaniotis, Angelos. “Godfearers in the City of Love.” Biblical Archeology Review. Vol. 36, No. 3 (May/June 2010): 32-44.

Garnsey, Peter and Richard Saller. The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Gitlitz, David M. Conversos and the Spanish Inquisition. Ed. David Rabinovitch. PBS.org. Accessed 14 April 2012. http://www.pbs.org/inquisition/pdf/ConversosandtheSpanishInquisition.pdf.

Goodman, Martin. Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilization. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Jackson, Robert H. Closing Statement at the International Military Tribunal in Case No. 1, The United States of America, the French Republic, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics v. Hermann Wilhelm Göring, et al.

Kagan, Donald. “Introduction to Ancient Greek History: Lecture 1 Transcript.” Open Yale Courses. (6 September 2007) http://oyc.yale.edu/classics/introduction-to-ancient-greek-history/content/transcripts/transcript1-introduction (Accessed 20 May 2012).

Roetzel, Calvin J. The World That Shaped the New Testament: Revised Edition. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002.

Rosenberg, Arthur. Der Mythos des 20. Jahrhunderts. Munich, 1931.

Schleunes, Karl A. The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933-1939. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Shirer, William L. Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Sivan, Gabriel. The Bible and Civilization. New York: Quadrangle/The New York Times Book Co., 1973.

Zeitlin, S. “The Blood Accusation.” Vigiliae Christianae. Vol. 50, No. 2 (1996): 117-124

Slave Morality and Master Morality

Friedrich Nietzsche recognized that morality and ethical values in general are of the utmost importance for the way people live. Ultimately, one’s morality determines the ends that one seeks to achieve and the means by which one goes about achieving them. Nietzsche took a historical, or “genealogical,” approach to philosophy in which he sought to find the origins of various ideas in order to determine their truth and worth. In his examination of the genealogy of morality, he discovered the origins of contemporary values in a revolt of the weak against the strong. This led him to contrast what he labeled as “master morality” with the “slave morality” which he believed opposed to it.

Nietzsche believed that, earlier in human history, a more natural form of morality had been predominant. He labeled this moral system “master morality,” or “aristocratic morality” (West, 2010, p. 149). This morality had been practiced among the strong, a minority which consisted of those who dominated the weak majority. It included “values such as courage, generosity and magnanimity or greatness of spirit” that “reflect[ed] … strength and vitality” (ibid.). These values, according to Nietzsche, were practiced among the strong and the noble. In demonstration of his position, he drew upon the examples of the heroes of the ancient Greeks as found in Homer’s works and elsewhere. Among them, the strong held a mutual respect for each other and practiced these virtues in their interactions but held a contempt and disdain for the weak.
The weak, according to Nietzsche, had a morality of their own. This “slave morality” saw things as “good and evil” rather than “good and bad” as the master morality posited (ibid.). Whereas master morality was based on a mutual reciprocation among the equally strong, slave morality sought to force all, including the strong, to become equal. The slaves, unable to create their own values due to their weakness, made morality a matter of force rather than freedom, as among the masters, who could create their own values in their strength. In addition, the content of slave morality was such as was of benefit to the weak, including values like “pity, humility, and self-sacrifice” (ibid.). As such, Nietzsche saw slave morality as intrinsically tied to weakness and degeneration as well as inherently selfish on the part of the weak, a symptom of their lowness. Nietzsche saw the rise of slave morality as linked historically to the personages of Socrates and especially Christ. As a result of Christianity, according to Nietzsche, slave morality had become the prevailing moral worldview of Europeans.
Nietzsche did not confine his criticisms of slave morality and its origins to an argument against Christianity. Perhaps his greatest target in these criticisms were those inheritors of the Enlightenment who attempted to maintain Christian values without Christian theology. For Nietzsche, however, “when one gives up Christian belief one thereby deprives oneself of the right to Christian morality” (Nietzsche, 1990, p. 80). Nietzsche followed logic and his genealogical method through to where it led him. As a result, he found that it was absurd to attempt to maintain a set of values while ridding oneself of the philosophical or religious foundations of those values. On the contrary, if “God is dead,” as Nietzsche famously said, all of the values based upon his existence and nature as understood by Christians must also be done away with. The atheists and other non-believers who continued to practice and propound Christian values were, then, just as guilty of continuing slave morality as were Christians.
According to Nietzsche, this slavery morality, forcing servile “virtues” born of the selfishness and jealousy of the low-minded, impeded the greatness of people. Those who were natural aristocrats, the strong and noble, were restrained in their powers by slave morality. As a result, they were unable to practice the master morality that their dignity and strength demanded. Nietzsche saw most of the Western philosophical tradition subsequent to Socrates and especially Christianity as the primary culprits in the propagation of slave morality. Because of this, he saw Christianity and Socratic philosophy as impediments to the human spirit and all of those who continued to espouse those values as impeding the same. Nietzsche saw the greatness of humanity as being prevented by a set of values he saw as beneath human dignity.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1990). The twilight of the idols and the Anti-Christ: or how to philosophize with a hammer. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
West, D. (2010). Continental philosophy: An introduction. Malden, MA: Polity Press.