Nietzsche’s analogy of the eagles and lambs

Agenagn asked:

What purpose does the analogy of the lambs and eagles serve in Nietzsche’s philosophy?

Answer by Martin Jenkins

In the first treatise of On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche is examining the origin of primitive Master and Slave values. In this context, 13 is talking about how the lambs (i.e. the slave masses) might respond and evaluate the actions of the eagles (i.e. the Masters). This is part of his wider attempt to account for the genealogy of contemporary moral values; of how the slave values usurped and stifled primitive Master values.


The Masters exude well-being, strength and their ‘happiness’ is identical with their activity. Their life instantiates corresponding values which are autobiographical (they designate what is good and bad — not Evil) and are affirmative as they do not grow from opposition, ressentiment or negation against someone or something. Where ressentiment may appear, it is fleeting; it is expressed and forgotten.

Against this, slave valuation is reactive. They are physiologically sick, regretting their lives and blaming the Masters for this. This ressentiment condemns the Masters for their behaviour. With the help of the Priests (themselves a split from the Master cast who are also suffering from sickness), a rebellion in morality is undertaken. The Masters behaviour and values a re re-valued.

As part of the re-evaluation, a new way of thinking and doing is adopted. This paradigm of thinking proffers Free-will, therefore culpability for one’s actions ultimately before the god of the priests/slaves. Hence we can see the enunciation of Judaism, Christianity and their metaphysical philosophy which subsequently dominates the history and development of the Western world.

Eagle/Lamb Analogy

With reference to the Eagle/lamb analogy, this elaborates on the origin and formulation of the value ‘good’ from the slave perspective which, at the same time, is the re-evaluation of the Masters understanding of ‘good’. Whilst the Eagles (i.e Masters) prey on the lambs, this is not done out of cruelty but out of instinctive necessity. The lambs (i.e. the slaves) evaluate this action and judge it wrong. In doing so, they invoke metaphysical categories and concepts of thinking.

These create a person, a subject, essence, substratum, soul, which is the conscious author or origin of his/her actions. Hence the person or doer is separate from his/her actions. As such, s/he is morally responsible for them. Similarly, the flash of the lightning is taken to be an effect of the lightning and not intrinsic to the phenomenon itself.

This further furnishes the idea of causality that there is a cause and an effect. This is later taken up as the basis of natural science where there is cause and effect (force moves and force causes) and a site or subject for this occurrence (i.e. the atom replaces but is built upon the concept of subject, substratum, essence).

Returning to the analogy, the lambs believe that the Eagles can behave other than they do. Yet this is asking strength not to be strength in the same way it is asking weakness not to be weakness. Nietzsche thinks this is absurd and is perpetuated by thinking that has its origin in the slave revolt and its values. He further hints at his doctrine of Will to Power, of the ontological nature of things when he writes that:

‘A quantum of power is just such a quantum of drive, will, affect- more precisely it is nothing other than this very driving, willing, affecting, and only through the seduction of language (and the basic errors of reason petrified therein), which understands and misunderstands all effecting as conditioned by an effecting something by a ‘subject’, can it appear otherwise.’ (13. Good & Evil, Good & Bad. ibid).

So the Masters act as they do because of their innate strength, power, will to power. The weakness of the slaves compels them to re-evaluate this behaviour from the standpoint their life — which is weakness — with values that correspondingly, flow from weakness. Part of this valuation is the belief in causality and responsibility (the subject causes a consequence) expressed in the ‘seduction of language’ and the ‘basic errors of reason petrified in them’ i.e. judeo-christian theology/ metaphysics.

So weak lambs are ‘good’. This entails values of not engaging in violence, injuring no-one, not attacking, not retaliating, they leave vengeance to their god, they avoid all conflict and ‘evil’, demand very little of life, are patient, humble and therefore-righteous. This is in contradistinction to the Masters actions and values, is labelled ‘good’ and follows upon the ontological weakness of the slaves; from their reduced Will to Power due to physiological sickness, weakness.

Further, because of the Slaves (lambs) belief in causality there is also a belief in freedom of the will to choose actions and to be responsible for doing them. So the Masters can choose to do what they do and, not to do it. As the slaves view their actions as wrong, as ‘Evil’, the masters can be held accountable for them and condemned accordingly. The Masters self-proclaimed ‘good’ actions are now revalued as ‘Evil’.

This is not to say that Nietzsche wants a return to such crude, primitive behaviour. He is pointing out that values and perspectives that have dominated Western being for two thousand years had their origin in weakness, in a weak and suffering type of life. The strong and primitive Will to Power of the Masters is channelled and redirected (see the second Treatise of the Genealogy-Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Matters’). It occasionally emerges throughout history and Nietzsche is concerned to see the emergence of this strong Will to Power in drives, passions and affects that can challenge the timid, restrictive morality that dominated at the time of his writing; which had its origin in the slave revolt and which in Nietzsche’s view, prevents life from being superlative in certain human beings.

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