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In Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary, McGilchrist explains the title of the book with reference to a tale told by Nietzsche. McGilchrist's summary of the tale begins: 'There was once a wise spiritual master who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain.' and concludes 'And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins'. The full version of McGilchrist's telling of the tale can be found in his introduction. McGilchrist says in his text, 'There is a story in Nietzsche that goes something like this'. However, when I check the footnote to this tale, I find McGilchrist's comment: 'Very roughly indeed, and I cannot now remember where.'!

Can anyone recognize this story and tell me where I might find it in its original form?

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    McGilchrist's citation for that story is "Very roughly indeed, and I cannot now remember where." Take it as his own tale, I'd say. Repress that left-hemisphere drive for proof.... – user22743 Aug 12 '16 at 23:57
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I don't believe the story McGilchrist recounts is anywhere in Nietzsche. Firstly, outside of Zarathustra (and the story is not there), where does Nietzsche employ fairy-tale parables like this? Secondly, is the enlightened Master who is also a ruler really a likely character in Nietzsche's worldview? Thirdly, what Nietzschean point would the parable make? The mere fact that a Vizier will opportunistically usurp his Master's power and become a tyrant is well-known to us all from countless examples in history. So the moral is "Yep, they'll do that."? Really? Would Nietzsche go to any trouble to restate this platitude? Fourth, McGilchrist makes every effort to document all his other sources; we must assume he can't find the story himself, nor have any of the hostile reviewers who have presumably yearned to show he misunderstood it or took it out of context. No one can point to it.

I am sure that there is some original for the story, I would suspect of Indian or Chinese origin (lots of stories and parables about spiritually enlightened rulers there, so many that it would be easy to mislay one) and that the germs of the Master and Emissary characters are indeed there, to the extent that McGilchrist feels he owes the author credit. But the author is not Nietzsche, and I suspect that without the real and fascinating point that McGilchrist brings to it with his analogy, it may not have been such an interesting story, and will remain obscure.

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Here is the full story from page 14 of McGilchrist:

There is a story in Nietzsche that goes something like this. There was once a wise spiritual master, who was the ruler of a small but prosperous domain, and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people. As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread; and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts. It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns. And so he nurtured and trained carefully his emissaries, in order that they could be trusted. Eventually, however, his cleverest and most ambitious vizier, the one he most trusted to do his work, began to see himself as the master, and used his position to advance his own wealth and influence. He saw his master’s temperance and forbearance as weakness, not wisdom, and on his missions on the master’s behalf, adopted his mantle as his own – the emissary became contemptuous of his master. And so it came about that the master was usurped, the people were duped, the domain became a tyranny; and eventually it collapsed in ruins.

Based on my reading of Nietzsche's corpus, I can say with a high degree of confidence that (a) this story appears in none of Nietzsche's published works from The Birth of Tragedy onwards, and (b) it is inconceivable that the Nietzsche who created those works could have written such a story. For example:

Wise spiritual master ... and who was known for his selfless devotion to his people

-- Nietzsche abhorred selfless devotion and herds.

As his people flourished and grew in number, the bounds of this small domain spread ...

-- Nietzsche advocated passionately for the flourishing of exceptional human beings, not the flourishing of seemingly ordinary peoples such as these.

... and with it the need to trust implicitly the emissaries he sent to ensure the safety of its ever more distant parts

-- Nietzsche couldn't have cared less about either the expansion of the small domain or the safety of its more distant parts. He would have attached zero value to both expansion and safety. I also doubt he would have trusted emissaries.

... It was not just that it was impossible for him personally to order all that needed to be dealt with: as he wisely saw, he needed to keep his distance from, and remain ignorant of, such concerns

-- Nietzsche wouldn't have cared about ordering all that needed to be dealt with. In the remote event he would have cared, he would not have wanted to remain willfully ignorant of such concerns -- willful ignorance of matters important to him not being a value to which he would have attached any esteem.

I could continue, but it's already abundantly clear Nietzsche could not have written such a story.

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It (very) vaguely resembles the "Slave Revolt" in On the Genealogy of Morality. NB: Read p. xxix from "Second, "slave revolt" is a misleading phrase [...]" and p. xxx "The job of the "slave revolt" is to explain the transformation of a pre-moral notion of goodness into a specifically moral one". So, if this is the source of McGilchrist's telling, then it appears that the Nietzsche actual point didn't quite make it through. But...

Also see "Master-slave morality". Perhaps, after all, this does have something to do with McGilchrist's thesis. [Warning: I have read neither Nietzsche nor McGilchrist.] Perhaps that one hemisphere has a slave morality, whilst the other has a master morality?

Does that make sense?

  • That is very interesting indeed, but no, it doesn't seem to fit. In McGilchrist's analogy, the left-brain, the 'emissary' exhibits nothing like humility, charity, or pity. – Crosbie Mar 30 '14 at 20:03
  • @Crosbie OK. Too bad. :) If anything, I still think this may be the source of the tale though. But perhaps others will weigh in. – user3164 Mar 30 '14 at 20:15
  • @Crosbie The Internet seems to agree with me: link (p. 413-416), link. E.g. "Given Nietzsche’s characterization of the history of European civilization as the triumph of reactive forces turned against the active forces of the will to power, it is not difficult to identify the wise master with active forces and the tyrannical emissary with reactive forces that have turned against life." – user3164 Mar 30 '14 at 20:24
  • And, with the little that I picked up in the last hour, I find Wikipedia's "Slave morality values things like kindness, humility and sympathy, while master morality values pride, strength, and nobility." slightly odd if not nonsensical in the context. (Because master morality is supposed to be pre-moral.) But maybe that's just me. – user3164 Mar 30 '14 at 20:34
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It's simply a case of misattribution, Gilchrists book has hardly anything to do with Nietzsche being mostly focused on brain physiology, so it's not unsurprising.

Gilchrists narrative is simply a rewriting of Platos five forms of government; and how they move from Aristocracy to Tyranny, and this is confirmed when just after the quoted passage Gilchrist mentions political philosophy - not something that N is known for.

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