Ressentiment and Rationality
Elizabeth Murray Morelli
Ressentiment is a state of repressed feeling and desire which becomes generative of values. The condition of ressentiment is complex both in its internal structure and in its relations to various dimensions of human existence. While it infects the heart of the individual, it is rooted in our relatedness with others. On the one hand, ressentiment is a dark, personal secret, which most of us would never reveal to others even if we could acknowledge it ourselves. On the other hand, ressentiment has an undeniably public face. It can be creative of social practices, mores, and fashions; of scholarly attitudes, academic policies, educational initiatives; of political ideologies, institutions, and revolutions; of forms of religiosity and ascetic practices.
The concept of ressentiment was first developed systematically by Nietzsche in his account of the historical emergence of what he terms 'slave morality' and in his critique of the ascetic ideal. While references to this condition can be found throughout his works, the chief sections in which he develops this notion are in his early work The Genealogy of Morals. Max Scheler provides an eidetic account of this complex affective phenomenon in his book entitled Ressentiment. The picture of ressentiment that emerges from these two thinkers is in part a function of their methodological approaches and their abiding philosophic interests. Nietzsche's historical approach to the development and the corruption of morality is empiricist and deterministic, but it does not have the marks of the narrow positivism that emerged later. His historical method is informed by his philological training in ancient Hellenic texts and by Enlightenment ideals. So, although Nietzsche writes of cultural conflicts in the ancient world as historical fact, he actually uses them as models with universal anthropological significance. His account of the conflict between the Roman warrior class and the Palestinian priestly class is reminiscent of Hegel's master/slave dialectic and prefigures Freud's use of mythological models of conflict. Scheler's phenomenological approach to ressentiment aims at an understanding of the condition as a whole and in its constitutive elements. Scheler was concerned with grounding an a priori axiological ethics through a phenomenological typology of the field of affectivity. An account of the heart would not be complete without an investigation of the corrosive condition of ressentiment. His concern is not so much with the historical emergence of ressentiment but with its constitution as an affect, its relation to the objective hierarchy of values fundamental to his ethics, and its social and political significance. Scheler's approach, then, is more synchronic in contrast to Nietzsche's more diachronic approach. In spite of these significant differences in approach and emphasis, a single picture of ressentiment emerges from their works.
Before I sketch the nature of ressentiment, I should state the aim of this brief essay. My purpose is not simply to review the accounts provided by Nietzsche and Scheler, nor simply to offer an account of the nature of ressentiment, but to highlight an essential element of ressentiment which both of their accounts presuppose, but which neither makes explicit. I hope to show that rationality, or more precisely, an "exigence of rationality" (1) a demand for and expectation of rational consistency, is a motive force of ressentiment.
One may not be surprised by the contention that rationality is the ground of science and analysis. In the Metaphysics Aristotle states that it is the task of the philosopher not only to analyze through the use of syllogisms, but also to examine the principles of syllogisms. He proceeds to formulate "the most certain principle of allthe most knowable, and absolute." It is that "the same person cannot at the same time hold the same to be and not to be." (2) Aristotle considered this principle of non-contradiction to be the origin of all axioms, the basis of all syllogistic analysis, the ultimate ground of all scientific knowledge. Similarly, one may not be surprised to read in Kant's Foundations for the Metaphysics of Morals that the law of reason, this same law of non-contradiction, is the fundamental principle of his formal a priori ethics. It is this basic law of rationality which receives its moral formulation in the apodictic categorical imperative. (3) It is the rationality of the agent that makes her worthy of respect, and undergirds the practical imperative. It is not surprising that rationality would be found to be fundamental to science in general or to ethical knowledge specifically. What is curious is that rationality may also be essential to that most "irrational" perversion of moralityressentiment. How could rationality be at the very core of affective corruption? Even the well-ordered heart, for Scheler, is non-rational, let alone the corrupt heart.
I intend to show how a rationality essential to ressentiment can be found in the very affects which give rise to and fuel ressentiment. As we will see, ressentiment always starts with and involves one or more negative feelings. Nietzsche's account of ressentiment focuses on the desire for revenge, and Scheler's account focuses on envy.
The story according to Nietzsche's account in the Genealogy is that the Palestinian Jewish rabbis constituted a noble class who believed that they had a special position as mediators between God and His chosen people. This station in life conferred on them a spiritual superiority to other Palestinians and to all non-Jews. The Romans who conquered them had a different set of values. They too saw themselves as noble, but their superiority consisted primarily in their physical might, their vital strength which enabled them to conquer and enslave others and occupy their lands. The Jewish priests resented the imposition of this Roman control over their lives, but they felt impotent to do anything about it. The brute power of the Romans particularly galled them, because they believed themselves to be their superiors intellectually and spiritually. The Roman warrior conquerors did not feel particularly resentful about the claims of spiritual superiority of the Jews, because these claims even if true in no way interfered with their own aspirations. The members of the noble Roman class were able to pursue and satisfy their desires and enjoy the kind of life they valued. The members of the noble Jewish class, meanwhile, felt their powerful positions unjustly usurped by their conquerors, but were unable to openly retaliate. The Jewish priests did not simply resign themselves in humility to their inferior social position. They had a deep sense of self-esteem and pride, and this fueled a simmering rage at their situation and hatred toward their conquerors. All of this, so far, according to Nietzsche is perfectly natural and understandable. The perversion and corruption enters in not with the ruthlessness and bloody violence of the conquerors nor with the frustration , rage, hatred, and desire for revenge of the conquered, but with the mendacity and self-deception to which the conquered ultimately resort. In order to maintain pride and a sense of superiority over their conquerors, the Palestinians both reaffirmed the value of the spiritual, and denied the values of vital might, political prestige and power, and worldly riches.
Christianity with other-worldly orientation and its ascetic practices represents for Nietzsche the crown of Jewish ressentiment, its most elaborate and perfect achievement. Nietzsche traces the birth of the Christian ideal to the following mechanism of ressentiment:
With the emergence of Christianity we have the successful slave-revolt in morality with its accompanying new set of values and virtues, and its underlying ascetic ideal. The slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, esteemed, desired and possessed by the noble. It is the rejection of external goods such as honor and prestige, political power and influence, wealth, physical strength and beauty; and as well a disparagement of those virtues, especially courage and pride, characteristic of the Greco-Roman nobleman, Aristotle's megalopsychos. This devaluation is not simply an intellectual denial of their worth, but the gradual formation of negative affective responses to these goods and virtues. The goods and virtues associated with the despised nobility, themselves come to be hated as evil. (5) In the place of the negatively apprehended values, traits and devices found expedient for sheer survival of the weak are elevated to the status of goods and virtues. Thus, the weakness of the oppressed is transformed into virtue and the original power and strength of the noble is now considered evil and sinful.
Scheler is not concerned with the historical genealogy of ressentiment; instead, he describes the sociological conditions which foster it. Scheler considers ressentiment to arise as a function of the inequality in social conditions. While he would not consider the inequality of social positions to be unnaturalin fact, he considers it to be inevitableone's response to this inequality can be more or less healthy, more or less corrupt. Drawing on the work of Simmel, he distinguishes two basic attitudes to perceived inequalitythat of the noble man and that of the common man. It should be noted that while the categories, noble and common, are basically sociological, Scheler considers an individual of any socio-economic stratum, even of either gender, to be capable of nobility. But he does not believe that members of lower classes and women in general are typically blessed with nobility of spirit.
Both types compare themselves to others: "Each of usnoble or common, good or evilcontinually compares his own value with that of others." (6) The common man derives his awareness of his relative worth through comparison with others, but the noble man enjoys an original sense of his own self-worth. The noble man's original self-confidence pre-conditions his apprehension of the values borne by others. Scheler distinguishes this non-reflective self-confidence from pride, which he views as a derivative, deliberate grasping at self-worth. Scheler here contributes a fine distinction not found in Nietzsche, for whom to be noble simply meant to be naturally proud. The immediate sense of self-worth is not experienced by the common man nor does he apprehend values independently of their being possessed by others. Scheler writes, "The noble man experiences value prior to any comparison, the common man in and through a comparison." (7) The common man's valuation is derivative. He watches the noble man and since he identifies the noble man with all that is good and desirable, he attaches value to whatever the noble man possesses.
Scheler further distinguishes two fundamental types of the common man: the arriviste represents the strong, energetic type and the man of ressentiment represents the weak. The arriviste vigorously pursues the goods and stations in life which are associated with the values possessed by the noble, but he does not pursue these goods for their intrinsic worth. His efforts are expended for the sake of being more highly esteemed than others. The insecurity of the arriviste is profound. He must unceasingly construct a sense of his worth through comparisons with others. Feelings of self-satisfaction are accumulated through looking down upon those he has surpassed, but these feelings are impermanent. The vision of those who surpass him continuously fuels his competitive drive. Scheler does not explicitly distinguish the arriviste from the aspiring noble man. I think we can conclude that the mark of nobility is not to have attained all the goods and bear all the values, but to aspire to those goods as intrinsically valuable, for their own sake and not for the sake of rising above others.
The second type of common man shares the ontological insecurity of the arriviste, but he feels a profound weakness. This is the man of ressentiment. His weakness is not fleeting; it does not come upon him like an illness, but he experiences it as a permanent condition of his existence. He feels fundamentally alienated from the values possessed by the noble man. He senses that there is an impassable divide between the object of desire and himself. The man of ressentiment differs little from the arriviste originally, but as Scheler's account reveals, his condition becomes increasingly complex.
The easiest way to review Scheler's eidetic description of the unit of affectivity, named ressentiment, is to describe it as if it emerges gradually in stages. Inasmuch as ressentiment functions as an underlying affective condition that permeates one's conscious intentionality, there is no simple experience or apprehension of ressentiment. It is manifested in myriad ways. Yet, this whole affective unit has a number of essential constituents. Initially there is a desire for the values apprehended as possessed by others and as borne by certain goods. For example, there are the values of physical strength, health, beauty, liberty, intelligence, wisdom, integrity, fidelity, and holiness. This list follows roughly the course of Scheler's a priori hierarchy of values. The mere apprehension of values possessed by others and borne by specific goods is not distinctive of the man of ressentiment. So far, as we have seen, the aspiring noble man and the arriviste also apprehend such values. We must add to this apprehension the fundamental sense of insecurity and lack of self-worth, which the man of ressentiment shares with the arriviste. What sets the man of ressentiment apart from the arriviste is his sense of impotence, his feeling of weakness. Yet, it is possible to feel incapable of striving for what one apprehends as valuable, and simply resign oneself to one's lot in life; and such resignation is not invariably unhappy, resentful, or despairing.
In order for ressentiment to take hold there must be the addition of certain negative affects in response to this perceived inability to attain what one so deeply desires . Nietzsche focuses on the negative feelings hatred and the desire for revenge in his genealogy. Scheler expands upon Nietzsche's account by offering us a tour through his own wax museum of affective horrors. He describes such negative affects as anger, rage, begrudging, rancor, spite, Schadenfreude, hatred, malice, the tendency to detract, jealousy, envy, resentment, desire for revenge. Ressentiment does not involve in every case all of these negative tendencies, desires and emotions, but it necessarily involves some such negative affect. Scheler provides a phenomenology of envy to exemplify the development of ressentiment.
Envy is itself a complex and cyclic emotion. It involves the apprehension of values possessed by another, a strong desire for those values, a feeling of impotence to attain those values, and a sense of injustice at this inability. A sense of injustice, as we have seen, grounded in an original sense of self-worth, underlies and fuels the desire for revenge. If one does not feel that one deserves to possess the desired value, then a feeling of impotence would simply lead to resignation. But with a notion of entitlement combined with a fundamental rational exigence for consistency, the apprehension of a desired value possessed by another leads one to the unspoken insistence: "Why can't I have that? I deserve that too!" When one feels, "I deserve that, by right, even more than that other one," a feeling of resentment emerges. But envy does not necessarily lead to resentment, and resentment alone is not ressentiment. The sense of injustice combined now with the persistent desire for the value and its continued frustration due to weakness and finitude naturally makes one angry. As these elements of envy interact, they are intensified and the anger can grow into a simmering rage. In the envious, rage is directed toward the other who possesses the desired value and grows into a hatred of that person or type of person. The more one's attention is directed towards the object of one's envy, the more impotent one feels and in fact becomes. Envy is an extremely stressful affective syndrome, which has no internal equilibrium or term. The rage ignites the desire, which is again thwarted by the feeling of powerlessness, and the simmering sense of unfairness rekindles the rage.
Envy becomes ressentiment when one convinces oneself that the envied values, which are beyond one's reach, are not really valuable after all:
The original desire for these values, however, and the negative feelings of rage and hatred for those who possess these values, are not eliminated through this devaluation. They are repressed to lead a subterranean life in the psyche. One is not conscious of one's own desire and one's own rage and spite. This repression successfully eliminates from consciousness the painful frustration of envy. One can even feel good about oneself; one can feel happy and superior to the poor individuals who possess the now devalued and ridiculed values.
Drawing on Nietzsche's and Scheler's accounts of ressentiment, we can sum up its internal structure. It is a cycle with the following constitutive elements: an original sense of self-worth; the apprehension of and desire for certain values; the frustration of one's desire for those values; a sense of impotence to achieve those values: a sense of the unfairness or injustice of not being able to attain them; anger, resentment, hatred towards the bearer of those values, and often a desire to seek revenge; the devaluation of the originally sought values; repression of the desire for the devalued values and of negative affects such as hatred, envy, desire for revenge; a feeling of superiority over those who seek and possess the now devalued values; and a confirmed sense of self-worth. Ressentiment is a cycle inasmuch as it recurs. The person of ressentiment relives the desires and feelings which constitute the condition even as these affects are repressed. The cycle of ressentiment, significantly, begins and ends with a sense of self-worth.
We found in Nietzsche's story of the ancient Palestinian nobility a wounded pride which fueled their vengefulness. Similarly, the sense of desert characteristic of envy is consistent with a feeling of self-worth. Scheler, however, omits this element from his account of envy, and consequently from his description of ressentiment. He begins his analysis with the distinction between the noble and the common man, and characterizes the latter as lacking a fundamental sense of self-worth. I think Nietzsche is closer to the mark in this regard. He argues that a desire for revenge is not typical of a slavish mentality. One who has no spirit, limited self-consciousness, and consequently is not enlightened as to her autonomy, tends to be content with her lot in life. To seek vengeance or feel envy one must have some sense of personal dignity, at least an inchoate notion that one deserves better simply because of being oneself.
According to Kant, the dignity and worth of a person is due to her rationality. One has worth not insofar as one acts rationally or thinks rationally, but because the law of reason is intrinsic to the self as a rational being. One may have worth a priori and yet not have any sense of self-esteem. The person of ressentiment, though, at least according to Nietzsche, is a person of pride, one who feels self-worth. And, as we have seen above, the envious person must also have a sense of self-worth in order to feel that she also deserves to possess what is possessed by the other. Thus, the person of ressentiment not only has intrinsic worth as a rational being, but also has a sense of her worth.
Rationality grounds the worth of the person and, conversely, a sense of self-worth leads to rational demands for consistency. If feels oneself to be worthyas worthy as any other, then one deserves to possess the values enjoyed by the other. If the other robs me of my prestige and power, then the other deserves to suffer. Such sentiments fuel envy and the desire for revenge. The sense of fairness, justice, proper balance at work in these feelings is rooted in the basic law of reason. The perceived injustice of the situation would have no sting if one were content with inconsistency, if one did not have within a rational exigence. The fact that in envy, the desire for revenge, and the ressentiment which may ensue the use of one's reason is partial and faulty, does not diminish the essentially rational nature of these affects.
Further, the need for repression of the negative affects and the need to devalue the unattainable values are also a function of the rationality of the person of ressentiment. For example, it is necessary to repress the hatred one feels towards another only because it would be inconsistent with the friendly manner one wishes to adopt in their presence. Or, it is necessary to deny the value of an unattainable value only insofar as its desirability would be inconsistent with contentment in its absence. Again, the reasoning in these examples is partial and mistaken, but there is a demand for consistency that makes such machinations necessary.
My aim has been to point out the rationality inherent in ressentiment. The rational exigence, a demand for consistency, is found in justice sought through revenge, in the unfairness felt in envy, in the need to repress negative feelings and in the devaluation of values. Ressentiment is shot through with rationality. Is rationality the root of ressentiment? Am I contending that rationality is somehow the root of evil? I suspect that the root of the evil of ressentiment is ultimately unintelligible. Nevertheless, it is curious to find the thread of rationality woven through this notoriously irrational perversion of the non-rational heart.
(1) The term 'rational exigence' or 'exigence of rationality' was formulated by Bernard Lonergan. See The Lonergan Reader, edited by Mark D. Morelli and Elizabeth A. Morelli (Toronto and London: University of Toronto Press, 1997) 278, 382, 525.
(2) Aristotle, Met. IV 3 1005b 6-34.
(3) Immanuel Kant, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, translated by Lewis White Beck (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1959) II. 420-22; 426-30.
(4) Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Random House, 1969) I.8; 33-4.
(5) Nietzsche, Genealogy, I.10; 36.
(6) Scheler, Ressentiment, edited by Lewis A. Coser, translated by William W. Holdheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1961) 53.
(7) Ibid., 55.
(8) Ibid., 58.