Scheler’s conception of resentment
Strawson did not examine in his 1962 essay questions of whether resentment is actually an elemental truth of human life, whether it is indeed normal or pathological, and whether and how resentment should be confronted within the interpersonal first- and second-person perspective of agents. These issues concerning the psycho-social bio-politics of resentment troubled earlier philosophical discourses. To take a step back in time, the German phenomenologist Max Scheler—who had written his doctoral dissertation and Habilitationsschrift with Eucken in Jena—contended in the early twentieth- century that resentment is a fundamental concern offactical ethical life that at the same time ought not to be construed as a fundamental dimension of genuine ethical life.
Scheler rejected Kantian ethical formalism for the sake of a material and content-centered value-ethics, grounded in an anti-naturalistic philosophical anthropology and notion of a material a priori. Scheler modified a typical Neo-Kantian argumentative strategy in opposition to the hermeneutical life- philosophical emphasis on the immanent self-articulation and interpretation of life unfolded in the writings of Wilhelm Dilthey and Friedrich Nietzsche. Scheler concludes that facticity threatens and overthrows (Umsturz) the ideal values with which it should be contrasted and contested.
In Ressentiment in the Formation of Morals (Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der Moralen, 1912), Scheler portrayed ressentiment as a pathological state of resentment, the potentiality for which varies according to the level of social- political equality and the stability of classes in society. In genuinely egalitarian societies or in stable class societies, i.e., in any society where persons accept their roles and places, there are fewer opportunities for pathologically resenting others in heightened states of envy, jealousy, vengefulness, and spitefulness. Scheler contended against Nietzsche that ressentiment should not be linked with Christianity, but with its negation and the negation of the spiritual in modern bourgeois societies. Such societies are characterized by both a relative—yet still deficient—equality and the relentless competition to be better than others and the insecure desire to feel superior to one’s neighbors.
Notwithstanding the limited qualified sources of ressentiment, Scheler stressed the potential for broader epidemics:
Through its very origin, ressentiment is therefore chiefly confined to those who serve and are dominated at the moment, who fruitlessly resent the sting of authority. When it occurs elsewhere, it is either due to psychological contagion— and the spiritual venom of ressentiment is extremely contagious—or to the violent suppression of an impulse which subsequently revolts by “embittering” and “poisoning” the personality.6
Such a pathological psycho-social condition, which involves the fateful selfpoisoning of the wounded mind, defies the basic moral character of humanity. Scheler reverses Nietzsche’s conclusion in the Genealogy of Morals. Contrasting ressentiment and the genuinely moral order in contrast to Nietzsche’s genealogical identification of the two, Scheler remarked: “Ressentiment helps to subvert this eternal order in [human] consciousness, to falsify its recognition, and to deflect its actualization.”7 In Scheler’s portrayal, accordingly, the facticity of ressentiment is the exception, and the ideal exhibited in solidarity, love, and mutual sympathy is normative. Evoking Kierkegaard’s diagnosis of ordinary life as a spiritual sickness that calls for a transformative awakening to its absolute source in Sickness unto Death, Scheler concludes that it is the lack of the ultimate motive and object of action (that is, the divine) that generates the potential for radical ressentiment.
Scheler rejects replacing concrete interpersonal relational words such as care, love, and sympathy with a theory of “altruism”—with its personally indifferent ideals of an impersonal and neutral “doing good” (Wohltun) and “goodwill” (Wohlwollen)—which is in fact an idealized distancing from the relational dynamics of self and other. Scheler only partially agreed with Nietzsche’s universal doubts about altruistic ethics, limiting their sweeping scope to artificial and hypocritical altruism in contrast to genuine concrete acts and forms of love, and eventually reversing them for the sake of a renewed philosophy of spirit informed by his conception of love, mutuality, and sympathy. Nietzsche’s critique applies to the pathological rather than the genuine forms of ethical life in Scheler’s reassessment. It is the “exaggeration of the value of benevolence which proceeds from ressentiment” rather than benevolence as such.8 Benevolence and sympathy express humanity in contrast to the false university of self-sacrificial altruism born of revenge and that seeks power and superiority over others through the image of moral purity. Such non-self-negating benevolence can, he remarked in The Nature of Sympathy, “be found in the humanitas of earlier antiquity, Stoic and Epicurean schools ... in the intellectual history of the Chinese, with the spread of [Laozi’s] teaching from South China and its amalgamation with Buddhism; and once again in the modern sentimentally-based democracies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”9 Scheler rediscovers humanistic benevolence, which encompasses both self- and other love, in the Daoist ethos, which he linked with a freer and more open Southern Chinese culture, but not in the moralistic Confucianism that he associated with a more restrictive, repressive, and puritanical historically dominant Northern culture. Scheler emphasizes the role of “benevolence,” interpreted as a sympathetic compassion for others that maintains a healthy sense of the self, in Daoism and Buddhism; the priority of benevolence (ren C) in Confucian discourses is interpreted in contrast as an ascetic, disciplinary, and self-negating altruism. The classification of distinctive Northern and Southern Chinese cultures stems from Chinese discourses and is assumed in multiple early twentieth-century German interpretations of China including those of Weber, Eucken, and Zhang discussed in Chapters 1 and 2.