Nietzsche and the constitutive force of ressentiment

Scheler’s analysis of ressentiment was formulated as a rejoinder to Nietzsche’s earlier diagnosis of resentment as a social-historically instituted yet basic element of morally organized ethical life. In Nietzsche’s genealogy of the formation of morals and moral systems, the overcoming of resentment, revenge, and the ostensibly negative emotional states taught in religion and morality is not identified with the realization of a superior spiritual condition in relation to the eternal order. The notion that one has overcome resentment, as Nietzsche recurrently portrayed the altruistic doctrines of universal Christian love and socialist solidarity, is depicted as the fulfillment and primary form of destructive ressentiment. Christian ressentiment runs so deep in Western civilization that it shapes the anti-Christian resentment of Western modernity; as evident in Nietzsche’s depiction of the “English psychologists” who remain all too Christian in their enmity and rancor against Christianity.10

Nietzsche’s conceptualization of ressentiment is more encompassing than a deficiency of sympathy for the other and the psychologically morbid departure from the eternal portrayed by Scheler. Ressentiment is realized in the nonrecognition of resentment; in not recognizing oneself as resentful and in perceiving others as motivated by a resentment that is not understood as informing one’s own attitudes and actions. The first-person perspective stressed by Strawson and the hermeneutics of trust do not adequately confront the problems and pathologies of self-deception that are crucial to the hermeneutics of distrust at work in Nietzsche’s genealogical suspicions.

While resentment has a particular resented object and a specific content and reference, ressentiment is a condition that has been detached from particular experiences of resentment and definite resented persons, groups, or objects. Paradoxically, at first sight at least, Nietzsche argues that ressentiment is characteristic of individuals and groups who claim they have overcome ordinary resentments. The simmering reactive psychophysical condition of ressentiment, according to Nietzsche’s analysis, belongs to natures that lack the capacity to react and respond with ordinary active and reactive affects. The negative affects have become complex, cunning, and subterranean; ressentiment is accordingly not the same as ordinary resentment.

Scholars of Nietzsche can obscure the relation between the two when they overemphasize their distinction, as ressentiment is linked with resentment; it is a transformation of ordinary feelings of resentment into a complex emotional- cognitive state. Nor is ressentiment the same as revenge, which for both Nietzsche and the early twentieth-century Nietzsche-influenced Chinese author Lu Xun (1881-1936) can be an expression of nobility.11 Ressentiment is a general state of vengefulness against this world and life itself in Nietzsche’s portrayal. Nietzsche accordingly describes in the Genealogy how the “slave revolt in morality” reverses the high and low and aims at the negation of the other rather than the affirmation of the self. This revolt against the nobility and loftiness of character originates in the incapacity of real revenge:

the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge. While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is “outside,” what is “different,” what is “not itself”; and this No is its creative deed.12

The cultivation of an imaginary otherworldly revenge in due course culminates in real violence against others and the destruction and annihilation of alterity in Nietzsche’s analysis.

To interpret Nietzsche’s argumentation in response to Schelers objection, ressentiment remains operative in the consciousness of the eternal that does not recognize how it thinks and acts out of ordinary, all too human motivations. These motives, as Nietzsche shows in the Genealogy of Morals, are inevitably temporal and transient. Human motives are generated and determined by biological, historical, and social forces and only secondarily formed by individual decision, rational agency, and ideal value.

Nietzsche diagnosed the ressentiment constitutive of conventional religion, morality, and the politics of equality in the Genealogy of Morals. The logic of reciprocal recognition, equal exchange, and sacrifice ofthe one for the many requires and cultivates a reactive fear and envy of the other who must be tamed, disciplined, and brought under control or rejected, excluded, and eliminated as a hostile foreign power. The ressentiment of vengeful priests, their secularized heirs, and the manipulated masses constitutes the motivational basis for forms of domination. Nietzsche contrasted this reactive yet cunning and skillful ressentiment with the lordly affirmation of the self in the immanence of its own desires and vitality of life. Nietzsche’s ethics of self-affirmation is asymmetrical in prioritizing the self of the other even as it undermines the reactive and calculative treatment of others. Noble self-affirmation affirms the self in its fullness without negating the other. It affirms the other in an asymmetrical and non-calculative generosity and bounty born of its own excess and overflowing sense of self that Nietzsche likens in Thus Spoke Zarathustra to the bounteousness of natural phenomena such as the sun and water, which give without needing to receive from others.

Because of the asymmetry between self and other, Nietzsche has been critiqued as a radically anti-egalitarian and hierarchical thinker by proponents of standard conceptions of socio-political equality, for instance, Jurgen Habermas and Axel Honneth, and praised as a postmodern thinker of an alterity and difference resisting the relentless logic of identity and enmity.13 In this context, it is sensible to question whether Nietzsche’s historical analysis presupposes an objectivizing stance that misses the internal or immanent character of interpersonal relations, as described by Strawson, and whether it overthrows the reciprocity and mutuality of self and other required by Scheler’s ethical vision.

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