Ressentiment (French pronunciation: [rəsɑ̃timɑ̃]) is the French translation of the English word resentment (from Latin intensive prefix 're', and 'sentir' "to feel"). In philosophy and psychology it is a concept that was of particular interest to the existentialist philosophers. According to the existentialists, ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one's frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the "cause" generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one's frustration. This value system is then used as a means of justifying one's own weaknesses by identifying the source of envy as objectively inferior, serving as a defense mechanism that prevents the resentful individual from addressing and overcoming their insecurities and flaws. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.
Ressentiment was first introduced as a philosophical/psychological term by the 19th century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. Friedrich Nietzsche later independently expanded the concept; Walter Kaufmann ascribes Nietzsche's use of the term in part to the absence of a proper equivalent term in the German language, contending that this absence alone "would be sufficient excuse for Nietzsche", if not for a translator. The term came to form a key part of his ideas concerning the psychology of the 'master–slave' question (articulated in Beyond Good and Evil), and the resultant birth of morality. Nietzsche's chief development of ressentiment came in his book On The Genealogy of Morals; see esp §§ 10–11). Ressentiment was translated as envy in Hong's translation of Kierkegaard's Two Ages: A Literary Review.
Currently of great import as a term widely used in psychology and existentialism, ressentiment is viewed as an influential force for the creation of identities, moral frameworks and value systems. However there is debate as to what validity these resultant value systems have, and to what extent they are maladaptive and destructive.
The old conception—due to a one-sided survey of human life—of Nemesis, which made the divinity and its action in the world only a levelling power, dashing to pieces everything high and great,—was confronted by Plato and Aristotle with the doctrine that God is not envious. The same answer may be given to the modern assertions that man cannot ascertain God. These assertions (and more than assertions they are not) are the more illogical, because made within a religion which is expressly called the revealed; for according to them it would rather be the religion in which nothing of God was revealed, in which he had not revealed himself, and those belonging to it would be the heathen “who know not God.” If the word of God is taken in earnest in religion at all, it is from Him, the theme and centre of religion, that the method of divine knowledge may and must begin: and if self-revelation is refused Him, then the only thing left to constitute His nature would be to ascribe envy to Him. But clearly if the word Mind is to have a meaning, it implies the revelation of Him.
—Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1817), Section 564
Kierkegaard and Nietzsche
"It is a fundamental truth of human nature that man is incapable of remaining permanently on the heights, of continuing to admire anything. Human nature needs variety. Even in the most enthusiastic ages people have always liked to joke enviously about their superiors. That is perfectly in order and is entirely justifiable so long as after having laughed at the great they can once more look upon them with admiration; otherwise the game is not worth the candle. In that way ressentiment finds an outlet even in an enthusiastic age. And as long as an age, even though less enthusiastic, has the strength to give ressentiment its proper character and has made up its mind what its expression signifies, ressentiment has its own, though dangerous importance. …. the more reflection gets the upper hand and thus makes people indolent, the more dangerous ressentiment becomes, because it no longer has sufficient character to make it conscious of its significance. Bereft of that character reflection is a cowardly and vacillating, and according to circumstances interprets the same thing in a variety of way. It tries to treat it as a joke, and if that fails, to regard it as an insult, and when that fails, to dismiss it as nothing at all; or else it will treat the thing as a witticism, and if that fails then say that it was meant as a moral satire deserving attention, and if that does not succeed, add that it was not worth bothering about. …. ressentiment becomes the constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to sneak itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing. The ressentiment which results from want of character can never understand that eminent distinction really is distinction. Neither does it understand itself by recognizing distinction negatively (as in the case of ostracism) but wants to drag it down, wants to belittle it so that it really ceases to be distinguished. And ressentiment not only defends itself against all existing forms of distinction but against that which is still to come. …. The ressentiment which is establishing itself is the process of leveling, and while a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, raising and demolishing as it goes, a reflective and passionless age does exactly the contrary; it hinders and stifles all action; it levels. Leveling is a silent, mathematical, and abstract occupation which shuns upheavals. In a burst of momentary enthusiasm people might, in their despondency, even long for a misfortune in order to feel the powers of life, but the apathy which follows is no more helped by a disturbance than an engineer leveling a piece of land. At its most violent a rebellion is like a volcanic eruption and drowns every other sound. At its maximum the leveling process is a deathly silence in which one can hear one’s own heart beat, a silence which nothing can pierce, in which everything is engulfed, powerless to resist. One man can be at the head a rebellion, but no one can be at the head of the leveling process alone, for in that case he would be leader and would thus escape being leveled. Each individual within his own little circle can co-operate in the leveling, but it is an abstract power, and the leveling process is the victory of abstraction over the individual. The leveling process in modern times, corresponds, in reflection, to fate in antiquity. ... It must be obvious to everyone that the profound significance of the leveling process lies in the fact that it means the predominance of the category ‘generation’ over the category ‘individuality’." —Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age (Alexander Dru tr.), 1962, pp. 49–52
(T)he problem with the other origin of the “good,” of the good man, as the person of ressentiment has thought it out for himself, demands some conclusion. It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, "These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?" then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal's establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, "We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb."
—Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality
Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one's own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be "blamed" for one's own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external "evil."
According to Kierkegaard, ressentiment occurs in a "reflective, passionless age", in which the populace stifles creativity and passion in passionate individuals. Kierkegaard argues that individuals who do not conform to the masses are made scapegoats and objects of ridicule by the masses, in order to maintain status quo and to instill into the masses their own sense of superiority.
Ressentiment comes from reactiveness: the weaker someone is, the less their capability to suppress reaction. According to Nietzsche, the more a person is active, strong-willed, and dynamic, the less place and time is left for contemplating all that is done to them, and their reactions (like imagining they are actually better) become less compulsive. The reaction of a strong-willed person (a "wild beast"), when it happens, is ideally a short action: it is not a prolonged filling of their intellect.
Max Scheler attempted to reconcile Nietzsche's ideas of master–slave morality and ressentiment with the Christian ideals of love and humility. Nietzsche saw Christian morality as a kind of slave morality, while Greek and Roman culture was characterized as a master morality. Scheler disagrees. He begins with a comparison of Greek love and Christian love. Greek love is described as a movement from lower value to higher value. The weaker love the stronger, the less perfect love the more perfect. The perfect do not love the imperfect because that would diminish their value or corrupt their existence. Greek love is rooted in need and want. This is clearly indicated by the Aristotelian concept of God as the "Unmoved Mover". The unmoved mover is self-sufficient being completely immersed in its own existence. The highest object of contemplation, and who moves others through the force of attraction because efficient causality would degrade its nature.
In Christian love, there is a reversal in the movement of love. The strong bend to the weak, the healthy help the sick, the noble help the vulgar. This movement is a consequence of the Christian understanding of the nature of God as fullness of being. God's love is an expression of His superabundance. The motive for love is not charity nor the neediness of the lover, but it is rooted in a deeply felt confidence that through loving I become more personalized and most real to myself. The motive for the world is not need or lack (à la Schopenhauer), but a creative urge to express the infinite fullness of being. Poverty and sickness are not values to be celebrated in order to spite those who are rich and healthy, but they simply provide the opportunity for a person to express his love. Rich people are harder to love because they are less in need of your generosity. Fear of death is a sign of a declining, sick, and broken life (Ressent 60). St. Francis' love and care for the lepers would have mortified the Greek mind, but for St. Francis, the threats to well-being are inconsequential because at the core of his being there is the awareness that his existence is firmly rooted in and sustained by the ground of ultimate being. In genuine, Christian love, the lower values that are relative to life are renounced not because they are bad, but simply because they are obstacles to those absolute values which allow a person to enter into a relationship with God. It is through loving like God that we are deified. This is why Scheler sees the Christian saint as a manifestation of strength and nobility and not manifesting ressentiment.
Max Weber in The Sociology of Religion relates ressentiment to Judaism, an ethical salvation religion of a "pariah people." Weber defines ressentiment as "a concomitant of that particular religious ethic of the disprivileged which, in the sense expounded by Nietzsche and in direct inversion of the ancient belief, teaches that the unequal distribution of mundane goods is caused by the sinfulness and the illegality of the privileged, and that sooner or later God's wrath will overtake them." (Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 110.
Rene Girard differs from Nietzsche by assessing the ressentiment is a left-over of not pursuing the mimetic rival or the scapegoat. It is the price paid for turning the other cheek. Atonement could be achieved only by moving beyond rivalry and ressentiment.
- Poole, Roger. Kierkegaard, University of Virginia Press, 1993, pp. 226–228.
- Stivers, Richard. Shades of loneliness, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, pp. 14–16.
- Davenport, John, et al. Kierkegaard after MacIntyre, Open Court , 2001, p. 165.
- Kaufmann, Walter. "Editor's Introduction, Section 3" On the Genealogy of Morals in Nietzsche: Basic Writings; Walter Kaufmann, tr. New York: The Modern Library, 1967.
- see pages 81-87
- Hegel's Philosophy of Mind
- See e.g. The Will to Power, 78.
- On the Genealogy of Morality, 11
- On the Genealogy of Morality, 10, last paragraph