Max Scheler’s ‘Ressentiment’

A recommendation from fellow Social Matter regular, Thomas Barghest, I had never heard of Scheler before. He was a German-born author who made huge contributions to the study of phenomenology, and to a lesser extent ethics, who won the praise of Martin Heidegger. Born to  Lutheran father and a Jewish mother, he would come to embrace Roman Catholicism and wrote passionately in its defense. Later, he would move away from Christianity to practice a kind of pantheism. Even in light of this, his earlier works are typically the ones deemed to be of interest.
This book among others was famous for having been on the Nazi government’s ‘burn list’, largely because of its intention to counter many of the philosophical influences of Adolf Hitler. It did not help of course that Scheler had Jewish blood. And yet while I wrote a rather elaborate defense of ‘book-burning’, I think there was a gem among the various monstrous titles that went up in flames on all those nights in Berlin and Cologne. It is one that is most certainly worth reading if one wants a well-formulated Christian response to the first wave of atheism.

Ressentiment was titled after a concept that was used heavily by Nietzsche in order to criticize Christianity. It is defined as follows:

“Ressentiment is a self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.” 
 
Fun fact: Scheler was a voracious supporter
of the German cause in WWI, though he could not
fight due to an eye condition
Surprisingly, Scheler affirms that this degenerative tendency is very much applicable in contemporary Judaism, but disputes its presence in true Christianity, positing that Neitzsche had confused the slave morality of his day with a historical precedent which was entirely imaginary. In Scheler’s view, Christian morality was far from an example of a stoop from weakness in light of oppression and powerlessness, but in fact a stoop from strength. He illustrates this in terms of duty and Godly imitation. As God stoops to man (an infinitely weaker and infirm entity), when we stoop out of love we imitate God, and thus strengthen ourselves. When we teach a child, we become stronger for it. What’s more, only those who overflow with an inner calm can minister to the weaker, the poorer, the sinner, in the purest form (these are the saints).
 
“We  have  an  urge  to  sacrifice before  we  ever  know  why,  for  what,  and  for  whom!  Jesus‟  view  of nature and life, which sometimes shines through his speeches and parables  in  fragments  and  hidden  allusions,  shows  quite  clearly that  he  understood  this fact.  When  he  tells us not  to  worry  about eating and drinking, it is not because he is indifferent to life and its preservation,  but  because  he  sees  also  a  vital  weakness  in  all “worrying”  about  the  next  day,  in  all  concentra tion  on  one‟s  own physical  well-being.  The  ravens with neither  storehouse nor  barn, the lilies which do not toil and spin and which God still arrays more gloriously than Solomon ( Luke 12:24 and 27)—they are symbols of that  profound  total  impression  he  has  of  life:  all  voluntary concentration on one‟s own bodily wellbeing, all worry and anxiety, hampers rather than furthers the creative force which instinctively and  beneficently  governs  all  life.”
Scheler contrasts this perfectly with what he thought Nietzsche was in fact describing: ‘altruism’
“But there is a completely different way of stooping to the small, the  lowly,  and  the  common, even  though  it  may  seem  almost  the same. Here love does not spring from an abundance of vital power, from firmness and security. Here it is only a euphemism for  escape, for the inability to “remain at home” with oneself (chez soi). Turning toward others is but the secondary consequence of this urge to flee from oneself. One cannot love anybody without turning away from oneself. However, the crucial question is whether this movement is prompted by the desire to turn toward a positive value, or whether the intention is  a radical escape from oneself. “Love” of the second variety is inspired by self-hatred, by hatred of one‟s own weakness and misery. The mind is always on the point of departing for distant places. Afraid of seeing itself and its inferiority, it is driven  to give itself to the other—not because of his worth, but merely for the sake of  his  “otherness.”  Modern  philosophical  jargon  has  found  a revealing  term  for  this  phenomenon,  one  of  the  many  modern substitutes  for  love:  “altruism.””
 
I have in few places read this analysis written so well, as it perfectly links in with Bonald’s excellent reflections on the reflexive Liberal ‘Love of the Other‘. There is more intricacy to Scheler’s critique, but they are better left to the book itself.
my privilege seems to have knocked you over
allow me to help you up
Another astonishing aspect of this book is the Reactionary subtext. Scheler identifies ressentiment as the root emotional cause of the French Revolution, capturing a psychological facet of the Enlightenment that may have been overlooked by other writers. He makes the observation that those who know their place to do experience ressentiment when negative things happen to them, but rather see these as a natural result of their station.
 
“The medieval peasant prior  to  the  13th  century  does  not  compare  himself  to  the  feudal 
lord,  nor  does  the  artisan  compare  himself  to  the  knight.  The peasant  may  make  comparisons  with  respect  to  the  richer  more respected peasant, and in the same way everyone confines himself to  his  own  sphere.  Each  group  had  its  exclusive  task  in  life,  its objective unity of purpose […] A slave who has a slavish nature and accepts his status does not desire revenge when he  is injured by his master;  nor  does  a  servile  servant  who  is  reprimanded  or  a  child that  is  slapped.  Conversely,  feelings  of  revenge  are  favored  by strong  pretensions  which  remain  concealed,  or  by  great  pride coupled  with  an  inadequate  social  position.  There  follows  the important  sociological  law  that  this  psychological  dynamite  will spread with the discrepancy between the political, constitutional, or traditional  status  of  a  group  and  its  factual  power.  It  is  the difference  between  these  two  factors  which  is  decisive,  not  one  of them alone.  Social  ressentiment,  at  least,  would  be  slight  in  a democracy  which  is  not  only  political,  but  also  social  and  tends toward equality of property. But the same would be the case—and was the case—in a caste society such as that of India, or in a society with  sharply  divided  classes.”
 
Thus Scheler correctly asserts that while wealth redistribution can minimize ressentiment, hierarchy does the job as well. The problem is the middle ground in which people believe redistribution is just, and yet redistribution does not occur. With hindsight on the equality experiment of Communism, we can probably now close the book on the first strategy against ressentiment, as it seems to be mythological. The latter however has a logn track record, and what’s more, is in keeping with the natural divisions among a people, between higher and lower.
didn’t really work
The copy of Ressentiment that I had was a library copy that was either sold or stolen before being sold to me. Regardless, it is a book with no visible flaws in the translation, and contains an introduction to Scheler by Lewis A. Coser and William W. Holdheim who clear up some issues regarding the translation itself. Footnotes are scattered throughout, though having to constantly turn to the informative  Notes section has reinforced my appreciation for Evolian footnote practices. It is far better to have additional optional information on the same page in my opinion.
All in all, I am glad that Barghest recommended this to me, and I in turn recommend you give it a look. It’s only 174 pages, and I read the entire thing on a bus journey with minimal re-reading. Scheler’s structure is very straightforward, even if some further chapter divisions might have worked in the book’s favor. I will definitely be mining this one for years to come.

(Joined Adam Wallace and co for another Plebeian Podcast where we discussed a lot of stuff pertaining to the personal vs. the ideological. Also was invited as the first guest on a brand new podcast by P.T. Carlo as a companion to his new website ‘Thermidor Mag‘ which you can find a link to on the right. We talked Trump and Geopolitics in the year of the fire monkey. Apologies that it starts somewhat abruptly. Carlo was getting to grips with the tech)
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