This post aims at providing some more background information on a previous post regarding the film American Beauty (click to read “Scapegoating in American Beauty”). It explores the philosophical foundations of ressentiment.
In the world of philosophy there are two German names that automatically pop up regarding the discussion on ressentiment, namely Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Max Scheler (1874-1928).
Friedrich Nietzsche discussed ressentiment primarily in his work Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals/Morality – click here for pdf version of this book in English). In Nietzsche’s view, the Jewish-Christian foundation of morality grew out of the weaker men’s pride when these were confronted with a noble and aristocratic ruling group of stronger men. The weaker men, the slaves, reject the morals of the stronger men, the masters. The slave denies being envious of the master and develops a sense of superiority by claiming that the values the master lives by are not desirable at all. According to Nietzsche, Jewish-Christian slave morality triumphs over the master morality of Greco-Roman Antiquity when people start feeling guilty and ashamed about belonging to the group of masters. This is the ultimate revenge of the slaves for not being able to aspire to the same values as the masters. The slaves convince themselves and the masters that the slave morality (the inverse of the master morality) is the desirable model of life, and that the master morality is contemptible.
Max Scheler critiqued Nietzsche on these issues in his work Ressentiment. According to Scheler, Nietzsche’s account of ressentiment is very convincing, but he is wrong to consider it as the main source of Judeo-Christian tradition.
This is not the moment to discuss Scheler’s critique on Nietzsche. Regarding a further reflection on the film American Beauty and other examples of ressentiment, it is useful to merely focus on the characterization of ressentiment by Nietzsche and Scheler. In an article entitled Ressentiment and Rationality for the online philosophical and anthropological magazine Paideia, Elizabeth Murray Morelli summarizes as follows:
“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.”
Applied to the character Frank Fitts in the film American Beauty, ressentiment is directed at the life of homosexual couples. The cycle of ressentiment then can be specified as follows: Frank Fitts gains his sense of self-worth by the social recognition he gets from the US Marine Corps (hence he presents himself continuously as “Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps”); he realizes that he actually desires certain relationships, namely homosexual relationships; he gets frustrated because he cannot fulfill this desire out of fear to lose his social recognition; he develops a sense of injustice: it’s not fair that certain people would enjoy a life as homosexuals and he seeks revenge for this injustice; he devaluates the originally desired life as a homosexual; finally he despises homosexuals in general and is convinced that they should feel ashamed; thus Frank Fitts develops a feeling of superiority over those who possess a life as homosexual couple, and this confirms his sense of self-worth.
From the point of view of René Girard’s mimetic theory, two important observations can be made:
- Ressentiment, as the result of envy, relies on mimesis and mimetic desire.
- When a mimetically ignited desire cannot be fulfilled, the resentful person justifies mental or physical violence towards a model who possesses what the resentful person secretly desires – this is a form of scapegoating. Hence, according to Cuong Nguyen in an article for the online philosophical journal Prometheus (October 19, 2008): “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’. This issuing of ‘blame’ leads one to desire revenge, or at least believe in the possibility of revenge.”
I wonder what kind of philosophy and “culture” was being promoted in this unspeakably vile sado-masochistic snuff/splatter film in which the hero (representing ALL of living-breathing-feeling humankind) was systematically beaten to death.. A film that was hugely popular at the time and which was promoted as a superb missionary tool for promoting the “good news” of the Gospel.
Maybe the culture of an atheist like Sam Harris finds a good metaphor for some of its ideas in this movie? Chris Hedges, in his book I Don’t Believe in Atheists (p.19-22): “The belief in human perfectibility, in history as a march toward a glorious culmination, is malformed theology. It permits wild, eschatological visions to be built under religious or secular banners. This dangerous belief colors the thought of the new crop of atheist writers. They will tell us what is right and wrong, not in the eyes of God, but according to the purity of the rational mind. They, too, seek to destroy those who do not conform to their vision. They, too, wrap their intolerance in Enlightenment virtues. ‘Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them,” Sam Harris writes. “This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.‘
Any form of knowledge that claims to be absolute ceases to be knowledge. It becomes a form of faith. Harris mistakes a tiny subset of criminals and terrorists for one billion Muslims. He justifies the unjustifiable in the name of civilization. The passions of atheists like Harris, hidden under the jargon of reason and science, are as bankrupt as the passions of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists who sanctify mass slaughter in the name of their utopias. Religious fundamentalists pervert and distort religion to serve their own fears and aggrandize themselves. Atheists such as Harris do the same with science and reason.”
Or, seen differently, it could also advocate another “culture”. I wrote about the nature of Christ’s sacrifice before – see, for instance:
Christianity is for people who believe that Christ shows that a God of Love is not “almighty” in the sense of being “all-controlling”; God is almighty seen from the perspective of a Christ who is not deceived by the temptation of pride and “this-worldly ambition”. By resisting the temptation for some kind of “prestige” (in other words by RESISTING MASOCHISM) Christ is able “to become the Servant of all” and to keep on loving others for the sake of those others. Because Christ is true to the “Spirit” of his “Father”, because Christ remains “the incarnation of Love”, he can resist sacrificing others (in other words RESIST SADISM) for the sake of some pride.
Instead of (masochistically) pretending to agree with the persecutors, Christ takes sides with those who are despised, abandoned, persecuted. He refuses to take sides with those who (sadistically) bully, and instead defends the bullied. He tries to defend those who are on the brink of being stoned or crucified, believing that God desires “mercy not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13), believing that those who persecute can also be merciful.
History shows that whenever you try to defend victims in a non-violent way, you run the risk of being victimized yourself. This Imitatio Christi motivated Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero and countless others. These people did not want to get killed, they desired “mercy, not sacrifice”, although they were all realistic to know they ran the risk of being killed.
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