Christian Love During Christmas Exams (Nietzsche vs Scheler)

It’s that time of year again. Advent? Christmas shopping? Charity fundraising? Sure. All of that and more. But also, exams!

It made me think of a particular situation between two friends, Jack and Bob. Jack used to come up to Bob in the morning, while Bob was repeating his courses for the exam that was about to take place. Jack would ask Bob these questions: “Did you pay special attention to that chapter? How long did you study, yesterday, for that part? At least five hours, no? Did you make sure to repeat the extracurricular material?” It drove Bob nuts! Jack made Bob feel bad about himself. Bob always thought that he was prepared well enough for his exams. After five minutes in the presence of Jack, however, Jack somehow managed to give Bob the eerie feeling that Bob might not be up to the task at hand, time and again!

Years later, I realized that this might have been Jack’s purpose all along, albeit maybe rather unconsciously. Sure, his annoying questions and remarks were always wrapped in a package of so-called “good intentions”. He seemed concerned about Bob. But as it turned out, this concern really was a way of troubling Bob. Jack’s “love” came from a little jealousy and resentment. After all, at the end of the day, Bob’s grades were always much better than Jack’s!

Things got worse when Bob started a relationship with the girl Jack secretly had fallen in love with. Her name was Marilyn. At first, Jack comforted himself with the thought that Marilyn “really was a dumb blonde”, and that “Bob was stupid for wanting a relationship with her”. Other friends of Jack confirmed Jack’s ideas. Jack hated Bob for being “so blind”. In the end, however, Jack’s hatred of Bob transformed to pity, even compassion. He felt sorry for Bob, who was “wasting time” with a girl like Marilyn. Once again, Jack managed to make Bob feel bad about himself!

According to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Christian love is comparable to Jack’s so-called love for his friend Bob.

Nietzsche claims that, in Antiquity, the Jews represented a group of weak people who were secretly jealous of the people in power. However, because they couldn’t possess the same position as the powerful, the Jews started comforting themselves with the delusion that “there is one true God who takes sides with the weak, the oppressed and marginalized victims”. The Jews became convinced that the gods at the side of the powerful were false, and that they wouldn’t want to trade places with “those blind, powerful people”. It is clear, in Nietzsche’s scenario, that this hatred of the powerful people’s position comes from hidden jealousy (hidden, even, from the jealous persons themselves). To get back to the aforementioned situation between Jack and Bob: Jack, who is secretly jealous of Bob, makes himself believe that he wouldn’t want to be in the situation of Bob with Marilyn to comfort himself for not obtaining that situation, like the Jews make themselves believe that they wouldn’t want to be in the situation of the powerful to comfort themselves for not obtaining that situation.

Calvin and Hobbes Resentment

Hatred is the first phase of resentment or, better still, ressentiment. Ressentiment literally is an aversion one develops towards something one secretly desires but cannot obtain. In Dutch a synonym for aversion (Dutch: “afkeer”) is “weerzin”, which goes back to a translation of the Latin prefix “re-” (“weer”) and the Latin noun “sensus” (“zin”). Sometimes ressentiment evolves into a second phase, whereby hatred transforms into a kind of compassion and love. Again according to Nietzsche, Christianity represents the second phase of the ressentiment of the Jews: instead of hating the powerful, Jesus of Nazareth starts pitying them. It’s like the story of Jack: in the end he no longer hates Bob, but he develops a feeling of compassion for Bob.

Still following Nietzsche, the dynamic of ressentiment is complete when the people one is secretly jealous of start feeling bad about themselves. That’s the ultimate revenge. Nietzsche claims that a Judeo-Christian morality based on ressentiment eventually contaminated western culture as a whole: powerful people started feeling bad about themselves. The powerful started developing a bad conscience, just like Bob under the influence of his so-called “worried friend” Jack.

Max Scheler & Friedrich Nietzsche

With all due respect to Nietzsche’s impressive account of ressentiment in the development of the West’s morality, it could be argued that Judeo-Christian love itself is not the result of ressentiment. Max Scheler (1874-1928) has done this. He concedes that ressentiment plays a powerful role in our world, but he firmly disagrees with Nietzsche concerning the true nature of Judeo-Christian morality. According to Scheler, Jesus of Nazareth embodies a love that is born, not from ressentiment or hidden jealousy, but from freedom. The love coming from Jesus of Nazareth is like the love of Johnny, yet another friend of Bob’s. Johnny truly was a happy camper, grateful for a life filled with more than he needed. He had a good relationship with his girlfriend Jacoba, for one thing, and at school he always got good grades. He was happy for Bob when Bob started his relationship with Marilyn. He was also concerned about the way Bob prepared for his exams, but contrary to Jack, Johnny sincerely looked after Bob because of Bob, and not because he needed to satisfy his hidden frustrations. In short, with his love, Johnny empowered Bob. Moreover, Johnny was able to reveal to Bob how Jack really was driven by resentment (or, better again, ressentiment), much in the same way as Jesus of Nazareth unveils the fears, the ressentiment and the ulterior motives of the people he meets. These types of revelations make possible new types of relationships between people: from love of one’s self-image (and its confirmation by others) to love of oneself and others. (For more on all this, especially on the way Jesus unmasks ressentiment, click here.)

It’s that time of year again, when we are challenged to imagine ourselves that a Being of Abundant Life comes to us as a fragile child in a manger, not because that Being of Abundant Life is secretly jealous of us, mere mortals, but to offer us a participation in its Abundant Life. That child in a manger does not want us to feel bad about ourselves, but it wants to empower us to love. And what other love responds more to the reality of that little, vulnerable babe than a love that comes from our fullness, from what we have to give rather than from our needs or what we are lacking? What other love responds more to the reality of that little, vulnerable babe than a love that is not driven by fear, wounded pride or resentment, but by hope and joy?

adoración de los pastores (Murillo)

A shepherd wants us to become shepherds, like a resurrected Abel, so like shepherds we shall adore him.

Philosophy in American Beauty

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).

Zur Genealogie der MoralFriedrich 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.

Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der MoralenMax 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.

Frank Fitts sad old man

From the point of view of René Girard’s mimetic theory, two important observations can be made:

  1. Ressentiment, as the result of envy, relies on mimesis and mimetic desire.
  2. 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.”

Paasboodschap in tijden van schaamte

De afgelopen dagen ben ik bezig geweest met de herformulering en herordening van een aantal ideeën uit mijn boek Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur. Ik wou mij, in de aanloop naar Pasen, opnieuw bezinnen over het zogenaamde ‘verrijzenisgebeuren’. Uiteindelijk heb ik volgend artikel gebrouwen – wie geïnteresseerd is, kan het hier lezen:


Ik heb geen voetnoten toegevoegd, maar geoefende lezers zullen echo’s vinden van filosofen als Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) en Max Scheler (1874-1928) – beiden voor wat betreft hun inzichten over het ‘ressentiment’ –, en van taalfilosofen als Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – zijn ‘meaning is use’ – en Ian Ramsey (1915-1972) – meer bepaald zijn bevindingen over wat hij ‘disclosures’ noemt. Daarnaast is natuurlijk het denken van René Girard aanwezig, en vooral ook dat van James Alison – die de mimetische theorie, in navolging van iemand als de Zwitserse Jezuïet Raymund Schwager (1935-2004), in de theologische tradities van het christelijk verhaal heeft geïntegreerd.

Naar aanleiding van de zeer recente gebeurtenissen in verband met seksueel misbruik in de kerk, heb ik op het einde, ook als gelovige, vanuit een confrontatie met het leed van de slachtoffers en omdat ik, zoals velen, verontwaardigd en beschaamd ben door wat hen blijft overkomen, een ‘machteloze oproep’ willen doen naar de daders. Noch onze liefde voor de slachtoffers, noch onze morele verontwaardiging kan, blijkbaar, een dader van seksueel misbruik tot meer medemenselijkheid en liefde ‘dwingen’:

Het leven van Jezus wijst tegelijk op de machteloosheid en de macht van de Barmhartigheid – de Agapè. Deze Liefde is ten eerste machteloos. De mens die er uit probeert te leven heeft geen garanties dat de kwetsbare houding waarmee hij zich opstelt, zal geïmiteerd worden door zijn medemensen. Als je de geldingsdrang van een ander niet beantwoordt met geldingsdrang, als je ‘het geslagen worden op de wang’ niet met ‘slaan’ beantwoordt maar ‘de andere wang aanbiedt’, geef je inderdaad aan je belager de kans om jou niet nog eens te kwetsen, maar tegelijk loop je het risico dat je geen tedere barmhartigheid ondervindt en opnieuw gekwetst of ‘gekruisigd’ wordt – dat je een zoveelste ‘kaakslag’ krijgt te verduren. Ondanks alles blijft de Liefde waarvan Jezus getuigenis aflegt, wachten op de ‘bekering van de zondaar (in ieder van ons!). Jezus veroordeelt in zijn optreden radicaal de zonde (‘de daad’), maar geeft tegelijk zijn geloof in (de goedheid van) mensen niet op.

Hieruit blijkt ten tweede, en paradoxaal genoeg misschien, toch ook de macht van de Agapè. De Barmhartigheid is niet afhankelijk van de houding van een ‘misdadiger’ of ‘vervolger’. Zelfs als een dader geen berouw toont voor zijn misdrijven, kan een slachtoffer zijn zelfrespect bewaren. De houding van een dader hoeft niet per se de houding van het slachtoffer te bepalen. Slachtoffers kunnen vrij worden in een hernieuwde Liefde voor het ‘leven’ die voor koppige, hardleerse of zelfs ‘zieke’ en ‘verdorde’ daders verborgen blijft. In ieder geval ontsnapt de steun en de Liefde die de naasten van het slachtoffer aan het slachtoffer willen bieden totaal aan de greep van de dader. Hopelijk laten slachtoffers zich uiteindelijk door deze Liefde dragen, en krijgen zij die ‘slaan’, ‘vervolgen’ en ‘verkrachten’, niet het laatste, heerszuchtige woord over het leven van hun slachtoffers. Dat is de hoopvolle realiteit waarnaar de nieuwtestamentische Paasboodschap, ondanks alles, tracht te verwijzen.

In een wereld waarin daders van seksuele misdrijven in de kerk zich, op een jaloerse wijze, onheus behandeld voelen omdat daders ‘uit andere sectoren’ niet ‘even streng’ zouden worden aangepakt, klinken de woorden die de vaderfiguur uit Jezus’ ‘parabel van de verloren zoon’ spreekt tot zijn verongelijkte oudste zoon op een nieuwe wijze. Ze klinken namelijk als een blijvende oproep naar de daders om oog te hebben voor de genade die ze onverdiend al mochten genieten van de samenleving. En bovenal klinken ze als een oproep om het slachtoffer van hun misdrijven te erkennen. In navolging van het oudtestamentische verhaal waarop Jezus met zijn parabel alludeert – het verhaal over Kaïn die uit begeerte naar een bepaalde vorm van erkenning zijn broer Abel vermoordt –, kunnen we mét de Bijbelse God de ‘Kaïns’ van het seksueel misbruik toeroepen:

“Hoor, het bloed van uw broer roept uit de grond naar Mij!” (Gen.4,10b).

Visiting William Blake’s Visions

William Blake (1757 – 1827) is one of the most intriguing artists ever to have walked the face of this earth. An English poet and painter, he conceived his own mythology, rich in symbolism and meaning, based on a thorough knowledge of Classical Antiquity and the Biblical traditions.

I first became attracted to his work by reading Gil Bailie’s book Violence Unveiled – Humanity at the Crossroads. The cover showed The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve, one of William Blake’s later paintings.

Struck by this powerful image and the equally powerful writings of Bailie, I delved into some of Blake’s poems. I knew he took a critical stance toward organised religion, as well as toward an idealization or ‘idolization’ of Reason.

Reading his poems, I soon discovered a human soul who was concerned with and moved by ‘the core business of Christ’: the refusal of sacrifice in the name of some ‘Higher Entity’ (be it a God, an Institution, a State or an Idea). Of course, this refusal might paradoxically imply that one is sacrificed by those who don’t respond to the call of a Love which desires ‘mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9:13). The Everlasting Gospel seems especially challenging, with sentences like these: God wants not man to humble himself: That is the trick of the Ancient Elf. This is the race that Jesus ran: Humble to God, haughty to man… 

Perhaps most remarkable, William Blake shows a profound understanding with regard to the origin of ‘resentment’ in this poem. We all have the tendency to look out for what is socially acceptable, be it consciously or unconsciously. Depending on the particular group we want to be part of, we imitate certain behaviors and clothing styles. Likewise, we even hang on to certain ideas, rules and norms, defining what is morally ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for our particular group. It’s, in a sense, ironic and even funny that one of the best propagated ideas in our western society today is the idea we should be independent and not easily manipulated individuals. So, it has become the social norm to say of oneself “I’m an autonomous, critical individual, not easily imitating others”. But, by presenting such images of our own ‘independency’, we precisely imitate everyone else desiring a similar autonomy and boasting of themselves in a similar way. René Girard has called the denial of the imitative or ‘mimetic’ nature of a certain, but basic, type of human desire a ‘romantic illusion’ (see Deceit, Desire and the Novel).

Anyway, if we frustrate ourselves by adhering an acceptable ‘image’ (and, for example, refuse to recognize our ‘relational, non-independent nature’ as human beings), we might get frustrated by others who don’t seem to follow that image. For frustrating certain desires in order to satisfy our need to obtain a social status only makes these desires grow stronger. So others, who do follow the desires we suppress for ourselves, become a ‘stumbling block’ we want to get rid of. Very often, we can’t stand the confrontation with the fulfillment of our deepest, frustrated desires by these others. We become jealous of them. We would like to imitate their way of behaving, but precisely because we fear to lose our socially acceptable image, we deny being jealous of them. In the end, we’ll even state we find their behavior morally repulsive. Of course, this is a self-deception to comfort oneself. This process is exactly what Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) called ‘resentment’. In Girard’s terms this resentment is part of the ‘romantic lie’, as this feeling once again denounces the mimetic nature of desire – the resentful individual doesn’t recognize being jealous of the one whose behavior he resents. Unlike Nietzsche, Girard doesn’t consider Judeo-Christian tradition as the source of a morality based on resentment, but, on the contrary, as a tradition which precisely uncovers the mimetic tendencies underlying our hate towards others.

By expulsing or ‘sacrificing’ the others we consider ‘morally wrong’, we actually try to conjure our own, ‘secret’ desire to be ‘morally wrong’. We try to convince ourselves and the ones of our own ‘group’ that we in no way resemble the ‘others’ we’re expulsing. As a tragic consequence of our enslavement to a dishonest self-image, we will not only victimize others, but we will also develop ways to secretly fulfill our frustrated desires – as they do have become ‘unmanageable’ and ‘too big’ to handle. So our desire to be ‘morally just and socially acceptable’ (‘chaste’) ignites a hypocritical lifestyle. This can be prevented if we are honest about ourselves and acknowledge certain desires in healthy, non-destructive ways – in other words if we, like Mary Magdalen or the adulteress from John’s gospel (John 8:1-11), look at ourselves through the eyes of Grace, and no longer through the eyes of those who might ‘press charges’ against us and who want us to ‘humble’ ourselves ‘in dark pretence to chastity’. That Grace, embodied so eminently by Jesus who ‘loved the sinner but condemned the sin’, indeed ‘reshapes’ sinners and empowers them to ‘sin no more’.

Like René Girard, Max Scheler (1874-1928) and other Christian thinkers, William Blake once again points to the origin of ‘bad’ i.e. ‘envious’ desire (covet), resentment and sacrificial impulses – all part of the ‘original sin’ – in his magnificent poem:

When first I let these devils in,

In dark pretence to chastity

Blaspheming Love, blaspheming Thee,

Thence rose secret adulteries,

And thence did covet also rise

Read the full poem by clicking here.

Blake, as a Christian visionary, became very sensitive toward processes of victimization, as this is shown by yet another illustration of his to J. G. Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).

The Little Black Boy, a poem addressing a similar theme as this shocking, indeed ‘unveiling’ image, can be found by clicking here. In this poem, Blake first and foremost explores the dynamics of Divine Love and Grace, which call for ‘imitation’, once more…

Divine Love is different from Envy which Blake, time and again, considers the source of all evil (the original sin). A fragment from his poem Visions of the Daughters of Albion puts it this way:

Can that be Love, that drinks another as a sponge drinks water,
That clouds with jealousy his nights, with weepings all the day,
To spin a web of age around him, grey and hoary, dark;
Till his eyes sicken at the fruit that hangs before his sight?
Such is self-love that envies all, a creeping skeleton,
With lamplike eyes watching around the frozen marriage bed!

Makes you think…