- Nietzsche's Psychology of Ressentiment: Revenge and Justice in On the Genealogy of Morals by Guy Elgat
In Nietzsche's Psychology of Ressentiment, Guy Elgat develops an interpretation of some of the central themes of Nietzsche's GM, which is one of his most systematic works and a pivotal part of his critique of the modern moral outlook that grew out of Christianity. Elgat's original approach is framed by two fundamental ideas: first, Nietzsche takes the concept of "moral justice" to be central to the morality he sets out to criticize; second, Nietzsche's suspicion toward moral justice is rooted in its association (by some of his contemporaries, such as Eugen Dühring) with the affect of ressentiment. Thus, Elgat notes (in chapter 1) that ressentiment is frequently supposed either to express a sense of justice, or to be what is expressed in it. Since Nietzsche takes ressentiment to be essentially foreign to questions of justice, it cannot be rehabilitated as either. The subsequent chapters (2 to 4) develop an analysis of ressentiment as Nietzsche understands it, and its role in the emergence of morality. After chapter 5, an "interlude" on the origin of moral guilt, chapters 6 and 7 deal respectively with the emergence of the idea of "moral justice" and with Nietzsche's own argument for an alternative conception of justice.
Elgat defends a "thin" definition of ressentiment, which carefully excludes from it features he deems extraneous to it: "Ressentiment is a complex mental state that arises from a feeling of displeasure, is characterized by a negative affect of hate, and involves the desire to retaliate—to take revenge—upon the perceived cause of one's displeasure" (26). He insists that ressentiment is a response to pain quite generally, and not just, for example, to the distinctive pain of "frustration." But he concedes that not every instance of pain elicits ressentiment and accordingly introduces some qualifications. The [End Page 174] pain must, for instance, have a certain level of intensity in order to arouse ressentiment. The most consequential qualification is that "the original pain at the basis of ressentiment can plausibly be construed as a feeling of loss of power, … a displeasure experienced as compromising in some way one's effective agency, one's capacity to act and overcome obstacles," and that the revenge it motivates is best understood as "a desire to regain that power" (37; see also 44, 58). In emphasizing the link between ressentiment and power, Elgat follows a suggestion found in prior accounts (e.g., Max Scheler, Ressentiment, trans. W. W. Holdheim [New York: Schocken Books, 1961]; Robert C. Solomon, "One Hundred Years of Ressentiment: Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals," in Nietzsche, Genealogy, Morality, ed. Richard Schacht [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994], 95–126), but he does not develop it more than they do. We are thus left suspecting that ressentiment must be, after all, a response precisely to "frustration," or suffering in the sense of thwarted effort, since it is only in such effort that the effectiveness of one's agency is at play, and can therefore be called into question.
Elgat perceptively notes that ressentiment is a "natural" response to suffering, that is to say, a response to which every human being, and not just those Nietzsche describes as "weak and impotent," is susceptible. Nevertheless, he concedes that there is an "important difference" in how "strong and weak natures … negotiate ressentiment" (28). For instance, he suggests that when it occurs in weak natures, ressentiment becomes compounded with a feeling of impotence: it is this impotence that precludes revenge in "deeds"—actually harming those he holds responsible for his suffering—and compels him to resort to the "imaginary revenge" of a revaluation of values. Nietzsche himself stresses this difference when he maintains (in GM I:10) that it is only when it occurs in "the weak and impotent" that ressentiment becomes "poison." If ressentiment is a response to suffering, experienced as a challenge to the power of one's agency...