Overcoming ressentiment

I’ve been thinking a lot about ressentiment lately. It saturates the news, art, conversations, nearly everything. Or so my eyes tell me.


What is ressentiment? It is not as some (including me) an exact synonym of resentment, but a distinct flavor of resentment. I had been blurring them into synonymity, but the differences are important enough that I intend to start using the terms more precisely. According to Wikipedia,

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.

So my understanding is that ressentiment blames others not only for specific grievances but for one’s own existential state — how one is and how one habitually feels about life. I view it as both analogous and connected to Heidegger’s beautiful distinction between fear and angst. Fear has an object. Angst might seem to have an object, but in fact angst belongs to the subject. Remove the object of fear and the fear dissipates. Remove the object of angst and the angst must find another object. Resentments can be resolved by addressing the object of resentment. Ressentiment is insatiable.

The Dhammapada gets this right:

The hatred of those who harbor such ill feelings as, “He reviled me, assaulted me, vanquished me and robbed me,” is never appeased.

The hatred of those who do not harbor such ill feelings as, “He reviled me, assaulted me, vanquished me and robbed me,” is easily pacified.

Through hatred, hatreds are never appeased; through non-hatred are hatreds always appeased — and this is a law eternal.

Most people never realize that all of us here shall one day perish. But those who do realize that truth settle their quarrels peacefully. (I included this last stanza for the Heideggerians.)

Another problem: Ressentiment generates an aggressive ugliness that radiates and discolors everything and everyone around it. Sadly this ugliness is not confined to the eye of the beholder, but somehow reflects into the eyes of those beheld, which leads directly to the next point.

Ressentiment is counterproductive. The objects (the alleged causes) of ressentiment are only agitated and energized when approached with ressentiment. Resentment breeds resentment, and the infection spreads and intensifies. In combatting ressentiment it is necessary to cultivate lightness, cheer and buoyancy, and to resist succumbing to ressentiment’s natural darkness, dourness and deadweight. (Does this smell like Nietzsche to you? That is because it is Nietzsche. It is the cornerstone of his moral vision.)

All this should make it clear why I’ve recommitted to rooting out ressentiment in my own soul. Unfortunately, I have accumulated a great deal of it over the last decade. It will take some work to clean myself out. One key element of this effort has been to limit my exposure to other people’s ressentiment, especially those two antithetical ressentiment philosophies which have seemed into the mainstream from the fringes, and which have become the substance of popular politics. Staying away from social media has helped a lot.

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