Martin Marty: Sightings Opinion

What’s ressentiment got to do with it

Max Scheler

Max Scheler

Should our republic and, with it, its kin in Western Europe survive, any and all attempts to transcend the current chaos will have to begin with, or at least include, diagnosis and analysis of what got us here. Whoever reads the internet messages, editorials, and serious books on our culture(s), whoever listens to the pundits, philosophers, and ranters, will come across numberless references to inter-class (and other “inter-”) phenomena such as “revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.” These are not new in politics, religion, or culture, but, taken together, they appear to be grounded in profound, bone-deep, soul-destroying resentment, and are efficiently mobilized by modern media, on the internet, and with expensive advertising. The analysts point to the special character of our current explosions and often render their view technical by using the French word ressentiment.

Modern-day users of that term draw upon big-deal thinkers such as Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Weber, and Sartre, but prime among them is the German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928), author of the 1912 book Ressentiment, which has most informed my outlook through the years since it first came out in English in 1961. Scheler’s widely quoted definition of ressentiment, one that illuminates an important aspect of the world of political, cultural, religious, and social leaders and folk, reads: “Ressentiment is a self-poisoning of the mind… 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 [as quoted above] revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.”

So much for tolerance, civility, empathy, mutuality, and dialogue!

Examples: people in one class or region or situation, encouraged by their chosen leaders, nurture ressentiment as “the repeated experiencing and reliving of a particular emotional response reaction against someone else.” International Islamophobia is one instance of this. Scapegoating globally is another. “Populist” and “elitist” are the emergent names favored by workers, voters, academics, and religious people with reference to others. One finds evidence of this in international Catholic controversies, which the Pope is trying to cool. In the United States it is manifest even in fracturing Evangelicalism. “Populists” who suffer job losses because of automation, changes in marketing, the closing of mines, and “globalization” look for villains to blame, and turn to those who promise easy solutions. “Elitists” take refuge in celebrity worship, which fails them, and, as tastes change, ressentiment takes over. Read the spiritual and mental temperatures that led to Brexit, and which have only begun to afflict once civil nations that now see themselves as being overrun by refugees, who are regarded as terrorists, not to mention the charges leveled at their domestic hosts and welcomers.

Again, if our republics survive, they must welcome analysis, but they will also need more. In these years of chaos, Sightings sees as ever more urgent the work of civil volunteers, humanitarians, religious providers of opportunity, humane activists, plus re-readers and expounders of the texts that first denounce those situations which give rise to ressentiment and then manifest what one scripture calls “the more excellent way” of love. These appear here and there, against all odds, and deserve fresh and sustained hearing and response.

Sightings: Religion in Public Life is a publication of the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School. Subscribe to receive Sightings in your inbox every Monday and Thursday. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About the author

Martin E. Marty

"Marty" is one of the most prominent interpreters of religion and culture today. Author of more than 50 books, he is also a speaker, columnist, pastor, and teacher, having been a professor of religious history for 35 years at the University of Chicago.


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  • Well said. And I affirm your thesis. I wish you had mentioned the vandalism of the left in opposition to the new president. It is important and alarming.

    Why is this not mentioned?

  • We learn from Milton’s Paradise Lost that the only thing powerful enough to cause war IN HEAVEN is envy. The opposite of love is not hate, but envy. We have a choice, each of us all the time, to love others enough to enjoy their success or excellence, or to envy and resent them–hating who we are by comparison. Everyone is diminished when we choose to feed our envy. Or everyone can be lifted when we choose to love our rivals. Equality is too slippery and is not the answer. Active, lifting love is. Thanks for the reminder Marty!

  • Resentment and envy are the major drivers of the anti-Trump rhetoric that is so ubiquitous today. Another big wave of resentment will rise up as soon as Democrats are aroused from their deep depression which set in when Hilliary Clinton lost her bid for the presidency. Envy will build to a high point and then it will crash after the economy has blasted into orbit and put more money into the pockets of working and middle class people.
    Nothing succeeds like success!

  • Are you talking about the political left, Democrats, Progressives, Liberals? What vandalism? Perhaps you’re thinking of the Black Ninjas in California or the anarchists in Minnesota and elsewhere. They’re not part of the political left which is calling legislators, attending demonstrations and protests, etc.

  • I agree. Resentment is not a positive, can’t be built upon nor can it grow into a positive. It must be released to make room for life-giving emotions.

    Decades of destruction of reliable institutions of information and learning by a few very wealthy American fascists has brought us to this point. They’ve shredded the credibility of education and honest brokers of news and information, replacing it with lies and distortions engineered to build resentments. It’s been an economic boon for them, but destructive of this great nation.

    Richard Melon Scaife, the Kochs, Adelsons, Waltons, fossil fuel barons and others have financed fake news outlets and pseudo scientific “studies”, bought Congressional representatives and entire state governments, backed astro turf organizations led by people like Dick Armey, Grover Norquist, Karl Rove and so on.

    The result is that a sizable subset of the population only believes “alternative facts” and therefore truth does not create common understanding among the population. The problem has become so dire that subset does not want to know if a foreign government, Russia, influenced our election. Nor do they want to know if our president has specific secret political and economic arrangements with Putin and Russia.

    Such treasonous acts by the president, if true, present the greatest threat to the USA since 1865.

  • Any emphasis on the maundering and wandering offal produced by rationalist western philosophers is essentially a waste of time. They take the simple and confound it in order to demonstrate the sophistication of their intellect. In sum, Philosophy is the art of answering questions that don’t need to be asked. We have been blessed with a catalogue of moral teaching the most profound and simple the world has ever known; it’s called the Bible. As a putatively Christian professor of great erudition, Mr. Marty ought to know this. Otherwise his students should get their tuition back with interest.

  • My Republican friends, way before Trump, have long had the illusion there are too many “people who don’t want to work.” I have been hard pressed to figure out who that is, except when I consider their own progeny who are mostly like The Prodigal Son. But they can’t bring themselves to think that so instead they accept crap like Ronald Reagan’s “strapping young bucks” buying sirloins with an EBT card. It makes them feel better that the product of their loins is superior to some absent ex-con’s, but that is not a rational feeling.

  • You left out Soros. He is the snake head of all this turmoil that will soon get out of hand unless people get a grip.

  • Envy? Try disgust. The whole “we won, get over it” meme has become the kind of authoritarian crap that would get anyone with a sense of decency and appreciation for democratic government annoyed.

    “then it will crash after the economy has blasted into orbit and put more money into the pockets of working and middle class people.”

    On what planet is attacking regulations which protect the middle and working class, raising their tax burdens, destroying the public service infrastructure they rely on, and diverting funds to political cronies going to put more money into the pockets of people who are not fantastically wealthy?

    35+ years of neo-liberal economic policy and the only thing we have to show for it is the growth of predatory financial industries, a shrinking middle class, increased economic stress for the working class and poor and a crumbling national infrastructure.

  • Someone has their facts and realities crossed. But nothing coming from a Trumpette shocks anymore. No one envies the Donald or his lackeys/serfs. That whole response was a garbled mess, start to finish. Did you just cut and paste some Donald tweets?

  • Hey Mr. Fence-Sitter! Ya gotta a sore crotch yet?!
    Which facts and realities do I have crossed? An intelligent person would have been more specific in citing the ones with which they were issue!
    I am not a Trumpette or among his lackeys and serfs. I’m an independent voter who didn’t want the Clinton mess back in the White House. Talk about messes–that would have been a mess indeed!
    Those were all original thoughts–something you seem to be incapable of. You’re not even very good at name-calling, the last refuge of those unintelligent enough to be unable to mount a decent counter-argument and marshal any facts to support it.
    Who’s the mess here?!

  • I expect Republicans were equally annoyed by the lack of any sense of decency and appreciation of democratic government when Barak Obama told them his meme, “Elections have consequences! Get over it!” Those consequences included being totally shut out of discussions about the Affordable Care Act. After 10 months of wrangling the law passed with only Democrat votes. Here eight years later some 57% of Americans are against it (disgusted with it!) because they’ve suffered steady and rapid rises in insurance costs and copays. “If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor” and “We’re bending the cost curve for health care down” are just two examples of the desperate lies Obama offered in his desperate effort to sell it TO HIS OWN PARTY!
    BTW, since you’re so concerned about the working and middle classes, weren’t they the folks who put Trump into office? The fun part is, Trump spent about half of what Hilliary Clinton did! So much for the theory that rich candidates can buy their way into office! With their lavishly wealthy Clinton Foundation Billiary couldn’t put enough money into the pockets of their political cronies to get Hilliary elected president! It seems there ARE some limits to what the wealthy can buy with their money!
    Someone with such weak arguments against America’s free-market economic system, no doubt lives in a blissful nostalgia for those fantastic years of abundance that was enjoyed by the lucky citizens of Soviet bloc countries and their Communist system! Ah, the good ol’ days . . .
    at the

  • And yet most of the reaction was racist nonsense pretending to be politically incorrect dissent.

    As for the ACA, what do you have against 8 million people having healthcare coverage? It was originally a republican conceived plan during the Clinton years. So what do republicans offer as an alternative? Not a damn thing.

    “weren’t they the folks who put Trump into office”

    And Trump is already trying to bend them over. And your point? Unless you were wealthy, supporting Trump means shooting your economic interests in the foot.

    BTW if you thought Clinton’s emails were a reason to vote for Trump, you are officially foolish. Trump is addicted to unsecured electronic communication and blabbing about national security issues in public.

    “… no doubt lives in a blissful nostalgia for those fantastic years of abundance that was enjoyed by the lucky citizens of Soviet bloc countries and their Communist system!”

    Said someone who supports a leader with such Stalinist ideas such as a contempt for: a free press, independent judiciary, and civil liberties. A person who uses government power to personally profit, and even has an affinity for an autocratic Russia.

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