Our time is beset by resignation on one hundred fronts. Politically, the far-left is resigned to class struggle and oppression; though they fight, they rarely anticipate any final victory. The moderate left is resigned to corporate influence and to disappointing the zealots they wish they had the idealism to believe in. The conservative right is resigned to change, however hard they fight their enemies to left and right. The far-right has become resigned to the collapse of society as we know it and the necessity of finding another way.
Sub-politically, things may be even more dire. We hear widespread resignation to our words being lost and misinterpreted in the maelstrom of modern media. We hear resignation to changing neighborhoods and communities, whether gentrification or ghettoization, or just Bowling Alone. We hear resignation to divorce and to poor parenting, to the absurd amount of time spent on shallow entertainment, and to the general uglification of men, women, buildings, books, and art.
But this resignation is rarely the clean amor fati resignation of a Stoic. Most often, when we say we hear resignation we mean that we hear despair and bitter frustration. To use a technical term introduced by Friedrich Nietzsche and elaborated well by Max Scheler, we hear ressentiment.
This despair is unbecoming. It’s an excellent sign that this person, whose life is a curse and a hole to be filled, is not worthy to be followed.
For better and worse, however, it is especially common among newcomers to fringe political movements. If not for our sourness, few of us would have traveled so far from mainstream politics. With the culture wars boiling over around Trump, the rhetoric is more overheated than ever. It can be hard not to react by burning with impotent activist rage. Therefore, it’s important that we address the issue, especially now, and circulate remedies against it. I feel a particular responsibility to do so after writing The Radioactivity of Atomic Individualism, which portrayed many negative features of this ubiquitous, desperate unhappiness without describing how to adapt to it in any detail.
Why, in an age of such plenty, would men be so frustrated? There are many threads to follow.
I plan to pick just one with particularly broad relevance and special technical interest for aspiring passivists: incoherent agency.
This concept is that we are often deeply confused about what to feel responsible for and what is out of our control. Do we have the responsibility to regulate our desires, or are our desires inborn and inherently natural? Are our decisions determined by circumstance, or do we choose them freely? Should we be judging one another by our intentions, or by the results we achieve?
Anyone who would be worthy to govern must be proficient in recognizing and assigning such responsibility. Understanding and taming issues of agency in one’s own life and the lives of loved ones is therefore an ideal early step down the passivist path.
One of the causes of our incoherence about agency is our loss of a living concept of virtue, and three virtues are essential to answer these questions and pull up the roots of the bitterest frustration: temperance, justice, and courage, corresponding for my narrow purposes to proper organization of agency across present, past, and future. Let me begin with the first.
One most easily recognized way that incoherent agency leads to despair and frustration is that we formulate our desires using one agency, but then live according to another.
This is especially common in modern life. As a perfect example, consider sexual desire.
Pornography allows viewers to scan through hundreds of body types or fetishes in a single hour. The level of diversity and ease of acquisition has become incredible. On the other hand, though polyamory and fetishes have become relatively normalized, it is still rare to find an actual partner who is up for anything, still less a healthy and desirable partner like that. Desires can be formulated in an environment of abundance with desire almost entirely sovereign, but life must still be lived according to stricter compromises. A mirror occurs with romantic films and books, where convincing fictions portray perfections of emotion that the consumer has never earned nor has any idea how to earn.
One’s frustration occurs because the desires are unrealistic, and they are unrealistic because of a mismatch between where desires are formed and where they are later expressed. In the first context, one’s agency is almost free and complete, but in the second, one’s agency is conditional and limited.
This observation suggests a first essential rule for living a happy and well-ordered life in modern culture: keep learning and doing close together. For mutable desires, never accept low-effort surrogates that imitate rewards better than you can earn. Carefully ensuring that one’s thirst for pleasures does not outstrip one’s rights to them has an old name, of course: this is temperance, as mentioned at the outset.
In our times, temperance especially includes being wary of porn and romance as substitutes for sex and love, of snark for superiority, of flattery for friendship, and of official rights for actual powers. But it is not simply a rule about fiction rather than nonfiction. It is exactly as important to be wary of learning to desire fictions as of learning desires from true stories one cannot personally relive—that way lies envy, just as bitter.
Yet though fiction and nonfiction can be dangerous, this is not to say stop consuming fictions or stop comparing oneself to great men. Only be careful to learn to do what makes them great rather than learn to desire what they earn from their greatness. This is the difference between a young Raskolnikov, eager for the old Napoleon’s privileges, and the young Napoleon, eager for Caesar’s virtues. Become the young hero before an old one.
To judge the present well and to enjoy ourselves in the moment, we must match our desires to our circumstances. Otherwise, we are eternally irritated and disappointed. Otherwise, we can find no good to cultivate in the world around us. Otherwise, we mistake order for chaos and do violence to it.
A second frustrating incoherence, more related to past than present, arises especially among adherents to modern socialist and materialist ideologies, in which agency is ascribed to inchoate groups, or is denied to individuals because of their social conditioning, or is reduced to acting out pre-programmed responses after environmental stimulus.
Taken alone, one can often make good cases for these theories. It may be true that responses to stimuli are predictable, that an individual’s values behind choices might themselves have been chosen by others, or that a group’s desires are together far more causally efficacious than individual desires. Agency is a rich phenomenon that should not be underestimated or oversimplified. However, what happens all too often is that we mix the theories poorly, forgetting the premises that make each conception viable as we clumsily squash one together with another.
We learn that most decisions are made by habit, but think that simple intention will be enough to change habits. We think for a moment that our moods are chemical, yet fail to appreciate how complex that implies the chemistry must be. We exculpate ourselves for being manipulated by others, yet hold them responsible as if they were not also manipulated. There is a temptation to hold oneself responsible for every decision, as in the most radical existentialism, and a simultaneous temptation to hold oneself responsible for nothing, as in the most radical determinism.
What is the intelligent young man to do? Believe that he is structurally part of the patriarchy and thus responsible for all the unhappiness of women? Believe that he’s responsible for nothing more than just kicking it poolside and watching the world burn? Most likely he muddles through, going from one side to the other based on context and the luck of the draw. He follows whichever influence seems higher status or truer (it is rare that those appearances do not coincide). Mostly, he feels guilt and frustration, manipulated but also guilty for being manipulable.
Further, it makes him an ineffective manager and leader. If he is an individualist and somewhat-relativist, he manages each employee according to their own conception of responsibility, sure to cause dissension in the ranks. He cannot enforce or even insist on a consistent standard of responsibility because he does not have one.
To live and lead well, one must maintain consistent standards for agency across contexts, and the last paragraph suggests a proper name for the standard one should aspire to: justice. Whether one is a determinist or an existentialist (and one may be both), justice requires consistency with oneself and with others.
This can especially be a problem for new reactionaries and radicals. Often one will just have been ‘red-pilled‘ from an ideology in which people’s ideals seemed more intentionally honest and rational. Now on the fringes, the norm seems more mendacious—systematically and obligately bad—so he often makes vicious accusations and impractical demands of the normal. He still thinks honesty and rationality are easier than they really are, despite learning that they’re less common. With time, luck, and wisdom, he may learn a just and consistent standard for agency, but in the interim he makes a distinctly poor impression.
The only way to cease this torturous confusion is to understand how to include the past as part of oneself, as consistent with one’s own agency. One must make peace with one’s origins, and that means equally both those origins in the most fleeting chances and those in the deepest natural laws. It is doubtful that the importance of fleeting chance is not one of the deepest laws.
But even if one can maintain temperate desire in the presence and a just feeling of responsibility for past events, despair can still set in when we face the future.
Among the young and the working class, especially, there is a distinct anger that “even doing everything right, we can’t get ahead” in the hollowed-out economies prepared for the Millenials by their Boomer elders and by U.S. coast dwellers for Middle Americans. Students graduate college, but with incredible debt loads. ‘Nice guys’ try to date respectfully, but find women prefer others. Workingmen try to provide for a family, but between divorce and outsourcing find themselves unemployable, on the hook, and alone. The formulas do not work, and men feel betrayed.
On the other hand, genuine sources of happiness are widely distrusted. “Sure you’re saved,” some will say, “but how stupid do you have to be to take church seriously in this day and age?” Or “sure she seems happy but she’s so boring, I could never just be a mother.” A common refrain for the ambitious young man is that “I think meaning is more important than happiness,” but the false opposition reveals a lack of both.
It seems to happen again and again that we misjudge what we expect to make us happy at the same time we discount what we observe making others happy. In one sense, this is simply an image of intemperance as described above: these awful entitled Millenials, for instance, have set their desires above their means. However, there is a deeper mistake at work concerning the relationship of means and ends. Specifically, we ascribe too much direct control to our intention, when intention is only a small part of agency.
The fact is that we do not understand what we do even when we’re successful in doing it. Even the neuroscientists among us do not yet know how, specifically, a good food produces a pleasing sensation of taste. Often the most profound artist will have no articulate explanation for the effect of his work, or will even have one that is demonstrably incorrect. Our actions produce consequences with some regularity, but we rarely know exactly what this regularity consists in.
A fascinating historical case study of this is the prevention of scurvy, and it is particularly interesting for reactionaries because it clearly shows how advances in one technology can mask declines in another. Today, it is well known that scurvy is a vitamin C deficiency and that supplements of any food containing vitamin C are sufficient to prevent or cure it. However, scurvy was cured with citrus well before the vitamin theory was known.
The particular British cure of lemon juice worked for decades, but then changes in technology (1) made ocean travel faster, so fresh food high in vitamin C was more common and (2) eliminated the vitamin C in the most common citrus supplements. The first change masked the other, so that scurvy re-emerged as a problem in long ocean voyages and arctic expeditions despite the presence of citrus (now lime juice) supplements. In fact, with the advent of boiling and canning destroying natural vitamin C in many other foods, scurvy became a particular epidemic among the rich. All the while, various doctors and nutritionists advanced vain theories of what to eat and why, and all the while people believed that they were taking the most reasonable actions to ensure their health.
Some will read this story and think the lesson is to be suspicious. Many beliefs have turned out to be false in this story. However, it should be equally incredible how well the lemon juice cure worked before the vitamin theory was known. Even without the vitamin theory, citrus solidified British domination of the seas for generations. As much as one should be humble about the limits of one’s knowledge, one should also be courageous in acting despite one’s ignorance.
Our ignorance is unlimited. For every theory, there is an unknown assumption, and for every policy there is an unknown failure mode. Coherent agency requires a coherent practice of giving reasons for acting and communicating expectations. Agency cannot consist in following guaranteed formulas absent judgment, and trusting judgment requires courage. There is no alternative or substitute. Even complete inaction is a risk, and even letting another decide requires the courage to trust that other.
For the young and the working class, the difficulty and likelihood of failure in particular endeavors will often be made no less by courage, but the fact of failure will become more bearable—even strengthening. The difficulty of trying again for the next, more likely success will lessen. And in the most important cases, courage will reveal paths forward that no generic expert or outsider could recommend: paths like starting a unique business or learning skills that hardly exist yet; paths that require the ability to judge risks for oneself.
Courage could also be called the ability to make a choice for the future and accept the unknown consequences; in this sense it is clear it is also an aspect of coherent agency. And with courage, even if despair may persist for a time, it will become something more before long—the example of a Job still faithful to God, or of an outmatched warrior fighting to the death just to spite the enemy, or of a mad experimental philosopher going to the limits of sanity for the sake of finding something deeper.
Alone, each of these three incoherencies can cause unbecoming frustration, despair, and ressentiment. Without temperance, the present is irritating or dull; without justice, the past is empty or cruel; without courage, it is impossible to anticipate good outcomes or endure the expectation of bad ones. Together they do not account for every root of ressentiment, but these virtues form a strong protection against the most common types. They also have other, richer and more rewarding aspects that I have not discussed. Yet before you begin this three-part remedy or recommend it, take care.
None of these virtues is independent of wisdom, and not one will be independent of the passion that likely drives any current ressentiment. In a choice between giving up both ressentiment and all the passions that lead one to it, or continuing to feel the frustration and the anger and the thirst for what is better, prefer the latter.
Nature does not look kindly on mere self-satisfaction and self-consistency; nothing is surer to invite predators and parasites. Nor does her God, He who spits out the lukewarm and sooner blesses those Jacobs who wrestle against Him.
Instead, as you burn, keep these in mind and use them to harness your fire rather than to cool it. Learn to concentrate its heat with temperance, to fuel it cleanly with justice, and to vent its warmth into the world with courage. Before long, done well, the fire will burn clean and bright, without spittling smoke and poison vapors. You will find it a trusted friend rather than an unaccountable torturer.
Make your soul the hearth of a roaring flame, and around you, others will see it in your eyes—and begin to think you worthy.