A Remedy For Ressentiment

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.

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20 Comments

  1. Laguna Beach Fogey March 31, 2016 at 11:54 am

    Thanks for this. I found it spiritually edifying.

  2. I imagine a smiling Socrates reading this essay.

    1. What, that degenerate corrupter of the youth? Thank you, Cristina.

  3. Tom, thank you. I don’t know where to start, I’ve read this piece 3 times now and I’m still dumbfounded at how good it is. I consider it a master piece, it’s easily the best thing I’ve ever read on this site. The entire piece blends together perfectly, the mechanics of it are astounding, it’s the work of a true craftsmen. You’ve set a new standard. I’ve never before felt so much like a talentless dilettante.

    You capture the conundrum of the Modern individual precisely. Neither the Spenglarian resignation of Amor Fati nor a spectacular Dionysian flameout are valid ways forward. As Camus understood, Sisyphean revolt is only the beginning of the journey not the end. But it’s important to harness the energy, the flame, of rebellion without letting it consume you. Anger is, after all, more useful than despair.

    1. Thanks, P.T., but I’m no master, no Goethe—even thinking an unflattering comparison to the writers I most admire feels presumptuous. I’m an understudy serving in the absence of true greats for now, but hopefully we’ll inspire some real ones so I can happily surrender my text editor.

      Camus is brilliant. I’d personally hesitate to call the energy the flame of rebellion or think about its usefulness–rather call it the flame of immature love and focus on its noninstrumental value and I think you’d be closer to wisdom.

      1. Speaking of Camus, he’s really underrated as a thinker. I think a lot of people just don’t know much about him beyond “The Stranger” (which, if we’re being honest, isn’t very good). “The Fall” on the other hand is a stunningly good book and “The Rebel” is similarly masterful. His temperment was generally Liberal, but he was an extremely complex thinker upon closer inspection. It would be a worthwhile project to go back and read him through a reactionary lens.

        1. The Plague and The Myth of Sisyphus are also very good, and I didn’t find the Stranger bad (though the way it’s taught in literature courses can easily make it seem bad). I agree, reading him is worthwhile.

    2. Seconded. I will be showing this to all manner of people and shamelessly using its themes in conversation.

  4. This is good. You’ve managed to do something I’ve had trouble with before: re-defining (not redefining) the classical virtues such as to make them intuitively understandable to a contemporary soul. Temperance, justice and virtue are all just old-timey words until you can explain them in contemporary colloquial terms. Not to knock their old-timey meanings, but the options are either to immerse yourself in old literature until you have an intuitive sense for it, or adapt the principles behind the old literature into clearer terms. The latter can be quicker.

    Also important to do that because it seems like, in the absence of it, nobody really tries to understand the actual old-timey meanings, and then every single old virtue gets folded or re-understood as “just be nice.”

    1. “What does temperance mean?”

      “Oh, just don’t upset anybody and don’t get too passionate about changing the way you live life.”

      “What does justice mean?”

      “Oh, just make sure you never upset anybody, be nice.”

      “What does courage mean?”

      “Oh, just like, don’t be afraid to do things, but don’t be afraid not to do them either. You know, just don’t be an asshole, maan.”

      “What does love mean?”

      “Just be nice.”

      etc.

  5. Entirely agreed. Niceness is too commonly used as a cheap knockoff of goodness and a rival of it where it should be a component of it. Like sugar to food. The path via old literature is richer, but quick paths are needed for the newer hikers who aren’t yet ready to try the long way through the wilderness.

    It’s great to hear this worked in your opinion. Thank you.

  6. Ressentiment means envy and hatred which cant be acted upon, or only through long indirect routes, leading often to frustration. That is how liberal democracy has been planned to be.

    Influence in democracy is slow, goes through several indirect filters and modifiers, and never gets all goals accomplished, if any. Citizens are always pleading or influencing bureaucracies, politicians and other people to do this or that, or think this way or that way, pleading those they think have agency to accomplish things, or have capability to assist in making changes. This kind of psychological action structure in liberal democracy is an indirect acceptance of low pleading social status, which is dependent on the good will or lending of the ear of higher status people, higher status collective massess or higher status organizations. This process most of the time consumes extra ‘political’ energy and emotions left over by work and other daily tasks, so almost nothing is left to other avenues of influence.

    To make matters worse, every political coalition that is painstakingly gathered, lets say during four, eight or twelve years, can be lost in days by the whims of the massess, corruption of politicians, biased media influence or changes in the societal situation. These kinds of lossess are inevitable in democracy, nothing is permanent, almost nothing and nobody can be fully relied on or trusted, leading to more frustration and anger.

    Democracy functions together with consumer society and consumer mindset, and these penetrate everything, including marriages and family life. In the earlier times people saw families, among other things, as units of production, where inadequate and imperfect persons complement each other for the sake of children. Now people take their personal standards from the media, the richest billionaire, the best whatever athlete, the most handsome movie star, the most beautiful model or singer, the most intelligent scientist, etc. Many feel that they are in global competition with every people in the world, “I have to be competitive in the global marketplace for jobs, marriages, social status, wealth, etc.” It doesnt necessarily help if one is, say the most intelligent person in the world. He maybe physically weak, not handsome, not self-confident, etc. People have a tendency to concentrate more on missing things than what they already have, so the most intelligent person in the world may well feel he is inadequate and bad. To counteract this kind inherent inadequacy, liberalized people create false narcissistic facades of perfection, self-confidence, pomposity, popularity, skills, knowledge, intelligence, physical perfection (cosmetic surgeries, cosmetic implants, excessive make-up, etc.), etc. Men fear and feel shame most about weaknessess in any area, women about not being effortlessly perfect. Narcissistic facade means in reality that people demand too much from themselves, and so they will not demand any less from others. This is complemented by the fact that they are accustomed to demand, want and need excessively in democratic processess and consumer transactions. Hence in dating ordinary and average people demand that their spouse is 10+ perfect, more than perfect. They see marriages as hedonistic and selfish consumer alliances. They want to know where the potential spouse would like to travel, what kind of restaurants and foods he likes, what kind of car he has, does he enjoy more sunrises or sunsets, etc. These kinds of hedonistic items must be in harmony and mutually fullfilling. If they end up marrying, the novelty and excitement of new allied consuming soon wears out. Like consumers, they become first dissatisfied with the present product, break up the marriage and start to look for a new product, new exciting partner to consume. The cycle begins again and repeats until they are so old and ugly that that they cannot compete in the consumer dating marketplace.

    So this person so many Nietzscheans and others find comptemptible, this ressentimenting person, is none other than your ordinary person in liberal democratic consumer society. Nietzsche had psychological problems, so he dismissed his own weaknessess, among others, envy, nervousness, fears and hatred, and fantasized about superhuman prideful, narcissistic and calmly superior psychological qualities and capabilities, his childish comic book version of them.

    Envy tells us that we have too little something valuable, and we must do something about. If it is moderated by temperance and channeled properly, it can be a positive feeling. It can be a strong good motivation to improve oneself and own community. If it becomes overbearing, and it is channeled to malevolent actions inside the community, like throwing round sticks to the wheels of others, stealing, sabotage, spreading false rumours, making a person a target of violence, etc., then it becomes a problem. Ten commandments of Bible dont forbid envy, but they forbid the possible malevolent products of it in your community.

    Hatred, if it is moderated by suitable temperance, protects us from violence, exploitation, domination, etc. and it is often requirement in the realization of justice. Again the ten Commandments dont forbid hatred, but they forbid the malevolent products of it in your community.

    So what to do?

    Start to build an enduring ethnic community, on which you can rely on, and which makes you more than you can be alone. Dont put all your eggs to the fleeting basket of democracy. Follow inside your community the advice and commandments of Bible. Have self-compassion, be temperate, lower the excess expectations for yourself and others. Accept imperfection in imperfect world. Reject consumer lifestyle and mindset. Develop a mindset, which allows you to form lasting marriages, and have many children.

    1. Thank you for the comment, Valkea. That last paragraph sounds like a nice way forward.

      Some of the rest I disagree with in details. For instance, the Ten Commandments I know do prohibit coveting (to say nothing of Matthew 5), I don’t like making vices like envy and hatred into virtues, and I don’t think your reading of Nietzsche is accurate (he was very worried about ressentiment and other psychological problems in himself and the higher men, not dismissive of them). However, emphasizing compassion for ordinary people’s suffering under contemporary government and suggesting the last paragraph’s possible solution seem like your most important points, and they’re ones I’ll second wholeheartedly.

  7. Tom,

    envy is a feeling that you lack something important, which other person has. Coveting is envy directed to that which the other person has in such a way that you want it for yourself, so you may end up stealing it, robbing it, missappropriating it by using stratagems, etc. Envy is not recommended in the Bible, nor it is a virtue, but it is not forbidden to envy, unless it leads to coveting, which is a prerequisite for a crime or infraction. Properly controlled and directed envy can lead to good things and often does.

    Same kind of logic applies to hatred.

    I have read secondary sources about Nietzsche, so they may have been misleading to some extent.

    1. True, properly controlled and directed much evil can lead to good, but it is still not something I would encourage. ‘I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good’… says Goethe’s devil.

      Ah, the secondary literature on Nietzsche is a mess, sadly. I find it’s usually better not to talk about him at all when it can be avoided, since he was too much of a trickster to be easily read.

      Thank you for the follow-up.

      1. Tom,

        envy is not automatically “willing evil”. Envy can say, “Oh my goodness, Harry has so good X, I need that too”, and then go on to improve himself, or work harder, or redirect his attention and work in a new way, so that he gets the X. This is willing good. There are of course ways in which envy can lead to willing bad. Envy is one of the automatically occurring emotional results of social comparisons, i.e. it means that there first must be rational evalution of social differences, which then arouses envy (or some other emotion connected to social comparisons). People have inborn tendency to make social comparisons. Hierarchy is essential conservative value. Hierarchies need social comparisons to exist and to be maintained. Levelling hierarchies with force and laws doesnt remove social comparisons or hierarchical tendencies, on the contrary, it mostly intensifies them.

        All this means that envy cannot be prevented or forbidden anymore than say anger or love, nor should we try. We can learn to live with envy, control it, modify it and direct it on good and constructive purposes. Ten commandments are good guide on how to direct envy to good purposes by telling what to trim away.

        1. I see; what you are calling envy I would call mimetic desire. Social comparison does induce desire for what others have in good ways and bad, but I reserve the word envy for bad ways. Specifically, the way I learned the words, envy implies wishing ill on the envied. So while emulation and the desire to have what others have often do reinforce hierarchy, envy works against hierachy because people who feel it wish ill on their betters and subvert the order.

          However, it’s true that many other English-speakers use the word like you do, so you’re not without precedent, and as a non-native speaker perhaps you’ve never been taught that fine distinction. Still, in my opinion it’s like when market fundamentalists claim greed is good because they conflate it with self-interest. Envy is a favorite vice of egalitarian fundamentalists, but I think it’s better to call the good thing by a good name instead of calling something good by an evil name then defending the evil name.

  8. Note to self (and to Tom): I’m inclined to think the terms “Agency” and (what you’ve coined here) “Incoherent Agency” are worthy of inclusion in the compendium.

    Added: It would seem that Incoherent Agency occupies that space between faith and action.

    For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed. For let not that man think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord. A double minded man is unstable in all his ways.

    Related term: Executive Function

    1. Sounds good to me! You’re exactly right that this describes the space between faith and action, as well. In initial drafts ‘faith’ played a larger role, yet in the end I chose to save that material for a later essay.

      Great quote.

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