The Malady of the Age: Resentment

“Thus ressentiment becomes the constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to sneak itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing. The ressentiment which results from want of character can never understand that eminent distinction really is distinction. Neither does it understand itself by recognizing distinction negatively (as in the case of ostracism) but wants to drag it down, wants to belittle it so that it really ceases to be distinguished. And ressentiment not only defends itself against all existing forms of distinction but against that which is still to come.

The ressentiment which is establishing itself is the process of levelling…a reflective and passionless age hinders and stifles all action; it levels. Levelling is a silent, mathematical, and abstract occupation….No one can be at the head of the levelling process alone, for in that case he would be the leader and would thus escape being levelled….The levelling process is the victory of abstraction over the individual.

The dialectic of the present age tends toward equality, and its most logical—though mistaken—fulfilment is levelling, as the negative unity of the negative reciprocity of all individuals.”

—Soren Kierkegaard, The Present Age

“Thus do I speak unto you in parable….ye preachers of equality! Tarantulas are ye unto me, and secretly revengeful ones!

Therefore do I tear at your web, that your rage may lure you out of your den of lies, and that your revenge may leap forth from behind your word ‘justice.’

‘Vengeance will we use, and insult, against all who are not like us’—thus do the tarantula-hearts pledge themselves.

And ‘Will to Equality’—that itself shall henceforth be the name of virtue; and against all that hath power will we raise an outcry!

Ye preachers of equality, the tyrant-frenzy of impotence crieth thus in you for ‘equality’: your most secret tyrant-longings disguise themselves thus in virtue-words!

Fretted conceit and suppressed envy—perhaps your fathers’ conceit and envy: in you break they forth as flame and frenzy of vengeance.

Inspired ones they resemble: but it is not the heart that inspireth them—but vengeance. And when they become subtle and cold, it is not spirit, but envy, that maketh them so.

But thus do I counsel you, my friends: distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful!”

—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

Resentment perhaps drives more evil than any single thing. Other than covetousness. And the two are not unrelated. We resent those whose things we covet. We resent people whose husbands or wives we covet. But resentment goes beyond covetousness. We also resent the boss for telling us what to do; we resent the teacher for telling us what to think. We want to punish the powerful and bring them down to our level.

And therein lies the problem. Why do we want to tear people down rather than lift ourselves and/or the weak up? Of course, it’s easy to create equality among the trees by shopping them all down, while if we nourish them all equally, we will find that the trees will still manage to develop differently on their own.

And this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t want to bring down the powerful. We should bring down governments when they become too powerful and oppressive. We should bring down institutions when they become too powerful and oppressive. We should bring down anyone who gains power through imposing their will on everyone.

But we should not resent, we should not want to bring down anyone who has gained through mutually beneficial exchange. The great artists, the great scientists, the great entrepreneurs, the great inventors should hold nothing but our highest esteem. Resenting them only shows just how much we hate the good for being good; hating them only shows the degree to which we hate humanity itself.

It’s the Small Things

David McElroy has an interesting piece in which he laments the decline of general competence. As he points out, we are seeing this more and more. Being concerned about people misspelling words may seem a bit much, but what happens when even highly educated people are often misspelling words? What happens when school teachers and administrators misspell words or make errors such as using “could of”?

While there is a degree of carelessness and, worse, not caring, there is also a strong degree of miseducation and, even worse again, false confidence. Everyone thinks they can write and don’t need an editor. Except that, no one can write and literally everyone needs an editor–especially if you’re a regular writer (it’s simple math: the more you write, the more errors you’ll make; it’s also psychological: the more you write, the more confident you are, and the less likely you are to catch your own errors). Excellence matters, and it is precisely excellence which it being put aside throughout our culture.

The biggest problem is precisely the problem of false confidence. And it extends well beyond writing. While I have had former students insist they were good writers because their teachers loved their writing and told them they were good (I always told those students they should go back and sue those teachers), we see people insisting on competence in teaching when they have only graduated a year ago, we see people insisting they know how to fix the economy when they haven’t had a single course on economics, and we see people having opinions about cosmology and biology when they don’t know the first thing about either. In the U.S., math competency is among the lowest in the developed world, and math confidence is the highest.

But these are hardly the only small things. Etiquette is long gone. And so are manners. People are rude, they won’t hold open doors for you, they consider everyone an inconvenience–one could go one an done (and I invite you to include examples in the comments). It seems a small thing, but etiquette is the foundation of ethics. They show what kind of character you have. If morals are the rules that help us live together in social groups, then etiquette is the foundation of morals. Every time you’re rude or call someone a name or bully someone because of their world view, politics, religion, lifestyle, whatever else you want to think of that makes people different from you, then you are acting unethically. Each violation of etiquette is a violation of ethics.

So I think David McElroy is on to something in his pointing out the little things. The little things are the foundations of the big things. Chip away at a dam long enough, and it will break and release the flood waters.