The Psychological State of Ressentiment in the Genealogy of Morals

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The psychological state Friedrich Nietzsche terms as ressentiment in the Genealogy of Morals, is a human condition attributed to a feeling produced when placed within a hostile environment. One which man is found powerless to alter through physical action. Those inflicted to this deprived orientation feel a bitter indignation at having been treated so unfairly. Ressentiment then begins to cultivate itself through a more assured sort of revaluation. One that is a response to the external reality, rather than its original form of aggravated self-assuredness. Ressentiment cleverly harvested and strategically placed has the ability to bring about new values, values that devalue the masters and that reverse the master’s judgments. “The slave revolt in morals,” writes Nietzsche, “begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and ordains values: the ressentiment of creatures to whom the real reaction, that of the deed, is denied and who find compensation in an imaginary revenge.” It is within this shifting of morality that the rich and powerful are no longer blessed by god and it is meek and starved who are the blessed and ‘good’.

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In the Genealogy of Morals, the morality of the masters, are those who have separated themselves from the mass within their garbs of nobility. It was within their status and conduct that they deemed themselves “good” and their actions “good.” The abstract creation of the terms “good” and “bad” is made by this two class caste system comprised of the distinction and distance from them, the noble man and the weak man of the heard. The master appraises his values and his own superior self and he honors the power that he has and with it praises his pride and hostility. It was necessary to have enemies as a means to give vent to passion - the clearest example being the Athenians noted for their “shocking cheerfulness, and depth of delight in all destruction, in all the debauches of victory and cruelty.” More times than not then not the masses, not blessed with the strength and power of the nobles would be pulled into these selfish pursuits. These masters appeared to be unstoppable within their barbaric pursuits due to their codes of morality but eventually a new psychology made way into the world: ressentiment and the slave revolt.

Ressentiment offers the oppressed with fantasies of retaliation, concealing the more tangible notions of revenge. Ressentiment men are “cellar rats full of revenge and hatred.” The concept of “evil” is a construct built by the man of ressentiment. Ressentiment, then, is Nietzsche’s term of a skill for a special kind of hatred and vengefulness, one stirred by ineffectiveness in the face of hostile incentives, and that leads to the creation of values that devalue those unpleasant ones. In section 13, Nietzsche uses the Christian metaphor of the weak lamb to expand upon this inversion of morals. Nietzsche writes that man relies upon a method of self-preservation that assumes the intelligibility of the doer-doing picture of action. By making those who pose a threat to the weak responsible for their behavior in order to influence that behavior, a responsibility for one’s actions, a moral blame – this helps reassure the weak’s self-image. When Nietzsche’s uses the lambs to say that “these birds of prey are evil; and whoever is as little of a bird of prey as possible, indeed, rather the opposite, a lamb – should he not be said to be good?” means to establish that this lamb-like behavior is the correct and moral thing to do. But the lambs should not claim the bird of prey to be good like that of a lamb – for Nietzsche says it is absurd to ask of something that is essentially strong to act in a feeble manner. This then is an absurd demand for the powerful to not act upon its strength.

According to Nietzsche the target of moral blame is then not the strong but rather another body that is not principally the sort of thing that creates such results. Nietzsche’s lamb analogy engages an idea of a neutral layer that holds the birds of prey morally responsible for their possibly destructive behavior. It is the notion that masters are required to be held responsible within their power - meaning that the master’s free will is actually made by the slaves. According to Nietzsche, the slave morality must continue with the “belief that the strong man is free to be weak and the bird of prey to be a lamb – for this the gain the right to make the bird of prey accountable for being a bird of prey.” What makes the master potentially guilty for his actions is the fact that he may have acted otherwise: it was a decision or choice to dominate.

To look at the masters in this manner is to attribute them to a certain category of freedom. Freedom of the will as an accidental facility that enables the agent to bring about events of whatever kind it wished. Viewed as free in this way, the masters are taken to be capable of act “good” if they choose to do so – no longer acting like the barbaric Athenians. With such freedom comes a moral responsibility, one for acting in accord with a certain code of conduct. The reasoning of our actions is a supersensible entity free from the phenomenal causal order, the self as thing in itself. Nietzsche means to attack the idea of inherent cause. Meaning that actions that take place are nonetheless free due to the control that a person has over its actions. The central metaphysical claim here is that humans and actions are not unique entities, or parts of the metaphysical structure of the world. They are instead parts in a chain of interrelated events, fundamentally no different from flashes of lighting. Meaning that the lamb's morality has no right to blame the bird of prey for killing: that would correspond to blaming it for existing. This point leads to the bold conclusion that Nietzsche makes: we have no casual control over our actions. 

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