The Trap of Resentment

We all have that one uncle or know a certain person who is resentful of the world. They claim that it was all better in their own ‘good old days’. They complain about the degrading youth, or the failing structure of society, all the while they are sipping their coffee in the café that they visit daily. You know the one. These people are filled with what the German philosopher and phenomenologist Max Scheler would call resentment. Resentment is something that overtakes us when we adhere to certain ideas. In this essay I want to investigate the concept of resentment as Scheler defines it and see how it can help us in our own lives.

            Scheler’s analysis starts from the concept of resentment that Nietzsche uses to criticize Christion morality. According to Nietzsche, the Christian morality is embedded in the feeling of resentment. Scheler will claim that it is actually civil morality that replaced Christian morality in the 13th century that is based on resentment. This debate is a good subject for a different essay. All we have to know is that the analysis of the concept of resentment is the same for Scheler and Nietzsche. The source of that resentment is different.

            For Scheler and Nietzsche, resentment is the repeating living of a certain emotional reaction towards someone which because it repeats itself continuously becomes more and more a core aspect of that person’s personality. Resentment is about repeatedly feeling the same emotion towards someone or something again, a ‘refeeling’. However, resentment has a negative connotation which implies that this feeling has a negative quality, it contains a moment of hostility. The repeated emotional reaction towards someone is one of animosity, which can even become a type of hatred.

            But what does resentment entail? Nietzsche saw resentment as the basis of what he called slave morality. Slave morality is morality which is imposed upon you by someone or something else. In slave morality, your life is only important for the betterment of something or someone else, not because of your intrinsic being. For example, the citizen in Nazi Germany was only important for the advancement of the Third Reich. The citizen who believed that this was good, is the prime example of a follower of the slave morality. The resentful person has a strong hostility towards something, for example Jews because they have something or do something which the person doesn’t like. As a reaction this person adheres to the slave morality because that will solve his ‘problem’. He lets someone else or something else deal with the ‘problem’. He gives away his autonomy and basically becoming a slave to that person in the process. The resentful person says ‘no’ to life. He needs something else so he will act. He does not act from within itself. Because of this, every action the resentful person takes is a reaction.

            Weakness is elevated to virtue in slave morality. The resentful person is weak but elevates this to him being a virtuous person. His “I can’t do it” becomes an “I don’t want to do it’. A person who can’t tell a lie to save his life, might claim that he does not lie because he doesn’t want to. There is a nuance in intention here. Just because you can’t do something that doesn’t mean you are a good person. If you have the intention to lie but are just a very bad liar, you not lying isn’t a sign of being virtuous, rather it is a sign of you being incapable. It is placing yourself on a pedestal for being incapable. True virtue is where a person has the ability to lie but chooses not to. For Scheler, resentment is poisonous for the soul.

            But how does resentment arise? One of the starting points of resentment is the impulse to revenge. Revenge is always aimed at something; it is a relation. It is in this relation that resentment originates. There are other starting points, like jealousy, disgust, etc, but these starting points alone are not enough to fester resentment. Resentment arises when there is no moral victory over oneself and no activity. The main feeling from which resentment arises is the feeling of being powerless. You have the feeling that you can’t change the situation, so you become resentful.

            However, this alone is not enough. We are not (usually) resentful when we aren’t able to fly. If someone else would be capable of flight, while we wouldn’t then the resentment would arise. Like Lex Luthor’s resentment towards Superman in the movie Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The character of Lex Luthor is a good example to show how resentment arises in a person. Lex Luthor is a genius but a human being, not capable of shooting lasers from his eyes. He sees himself as the peak of human intelligence but then there comes an alien who is capable of toppling buildings with a single punch. It is this feeling of powerlessness that drives Lex Luthor to try and take down the Man of Steel, purely out of resentment and an impulse of revenge.

            As we can see from this example, resentment is something that originates by comparing yourself to others where the other person has something which you don’t have but you want and, in some way, you feel like you believe that you are incapable of getting it. An example might be that you are resentful against a person because he has the girl of your dreams as his girlfriend. We compare our values or our worth continuously with other people. The less you value yourself and the more you value the other, the more resentment will build up inside you. The greater the feeling of powerlessness, the greater the feeling of resentment.

            Resentment is not limited to individuals. Groups can become resentful as well. Being part of a certain group, then, can make you resentful because you are part of that group. This resentment is a bit more abstract. A good example might be the resentment the proletariat feels towards the bourgeoisie. Or the resentment the Germans felt towards the Jews during the reign of the Nazi party. Here, a group can become resentful of another group. The resentment is here detached from a certain person and becomes more abstract. Another example might be the incel who because he is rejected by a single girl, now resents all women.

            One of the main characteristics of the resentful person is that he claims to be pure. They claim to possess all the positive aspects but actually have a bad consciousness. The incel, for example, will claim that he is the perfect boyfriend, but in reality, he knows that he wouldn’t be. It is here the resentment festers. He knows that he wouldn’t be a good boyfriend, but he tells himself he would be but that the women just don’t see it because they like ‘bad boys’. They suppress this feeling and actually start believing the illusion. They can maintain this illusion because they never have to prove that it is true. Yet, deep down the resentful person knows what he claims is not true. This only festers the resentment even more because the person is continuously confronted by his own powerlessness.

            We have now touched upon the concept of resentment the way Max Scheler and Friedrich Nietzsche conceptualized it. I would claim that we all know resentful people and that we all have been resentful ourselves. As Scheler said, resentment is the poison of the soul. It makes our lives worse. Resentment shows us our own weaknesses and insecurities. We need to constantly be on our guard if we don’t want to have resentment to take over. But how do we go against this resentment? How do we not become resentful? This is not analyzed by Scheler, but we can try and find some solutions on our own.

            As we have seen, one of the reasons we become resentful is because we compare ourselves to other people that are better than us. One response to this could be that we should just compare ourselves to people who are worse than us. But this is not the way to go in my opinion. It is a fact of life that we are not perfect. We need to move forward as human beings to lead a fulfilling life. This means that we need to pave a road for ourselves and follow that road so we can move forward. It is impossible to move forward if we don’t have an aim. There is no way forward in an open landscape, but there is a way forward on a road. Comparing us to people who are ‘worse’ than us, or behind us on the road that we are taking, makes us look too much backwards. But like Kierkegaard said, life must be lived forwards. We need to look in front of us to really grow as a person.

            One rule we could follow is to only compare us to past versions of ourselves. Every day you can compare yourself to who you were yesterday. If you have progressed on your path, you can tell yourself you’re doing a good job. This is regardless of what other people are doing. It all depends on what you are doing. If you keep improving day after day, you can keep the resentment at bay.

            However, I believe that it isn’t necessarily bad to compare yourself to other people if they take the form of a mentor. The mentor has the position of a model of how you want to be. If you want to become a body builder, it might be beneficial to have Arnold Schwarzenegger as a role model. Resentment arises from the feeling of powerlessness, or the inability to achieve what others can achieve. If you believe that you can actually achieve what Schwarzenegger has achieved, then you won’t feel resentful towards Schwarzenegger. Rather, he will be a role model of how you want to organize your life. The requisite for this is to be conscious about who you compare yourself to and in what way you do so.

            Another way to keep resentment at bay is to have an active life instead of a passive one. The passive life is characterized by undergoing life and reacting to it instead of actively engaging with it. By taking your life in your own hands and bearing responsibility, you can actively engage in your life. You can have a certain respect for your own actions. By living the active life resentment might be kept at bay because you are continuously increasing your power or competence, which will reduce the feeling of powerlessness. The more you realize that you can change things in your life, the more resentment decreases. The precise duality between the passive and active life might be a subject for a different essay. For now, we can say that living an actively engaging life can be beneficial of keeping resentment at bay.

            We have investigated the concept of resentment as Max Scheler and Friedrich Nietzsche conceptualized it. We have investigated what resentment is and how it originates. Finally, we have investigated possible ways to stave of this feeling of resentment, so it doesn’t ‘poison our soul’. I believe by investigating the phenomenon of resentment we can live a better and happier life. But even more important we can have some sympathy for those who are taken by the feeling of resentment. That way, we might help those who truly want to be helped. That might even be a noble goal that staves the resentment within ourselves as well.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

One reply on “The Trap of Resentment”

Great suggestions to ward off resentment and bitterness! Life is too short to be angry and resentful all the time. Forgive as you would have others forgive you. Thank you for your post! Robyn


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