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Ressentiment (pronounced /rɛsɑ̃timɑ̃/) is a term used in Psychology and Existentialist Philosophy that comes from the French word 'ressentiment' (meaning 'resentment': fr. Latin intensive prefix 're', and 'sentire' "to feel").
Ressentiment is a profound sense of resentment, frustration, and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration, generated by a sense of weakness/inferiority and feelings of jealousy/envy in the face of the 'cause', that ultimately generates a rejecting/justifying 'value system' or morality that exists as a means of attacking or denying the perceived source of one's own sense of inferiority.
Ressentiment (as a term imported by many languages for its philosophical and psychological meaning only) is not to be considered interchangeable with the normal English word 'resentment', or the normal French word 'ressentiment'. While the normal words both speak to a feeling of frustration directed at a perceived source, neither speaks to the special relationship between a sense of inferiority and the creation of morality. Thus, the term 'Ressentiment' as used here always maintains a distinction.
Ressentiment was first introduced as a philosophical/psychological term by the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. The concept came to form a key part of his ideas concerning the psychology of the 'master-slave' question (articulated in Jenseits von Gut und Bose (Beyond Good and Evil 1886]), and the resultant birth of morality (esp. Christian). Nietzsche's first use and chief development of Ressentiment came in his book Zur Genealogie der Moral (On The Genealogy of Morals 1887; see esp §§ 10-11). .
The term was also put to good use by Max Scheler in his book Ressentiment, published in 1912 (later suppressed by the Nazis).
Currently of great import as a term widely used in Psychology and Existentialism, Ressentiment is viewed as an effective force for the creation of identities, moral frameworks and value systems.
Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one's own inferiority/failure onto an external 'scapegoat', which scapegoat is itself the thing that 'made' one realize one's own inferiority/failure. Yet a fully internalized ressentiment can turn one against oneself; thus, there is often an irony attached to it.
Nietzsche claimed that only slaves could or would come up with the idea of general human equality. This new value (equality) is a last-ditch reaction against their own condition. Having failed at all points to liberate themselves by force, they resort to liberation by re-valuation.
Here, the value 'equality' becomes a means for slaves to escape their condition, or to accept their condition without hating themselves as 'slave-beings' in their very essence. That is, they claim equality and the right to be free as a way of psychologically escaping their bonds ("We are, in fact, not born slaves, and therefore our bondage is unjust and we need feel no internal shame or guilt about it - i.e., we are not actually inferior") or as a way of actually escaping their bonds ("Free us, since we are, in fact, not really inferior slaves.")
Development of the new value involves a rejection of prior values; e.g., inequality, rule by force, technological superiority etc. But, to deny the inherent inequality of individuals (some people are in fact faster, stronger, more clever than others) in the name of escaping the unpleasant condition of one's own inferiority is a great denial. However to grade individuals based on beauty already assumes that there exists a definition of beauty and hence is not objective and scientific as speed or strength. To generate new values as a means of justification for that denial is to take denial to a new level - a "generative" (creative) level. This is to claim that speed, strength or intelligence are 'not the real person' (or not the valuable characteristics of any person) but that the real person is something else. Furthermore, physical strength, speed (or anything to which one cannot aspire) must be denigrated, mocked, rejected.
This facet of the "slave mentality" can lead those affected to reject and/or hate the perceived source of their pain (to hate speed, strength, intelligence and beauty - and those that bear them), and to hate the "masters'" value-system, which (some have argued) contains elements of a positive nobility that need not be connected to the injustice of, for example, slavery.
Valuations that originate with a "No," such as these, are not born of some ideal truth or collection of objective moral facts; rather, they are born in order to escape an unwanted or hated condition, or state of being. It becomes a way that involves the hating (and eliminating) of persons, groups, or existing values/morals in whose presence one feels inferior.
One starts with, perhaps, frustration - yet it is the kind that leads to self-loathing. One escapes it by transferring/transforming the feeling into hatred-of-the-other. The transfer is accomplished via a sophisticated rationalization involving the creation of justifying values and moral truths, which seek to throw down those noble/strong elements in the face of which the ignoble/weak realize (and hate) their own lowliness. Weakness is put forward as a strength, and strength becomes a weakness.
According to some, Ressentiment can lead to rebellion and the numbing elevation (culturally and politically) of the mindless masses (see La Rebelión de las Masas [The Revolt of the Masses], José Ortega y Gasset, 1929).
Max Scheler attempted to reconcile Nietzsche's ideas of master-slave morality and ressentiment with the Christian ideals of love and humility.
Max Weber in The Sociology of Religion relates Ressentiment to Judaism, an ethical salvation religion of a "pariah people." Weber defines Ressentiment as "a concomintant of that particular religious ethic of the disprivileged which, in the sense expounded by Nietzsche and in direct inversion of the ancient belief, teaches that the unequal distribution of mundane goods is caused by the sinfulness and the illegality of the privileged, and that sooner or later God's wrath will overtake them." (Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 110.
Jean-Paul Sartre used the term bad faith to describe a highly similar phenomenon of blaming one's own failure on external factors and therefore denying responsibility for oneself. The major difference between the two is that Sartre presupposed the existence of free will, whereas Nietzsche denied it - where Sartre's "bad faith" was the denial of one's full capabilities, Nietzsche's "ressentiment" was the refusal to acknowledge one's limits.