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The Genealogy of Ressentiment and the Achilles' Heel of Humanitarianism: thinking with Dostoevsky, Scheler, and Manent on "Love of Mankind".

Let strife and rancour perish from the lives of gods and men, with anger that envenoms even the wise and is far sweeter than slow-dripping honey, clouding the hearts of men like smoke; (18, 105-10)

   From the trunk of that tree of vengefulness and hatred, Jewish
   the profoundest and sublimest kind of hatred, capable of creating
   and reversing values, the like of which has never existed on earth
   there grew something equally incomparable, a new love, the
   and sublimest kind of love--and from what other trunk could it
   have grown?


EARLY IN Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov a "sentimental society lady whose inclinations were in many respects genuinely good" comes to visit the sapient Father Zossima. (1) Over the course of their conversation the woman proclaims that she "love[s] mankind so much that--would you believe it?--I sometimes dream of giving up all, all I have, of leaving Lise and going to become a sister of mercy. I close my eyes, I think and dream, and in such moments I feel an invincible strength in myself. No wounds ... could frighten me. I would bind them and cleanse them with my own hands. I would nurse the suffering." (2) As if in part to shake the society lady from her high self-regard, Father Zossima tells her he "heard the same thing, a long time ago to be sure, from a doctor." (3) The doctor confided in Zossima that, though he "love[s] mankind ... the more I love mankind in general the less I love people in particular, that is, individually, as separate people." [4] The illustrative anecdote of the doctor's dilemma is very much apropos the sentimental society lady, as her daughter Lise's condition as a paralytic requires much of her attention and, one can assume, most of her love. Because Lise, the particular person in the society lady's direct proximity, is in one sense an ideal object of love--she is in need, and she is at hand--we must ask why her mother's impulse leads her instead to dream of mankind. In Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche contends that "the slave revolt in morality begins when ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of natures that are denied the true reaction, that of deeds, and compensate themselves with an imaginary revenge." (5) We can rightly wonder to what extent the society lady's "love of mankind" is an "imaginary revenge" upon the demands that her daughter places upon her, a compensation for her incapacity to undertake great deeds. Zossima's judicious rejoinder resounds loudly in a world wherein claims of "global citizenship" foster an idealism that absolves each citizen of the world of any particular loves. Rallying cries relegate the crippled Lise to the backstage of that theater of global significance, replace her with the imaginary lepers whom we can kiss in dreams doused in love of mankind. Is our suspicion that ressentiment is the exclusive origin of the sentimental society lady's "love of mankind" and the "global citizen's" humanitarian love anything more than a spoiled fruit of the inheritance Machiavelli, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud--those "masters of suspicion"--have left us?

In his prescient early work Ressentiment, Max Scheler contends that Nietzsche "wrongly equated the Christian idea of love with a completely different idea which has quite another historical and psychological origin: the idea and movement of modern universal love of man, 'humanitarianism,' 'love of man kind,' or more plastically, 'love toward every member of the human race.'" (6) Scheler makes a crucial distinction: whereas Christian love demands a definite sacrifice, humanitarian love demands contingent "sacrifice," which is ultimately aimed at enhancing the degree of pleasure experienced in a given society. In Ressentiment, Scheler suggests that the humanitarian movement is fundamentally a ressentiment phenomenon, a fact that is evident "from the very fact that this socio-historical emotion is by no means based on a spontaneous and original affirmation of positive values, but on a protest, a counter-impulse (hatred, envy, revenge)." (7) Mankind is more of a "trump card" against a hated thing than an object of love: "Above all, this love of mankind is the expression of a repressed rejection, of a counter-impulse against God." (8)

Most of Dostoevsky's novels probe the phenomenon of ressentiment with haunting acuity and dramatization, yet perhaps none of his works other than the largely neglected The Adolescent [A Raw Youth] so directly explores, in novelistic fashion, the interrelationship of ressentiment and humanitarian love. At the onset of Part II the protagonist Arkady's father Versilov brings up the "Geneva ideas" that "underlie today's civilization" and that are founded upon the possibility of "virtue without Christ." (9) In a somewhat contradictory but frank and perceptive moment, he confesses that humans are "vile" but one can do good on their behalf while "clenching your feelings, holding your nose, and shutting your eyes (this last is necessary). Endure evil from them, not getting angry with them if possible, 'remembering that you, too, are a human being.'" (10) As he clarifies in a startling passage: "To love one's neighbor and not despise him is impossible. In my opinion, man is created with a physical inability to love his neighbor. There's some mistake in words here, from the very beginning, and 'love for mankind' should be understood as just for that mankind which you yourself have created in your soul (in other words, you've created your own self and the love for yourself), and which therefore will never exist in reality." (11) Versilov's inability to "break through emotionally to others" even in acts that are objectively moral grows out of the principle of "doing good without Christ." As Nicholas Rzhevsky notes: "The crucial ideological point is the concept that man 'invents himself to love himself,' for this moral-psychological gesture, Versilov suggests, is what is real while abstractions on the order of 'mankind' never 'really existed.' The argument rests on self-involvement and self-imposed morality in which there are no transcendent objects such as God or merger with 'man-kind,'--the process of love symbolized by Christ--but only the vision of man standing completely alone and shaping himself into a superior being." (12)

On one hand, Rzhevsky enunciates the "self-imposed" character of this morality, which Pierre Manent, in his A World Beyond Politics? traces to Kant: "If for Thomas Aquinas human dignity consists in freely obeying the natural and divine law, for Kant it consists in obeying the law that human beings give to themselves." (13) According to the Christian comprehension of human beings, any dignity that exists comes as a gift from God, for only God is capable of granting them power to follow their own counsel. For Kant, "the difference is both radical and subtle, to be human is a dignity." (14)

Nevertheless, though some of Versilov's sentiments share a certain fraternity with Kant, he cannot embrace life according to nothing more than a Kantian respect for human dignity, for he preserves a pseudo-mystical picture of mankind that, he admits, he would "not be able to live without." (15) During a crucial confession to Arkady, Versilov acknowledges his initial hesitation before the possibility of man living without God. And yet, he admits, as a pensive smile passes over his face, he "imagines to [himself]" that after the initial mudslinging and cursing that follow the death of God, "a calm has come, and people are left alone, as they wished: the great former idea," their source of nourishment and warmth, has left them, and it seems as though the days of mankind are at their end:
   And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at
   once felt a great orphancy. My dear boy, I've never been able to
   imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people
   would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly;
   they would hold hands, understanding that they alone were now
   everything for each other. The great idea of immortality would
   disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great
   abundance of the former love for the one who was himself
   immortality, would be turned in all of them to nature, to the
   world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the
   earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they
   gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it
   would be with a special love now, not as formerly ... They would
   wake up and hasten to kiss each other, hurrying to love, conscious
   that the days were short, and that that was all they had left. They
   would work for each other, and each would give all he had to
   everyone, and would be happy in that alone. Every child would know
   and feel that each person on earth was like a father and mother to
   him. "Tomorrow may be my last day," each of them would think,
   looking at the setting sun, "but all the same, though I die, they
   will all remain, and their children after them"--and this thought
   that they would remain, loving and trembling for each other in the
   same way, would replace the thought of a meeting beyond the grave.
   Oh, they would hasten to love, in order to extinguish the great
   sadness in their hearts. They would be proud and brave for
   themselves, but would become timorous for one another. Each would
   tremble for the life and happiness of each. They would become
   tender to each other and would not be ashamed of it, as now, and
   would caress each other like children. Meeting each other, they
   would exchange deep and meaningful looks, and there would be love
   and sadness in their eyes. (16)

Although Versilov's fantastic vision of humanitarian love lacks a step-by-step process by which one could consciously bring it about, although it starts in the aftermath, and in spite of the fact that he admits that this dream will never exist in reality, this vision is more realistic than the many inextricably utopian formulas propounded in the name of that same love of humanity. Further, the realism of humanism, its achievability, is evident in that it is rooted in a ressentiment, "by no means based on a spontaneous and original affirmation of positive values, but on a protest, a counter-impulse (hatred, envy, revenge)" that is founded upon self-love. (17) Remember that for Versilov love for mankind is love of a fiction that one fosters in the face of wretched, unlovable, concrete man. (18) How are we to hold together Versilov's double vision--of an atheistic world wherein love for mankind reigns, and a love of self founded on the premise that love for mankind will never exist in reality? Could it be that what we call love for mankind is in actuality--through an almost unconscious circuitry--love for oneself?

To honor this line of inquiry it is necessary that we first return to Scheler's early analysis of humanitarianism. August Comte, that leading spokesperson of modern humanitarianism and inventor of the term altruism takes offense at Christ's command that one "Love God and thy neighbor as thyself." Christianity, he claims, nourishes egotistic impulses in that it commands one to care for one's own salvation. Comte therefore wants to replace this ancient precept by a "new positivistic commandment: 'Love thy neighbor more than thyself.'" Scheler insists that Comte "fails to note that it is incomprehensible why our fellow man should have a right to benefaction--since love, for Comte, has value only as a 'cause' for good deeds--for the silliest of reasons: simply because he is the 'other': If I myself am not worthy of love, why should the 'other' be." (19) Mincing no words, Scheler goes on to proclaim that "Comte ignores [the fact that] his tenet is either a hyperbolical pathetic phrase or a nihilistic demand which destroys all vitality and indeed decomposes any structure of being!" (20) The sensuous, undiscriminating "sympathy for the 'other'--and mainly for his 'suffering'--merely because he is not himself is a highly leveling and decomposing principle for human life, despite its express purpose of 'strengthening life.'" (21) This decline in the value of life, this modern humanitarianism grants to love a merely technical value, as its aim does not stretch beyond improvement of the general welfare. This transvaluation of love, Scheler claims, is truly a slave revolt in morality, "Not a revolt of the slaves, but of the slavish values." (22) That being said, in concrete historical practice modern humanitarian love and Christian love are now tangled together, a fact that explains Nietzsche's mistake.

In "The Empire of Morality," Pierre Manent takes up the task of further distinguishing the different versions of humanitarianism and Christian love of neighbor. Christian love is never aimed at the neighbor in-and-of-herself, but at the Imago Dei that is found in every human being. "Nietzsche, though furiously anti-Christian, nonetheless says that to love the neighbor for the love of God is the most refined moral sentiment attained by human beings." (23) Manent helps us distinguish humanitarianism from Christian love in part through a linguistic analysis, for the foundation of humanitarianism is not caritas as much as it is compassion, or pity, in the Rousseauean sense. The capacity for pity is universal because all human beings have a body that is subject to the strong possibility of suffering; human beings are objects of suffering. Further, because of the universality of suffering, human beings are probably subjects of suffering: "Physical suffering is immediately grasped or imagined. One sympathizes with a toothache, a nervous colic, and two

days without eating or drinking more easily than with a moral humiliation, an intellectual preoccupation, or a spiritual anguish. In short, because physical pity is rooted in the senses, we communicate immediately with the other, without the mediation of complex ideas. Pity can be relied on to bind people because it is a sentiment, an affect, or a disposition that does not demand any moral transformation or transcendence of self." (24)

The visible suffering of an other says to me, "You too could undergo this," and therefore I make an effort to assuage his suffering. But, in fact, I do not in truth experience this suffering that I perceive so vividly. "I know well that I do not effectively experience it and so I rejoice that I am exempt from it. I experience the pleasure of not suffering. Therefore, there is nothing idealistic or utopian in pity as the foundation of social morality." (25) For Rousseau, if modern mankind is to transcend the isolation and individualism that comprise its ethos and essence, she must cultivate compassion. Once again, we return to the center of this analysis, and at last see how near Versilov's "Geneva ideas," his "virtue without Christ," are to those of Rousseau, Geneva's patron: "mankind" is remade in the subject's image, the subject who, in the absence of Christ and God the Creator, creates a self-serving picture of man. What at first seems self-sacrificial is revealed as self-love. As Manent maintains, altruistic pity is morally economical, demanding very little from mankind: "there is nothing in pity that is heroic, since its wellspring is the selfishness of each person. Rousseau was giving us the blueprint that has effectively prevailed in liberal democratic society." (26) The other, whom Comte commanded that we love more than our own selves, is the pitiable other, pitiable to the extent that she become a self that I have created or abstracted in order to experience the pleasure of pitying. For the humanitarian logic is the logic of compassion, and compassion "reduced to itself has two effects. The first is the desire to come to the aid of the suffering and even to risk 'dying for Pristina'; but the second is altogether different, and in the contrary. By turning the attention toward the suffering body, compassion quickens in each of us the desire not to suffer and not to die." (27)

Standing alone at the center of the modern humanitarian empire, compassion offers no satisfactory order, law, or aims. Certainly, in Versilov's rendering, these humanitarians "Hasten to love, in order to extinguish the great sadness in their hearts," to, in a slightly different manner than Manent describes, "experience the pleasure of not suffering." If we gaze again at the origin of Versilov's portrait, we witness that all of the love is driven by people's experience that they are "left alone, as they wished: the great former idea has left them," and all at once the people suddenly feel a "great orphancy, which drives them to begin "pressing together more closely and lovingly." (28) Scheler shows that this "'lovingly' stooping to man as a natural being" is the "second step" after the phenomenon of ressentiment against "God," against the symbolic concentration of all positive values. (29) "Man is loved because his pain, his ills and sufferings in themselves form a gladly accepted objection against God's 'wise and benevolent rule.'" (30) Wherever Scheler finds evidence of this feeling, he notes, he also discerns a secret delight that the divine lordship can be challenged.

Because the roots of humanitarian compassion lie in ressentiment, because it is first and foremost a protest against the divine and natural laws, against the mandate that one should love the Imago Dei in one's fellow man, it "becomes primarily directed at the lowest, the animal aspects of human nature, those qualities which 'all' men have in common." (31) We can now configure a common thread of ressentiment tying Versilov, who depicts humanitarian "love" as extending to nature ("they would look at nature with new eyes, the eyes with which a lover looks at his beloved"), to Rousseau. (32) For Rousseau pity or compassion, unlike the caritas of Christianity, is freed from philosophical or religious doctrines; it cannot lead to in-fighting and fragmentation. And yet, Manent observes, "the physical pity that Rousseau preaches certainly preserves humanity, since humanity is partly animal, but it tends to weaken the consciousness and sentiment of what is specifically human." (33)

Influential as he is, Rousseau and the "Geneva ideas" by no means contain an exhaustive exemplification of man's attempt to love mankind without Christ. As Max Scheler admits in his later work The Nature of Sympathy, "it must be admitted that our treatment [of humanitarianism in Ressentiment] goes too far at a number of points." (34) Specifically, he takes issue with his previous attempt to portray a humanism worked up exclusively from ressentiment-laced rebellion against patriotism and the Christian command to love one's neighbor as one's self. In The Nature of Sympathy Scheler maintains that the idea of humanitarian love has often been "employed polemically in this fashion, from motives of ill will," and he further insists that the elevation of love of mankind over patriotism and Christian love of God, the preferential option for the "extremities above what lies nearest the heart, is entirely due to that ill-feeling working itself out." (35) What he perceived, in Ressentiment, as the sentiment of generalized benevolence he now positions as the "exaggeration of the value of benevolence which proceeds from ressentiment." (36) The pivotal point of Scheler's reconfiguration is that humanitarian love, what he renames benevolence, is an inherent possibility in man's intrinsic nature; humanitarian love is positive in its origin and value. Further, its historical iterations exist beyond Rousseau and his Geneva ideas: "it is to be found in the humanitas of earlier antiquity, Stoic and Epicurean schools ... in the intellectual history of the Chinese, with the spread of Laotse's teaching from South China and its amalgamation with Buddhism; and once again in the modern sentimentally-based democracies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries." (37)

Just as Scheler reevaluated humanitarian love in order to articulate the senses in which it is not ressentiment-ridden, Dostoevsky, too, seems to have broadened his brush in The Brothers Karamazov. The nihilistic Versilov can claim that "'love for mankind' should be understood as just for that mankind which you yourself have created in your soul." (38) But a somewhat exotic extremist such as Versilov is not the only one who utters humanitarian sentiments. We recall the "sentimental society lady" who, early in The Brothers Karamazov, visits Father Zossima, her "inclinations ... in many respects genuinely good." (39) What are these good inclinations? After all, one could easily read at the root of her desire to leave Lise and become a sister of mercy, to nurse the suffering and kiss their sores, a profound ressentiment born of the restrictions that her crippled daughter places on her love; for hers is a love that must be borne out in quiet, domestic suffering, in a love that receives no lauds. However, instead of first reading ressentiment in her desire, Zossima responds by saying that "It's already a great deal and very well for you that you dream of that in your mind and not of something else. Once in a while, by chance, you may really do some good deed." (40) Only later does he offer his infamous diagnosis of love in action as "a harsh and fearful thing compared with love in dreams." (41) In the wake of Scheler's reassessment of ressentiment and Zossima's judicious, merciful response to the society lady, we can carve out new origins and manifestations of the love of mankind, origins and manifestations not relegated to ressentiment. That said, being freed from the law of ressentiment is not the same as being freed from the problem of ressentiment. For even if, historically, general benevolence can be traced to the Stoic, Cynic, and Epicurian schools, the teachings of Lao Tse, and even if benevolent love of humanity is a type of emotion that is positive in origin and value in that it is intrinsic to man's nature, we live in an ideological age, and "hatred for the divine, hatred for man's spiritual personality and its potential perfection, hatred of one's country and one's neighbor are thus transformed into an ideology," namely, the globalized ideology of global citizenship. While benevolence has not disappeared from the face of the earth, how do we reckon with the likelihood that it will change into ressentiment-ridden humanitarian love? (42)


We still find ourselves staring from a precarious pinnacle of thought into the aporia of humanitarian love/compassion/pity. How long can we, in good faith, dream Versilov's dream? What sober soul can clamor with the reactionary chatter calling for a return to some romanticized Christendom? Remember Scheler's insistence that although Nietzsche correctly diagnosed ressentiment-ridden benevolence as the major character trait of modern humanitarian man, he did violence by laying the blame at Christ's beatitudes. Perhaps we can follow Nietzsche's impulse--an impulse shared, in a certain sense, in Scheler's The Nature of Sympathy--to turn toward the pre-Socratic Greeks, particularly Homer, in an attempt to locate the forces and framework of a world freed from ressentiment, even if his idealization of Greek vitality, of the Greeks as human beings who countenanced the chaotic, cruel, and irrational world while simultaneously lovingly affirming "the infinite primordial joy of existence" was mistaken (Qtd. in Ahrensdorf 773). (43)

In Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche puts forth his portrait of the "noble" or "Greek" man: "Such a man shakes off with a single shrug much vermin that eats deep into others; here alone genuine 'love of one's enemies' is possible--supposing it to be possible at all on earth. How much reverence has a noble man for his enemies!--and such reverence is a bridge to love." (44) Unlike the man of ressentiment, who moralizes his weakness into a protective value system and subsequently regards the enemy as "the evil enemy," the noble man can endure only that enemy "in whom there is nothing to despise and very much to honor." (45)

Nietzsche situates ressentiment as the crowning fruit of Judeo-Christian morality, as opposed to Greek nobility. He argues that unlike the Christian, who claims to seek not retaliation but "the triumph of justice," the "victory of God, of the just God," the Greek relishes and holds in high regard the hope of revenge, the "intoxication of sweet revenge ('sweeter than honey,' Homer called it)." (46) And yet, as Henry Staten makes clear, "Nothing could be more indicative of the idealizing falsification of the idea of the 'noble Greek' in which Nietzsche engages, than his attendant quotation of Homer as an antithesis to the dishonest and therefore poisonous vengefulness of the slave mentality." (47) Nietzsche crystallizes his idealization of Homeric "Greekness" and description of pessimistic Christianity in the following passage:
   Let me declare expressly that in the days when mankind was not yet
   ashamed of its cruelty, life on earth was more cheerful than it is
   now that pessimists exist. The darkening of the sky above mankind
   has deepened in step with the increase of man's feeling of shame at
   man ... On his way to becoming an 'angel' ... man has evolved that
   queasy stomach and coated tongue through which ... the joy and
   innocence of the animal has become repugnant to him ... Today, when
   suffering is always brought forward as the principal argument
   against existence ... one does well to recall the ages in which the
   opposite opinion prevailed because men were unwilling to refrain
   from making men suffer and saw it as an enchantment of the first
   order, a genuine seduction to life ... It is certain, at any rate,
   that the Greeks still knew of no tastier spice to offer their gods
   ... than the pleasures of cruelty. (48)

But does not Nietzsche profoundly misread Homer's presentation of these tastiest spices, of cruelty's pleasures, this "intoxication of sweet revenge ('sweeter than honey' Homer called it)"? For, as Staten illuminates, the very phrase "sweeter than honey," located near the end of The Iliad (in book 18) is tied not to the satisfaction of unleashed vengefulness, but, rather the dripping poison of a vengeful anger that is never satisfied and ends in Achilles' destruction. Mourning the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector, Achilles admits that his impotence, his dwelling apart in his tent, is powerful proof that he has been poisoned by ressentiment:
   Here I sat/my weight a useless burden to the earth, and I am one
   who has no peer in war among Achaean captains--though in council
   there are wiser. Ai! Let strife and rancour perish from the lives
   of gods and men, with anger that envenoms even the wise and is far
   sweeter than slow-dripping honey, clouding the hearts of men like
   smoke (49)

Nietzsche's nostalgic account of ancient heroism falsifies the very heart of Homer's poem, articulated at its genesis:
   Anger be now your song, immortal one, Achilles' anger, doomed and
   ruinous, that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss and crowded
   brave souls into the undergloom, leaving so many dead men--carrion
   for dogs and birds. (50)

Scheler describes ressentiment as a "self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments." (51) More than any other emotion, the ressentiment phenomenon is connected to hatred, revenge, malice, envy, spite, and the impulse to detract.

The quarrel is infamous. Agamemnon declares that, as the gods demand Chryseis, his war-prize, he will in turn call for Briseis, Achilles' own war-prize. Indeed, countenancing Achilles he says that he will call for Briseis at his hut,
   and take her, flower of young girls that she is, your prize, to
   show you here and now who is the stronger and make the next man
   sick at heart--if any think of claiming equal place with me. (52)

What happens next is of utmost importance for our investigation. We are told that a
   pain like grief weighed on the son of Peleus, and in his shaggy
   chest this way and that the passion of his heart ran: should he
   draw longsword from his hip, stand off the rest, and kill in single
   combat the great son of Atreus or hold his rage in check and give
   it time? (53)

Athena appears, visible to no one but Achilles, and in response to his word: "this time, and soon,/he pays for his behaviour with blood," the gray-eyed goddess tells him
   It was to check this killing rage I came from heaven, if you will
   listen ... break off this combat stay your hand upon the sword
   hilt. Let him have a lashing with words, instead: tell him how
   things will be. (54)

Achilles obeys, noting that when immortals speak, man complies, "though his heart burst." (55) Certainly he conducts his lashing with words, calling Agamemnon a "Sack of wine" with "cur's eyes" and an "antelope heart," and telling him that he will suffer remorse for this dishonor. (56) Achilles may vent his spleen, but this opening of the valve of his mouth is no real revenge, no catharsis for the rage stirred by his suffering.

In Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche himself observes that "neither for the Christian, who has interpreted a whole mysterious machinery of salvation into suffering, nor for the naive man of more ancient times, who understood all suffering in relation to the spectator of it or the causer of it, was there any such thing as senseless suffering." (57) In order to abolish undetected, unwitnessed suffering, and furthermore to deny it, man was compelled to invent gods, which allowed life to "work the trick which it has always known how to work, that of justifying itself, of justifying its 'evil'." (58)

The above instance from The Iliad illustrates the insufficiency of Nietzsche's analysis. Athena's appearance and instruction justifies not Achilles' evil or his embrace of life-forces, but his ressentiment. She gives his mind-poisoning divine sanction, which in turn represses his rage absolutely, and which gives birth to various value-delusions. I would like to propose that Achilles (or, from another angle, Homer) invents this visit from Athena, and in so doing we see that ressentiment, rather than being the crowning virtue of a Christian slave morality, or even exclusively the root of modern humanitarian love, transforms slavishness into virtuous submission in the oldest poem known to the Western world. But The Iliad does not glorify Achilles' resentful wrath. Rather, as Staten postulates, "we recognize in Homer's story of Achilles both levels of the economics of ressentiment described by Nietzsche, the empirical level at which Achilles suffers an actual injury for which he demands compensation and, behind this, the transcendental level at which the injury of time--Achilles' death sentence, sealed at birth" is ultimately the cause of his resentfulness." (59) As accurate as Staten's reading is, we need to reiterate the importance of Athena's sanctioning. For her command, from the vantage point of our allegation against the Achilles-Athena alliance, means that the invention of the Greek god's mandate against a vengeance that would have assuaged a ruinous wrath precedes what Nietzsche envisions as the invention of the Christian God who feeds the slave revolt.

But the affinity between The Iliad and the Gospels as texts tied to ressentiment does not end here; it is precisely the further affinities that will allow us to war with Nietzsche's allegations. We must return to Nietzsche's contention concerning the roots of ressentiment:
   From the trunk of that tree of vengefulness and hatred, Jewish
   hatred--the profoundest and sublimest kind of hatred, capable of
   creating ideals and reversing values, the like of which has never
   existed on earth before--there grew something equally incomparable,
   a new love, the profoundest and sublimest kind of love--and from
   what other trunk could it have grown? ... This Jesus of Nazareth,
   as the living Gospel of Love, this "Savior" who brought bliss and
   victory to the poor, the sick, the sinners--did he not represent
   seduction in its most sinister and most irresistible form? (60)

If this be so, if Christ's Love comes not as the antithesis of, but as the crown of Jewish hatred, then it simultaneously serves as the crown of Greek hatred. For, as Simone Weil sees lucidly in her "The Iliad, Or the Poem of Force":
   But the purest triumph of love, the crowning grace of war, is the
   friendship that floods the hearts of mortal enemies. Before it a
   murdered son or a murdered friend no longer cries out for
   vengeance. Before it--even more miraculous--the distance between
   benefactor and suppliant, between victor and vanquished, shrinks to
   nothing: But when thirst and hunger had been appeased,/ The
   Dardanian Priam fell to admiring Achilles./ How tall he was, and
   handsome; he had the face of a god; And in his turn Dardanian Priam
   was admired by/Achilles,/ Who watched his handsome face and
   listened to his words. And when they were satisfied with
   contemplation of each other. ... (61)

How can we fail to find here the same spiritual force that allowed the "Greeks, generally speaking, to avoid self-deception. The rewards of this were great; they discovered how to achieve in all their acts the greatest lucidity, purity, and simplicity," fruits of a spiritual force that, for Weil, is "transmitted from The Iliad to the Gospels by way of the tragic poets." (62) Whether there is textual or anthropological evidence for this spiritual transference is, for this present examination, inconsequential. It is enough that forgiveness, and love of enemy, emerge as more than reactions of slaves--as so much more than the twisted sublimation of ressentiment.

In "Priam and Achilles Break Bread," Rachel Bespaloff remarks on the majestic moment when Priam visits Achilles to reclaim his son's dead body. Priam exhorts Achilles to remember his own father "and take pity on me. I am far more pitiable than he, for I have endured what no other mortal on earth has, to put to my mouth the hand of a man who has killed my sons." (63) Bespaloff asserts that this speech lacks all vehemence, that this absurd errand he shoulders has nothing base about it, as it is "equal to the love that sustains him." (64) Suddenly we see Achilles emerging as Achilles' victim, at least as much as Priam's sons were. Achilles the conqueror is "struck dumb; he seems to come to himself and be cured of his frenzy"; "Hatred is disconcerted and relents. The two adversaries can exchange looks without seeing each other as targets, as objects which there is merit in destroying." (65) Achilles invites Priam to "Come now, sit upon a seat, and let sorrows rest in our minds, in spite of our pain. Chill grief is profitless." (66) Although he is remorseless, Achilles is, in Bespaloff's words, "overwhelmed by compassion," to the point that he comforts and praises Priam. Hector's body is anointed with oil. Achilles weeps, then breaks bread with Priam. Afterward, as though the bread exuded the graces of a type of eucharist that births a virtue not entirely "without Christ," we behold what Bespaloff calls a "premise ... of truth, where forgetfulness of an offense in the contemplation of the eternal is made possible (pardon for an offense being unknown to the ancient world)." (67) Bespaloff posits Priam as the poem's dominant character, the poet's delegate, the one who: "typifies the watcher of tragedy, the man who sees it all, more completely and more truly than Zeus on Mount Ida because he is also a sufferer in the drama he is witnessing. Thanks to him, the prestige of weakness triumphs momentarily over the prestige of force. When he admires the enemy who is crushing him and justifies the stranger whose presence is the ruin of his city, the old man gives absolution to life in its totality." (68)

The Iliad, then, is as much the poem of Priam's forgetfulness of offense, his absolution, as it is of Achilles' rancor, regardless of the disproportion in lines devoted to each of them respectively, for, as Scheler notes, in terms of authentic "Christian" love, what reigns is not that a maximum amount of welfare be produced, but "that there should be a maximum of love among men." (69) And Priam's presence before Achilles, though it be no container of pardon or forgiveness per se, certainly incarnates central characteristics of Christian love. For what could be more miraculous--albeit more subject to Nietzsche's critique--than Luke 6:27-29: "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you." Scheler is adamantly against Nietzsche on this point, for this precept of "love your enemies" demands more than the mere passivity "which is only 'justified' by the inability to seek revenge ... Nor do they seek to shame the enemy in secret vengefulness, or indicate a hidden self-torment which satisfies itself through paradoxical behavior. These precepts demand extreme activity against the natural instincts which push us in the opposite direction." (70) Versilov, the post-Christian humanitarian, with his admission that humans are "vile," exemplifies the hidden self-torment and the secret vengefulness when he indicates that one can do good on others' behalves only by "clenching your feelings, holding your nose, and shutting your eyes (this last is necessary). Endure evil from them, not getting angry with them if possible, 'remembering that you, too, are a human being.' holding your nose and shutting your eyes." (71) For Weil and Bespaloff, Priam, the pre-Christian Greek, in manifesting love before Achilles, exemplifies the extreme activity against the natural instincts that Christ demands, and the moment in which, in Bespaloff's words, the prestige of weakness triumphs momentarily over the prestige of force, he defeats both ressentiment and rage.

Can this love, the authentic love of the enemy, replace humanitarian compassion? After all, does not humanitarian compassion, the "love of mankind" that leads "global citizens" into the future, cover, with its content-less claims to authority, authentic love of the enemy? Christ does not ask that one have no enemies, that the distinctions of "friend" and "enemy" disappear from the earth. But he does demand a level of heroism that we can justly call excellence. Not the heroism of Achilles or Agamemnon, but the heroism of Priam, who loves the "other" not merely because he is the "other," for Achilles is not a blank-signifying "other" but the man who killed his son; whose pity for his enemy is founded not on modern humanitarian compassion, for there is "nothing [in this] that is heroic since its wellspring is the selfishness of each person," and, furthermore, because the pity humanitarianism demands is too general to muster the moral strength forgiving or granting absolution to an enemy requires. (72)

Not the authentic and positive capacity for humanitas but the ideology of the "new humanitarian empire" is the Achilles' heel of our age, driven, like his festering rage, by the phenomenon of ressentiment. As Manent warns, it is a question of moral weakness. Put simply, "in humanitarian action, one does not know what one is doing." (73) This is so in spite of the fact that nothing is clearer and more defined than the purpose of humanitarian action, built as it is on humanitarian compassion, that shadow of Christian love: "to save lives, to end violence." (74) But in the name of humanitarian intervention, in the name of reducing human suffering through compassionate missions, "anyone is authorized to do anything whatsoever." (75) To be even more blunt, "The humanitarian demand is a real demand, but one should not ignore that, left to its logic alone, it means the war of all against all," the condition of the state of nature. (76) For in the state of nature, "everyone is authorized to judge and to punish violations of the law of nature, and that leads to the war of all against all." (77)

This harsh truth of humanitarianism now established, it may not seem so ironic, so idiotic, so Quixotic, to look to The Iliad in order to learn how to love the other and the enemy. We, inhabitants of that most subtle humanitarian empire, can hold ourselves above The Iliad's force, like those dreamers who "considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past," or we can join those others "whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very center of human history," for whom "the Iliad is the purest and the loveliest of mirrors." (78) For if Heraclitus is in part right that "War is the father of all and king of all, who manifests some as gods and some as men, who makes some slaves and some freemen," it is equally true that "Love is the father of all and king of all, who manifests God as man, who sifts rancor's slaves from the freemen."

And yet, as Manent argues with great acuity in his Metamorphoses of the City, "the ending of the Iliad is extraordinarily powerful emotionally, but it also has a complex and precise design. One must not lose sight of this complexity and precision by giving way to emotion, by giving the last two books, particularly the last, a sentimental interpretation" (79) If, therefore, we are to turn again to the Iliad, to learn again from the Iliad, we must resist all sentimental lenses. Priam's visit to Achilles, Achilles' willingness to let Priam return his son's corpse to Troy for proper burial rites: these, Manent contends, "have nothing to do with the hitherto irreconcilable enemies discovering their common humanity in a flow of emotion that envelops the reader or hearer." (80) Although Achilles has taken Priam under his protection, his wrath would be rekindled by the slightest offense. Achilles is altered in that "he is able to keep his wrath at bay and be motivated by something else," that something being neither "compassion or humanity ... even if keeping his wrath under control allows for deeds and actions that among us would reveal compassion and humanity." (81) What has changed, then? Manent points to Achilles' increased awareness of his own mortality, and by extension the mortality of all men. After all, Achilles at first failed to recognize Hector's mortality. He dragged his corpse around the city, senselessly "killing" him again and again. He rejects the reality of his enemy's death. As Manent concludes, "it is only when one recognizes the honor due to all corpses, including those of the enemies, that one is [has completed] his education in humanity." (82)

Remember that, for Weil, the Iliad demonstrates that "the purest triumph of love, the crowning grace of war, is the friendship that floods the hearts of mortal enemies. Before it a murdered son or a murdered friend no longer cries out for vengeance. Before it--even more miraculous--the distance between benefactor and suppliant, between victor and vanquished, shrinks to nothing." Still, perceptive as Manent's analysis is, effective as it is in counterpoint to Simone Weil's idealization of enemy's humanity, we have reason to pause before any impulse to return to the shores of Western Civilization in our search for our humanitas that is not riddled with ressentiment.

Our chastening comes via Versilov, when, in The Adolescent, he recounts before Arcady a strange dream:
   In Dresden, in the gallery, there's a painting by Claude
   Lorrain--Acis and Galatea according to the catalog, but I've always
   called it The Golden Age, I don't know why myself. I had seen it
   before, and then, some three days earlier, I had noticed it once
   again in passing. I saw this painting in my dream, but not as a
   painting, but as if it were something happening. However, I don't
   know precisely what I dreamed; it was exactly as in the painting--a
   corner of the Greek archipelago, and time, too, seemed to have
   shifted back three thousand years; gentle blue waves, islands, and
   rocks, a flowering coast, a magic panorama in the distance, the
   inviting, setting sun--words can't express it. Here European
   mankind remembered its cradle, and the thought of it seemed to fill
   my soul with a kindred love. This was the earthly paradise of
   mankind: the gods came down from heaven and were united with people
   ... Oh, beautiful people lived here! They woke up and fell asleep,
   happy and innocent; the meadows and groves were filled with their
   songs and merry shouts; a great surplus of untouched forces went
   into love and simple-hearted joy. The sun poured down warmth and
   light on them, rejoicing over its beautiful children ... A
   wonderful reverie, a lofty delusion of mankind! The golden age--the
   most incredible dream of all that have ever been, but for which
   people have given all their lives and their strength, for which
   prophets have died and been slain, without which the people do not
   want to live and cannot even die. And it was is if I lived through
   this whole feeling in my dream; the cliffs and the sea and the
   slanting rays of the setting sun--it was as if I could still see it
   all when I woke up and opened my eyes, literally wet with tears. I
   remember that I was glad. A feeling of happiness unknown to me
   before went through my heart, even to the point of pain; this was
   an all-human love. (83)

In "At Tikhon's," an originally suppressed chapter of Dostoevsky's later novel Demons, the nihilistic Stavrogin confesses to the bishop Tikhon that he raped his landlady Matryosha's daughter, and that near the end of the rape, "a most strange thing happened, something I shall never forget, something that quite amazed me: the little girl flung her arms round my neck and all of a sudden began to kiss me frenziedly" with a face filled with rapture. (84) After several delirious nights, during which the girl repeats the phrase, "I killed God," the girl encounters Stavrogin again and "suddenly she raised her tiny fist and began shaking it at me from where she stood." (85)

This act of despair first seems to affect Stavrogin, but then he finds himself cheerful, and not depressed, at which point he "formulated for the first time in my life what appeared to be the rule of my life, that I neither know nor feel good nor evil and that I have not only lost any sense of it, but that there is neither good nor evil (which pleased me) and that it is just prejudice: that I can be free from any prejudice, but that once I attain that degree of freedom I am done for." (86)

During the same confession, Stavrogin waxes wistful about none other than Claude Lorrain's "Acis and Galatea," the same painting that spurs Versilov's utopian dream of purely humanitarian love. Stavrogin's words match Versilov's with a startling exactness. At the end of his exposition on the humanitarian "Golden Age," however, Stavrogin recounts the fact that this dream changed into a vision of "Matryosha [the girl he raped], wasted and with feverish eyes, exactly the same as when she had stood on my threshold and, shaking her head, had raised her tiny little fist at me." (87)

After Stavrogin raped Matryosha, and after she cried out "I killed God" several nights in a row, Matryosha committed suicide. Dostoevsky dramatizes something far more profound than a mere moralistic warning. In putting the same Golden Age dream of a utopian love of mankind in the mouth of both Stavrogin and Versilov, he confirms Max Scheler's revised contention that love of mankind can be born of both a positive intrinsic human impulse and a sick ressentiment. Stavrogin's "Acis and Galatea" seems a clear cover for his own depraved deed. Versilov, although susceptible to nihilism, is no Stavrogin. Arkady even sees an authentic love in him. And yet, as George A. Panichas argues in Burden of Vision, "inherent in Versilov's vision of a 'humanistic utopia' is a profound sorrow ... It is the humanistic ideologue who is speaking here of his Idea, of the thought without which he could not have lived, as he confesses. Dostoevsky's insight into the illusion of humanism is piercing and prophetic. Can there be love without God?" (89) Versilov so desperately desires to answer this question with a yes, but ultimately he cannot: "at the very heart of Versilov's vision of felicity one finds the spiritual emptiness that no humanist ideologue can permanently dispel; Versilov's greatest virtue is an uncorrupted sincerity, the secularist's limitive counterpart to grace." (90)

Stavrogin's story contains uncanny similarities to Nietzsche's "The Madman" parable, even though it does not perfectly match it. After he rapes the girl she most disturbingly cries out, "I killed God" repeatedly. She seems to take upon herself the experiences of guilt and shame, consequences of a sense of good and evil, that Stavrogin lacks. In Nietzsche's parable, the madman runs into the marketplace seeking God, only to be mocked and laughed at, for "God is dead! God will stay dead!" (Gay Science 95-96). God has bled to death under man's knives, and there is no consolation for the "murderers of all murderers" (96). The men of the parable ask themselves, "Must we not ourselves become gods just to seem worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us will, because of this act, belong to a higher history than all previous history" (96). Although it is the girl, and not Stavrogin, who cries, "I killed God," Stavrogin's response to the deed echoes the men of the marketplace. He says that, for the first time in his life, after he rapes the girl, he formulated the fact that, "I neither know nor feel good nor evil and that I have not only lost any sense of it, but that there is neither good nor evil (which pleased me) and that it is just prejudice," and that, having attained that degree of freedom, he is done for.

Manent warns that the problem of humanitarian love is a problem of moral weakness: "in humanitarian action, one does not know what one is doing." (91) This is so in spite of the fact that nothing is clearer and more defined than the purpose of humanitarian action, built as it is on humanitarian compassion, that shadow of Christian love: "to save lives, to end violence." (92) But in the name of humanitarian intervention, in the name of reducing human suffering through compassionate missions, "anyone is authorized to do anything whatsoever."

This description eerily describes Stavrogin's position beyond good and evil. In "A Memoir of Mary Anne," Flannery O'Connor writes that, "in the absence of faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and the fumes of the gas chamber." (93) We can say the same of any humanitarian love in dreams. However positive its origins, when such a love latches onto a humanitarian ideology cut off from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is the destruction and depravity of human beings in the name of the globalized bourgeois pseudo-conscience that is humanitarian compassion.


(1.) Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1990), 53.

(2.) Ibid., 56.

(3.) Ibid., 57.

(4.) Ibid.

(5.) Friedrich Nietzsche, "Genealogy of Morals," Basic Writings of Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Modern Library, 1968), 472.

(6.) Max Scheler, Ressentiment, trans. Lewis B. Coser and William W. Holdheim (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2007), 78.

(7.) Ibid., 85.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 2003), 212 .

(10.) Ibid., 213 .

(11.) Ibid., 213-14.

(12.) Nicholas Rzhevsky, "The Adolescent: Structure and Ideology," The Slavic and East European Journal, 26:1 (1982), 35-36.

(13.) Pierre Manent, A World Beyond Politics? trans. Marc LePain (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 191.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, 471.

(16.) Ibid.

(17.) Scheler, Ressentiment, 85.

(18.) Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, 213-14.

(19.) Scheler, Ressentiment, 87.

(20.) Ibid.

(21.) Ibid., 88.

(22.) Ibid., 89.

(23.) Manent, A World Beyond Politics?, 188.

(24.) Ibid., 189-190.

(25.) Ibid., 190.

(26.) Manent, A World Beyond Politics?, 190.

(27.) Ibid. 205.

(28.) Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, 471.

(29.) Scheler, Ressentiment, 85.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Ibid., 86.

(32.) Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, 471.

(33.) Manent, A World Beyond Politics?, 191.

(34.) Max Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy, trans. Peter Heath (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1970), 99.

(35.) Ibid., 100.

(36.) Ibid.

(37.) Ibid.

(38.) Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, 213-14.

(39.) Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 53.

(40.) Ibid., 56.

(41.) Ibid., 57.

(42.) Scheler, The Nature of Sympathy, 100.

(43.) Peter Ahrensdorf, "The Limits of Classical Political Rationalism: Enlightenment and Religion in Oedipus the Tyrant," The Journal of Politics, 66:3 (2004), 773.

(44.) Nietzsche, "Genealogy of Morals," 475.

(45.) Ibid.

(46.) Ibid., 484.

(47.) Henry Staten, Nietzsche's Voice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 43.

(48.) Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, 503-05.

(49.) Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fitzgerald (New York: Oxford World's Classics, 2008), 18. 105-10.

(50.) Ibid., 1. 1-5.

(51.) Scheler, Ressentiment, 25.

(52.) Homer, The Iliad, 1. 185-190.

(53.) Ibid., 1. 191-95.

(54.) Ibid., 1. 200-225.

(55.) Ibid., 1. 225.

(56.) Ibid., 1. 235-40.

(57.) Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, 504.

(58.) Ibid., 504.

(59.) Staten, Nietzsche's Voice, 45.

(60.) Qtd. in Scheler, Ressentiment, 23-24.

(61.) Simone Weil, "The Iliad, or the poem of force," in War and the Iliad. trans. Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review Books, 2005), 29-30.

(62.) Ibid., 35.

(63.) Qtd. in Rachel Bespaloff, "Priam and Achilles break bread," in War and the Iliad, trans. Mary McCarthy (New York: New York Review Books, 2005), 79.

(64.) Ibid., 79.

(65.) Ibid., 80-81.

(66.) Ibid., 81.

(67.) Ibid., 83.

(68.) Ibid., 84.

(69.) Scheler, Ressentiment, 62.

(70.) Ibid., 67.

(71.) Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, 213.

(72.) Manent, A World Beyond Politics?, 194.

(73.) Ibid., 204.

(74.) Ibid.

(75.) Ibid.

(76.) Ibid.

(77.) Ibid.

(78.) Weil, "The Iliad, or the poem of force," 3.

(79.) Pierre Manent, Metamorphoses of the City, trans. Marc LePain (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 44.

(80.) Ibid.

(81.) Ibid.

(82.) Ibid., 46.

(83.) Dostoevsky, The Adolescent, 466.

(84.) Fyodor Dostoevsky, Demons, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1994), 687.

(85.) Ibid., 690.

(86.) Ibid., 692.

(87.) Ibid., 702 .

(88.) Ibid., 692.

(89.) George A. Panichas, The Burden of Vision: Dostoevsky's Spiritual Art (Chicago: Gateway Editions, 1985), 139.

(90.) Ibid., 140.

(91.) Manent, A World Beyond Politics?, 204.

(92.) Ibid.

(93.) Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994), 227.
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Author:Hren, Joshua
Publication:Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture
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Date:Sep 22, 2014
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