Nietzsche on Ressentiment, Revenge & Justice [Lecture 22 by Robert C. Solomon & Kathleen Higgins]

Nietzsche on Ressentiment, Revenge & Justice [Lecture 22 by Robert C. Solomon & Kathleen Higgins]

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[Music] the central concept in nietzsche's moral psychology behind the notion of the slave revolt in morals is the concept of resentment or as he usually puts it in french resultimal it's because of resentment that people do judge one another with an eye to feeling superior themselves and it's in this sense that nietzsche encourages us to go beyond good and evil what we'd like to do in this lecture is to explore the
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notion of resentment and result emote in a bit more detail and understand its various vicissitudes and also understands connection to a concept that is not usually associated with nietzsche and that is the concept of justice to begin with the notion of resentment in english is more particular and more focused than the concept as it exists in french the french concept of resultimal is a more general sense of irritation
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almost over sensitivity it's a sense of reactiveness and it doesn't have the kind of bite that the english word resentment has and there may be some good sociological explanations for this but the notion of resulting because it's this more general irritability this more general reactiveness also is associated with another concept one which is in fact very closely akin to the concept of justice and then that's the concept of revenge
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in one of the passages that is often cited as proof of nietzsche's anti-semitism he talks about resentment as an act of spiritual revenge now in nietzsche's defense here let me say that he says very similar things about christians in general particularly in his late book the antichrist and in other books for example in twilight of the idols he says equally nasty and cutting things about the german mentality so i think it doesn't serve as evidence
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of anti-semitism but it shows that he does think very harshly about a certain role that the jews played in the history of what he calls slave morality in the genealogy of morals he writes the act of most spiritual revenge it was the jews who with awe-inspiring consistency dared to invert the aristocratic value equation that is good equals noble equals powerful equals beautiful equals happy equals the beloved of god
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and hang on to this inversion with their teeth the teeth of the most abysmal hatred the hatred of impotence saying the wretched alone or the good the suffering deprived sick ugly alone are pious and they alone are blessed by god and you the powerful and noble are on the contrary the evil the cruel the lustful the insatiable the godless to all eternity and you shall be in all eternity the unblessed the accursed and damned
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harsh language to be sure but the idea here is to capture in a very cutting phrase the kind of vehemence with which resentment doesn't just turn values on their head and just doesn't switch labels from good to evil but rather is a vicious attack and as kathy mentioned an attack that necessarily has to at least for a long time stay under wraps the historical picture here
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is of course a mixed one and very complicated but what one sees in the psychological portrait is a kind of strategy and i think what's important here is to understand resentment and i'll stick with the english expression now to see resentment as a strategy to put it in one way the notion of the trans valuation of values as nietzsche puts it is a way of taking what you aren't very good at or what you fail at and turning the failure itself
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into a virtue now to complicate matters more later on we'll be talking a little bit about how nietzsche talks about making style out of one's character and that includes for example taking what you might consider as your flaws and turning them into virtues but here he's talking about something that sounds very much the same the difference is that in the case i just briefly described what you're doing is making yourself a better person in the case he there describes what he's talking about is
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putting other people down and getting even with them for the superiority the idea of resentment is strategic is something that's often been discussed in other ways nietzsche points out in a passage that's very close to this one in the book how clever even brilliant the ancient hebrews were to make this kind of move and when you think about it some of the cleverest most brilliant people you can think of i'm thinking for example of many editorial writers are obviously people who are filled with
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resentment they're wonderful at the cutting phrase where you think of book and movie reviewers how awkward they sound even mockish when they're talking about how much they love a film but when they talk about how much they hate a film boy are they elegant and that's the nature of resentment resentment is brilliant and it's brilliant precisely because what it does is it has a stiletto thrust it's stabbing in the back the ideal sort of
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is to kill someone without even they're knowing that they've been killed there's a sense in which resentment as a strategy is not just a matter of getting power although it's that too of course it is also a question of getting revenge which of course is going to get us into the question of justice because to make a point very quickly revenge is the original meaning of the word justice if you look at the iliad for example what becomes very clear is that when say menolaus at one stage
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is asking what to do with the trojan prisoners and agamemnon says you must kill them as a matter of justice what he's clearly talking about is revenge it also goes back to a concept we introduced last time the notion of bad conscience this idea of two different mentalities the master mentality and the slave mentality at war with each other in the same person's soul because there's a sense in which one gets revenge on oneself here's an example that i often come
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across in teaching i have a student come in a very good student who's been working on say a term paper for several months and they've consulted with me they've done lots of research they've rewritten now several times and they hand it in and i find it just terrific and i tell them so i say this is an a plus paper i am really proud of what you've done and almost inevitably and i don't think this is just a function of texas what they will come back it with is something like awe shucks and then they'll give me an
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apology it could have been better if i had had more time i should have read these other 15 books i'm sorry i didn't have a chance to write it again and i just have to kind of clap down and say shut up right stop it i praised you you did excellent work and what's going on here in this simple example is just what we've been describing because on the one hand these are good students they've been brought up to excel and they work hard and they think of themselves in terms of trying to be the best
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at the same time they've been taught all their lives don't think you're better than anyone else and these two mentalities are at war with one another and the aw shucks response well to be sure it's a rather gentle version of self-revenge nevertheless i think the best way to see it is this is sort of getting even with oneself for doing so well and this notion of revenge is going to itself have lots of vicissitudes and the question for nietzsche is going to be something like how did we ever
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move beyond the notion that justice was getting even nietzsche realizes that it would be a rather ironic thing if his analysis of these features of our psychology of the kind of bad conscience or internal conflicts we're only exacerbated by what he writes about so for instance if we start feeling guilty for feeling guilty i think he recognizes that would be exactly the opposite of what he hopes his writing will suggest
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and what i want to do just to preface my remarks is to point out that nietzsche doesn't think that all of these moves are necessarily bad in fact he thinks it's a rather good thing that we're so psychologically complex that we can actually criticize ourselves internally he also thinks that up to a point the kind of initial move of turning a kind of resentful gaze outward is a pretty healthy response in every one of our lives probably we had the experience of having some other little playmate when we were
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toddlers or a bit beyond call us some mean name um call us a nerd perhaps these days or a scaredy cat a scaredy-pants the response sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me is actually a kind of basic slave morality response it's saying someone who would stoop to the level of calling someone a name like that is hardly worth talking to and basically it's someone on the defensive who turns the tables nietzsche thinks that much is healthy
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and it's no surprise that we internalize the ability to do this the problem is that as we get used to judging so much on the basis of negating what's outside of us in order to feel good about ourselves we end up really feeling constantly at war with ourselves when we try to think well of ourselves someone who can't take praise on a very well done paper is someone who really has a problem simply feeling good about themselves there's always that nagging insistence
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inside well am i really sure that this was good enough basically what nietzsche thinks has happened over time is that the initially healthy move that was made by the early christians the ancient hebrews when they were enslaved of turning the tables has become so internalized that there's almost not in there there's almost no way one can get enough support in one's own good opinion by means of negative views of those outside oneself so there's a kind of way in which one
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drags down one's view of everybody else just in order to feel relatively good about oneself and that even then that doesn't give one a kind of self-esteem nietzsche's claim is that the whole structure is designed so as not to really give you self-esteem it's designed to keep you in a kind of precarious position always looking outside of you to make sure that you really are safe there's been too much history of looking behind our shoulders in effect for us to simply drop the matter
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and as i mentioned nietzsche thinks that one of the effects of this has been in a sense positive we have become a lot more self-aware we have developed a lot more subtlety as a species or at least as a western culture by virtue of having learned to look inside ourselves to make subtle psychological judgments and to draw some conclusion certainly you wonder where nietzsche himself would be with many of his stiletto type remarks and analyses and his analyses of motivations
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were it not for this inwardization nevertheless he is attempting to wage war on a couple of concepts that he thinks we would do well to do without and those particular concepts are guilt and sin he thinks these two concepts by themselves already indicate very much of the whole structure of slave morality if one is guilty in a sense this is a kind of mark against oneself that's part of the the very substance of
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what one is you in a sense can't do enough to overcome guilt nietzsche isn't of course talking about guilt as a kind of practical matter in societies where one concludes that some people who are accused of crimes actually are guilty he's instead talking about this inward sense that one is inherently deficient and that no amount of rectification of oneself or one's way of living in the world could ever fully compensate for that
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that he thinks is a very unhealthy way of viewing oneself and one that's only going to motivate resentment and acts of revenge if possible on those outside oneself even more problematic is the metaphysical notion of sin of course one is guilty of sin so the two are related concepts but sin as we've talked about in an earlier lecture is a notion that suggests that behavior in this world that is just self-assertion is just behaving selfishly following
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will to power is being judged on another plane just engaging in what one wants to do when those particular acts are viewed as undesirable according to either the ten commandments or some more refined list of faults based on them whenever one engages in a sin one has actually done something not against other people not necessarily against oneself but against god
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against the whole fundamental order of things and that this really has challenged god's authority it's as if the person has put once put him or herself in the position of a slave that's made a kind of gesture of defiance against the most powerful possible master there's no way to win at that game and the consequence of committing a sin is that we've learned to view ourselves if we're part of the judeo-christian tradition as completely miserable completely
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dastardly deserving of damnation not just in this life but forever it's a very extreme and actually horrible story that we've simply internalized as part of the way things it things are and given too that a lot of sins really don't push one very far from acting on the basis of instincts that we all have that it's pretty hard to live a sinless life by the conventional definition of sin this kind of sense of just being
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completely deficient by virtue of being a person with these instincts who acts on them is a terrifying story that basically leaves all of us wanting and needing some kind of way of feeling better about ourselves nietzsche thinks that the result is really usually exactly the opposite of what one would expect you would think that someone who's a miserable sinner would in a sense give up at that point no more sin for me and hopefully god will provide grace
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and indeed according to the standard account that is what one hopes for but need to think psychologically by putting oneself in this position of always being the bad person who can't possibly do enough to overcome that state what that does is provide further motivation to avenge oneself on the rest of the world look for people who forced you to it look for people who fail more miserably than you do and all this nietzsche thinks is a really horrible situation this is one of the reasons why
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nietzsche's notion is that the death of god might not be such a bad thing culturally after all if the christian god is central to this story about how we deserve eternal damnation for faults that actually most human beings do engage in at times if we eliminate that story perhaps we're going to be in a better view or going to take a better view of ourselves the problem as nietzsche sees it is that we're so habituated to the story so habituated to seeing ourselves as
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unworthy that even eliminating the idea of the christian god isn't going to solve the problem right away many people certainly many people brought up in orthodox religions are very likely in a secular society to feel that this has been a great loss that we need this vision of the christian god looking over our shoulder even if the christian god has actually been portrayed as a very wrathful judge who damns people eternally nevertheless the need for the sense that this is the way the world is structured
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has become in a sense so obsessive that without that people turn to really dangerous alternatives and i think nietzsche would view a lot of the horrors of the 20th century in this light he would probably say that the reason the fuhrer gained the power that he did was precisely because people had this need for someone to adjudicate across the board even if what he did was fairly barbarous kathy writer rather subtly mused aloud what does nietzsche's own barb prose suggest about
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his resentment and i think it's an important question and we should answer it right away which is nietzsche was filled with resentment very much like compassion which he rather mercilessly criticizes and yet he was probably one of those passionate men of his age compassionate men of his age so too with resentment it's clear that he recognized in himself all of the problems of the christian era and the post-christian era that he was talking about
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and so what he was doing as he would say of every other philosopher was in part a kind of biography memoir confession so this is a very important question and i think the way that only has to be answered which we'll get to in the last lecture is to what extent can this be justified and in what way can nietzsche be seen not just as a man who is expressing his bile but as a man who after his own heart is doing something truly original and creative and expressive
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we'll get back to that what i'd like to do is return to the whole question of resentment now with the view of complicating the picture a bit for one thing one might notice that it's the slaves not the masters whom nietzsche calls brilliant and clever and it's the slaves not the masters who are strategic and of course who win the ultimate battle for whose morality gets to be
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the morality with the capital m there's a sense in which one can understand this again according to an author that nietzsche i think too often ignores and that's once again his german predecessor hegel hegel has a parable which is called master and slave and people who study german philosophy almost always link hegel and nietzsche together in this way and one of the interesting things about hegel's parable of master and slave is precisely that they do as nietzsche
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suggests switch roles it begins in hegel with the idea of a battle for as he puts it recognition but more particularly who recognizes the other is top dog and the biological metaphor there is quite intentional they fight perhaps almost to the death but of course it's no good for the winner if the loser dies because then he loses just the recognition as superior that he seeks so the loser becomes the master slave and here's where the
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master slave parable really takes off because what happens is that the master who becomes dependent on the slave for all of his daily needs his physical needs and perhaps even his entertainment becomes rather dull-witted and in fact becomes detached or the popular word here is alienated from life itself he sees life he experiences life in a way only through the slave the slave meanwhile who is in the inferior position is the one who
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becomes creative the one who gets to make things the one who gets to bake the bread the one who gets to make the machines in short it's the slave who becomes in the independent more mastery position and it's the master who falls into the more slavish dependent position there's some brilliant stories based on this particular tale i'm thinking for example of a movie by joseph losi one of the blacklisted
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film directors who did a movie called the servant in which dirk bogard plays a wonderful devious strategic sly servant to a very dull-witted aristocratic master and it's very clear in the course of the movie that it's the servant who takes over or more philosophically jean-paul sartre talks about human relationships in general and talks about how people who begin in a kind of dependent position
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nevertheless because of the fact that they are in that dependent position can maneuver themselves into a kind of superior position so the upshot of this is that what nietzsche talks about is master slave morality and what he talks about is the fruits of resentment often have a way of twisting themselves around and of course it can happen again and one way of understanding what nietzsche is trying to do is to take those people who are filled with creativity and talent but who are in some sense
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being suppressed by the society as a whole to once again turn this picture upside down once again the other point to be made and this is in fact a point against nietzsche i think is that what he calls and criticizes as herd morality and it has to do with what cathy was referring to when people are always looking over their shoulder and wondering what other people are looking where other people are thinking of them and in turn of course always imposing
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their positions on others this whole sense of herd is something that with a more neutral vocabulary might be described as a sense of community and one of the questions critical questions that one can ask of nietzsche is did he really appreciate what's involved in holding the community together and allowing people to live together and this of course introduces the notion of justice justice has been talked about in a great many different ways and as i suggested that the original meaning of justice
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perhaps is to be found exactly in the notion of revenge but of course today the notion of justice and the notion of revenge are very sharply distinguished susan jacoby in a book called wild justice which is really about revenge says that when she was observing some of the trials of the holocaust survivors they were instructed by their lawyers almost every one of them to tell the judge i don't want vengeance i want justice
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and she asked quite understandably what really is the difference how much revenge is there left in the notion of justice and can we really sever the two all that cleanly discussions of justice in recent years have turned largely away from the question of punishment and turn more towards the idea of the distribution of goods and the question is how do we fairly distribute and of course here's where all those socialist notions and egalitarian notions particularly come into view and what
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nietzsche is concerned about is precisely to what extent does that sense of justice the idea of equal and fair distribution not help but interfere with society by once again putting down suppressing or leading to the non-existence of truly creative and original individuals nietzsche has rather mixed views about things called justice and many of his discussions in which he employs the term
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have to do with the idea that justice like the expression of morality are offer is often a term used to defend one's own vantage point to defend one's own superiority what he has in mind is the notion of those who call for justice but in fact call for an improved position for themselves um he tends to i think overly dramatize the ways in which some people in the socialist movement might talk about equality and his
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suggestion is that this notion of trying to give exactly the same thing to everyone doesn't respect justice in another sense which acknowledges differences among people differences of effort differences of goods needed in order to display their talents and so on although i agree with bob that nietzsche is not very well probably informed not very experienced in dealing with human communities i think that he has a rather interesting
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view of the whole matter when he emphasizes the individual over the community it's not i think that nietzsche really wants to say that the individual is supremely important and the community is not but he questions what kind of community it is we have in mind and when he talks about the herd i think he's actually being somewhat playful he's reminding us that the herd is the christian flock the flock of almost identical sheep that nevertheless the good shepherd can
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find each and every one that i think remains a kind of important image for nietzsche not only because it suggests that in a way we're animals and have animal sensibilities but also that if the good shepherd could recognize each individual sheep in a way haven't we lost sight of that when we simply look to see what everyone else is doing and make sure we're making sure we're doing the same thing justice in nietzsche's view would really be to allow for the fact that different individuals have different things to contribute to their societies
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and that actually society as a whole would profit if indeed we could acknowledge that at one point he has zarathustra say where is that justice which is love with open eyes which is to suggest a kind of openness to really seeing what what people individually have to offer but also recognizing that if they do things that seem to be irritating there may be some internal motivation that makes a certain amount of sense in order to judge fairly we would really in a way have to judge
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individually as nietzsche's point and that oftentimes the kinds of standards that are viewed as just standards are he thinks a kind of way of being just revenged revenged on everyone because you really don't take the time or patience to note the differences the problem is the people want to think of justice where they think of morality as an absolute as a single eternal standard think for example the statue of lady justice with her scales weighing the one side against the other
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by some absolute standard on the other hand what nietzsche wants is to say with justice as he says with morality that there is no cross-the-board standard that the idea that there is a single thing called justice is itself an illusion to make this very domesticated think for example about the kinds of fights that are going on all the times and all the time in the united states for example about the tax code about the way taxes are spent fights between whether people should be
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treated on the basis of their personal needs or whether people should be treated all equally or whether people should be progressively taxed or whether people should be not taxed at all because they don't have a because the government doesn't have a right to do so these in fact are different theories of justice and they've been spelled out by philosophers in very sophisticated ways the truth is we don't agree on the standard of justice and pulling back to a wider focus what we see is that nietzsche says
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looking across civilizations there is no single sense of justice either to think of justice as a personal virtue instead of as a general rule a universal law is once again very close to someone like aristotle and i think nietzsche's concept of justice is ultimately very close to aristotle's notion of the great souled man key to this idea although it's usually thought of as a christian idea is the idea of forgiveness but there are two kinds of forgiveness here there's a sense of forgiveness which the
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resentful person is perfectly capable of it's strategic it's forgiving because you don't have a choice or it's forgiving because later on you'll get your revenge but then there's another kind of forgiveness it's the forgiveness of being too big to worry about it of getting over it of having enough going on in your life so you don't worry about what someone else has done to you that's justice according to nietzsche and it's very different from the kind of often punitive notions of justice that
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our society practices

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