Sometimes Nietzsche seems to indicate that strength lies in one's sense of independence (not to be confused with the more Kantian notion of autonomy). Weakness, by contrast, is identified with dependency—that same dependency that Rousseau so despised and opposed to the natural independence he called "freedom." The identification of weakness with mutual dependency is more obvious in the designation of "herd morality" than in "slave morality"; but again, this raises a great many problems (some of which Nietzsche surely shares with Rousseau). Bernd Magnus has commented that what Nietzsche intends by his unflattering collective noun "the herd" is what most of us mean by "community." And as soon as one probes the alleged "weakness" of interdependency, one discovers, I believe, far more virtues than vices.
It is true that a person who is "attached" to his or her friends and loved ones is thereby vulnerable, not only to loss but to moral accusations of lack of consideration and, worse, betrayal. But why should vulnerability be considered to be a weakness, and not rather a strength? Compare Nietzsche's discussion of "parasites" in the Second Essay, where he makes it quite clear that one's strength should be measured by how many of them one can endure. But if parasites, why not friends, family, and lovers? And why think that such relationships can or ought to be unidirectional only? What is so admirable about so-called independence? True, one can be devastated by the loss of a close friend (and Nietzsche's own relations with his friends were, one can reasonably say, often devastating). Even if one has many friends, the loss of one can be catastrophic; but the implied alternative of affectionate indifference or Zarathustra-like hermitage is hardly the solution. Nietzsche does not dismiss the moral importance of friendships. Indeed, he personally and occasionally in his works gave friendship a place in his ethics comparable only to Aristotle's rich discussion in books eight and nine of the Ethics (e.g., in Human, All Too Human ). But in the Genealogy and too often elsewhere the attachments and dependencies of mutual need and affection are given too short schrift ; and the implication is that interdependence is itself a product of resentment, and therefore servile and degrading. (Lambs like and need other lambs; eagles tend to be singular, and prey particularly on those lambs whose misfortune it is to wander off alone.)
However strength and weakness are to be understood, resentment presupposes some sense of impotence and vulnerability. Thus it is important to distinguish between any number of more or less "objective" criteria for strength and weakness on the one hand and this personal sense of weakness on the other. It is often thought that Nietzsche's claim is that only the weak feel resentment; but the text of the Genealogy makes it quite clear that this is not so. The strong feel resentment, too, for they also find themselves facing a world that is not always in their control or to their liking. The most
illuminating cases of resentment are to be found not in the pathetic digs of the underclass but in the highest rings of power. In the Washington White House, for example, we have seen the spectacle of the most powerful politician on earth seething with resentment, every act expressing a sense of frustration and impotence. Agamemnon was capable of resentment, though he would also seem to be a paragon of ancient master morality. And then there is Achilles, sulking and fuming in his tent. Napoleon, Nietzsche's timely exemplar of master morality in the Genealogy , was a cauldron of simmering resentment, probably because he was Corsican rather than because he was short. Or, to take a more modern example: Pete Rose, once of the Philadelphia Phillies and more recently of Las Vegas, still displayed a sense of bitter resentment even when he was one of the most physically powerful and successful men in America. (It has been pointed out that Rose was quite short in his formative years, and he never lost that sense of defensiveness even when he filled out to size later on.)
Resentment, in other words, is based on an original perception of oneself, not—as Nietzsche sometimes seems to argue—on any natural or socially objective criterion. And so too the weakness he so despises is neither the natural vulnerability of the lamb nor the social inferiority of the slave, but rather a kind of self-contempt—a refusal to accept or acknowledge oneself, a kind of self-torture that in Nietzsche as well as in those ascetics he attacks gets passed off as a kind of virtue, even as virtue itself.
Nietzsche insists that the difference between the weak and the strong is not the occurrence of resentment but its disposition and vicissitudes. A strong character may experience resentment but immediately discharges it in action; it does not "poison" him (GM I:10). But it then becomes clear that objective strength or success cannot be the issue; the poison of resentment works only on those who have frustrated ambitions and desires, whose self-esteem depends on their social status and other measures of personal worth and accomplishment. Thus it is easy to see the wisdom of the Zen master and the Talmudic scholar, who are never poisoned by resentment because they never allow themselves those desires and expectations which can be frustrated and lead to resentment. One also finds great strength and acceptance (not just resignation) among the most abused and downtrodden members of society. ("I have found strength where one does not look for it: in simple, mild, and pleasant people, without the least desire to rule—and, conversely, the desire to rule has often appeared to me as a sign of inner weakness." What would Nietzsche have thought of "the Blues" ) Here, of course, we remember Nietzsche's bitter criticism—"only the emasculated man the good man"—but the difference between what he himself praises as discipline and self-mastery and the harsh accusation of apatheia (despite its lineage as the highest philosophical praise) is not always easy to make out. It seems to me that we need a far more subtle ethics of emotion than some crude scale of the intensity of desire and its frustration.
The man of resentment is hardly devoid of passion—even intense passion; his is the ultimate passion, which burns furiously without burning itself out. But what fuels that resentment is a raging sense of wounded self-esteem; and a plausible hypothesis is that the most demanding people, not the most impotent, will most likely be the most resentful. In two of Camus's most famous novels, one might compare and contrast Meursault (in L'étranger ) and Jean-Baptiste Clamence (in La chute ). Meursault has no expectations, no emotional attachments, virtually no thoughts, no morals, no more than a momentary sense of embarrassment or shame, no fears, hopes, or anxieties; and even as he is being condemned to death in an absurd mockery of a trial, he is not the least bit resentful. Clamence, on the other hand, has been "on top of the world," a great success in his career and in his life in the liveliest city in the world; but he harbored an outrageous presumption, the presumption of his own innocence. He is high on his own self-esteem. He believes he deserves his success. He thinks himself to be perfect. And when we meet him sipping cheap Dutch gin in a seedy bar in Amsterdam, we recognize him as one of the most resentful characters in modern literature. Indeed, Camus's own characterization of "the Absurd" as a confrontation between our "rational" expectations and an "indifferent universe" says a lot about the human foundations of resentment.
If our morality is an ethics of resentment, therefore, it should not be concluded that it is thereby an ethics of weakness, an expression of weakness, or a devious attempt to protect the weak from the strong. Indeed, it might be something quite different. It might be important, for example, to know who among the ancient Zoroastrians, Hebrews, and Christians was most responsible for the revolution in morals that Nietzsche describes. A good educated guess would be that, just as modern revolutions tend to be led by the middle- and upper-middle class—and then when circumstances are improving rather than desperate—moralities of resentment tend to be created by the comparatively well off, who want but are blocked from more power, just when they are in fact already ascending in society. Not slaves but freemen and scholars, not the martyrs but the Christian administrators, brought about the slave revolt in morals.
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