It seems as if the cycle of Resentment and Revenge is so fundamental to human nature that it cannot be cured by humanistic solutions—but could it be countered by the theological virtues?
However, two thinkers can help us understand the chaotic state of modern society: the German philosopher Max Scheler—born the same year as Chesterton—and René Girard. Scheler and Girard’s main theses help to explain the underlying psychology and psychosis of our crumbling society.
Scheler’s important little book, Ressentiment, outlines the contours of the mind and soul driven by Resentment. (Henceforth I will distinguish this specialist term by capitalizing it as I dislike the introduction of foreign parlance.) Resentment is not just being annoyed because Jimmy got a bigger piece of pie or Sally won first prize. It is deeper and more resistant than that.
Tony Esolen has defined it: “It is caused by impotence and envy, when you see something great and good which you cannot attain, whose goodness remains as it were transparent to you, bringing you agony, but which you learn to denigrate, to slander, to try ineffectually to destroy. You end up living for that enmity.”
Nietzsche had first diagnosed the problem and linked it with his idea of the “slave revolt of morality.” The slave is powerless, and resenting his condition, turns his lowly condition into a virtue and therefore claims moral superiority over his master. Nietzsche saw this as the foundation of Judeo-Christian morality and condemned the Resentment as pusillanimous and its results as despicable. Those driven by Resentment would always operate out of envy, anger, and fear, and not only see their lowliness as a form of superiority, but would actually nurture such obsequiousness as a virtue. The Sermon on the Mount is an example of what Nietzsche would sneer at as a morality of weakness.
Scheler provides the philosophical response to Nietzsche. He agrees that Resentment drives people and that, in its religious manifestation, it is odious. However, Scheler says this is a false expression of the virtue of Christian charity. True Christian virtue is not rooted in resentment and envy. Instead it is rooted in gratitude and is evidenced by a confident, luminous, and graced strength—the strength of true self-sacrifice and service. The lives of the saints illustrate his point.
Resentment may drive a form of distorted religion, but in a secular society, Resentment becomes the reaction against the raw exercise of power. In other words, Resentment drives the protest movements. In his fourth and fifth chapters Scheler expands his theme and shows how modern progressivism with its drive towards egalitarianism, utilitarianism, and socialism are all driven by Resentment. The protest movements for the validation of sexual alternatives—indeed any social justice protest movement—are rooted in Resentment.
Scheler explains how Resentment becomes the prime source of energy and meaning in the Resentful person’s life. Eventually the negative feelings of Resentment flip and become positive values. The Resentful campaigner comes to see himself as a victim, and martyr to the cause. This self-righteousness raises their self-esteem, and the rush of self-worth, like any stimulant that produces false euphoria, becomes addictive. Like any other drug, every high is never as high as the previous one and one must return for an ever increasing dosage.
Their cause becomes a holy crusade, and when they join with others caught in the same psychological dynamic they become a fearsome political force—an ideological whirlwind that gathers up all the others who are driven by Resentment. Once the revolution of Resentment gathers steam it cannot be corrected or criticized. It can never be wrong and can never be appeased.
The ideological warrior will never be appeased because their whole identity is now determined by their Resentment. If you give them everything they demand they will simply shift ground, demand more or move on to the next social justice battleground. Those caught up in this force can never be corrected because their cause is right and crucial to the dynamic is the conviction that someone else is always to blame.
When Scheler’s analysis of Resentment is combined with Girard’s dissection of the scapegoat mechanism the light shed on modern politics is complete. Girard considers the group dynamic which leads to true victimization and violence.
When there is a crisis in the tribe, because of pride, the members of the tribe look for a cause of the problem. If the tribe is hit with a plague, famine, or drought, they search desperately for a solution. The instinct of pride means they cannot be at fault. Therefore someone else must be to blame.
If there is no rational explanation for the crisis, and no one is clearly to blame, the members of the tribe instinctively turn to the foreigner in their midst, the members of the other tribe or the oddball, the crippled, mentally ill, or the person who is abnormal in some way. The blame is shifted to the scapegoat, and to solve the problem the cause of the problem must be eliminated. Once the scapegoat is identified, the final solution is necessary.
The scapegoat mechanism is, at its heart, driven by Resentment or what Girard gathers up in his somewhat more complicated concept: “mimetic desire.” That this is foundational to human nature is established by the story of Cain and Abel being placed directly after the fall in the Garden of Eden. Driven by Resentment, Cain blames his brother and rises up to kill him. It is noteworthy that after this primal murder Cain is not repentant. His reply to God’s accusation is the self-righteous, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
When these deeply rooted behaviors are extended from the individual to the societal level we see the driving forces of every aspect of social phenomena. Politics especially are driven by the actions and reactions of Resentment, rivalry, revenge, blame, scapegoating, and finally violence.
The cycle of Resentment, Revenge, and Scapegoating is so fundamental to human nature that it cannot be cured by humanistic solutions. All humanistic solutions to this systemic sickness will only ever be a band-aid on cancer.
The answer is simple but not easy. Resentment, envy, and revenge can only be countered by the grace of forgiveness. Scapegoating can only be countered by accepting blame and this can only be accomplished through the grace of humility. Sadly, these graced virtues are not only absent from the vocabulary of our society—they are increasingly absent in the contemporary form of Christianity: moralistic, therapeutic Deism. Moralistic, therapeutic Deism, like all humanistic solutions only masks the problem.
This unholy trinity is countered by the theological virtues. Instead of moralism: Charity. Instead of therapy: Hope. Instead of Deism: Faith. Charity is that gift that is as soft as moonlight and hard as diamonds. Its radiance banishes shallow good works and polite manners. Hope replaces therapy because it is the stubborn belief that divine providence will bring good out of every evil and grace will be given to overcome. Faith is the solid conviction that God is not asleep, but living and active in the world—infusing the grace that is needed to break the cursed cycle of Resentment and Revenge.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “Oedipus Cursing His Son, Polynices” (1786) by Henry Fuseli (1741-1825).