Nietzsche is an enigma. He’s dangerous to read and quote, yet intoxicating and thought provoking. In places he writes poetically, in others he writes like the mad philosopher he became. There are passages that are just plain wrong, yet there are others that are incredibly insightful. Recently I have been drawn, via Pankaj Mishra’s book Age of Anger, to his concept of ressentiment and his analysis of the origin of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ in an attempt to understand our current situation – a situation dominated by very deep feelings of frustration and anger.
According to Nietzsche’s analysis, the origin of the antithesis ‘good and bad’ can be traced back to a feeling of “complete and fundamental superiority” by “a higher ruling kind in relation to a lower kind”, most notably to the aristocracy of the ancient Greek city state. Then, aristocracy meant rule by the best, by those of good character, by “the noble, the mighty, the high-placed and the high-minded, who saw and judged themselves and their actions as good…in contrast to everything lowly, low-minded, common and plebeian.” Put very simply, the good was what ever the aristocrats of the time said it was, albeit a good influenced by the practical necessity of maintaining a flourishing city state with them in charge.
In time, the baton of defining ‘good and bad’ was taken by the priests, beings who claimed to be the mouthpiece for the expression of God’s own word on the subject, a situation that created a great deal of tension between the political / military leaders and the priestly class. However, this led, according to Nietzsche, to a slave revolt in morality, a revolt (according to my understanding) which coincided with the Reformation and the rise of Protestantism. Under this revolt “only those who suffer are good, only the poor, the powerless, the lowly are good, the sick, the ugly, are the only pious people”, whereas the “rich, the noble and powerful” are now eternally wicked. This brought about what Nietzsche describes as the ‘herd mentality’, a situation that encapsulated everything he hated about Christianity, a situation in which people stop thinking for themselves, stop striving for power, all because they are led to believe that “the meek shall inherit the Earth.”
Whilst reluctant to completely dismiss this as a description of the origins of morality, I have two serious problems with it as an analysis of our current situation. The first concerns ressentiment. For Nietzsche, “The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment”, a deep-seated existential feeling of resentment towards those with power, “turns creative and gives birth to values.” In historic terms I just do not think such a creative turn occurred. The values adopted by ‘the masses’ were not of their origin but of a new, emergent class of pious philosopher that appeared originally as a social response to the English Civil War, then as part of the Scottish Enlightenment, and subsequently as a reaction to the French Revolution. I think that rather than turning creative, this ressentiment has grown, turned socially cancerous, and is currently revealing itself through the symptoms of public anger for anything and everything.
The second problem, a corollary to this, is that our sense of good and bad is still being defined by a small group of powerful people. These are no longer the Greek city aristocrats, nor the medieval priests, nor the Victorian public school nobility (though there are still echoes of the latter), but the leaders of business, those who control our economic model, those who, because they have wealth, influence what’s left of our government, together with the celebrities who endorse their brands and the marketing executives who create our wants and desires. They are the ones who now define our sense of good and bad. They are the source of our hopes and desires, they create what we aspire to, our goals and aims in life. But they have created aspirations and goals that can only be achieved by the very few. They have created dreams that will never be fulfilled. The result is that people feel frustrated and angry. There exists, to quote Mishra, “An existential resentment of other people’s being, caused by an intense mix of envy and sense of humiliation and powerlessness”. People, quite understandably, don’t understand the source of this feeling, but instead direct it at any wandering scapegoat that happens to appear.