Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

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

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

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

Article excerpt

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). …

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