A few weeks ago, as readers of Crisis are well aware, Cardinal Ludwig Mueller delivered to the American nuns who head the Leadership Conference of Women Religious the most glorious day they’ve enjoyed in twenty years. He noticed them. He called them out for heresy, for praising groups who had “moved beyond Jesus,” for honoring people who fight the Church in such matters as abortion, and for being in the Church institutionally but far outside of it in faith. He pleaded with them to return. They cried with outrage against the bully.
Also a few weeks ago, my daughter, my mother and I stopped to look at and take pictures of the largest glacial pothole in the world. It’s in a tiny state park in my hometown, secluded, accessible only by highway. Ordinary people used to go there, long ago, for picnics. When I was a small boy, the teenagers in charge of our playground took us on a three mile hike to the pothole, and back again. That was probably the last time anyone could have done so, because the place has since become a pickup place for strange flesh.
My daughter is interested in geology, so I said I’d drive her there, but I was hoping that the place would be empty. It wasn’t. There were two cars in the parking lot, each with a man at the wheel. When we got out and began taking pictures and talking and doing ordinary things, first one car and then the other tore out of there—obviously the drivers were angry and embarrassed. I hadn’t looked at them, hadn’t said anything. The mere presence of the ordinary was enough to gall. And there is nothing that anyone can really do about that. I can pretend all day long that the men were only ordinary men with one little sexual wrinkle. But pretending doesn’t make it so, as the men themselves can attest.
I bring these incidents up because they illustrate a moral syndrome which Christians ignore at their peril. Cardinal Mueller mistook his antagonists. Mueller is a normal human being. A normal human being, acknowledging the value of something noble, venerable, lovely, good, and holy, assumes that those who wish to ruin it are mistaken as to fact. Chesterton, that eminently normal man, said that many people hated what they thought was the Church, but very few hated the real thing. Or the normal man assumes that his enemies seek some genuine good, but fail to see that what they wish to destroy promotes that good, or does not obstruct it. Socrates was wholly normal when he said that human evil was a result of ignorance—of not knowing something true, or of not seeing something good and beautiful.
If human beings were utility machines, acting by a calculus of moral duty regardless of passion, memory, the body, and all that they see that cannot be reduced to a calculus, then debates might be simple affairs. But human beings are no such machines. They are made for self-donation, giving themselves completely to what transcends them: homo adorans. Now it’s one thing to adore a god that is insufficient, incomplete, even a distortion of the true. It’s another thing to adore the false god out of frustrated impotence, in enmity against the true. That is the dreadful self-absorption, a mockery of self-donation, that Max Scheler writes about in Ressentiment.
Ressentiment, says Scheler, is not the same as revenge. When the boy next door pushed me around, my father calmly told me to punch him the next time he did it. I followed his advice, and the boy and I were friends after that. My father might have learned that easy lesson from boyhood, or from his time as a sergeant. If two soldiers got into a scrap, they’d be ordered to put on the boxing gloves and get in the ring. The leaders in the Army wanted more than abstract justice or acknowledgment of rights. They wanted order, camaraderie, friendship.
But revenge “tends to be transformed into ressentiment the more it is directed against lasting situations which are felt to be ‘injurious’ but beyond one’s control—in other words, the more the injury is experienced as a destiny.” I can be angry with my neighbor for playing loud music at night. I walk over to him and ask him to stop it. I have it out. But I can’t do that if the injury comes from no one in particular; when I’ve persuaded myself that I suffer the injury because I am who I am. “This will be more pronounced,” says Scheler, “when a person or group feels that the very fact and quality of its existence is a matter which calls for revenge.”
Take the monster Grendel. He hears, within the high hall of Heorot, the singing and the laughter of men, the poet singing of God’s creation, the sway of the hand over the harp. He sees the light of the fires, he smells the smoke of the feast. He is an essential outcast, a descendant of Cain, who slew his brother in the cold passion of envy. Grendel cannot share their joy. He knows it is good, but he must look on it as evil and seek its destruction. So one night he bursts in upon the sleeping men and slays thirty at a swipe, seating himself on the throne of the rightful king, and slinking off to his lair during the day.
Grendel hates that there should be a king in a great hall, yet he sits on the king’s throne. Cain hated that God should favor Abel’s sacrifice, yet against his own wishes he acknowledges the supremacy of God by his petulance, and then by his weakling request that God protect him from avengers. Neither Grendel nor Cain is in error about what is good. For a man sunk into ressentiment, who sees ever before him something good but unattainable, directs his enmity against being itself. The envy grows existential. “It is as if it whispers continually: ‘I can forgive everything, but not that you are—that you are what you are—that I am not what you are—indeed that I am not you.”
A friend of mine once boarded a bus in Amherst with three small children. She held a little girl and a little boy by each hand, and the third child she carried in her womb. She was very obviously and happily married, beginning a family in the bloom of youth. But a feminist looked on with a sneer. “What a waste!” she said.
It won’t do to persuade the feminist that my friend was delighted with her children, that having children was good and sweet, and that it’s beautiful to see a young wife with toddlers. That would suppose that the feminist was merely in error. She was not. Her comment wasn’t meant to instruct. It was meant to hurt. If anybody on that bus well knew how good it was for a young woman to be loved by her husband and to have two chattering children with a third on the way, it was that feminist.
A noble man “experiences value prior to any comparison,” says Scheler; he sees boys wrestling and shouting happily, and knows the goodness of it, the value, before he applies it to himself. The common man experiences value “in and through a comparison,” so that to see a ministry flush with vocations, filled with cheerful young women who love Jesus, would move a common head of a religious order to rivalry. But the man sunk in ressentiment, unable to compete, must still relieve his tension. He does so first “by an illusory devalutation of the other man’s qualities.” So the feminist sociologist Carol Gilligan observed how boys settle a conflict in the middle of a game, going through “the rules,” then appealing to an authority, and, if all else fails, doing the play over, as if it never happened. Remarkably creative—it allows the game to go on, it serves the common good, and it helps the boys grow up. But Gilligan had to denigrate it, calling the boys insensitive to feelings. She wanted that the boys should not be so. There’s no point telling her that the boys succeed and end up enjoying themselves. She knows it all too well. Just so, the man who fails to order his sexual feelings toward marriage and children sees the family of six next door and calls them “breeders.”
But the disorder festers. “Secondly,” says Scheler, “and here lies the main achievement of ressentiment—he falsifies the values themselves which could bestow excellence on any possible objects of comparison.” We’re not talking now about intellectual disagreements on what is to be desired. I may say that economic equality is a good thing; you may say that economic liberty is better; then we may have a fruitful discussion. That’s because you and I dwell in the same world, in the same way. I may be wrong in fact, or you may be wrong, but neither of us is living a lie under the pressure of envy and impotence. But the “man who ‘slanders’ the unattainable values which oppress him is by no means completely unaware of their positive character.” The feminist knows that the young mother glows with beauty. The gay man knows it is good for men to play or work together, hurling jocular insults and slapping backs without a shadow of degrading sexual desire. He is the last person who has to be told about it. The good things, the true values “are still felt as such, but they are overcast by the false values and can shine through only dimly. The ressentiment experience is always characterized by this ‘transparent’ presence of the true and objective values beneath the illusory ones—by that obscure awareness that one lives in a sham world which one is unable to penetrate.”
Professors who practice “critical thinking,” not as a tool in the search for truth, but in place of a free acknowledgment of real excellence, are professors of ressentiment, spreading the contagion to their students, for a “secret ressentiment underlies every way of thinking which attributes creative power to mere negation and criticism.” As one exasperated feminist professor put it, when she and her panel were reproached for failing to appreciate the world’s greatest poet: “What you don’t seem to understand is that we don’t like Shakespeare!” Many people in my profession run down the classics to promote the ephemera of some patronized group; they too are creatures of ressentiment. They do not need someone to argue the merits of the classics. The shoe pinches the corns.
“Such phenomena as joy, splendor, power, happiness, fortune, and strength magically attract the man of ressentiment,” says Scheler. Like Milton’s Satan, spying upon the naked couple in Eden, he has to look even while he wants to avert his eyes, because he still longs to possess those good things and yet he knows he cannot. The true apostate does not simply turn from one belief to another, but “is motivated by the struggle against the old belief and lives only for its negation.” No “improvement” will satisfy him. The apostate nun may say she wants only that women might serve as priests. Give her that, and watch the enmity grow. The person whose values have been deformed by ressentiment “does not want to cure the evil: the evil is merely a pretext for the criticism.”
If you let Satan dwell in Eden rather than in Hell, that won’t satisfy; he wants to destroy it, because he cannot share its goodness. “In Heaven much worse would be my lot,” says Satan. He lives only for the enmity; if God should forget about him, he would find it unendurable. If you allow people who cannot share a great good to pretend that their simulacrum of it is also good, you will not satisfy; they know it’s a sham, and as long as there are ordinary and healthy people around, the bare nerve will fire.
Argument will not suffice; argument is what they seek. Only love will suffice—and love can only be offered, never compelled.
Editor’s note: The sculpture above of Adam and Eve from Notre Dame de Paris depicts Satan as half human.