Decades ago, when I was naïve enough to apply for research grants, I proposed a study of resentment as a central literary theme. I began with what seemed to me the striking observation that menin, the first word of the Iliad, although it is generally translated as “rage” or “anger,” really refers—as the word “rage” always does, if you think about it—to Achilles’ resentment of Agamemnon’s uncalled-for action in depriving him of his captive Briseis to replace his own, whom he had to return because her father was a priest of Apollo. Achilles’ resentment of this abuse of authority is the point of departure for the poem, and given that the Iliad is incontestably the oldest literary masterpiece of Western civilization, one may justifiably say, as I did, that resentment is “the first word of Western culture.” I then went on to cite Hamlet’s resentful behavior at Claudius’s table in Act I, and a few other salient examples.
What struck me most in the comments that were sent me to motivate my rejection was their own resentful tone: “what chutzpah this fellow has to claim that resentment is really important!” Today, to read the mainstream press, resentment is a disgraceful sentiment that occurs exclusively on the Right. Leftists’ burning down buildings or trashing police cars is never described as motivated by anything but a forgivable excess of righteous indignation. Resentment only happens to bad people, not to Achilles or Hamlet. About the first, at least, Nietzsche would have agreed.
Be that as it may, resentment is a fundamental component of our human makeup. It is, in the simplest terms, our reaction when we feel our sense of moral equality has been violated, by an offense to me personally, or on occasion, by identification with an offended third party. Which is to say that it is a direct product of the originary scene at the birth of humanity. In Genesis, resentment provokes the felix culpa of “the fall of man.” What I call the epistemology of resentment, our faith in this sentiment as a source of moral truth, is consequently a fundamental element of the human psyche.
The point of this Chronicle is not to outline the history, even the literary history, of resentment, but to examine how in recent decades faith in the truth borne by resentment has so corroded our politics that the very spirit of liberal-democratic government, which depends on the possibility of constructive civil dialogue among partisans of different opinions, is no longer observed even in the breach. Speaker Pelosi’s publicly tearing up the text of President Trump’s State of the Union address this January speaks for itself as the most disgraceful public act by a high official—third in succession to the Presidency—that any of us have ever witnessed.
The Prehistory of Modern Resentment
Hence this is an appropriate time to assess the role of resentment, if not through the ages, then in recent political history, and in particular, the history that begins with the French Revolution. What was new in 1789, and has continued mostly on an upward path since then, is that our originary faith in resentment as a source of moral truth is less and less opposed by the religious and social norms that once contained it.
Religions and their associated moral and legal codes have always stigmatized personal resentment, in contrast with the “righteous anger” commanded by God. The term itself acquired its current meaning only in the modern age. Under the Old Regime, le ressentiment was far from what Nietzsche described as the cowardly internalization of what had been the noble’s overt defense of his honor. In Corneille’s Horace, Camille’s diatribe in IV, 5, beginning: Rome, l’unique objet de mon ressentiment expresses not a shameful but a noble sentiment, a legitimate desire for revenge—although the fact that she is a woman makes the sentiment incapable of direct implementation, and may even be taken to prefigure its modern sense.
The noble’s confidence in the epistemology of his resentment was unavailable to the roturier, who would not have dared to so define his sense of injustice. Such events as peasant revolts were no doubt motivated, beyond the sufferings of famines, etc., by a sense of injustice, but before the modern era, the only possible critique of the social order was millenarian and apocalyptic, not a proposal for socio-economic transformation. Not until 1789 did any revolt affirm, or even conceive, the right of its partisans to remake the entire social order on the basis of its intuition of moral equality. The revolutionaries’ attempt to create a new calendar, replacing the (Semitic) week with the (digital) décade, along with their more successful implementation of the metric system, suffices to demonstrate that theirs was not merely a political but a wholesale epistemological revolution. And the rationality they sought to enact was made possible in the first place by the “rage” of the Jacobins and sans-culottes against what they perceived as the injustices of the Old Regime.
In the discourses of Robespierre and Saint-Just, this rage was justified not by visceral emotion but by cold logic; but the premises on which this logic is based were rooted in resentment, whose power derives from its direct application of the moral model to a given situation. Which is to say that, unchecked by the ethical forces of church or state, it puts in question every one of the hierarchical, “unequal” elements that have characterized every social order since the first big-man took advantage of his accumulation of a surplus to acquire a superior status.
For a broad political movement to be able to take resentment as its guide to political/moral rationality only became possible as a consequence of the epochal weakening of the religiously grounded moral norms that had previously been shared by the entire society. This is not to deny the ultimate causality of the structural changes in the socio-economic order in early modern Europe. But the sacred conviction of human equality expressed in our Declaration of Independence is at its root an affirmation of the moral model as the source of “natural law,” and as its corollary, the implicit empowering of our resentment or “sense of injustice” as an objective measure of conformity with this model. Whatever justifications one gives for why one person should be better rewarded by his society than another are less anthropologically fundamental than the morality of reciprocal exchange, without which we would not have become human in the first place.
Rawls’s “Original Position”
John Rawls (A Theory of Justice; Harvard, 1971) begins his famous thought experiment by implementing our fundamental moral intuition in his fiction of the “original position,” where everyone is prevented by the “veil of ignorance” from knowing what social position (and presumably what sex?) they will occupy. This fiction of anonymous equality shares its dismissal of human differences with GA’s hypothetical state of originary reciprocity.
Once we imagine ourselves in this state, Rawls then challenges each of us to design our “ideal society” without knowing in advance to which of its social roles we will be assigned. The result, as Rawls describes it, resembles Sartre’s idea that a society must be judged by its “least free” member. Given our equal chance at any role, we will presumably hesitate to leave any in abject misery: “There but for the grace of God…”
The experiment is then nuanced with various secondary considerations. But in constructing a fiction rather than an anthropological hypothesis, Rawls is obliged to substitute the abstract value of humanity’s originary equality for the historical experience that has created over millennia humanity’s real social orders. His fiction proceeds as though each individual’s a priori judgment of how the worst-off would be best off could be substituted for the historical social practice of economic exchange in differentiated societies.
Rawls’ noble effort, with its tantalizing resemblance to GA, is an attempt less to justify resentment than to rationalize it into a working principle, presumably as a rule of thumb to guide elected legislatures and similar decision-making bodies. Instead of consecrating the resentment we feel when someone is more fortunate than we, Rawls seeks to provide a rationale that would substitute for it a social ethic chosen in advance and to which we would owe our allegiance. Necessarily absent are the complex systems of rewards and responsibilities that permit societies to function as socio-economic entities, and in the first place, the market as an a posteriori creator of value. Rawls’ thought experiment nonetheless reveals with admirable clarity the fundamental human tension between firstness and moral equality.
Resentment after 1789
The epistemology of resentment is the basis for the post-1789 division of Left and Right, between those who “respect authority” and those who would justify social distinctions by a Rawlsian or other principle of “social utility.”
It is no accident that Edmund Burke, the founder of modern conservatism, composed his major political work, the 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France, in reaction to its (earliest!) resentful excesses. Burke was defending what previously had not seemed to require defense; the way things are. He justified the status quo as such, no longer as the product of divine/transcendental providence, but simply because, in contrast with the chaos of revolution, it had demonstrated its capacity to function over the long haul. Burke defends tradition by attacking the hubristic arrogance of the revolutionary attempt to refound a time-honored social order on abstract moral principles. Which is to say that he tacitly recognizes the originary source of the intuition that gives value to these principles, even as he demonstrates via the French example its incapacity to recreate a functional and humane society.
The subsequent political history of the modern age may be viewed as the interaction between the Right, the defender of Burkean prudence in maintaining the stratification necessary to the functioning of the “capitalist” market system, and the Left, which encourages those who feel themselves to be disadvantaged by this system to seek to modify it to their advantage. The possibility of peaceful dialogue between these two forces is the operating principle of liberal democracy.
The Current Crisis
What is new in the present crisis in the US, and in varying degrees throughout the West, is the growing dominance of victimary thinking, which has so far allowed the exchange system to function with a minimum of perturbation (bracketing for the moment the current COVID19 crisis), while focusing on its cultural and symbolic moral critique. But given that the increasingly “woke” population is disinclined to invest its energies in the traditional means of perpetuating a culture: having sufficient children to replace those who die, and identifying its own interests with the national community—the proximate consequences of this development are alarming.
If the “freedom” of Western democracy comes to consist merely in being free to denigrate one’s own society while continuing to reap its benefits, while those who dare actively defend it are increasingly stigmatized and removed from positions of influence, then this “freedom” will have only a negative socio-economic value. As a likely consequence, the advantages of autocracy over democracy will extend from merely that of maintaining stricter order to permitting a greater degree of innovation than is possible in a society whose members are no longer loyal to it—and this, independently of such autocracies’ deliberate and varied efforts to subvert our own social order.
In particular, if “PC” continues to increase its dominance over the expression of respectable opinion, violators being subject not merely to social-media abuse but to humiliation and dismissal, this will only serve to demonstrate the superior efficiency of the far more finely-tuned Chinese “social credit” system. Once we accept the necessity of social censorship in liberal democracy, why not learn from the professionals to do it right?
What differentiates our era from earlier times is the ever-increasing affirmation of the epistemology of resentment as the unique guarantee of moral truth. The idea of encouraging students to complain of having been “made to feel unsafe” by a teacher’s expression of a heterodox point of view or use of a “trigger word” is so repulsive that we fail to recognize its genuine anthropological roots, however perversely applied.
There is a crucial difference between our crybullying and the superficially analogous activities of the Red Guards during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, one that goes beyond the latter’s far greater use of violence. In the current context, offenders are not accused of disobeying precepts spelled out in a “Little Red Book”; their offenses are not even metaphorically presented as infractions of a law or commandment. Instead, potential complainants are encouraged to detect the offense by heightening the sensitivity of their individual sense of moral injustice, in a word, their resentment.
This sensitivity is not considered to be in any way implanted in these potential justiciers. They are instead asked to become woke, to awaken to the eternal moral implications of language that might in the past have passed without anyone noticing them. Nor should we think of the ever-expanding web of such implications as in any way the creation of those who claim to discover them. Any attempt at prior codification could act only as a restriction on the capacity of one’s “woken” moral sense to detect offenses to the spirit of moral equality. Terms such as micro-aggression suggest at once both the difficulty of such discovery and its urgency—in contrast with the Chinese case, where the culprits were accused of behavior defined in advance by categories such as the “Four Olds.”
The mimetic nature of such procedures goes without saying. But it bears nonetheless remarking that, although “PC” has been expanding its domination of respectable (“Belmont”) society and its institutions over the past two or three decades, to my knowledge not a single book seriously lays out rules of “correct” conduct. On the contrary, books with titles such as The Official Politically Correct Dictionary are satiric, like Flaubert’s Dictionnaire des idées reçues.
For the intuitive nature of the judgment of injustice, in other words, the feeling of (personal or vicarious) resentment, must be allowed to act on its own, on the example of what was once called one’s conscience. Save that the latter reacted exclusively to one’s own sins, whereas the inner voice that we now listen to reacts to the potential effect of any real or imagined sinful words or gestures. And the effect of the latter is less to give offense than, by reason of their demonstration of race/sexism, to arouse in the hearer a feeling of unsafety, as though we suddenly realized that we had been associating with a dangerous sociopath.
From the standpoint of Western jurisprudence, this behavior is scandalous, but the source of its anomalous appeal is that it cuts through ethical norms to their moral root. If Rawls’ original position is a thought experiment, the woke rooting out of evil takes place in the real world.
But this means that the woke critique lacks a positive payoff. Maoism, or Xiism, to coin a phrase, points to a positive agency, the Party and its leadership, whose will the student had been directed to enforce, and now simply to obey. In contrast, there is no victimary “system.” In what might be called the ultimate form of millenarianism, the model of moral equality, the a priori basis of human morality, is now defined as its only goal.
Following the epistemology of resentment to the end leads only to purging the culture of non-victimary symbols of exemplarity and their replacement by victimary ones, a process that presupposes that the present victimary categories will be forever maintained in memory. The formerly Christian West now enshrines its eternal victims as its saints, just as the human agony of Jesus’ crucifixion justified worship of The Christ.
Neither Christianity nor victim-worship is constitutive of a doctrine of political economy. But whereas the functional separation of Church and State allowed the political economy of the Western world to evolve and give birth to the “free market,” the “identity politics” promoted by victimary epistemology is indifferent to the economic system, provided that the various victimary groups be protected from discrimination, including that of “disparate impact.” We should note that none of the current storm of outrage is being directed at the “1%.” In contrast with the Russian and Chinese slaughter of nobles, “landlords,” and kulaks, our billionaires need only to hire the appropriate number of x, y, and z—as they have preemptively shown themselves more than willing to do.
The more the victimary model of ascriptive equality becomes the social ideal, the more the remaining formal freedom of the economy to reward the productive would be restricted, as it currently is in the university—where, outside the hard sciences, “productivity” is of little worldly significance. It is better for our peace of mind not to attempt to predict the likely long-term effect of such policies on real national productivity, nor its consequences for our comparative economic and military strength.
L’homme possède ou un Dieu ou une idole
The conclusion of this analysis is that, from what Voltaire would have called le point de vue de Sirius, what is most significant about the current victimary crybullying is its anthropological radicalism.
The Western liberal-democratic system that was a consequence, first of the desacralization of the polity through Christianity, and then of its Protestant reliance on the individual conscience, has over the past centuries maintained itself by means of “Burkean” social restraints, whose links to the originary sacred have gradually been lost. Today, our civilization has finally advanced to the point where we can in effect conduct real-time social experiments in which the most fundamental human sentiments are freed of these restraints, which had provided a modus vivendi for individual freedom/firstness alongside the equalitarian demands of resentment.
This radicalism, however fascinating to a Sirian, provides no conceivable opening to the future. The implementation of an all-inclusive quota system contradicts the utopian aim of abolishing any such differences in a “race-free” society: abolishing objective examinations (bye, SAT!) or biasing them in favor of poor performers only accentuates group differences while provoking the resentment of the productive.
This perpetual becoming of resentment-revealed “justice” can take place only at the expense of the nation’s standing in the world. Its debilitating effect on the United States and other nations that follow a similar path would provide great encouragement not only to the Chinese, who are already close to surpassing American productivity and reaching parity in military strength, but also to Islamists. For whatever their economic limitations, members of these communities are at least ready to defend, in many cases with their lives, the core values of their culture, while Westerners show themselves ever more ready to deny theirs.
The coincidence of the emergence of this victimary strategy, which operates with no social ideology other than Alinsky-Marcuse formulas for disruption, with that of generative anthropology, which provides its explanation, is one that Hegel would surely have appreciated. But GA’s status as his owl of Minerva will be of small utility if its cry, far more obscure than Cassandra’s, remains unheard, given that its warnings, albeit they might preserve market society from destruction, are themselves devoid of market value.
There is no such thing as “tragic thought.” Tragedy is a literary mode whose function is to reveal the failure of thought to solve the problems of life. The tragedy of our current situation is that the anthropological revelations made possible by victimary thinking—not unlike those provided by Nazi annihilationism—can be applied in practice only once the phenomenon itself has done its damage. Unless our social order can profit at an early stage from the substance of these revelations, we can only await our enemies’ future victory to demonstrate to us that even worshiping the Chinese Communist Party is less monstrous than worshiping resentment itself.