Freedom and Ressentiment

1 September 2013


Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)

Friedrich Nietzsche

Sometimes when I am asked my favorite book I reply that it is Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, which is the most systematic of his books on ethics and which gives his most detailed exposition of ressentiment. I reread the third essay in the book today — “What is the meaning of ascetic ideals?” — keeping in mind while I did what I wrote about freedom day before yesterday in Theory and Practice of Freedom.

To give a flavor of Nietzsche’s argument I want to cite a couple of passages from the book that I take to be particularly crucial. Firstly, here is the passage in which Nietzsche introduces the idea of ressentiment becoming creative and creating its own values:

“The beginning of the slaves’ revolt in morality occurs when ressentiment itself turns creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who, denied the proper response of action, compensate for it only with imaginary revenge. Whereas all noble morality grows out of a triumphant saying ‘yes’ to itself, slave morality says ‘no’ on principle to everything that is ‘outside’, ‘other’, ‘non-self ’: and this ‘no’ is its creative deed.”

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, EDITED BY KEITH ANSELL-PEARSON, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, TRANSLATED BY CAROL DIETHE, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 2007, p. 20

Near the end of the book, Nietzsche reiterates one of his central themes, that man would rather will nothing than not will:

“It is absolutely impossible for us to conceal what was actually expressed by that whole willing that derives its direction from the ascetic ideal: this hatred of the human, and even more of the animalistic, even more of the material, this horror of the senses, of reason itself, this fear of happiness and beauty, this longing to get away from appearance, transience, growth, death, wishing, longing itself — all that means, let us dare to grasp it, a will to nothingness, an aversion to life, a rebellion against the most fundamental prerequisites of life, but it is and remains a will! …And, to conclude by saying what I said at the beginning: man still prefers to will nothingness, than not will…”

Nietzsche, Friedrich, On the Genealogy of Morality, EDITED BY KEITH ANSELL-PEARSON, Department of Philosophy, University of Warwick, TRANSLATED BY CAROL DIETHE, Cambridge University Press, 1994, 2007, p. 120

One of the themes that occurs throughout Nietzsche’s works is the critique of nihilism — Nietzsche finds nihilism in much that others fail to recognize as such, while Nietzsche himself has been accused of nihilism because of his iconoclasm. The immediately preceding passage strikes me as one of Nietzsche’s most powerful formulations of unexpected and unrecognized nihilism: willing nothing.

I think Nietzsche primarily had institutional religion in mind, especially those institutionalized religions that put a priestly caste in power (whether directly or indirectly), but there are plenty of examples of thoroughly secular forms of ressentiment developing to the point of creating its own values, and I think one of the principal forms of secular ressentiment takes the form of the denial or the repudiation or the rejection of freedom. The denial of freedom is a particularly pure form of the nihilistic will saying “No!” to life, since life, in the living of it, is all about freedom — we realize our freedom in the dizziness that is dread, and make our choices in fear and trembling. Many people quite literally become physically ill when faced with a momentous choice — so great a role does the idea of freedom play in our thoughts, that our thoughts are manifested physically.

The denial of freedom takes many forms. For example, it often takes the form of determinism, and determinism itself can take many forms. On my other blog I wrote about determinism from the point of view of the denial of freedom as a philosophical problem — something I wanted to do to counter the prevalent attitude that asks why so many people believe in their own freewill. This approach seems to me incredibly perverse, and the more reasonable question is to ask why so many people believe they do not have freewill. Now, Nietzsche himself was a determinist, so he likely would not be sympathetic to what I’m saying here, but that does not stop us from applying Nietzsche’s own ideas to himself (something Max Scheler also did in his book on Ressentiment).

Probably the most common form that the denial of freedom takes is a rationalization of a failure to take advantage of one’s freedoms. This is a much more subtle denial of freedom than determinism, and in fact assumes the reality of free will. If the palpable reality of freedom, and the potential upsets to the ordinary business of life that it presents, were not all-too-real, there would be no need to formulate elaborate rationales for not taking advantage of one’s freedom and opting for a life of conformity and servile acquiescence to authority.

Understanding that freedom is honored more in the breach than the observance was a well-trodden path in twentieth century thought. Although Freud had deterministic sympathies, his theories of reason as the mere rationalization of what the unconscious was going to do anyway incorporates both determinist and free willist assumptions. The denial of freedom is a central theme in Sartre’s work (the spirit of seriousness and the idea of bad faith are both important forms of the denial of freedom), and through Freud and Sartre the influence on twentieth century thought and literature was profound. I have previously cited the role of Gooper Pollitt in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as a paradigm of inauthenticity (in Existential Due Diligence).

All one need do is look around at the world we’ve made, with all its laws and statutes, its codes and regulations, its institutions and rules, its traditions and customs — it would be entirely possible to pass an entire lifetime in this context without realizing, much less exercising, one’s freedom. And these are only passive discouragements. When it comes to active discouragements to freedom, every nay-sayer, every pessimist, every wagging finger, every shaming tactic, every snide and cynical comment is an attempt to dissuade us from enjoying our freedom and entering into the same self-chosen misery of all those who have systematically extirpated all traces of freedom from their own lives.

Everyone who has given up freedom in their own life understandably resents seeing the exercise of freedom in the lives of others, and when this resentment turns creative it gives birth to every imaginable form of slander of freedom and of praise of servility — whether to a cause or to a movement or to an individual or to an institution — not to mention endless rationalizations of why the refusal of freedom isn’t really a refusal of freedom. Don’t believe it. Don’t believe any of it. Don’t buy into it. There is nothing in this world that is worth surrendering your freedom for — not matter how highly it is praised or how enthusiastically it is celebrated — this praise and this celebration of unfreedom is nothing but the creative response of ressentiment directed against freedom.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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Previously I have quoted one of my favorite passages from Nietzsche’s Geneaology of Morals, where Nietzsche compared his philosophical efforts to tending a secret garden:

…out of my answers there grew new questions, inquiries, conjectures, probabilities — until at length I had a country of my own, a soil of my own, an entire discrete, thriving, flourishing world, like a secret garden the existence of which no one suspected. –Oh how fortunate we are, we men of knowledge, provided only that we know now to keep silent long enough!

Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, translated by Walter Kaufmann, Preface, section 3

What Nietzsche describes is characteristic of a certain approach to philosophy, but certainly not of all philosophy — and it is equally applicable to science and other forms of intellectual activity. In fact, we can illuminate this Nietzschean perspective with Kuhn’s distinction between normal and revolutionary science.

As there is normal and revolutionary science, so too there is normal and revolutionary philosophy. P. F. Strawson’s distinction between revisionary and descriptive metaphysics overlaps this Kuhnian distinction: revisionary metaphysics is largely revolutionary philosophy, though there are limits to the extent to which descriptive metaphysics can be identified with normal philosophy. However, I won’t further pursue this comparison at this time.

Probably the bulk of philosophy and science can be divided between normal and revolutionary efforts, but the distinction is not exhaustive. There is science and philosophy that is not exactly “normal” and not precisely “revolutionary,” but different — definitely different. Such philosophies neither normal nor revolutionary might be called philosophies of the secret garden, to invoke the image employed by Nietzsche for his own philosophical efforts.

Nietzsche in his highly individualistic philosophical work was not doing normal philosophy — he was not engaged in an elaboration of the “same old, same old”; he was doing something most definitely new, and perhaps also revolutionary. But Nietzsche was neither a leader nor a follower in a revolutionary movement. He thought alone and worked alone, so this this philosophical revolution (if it was a revolution) was a revolution of one, and his philosophical effort was largely solitary. This kept his secret garden secret, not from Nietzsche’s failure to proselytize — although I’m sure Nietzsche would have hated the very idea of proselytizing a philosophy — but from the lack of interest on the part of other philosophers.

Most philosophical contemporaries of Nietzsche would have been uninterested in his work because it did not belong to any identifiable philosophical research program. Nietzsche’s research program was his own, his own secret garden, undertaken for an intrinsic interest in the ideas themselves, and not in order to engage in spectacular and pointed criticisms of his contemporaries (like Schopenhauer lecturing at the same hour as Hegel).

If you aren’t engaged in the same research program as other philosophers or scientists, or engaged in the criticism or refutation of the research programs of other philosophers or scientists, then you may well be speaking an incomprehensible (because incommensurable) dialect. And if what you are saying is incomprehensible, it is no wonder that others don’t listen. Even if they listened, they wouldn’t understand.

Between normal science and revolutionary science, between normal philosophy and revolutionary philosophy, there lie other sciences and other philosophies. There are, in a sense, deviant sciences and deviant philosophies. They are deviant research programs, and as such they represent non-conforming theories such as described in Eugene Wigner’s famous essay, “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” (which I previously quoted in Scientific Flair). In this essay Wigner tells how F. Werner approached him and asked him a question:

“…someone came to me and expressed his bewilderment with the fact that we make a rather narrow selection when choosing the data on which we test our theories. ‘How do we know that, if we made a theory which focuses its attention on phenomena we disregard and disregards some of the phenomena now commanding our attention, that we could not build another theory which has little in common with the present one but which, nevertheless, explains just as many phenomena as the present theory?’ It has to be admitted that we have no definite evidence that there is no such theory.”

There is no definite evidence that there are no such theories because in fact there are many such theories, but in so far as such theories exemplify deviant research programs, they can be difficult to recognize as legitimate theories because they don’t answer the questions expected of theories, asking different questions instead.

The influence of Nietzsche today shows how such deviant theories can become mainstream theories. Frege is another good example.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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