On Powerlessness Misconstrued: Resentment or Remembrance of Wrongs

Allow me to reflect as I consider St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s The Arena: An Offering to Contemporary Monasticism, and specifically Chapter 40 “Concerning Resentment or Remembrance of Wrongs.” My particular interest is one of my usual ones, namely, developing further into an Orthodox mindset/phronesis that which I have examined and experienced for years out of an academic philosophical perspective (i.e. ressentiment and the moral rehabilitation therefrom). My hope in so doing of course remains to edify and solidify my comportment unto, through, and beyond “the world” by God’s will, and perhaps even facilitate such for others.

At the outset of the chapter, St. Ignatius invokes the elusive nature of the Fall of Man in Eden. That is, as we fell out of God’s pure creative intentionality, we fell into intensionality itself — stated phenomenologically, “we always perceive an object at the end of our gaze,” or consciousness is always consciousness of something. Insofar as we gained this “new normal” which fell out of pure immediacy of meaning within God’s will, we became fraught with a feigned “knowledge of things.” We became self-interested beings who question. And for us, this state appeared more attractive. Curiosity attains its answers as “rewards,” and we emerge “victorious” over confusion.

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He writes, “A profound and hidden mystery is the fall of man. It is quite impossible for a person to understand it by his own powers. This is because among the consequences of the fall is mental blindness, which prevents the mind from seeing the depths and darkness of the fall” (159). Instead we become full of ourselves, and of our “knowledge” of things. We declare victory in this, but really we are in exile. We claim progress or even “happiness,” when we fail to recognize the rosy goggles through which we now see.

In asceticism, however, if we serve God fully with our entire being, He will disclose to us this mystery, this labyrinthine abyss of hell which lay in the depths of the heart, at the behest of our weakness and infirmity, revealed by an endless series of bitter experiences. We are horrified or “put beside ourselves” at the mere thought of it, “at the thought that some deadly passion can lie hidden in the heart for a long time, then suddenly appear and ruin a person for ever!”

The message is to fear not that of sin, to distrust oneself, that one knows things at once given the appearance of things. And the specific passion within the soul that does deep and wide damage and of which God makes His beloved aware is resentment, or what St. Ignatius says is rejection of love.

In the academic world of philosophy, ressentiment is the sort of deep and extended or ontological version of resentment commonly construed in the West as bitterness or lasting hatred. I primarily use the early-to-mid Twentieth Century Catholic phenomenologist Max Scheler’s development of it, who takes it further than the late-19th Century philologist Friedrich Nietzsche, who casts it in the French in his geneaology of modern morality as the internalization of revenge by the weak-yet-intelligent priestly class whose morality consists of self-delusion and deception which convinces all about its own moral superiority (i.e. evil).


Scheler’s treatment of it primarily serves the end of a “rehabilitation of morality” rather than Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values.” Ressentiment, for Scheler, consists of the brooding of poisonous and constant comparing of oneself with others responding out of the experience of one’s own utter powerlessness (of which oneself is unaware, or in phenomenological terms, “pre-aware”)—perhaps a sort of deeper diagnosis of the pride of the Pharisee, certainly coeval with prelest (spiritual pride, which obstructs one from transcending ressentiment).

And this brooding, of course, becomes self-justified in order to gain power despite our “poisoning of the well.” This experience taken as a structural unit can be named as a prime constituent of modern secular morality. Scheler writes in an epigraph to the English translation of his 1915 work Das Ressentiment im aufbau moralen:

We believe that the Christian values can very easily be perverted into ressentiment values and have often been thus conceived. But the core of Christian ethics has not grown on the soil of ressentiment. On the other hand, we believe that the core of bourgeois morality, which gradually replaced Christian morality ever since the 13th century and culminated in the French Revolution, is rooted in ressentiment. In the modern social movement, ressentiment has become an important determinant and has increasingly modified established morality.

Crudely put, like the fox, we would rather detest the grapes or even the possession of the grapes since they are likely sour anyway. We convince ourselves even that the low-hanging fruit is the best (despite its sogginess or decay). That is, we invoke the contrary of the alluring object as superior in a sort of power-grab, enshrining unawares our own justification as the basis rather than the true, principled value. We then become faithful to the comfort had in so doing, and we garner this as our unique, preciously attained approach to the world. Ressentiment, thusly, becomes “the natural attitude.” Scheler writes:

The ressentiment attitude even plays a role in the formation of perceptions, expectations, and memories. It automatically selects those aspects of experience which can justify the factual application of this pattern of feeling. Therefore such phenomena as joy, splendor, power, happiness, fortune, and strength magically attract the man of ressentiment. He cannot pass by, he has to look at them, whether he “wants” to or not.

But then, given some impotence in the relation to the allure, we detest, we belittle, we self-cure in gossip and detraction. We feign reorder value itself to fit our agenda of recovery—wounded by the beauty of another as we are. But the intent is not merely the endless cycle of revenge, which indeed can span many generations. However, it is neither that of mere repression.

[…][T]he repressed affect suddenly bursts across the threshold of consciousness whenever the repressive forces happen to relax their vigilance. It frequently finds release in unexpected inner paroxysms of invective without any specific object, and this in the midst of apparent peace of mind, during work or conversation (22).

It’s like in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, where the other kind of man than the man of action, the underground man or “man of consciousness,” who spends every moment possible envisioning or dreaming of undertaking the desired act of revenge, but could never actually do it. Even in following the Lord’s injunction to turn the other cheek, we may still desire the opponent be overcome with shame. One may recall that, for Socrates, it is better to be the victim than the wicked man.

For in ressentiment, we rush headlong into anxiety and an incendiary moral orientation which sets the soul aflame and pours on at every opportunity more fuel for poison-spitting. We end up experiencing the world this way. On the way to consciousness, or pre-reflectively (a huge and required notion to “get at” truth as it occurs to oneself), we already experience the world in terms of this total reversal of values. It is no longer (and need not ever be) a mere matter of conscious dishonesty.

For Scheler, on the systematic level the reversal already happens on the primordial level of preference/inclination—always where morality and value is concerned, it is first and foremost a matter of the heart (i.e. l’ordre de coeur). We are as far as possible from what one actually holds up as one’s values, whether it be an individual, a group, a nation, etc.

Such messiness, nay psychophysical disorder, reveals another big move in Scheler’s work, that of a categorical step away from all formalism: the presupposition of a universal twofold process of the utmost principle or rational agency (1) by and unto which all fall into formation (2). Picture also here the clockwork notion of nature. The utmost principle, rational agent, perfect nature, etc. has no need whatsoever, and therefore does not condescend.

The change in the notion of God and his fundamental relation to man and the world is not the cause, but the consequence of this reversal in the movement of love. God is no longer the eternal unmoving goal—like a star—for the love of all things, moving the world as “the beloved moves the lover.” Now the very essence of God is to love and serve. Creating, willing, and acting are derived from these original qualities. The eternal “first mover” of the world is replaced by the “creator” who created it “out of love.” An event that is monstrous for the [formalist], that is absolutely paradoxical according to his axioms, is supposed to have taken place in Galilee: God spontaneously “descended” to man, became a servant, and died the bad servant‟s death on the [C]ross! Now the precept of loving good and hating evil, loving one‟s friend and hating one’s enemy, becomes meaningless. There is no longer any “highest good” independent of and beyond the act and movement of love! Love itself is the highest of all goods! The summum bonum is no longer the value of a thing, but of an act, the value of love itself as love—not for its results and achievements (31).

God, as love, is a person. And as a person, there is a freely willing moral agency even primordially at the moment of creation, at the annunciation of the thing itself upon the plane of consciousness, and at the impulse of the heart.

For St. Ignatius, of course, resentment is deadly, as it is, again, rejection of love and thus rejection of God. “God withdraws from a resentful person, deprives him of His grace, is definitely estranged from him, and gives him up to spiritual death, unless he makes shift in good time to be healed of that deadly moral poison, resentment” (159). Our weakness, our fallen nature, he says, is cause for alarm, the ease with which sin deceives us. We must have ceaseless vigilance to the absolute limit, as the adversary prowls for our hearts like a lion over the whole earth.

Even the smallest of sinful tares shall not be admitted, they shall be treated as a matter of life and death—for “whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospel’s, the same shall save it” (Mark 8:34b). And the law of the Gospel is clearly laid out by our Lord and His Life: love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy soul and all thy mind and your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37-8).

Thus, taking to heart the indefatigable love of God for each and every one of us who centers his life around Him, anything else is certain death. So also the inextricable connection between love for both neighbor and God, the other and the Other, we must except out of love for all (especially one’s “enemies”) that any encounter with the resentful for the lack of their own vigilance is also granted by God for our own benefit. For forgiveness is essential and is thus a two-way entrance into the love of God (and also onto the Cross-bearing road of Great Lent): God forgives, I forgive.

Turning the other cheek is like water to fire, as St. John Chrysostom points out, which St. Ignatius sums up as readiness to endure. He exhorts:

Let us not be overcome by unbelief and give ourselves up to all kinds of cares, anxieties, imaginations, day-dreaming, subterfuges and manoeuvring to guard ourselves from our enemies and to work against their ill-will or evil intentions. This is forbidden by the Lord Who says: Do not resist injury (Matthew 5:39).

 For all manner of anger, revenge, imaginations, plans, and worse, the forming of an evil nature, all may be supplanted by the great recourse and shield of prayer and faith. And we must by this way of the Gospel and exemplarity of the Lord overcome not just the evil temptation of others but also of the demons.

In this way, we can attain absolute freedom from anxiety or earthly cares and live wholly within the will of God, in true, unceasing prayer of the heart.

In Scheler’s finding against Nietzsche that Christian morality is absolutely not founded upon ressentiment, he writes:

When [our Lord] tells us not to worry about eating and drinking, it is not because [H]e is indifferent to life and its preservation, but because he sees also a vital weakness in all “worrying” about the next day, in all concentration on one’s own physical well-being. The ravens with neither storehouse nor barn, the lilies which do not toil and spin and which God still arrays more gloriously than Solomon ( Luke 12:24 and 27)—they are symbols of that profound total impression he has of life: all voluntary concentration on one’s own bodily well-being, all worry and anxiety, hampers rather than furthers the creative force which instinctively and beneficently governs all life. “And which of you with taking thought can add to his stature one cubit?” (Luke 12:25).

It is founded upon sacrificial love, readiness to endure any and all, including death, not in blind obedience, but in total entrusting oneself to God. St. Ignatius closes his consideration in consonance with Scheler on the absolute rehabilitation of values available in authentic Christian morality as follows:

[One] lives in simplicity of heart and free from care and anxiety…thinks and is concerned about one thing only; namely, how he can become in all respects an instrument of God and accomplish the will of God.

For Scheler, this very much has to do with the achievement of the most perfect love in God, love in itself, not for its calculated results:

The act of helping is the direct and adequate expression of love, not its meaning or “purpose.” Its meaning lies in itself, in its illumination of the soul, in the nobility of the loving soul in the act of love. Therefore nothing can be further removed from this genuine concept of Christian love than all kinds of “socialism,” “social feeling,” “altruism,” and other subaltern modern things.

Why during times of plague do some doctors help the victims despite the likelihood of contracting the plague themselves? Because love for all is good in itself, for its own sake. It is not mushy, greater good-aimed, calculated humanism. It is a dynamic turning beyond oneself requisite to true ability to respond to that by which we are called: God’s abyssal Kingdom founded on boundless love, the essence of which the world knows not.

Help us, save us, have mercy on us, and keep us, O God, by Thy Grace.

✺ Holy Hierarch Sophronius the Patriarch of Jerusalem (638-644)

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