Brian Leiter on Nietzsche and Ressentiment

In his excellent book Nietzsche on Morality, which I highly recommend to everyone, Brian Leiter has one of those lovely little footnotes, which you so rarely find in academic scholarship, that clears up a confusion I’ve long had in my head.

Bittner (1994: 128) points out that, “The German word [ressentiment]…needs to be distinguished from the French word spelled and pronounced alike, which is also its source. The words need to be distinguished because they differ in sense…[B]oth ‘to resent’ in English and ‘ressentir‘ in French suggest a more straightforward annoyance, less of a grudge than the German word does.” Bittner’s point is confirmed by the fact that in the German, Nietzsche does not italicize “ressentiment” except for occasional emphasis: Nietzsche treats the word like any other German word. This, of course, is lost in the English, where most translators continue to use Nietzsche’s German word, thus italicizing it.

That’s all.


  1. Joe November 30, 2012 at 4:51 pm | #

    Is that all people think resentment means in English? We’ve probably all heard ‘I resent thasr remark’, but this seems an exceptionally mild use, when a gnawing grudge is how it seems in otherwise ordinary usage.

  2. brahmsky November 30, 2012 at 6:42 pm | #

    It’s a good point.

  3. brahmsky November 30, 2012 at 6:44 pm | #

    Grudges can be so awful, it’s true.

  4. brahmsky November 30, 2012 at 6:46 pm | #

    Funny you should pick precisely Meryl Streep as the icon of precisely this sentiment.

  5. Scott Preston November 30, 2012 at 7:29 pm | #

    Yes… ressentiment is central to Nietzsche’s thinking, because he associates it with nihilism. The attitude or mood of ressentiment is connected with his saying “man would rather will nothing, than have nothing to will”. Nietzsche new ressentiment well, because he often succumbed to it himself, because of his illness. Ressentiment towards life, existence, history… these are the most nihilistic expressions of the condition.

    I’ve always associated ressentiment with the cynical mind and the reactionary mentality, not the authentically revolutionary, since the will of the revolutionary is less an urge to destroy the past than to create beyond itself. In some ways, imagination (in the full Blakean sense of that) is the antithesis of ressentiment.

    • Scott Preston November 30, 2012 at 7:32 pm | #

      In some ways, imagination (in the full Blakean sense of that) is the antithesis of ressentiment.

      Actually, let me put that another way… it is faith that is the antithesis of ressentiment, for it points to an important distinction between belief and faith… belief is always about things past and draws backwards, while faith points towards an as yet unrealised future and draws forwards.

  6. Douglas D. Edwards November 30, 2012 at 7:40 pm | #

    This is worth noting as a fine point of Nietzsche scholarship; we should probably capitalize “Ressentiment” when referring to the Nietzschean concept, to emphasize that it is a German word rather than a French word (and italicize it only if we also italicize other German words used within English text). But I agree entirely with Joe (above) that the word “resentment” in English is every bit as strong as Leiter makes the German word “Ressentiment” out to be, diminishing the significance of Leiter’s point for Nietzsche scholarship in English. Leiter may be right about the German and French, but he is wrong about the English. Quite apart from individual understandings of the word, the dictionary (which is intended as a distillation of social understandings of language) sides with Joe and me. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.) defines “resentment” as “a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury”. That sounds like furious outrage or an enduring grudge to me, and not at all like “straightforward annoyance”. It’s also worth noting that the same dictionary defines “outrage” (in the sense of a feeling, rather than an act) as “the anger and resentment aroused by injury or insult”. If Leiter, or anyone else, equates “straightforward annoyance” with “resentment” in the dictionary sense, it’s best not to cross that person!

    • Scott Preston November 30, 2012 at 7:52 pm | #

      …defines “resentment” as “a feeling of indignant displeasure or persistent ill will at something regarded as a wrong, insult, or injury”

      Ressentiment corresponds to the second evil of the three Buddhist evils of greed, malice, and delusion. Malice or ill-will… a consuming malice or ill-will…. that would correspond to ressentiment.

      Another thing I might add to ““man would rather will nothing, than have nothing to will” is the obverse, “”Hat man sein warum? des Lebens, so verträgt man sich fast mit jedem wie?” — if a man has a why, he can endure almost any how.

      Those two statements together demonstrate, I think, the remarkable fluidity of Nietzsche’s mind… his boasted ability to “switch perspectives”. In some ways, it can be said, perhaps, that Nietzsche formed an arch of times… an ability to look at all future from the perspective of the past, and then radically switch to view all past from the perspective of the future. Those two statements form an arc and are, in that sense, quite autobiographical of Nietzsche himself.

  7. David Littleboy November 30, 2012 at 8:10 pm | #

    ROFL. A friend in high school was a fully bilingual speaker of German and English, so he took French as his reuired foreign languag. He assumed that if the word functioned similarly in German and English, it’d be the same in French, which is wrong pretty much all the time.

    But translation is really hard. When I did some Japanese history, it turns out the Japanese are enamored of Max Weber. So I tried reading some. Horrifically god-awful Germanic sludge. Then I found a more recent translation, and the blighter actually had some sensible things to say. So my condolences to people who feel the necessity of figuring out what Nietche had to say. (As a translation issue, if a word in the source text is used in its normal sense, is unmarked with extra puctuation, and doesn’t give a native reader of the source language any problem, then it’s nice if you can find a word in the target languiage that is used in its normal sense, is unmarked with extra puctuation, and doesn’t give a native reader of the source language any problem. I.e., most words capitalized in German, should be neither capitalized nor italicized in English. If you see an English translation full of capitalization, italics, and scare quotes, the translator’s incompetent. Really, most writing is written to be read, and translating something into unreadable Germanic sludge is, most likely, a gross disservice to the author.

  8. nick December 1, 2012 at 4:54 pm | #

    If you haven’t already read it, I highly recommend Max Scheler’s short book entitled “Ressentiment.” Scheler is critical of Nietzsche in the book, but thinks the concept of ressentiment is a profound moral insight into the nature of value-reversals and nihilism. I think the word is a technical term in Nietzsche’s work: it stands for a psychological process whereby present suffering is justified with reference to a non-present reward: be it heaven or the revolution. It is the process whereby the world of experience is devalued in favor of a world beyond — the psychological root of nihilism.

  9. Claude Horvath December 3, 2012 at 3:31 pm | #

    I could be mistaken, but don’t recall your mentioning the ‘inadequate’ German version of the word — is it (as BabelFish reports) ärgern?

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