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  • Writer's pictureMr. B

Mad "Power" ...

Well, so far in this exploration of modern anger, Mr. B has considered various ways that anger is expressed in society today, the true emotion at the root of modern anger (you might be surprised!), and, most recently, what exactly pulls the trigger of our anger. Now, the time has come for Mr. B to explore why we react to anger the way we do: Why do we tend to run and hide from our feelings of anger? Here's a hint. It's got something to do with the way we have all been taught to understand the meaning of "power" in society today!



Ressentiment...


"a psychological state arising from suppressed feelings of envy and hatred that cannot be satisfied." Oxford English Dictionary.



Stephen Jenkinson...


"It doesn't happen every week, but kids do get in touch with me, they do come to the School [of Orphan Wisdom] and to teaching events, and without encouragement from me then or now sometimes come up to the farm land [where I live, in Canada] ... their hands curled into fists. You could think that they are curled in anger. Often they are, although it has been swallowed for so long that it takes a while for it to break the surface as anger.... In one hand these kids have an impotent rage, a rage that has had the energy leached out of it by futility and pointlessness and the chronic collapse of faith, all heat and no light. In the other is an aimless, wandering principled anxiety, dressed up as brittle conscience, all light and no heat. And these are their prized possessions. And that's why their hands are curled around them. Some of the time, maybe much of the time, that's what they have. That's all they have."


Soren Kierkegaard...


"... [R]essentiment becomes the constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to seek itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing. The ressentiment which results from want of character can never understand that eminent distinction really is distinction. [Ressentiment] wants to drag it [distinction] down, wants to belittle it so that it really ceases to be distinguished. And ressentiment not only defends itself against all existing forms of distinction but against that which is still to come." (Italics Added)


Here's the quote I shared in this podcast episode, placed within a larger context of what Kierkegaard had to say about this particular aspect of ressentiment...


“… [J]ust as in a passionate age enthusiasm is the unifying principle, so in an age which is very reflective and passionless envy is the negative unifying principle. This must not, however, be interpreted as an ethical charge; the idea of reflection is, if one may so express it, envy, and it is therefore twofold in its action: it is selfish within the individual and it results in the selfishness of the society around him, which thus works against him.


The envy in reflection (within the individual) prevents him making a decision passionately. If, for a moment, it should seem as though an individual were about to succeed in throwing off the yoke of reflection, he is at once pulled up by the opposition of the reflection which surrounds him. The envy which springs from reflection imprisons man’s will and his strength. First of all the individual has to break loose from the bonds of his own reflection, but even then he is not free. Instead he finds himself in the vast prison formed by the reflection of those around him, for because of his relation to his own reflection he also has a certain relation to the reflection around him. He can only escape from this second imprisonment through the inwardness of religion, no matter how clearly he may perceive the falseness of the situation. With every means in its power reflection prevents people from realizing that both the individual and the age are thus imprisoned, not imprisoned by tyrants or priests or nobles or the secret police, but by reflection itself, and it does so by maintaining the flattering and conceited notion that the possibility of reflection is far superior to a mere decision. A selfish envy makes such demands upon the individual that by asking too much it prevents him from doing anything. It spoils him like an indulgent mother, for the envy within him prevents the individual from devoting himself to others. Moreover, the envy which surrounds him and in which he participates by envying others, is envious in a negative and critical sense.


But the further it is carried the more clearly does the envy of reflection become a moral ressentiment. Just as air in a sealed space becomes poisonous, so the imprisonment of reflection develops a culpable ressentiment if it is not ventilated by action or incident of any kind. In reflection the state of strain (or tension as we called it) results in the neutralization of all the higher powers, and all that is low and despicable comes to the fore, its very imprudence giving the spurious effect of strength, while protected by its very baseness it avoids attracting the attention of ressentiment.


It is a fundamental truth of human nature that man is incapable of remaining permanently on the heights, of continuing to admire anything. Human nature needs variety. Even in the most enthusiastic ages people have always liked to joke enviously about their superiors. That is perfectly in order and is entirely justifiable so long as after having laughed at the great they can once more look upon them with admiration; otherwise the game is not worth the candle. In that way ressentiment finds an outlet even in an enthusiastic age. And as long as an age, even though less enthusiastic, has the strength to give ressentiment its proper character and has made up its mind what its expression signifies, ressentiment has its own, though dangerous, importance. In Greece, for example, the form ressentiment took was ostracism, a self-defensive effort, as it were, on the part of the masses to preserve their equilibrium in face of the outstanding qualities of the eminent. The outstanding man was exiled, but every one understood how dialectical the relationship was, ostracism being a mark of distinction. Thus, in representing a somewhat earlier period in the spirit of Aristophanes, it would be more ironical to let a completely unimportant person be ostracized than to let him become dictator, because ostracism is the negative mark of greatness. But it would be still better to let the story end with the people recalling the man whom they had ostracized because they could no longer do without him, and he would then be a complete mystery to the country of his exile, which would, of course, be quite unable to discover anything remarkable about him. In the Knights Aristophanes gives us a picture of the final state of corruption in which the vulgar rabble ends when – just as in Tibet they worship the Dalai Lama’s excrement – they contemplate their own scum in its representatives; and that, in a democracy, is a degree of corruption comparable to auctioning the crown in a monarchy. But as long as ressentiment still has any character, ostracism is a negative mark of distinction. The man who told Aristides that he had voted for his exile ‘because he could endure hearing Aristides called the only just man’ did not deny Aristides’ eminence, but admitted something about himself. He admitted that his relation to distinction was the unhappy love of envy, instead of the happy love of admiration, but he did not try to belittle that distinction.


On the other side, the more reflection gets the upper hand and thus makes people indolent, the more dangerous ressentiment becomes, because it no longer has sufficient character to make it conscious of its significance. Bereft of that character reflection is cowardly and vacillating, and according to circumstances interprets the same thing in a variety of ways. It tries to treat it as a joke, and if that fails, to regard it as an insult, and when that fails, to dismiss it as nothing at all; or else it will treat the thing as a witticism, and if that fails then say that it was meant as a moral satire deserving attention, and if that does not succeed, add that it is not worth bothering about.


Thus ressentiment becomes the constituent principle of want of character, which from utter wretchedness tries to sneak itself a position, all the time safeguarding itself by conceding that it is less than nothing. The ressentimentwhich results from want of character can never understand that eminent distinction really is distinction. Neither does it understand itself by recognizing distinction negatively (as in the case of ostracism) but wants to drag it down, wants to belittle it so that it really ceases to be distinguished. And ressentiment not only defends itself against all existing forms of distinction but against that which is still to come.


The ressentiment which is establishing itself is the process of leveling, and while a passionate age storms ahead setting up new things and tearing down old, raising and demolishing as it goes, a reflective and passionless age does exactly the contrary: it hinders and stifles all action; it levels. Leveling is a silent, mathematical, and abstract occupation which shuns upheavals. In a burst of momentary enthusiasm people might, in their despondency, even long for a misfortune in order to feel the powers of life, but the apathy which follows is not more helped by a disturbance than an engineer leveling a piece of land. At its most violent a rebellion is like a volcanic eruption and drowns every other sound. At its maximum the leveling process is a deathly silence in which one can hear one's heart beat, a silence which nothing can pierce, in which everything is engulfed, powerless to resist. One man can be at the head of a rebellion, but no one can be at the head of the leveling process alone, for in that case he would be the leader would thus escape being leveled. Each individual within his own little circle can co-operate in the leveling, but it is an abstract power, and the leveling process is the victory of abstraction over the individual. The leveling process in modern times, corresponds, in reflection, to fate in antiquity.


The dialectic of antiquity tended towards leadership (the great individual and the masses -- the free man and the slaves); so far the dialectic of Christendom tends towards representation (the majority sees itself in its representative and is set free by the consciousness that it is the majority which it represented, a sort of self-consciousness); the dialectic of the present age tends toward equality, and its most logical -- though mistaken -- fulfillment is leveling, as the negative unity of the negative reciprocity of all individuals.


It must be obvious to every one that the profound significance of the leveling process lies in the fact that it means the predominance of the category 'generation' over the category 'individuality.' In antiquity the total number of the individuals was there to express, as it were, the value of the outstanding individual. Nowadays the standard of value has been changed so that equally, approximately so and so many men go to one individual and one need only to be sure of having the right number in order to have importance. In antiquity the individual in the masses had no importance whatsoever; the outstanding individual signified them all. The present age tends towards a mathematical equality in which equally in all classes approximately so and so many people go to one individual. Formerly the outstanding individual could allow himself everything and the individual in the masses nothing at all. Now everyone knows that so and so many make an individual and quite consistently people add themselves together (it is called joining together, but that is only a polite euphemism) for the most trivial purposes. Simply in order to put a passing whim into practice a few people could add themselves together, and the thing is done -- then they dare do it. For that reason not even a preeminently gifted man can free himself from reflection, because he very soon becomes conscious of himself as a fractional part in some quite trivial matter, and so fails to achieve the infinite freedom of religion. The fact that several people united together have the courage to meet death does not nowadays mean that each, individually, has the courage, for, even more than the death, the individual fears the judgement and protest of reflection upon his wishing to risk something on his own. The individual no longer belongs to God, to himself, to his beloved, to his art or to his science, he is conscious of belonging in all things to an abstraction to which he is subjected by reflection, just as a serf belongs to an estate. That is why people band together in cases where it is an absolute contradiction to be more than one. The apotheosis of the positive principle of association is nowadays the devouring and demoralizing principle which in the slavery of reflection makes even virtues into vitia splendida. There is no other reason for this than the eternal responsibility, and the religious singling out of the individual before God, is ignored. When corruption sets in at that point people seek consolation in company, and so reflection catches the individual for life. And those who do not realize even the beginning of this crisis are engulfed without further ado in the reflective relationship.


The leveling process is not the action of an individual but the work of reflection in the hands of an abstract power. It is therefore possible to calculate the law governing it in the same way that one calculates the diagonal in a parallelogram of forces. The individual who levels down is himself engulfed in the process and so on, and while he seems to know selfishly what he is doing one can only say of people en masse that they know not what they do; for just as collective enthusiasm produces a surplus which does not come from the individual, there is also a surplus in this case. A demon is called up over whom no individual has any power, and though the very abstraction of leveling gives the individual a momentary, selfish kind of enjoyment, he is at the same time signing the warrant for his own doom. Enthusiasm may end in disaster, but leveling is eo ipso the destruction of the individual. No age, and therefore not the present age, can bring the scepticism of that process to a halt, for as soon as it tries to stop it, the law of the leveling process is again called into action. It can therefore only be held up by the individual attaining the religious courage which springs from his individual religious isolation."







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