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Ressentiment in the Present Age, by Søren Kierkegaard

Excerpt from - Søren Kierkegaard, The Present Age, translated by Alexander Dru with Foreword by Walter Kaufmann, 1962, pp. 49–52.

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. […]

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 a 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 was not worth bothering about. [...]

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 ressentiment which 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 no 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 own heart beat, a silence which nothing can pierce, in which everything is engulfed, powerless to resist.

One man can be at the head a rebellion, but no one can be at the head of the leveling process alone, for in that case he would be leader and 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 ancient times tended towards leadership (the great man over the masses and the free man over the slave); the dialectic of Christianity tends, at least until now, towards representation (the majority views itself in the representative, and is liberated in the knowledge that it is represented in that representative, in a kind of self-knowledge); the dialectic of the present age tends towards equality, and its most consequent but false result is leveling, as the negative unity of the negative relationship between individuals.

It must be obvious to everyone 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’.

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