The Noble vs. the Ressentiment
(or, What sort of Dining Set Defines Me as a Person?1)

There are two sorts of men in this world, Nietzsche says, the strong and the weak. He refers to the strong as having a noble spirit, and he terms the weak the men of ressentiment. The noble men are those who are able to stand on their own. They are powerful, self-reliant, and are characterized as men of action. In Nietzsche’s mind they are giants, men of indubitable quality who are the true characterization of what man should be—they have drive, they are forceful, and they are utterly in command of their actions, will, and self-definition. The weak, on the other hand, can hardly even be termed “men” because they have none of the qualities that men should have. They are passive, anemic, and vain. While a noble man would be able to construct his own sense of self, a weak man “always waits for an opinion about himself and then instinctively submits to that” (p. 399)2. They are essentially self-less, utterly reliant on the other in order to form an identity and direction. They are “cowardly”, suspicious, and “allow themselves to be mistreated.” (p. 395) What sort of man is this? Why would one aspire to attain the level of petty leech?

At the heart of the distinction between the strong and the weak is what Nietzsche calls the slave morality and the master morality (p. 394). There are those who through virtue of their nature are stronger willed and more prone to action. These people will become the masters because they are the ones who will take charge and have enough drive to establish themselves ahead of the rest. They are proud, bold, and work for themselves. The weak on the other hand adopt a slave mentality, resigning their fate to endlessly following others. They are happy to do this because they are afraid of action and do not know how to act for themselves or even what it would mean to direct one’s own life. But the key characteristic here is really at the essence of what it means to have a slave mentality, and to consequentially develop a slave morality. Slaves are not happy with who they are. The slave hates himself for being weak, and hates the noble men for being strong. He resents their ability and success, and here we see the root of their ressentiment. “While every noble morality develops from a triumphant affirmation of itself, slave morality from the outset says No to what is ‘outside’, what is ‘different’, what is ‘not itself’” (p. 472) The weak resent anything that they are not and consequentially these qualities (which they might ultimately personally desire) become “evil”. Strength is evil, in their minds, as well as pride, self-advancement, and potency of will. As Nietzsche eloquently describes it, “the slave’s eye is not favorable to the virtues of the powerful” (p. 397). The weak have an aversion to anything that is too lively; it is as if they see the world with weak eyes—any man who has too bright of a character, whose emotions are too concerted, whose will is too concentrated is hurtful to their eyes. They require a desaturated world, because “the good human being has to be undangerous in the slaves’ way of thinking” (p. 397). They require such force to become muted, otherwise it serves as too glaring a foil to their own weakness.

We see here what is the ultimate difference between the two types of people, and why it is that Nietzsche despises those he terms weak. What is the fundamental difference between the noble and the men of ressentiment? Is it the fact that some are born strong-willed and others are not? Is it the fact that some men are able to achieve more than others? The distinction is even more basic than that. The difference between strong and weak men is simply the way they choose to define themselves. The noble man is complete unto himself. "The noble human being honors himself as one who is powerful, also as one who has power over himself, who knows how to speak and be silent." (p. 395) He does not need to look elsewhere for his self-determination, for who else is to tell him who he is? “The noble type of man experiences itself as determining values; it does not need approval; it judges... it is value-creating" (p.395) The man of ressentiment, in contrast, is by definition self-less because he defines himself by a negative definition. So what is he? You can give no solid attributes; rather you must look to see what he is not. A man of ressentiment is not strong. He is not forceful, he is not a leader, he is not honorable, and so on for a hundred different qualities. The difference between a man who is perhaps not forceful and a man who possesses ressentiment is the fact that the first man may not define himself by his weakness, while the second’s identity is wholly based on it.3

But one may ask what is the problem with not defining oneself in terms of a positive definition? The man of ressentiment has as much a sense of who he is (through his knowledge of who he is not) as the noble man does. What is so bad about defining yourself by what you are not? The problem comes from the fact that the men of ressentiment have a reactive personality—they are who they are in reaction to other people. The trouble is that reaction limits. It is never proactive, and depends upon an initial, primary act to ever exist. Because of this, reaction is weaker and less fruitful. One could say that you never accomplish anything through reaction: a reaction can only confirm or deny—it is never the force behind actual change. Action on the other hand, is constructive and powerful. Whether or not it is successful, an action effects change in its environment. So on a very primary level, reaction never is as powerful as change, so men of ressentiment never can develop into strong human beings, and develop their creativity and potential as much as the noble men of action can. On a secondary level—and this is where most of the damage is caused—the weak’s reactivity is detrimental to the progress of others. Because they are always limited in what they can do, the weak will become angry and resentful of the others and will react to their success, trying to limit it as much as possible so they can feel better about themselves. It is not bad enough that they aren’t able to achieve, they must hold back others as well. It is this limiting force that kills the human spirit.

So are people neatly divided into the strong and the weak, the confident and the uncertain, the proactive and the impotently reactive? It may be the case that there are a few people who are truly certain of themselves and who are able to derive their entire identity from within, but most of the time people embody noble qualities as well as a good amount of uncertainty and ressentiment. We’re products of our culture, society, religious affiliation and social circles and it is very difficult to disassociate ourselves from them and not define ourselves in terms of their values and goals. Nietzsche himself felt that people could embody both qualities, describing that the slave and master moralities can “occur directly alongside each other—even in the same human being, within a single soul” (p. 394)

Perhaps one of the best examples of someone who saw himself and his work from both a noble and a weak point of view was Jackson Pollock. Pollock worked during the 40s and 50s as an artist in New York City. His early paintings were very lively and colorful, utilizing big canvases to create art that was for the most part abstract and formal. While his paintings were very dynamic and innovative (Peggy Guggenheim purchased and commissioned a number of his works), they were still following the same sensibilities that were informing other artists such as de Kooning and Kline. His lines were moving away from the figural but they still had formal and intentional elements.

Creating an art form that was unique was a very important goal for Pollock and was something that he strove for in every painting. He wanted to move the art world to a different place, and admired Picasso for his revolutionary effect on visual expression. As much as he admired him though, he also hated him for not going far enough with his work, and in some ways, he loathed him out of a sense of intense jealousy. Pollock’s work was not nearly as important or as famous, and it certainly did not effect the same sort of paradigm shift that Picasso’s had. We see here the sense of ressentiment—Pollock looked towards others’ success as a means of measuring his own, and did not consider his work on its own merits. He was however, very confident of his abilities and knew what he was worth. Part of his frustration was that he felt the potential to be more and was jealous of those who had been able to realize their own potential. This is a complicated mix of being for oneself and being subjected to one’s own desire to be like others.

After working and wrestling with the issues of his art for several years, Pollock finally hit upon his genius, so to speak. He created the technique of “drip painting” that exploded common notions of form, color, intentionality, and authorship. His paintings became giant murals of spattered paint, layer upon layer of spills, drips, smears, and handprints. By making the technique and actual action of painting the art, he utterly shifted the practice of painting and his work has effects that still inform visual expression today. Pollock became an international success—magazines covered him, documentaries made about him, he was exhibited everywhere, and the ideas expressed in his paintings had such profound implications for modern art that he became known as the most important man in the Abstract Expressionist movement.

Here was a man who had had enough courage and strength to take an existing art form and radically redefine it, even in the face of so much tradition and decades of theory. Pollock was able to find his own ground, becoming a free spirit who did not rely on the work of others in order to find his own identity.

At the end of his life, however, Pollock became suspicious of the originality of his own work and became very wary of his achievements. Doubt overcame him about his work, even though he was the most famous artist of his time. Was he a hack? Was he just the negation of traditional art? Was he just trying to be not-Picasso, not-formal, and not-structured? Was he trying not to conform in order to be strong? Was his art really just a collection of dripped paint? These doubts were to plague him in the last years of his life and left him uncertain as to whether he had achieved anything at all.

In Pollock, we can see the positive and negative effects of the noble and weak sensibilities. Pollock’s doubt at the end of his life crippled him and prevented from continuing his work. He could not do it in good conscience, because he lacked the confidence that his work was actually meaningful and that he was a real artist. In describing the qualities of a noble man, Nietzsche says that “it is not his actions that prove him—actions are always open to many interpretations, always unfathomable—nor is it ‘works’”. He emphasizes that it is truly “the faith that is decisive here”, and that a sense of self worth is something that is internal in origin, and cannot be based on external reaction (p. 418). Pollock had the exhibits to “prove” to himself that he was a master. He had numerous awards, articles, and recognition, but what he lost at the end of his life was his faith in himself. “The noble soul has reverence for itself,” Nietzsche says, and that is truly what Pollock lost. It is just this reverence that made him great in the first place. Even though he suffered from ressentiment in his earlier years, Pollock always had the sense that he contained the potential for something great, and that sense enabled him to do incredible things.

So then one must ask what is the place of ressentiment? If everybody contains elements of self-doubt and if everyone experiences jealousy and feelings of inadequacy at various points in their life, how are we to think about ourselves as people? The first thing that we must do is realize what our resentful tendencies signify in our lives. For one thing, it signifies too much of a dependence on the opinions of others. If I am feeling jealous and resentful of someone else, it is because I am placing too much importance on their views; I need to be for myself and have faith in myself. If we rely too much on the views of others in order to define ourselves, we lose the fundamental ability to determine who we are. “The vain person is delighted by every good opinion he hears of himself (quite apart from all considerations of its utility, and also apart from truth or falsehood), just as every bad opinion of him pains him: for he submits to both, he feels subjected to them…” (p. 399) We become subject to the other and lose control of our identity, throwing ourselves on the mercies of whoever chooses to compliment or ridicule us.

Secondly, feelings of ressentiment expressed through self-doubt are hard to deal with, but it is important to not let them rule your work. Pollock’s self-doubt in the middle of his career was intrusive to his work but he did not let it paralyze him. Nietzsche must have felt the same way in his writing, wondering if he himself matched his definition of a noble soul or if he was just writing in order to become great. Nevertheless, both of these men accomplished great things, and whether or not they experienced ressentiment, the important thing was that they did not let it rule their lives. If we take them for what they are, the negative qualities of ressentiment can act as guides in our lives, allowing us to truly develop ourselves as human beings.

1Quote from the movie Fight Club, 1999.
2All quotations are from Basic Writings of Nietzsche, Translated and Edited by Walter Kaufmann, (New York:Modern Library), 1992.
3It is interesting to see that there are no men of ressentiment in comic books—the heroes are good, and the villains are evil (in our normal sense of the word). Note however, that it is not the case that the villains are merely “not-good” and the heroes are “not-evil”. Fantasy has no room for men of such indistinct character; it is their strength of will that makes them so fascinating.

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