Max Scheler was a German philosopher who was just about an exact contemporary with G.K.Chesterton. As Chesterton was a prophet of the modern world, so Scheler’s observations in his book Ressentiment are prophetic.
His basic theme is that ressentiment undermines and kills everything good. What is ressentiment? It’s more than feeling bad because Johnny got a bigger pile of pie or Janet got a nicer birthday present than you. Instead it is a foundational and constantly re-lived emotion of envy until the person’s whole personality and world view are determined by it.
Ressentiment is the driver for every ideological movement of revolt. Whether it its socialism, feminism, homosexualism, ecology, Protestantism, Marxism…whatever activist movement you pick you’ll find beneath it is ressentiment.
This is pretty easy to see in obvious political and social activism, but Scheler goes further and identifies modern utilitarianism as also being driven by ressentiment. How so?
Because the resentful one is envious of pleasure and leisure. He replaces these clear and simple pleasures with the a secondary virtue: usefulness and work…thus the famed “Protestant work ethic” and the well known reverse snobbery of the working class.
“We’re not like those well off people. We earn our living by the sweat of our brow.”
Yes, and work is noble and good and earning our own way is noble and good, but hunkering down in a form of pride as the result of resentment pulls the heart out of the integral goodness.
This over valuing of what is useful also brings about a degradation of beauty. “What do you want to spend your hard earned money on all that fancy crap?” says the resentful utilitarian person.
This same utilitarian mentality has crept in everywhere. Therefore we do not build beautiful churches anymore. We build utilitarian preaching halls. No one asks if the church is beautiful. They ask whether the toilets work and the sound system is effective.
Should you try to build a beautiful church be sure you will get people sniping at you with the Judas argument…”Why spend all that money on a building? The money should be given to the poor.”
It is all rooted in resentment and the end result is not only the obliteration of beauty, but also the glorification of greed because what they really mean when they say, “You should not spend such money on the church but give to the poor” is “You’re not getting any of my money for that useless project!”
What’s the alternative? The alternative to ressentiment is gratitude. The grateful heart is a generous heart and the generous heart knows that there are higher values than usefulness. The grateful heart knows that all the very best things in life –like beauty, truth and goodness–are priceless because they’re free and they’re free because they’re costly.