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Ressentiment, Revenge, and Punishment: Origins of the Nietzschean Critique

  • Robin Small (a1)

Nietzsche's thinking on justice and punishment explores the motives and forces which lie behind moral concepts and social institutions. His dialogue with several writers of his time is discussed here. Eugen Dühring had argued that a natural feeling of ressentiment against those who have harmed us is the source of the concept of injustice, so that punishment, even in its most impersonal form, is always a form of revenge. In attacking this theory, Nietzsche developed his own powerful critique of moral concepts such as responsibility and guilt. He borrowed his ‘historical’ approach to moral concepts from Paul Ree, who suggested that the utilitarian function of punishment had been obscured by its practice, which appears to be directly linked with moral guilt. Nietzsche responds that punishment has quite different purposes and meanings at different times, so that any single explanation or justification is inadequate. In this way, he rejects the pre-suppositions common to the retributivists and utilitarians of his time.

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1 Scheler Max, Ressentiment, trans. Holdheim William W., New York, 1972, p. 43.

2 Dühring Eugen, Der Werth des Lebens. Eine philosophische Betrachtung, Breslau, 1865, p. VTII; and Cursus der Philosophie als streng wissenschaftlicher Weltanschauung und Lebensgestaltung, Leipzig, 1875, p. 224.

3 Similarly, the British jurist Stephen James Fitzjames asserted that hatred of wrong-doers is ‘a healthy natural sentiment’ which is, and ought to be, satisfied by legal punishment (A History of the Criminal Law of England, London, 1883, vol. 2, p. 82). This social institution is, Stephen suggests, to hatred and revenge what marriage is to sexual passion – an analogy repeated by Jacoby Susan in Wild Justice: The Evolution of Revenge, New York, 1983, pp. 1213.

4 Der Werth des Lebens, p. 21. Cf. Nietzsche , Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Werke [hereafter KGW], ed. Colli G. and Montinari M., Berlin, 1973 –, Band IV/1, p. 217.

5 Kant Immanuel, The Metaphysics of Morals, trans. McGregor Mary, Cambridge, 1991, p. 140.

6 Ibid., p. 253.

7 Ibid., p. 141.

8 Der Werth des Lebens, p. 20.

9 Ibid., p. 81.

10 Cursus der Philosopkie, pp. 227–8. Unless otherwise stated, all translations are my own; except that in quoting from the published works of Nietzsche, and from the texts included in The Will to Power, I have used the English translations of Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, with occasional modifications.

11 Ibid., p. 234.

12 Ibid., p. 226.

13 Ibid., p. 226; see also Der Werth des Lebens, p. 78, and KGW IV/1, p. 227.

14 KGW IV/1, p. 256.

15 The Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, sect. 11.

16 Daybreak, sect. 202.

17 Jacoby, p. 12.

18 Ibid., p. 346.

19 See e.g. Elster Jon, ‘Norms of Revenge’, Ethics 100 (1990), 862–85, and Hamlin Alan P., ‘Rational Revenge’, Ethics 101 (1991), 374–81s.

20 Jacoby Susan seems to take this view, writing: ‘On a practical level, the human desire for retribution requires no elaborate philosophical justification’ (Jacoby, p. 9). Of course, on a practical level, nothing requires an elaborate philosophical justification, or even a modest one; but I assume that Jacoby is making a less general claim.

21 Jacoby cites a line from The Godfather: ‘Accidents don't happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult’ (Jacoby, p. 1).

22 The Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, sect. 11.

23 See e.g. Beyond Good and Evil, sect. 13.

24 The Genealogy of Morals, Second Essay, sect. 6.

25 The Wanderer and his Shadow, sect. 5; also KGW V/l, pp. 537, 562 and 564.

26 Schopenhauer , The World as Will and Representation, trans. Payne E. F. J., New York, 1969, vol. 1, p. 348.

27 Ibid., p. 357.

28 See KGW IV/1, pp. 253–4.

29 Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘On the Tarantulas’.

30 Ibid., ‘On Redemption’.

31 Daybreak, sect. 134. Nietzsche continues: ‘If suffering is here and there indirectly reduced or removed as a consequence of pity, this occasional and on the whole insignifi-cant consequence must not be employed to justify its essential nature, which is, as I have said, harmful.’

32 Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘On Old and New Tablets’, sect. 3.

33 Ibid., ‘On the Pale Criminal’.

34 Human, All-Too-Human, sect. 39.

35 Daybreak, sect. 252.

36 KGW VIII/3, p. 67 (The Will to Power, sect. 551).

37 KGW VIII/3, p. 65 (The Will to Power, sect. 633).

38 Beyond Good and Evil, sect. 22.

39 KGW VIII/1, p. 136 (The Will to Power, sect. 546). For critiques of the ‘subject’ see KGB VIII/1, pp. 133–4 and p. 323 (The Will to Power, sects. 631 and 481).

40 The Genealogy of Morals, First Essay, sect. 13.

41 Human, All-Too-Human, sect. 39.

42 KGW VIII/2, p. 181 (The Will to Power, sect. 235).

43 KGW VII/1, p. 558.

44 Beyond Good and Evil, sect. 17.

45 Ibid., sect. 20.

46 See e.g. KGW VII/3, p. 382 (The Will to Power, sect. 490).

47 KGW VII/1, p. 412. Cf. ibid., 126.

48 Rée Paul, Der Ursprung der moralischen Empfindungen, Chemnitz, 1877, p. VIII.

49 Here Rée is following the starting point of Schopenhauer: see On the Basis of Morality, trans. Payne E. F. J., Indianapolis and New York, 1965.

50 In Rée's later book on conscience, the same point is made again, but this time credited to Anselm Feuerbach. See Rée , Die Entstehung des Gewissens, Berlin, 1885, p. 192.

51 Der Ursprung der moralischen Empfindungen, p. 42.

52 Ibid., p. 45.

53 Letter of 10 October 1877; Nietzsche , Kritische Gesamtausgabe: Briefwechsel [hereafter KGB], ed. Colli G. and Montinari M., Berlin, 1975 –, Band 6/2, pp. 718–19.

54 Letter of April 1879; KGB 6/2, p. 1090.

55 Rée , Die Entstehung des Gewissens, Berlin, 1885, p. 39.

56 Ibid., pp. 42–3.

57 Ibid., p. 108.

58 Ibid., p. 202.

59 Publisher's announcement at the end of Dühring Eugen, Robert Mayer der Galilei des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, Chemnitz, 1880.

60 The Genealogy of Morals, II, sect. 12.

61 The Wanderer and His Shadow, sect. 33.

62 Ibid., sect. 77.

63 The Genealogy of Morals, II, sect. 13.

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