Ressentiment is a sense of resentment and hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration, an assignation of blame for one's frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the "cause" generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one's frustration. The ego creates an enemy, to insulate itself from culpability.
A term imported by many languages for its philosophical and psychological connotations, ressentiment is not to be considered interchangeable with the normal English word "resentment", or even the French "ressentiment". While the normal words both speak to a feeling of frustration directed at a perceived source, neither speaks to the special relationship between a sense of inferiority and the creation of morality. Thus, the term 'Ressentiment' as used here always maintains a distinction.
Currently of great import as a term widely used in Psychology and Existentialism, Ressentiment is viewed as an effective force for the creation of identities, moral frameworks and value systems.
(T)he problem with the other origin of the “good,” of the good man, as the person of ressentiment has thought it out for himself, demands some conclusion. It is not surprising that the lambs should bear a grudge against the great birds of prey, but that is no reason for blaming the great birds of prey for taking the little lambs. And when the lambs say among themselves, "These birds of prey are evil, and he who least resembles a bird of prey, who is rather its opposite, a lamb,—should he not be good?" then there is nothing to carp with in this ideal's establishment, though the birds of prey may regard it a little mockingly, and maybe say to themselves, "We bear no grudge against them, these good lambs, we even love them: nothing is tastier than a tender lamb."
On the Genealogy of Morality
Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one's own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be "blamed" for one's own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external "evil". This issuing of "blame" leads one to desire revenge, or at least believe in the possibility of revenge; this lust for revenge may take many forms, as in the Christian conception of the Last Judgment, or the socialist conception of revolution. In each case, a sense of powerlessness creates the illusion of an enemy; one suddenly conceives oneself to be oppressed rather than merely weak, a phenomenon that spawns externally-directed bitterness (lust for a perceived "revenge").
Ressentiment comes from reactiveness: the weaker a man is, the less his capability for adiaphoria, i.e. to suppress reaction. And on the contrary, the more a man is active, strong-willed and dynamic, the less place and time is left for contemplating all that is done to him, and his reactions (like imagining he is actually better) become less compulsive. The reaction of a strong-willed man (a "wild beast"), when it happens, is ideally a short action: it is not a prolonged filling of his intellect.
Max Scheler attempted to reconcile Nietzsche's ideas of master-slave morality and ressentiment with the Christian ideals of love and humility. Nietzsche saw Christian morality as a kind of slave morality, while Greek and Roman culture was characterized as a master morality. Scheler disagrees. He begins with a comparison of Greek love and Christian love. Greek love is described as a movement from lower value to higher value. The weaker love the stronger, the less perfect love the more perfect. The perfect do not love the imperfect because that would diminish their value or corrupt their existence. Greek love is rooted in need and want. This is clearly indicated by the Aristotelian concept of God as the "Unmoved Mover". The unmoved mover is self-sufficient being completely immersed in its own existence. The highest object of contemplation, and who moves others through the force of attraction because efficient causality would degrade its nature. In Christian love, there is is a reversal in the movement of love. The strong bend to the weak, the healthy help the sick, the noble help the vulgar. This movement is a consequence of the Christian understanding of the nature of God as fullness of being. God's love is an expression of His superabundance. The motive for love is not charity nor the neediness of the lover, but it is rooted in a deeply felt confidence that through loving I become more personalized and most real to myself. The motive for the world is not need or lack (à la Schopenhauer), but a creative urge to express the infinite fullness of being. Poverty and sickness are not values to be celebrated in order to spite those who are rich and healthy, but they simply provide the opportunity for a person to express their love. Rich people are harder to love because they are less in need of your generosity. Fear of death is a sign of a declining, sick, and broken life (Ressent 60). St. Francis' love and care for the lepers would have mortified the Greek mind, but for St. Francis, the threats to well-being are inconsequential because at the core of his being there is the the awareness that his existence is firmly rooted in and sustained by the ground of ultimate being. In genuine, Christian love, the lower values that are relative to life are renounced not because they are bad, but simply because they are obstacles to those absolute values which allow a person to enter into a relationship with God. It is through loving like God that we are deified. This is why Scheler sees the Christian saint as a manifestation of strength and nobility and not manifesting ressentiment.
Max Weber in The Sociology of Religion relates Ressentiment to Judaism, an ethical salvation religion of a "pariah people." Weber defines Ressentiment as "a concomitant of that particular religious ethic of the disprivileged which, in the sense expounded by Nietzsche and in direct inversion of the ancient belief, teaches that the unequal distribution of mundane goods is caused by the sinfulness and the illegality of the privileged, and that sooner or later God's wrath will overtake them." (Max Weber, The Sociology of Religion, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), 110.
Jean-Paul Sartre used the term bad faith to describe a highly similar phenomenon of blaming one's own failure on external factors and therefore denying responsibility for oneself. The major difference between the two is that Sartre presupposed the existence of free will, whereas Nietzsche denied it - where Sartre's "bad faith" was the denial of one's full capabilities, Nietzsche's "ressentiment" was an incapacity to acknowledge one's limits.