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Resentment and Ressentiment: Nietzsche, Scheler, and Confucian Ethics


The current chapter explores a broader historical-philosophical context, extending beyond early twentieth-century German philosophy, in order to address issues of the ethical and social significance of resentment and the “negative emotions” in relation to the Western reception—particularly in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Max Scheler—of “Confucian China” as a “land of resentment” and in order to consider the contemporary import of early Confucian moral psychology. First-person social experiences of resentment, shame, and “losing face” have—in contrast to Confucian ethical discourses— not been a primary concern of Western moral reflection which, as Nietzsche noted, inclines toward stressing issues concerning conscience, guilt, and responsibility.1 There is little Western thinking about shame and losing face that occurs outside of its encounter with East Asian culture and thought. Notable exceptions to this tendency with regard to resentment—a significant issue in early Confucian ethics as seen in this chapter—are three modern thinkers who interrogated resentment as a key dimension of ethical life: the philosophers P. F. Strawson, Scheler, and Nietzsche. Due to their concern with negative reactive affects and the social dynamics constitutive of resentment, they provide an expedient starting point for considering the status of resentment in the modern understanding of Confucian China as a “culture of resentment” and in early Confucian ethical reflection.

This chapter pursues a reverse historical order from recent to previous Western thinkers of resentment and then proceeds to early Confucian philosophy in order to elucidate how Confucian ethics offers a unique alternative assessment of resentment and its role in socially oriented self-cultivation, the relationships between self and other, and the flourishing of ethical life. Confucian ethical discourses have significant argumentative and interpretive strategies with implications for contemporary ethical reflection and interpretation in ways that Western philosophy has systematically failed and generally continues to fail to recognize and appreciate.

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