Home Psychology Chinese and Buddhist Philosophy in early Twentieth-Century German Thought
The resentment of Confucian China
There has been a tendency in its Western reception to interpret Chinese culture and thought through the social-psychological lens of resentment. Nietzsche’s argument that moralism and religiosity are the higher achievements of resentment informed his infrequent discussions of Confucius and Chinese culture. In the passage on the “improvers of humanity” in the Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche interprets Confucius as a law-giver like other law-givers such as Manu, Plato, and the founders of the three monotheistic faiths. Confucius is presented in this context as yet another instance of the immoral moralist. He becomes a symbol of a priestly form of power who never doubted his right to tell “golden lies” in order to regulate the masses and bring them to conformity through breeding and taming techniques:
Neither Manu nor Plato nor Confucius nor the Jewish and Christian teachers have ever doubted their right to lie. They have not doubted that they had very different rights too. Expressed in a formula, one might say: all the means by which one has so far attempted to make [humanity] moral were through and through immoral.14
Confucius is furthermore compared to the founders of political empires in an unpublished note from 1885. Nietzsche insists that “great artists of government” (Regierungskunstler) and power from Confucius to Napoleon—and we might recall here the discussion in Chapter 1 of Popper-Lynkeus’s affirmative comparison of Confucius with Alexander the Great and Napoleon—use noble lies and moralistic deception to pacify the masses through physiological-spiritual programs of “spiritual enlightenment”:
Spiritual enlightenment is an infallible means for making humans unsure, weaker in will, so they are more in need of company and support—in short, for developing the herd animal in humans. Therefore all great artists of government so far (Confucius in China, the imperium Romanum, Napoleon, the papacy at the time when it took an interest in power and not merely in the world), in the places where the dominant instincts have culminated so far, also employed spiritual enlightenment—at least let it have its way (like the popes of the Renaissance). The self-deception of the masses concerning this point, e.g., in every democracy, is extremely valuable: making humans smaller and more governable is desired as “progress”!15
Nietzsche interpreted China, which he described as “a country where large- scale discontentment and the capacity for change became extinct centuries ago,” through the prism of the Oriental despotism thesis, developed by earlier German philosophers discussed in Chapter 1, as a construction of enlightened power that destroys all that is individual and unique in reducing life to a banal equality and happiness.16
As in Strawson’s far less dramatic argument about the role of resentment in normal interpersonal life, Nietzsche concluded that the apparent absence of resentment is in fact more problematic than its active or reactive presence. However, Nietzsche goes further than Strawson to the extent that the objective stance is not a justifiable—if temporary—departure from the participant perspective. It is a self-deceptive illusion of not being a participant and lacking a perspective. Such a condition is the product of a history of discipline and training and the bundling and redoubling of ordinary resentments into a pathological state of being.
Further, altruistic attitudes are genealogically interpreted as dispositions that are deeply motivated by ressentiment. In this setting, Nietzsche constructs and construes “Confucius” and “China” as warnings to modern Europe about the last fruits of resentment, that is to say, of a condition where resentment and the reactive affects reign while appearing to have been tamed and trained. The spiritual and enlightened conquest of these affects has not led to their genuine overcoming. They are intensified and more poisonous in becoming the invisible—and hence all the more powerful—motives operating behind the face of tranquility, equanimity, and altruism.
Playing with the Chinese expression xiaoxin (“be careful”; taken too literally, “small heart”), Nietzsche depicted “late civilizations”—such as that of the modern European who could only be perceived as distasteful and dwarfish by an ancient Greek—affecting a “smallness of heart.”17 Nietzsche maintained that the altruistic goodness and spiritual awakening promoted by Confucius and the Buddha had reduced the Chinese to passivity and an abject equality under an all-powerful despot, arguing that Europe currently faced a similar fate from its forces of political and spiritual enlightenment that “might easily establish Chinese conditions and a Chinese ‘happiness.’”18 The ascetic self-denial and selfsacrifice distinctive of altruistic ethics is said in Ecce Homo to “deprive existence of its great character and would castrate men and reduce them to the level of desiccated Chinese stagnation.”19
China and the Chinese are marginal to Nietzsche’s concerns for the most part. He characteristically employs Indian and Buddhist non-Western examples in his writings. The Chinese move closer to the center—if not directly into the center itself—of Nietzsche’s geopolitics, which is focused on the Christian- Jewish world, when he branded the Chinese, German, and Jewish peoples as three examples of “priestly peoples” in the Genealogy of Morals: “By contrast [with the Romans], the Jews were a priestly nation of ressentiment par excellence, possessing an unparalleled genius for popular morality: compare peoples with similar talents, such as the Chinese or the Germans, with the Jews, and you will realize who are first rate and who are fifth"20
In the context ofhis polemic against “decadence” characterized by ressentiment, and despite their difference in ability and rank, Nietzsche described these three peoples as “peoples with similar talents” Here Nietzsche is again describing a generalized priestly character or type. They are three different exemplars of “priestly nations” dominated by the forces and pathologies of ressentiment. In his discussions of China, however, Nietzsche continues to use the language of ahistorical stasis and an ethnocentrically defined “Oriental” despotism developed by earlier German thinkers such as Herder, Meiners, and Hegel.
Granting the questionable cogency of Nietzsche’s assessment of Confucius, there are reasons to appreciate the ambivalence at work in Nietzsche’s dialectic of power and resentment. Nietzsche is frequently depicted as a thinker of power and even at times—although this is conspicuously incorrect—an apologetic defender of established existing powers. Nietzsche exposes existing power in his genealogical deconstruction to be constituted and its constitution to consist of deception, illusion, and—in many cases— revenge and resentment. The masses, whose bodies have been shaped by discipline and whose minds have been manipulated by their own fears and feelings of resentment, become passive instruments of this formation and projection of power.
Ressentiment appears as a complex point of mediation in the lifeworld (Lebenswelt) or—to adopt a Hegelian language—ethical life (Sittlichkeit), as it simultaneously constitutes both power and weakness. Resentments are nurtured through experiences of impotence and inability and becoming overpowering in the condition of ressentiment even when it has assumed power. It is consequently a misreading to conclude that all power is good and noble in Nietzsche. On the contrary, power is typically structured by, and functions as an expression of, ressentiment. This system of power poisons the self who is unable to freely and generously use it, as it takes on pathological forms oppressive to the poisoned self as well as to others. Nietzsche repeatedly confronts this type of power that he stylizes as priestly power.21 It is born of real suffering and trauma and poisons the wound and encourages it to fester in order to survive the trauma. Nevertheless, despite becoming manifest in only a few rare historical moments, Nietzsche held on to the hope that freedom and nobility can be accomplished in the genuine exercise of power. The genuine feeling of power in the self is contrasted with the myths and idols of the negation of power that signify its hidden seductive and pathological exercise.
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