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The word “condescension” once had a positive connotation, unlikely ever to be revived. It referred to a variety of gracefulness or tact possessed by some individuals born into the upper echelons of the social hierarchy. Condescension in what we might call the complimentary sense was a knack for dealing well with people of lower standing—not as equals, to be sure, but agreeably enough to spare them any uncomfortable self-consciousness about their low status. That’s what one of Jane Austen’s characters has in mind when lauding another character for her condescension.

Two hundred years later, no hint of praise attaches to the word. At some point those in a position to exercise condescension presumably figured out that people on the receiving end felt less gratitude for it than had been assumed. A more common response was resentment—though that word, too, has had a strange career, as Robert A. Schneider recounts in The Return of Resentment: The Rise and Decline and Rise Again of a Political Emotion (University of Chicago Press). As late as the second half of the 18th century, a theologian or moral philosopher could treat resentment as a reasonable response to something offensive or unjust. Resentment might even be necessary to a peaceable society, provided it led to reconciliation and forgiveness.

The author, a professor of history at Indiana University at Bloomington, would clearly prefer that resentment of the more conciliatory variety be cultivated now, even though little in his book makes the wish seem plausible. The Return of Resentment takes up a position at the crossroads between social and intellectual history, but much of the traffic feeding into the intersection comes from the 24-hour news cycle. The introduction opens with a sampling of reporting and commentary from the past few years in which political and cultural conflicts around the world are treated as manifestations of resentment—of being “slighted or ignored or despised or abandoned or humiliated,” to borrow a British journalist’s useful catalog of triggering emotions.

Paring down this wide-ranging but tightly constructed book into the barest possible summary requires a sketch of the mood in question. Early usage of “resentment” allowed for its application to any lasting memory of emotion, although the unhappy sort prevailed. For the most part resentment involves a persistent sense of injury. The harm is experienced as deliberate, unjust or unacknowledged by whoever caused it. (See also: condescension.) And while the feeling might be directed toward worthy ends, what resentment more typically inspires is a desire for revenge. It goes unsatisfied except in the sufferer’s imagination, which tends to make it keener. Resentment then becomes the emotional equivalent of a festering wound. It resembles anger, jealousy, envy or indignation (and may involve some combination thereof), overlayed with feelings of powerlessness and, often, of shame.

So understood, resentment is not just an emotional reaction but something akin to a syndrome or a disposition. It takes on a social as well as a psychological aspect when the sense of injury is widely shared; it may become political when the sufferers identify particular institutions, populations and leaders as inflicting the pain. While identifying resentment as a perennial tendency—evident in biblical narratives, for one—Schneider traces its emergence as a social factor to early modernity (the 16th through 18th centuries), with concern over its political expression developing in the wake of the French Revolution.

The sharpest formulation treating resentment as an epochal force comes in the late 19th century with Friedrich Nietzsche’s identification of ressentiment as a spiritual corrosive, secreted by the weak and poisoning the strong. The French word now serves in other languages as the preferred term when discussing Nietzsche’s understanding of the phenomenon. Ressentiment is a collective hatred of slaves for their masters—in particular, for the aristocratic absorption in noble action, free of self-consciousness or concern for anyone’s else’s judgment or well-being. The slaves wallow in their abject powerlessness and come to think of everything strong as evil, with their own weakness and shame being signs of their own goodness.

Schneider takes Nietzsche’s ressentiment as both highly influential and profoundly unoriginal—a translation of his century’s widespread and generally antidemocratic anxiety over “the people” (biding its time before taking revenge on the social order) into an ahistorical scenario about an imagined age of stable social pyramids. Other thinkers have reworked the concept of ressentiment into rather less melodramatic terms. But Schneider pointedly sticks to the common English spelling, applicable to anything from minor individual disgruntlement to ferocious and ideologically cohesive mass movements, except when discussing the Nietzschean understanding of it in particular.

The problem, in Schneider’s perspective, is that categorizing something as the product of ressentiment prejudges the sense of injury as invalid and probably pathological. It obliges no attention to questions of justice and of the possibility that the grievances are justified, or should at least be given a hearing. The same can be said for dismissing McCarthyism or other strains of conspiratorial thinking as expressions of “status anxiety,” a term favored by Cold War liberal academics in the 1950s and ’60s. (Schneider makes valid points about evidentiary holes in the liberal academics’ analysis, but he sidesteps the issue of whether resentful sentiments expressed in such movements have any justification.)

The Return of Resentment moves along a number of narrative tracks, not all of them noted above, and its long final chapter refers to a sizable portion of the more thoughtful books in the “what the hell is going on?” genre called forth by the past several years. Growing economic inequality, changing demographics and social norms, and algorithmic echo-chamber effects are all familiar and credible factors. Schneider goes beyond them to consider our tendency “to think of resentment as an emotional trait of ‘others’—which is to say the embittered and angry ‘left-behind and threatened.’” On the contrary, he points out the element of resentment seemingly baked into the human life cycle, with the young and the old prone to rounds of mutual condescension. This is not an optimistic book, but it takes notice of subtler strains of contempt that keep people from trying for anything better.

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