Ressentiment, Public Virtues, and Malcolm X

Part of the Studies in Literature and Religion book series (SLR)


In this chapter I interpret The Autobiography of Malcolm X in terms of the ethical problem of ressentiment and the corresponding need for public virtues. The problem of ressentiment, or animosity towards human otherness, will be linked to the need for ‘public’ virtues, those moral qualities affirmed to be normative for the members of every community. I will first explicate the issues at stake in terms of ethical theory, and then turn to Malcolm’s autobiography for significant insights into forms of ressentiment and into the nature of the public virtues. The Autobiography of Malcolm X reveals the workings of conscience as Malcolm struggled to recognize ressentiment in his own experience and to practice his conception of the public virtues.


Religious Tradition Black People White People Moral Life Pluralistic Society 
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  1. 1.
    Because it is always a negative characteristic, ressentiment is more like envy than it is like resentment. According to John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971) p. 533: ‘Envy is not a moral feeling. No moral principle need be cited in its explanation. It is sufficient to say that the better situation of others catches our attention. We are downcast by their good fortune and no longer value as highly what we have; and this sense of hurt and loss arouses our rancor and hostility. Thus one must be careful not to conflate envy and resentment. For resentment is a moral feeling. If we resent our having less than others, it must be because we think that their being better off is the result of unjust institutions, or wrongful conduct on their part. Those who express resentment must be prepared to show why certain institutions are unjust or how others have injured then.’ However, while ressentiment, like envy, is ‘not a moral feeling’ that can ever be justified, it becomes entangled in a self-deceptive process of moral rationalization.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Friedrich Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals, in Basic Writings of Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Modern Library, 1966) pp. 472–3.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    For an analysis of Nietzsche’s conception of ressentiment, see Walter Kaufmann, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, fourth edn (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974) pp. 371–378.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Max Scheler, Ressentiment, ed. with an introduction by Lewis A. Coser; translated by William W. Holdheim (New York: Schocken Books, 1961) p. 52.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981) p. 118.Google Scholar
  6. 9.
    See Giles Gunn, The Interpretation of Otherness: Literature, Religion, and the American Imagination (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979) p. 83.Google Scholar
  7. 10.
    See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981);Google Scholar
  8. and Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981).Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    For a fuller discussion of Maclntyre’s and Hauerwas’s approach to ethics see John Barbour, ‘The Virtues in a Pluralistic Context’, The Journal of Religion 63 (1983) 175–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 12.
    John Henry Newman, Apologia Pro Vita Sua, edited by David DeLaura (New York: Norton, 1968) p. 8.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971) p. 93.Google Scholar
  12. 17.
    Quotations in parentheses refer to Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with the assistance of Alex Haley (New York: Ballantine Books, 1964).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© John D. Barbour 1992

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.St. Olaf CollegeNorthfieldUSA

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