IN PRAISE OF ENVY
ROBERT J. LEWIS
to which the ignoble mind's a slave,
Is emulation in the learned or brave.
if anything, has been written positively about envy. It is “a
stubborn weed of the mind . . . pursues a hateful end by despicable
means,” observes Samuel Johnson in The Rambler.
It’s “the only passion which can never lie quiet for
want of irritation: its effects therefore are everywhere discoverable.”
Which is another way of saying that if we were to encounter someone
without envy, we would probably regard the person as a bit odd,
not unlike Dostoyevsky’s other-worldly Prince Myshkin, the
hero of The Idiot.
as I know, no one has taken issue with the inclusion of envy as
one of the Seven Deadly Sins. In the last issue of Arts &
Geoff Olson points out that the "sin"
is unique in that “Unlike anger, pride, lust, gluttony,
greed or sloth, envy never gives the illusion of short-term pleasure.
From the moment it starts, envy only brings anguish and sorrow.”
He then goes on to quote Gore Vidal, a writer whom most writers
in their right minds should envy: “Every time a friend succeeds,
a little something in me dies.” I would argue that if it
weren’t for envy, Vidal wouldn’t have become one of
America’s most esteemed men of letters.
according to Olson, there is no apparent plus side to envy, why
has human nature endowed us with an attribute that not only destabilizes
so many relationships but compromises much of what is admirable
in our character and comportment? Could it be that envy, upon
closer inspection, conceals a positive flip side that hasn’t
been given its proper due?
envy is a trait or passion common to the species, there must be
reasons why natural selection has seen fit to preserve it.
year is 10,000 BC. The winter has been long and cold and our
very survival is in question. In the distance, smoke rises above
a tree-line of pine into a glassy sky. Before we reach the smoke,
the succulent smell of fat dripping into a fire finds our noses.
Around that fire a tribe is gathered, feasting on the spoils
from the hunt. Their women are robust and well fed, ours are
bone-thin and frail. Their men are brawny and fleshy, ours are
sticks in the wind. Next to the men are the bows and arrows
used for the hunt, weapons vastly superior to our sharp rocks
and crude knives. We immediately recognize a deficiency in our
equipment and the advantage in theirs; we are smitten with envy.
There are three choices before us. We can attack and risk catastrophic
defeat since we are physically weak and poorly armed, we can
do nothing and remain smitten or we can resolve to replicate
their advantage. If we master the bow and arrow, we survive.
another tribe in similar circumstance, but deficient in envy,
is slow to recognize the other tribe’s advantage, and
even slower in doing something about it. It doesn't survive.
of everything that doesn’t properly belong to it, envy,
as was biologically intended, is the recognition of an advantage
that we want for ourselves. The ill will or unhappiness that invariably
proceeds from the recognition is the first effect of envy, and
is what moves us to remove the conditions responsible for our
unhappy state. Which makes the attribute of envy directly implicated
in the well-being of the species, which confers both pleasure
and proof of the pleasure principle.
who Freud said “had a more penetrating knowledge of himself
than any other man who has lived or was likely to live,”
left us with this thought in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
“The Superman despises Himself the most.” Nietzsche
not only recognized himself when possessed of envy, but marvelled
at the utility of the emotion. He understood that if he wanted
to improve upon, for example, his learning, he would have to cultivate
a dissatisfaction (a despising) with his present learning vis-à-vis
another’s greater, that in the absence of self-dissatisfaction
(envy), he was doomed to remain happy ‘as is.’ Nietzsche’s
Superman recognizes that without envy Man would never exceed himself.
Prior to Nietzsche, Goethe gave us Faust, the opposite of the
contented man, envy’s paradigmatic archetype.
envy is a call to action, to emulate is the answer to that call.
When we are young we are encouraged to emulate our heroes; as
adults, in our chosen field, to emulate our betters because we
implicitly understand that improving our lot or advantage confers
happiness, which is the reward, and if we fail to either relieve
or outthink our envy, we’ll forfeit that happiness.
about envy of those things about which we can do very little or
nothing: someone else’s undeserved success or better looks,
or God-given talent? At a very minimum, envy provides the energy
and incentive to do what we can: if I can’t become a Mozart
I can still learn to play and enjoy the piano; if I can’t
change my looks I can change my look and manner; if I am eaten
up by some lesser writer’s undeserved prominence I can always
improve my own or write a more convincing criticism of poor writing.
when all else fails, and it often does, there may be “no
remedy but love against the great superiorities of others,”
says Goethe. In the extraordinary film Amadeus, Salieri
could have been Mozart’s best friend; he understood Mozart
like no other, but he was eaten up, consumed by envy, which left
him no satisfaction. Had he been able to reason with or domesticate
his envy, and learned to love Mozart for his gifts (as did Haydn),
he could have won for himself both pleasure and special privilege
in being counted among those selected few with whom Mozart could
have genuinely shared his genius.
envy-smitten, as a rule, lack the cognitive discipline to enter
into a productive relationship with the great superiority or advantage
of others, this is not a fault of envy but a pedagogical oversight
that has been allowed to persist, which predicts that most of
us would rather stew in envy than act on it, even if it means
becoming part of the stew -- a fate reason should logically abhor.
Like all strong passions that are likely to impact negatively
if not guided and shaped by reason, the major danger associated
with envy is in leaving the feeling unexamined, subject to whim
and caprice. Our first duty to envy is to face up to the feeling
in order to discover its utility, because if we don’t, either
from laziness or lack of will, we will soon find ourselves caught
in the grip of self-loathing that won’t let go until we
finally decide to do honour unto envy.
to its pure feeling and purpose, envy is a rope that connects
us to an external advantage with which we can either hang ourselves
or turn into a bridge, the crossing of which will not only redound
positively to ourselves, but society at large – which is
also sees fit that envy operates most efficiently, that is pragmatically,
in our immediate circumstance. I’m more vulnerable to envying
the popularity of a person who at a party plays a better guitar
than envying the exponentially more talented Paco de Lucia, just
as my wife is more vulnerable to envying the better cooking of
her best friend than Julia Child. Since envy and wonder are extremities
of the same scale, we can predict the farther removed another’s
superiority or advantage is from our personal experience the more
likely we are to wonder than envy it. My colleague’s 10K
salary advantage bugs the hell out of me but I’m OK with
Tiger Wood’s winnings.
there are the macro ramifications of envy. Where differences between
geopolitical entities exist, envy is the crucial subjunctive that
moves (inspires) nations to compete against each other in the
attempt to replicate the other’s advantage. It’s the
éminence grise in politics, writes Norbert Weiner
in The Human Use of Human Beings (1954); when you arm
yourself you arm the enemy. In the Cold War era, the Soviet Union
envied, that is recognized the West’s nuclear superiority,
which they soon developed for themselves. Before Japan became
the greatest car manufacturer in the world, it recognized America’s
advantage. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that Iran,
envious of the advantage held by its adversaries, is determined
to join the nuclear club.
more common to our political and social discourse is the appeal
to ‘level the playing field,’ code for removing the
disparities (usually economic) envy throws into bold relief. If
I am wretchedly poor and unstable due to my poverty, short of
bettering myself, the sure way to relieve society of the danger
I pose is to alleviate my poverty because I can’t envy my
neighbour for what he has if I already have it. In a society that,
through its iniquitous distribution mechanisms, chooses to grow
the differences between the well-to-do and everyone else, it does
so at its own peril by either wilfully or systemically refusing
to give sufficient due to the unhappiness and ill will wrought
by envy. Much of what history has to tell us about ourselves is
owed to this oversight. Communism, however the ideology was betrayed
in practice, was the first post-capitalist acknowledgement of
and response to the dangers posed by having a segment of the population
living in a state of unrelieved envy. Based on their observations
of the societal unrest generated by capitalism, Marx and Engels
concluded that uniform having (or not-having) was a socially more
desirable outcome than unequal having.
consideration of all of the above, what value do we assign to
envy in the grand scheme of things? Since it is demonstratively
favoured by natural selection and is also an esteemed member of
the Seven Deadly Sins club, it is surely an attribute to be reckoned
isolate the significance of envy from the smallest to the largest
matters in life, try to imagine the world without it, and would
it be a world you’d want to be part of? It seems that envy
is subject to both negative and positive application; it can turn
us against ourselves and self-interest or move us to be better
and happier than what we have been, and beyond that, it guarantees
that change and evolution will continue to be the unvarying constants
in worlds spinning on 'axis bold as love.'