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Vol. 6, No. 1, 2007
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Envy, to which the ignoble mind's a slave,
Is emulation in the learned or brave.
Alexander Pope


Not much, 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 far 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 & Opinion, 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.

Since, 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?

Since envy is a trait or passion common to the species, there must be reasons why natural selection has seen fit to preserve it.

The 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.

Elsewhere, 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.

Stripped 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.

Nietzsche, 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.

So if 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.

But what 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.

But 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.

If the 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.

Reduced 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 Nature’s design.

Nature 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.

And then 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.

Ever 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.

So in 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 with.

To better 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.'



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