I recently ran across this essay by Robert Lewis, the editor-in-chief of the Arts and Opinion Journal on envy. Since I give a good deal of attention to that particular emotion as a specifically zero-sum emotion, this essay presents the “other side” of the coin — envy as spur to emulation, competition, and self-improvement. The wonderful short book by Peter Walcot, Envy and the Greeks, and the more ponderous tome by Helmut Schoek, Envy, both emphasize this elemental emotion as advantageous… up to a point.
IN PRAISE OF ENVY
ROBERT J. LEWIS
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.
Envy does bring pleasure, called Schadenfreude, although granted that’s a derivative that comes when others fail, rather than the “straight-up” experience of pain when someone else succeeds. Vidal’s remark, however, is telling. It may explain how he became a great writer — as an historian my favorite of his books is Julian — but it also explains why his characters are so deftly drawn and nearly universally unattractive. Anyone with his talents, who still envies his friends (no less) is a deeply unhappy man.
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. They don’t survive.
Of course, one might just argue for plain rationality — it makes good common sense to imitate them. But of course that would be a bit of liberal cognitive egocentrism. The example is a bit simplistic, but the overall argument is clear — the constructive response to envy is imitation, and even competitive excellence. Certainly that’s what both the Greeks and the Jews thought. The problem of course is, what if your envy combines with a lack of self-assurance (one of the basic components of envy — I am made less by someone else’s success), to create a desire to “bring down” the superior person? …or as my friend anti-Dhimmi put it after 9-11, “sooner destroy two of their towers than build one of mine.”
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.
I don’t have my Nietzsche with me, but my memory of the “Superman” is that his self-despising is supremely contemptuous rather than envious of others, that, like the Underground man, he gains his sense of superiority precisely from his inner reassurance that, by despising himself he far surpassed the fools who think highly of themselves. I may be wrong, but I doubt that Nietzsche would ever formulate his Superman’s formula as “in order to improve my learning I have to cultivate a dissatisfaction with my present learning vis-à-vis another’s…” On the contrary, how pitiful such motivation.
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.
I guess that’s why the tenth commandment — so unusual because psychological rather than concrete, like stealing, lying and killing — is about covetousness rather than envy. Envy can lead either to emulation and self-improvement, or to a desire to destroy or possess what the other has. As the Russian peasant joke goes, Ivan, offered one wish, says “I wish Igor’s goat were dead.”
This positive possibility in response to envy also reveals the genius of a culture of mass production and consumption. In the old days, when my neighbor had a particularly attractive item that one envied, the main way to get it was to take his. In the world of mass consumption, I can get the same thing without taking his away. The American version of the joke, “You can have anything but your neighbor gets double” is not the peasant’s “poke out one of my eyes,” but the capitalist’s “give me a million and good for my neighbor, we’re both winners.”
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.
So the trick is in domesticating envy, pruning it back lest it become destructive. Only then can one rise to one’s highest point and share in genius beyond one’s own reach.
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.
I’m not sure that “reason” alone will work here. There are many dimensions to envy, most of them profoundly emotional. To argue that reason should guide and shape our experience of envy strikes me as a bit like pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps. What if the gap is so great — as, say, between the Arab world and the West — that envy cannot “reasonably” hope to emulate? Without “generosity” as well, without an ability to try one’s hardest and acknowledge limitation, and then to admire those who do even better, one cannot avoid becoming a victim on 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.
Nice metaphor for the options of a zero-sum or positive-sum approach to feelings of envy. Precisely how both the ancient Greeks viewed agon.
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.
So envy is the driving force in “keeping up with the Joneses,” the pathetic sin of the suburban bourgeoisie in the minds of 60s radicals.
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.
I think envy is not the best emotion to identify as operative in the nuclear arms race. You don’t have to envy your enemy to know you’ve got to match his weaponry. It might work better with Iran, but in that case we’re dealing with a form of envy so black it’s descended into pathological hatreds. And I certainly hope that this “we shouldn’t be surprised” is not an excuse for concluding, “well, this is all natural, let’s let it happen.”
Warning: The following paragraph is so flawed that it may not even be fiskable without chopping it up to the point where its argument is unrecognizable. As a result, I’ll give it in whole, then fisk it.
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.
Here goes, Lewis’ text in bold.
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.
I thought “leveling the playing field” was in order to give everyone the same chance, not to remove economic disparities. The point of it — including such controversial policies such as affirmative action — is to remove or compensate for unfair advantage. The principle of meritocracy remains — if you’ve earned your wealth or position of authority or respect — it’s yours. You don’t have to share it.
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.
This is close to breathtaking in its failure to grasp the issues. The author has just told us that envy is part of the narcissism of small differences. His colleague’s slightly higher salary makes him envious. The idea that by alleviating poverty you reduce envy, when, as he himself admits, the closer you are the more envy you feel, is counter-intuitive. Unless everything is shared exactly the same — an impossible goal even in the most committed egalitarian communitees like the early kibbutzim — envy will flourish.
But behind that lurks something even more ominous. The envy of the wretchedly poor “poses a danger to society.” In medieval culture the wretchedly poor — and there were many — was overwhelmed by awe of the aristocracy who, like Tiger Woods, inhabited a different universe and who went out of their way to rub in the enormous disparities of power with their conspicuous consumption. The danger they caused to society was not from envy, but from hatred of the viciousness of the elites. (The rage and violence of the Jacquerie was not the product of envy.)
But in Lewis’ presentation we get a strange ellision. “…short of bettering myself, the sure way to relieve society of the danger I pose is to alleviate my poverty…” In other words the “I” with whom Lewis tries here to empathize, should not be held responsible for his envy, and the anti-social sentiments he feels need to be dealt with by alleviating his poverty. Is this not robbing the poor of agency? I can’t help either my envy or my poverty. That’s society’s job. And with a hopeless formula like “alleviate my poverty because I can’t envy my neighbour for what he has if I already have it,” you have a recipe of overworking the state to mis-solve a fundamental problem. Talk about a perpetual motion machine.
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.
This is, apparently, coded language for what’s happening right now in the USA (and possibly Europe, although “moral” Europe prides itself on fighting these economic disparities), and also a veiled threat about the dangerous consequences of inspiring envy. What this approach seems to lack is an appreciation of how such disparities are not the “choice” of a society, but the natural state of any developed culture. Since the neolithic revolution, the overwhelming majority of civilizations have been structured along a “prime divider” that separates a small, wealthy and powerful elite from a poor, powerless, mass of peasants. The prosperity of commoners in modern industrial (capitalist and post-capitalist) societies is unprecedented in the history of civilization. Envy may be a problem, but it’s not going to be solved with economic egalitarianism: on the contrary.
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.
Good grief. The prose degenerates with the logic. No, not much of what history has to tell us about ourselves is owed to this supremely simplistic insight. In fact, capitalism — read Adam Smith — was actually an answer to the unrelieved misery and resentment of traditional economies, where people saw anyone’s success as their loss.
It’s actually worse. The very driving force of communist ideology is envy. I quote here from a chapter of my book on millennialism that treats the rise of communist ideology in the wake of the French Revolution’s failure/terror.
In an early meditation on “raw” or “crude” communism (der rohe Communismus), by which he meant the communism of Babeuf and Buonnaroti, Marx explained its appeal as a universalization of envy (which, by implication, he distanced himself from):
Universal envy establishing itself as a power is only the disguised form in which greed re-establishes and satisfies itself in another way. The thought of every piece of private property as such is at the very least turned against richer private property as envy and the desire to level, so that envy and the desire to level in fact constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the fulfillment of this envy and leveling on the basis of a preconceived minimum.
This is highly sophisticated moral discourse that cuts to the quick of the mechanisms of ressentiment parading as idealism. But for all such insight, Marx ended up stoking the very fires he here denounced. Marx’s aggressive brilliance took hold of history so powerfully that he could shake the communists away from the “utopian” fantasies that “all men are brothers,” (here, transformative apocalyptic) and drive them into a cataclysmic battle at the side of the exclusive true brotherhood of the proletarians. And he accomplished this call to battle with the irresponsible promise of a hopelessly impossible millennium that could only be “achieved” when alienation had produced so much hatred that a purging violence would clear the decks. Such tendencies towards envious hatred strengthened among those who inherited and implemented Marx’s millennialism in the following generation, the very men whose envy and ressentiment Max Scheler chronicled.
In other words, the “communist” solution is driven by envy of anyone else’s success, and its formula — equality of property — is really a massive submission to the power of unrestrained envy. Lewis’ formula, warmed over communism whose “good core” he holds on to by claiming it “was betrayed” by unnamed bad guys, is really a capitulation to the zero-sum kind of envy he earlier described as the “rope with which one hangs oneself.” History teaches far more interesting and important lessons than this repetition of past follies.
Communism was not “betrayed.” It’s leaders and its followers found that their millennial premise — here repeated by Lewis — radically misread human nature and fed the very envy they tried to soothe. So when they took power and abolished private property, they found that a) it couldn’t be done, and b) that in trying to do it all of the old problems, including — surprise! — envy and economic disparities, remained. The “betrayal” of communism came from trying to implement wildly inaccurate utopian ideals come hell or high water: when the perfect world did not emerge spontaneously with the elimination of evil — for the communists, private property — they ended up carving the ideal state out of the body social, and doing unspeakable evil in the name of their unquenchable confidence in their ideals.
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.
Even if we grant so superficial a reading of Marx and Engels, can we not also recognize how mistaken their recipe for a solution. The record of what happened when men and women, filled with millennial zeal, tried to implement these desires beggars the imagination, and puts the Nazis in the shade, certainly in terms of numbers of millions thrown into the maw of their frustrated utopian will. Like so many current intellectuals, Lewis seems to have granted the communists a “pass” they most decidedly do not deserve.
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?
That’s what you just praised Marx and Engels for trying to do, no?
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 praxis sold as love.
This post is already long enough. The subject of envy, how it is a permanent feature of the human condition, and how it can be either a positive or negative force, is immensely important. (Indeed, one of Augustine’s proofs of the original sin — the two year-old looking with hatred at a child rival — is actually, like the hatred of Cain towards Abel, a case of envy.)
Helmut Schoek, in a brilliant volume on the topic argues the exact opposite of Lewis’ warmed over communism. Only when people struggle against their zero-sum envy and turn it into positive-sum improvement, only when they renounce the guilty pleasures of Schadenfreude and the multiple ways we sabotage others to feed those “joys,” does a society have a chance to develop economically, to generate enough wealth so that many can share. But, alas, that gives us capitalism.
Let’s hope more rigorous thinkers tackle the topic.