The Psychology and Philosophy of Envy
Of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.
Posted Aug 21, 2014
In Envy, Joseph Epstein quipped that, of the deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all. ‘Envy’ derives from the Latin invidia, which means ‘non sight’. In the Divine Comedy, Dante has the envious labouring under cloaks of lead, their eyelids sewn shut with leaden wire. This etymology suggests that envy either arises from, or results in, a form of blindness—or maybe both.
For envy to take root, three conditions must be met. First, we must be confronted with a person (or persons) with a superior quality, achievement, or possession. Second, we must desire that quality for ourselves, or wish that the other person lacked it. And third, we must be pained by the associated emotion. In sum, envy is the pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others. In Old Money, Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. describes the beginning of the pain of envy as, ‘the almost frantic sense of emptiness inside oneself, as if the pump of one’s heart were sucking on air.’
Envy is mean and miserly, and arguably the most shameful of the deadly sins. Our envy is hardly ever confessed, not even to ourselves. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, envy is not synonymous with jealousy. If envy is the pain caused by the desire for the advantages of others, jealousy is the pain caused by the fear of losing our advantages to others. Jealousy is not circumscribed to the romantic sphere, but can also extend to such things as one’s friends, reputation, beauty, virginity, and so on. Compared to envy, jealousy is a lesser evil, and therefore easier to confess.
Envy is deeply ingrained in the human psyche, and common to all times and peoples. Our tribal ancestors lived in fear of arousing the envy of the gods by their pride or good fortune. In Greek mythology, it is Hera’s envy for Aphrodite that sets off the Trojan War. According to the Book of Wisdom, it is ‘through the devil’s envy that death entered the world’. According to the Book of Genesis, it is from envy that Cain murdered his brother Abel. And according to the Hindu Mahabharata, it is from burning envy that Duryodhana waged war against his cousins the Pandavas.
Envy is especially directed at those with whom we compare ourselves, such as our neighbours and relatives. As Bertrand Russell said, ‘Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.’ Our age of equality and mass media encourages us to compare ourselves to anyone and everyone, fanning the flames of our envy; and by emphasizing the material and tangible over the spiritual and invisible, our culture of empiricism and consumerism has removed the one countervailing force capable of smothering those flames.
The pain of envy is not caused by the desire for the advantages of others per se, but by the feeling of inferiority and frustration occasioned by their lack in ourselves. The distraction of envy and the dread of arousing it in others paradoxically holds us back from achieving our fullest potential. Envy also costs us friends and allies, and, more generally, tempers, restrains, and undermines even our closest relationships. In some cases, it can even lead to acts of sabotage, as with the child who breaks the toy that he knows he cannot have. Over time, our anguish and bitterness can lead to physical health problems such as infections, cardiovascular diseases, and cancers; and mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and insomnia. We are, quite literally, consumed by envy.
Envy can also lead to some rather more subtle defensive reactions such as ingratitude, irony, scorn, snobbery, and narcissism, which all have in common the use of contempt to minimize the existential threat that can be posed by the advantages of others. Another common defense against envy is to incite it in those whom we would envy, reasoning that, if they envy us, we have no reason to envy them. Bottled up envy can morph into ressentiment, which is, in essence, projected envy: the reassignment of the pain that accompanies our sense of failure or inferiority onto a scapegoat, which can then be blamed for our ills, persecuted, and, in the end, sacrificed. Examples of such scapegoats include Marie Antoinette, the Austrian queen consort of France, and, much more recently, white farmers in Zimbabwe.
Though carefully disguised, envy is often betrayed through indirect expressions. Schadenfreude, which literally means ‘harm-joy’ in German, can be defined as pleasure at the misfortune of others. Schadenfreude helps to sell the news, which is riddled with stories of disgraced politicians and fallen celebrities. Although the term is relatively recent, the emotion that it denotes dates back at least to the Ancient Greeks. In the Rhetoric, Aristotle called it epikhairekakia, which has the demerit of being even harder to pronounce than Schadenfreude. But whatever we call it, the Hebrew Book of Proverbs explicitly warns against it:
Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him.
The fundamental problem with envy is that it blinds us to the bigger picture. As with Cain and Abel, this blindness destroys lives, including our own. When we are in the grips of envy, we are as the captain of a ship who navigates the seas not by the heavenly stars but by the distorted lens of his magnifying glass. The ship turns in every direction, and ends up being taken by rock, reef, or storm. By holding us back, envy makes us even more apt to envy, opening up a vicious spiral of envy. And so, with our eyelids sewn ever more tightly, we lumber through hell under our cloaks of lead.
It has variously been argued that envy, often under the more respectable guise of compassion or brotherly love, is a force for social change that promotes democracy and equality. The politics of envy ends in communism, which aims at creating a society that is free from envy. In practice, however, those who live under the banner of the sickle and hammer become not less but more envious, going so far as to grass on their neighbours for the slightest of perceived advantages. Just as envy drives communism, so greed drives capitalism. Greed too can be fuelled by envy, but at least seeks to level up rather than level down and build rather than destroy.
How to keep a lid on envy? We envy because we are blind to the bigger picture. For example, when we envy our neighbour for his shiny convertible car, we mostly ignore all the efforts and sacrifices that have gone into affording it, to say nothing of the many risks and inconveniences of driving such a car. In the words of Charles Bukowski, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ In life, we are rich not only by what we have, but also and mostly by what we do not. It is all too easy to forget that the investment banker or hedge fund manager has effectively sold his soul for his ‘success’, with so little spirit left in him that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy the advantages that he has acquired. Such a man is not to be envied but pitied. To keep a lid on envy, we have to keep on reframing, and reframing requires perspective.
What about the man who inherited his wealth without effort or sacrifice? In the Hindu tradition, ‘lucky’ people are merely enjoying the fruits of their past karmic actions, including the past karmic actions of their parents, who educated and supported them, and of their grandparents, who educated and supported their parents, and so on. Of course, in some instances, as with the lottery winner, luck really is completely undeserved, making our envy all the more virulent. But inherent in the nature of true luck is that it tends to balance out over time, and so there really is no point in everyone taking turns to envy everyone else. Nature compensates for its shortcomings: if we do not have one thing, we surely have some other, even if it is not the sort of thing that is advertised on billboards. But while we envy, we focus on what we lack rather than what we have and could otherwise be enjoying. Thus, dispositions such as humility and gratitude can protect against envy.
Envy is also a question of attitude. Whenever we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation. Envy is the pain that we feel because others have good things, whereas emulation is the pain that we feel because we ourselves do not have them. This is a subtle but critical difference. By reacting with envy, we prevent ourselves from learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and thereby condemn ourselves to stagnation. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught, and, through learning, improve our lot. Unlike envy, which is sterile at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation enables us to grow and, in growing, to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have incited our envy. Why can some people rise to emulation, while most seem limited to envy? In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honourable or noble disposition. In other words, whether we react with envy or emulation is a function of our self-esteem.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.