You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. -Exodus 20:17
It is interesting to note that the Tenth Commandment and final commandment is the only statute of the Decalogue that is concerned with an internal desire as opposed to an outward action. (Arguably you could claim the first is as well but that is a discussion for another forum) The author of the Ten Commandments, whether you believe it to be God or Moses or someone else entirely, thought purging envy from ones inner being to be a moral imperative worthy to be listed alongside prohibitions on murder, theft and bearing false witness. The reason, I believe, is because envy is a destructive force that left unchecked destroys the envious and wreaks havoc on those around them.
Winston Churchill famously said:
“Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.”
We Glibs repeat this creed daily in various ways as we comment on the avarice, greed and base human instincts that drive all things political and particularly as we see those vices on full display in the antics of the progressive/socialist left. Envy’s various manifestations can accurately be assumed to be the underpinning passion that motivates left-wing ideology.
But what is envy? I think Kant’s definition is probably the most precise:
“Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own. [It is] a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others. [Envy] aims, at least in terms of one’s wishes, at destroying others’ good fortune.” (The Metaphysics of Morals 6:459)
It is necessary at this point to distinguish between envy and jealousy as the terms are often confused in common usage. Viewed through the lens of the Stoic passions; delight, lust, fear, and distress; jealousy differs from envy in that jealousy is rooted in fear whereas envy is rooted in distress. Jealousy requires three parties; the subject, the rival and the beloved. Jealousy is the fear of the subject losing the affections of the beloved to the rival. More simply put, it is the fear of losing what we have, or what is within our power to possess, to another. Using the word strictly within the confines of its definition would relegate its application almost entirely to interpersonal relationships. Envy, on the other hand, is a two-party relation consisting only of the subject and the rival. This distress is an irrational contraction on the part of the subject toward the rival. At its core it is the belief that one is inadequate in comparison to another. It is a self-applied judgement. While it could certainly be argued that jealousy has as many roots in distress as it does in fear, it is quite clear that envy is not fear-based as the subject stands to lose nothing to the rival because they do not possess the object in question. It is an irrationality arising solely from comparison. We may say “I’m jealous of my neighbor’s car” but in reality, unless he somehow outcompeted you for it, we are envious rather than jealous as we never were in a position to possess that particular car in the first place.
So we see manifestations of envy everywhere and indeed deal with our own irrational envious impulses hundreds of times daily. Some psychologists differentiate ‘good envy’ (I want my neighbors car so I’ll emulate my neighbors actions in order to obtain one of my own) from ‘bad envy’(I want his specific car or, short of that, I don’t want him to have it). I reject the notion of ‘good envy’ on the grounds that aspiration and emulation are perfectly consistent with rational self-interest and it does not seek to deprive the rival of anything. It is a concept in need of a term of its own. Envy, as I see it, is entirely negative and harmful. It is the irrational impulse to deprive someone else of something they have to thus alleviate one’s own sense of inferiority.
A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh,
I think the analogy of envy as rot is accurate. Once the irrational belief that another needs to be deprived to satisfy our own insecurity manifests itself, it becomes all-consuming, spawning all kinds of other soul-destroying passions. As Walker Percy said, “it consumes and twists our logic until nothing but itself makes sense.” In an attempt to rationalize our irrational passion we must justify our base desire to deprive others in order to feel adequate. We must convince ourselves that the rival somehow deprived us of what is rightfully ours. From this twisted logic we see all the other negative passions grow from the seed of envy; hatred, enmity, greed, anger, malice, vexation, depression, sadness, despondency, and on and on…
Eric Hoffer identified in his seminal work True Believer who is most susceptible to the ravages of envy;
“The weak are not a noble breed. Their sublime deeds of faith, daring, and self-sacrifice usually spring from questionable motives. The weak hate not wickedness but weakness; and one instance of their hatred of weakness is hatred of self. All the passionate pursuits of the weak are in some degree a striving to escape, blur, or disguise an unwanted self.”
Those consumed by envy have somewhere buried deep in their psyche a profound sense of inadequacy. Rather than aspiring to gain through emulation those things they do not possess, whether they be material, relational or moral, they seek to climb above their station on the backs of others, or at the very least drag them down into the mire with them. This sense of inferiority is so profound that the subject must alter their world-view to satisfy it. Sadly these altered world-views have given rise to ideologies which give shelter and comfort to the envious (I’m looking at you Karl Marx).
Again I’ll quote Hoffer;
“A doctrine insulates the devout not only against the realities around them but also against their own selves. The fanatical believer is not conscious of his envy, malice, pettiness and dishonesty. There is a wall of words between his consciousness and his real self.”
So we see myriad praises and excuses for envy dressed up in intellectual and garrulous finery. The subject is constantly reassured that their sense of inadequacy is natural, if not righteous. The moral obligation to combat their own passions is instead transferred to the rival who must be made to pay for their perceived superiority. Put even more simply, the rival is now responsible for the way the subject feels. The implications are terrifying when you couple a doctrine of envy with collectivism. The only acceptable outcome for the collective envious subjects is to see their collective superior rivals brought low and punished for the self-hatred the subject feels. Debasement or annihilation are the only thing that can satisfy the irrational contraction that spawned the ideology.
So what is to be done?
In regard to social-political movements, I have no idea. Envy is a part of the human condition and will rear its ugly head wherever human action transpires. I have little power to change anything other than myself.
I refer once again to the first part of the Psalm above;
We cannot control what is in the heart of others, only what is in our own. I believe this concept is one shared by any worthwhile religion or philosophy. We subdue our passions through logic and morality. We recognize that the inadequacy we feel relative to the rival’s superiority is a logical fallacy. One can only aspire to be the ideal version of themselves and cannot possess the personage of another. We must recognize that envy is a purely destructive force and the first to be destroyed by it is the envious. Beyond logic, we have a moral duty to recognize that envy seeks to justify violations of the natural rights of others:
For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. James 3:16
If the source of envy is not recognized for what it is, we find ourselves going down the primrose path from envy to resentment, resentment to hostility and from hostility to action. The end result of unchecked envy is the violation of first principles if not the outright abandonment of them.
In my opinion, the opposite of envy is gratitude. This is no profound revelation yet the application is a constant challenge. When one takes stock of the blessings in their life and values them in the right order, contentedness takes the place of envy.
I write these articles to be instructed more so than to instruct, so perhaps some of you fine Glibs can propose how we might organize (or disorganize) society to combat collective envy?
“Don’t set your mind on things you don’t possess…but count the blessings you actually possess and think how much you would desire them if they weren’t already yours.” –Marcus Aurelius