This morning, I finished reading Joseph Epstein’s little volume on Envy, written as part of Oxford University Press’s series on the Seven Deadly Sins. Although it was a bit repetitive, it was also insightful.
Epstein distinguishes envy from yearning or wistfulness, such as you might feel when you see some young children playing and wish you could be young like them again, and from jealousy (“one is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have” [p. 4]), and relates it to its companion vices schadenfreude, the joy you take in someone else’s downfall, and ressentiment, a general bitterness of life that sees everything with a jaundiced eye including the things one desires and is unable to have (“sour grapes”).
For those who can’t put their finger on what envy is or haven’t felt it themselves, Epstein offers this description:
You se something, want it, feel it only sensible and right that it belong to you and not the person who has it. Once the injustice of the other person having it is established — this doesn’t usually take too long — his unworthiness must be emphasized, at least in your own mind. Your own greater worthiness goes quite without saying. His loathsomeness doesn’t; it may be said over and over, to yourself. Whatever the object of inordinate desire — an item of art or luxury, the friendship or love of another person, the prestige that goes with a position or place or prize in life — the world begins to seem out of joint, so long as he has it and you do not. The quality of your feeling in connection with it becomes obsessional. You find yourself thinking about it more than you know you ought, find it difficult to think of other things (p. 19).
In short, envy asks “Why him and not me, when I’m more deserving?” And the closer to home the object of our envy is, the greater and more damaging it becomes. We might feel some envy for the fabulously wealthy or beautiful or famous, but we feel more intense and long-lasting envy of colleagues, family members, and neighbors:
Studies such as Robert H. Frank’s Luxury Fever have shown that people would agree to make less total money so long as they make more than their neighbors: that is, they would rather earn, say, $85,000 a year where no one else is making more than $75,000 instead of $100,000 where everyone else is making $125,000. H. L. Mencken … once defined contentment in America as making $10 a month more than your brother-in-law (pp. 33-34).
Pure envy, as Epstein notes, doesn’t even desire the thing itself; rather, it desires the other person not to have it. It’s not that I want to be rich; it’s that I don’t want you to be richer than me. It’s not so much that I want to be showered with accolades; it’s that it galls me to hear you receive praise. It’s not that I want to be smarter than everyone else; it’s that when you get good grades, I’d like you to be cut down to size.
And so envy drives Marxism (“The doctrine of Marxism is many things, but one among them is a plan of revenge for the envious” [p. 52]), at least some forms of feminism, and a lot of anti-Americanism (after 9-11, Epstein says, “intellectuals weighed in with the notion that America somehow deserved what had happened, implying that, with any justice at all, more of the same kind would be coming its way, and rightly so” [p. 55]).
Envy also drives the sale of magazines. In the past, Epstein says, we didn’t know very much about the lives of the rich and famous. Public relations firms tried to keep their lives private.
No longer. Now we know how much the glamorous and oddly talented earn and what they are like. One response to this knowledge is to feel the injustice of it all and to go on from there to despise them, at least a little. Many people, I believe, do comfortably despise them. Certainly enough do so to make possible the American version of the English gutter press, our grocery press, The National Enquirer, The Globe, the New York tabloids, and the rest, whose central job, it seems to me, is to satisfy envy by displaying, at every opportunity, the talented, the famous, and the wealthy in one or another stage of defeat (pp. 68-69).
Envy and ressentiment, says Epstein, drives the academic world:
The best account for the ressentiment of American academics that I’ve seen is one presented by the philosopher Robert Nozick. His view was that university teachers were almost invariably people who, because of their superior performance in school, were told over and over again how bright and extraordinary they are. This continued for 20 years — from grade through graduate school — with sufficient reinforcement, that is, for them to be convinced of its truth. They remain in the environment, that of the classroom, that has long been the scene of all their rewards, by becoming teachers.
It all seems like a good life, but soon it is spoiled by the realization that people who did less well than they in school seem to be faring rather better in the world. Not quite first-class lawyers are now making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year; dullish boys and girls, now practicing medicine, have large summer homes near gentle lakes. Coarse creeps are scoring heavily in the stock and commodities markets. While they, once the darlings of their teachers — who bestowed all those lovely A’s upon them — are struggling along, not only financially but spiritually….
Teaching turns out to be less exhilarating than promised. Those brilliant books one had hoped to write haven’t got done. One’s students refuse to demonstrate a passion for the life of the mind worthy of one’s own. The leisure that teaching allows is as advertised, but the pay really isn’t quite adequate; certainly it doesn’t allow one to live up to one’s own high state of cultivation. Why does some ignorant lawyer have enough money to buy a villa in Tuscany when one knows so much more about the art of the Italian Renaissance? What kind of society permits this state of things to exist? A seriously unjust one, that’s what kind (pp. 80-81).
Epstein’s quotations and observations are helpful, not least because envy is closely related to coveting, the inordinate desire forbidden in the Tenth Word. The book is a fun read. But Epstein’s analysis stays pretty close to the surface, concluding finally that if envy isn’t a sin it is at least “poor mental hygene.”
Furthermore, Epstein offers no solution. He toys with the Greek notion, as he calls it, that envy is just human nature and can’t be changed, mentions the Christian view that envy can be eradicated, but doesn’t come to any conclusion on that matter and therefore doesn’t present any attempt at — or even any hope of — a cure.
But the good news is that fallen human nature can be changed and those practices and attitudes which characterize that human nature do not need to continue to corrupt our relationships. Christ is creating a society characterized by love, a love that does not envy, does not seek its own, thinks no evil, does not rejoice in iniquity, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things — a love that denies itself, takes up its cross, and follows Christ, willingly becoming the slave of all in order to exalt others.