What is envy? | The art of manhood

Your colleague gets the promotion you applied for. You congratulate him bubbling inside.

Your friend is going on a fantastic vacation and sharing photos of it on Instagram. Usually you “like” his stuff, but this time you don’t.

Your wife’s parents babysit your sister-in-law’s children over the weekend. You are ticked off that they never do that for your kids.

A business competitor has a string of successes. You start thinking about all the things you don’t like about him and why the way he does business is stupid.

You have probably experienced the above scenarios or something like them.

You see someone getting something you don’t have, and you feel angry and resentful.

There is a word for this feeling: envy.

The emotion no one likes to talk about

Although it’s a common emotion, people don’t like to talk about envy.

People rarely admit that they are envious of someone else. They might say they admire someone for their success, but you never hear someone say, “I’m really upset and mad at this person because they have something that I don’t have!” Because it would make them look petty and small, and further reduce their already diminished sense of status.

Not only do ordinary people dislike talking about envy, but scholars don’t like talking about it either.

On the one hand, there is a real dearth of books written on envy by psychologists. Which is weird because it creates all sorts of emotional and interpersonal issues. I was only able to find two books on Amazon on the psychology of envy. One approaches envy from a Freudian/psychoanalytical perspective, and the other takes a more empirical/scientific approach to the subject. This latest book, though rigorous and insightful, was published in 1991. That was thirty years ago. It’s a long time. It was also mostly about jealousy, which is related to envy but isn’t the same thing (more on that below).

Sociologists and philosophers have written a bit more about envy, but even then the existing books and treatises of this field of study are still quite old. Sociologist Helmut Schoeck published Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior back to the 1960s. Alexis de Tocqueville (proto-sociologist/political scientist) wrote about envy in Democracy in Americabut this was published nearly 200 years ago.

The philosophers Nietzsche and Kierkegaard wrote extensively on envy and its role in human life, as did Kant and Bacon. Aristotle devoted much to the emotion of envy in his book Rhetoric. In fact, the definition of envy he gave over 2000 years ago is the definition that philosophers, sociologists and psychologists still use today (when talking about envy, at least). But all these guys have been dead for centuries. There hasn’t been too much chatter about the envy of philosophers since.

So people don’t like to talk about envy – their own or other people’s.

Although we don’t like to talk about envy, understanding it can help us navigate many social conflicts. Many of the bad feelings we have towards others have an underlying strain of envy. Kierkegaard said “Anyone who wishes to understand the nature of offense should make a study of human envy”. I know that as I read more about envy, I became aware of it in my own life and took action to quell the green-eyed monster within.

What is envy?

Since we don’t talk much about envy, our definition of it is varied and confusing. If you were to ask ten different people to define envy, you would likely get ten vaguely similar yet still distinct answers.

Socratic here and let’s clearly define envy.

As I said above, Aristotle gave a fairly clear definition of envy in Rhetoric. It is a definition that later philosophers and psychologists have also used and developed.

According to Aristotle, “envy is the pain of other people’s happiness”.

And for Aristotle, envy is not just the pain of others’ good fortune; we also experience envy when we take pleasure in the misfortune of others. The Germans have a word for this display of envy: schadenfreude.

Thus envy is the pain felt at the good fortune of others or the pleasure at the misfortune of others.

Who do we envy?

If you look at your own experience with envy, you will probably notice that you envy some people but not others. Why is that?

According to Aristotle, we generally feel envy towards those whom we consider our equals – those whom we place in our own peer group. We generally do not envy “those who lived a hundred centuries ago, or those who are not yet born, or those who dwell near the Pillars of Hercules, or those whom, in our opinion or that of others, we take well below us or well above us”. we.”

Instead, we become envious of those who are more like us – “those who pursue the same goals as us.” . . [and] who are looking for the same things.

When you think about your own life, you will find this to be true.

In general, you don’t envy people who are successful in a job unrelated to yours. If you’re a budding writer and your cop pal gets promoted to detective, you’ll probably feel nothing but envy-free happiness for him. His field and his professional trajectory are completely different from yours; you pursue different ends, as Aristotle would say.

You also probably won’t feel envious when you hear that JK Rowling has hit the bestseller list again with a new series of books; she’s a fellow writer, sure, but she operates in a whole different league.

Corn . . . if a friend who tried to publish his first novel signs a big book deal – oh, watch out! — you’ll likely be hit with a sharp lick from the green-eyed monster.

You don’t have to pursue exactly the same specific ends for envy to arise; it can also occur in relation to the larger goals that you and your apparent peers share.

For example, you probably don’t actively envy Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, even though they have a lot more of them than you do. They are simply too above your socio-economic status to care. But if you’re, say, a lawyer and your entrepreneur friend sells his business for five million dollars, you might feel a pang of jealousy; even though you are in different fields of work, you both share the overall goal of getting rich, and he now has a level of wealth that you don’t have. Or, say a parent becomes famous on social media for sharing motivational messages; maybe you don’t want to be a lifestyle guru per se, but you feel the desire for fame, in general; then you might feel envious of your relative.

According to Aristotle, the reason we only feel envy towards our direct or quasi-equals is that it forces us to think, “That could have been me!” You look at the guy with the right thing and think, “I’m like that guy. If he has that good thing, I should have it too! But you don’t have it, so it hurts.

The idea that we feel envy towards those we consider our relative equals is important. Tocqueville, Nietzsche, and Kierkegaard argued that the amount of envy in society (and accompanying conflict) will increase as society becomes more egalitarian. We will explore this idea further in a future article.

So we feel envy towards the people we consider our peers.

Thus, our working definition of envy can be stated: envy is a pain to the good fortune of others, especially those whom we regard as our equals and who pursue the same ends as us.

Envy is not jealousy

People often confuse envy with jealousy. They are similar emotions, but for philosophers and psychologists there is a distinction.

Envy is the pain of other people’s good fortune. You feel bad because people have something you don’t.

Jealousy is feeling pain that someone might take something away from you.

The most common situation that causes jealousy is in romantic relationships. You feel jealous when you think your friend is trying to steal your girlfriend. Many fights and murders can be attributed to the anger of a jealous lover.

Why is envy a vice?

Thomas Aquinas took up Aristotle’s definition of envy and clarified what made it a vice in Summa theologica. For Thomas Aquinas, envy is a vice because one feels pain towards the good or delights in misfortune.

What virtuous person would feel pain in good or pleasure in misfortune? It is the opposite of charity.

And based on Aquinas’ definition of evil (the deprivation of good), envy can be considered the joy of evil. This is probably why John Milton made Satan an envious and resentful demon in his book. lost paradise.

Not only does envy cause us to feel pain towards the good, it often causes us to seek to reduce the amount of good in the world. When you experience not only envy, but what is called malicious jealousy, not only do you feel pain about other people’s fortunes, but you want their fortunes taken away from them. To reduce the pain we feel in witnessing the goodness of others, we would like to see their goodness destroyed. We think, “If I can’t have what they have, they can’t have it either!”

Not only is envy a vice, it is a strange one. Because, unlike other vices, you derive no pleasure from it. With gluttony, we at least have the pleasure of stuffing ourselves with a slice of pizza too many. With lust you at least get the pleasure of orgasm. With laziness you at least get the satisfaction of just lying on the couch playing fortnite.

With envy ?

It’s not a lot of fun. You mostly feel bad.

Even when you experience schadenfreude (pleasure from the misfortune of others), it is a bitter pleasure. You feel bad about feeling good about other people’s misfortune. It’s not really great.

Towards a better understanding of envy

I think the above is a good start in this exploration of envy. I have dived deep into the subject over the past year, found it very interesting and would love to share a lot about it. Consider this the start of an on-and-off series on the subject. In subsequent articles in this series, I would like to flesh out the experience of envy even more.

What differentiates envy from righteous indignation?

How is envy related to resentment?

How does envy influence group dynamics?

What can we do against envy?

I hope you will join me in this exploration of this emotion which is little talked about and which is nevertheless universally experienced.

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