Envy Makes Villans of Us All
There is a hard truth I have faced, that I am sure most of the people reading this will recognize: There are things I will never achieve. My chances of being a professional athlete were pretty much nil from birth. My IQ has undoubtedly limited my ability to fly rockets into space, and my introversion has ruled out a career in Hollywood. With all barriers removed in the name of equality, my chances are still impossibly slim due to a variety of factors, some my responsibility, some sheer luck of the draw. Because of this, like everyone, I am susceptible to jealousy of the high flyers.
Jealousy, as an initial reaction which is then processed and acted upon in a healthy manner, need not be seen as a major problem. Often, it can lead to changes, help identify our values, and allow us to reflect on some of our life choices. When this becomes dangerous, and when we become susceptible to manipulation, however, is when those in power attempt to go beyond jealousy and weaponize our envy. Should the NBA be forced to lower their standards so that I had a chance? Should NASA compromise the quality of their rockets so that I can be given a job? Should we take money from rich people so that [insert shrewd politician’s name] can give every person in America/Australia/the UK a job? These questions all have the same themes: “Who should be pulled down so that I might be pulled up?”
On an individual level, you know envy when you see it. It reeks of failure and anger at the injustice that others have what the envier does not. You know it because the envier is so tainted and consumed; the content of their criticism at their target is brimmed with subjective, unbridled venom. They consume any knowledge of potential disaster, unfortunate events, or failures of their target of envy with gleeful lust, a concept that the Germans have ever efficiently termed “schadenfreude.”
Envy being poisonous is axiomatic in most cultures, headlining many a movie villain’s arc in stories we tell our children and mythological tales from ancient civilizations. Indeed, it quickly becomes obvious why across time and culture, from Aristotle to Schopenhauer, envy has been described as a disease, one that is destructive not only to the envier but also potentially to society as a whole. Immanuel Kant described envy as the tendency to perceive with displeasure the good of others. More recently, Oxford professor and psychiatrist Neel Burton notes that three conditions must be met for envy to occur: 1) to be confronted with a person who is superior, 2) to wish to acquire that superiority or wish that person to lose that superiority, and 3) it must hurt.
Envy is destructive in that it promotes not only the acquisition of the possession of another but also a pleasure response from seeing that person torn down. As such, envy is the indiscriminate comparison between ourselves and others, regardless of whether that person “deserves” what they have. In order to achieve happiness, the envier believes they must acquire that which the person they envy has. Thus, envy is not based on rational decision-making or the promotion of upward momentum; one must bring others down and “destroy” in order to be satiated. Unfortunately, envy does not just cause a terrible infliction upon the individual; it can be wielded by the savvy and the charismatic to cause societal wise genocide, famine, and war.
In his bestselling work Egalitarian Envy, Gonzola Fernandez De la Mora discusses the implications of turning envy against an abstract group, such as “the elite” or “the rich.” Envy towards an idealized group, he argues, makes the envier feel inferior; the cure to that is to tear the envied group down from its perch. Since this group has been idealized, morphed, and twisted beyond recognition, it is much easier to hate and thus wish to destroy that group which has been dehumanized. The people who have become a target of your envy represent all that is unequal and unfair; therefore, to fix this problem, to prop yourself up, you must tear this group down by punitively enforcing equality and fairness in society. Thus, envy, one of the most malicious emotions to plague humanity, is twisted to become a virtue.
It does not require more than a preliminary glance at history to see how tyrannical regimes manipulate and weaponize envy. Jordan Peterson frequently discusses that one of the most successful ways envy was used in Stalin-era communism was to turn the poor farmers against those who were considered “rich peasants.” Bertrand Russell said, “Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course, they will envy other beggars who are more successful.” The premise is simple: Use a stigmatizing label to those that resisted handing over their wealth to the government, and energize the poorer farmers to resent these “Kulak” as enemies — or, in the chilling words of Vladimir Lenin, “bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine.”
Weaponizing envy to a political tool leads to an obvious and inevitable conclusion, as suggested by Burton:
“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.”
Consequently, thinkers such as Peterson and Schopenhauer agree that when an individual’s thirst to tear down a group of people cannot be met by their own action, they, driven by feelings of hopelessness, look toward others to correct the injustice. By default, this group must be powerful, and to be able to strip people’s power and privilege by necessity. When a populist politician takes to the stand and gleefully suggests that everyone should go to college, that everyone should have a job, and that the government will provide you one if you can’t find one, at a livable wage, you should think very carefully about who will have to be bought down to make that a reality, and what freedoms would need to be sacrificed to achieve this “utopia.” One need only turn their eye to Venezuela and Brazil to see a recent example of how this rhetoric decimated a once-prosperous, up-and-coming nation.
Envy appears to be ingrained into the human psyche and is common across time and culture. Indeed warnings about envy can be found in both mythology and parables across cultures as the bringer of death and destruction. From Hera’s envy of Aphrodite, which led to the Trojan War, to Jordan Peterson’s popularized lecture of the story of Genesis, when Cain murdered his brother Abel in a fit of envy. Envy blinds us from reason, stifles the search inward to better ourselves, and instead engulfs us within our own personal hell in which one gives up ever more control to tyranny, in order to alleviate a terrible hunger, which will never be satisfied.