Universally condemned, envy is nonetheless widely practiced.
To dislike a person because of the color of his skin is racism. To scorn someone because of her same-sex preference is homophobia. To disdain for reasons of gender is sexism. To frown upon people because of their foreign origins is xenophobia. Such manifestations of bigotry, to a person of peace, tolerance, and logic, are shameful and indefensible.
Color, sex, sexual orientation, and national origin have nothing to do with the content of one’s character. That’s one reason.
Another is that humans are not a blob; each human is a unique individual. If one is to be judged, he should be judged by his choices and behavior—that is, by his own sins and virtues and not by the sins and virtues of others who simply share some accidental resemblance to him.
A third reason is that finger-pointing takes the spotlight off self-improvement. Scapegoating is not a pathway to achievement for either persons or nations. It’s what losers do.
A Politically Acceptable Scapegoat
But suppose you despise and seek to punish an entire class of people because they’re rich or successful. Is that bigotry, or is that the foundation of a political campaign? Sadly, it’s both. Frequently.
Second only to Donald Trump—a specific individual whose sins and virtues we can largely identify and hold him responsible for—the number one punching bag every political season is “the rich.” They are monotonously demonized by candidates who vie for your vote and affection and count on your ignorance and myopia.
It would be both unpopular and stupid to express a dislike for “the poor” as an income group. We all know that among the poor there are both good and bad people. Some are poor through little fault of their own and possess strong personal character. Others are poor because of bad choices and lousy behavior rooted in rotten character. We surely want to determine the difference and render our judgments and reactions accordingly.
Helmut Schoeck noted that “to claim ‘humanitarian motives’ when the motive is envy and its supposed appeasement, is a favorite rhetorical device of politicians.”
Listen to presidential “debates” carefully, and you’ll easily see a very different perspective with regard to the rich. Income bigotry is on full and proud display. Candidates don’t define “the rich” precisely, but they do hope that you’ll think you’re not among them. You’re supposed to be the victim of the rich so the politician can be your savior. The demagogue doesn’t say he wants to sift the good rich from the bad rich and treat them accordingly. He wants to go after them all, just for their richness.
You can be rich because you stole something or used your political connections to get special favors, or you could be rich like most of the rich, that is, because you created and built something; worked long, hard, and smart for what you have; added enormous value to society; invested resources wisely; or just entertained 50,000 happy, paying customers many times at concerts. Doesn’t matter which.
When New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declares with fire in his eyes that he will “tax the hell out of the rich,” he means all of them. His competitors, as well as large swaths of their audiences, cheer because of the perverse satisfaction they derive from just thinking about the punishment. Suggest that “taxing the hell” out of anybody might be counter-productive to philanthropy, job creation, or economic growth, and you’ll quickly be the skunk at the garden party because it’s the punishment that matters, not outcomes.
Envy Is the Root
Welcome to the ugly world of envy, defined by philosopher Immanuel Kant as
…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. [It] aims, at least in terms of one’s wishes, at destroying other’s good fortune.
Envy is almost as old as the world itself. It was Cain’s motive for killing Abel. Professor Paul Fairfield of Queen’s University in Ontario describes it as an animosity “that eats away at you from the inside out and that hides itself behind a dubious morality.” It comes in several shades.
The less harmful version, for example, is when you count the other guy’s blessings instead of your own but try to attain them for yourself peacefully—by trade or by emulating the decisions of the successful. A more malicious type takes this form: You despise someone for who he is or what he has and take personal delight in punishing him for it in the hope that you’ll benefit in one way or another. Maybe you’ll get some of his stuff or attain power by vilifying him.
I know of no moment in history in which the encouragement or practice of widespread envy produced anything but a bad outcome.
The worst kind of envy shows up when you take action to make sure no one can ever possess what the successful person has because you believe equality in misery is more virtuous than inequality, period.
Perhaps the 20th century’s best book on the subject was the Austrian-German sociologist Helmut Schoeck’s Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, which appeared in the late ‘60s. Schoeck noted that “to claim ‘humanitarian motives’ when the motive is envy and its supposed appeasement, is a favorite rhetorical device of politicians.”
It’s a tactic that politicians have been using for ages—profoundly evidenced at least as far back as the sad, final decades of the old Roman Republic. I know of no moment in history in which the encouragement or practice of widespread envy produced anything but a bad outcome.
For good reasons, it’s counted as one of the seven deadly sins. It builds nothing up but concentrated state power; it tears everything down from the object of the envy (e.g., the rich) to the very souls of the envious themselves.
Envy Rots the Bones
You don’t have to take my word for it. Several thousand years ago, the tenth of the Ten Commandments warned of envy’s close relative, “coveting.” Many Biblical passages from both Old and New Testaments caution against it, including Proverbs 14:30 (“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones”) and Ecclesiastes 30:24 (“Envy and wrath shorten the life”).
What follows is a representative sampling of historical wisdom on the matter from across the centuries since.
The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Democritus noted that a free and peaceful society would actively seek to discourage envy.
The laws would not prevent each man from living according to his inclination, unless individuals harmed each other; for envy creates the beginning of strife.
Seneca the Younger was a prominent Roman Stoic thinker and statesman of the 1st century AD. He was well aware that envy played a key role in the demise of the Republic in the previous century:
It is the practice of the multitude to bark at eminent men, as little dogs do at strangers.
Envy generates an internal struggle in three stages, according to the 13th century’s St. Thomas Aquinas. In the first stage, the envious person attempts to defame another’s reputation; in the second stage, the envious person receives either “joy at another’s misfortune” (if his defamation succeeds) or “grief at another’s prosperity” (if it fails); the final stage sees envy turned into hatred because “sorrow causes hatred.”
Italian poet and author of The Divine Comedy Dante Alighieri saw envy as “a desire to deprive other men of theirs.” In his Purgatory, the envious are punished by having their eyes sewn shut with wire “because they gained sinful pleasure from seeing others brought low.”
Leonardo da Vinci, the quintessential Renaissance Man, wrote:
Envy wounds with false accusations, that is with detraction, a thing which scares virtue.
In the 17th century, the English essayist Francis Bacon condemned envy as an enervating attitude that leads directly to deplorable actions:
A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others. For men’s minds, will either feed upon their own good, or upon others’ evil; and who wanteth the one, will prey upon the other; and whoso is out of hope, to attain to another’s virtue, will seek to come at even hand, by depressing another’s fortune.
A hundred years later, the English theologian Robert South echoed Bacon.
Of covetousness, we may truly say that it makes both the Alpha and Omega in the devil’s alphabet, and that it is the first vice in corrupt nature which moves, and the last which dies.
At about the same time, the famous playwright Joseph Addison observed that envious people are usually unhappy people.
The condition of the envious man is the most emphatically miserable; he is not only incapable of rejoicing in another's merit or success, but lives in a world wherein all mankind are in a plot against [him].
When the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured America in the early 1830s, he found that one of the country’s strengths was that we were focused on building things and people up instead of tearing either down. Prophetically, he predicted that if envy took root, the result would be suicide.
I have a passionate love for liberty, law, and respect for rights. Liberty is my foremost passion. But one also finds in the human heart a depraved taste for equality, which impels the weak to want to bring the strong down to their level, and which reduces men to preferring equality in servitude to inequality in freedom. Equality is a slogan based on envy. It signifies in the heart of every republican: “Nobody is going to occupy a place higher than I.”
Theodore Roosevelt regarded himself as a “progressive” of his day (late 19th and early 20th century), but he understood then what most “progressives” today do not: namely, that envy is the root of much evil.
Probably the greatest harm done by vast wealth is the harm that we of moderate means do ourselves when we let the vices of envy and hatred enter deep into our own natures.
Philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand was an avowed atheist who would never argue that envy is evil because God says so. But she certainly regarded envy as evil and destructive. She equated it with “hatred of the good,” by which she meant “hatred of a person for possessing a value or virtue one regards as desirable.”
If a child wants to get good grades in school, but is unable or unwilling to achieve them and begins to hate the children who do, that is hatred of the good. If a man regards intelligence as a value, but is troubled by self-doubt and begins to hate the men he judges to be intelligent, that is hatred of the good.
Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and founder of the popular Catholic ministerial organization Word on Fire. In his view:
Envy is a capital sin. It refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly. When it wishes grave harm to a neighbor it is a mortal sin: St. Augustine saw envy as “diabolical sin.” [In Augustine’s words,] “From envy are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor, and displeasure caused by his prosperity.”
Rooting out Envy
It would be easy to supply the reader with a thousand more quotes on the subject of envy. The difficult thing would be to find one that defends it. The irony is this: Universally condemned, envy is nonetheless widely practiced. Ayn Rand christened our times as an “Age of Envy.”
Search your conscience. If you find envy within it, expunge it before it does its awful work.