The older I get, the more two things impress me. One is the suggestibility of human beings, their tendency to imbibe and repeat ideas and attitudes from their social environment with nary an attempt at critical examination. The other is the major role envy plays in human affairs. Today my topic is envy.
Envy and Jealousy
People commonly confuse envy with jealousy. To feel envy is to feel diminished in one’s sense of self-worth by another’s success or well-being or attributes. Thus if A feels bad because B won an award, then A envies B his winning of the award. It is a misuse of language to say that A is jealous of B in a situation like this. Jealousy requires three people, whereas envy requires only two. Suppose A and B are married, and C shows an amatory interest in B. A may well come to feel jealous of C. To use ‘envy’ and ‘jealousy’ interchangeably is to ride roughshod over a simple distinction, and that is something that clear-headed people will want to avoid.
You say that language is always changing? No doubt, but not all change is progress. Progress is change for the good. The elision of distinctions is not good. Distinctions are the lifeblood of thought. Confusing envy with jealousy, inference with implication, lying with making false statements, a dilemma with any old problem, chauvinism with male chauvinism, and so on is not progress, but regress.
Envy and Schadenfreude
If to feel envy is to feel bad when another does well, what should we call the emotion of feeling good when another suffers misfortune? There is no word in English for this as far as I know, but in German it is called Schadenfreude. This word is used in English from time to time, and is one every educated person should know. It means joy (Freude) at another's injuries (Schaden). Arthur Schopenhauer, somewhere in Aphorismen zur Lebensweisheit, remarks that while envy (Neid) is human, Schadenfreude is diabolical. Exactly right. There is something fiendish in feeling positive glee at another’s misery. This is not to imply that envy is not a hateful emotion. It is and ought to be avoided as far as possible. Invidia, after all, is one of the seven deadly sins. From the Latin invidia comes ‘invidious comparison’ which just means an envious comparison. Envy is bad but Schadenfreude is worse.
There can be comparison without envy, but every case of envy involves comparison. So one way to avoid envy is to avoid comparing yourself with others. Just be yourself and do your best, and don’t worry too much about what others are doing. Try to live your own incomparable life from out of your own inner resources. Strive for individuation, not for clone status.
There is the folk wisdom saying that comparisons are odious, to which I add that comparisons are often invidious.
"But isn't it good to compare yourself with your superiors in order to emulate them?" It is, if one can avoid succumbing to envy. The best course is not to compare oneself with any individual but with the high standards of which individuals are mere examples whether the standards be intellectual, moral, or physical. Many exemplify the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, courage, and temperance) in greater measure than I do, but I ought not compare myself to these individuals but to the standards they exemplify. The admirable individuals are merely proof that the ideals are realizable, and the extent to which they are realizable. As I have argued more than once in these pages, an ideal that is not humanly realizable cannot count as a genine ideal for humans. This is a generalization of the ought implies can principle.
Comparison and Envy in the Islamic World
If the Islamic world avoided comparison and envy, they wouldn’t waste so much time and energy hating the USA, the 'great Satan' and Israel the 'little Satan.' Surely part of the explanation of the 9/11/01 terrorist attacks is sheer envy. It is also part of the explanation of the Arab hatred of Israel. Arabs, and Muslims generally, need to learn that envy is totally unproductive, besides being evil. One cannot improve one’s lot in life by tearing other people down. You cannot add one cubit to your stature by cursing me for being taller.
My publishing more articles than you does not reduce the number of your publications, or prevent you from publishing. My increase in net worth is not at your expense. If I become wealthier than you, that is a real change in me, but only a relational change in you, one consistent with your not losing a cent. (The economy is not a zero sum game.) One of my trees is now taller than my house. The tree grew; the house did not shrink. The house became shorter than the tree, but without suffering any real change in respect of height.
The superiority of the superiors over the inferiors redounds to the latter's benefit. The superiority of the tree to the house in respect of height shades the house. If the house could kill the tree it would eliminate the shade that cools it. If the Arab states could destroy Israel it would make the entire region more miserable and backward than it already is. If leftists could could destroy free markets, then we would all be poor.
One of the things that has made the USA a successful nation is that Americans are a positive, forward-looking people not as a rule given to envy. We generally do not compare ourselves with others, but do our own thing, thereby setting the standard. We are builders, not destroyers.
A perfect illustration of mindless destructiveness is the behavior of the terrorist entity, Hamas. They acquire cement not to build above ground for life but to tunnel underground so as to undermine Israel and deliver death. It is more than evil, it is irrational. It is morally and intellectually insane. What accounts for this insanity? A deep nihilism. Whence the nihilism? That question is above my paygrade, but Goethe in Faust may provide a clue in the passage where he characterizes Mephistopheles as the spirit that always negates, der Geist der stets verneint.
Envy as Partial Explanation of Jew Hatred
I don't know what the whole explanation is, but surely a good part of it is envy. Muslims in particular, but other groups as well, cannot stand Jewish superiority. Instead of being rational and appreciating that this superiority redounds to their benefit, they succumb to the basest and most vile forms of envy. They feel so diminished in their sense of self-worth by Jewish superiority that they would do anything to destroy the Jews even though that would accomplish precisely nothing by way of raising their status. On the contrary, it would diminish it. Suppose Hamas destroyed Israel. Then the whole area would be as backward and impoverished as the Gaza Strip.
It is Not Good to be an Object of Envy
Some people think that it is good to be an object of envy. They overlook the fact that envy is a kind of hate directed at what is good and productive and positive in a person. Envy is not a form of admiration but a perversion of admiration. Only a fool would want to be envied, for only fools want to be hated. There is no way to avoid being hated in this life, but to seek the hatred of others is folly.
How to Avoid being Envied
One way is to avoid ostentation. The ordinary schmuck doesn't excite envy, so try to pass yourself off as one. Be careful of self-revelation. Stay away from envious people. In a world of lies and deceit, one must know and practice the arts of dissembling. Just as civility is for the civil, honesty is for the honest. Among the evil and mendacious, one must be careful and some dissembling is justified.