March 2008 -- Joseph Epstein, Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins (Oxford University Press, 2006), 144 pages (paperback), $18.95.
“Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.” So begins chapter one of Joseph Epstein’s Envy, the first in a series of books about the seven deadly sins, each by a different author, published by The New York Public Library and Oxford University Press between 2003 and 2006, and all newly available in paperback as of late 2006.
Defending his opening statement, Epstein—author of eighteen books and contributing editor at The Weekly Standard—writes that while sloth and anger might not seem like too much fun either, “giving way to deep laziness has its pleasures and the expression of anger entails a release that is not without its small delights.” But then, if envy is no fun at all (and in its more virulent forms, it is downright destructive), why does it seem to be so prevalent?
Just about everyone, it seems, feels envy, at least to some degree. We might envy someone’s wealth, beauty, talent, power, wisdom, good luck, or youth. An ideal life would have all of these, and we are never quite content with just one, writes Epstein. “The rich want to be beautiful or wish themselves wise; and the wise, if they really are wise, know that the wisdom begins with the acknowledgement that one knows nothing, so, really, what the hell good is that.”
No, Epstein is not out to make a case for extreme skepticism or postmodern relativism with regards to the possibility of knowledge. He is, as far as I can tell, just being funny. This wry wit peppers his book, which is clearly meant as more of a light introduction than a tight treatise, and taken this way it works well. The humor evident in such chapter titles as “The Young, God Damn Them” keeps the reading entertaining. Not that the humor prevents him from sinking his teeth into his subject, though. On the contrary, for instance, a joke about a cow, a genie, and the requisite three representatives of different nationalities—which I will not spoil for the reader by giving away the punch line—nicely illustrates the ugliest form of envy: when one does not even seek any advantage for oneself, but merely wants to keep the next guy from benefiting.
One of the book’s best chapters is “Under Capitalism Man Envies Man; Under Socialism, Vice Versa”—a title that calls to mind the pithy jabs of P.J. O’Rourke’s Eat the Rich, or the famous Churchill quip about democracy being the worst form of government aside from all the others we’ve tried. Epstein does, here and there throughout the book, take some shots at features of modern capitalist societies—like advertising and ostentatious displays of wealth—that can encourage envy. But while not an unalloyed advocate of laissez-faire capitalism, neither is Epstein ready to jump on the anti-American bandwagon that is so popular these days. Indeed, as he writes, “it is difficult not to feel that much anti-Americanism has envy at its heart.”
If envy is no fun at all, why does it seem to be so prevalent?
No, it is socialism that earns Epstein’s deeper denunciation: “The doctrine of Marxism is many things, but one among them is a plan of revenge for the envious.” Socialism was supposed to eliminate envy along with the injustices, real and imagined, from which envy derives some of its strength. Of course, it didn’t quite work out that way. Drawing on the wisdom of Kierkegaard, Epstein tells us that “in a leveling society, where equality is the announced goal, envy is likely to be all the stronger. Envy, Kierkegaard wrote, ‘takes the form of leveling, and whereas a passionate age accelerates, raises up and overthrows, elevates and debases, a reflective apathetic age does the opposite, it stifles and impedes, it levels.’” (Emphasis in original.)
For elaboration, one need only look at one of socialism’s most brutal experiments: Soviet Russia. Discussing a 1927 novella by Y. Olesha (also titled Envy) written and set in the Soviet Union, Epstein writes:
The moral of Olesha’s dark little story seems to be that all that remains to those trapped in a putatively envy-free society is envy for those who are able to live outside it. And of course no society was more envy-ridden than the late (and not in the least lamented) Soviet Union, where turning in one’s neighbors for their perceived advantages allowed envy to become a way of life and a way to get a leg up.
Another of the twentieth century’s great socialist catastrophes—Hitler’s National Socialists—gets a chapter to itself, in which envy of Jews is examined. According to Epstein, himself a Jew, the most common theory relied upon to explain the extent of Jewish success “holds that Jews acquired savvy because, owing to prejudice against them, they had to devise other than conventional ways to succeed.” Epstein writes that this original prejudice may have stemmed from the separateness demanded by the fact that Jews considered themselves, as the Old Testament proclaimed, God’s chosen people, but their subsequent success was itself fertile ground in which envy could take root, most horrifically in 1930s Germany. “Envy doesn’t need much in the way of excuses to begin humming and the Jews, throughout their long and complex history, but especially through their successes in the face of adversity, have offered excuses aplenty.”
But what are we to make of the criticism that capitalism, too, fosters envy with its showy displays of wealth and demand-creating ads? Much ink has been spilled of late about the findings of “happiness economics” that although we in the developed world are far wealthier than we were a generation ago, we are by and large no happier. The reason usually given is that we do not merely want to be wealthy; we want to be wealthier than the next guy. Envy, in other words, keeps us from appreciating what we do have. It is argued that since relative wealth is a positional good (i.e., only one percent of people can at any one time belong to the wealthiest one percent), the happiness of the majority is undermined and the pursuit of ever-greater wealth is ultimately a waste of time, a zero-sum game. Ignoring the lessons of history, it is sometimes then further argued that the state should intervene to reduce inequality and thus envy as well.
For Aristotle, feelings of envy can be channeled into aspiration and ambition, leading to self-improvement.
To put it mildly, free-market enthusiasts have been skeptical of this line of reasoning. Cato Institute policy analyst Will Wilkinson, in a review of one of these “happiness economics” tomes for the February 2006 edition of Reason, bluntly suggests that if you are obsessed with relative wealth, “you should get your envy under control and care less about what other people have.” In another article, this one for the Spring 2006 issue of Policy, Wilkinson points out that although the battle for position may be zero-sum, there are often positive-sum benefits accruing to the rest of society from positional conflicts. In addition, there is no end to the number of ways in which one may gratify one’s need for position, from sharpest dresser, to best bowler, to holder of the most encyclopedic knowledge of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” Summing up his message, Wilkinson writes, “If we are aggrieved by the rigors of the rat race, the answer is not the clumsy guidance of a paternal state. The answer is simply to stop being a rat.”
Epstein himself unfortunately does not tackle this issue head on. Still, despite the aforementioned jabs at capitalism, he does hint at the solution: “Aristotle, in The Rhetoric, writes of emulation as good envy, or envy ending in admiration, and thus in the attempt to imitate the qualities one began by envying.” Feelings of envy, Aristotle seems to have believed, can be channeled into aspiration and ambition, leading to self-improvement. Objectivists, libertarians, and classical liberals would add that a free, capitalist society offers the best possible hope for so channeling one’s envy.
And if the increased envy in our societies keeps us from being happy about our increased absolute wealth, it is worth delving more deeply into the question of what has caused this increased envy. Is it advertising and ostentation? That might be part of the equation, but I suspect that something else is going on. I would suggest that as we in the mixed economies of the world have in many ways drifted farther from capitalism and closer to socialism, we have, as in the former Soviet Union, stopped denouncing envy and started encouraging it.
No one is entirely immune to feelings of envy. But why, as Epstein asks, “is it given to some people to feel envy only glancingly if at all, others to use envy toward emulation and hence self-improvement, and to still others to let it build a great bubbling caldron of poisoning bile in them?” Epstein seems to find no ready answers, though, partly because envy is especially difficult to study. Of all the deadly sins, it is “the one that people are least likely to want to own up to, for to do so is to admit that one is probably ungenerous, mean, small-hearted.” According to Epstein, envy resides neither in the self one presents to the public, nor even in the self one presents to loved ones, but only in the most private self. Here, “the wattage tends to be kept low, making self-knowledge not all that clear, and the law of contradictions carries no authority whatsoever. Here the sub-, if not the un-conscious, often has the whiphand.”
If the genesis of envy is unclear, its destructive nature could not be more apparent. In a ringing appeal to rational self-interest, Epstein ends his short book by pointing out that being consumed with envy not only makes the world that much dimmer; it does direct harm to one’s own happiness. “Envy tends to diminish all in whom it takes possession. Wherever envy comes into play, judgment is coarsened and cheapened. However the mind works, envy, we know, is one of its excesses, and as such it must be identified and fought against by the only means at our disposal: self-honesty, self-analysis, and balanced judgment.”
Epstein invites those who have no place for sin in their worldviews to think of envy instead as “very poor mental hygiene.” Envy, he writes, “clouds thought, clobbers generosity, precludes any hope of serenity, and ends in shriveling the heart—reasons enough to fight free of it with all one’s mental strength.”
So, how can we help others see the destructive folly of envy, and rout its pernicious influence in ourselves? On a societal level, we can celebrate, loudly and proudly, our own achievements and the achievements of others. We can also exert ourselves to promote a free society that does not actively and explicitly encourage envy. On a more personal level, we can do our utmost to live our lives fully, with few regrets; to be appreciative of what we have; and to channel any envy we might still feel into emulation and self-improvement. Reading this easy and entertaining little book won’t hurt, either.