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A brief review of envy

Is envy always only between equals? And how must we deal with the envy of those who love us? Has democracy transformed how we envy?

Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, ‘Compassion and envy are consistent in the same man’. Photo: Getty Images
Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, ‘Compassion and envy are consistent in the same man’. Photo: Getty Images

Over the past two decades, during chats, I have slipped in a line that is widely attributed to the writer Gore Vidal: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies." Sometimes I use another aphorism that is attributed to him, “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail."

Like the villain who tests a gas mask to check not if it works but if it fails, I use Vidal not to find out who laughs but to see who does not. Only children don’t, and that is not because they are angelic but because they do not find truth funny, yet. I have not met an adult who does not at least chuckle, and some do look as though half their biographies have been told by those lines. I have used Vidal during formal speeches too, and told the audience, not entirely in jest, “I knew you jerks will find it funny".

We can argue that it is not envy that is evil, but what people choose to do when motivated by it. But then people do not always see or accept what envy makes them do. Mothers who embarrass their young daughters out of envy, spilling their secrets for instance, do give the sin much grander names. How then must we deal with the envy of those who love us?

A colossal mistake I made in my late adolescence and through my 20s was to perceive envy as evidence of hatred. My own, and the envy of others. Boys typically masqueraded insults as jokes to humiliate the close friends they envied, or they bad-mouthed them. Such behaviour was, in my view, an unpardonable sin. Now I see that it was a poor analysis of envy, which cost me thousands of hours of companionship.

Some philosophical apologists of envy would say that envy is a form of affection, which I think is nonsense, but what is hard to dispute is that people can love a person and at once be envious, and even act in mildly malicious ways. In response we should develop the humour to forgive. Envy is a natural derivative of the most important quality of friendship—equality.

The ancient Greek poet Hesiod in Works And Days says that envy is primarily between equals. He writes, as translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, “…potter is angry with potter, and craftsman with craftsman, and beggar is jealous of beggar, and minstrel of minstrel."

Across the ages, many writers and philosophers, including Aristotle, Bertrand Russell and David Hume, have stumbled upon the insight or plagiarized from ancient greats that envy is a fault line among equals. At first glance, the hypothesis seems obvious.

I remember when I was in college, students from second-rung engineering colleges wished harm on those from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). There was, of course, tongue-tied adoration that led to bizarre exchanges:

“Do you believe in God?" one second-rung engineering boy asked an IITian.


“What a coincidence, even I believe in God."

But the same devout also hated the IITians and maliciously scorned their rubber slippers and their disorientation in the presence of girls. Literature students, like me, who did not appear to have any prospects at all and whose future was far more bleak than that of the second-rung engineering boys, did not envy the IITians. We got along very well. Only those who were and would once again in the material world be in competition with the IITians envied them. Envy, it appeared, was not a consequence of deprivation, but a thing among peers.

This is the same principle that is behind why contemporary Indian novelists, when asked to name their favourite Indian writers, usually name R.K. Narayan or Kiran Nagarkar. The two writers are beyond competition, beyond the grouses of peers. This is also the reason why Indian literary awards do not make any sense. The jury, which usually consists of writers and academics with moderate success, tend to reward debutants or provincial unknowns, who are not equals, or literary superstars, who again are not equals. A literary jury made up of hugely successful writers, with a high threshold for envy, would throw up a very different set of award winners.

The best thing about success is that it reduces the number of people you would envy.

Envy is not a tribute. There is in fact an insult encoded within envy—that the envious think they are as good as you and that if they were only as lucky as you, they would have received your success.

Envy is inert in some people, murderous in others. There is a view among modern philosophers that there is good envy and bad envy. Hesiod is probably the originator of this view. He states the verse that I have quoted earlier, “potter is angry with potter…", in the context that envy can motivate people to better themselves. In The Symposium, Plato says that a poet who is envious of a more successful poet might be motivated to write better poems. I find this hard to accept. Every writer attempts to write the best he can every time he sits to write. You cannot watch the success of other writers, spit on your hands, slap your thighs and say now you are going to write something great. It does not work like that. Knowingly or unknowingly what people actually envy in others is the same as what they adore—luck.

There have been many other scholarly attempts to project envy as something more reputable than it appears to be. The Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote, “Compassion and envy are consistent in the same man; for whoever is uneasy at anyone’s adversity is also uneasy at another’s prosperity." The way I read this statement, he is arguing that envy is empathy gone rogue. This then is the most honourable explanation why compassionate liberals are also so often bitterly jealous people.

On the other end of the intellectual spectrum is Chanakya, who defames envy. He says “only lazy and poor people" develop envy, and that “prostitutes envy loyal women, and widows envy married women". This is, actually, the popular view of envy—that people who long for something envy those who possess it. Yet when we think about the matter we can see that it is not as convincing as the view that envy is primarily a tension between equals. A prostitute may wish she were not one, but she is more likely to be envious of a more beautiful prostitute than a woman who is not in the trade.

But Chanakya might be right when envy is viewed in a particular way.

Let us first consider a question: Do the poor envy the rich?

We are trained to believe they do. Chanakya would say they do. But then this hypothesis can be demolished by another question: Do you envy Mukesh Ambani? I can guess the answer. Hesiod, we can see, was right—people are more likely to envy their colleagues more than their billionaires. But Chanakya is vindicated when we consider the fact that there is a distinction between private envy and social envy.

In social envy, we envy people we do not know personally, we do not envy them as individuals but as a collective. Democracy has empowered this form of envy. In fact, electoral democracy is a process of venting our social envies. In an election, the potter does not envy potter; they collaborate and attempt to trounce those whom they envy, those who claim they are “shining".

But most of the time, we live in the personal. And may I suggest the most efficient way to harm your foes. No plotting, no retribution. Just do very well.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous.

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