Envy, one of the “seven deadly sins,” sorrows at another’s good. When someone else enjoys success or favor, envy urges us to pity ourselves and pout about it. It’s illustrated by in an ancient Jewish story which tells of an angel visiting a storekeeper and offering to give him whatever he wished, assured that his main rival would get twice as much. With hardly a moment’s thought, the man said he wanted to be made blind in one eye! Such is the nature of envy–wanting harm for one’s rivals, no matter what the cost! Helmut Schoeck, in a classic study devoted to this theme, insists, “the envious man, in certain circumstances, does not even want to have the coveted asset, nor could he enjoy it, but would find it unbearable that another should do so. He becomes ill with annoyance over someone else’s private yacht although he has never wished to board a ship in his life” (Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior; London: Martin Secker & Warburg, Limited, c. 1969; Reprinted 1987 by Liberty Fund, p. 116). Unlike simple jealousy, which desires something–such as a mother’s attention or a husband’s affection–envy does not necessarily want what another person has. It just dislikes the fact that someone else has something, be it a Mercedes or an honorary title or even a simple compliment.
Schoeck, an Austrian-born scholar who taught for years at Emory University in Atlanta, first defines his subject, quoting an article in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics wherein William Davidson defines the vice as an “emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent” that “implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him.” Envy reveals a deeply-rooted feeling of inferiority, a resentment at others’ success. So we rejoice when others find no satisfaction in their accomplishments, at anything that “reduces his superiority in my eyes, and ministers to my feelings of self-importance” (pp.20-21). Ironically, we feel no joy in our envy–just a morose satisfaction when others fail
Next, Schoeck makes it clear that envy is a universal human trait which has, on an individual level, been universally condemned. He examines, in copious detail, the evidence documenting man’s innate tendency to envy. It is, he insists, “ineluctable, implacable and irreconcilable, is irritated by the slightest differences, is independent of the degree of inequality, appears in its worst form in social proximity or among near relatives, provides the dynamic for every social revolution, yet cannot of itself produce any kind of coherent revolutionary programme” (p. 296). Though he never espouses Christianity, his conclusions closely parallel the Church’s teaching on original sin, which has been widely discarded by modern secularists. For the past 200 years, an orchestrated intellectual chorus has elevated faith in the goodness of man to an absolute dogma. Society, we’re told, not human nature, must be held accountable for human misdeeds.
Consequently, Schoeck notes, “if we are to believe in the possibility of the absolutely good, benevolent and unenvying man, we must also insist upon the utopia of egalitarianism, the idea of equality progressively understood as an historic mission: . . . to a future programme promising a society of absolute equals, or in other words a community from which envy has been eliminated because of universal equality (pp. 425-426). Since Schoeck thinks envy cannot be eradicated from human nature, all such utopianism runs aground on the shoals of reality! Thus the “myth of the golden age, when social harmony prevailed because each man had about as little as the next one, the warm and generous community spirit of simple societies, was indeed for the most part just a myth” (p. 39). If anything, envy is more pronounced and pernicious in “primitive” societies than in more advanced ones, and they were also “much too realistic to rely on Marx’s formula: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” (p. 280).
More helpful than utopians such as Marx are the novelists and philosophers who have, Schoeck thinks, more honestly portrayed envy, finding its roots in the human heart rather than disordered societies. Herman Melville, especially in his short novel, Billy Budd, provides one of the most penetrating critiques available. In Melville’s tale, Billy Budd, a winsomely Christ-like sailor, suffers at the hands of John Claggart, a master-at-arms, whose devouring envy consumes him and ultimately destroys Billy. More recently, the English novelist, L.P. Hartley, published Facial Justice, which envisions a society wherein no one is allowed to be either ugly or beautiful. All must be alike to be equal! The novel’s epigraph, a text taken from St James, says “The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy,” and so it does!
Philosophers, from Aristotle to the present, have carefully treated this vice. Francis Bacon’s essay, “On Envy,” is illuminating, and Immanuel Kant wisely defines it (in The Metaphysics of Morals), as the “tendency to perceive with displeasure the good of others, although it in no way detracts from one’s own,” a tendency to see everything through the jaded lens of one’s own failures (p. 201). Similarly, a bit later than Kant, the despairing philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, wrote: “The worst trait in human nature . . . is Schadenfreude, for it is closely related to cruelty,” usurping compassion’s proper place, perhaps even “opposed” to it (p. 206). He discerned it embedded, like an incurable STD, in two behaviors: either praising the bad or saying nothing about the good, “for every one who gives praise to another, whether in his own field or in a related one, in principle deprives himself of it; he can praise only at the expense of his own reputation” (p. 207).
Then, more perceptively than many, Friedrich Nietzsche discerned “the connection between envy, the idea of equality and the conception of social justice” (p. 216). Nietzsche saw how powerfully “resentment” can shape social movements, an insight Max Scheler developed in a probing study, Resentment in he Structuring of Ethics. Following Scheler, Nicolai Hartmann, in Ethics, located the role “of envy in the social revolutionary and eudaemonistic theories and movements since the end of the eighteenth century” (p. 222). Earlier eudaemonistic thinkers had focused on individual behavior, but with Jeremy Bentham–calling for “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”–modern thinkers began propounding various socialistic and redistributionist schemes.
Consequently, a universally-decried vice has, during the past 200 years in socialist circles, been elevated–when flying the flags of “social justice” or “redistributionism”–to a positive virtue! What we dislike in others we praise in ourselves as long as we do it collectively! In Schoeck’s judgment:
Now, the twentieth century has gone further towards the liberation of the envious man, and towards raising envy to an abstract social principle, than any previous society since the primitive level, because it has taken seriously several ideologies of which envy is the source and upon which it feeds in precisely the degree to which those ideologies raise false hopes of an ultimate envy-free society. And in the twentieth century, too, for the first time, certain societies have grown rich enough to nourish the illusion that they can afford the luxury of buying the goodwill of the envious at ever steeper prices (p. 305).
Thus “National Socialism came to power in Germany with promises targeting the envious,” including proposals for income limitations and the abolition of “unearned incomes” such as capital gains. So too “democratic” peoples impose such “examples of envy” as a “steeply progressive income tax, confiscatory death duties” (p. 11). There is, Schoeck insists, an evident exploitation of envy in modern “democratic politics.” Consequently: “In the name of an unattainable equality the legislator uses fiscal means of disproportionate severity to tax the few who, for whatever reasons–even for avowedly legitimate reasons–are economically greatly more successful or better endowed than the majority” (p. 235). Demagogic politicians also “exploit a latent guilty conscience among people or groups that are economically above average” (p. 235) by persuading them to support share-the-wealth schemes which indebt the body politic without sizeable depleting their own fortunes.
Shoeck’s discerning study, both when culling literary and philosophical sources and when pointing out the collective envy which motivates much of modern “social justice” movements, deserves a careful reading by all of us concerned with the traditional vices and their contemporary expressions.
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Richard Pipes, a professor of history at Harvard University, has specialized in the history of Russia and written acclaimed works such as Russia Under the Bolshevik Regime. His most recent study, though prompted by his Russian studies, takes him into a different realm: Property and Freedom (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999). “From the time I interested myself seriously in Russia,” he writes, “I became aware that one of the fundamental differences between her history and that of the other European countries lay in the weak development of property” (p. xi). Indeed: “The idea occurred to me some forty years ago that property, in both the narrow and broad senses of the word, provides the key to the emergence of political and legal institutions that guarantee liberty” (p. xii). Personal freedom is, historically considered, inordinately rare and precious. It is almost exclusively restricted to Western Civilization. One of the greatest modern historians, Moses Finley, even “notes that ‘it is impossible to translate the word “freedom,” eleutheria in Greek, libertas in Latin, or “free man,”‘” into any Semetic or ancient Near Eastern language (p. 118).
First Pipes discounts the utopian fantasies which project dreams about propertyless societies, peaceful worlds lacking property distinctions, Arcadian communities devoid of “mine” and “thine,” distinctions. He argues, quite simply, “that acquisitiveness is universal among humans as well as animals,” and that we develop a healthy sense of personal “identity and competence” through getting and using property (p. 65). As the ever-insightful William James noted, “‘ In its widest possible sense . . . a man’s Self is the sum total of all that He CAN call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children'” (p. 72). To James, the “‘this is mine’ of a two-year-old implies ‘this is not yours,’ and so conveys that ‘I am I’ and ‘you are you'” (p. 73).
“Golden Age” myths simply lack any historical basis and are derived from literary sources such as Plato’s Republic, a powerful work which has deeply dyed subsequent utopias and spawned Rousseau-style revolutionary rhetoric. Revealingly, when James Boswell visited Rousseau, the Frenchman said: “Sir, I have no liking for the world. I live here in a world of fantasies, and I cannot tolerate the world as it is. . . . Mankind disgusts me” (p. 39). Accordingly, Robespierre, who allegedly read Rousseau’s Social Contract on a daily basis, “refused to ‘tolerate the world as it is'” (p. 42). However, solid historical work, by scholars such as Fustel de Coulanges, has demolished the idea that ancient Greeks “knew only communal property in land” (p. 100). Equally solid anthropological work has vaporized the “Noble Savage” projections of Rousseau. “Images of a propertyless world of ‘natural man’ are a mirage” (p. 65). Tribal peoples had a strong sense of territorial boundaries, and were clearly acquisitive in realms relevant to their interests.
Unlike Plato, Aristotle, with his common sense realism, was willing to take the world as it is and “regarded the institution of property as indestructible and ultimately a positive force” (p. 7). Aristotle “sees the cause of social discord not on the striving for property but in human nature–‘it is not possessions but the desires of mankind which require to be equalized’–from which it follows that dissension is best eliminated by enlightenment rather than the abolition of private ownership” (p. 8). Aristotle’s vision finds parallels in Jewish and Roman thought, which flowed into and gave form to Western Christian Culture, which strongly supported man’s right to private property. “The fact that all societies condemn and punish theft, at any rate within their own community, testifies to their respect for property” (p. 77).
Following the lead of Stoic thinkers, Roman jurists promulgated a Law of Nations (jus gentium) which synthesized the natural law traditions of many peoples and became, in time, the Law of Nature (just naturale).
Thus came into being a fundamental postulate of Western thought: that right and wrong are not arbitrary concepts but norms rooted in nature and therefore binding on all mankind; ethical problems are to be solved with reference to the Law of Nature, which is rational and supersedes the positive law (jus civile) of individual societies. An essential element of the Law of Nature is the equality of man, specifically, equality before he law, and the principle of human rights, including the rights to property, which antedate the state, and are thus independent of it. Fifteen hundred years later these ideas would furnish the philosophical cornerstone of Western democracy (p. 12).
This cornerstone was effectively summed up by the Latin formula suum cuique tribuere, a phrase Cicero popularized and Thomas Aquinas picked up on in defining justice as “the perpetual and constant will to render to each one what is his.” Medieval cities encouraged personal freedom, and England’s common law yoked it with property rights. In the 17th century, influential thinkers such as Grotius and Locke contended a person has “inalienable rights” to such things as personal liberty and property. Importantly, “The notion of ‘inalienable rights,’ which has played an increasing role in the political thought and practice of the West since the seventeenth century, grows out of the right to property, the most elementary of rights” (p. 118). Such rights budded and then flowered dramatically in England during the 17th and 18th centuries. Then, in America, the colonists fought for independence, convinced that the “protection of property was the main function of government,” for property was recognized as “the bastion of liberty.” Indeed, Pipes contends, “At every stage in the controversy to 1776 and beyond, Americans claimed to be defending property rights” (p. 240). From the Magna Carta to the Declaration of Independence, freedom and property have been welded together.
However, during the last 200 years–centuries of revolution which have largely shaped modernity–the position so solidly crafted by realists such as Aristotle and Aquinas was discarded by radical Jacobeans and Romantics– ideologists such as Babeuf and William Godwin–who envisioned the abolition of all injustices in a communist utopia. Successive waves of socialist euphoria, resonating to the calls of Marx and Engels, still wash across the globe–as is evident in influential treatises such as John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, which conveniently “ignores psychological, political, and economic realities, as well as the record of history and the findings of anthropology” in its singular commitment to egalitarian “fairness” (p. 60). Today’s “Liberals” such as Rawls share with socialists and communists, as a “cardinal tenet,” the notion that man is “infinitely malleable” and thus capable of ultimate “perfectibility” through education and social change.
Consequently, “Of all ages in history, the twentieth century has been the least favorable to the institution of private property, and this for both economic and political reasons” (p. 209). Pipes finds distressing parallels between Soviet communism, German fascism, and British and American welfarism. During WWII, Hitler averred that “‘Basically National Socialism and Marxism are the same,'” and, Pipes contends, “A generation of Marxist and neo-Marxist mythology notwithstanding, probably never in peacetime has an ostensibly capitalist economy been directed as non- and even anti-capitalistically as the German economy between 1933 and 1939” (p. 224). Similarly, a comparison between Hitler’s Twenty-five-Point Program, set forth in 1920, differs only minimally from the welfare state–“a full-scale socialist program” (p. 244)–such as articulated by the Beveridge Report and implemented by the British Labour Party in the 1940’s. Totalitarian regimes are obviously ruled by Stalinesque tyrants. Democratic regimes, less obviously, are equally “dominated by elites who devise ways of shaping and bending the law in their favor” (p. 211). Thus almost everywhere personal liberty has retreated, losing battle after battle to aggressive governments. Following the lead of Jeremy Bentham, who rejected Blackstone and the English tradition of common law, English leaders in this century have sought to equalize everything through social welfare legislation.
In the United States, Pipes shows, the same tendencies are evident. Franklin D. Roosevelt urged folks to expect both the abolition of poverty and “a comfortable living” from federally-orchestrated programs. Welfare programs, funded through taxes which deprive owners of their property, became deeply entrenched in America through the work of FDR’s philosophical disciple, Lyndon Baines Johnson who, “Driven by the most pernicious of human aspirations, that of making his mark on history” (p. 245) declared a “national war on poverty” which has so manifestly failed, despite expending some five trillion dollars. Then, in 1965, he decreed: “‘Freedom is not enough. . . . We seek not just freedom but opportunity . . . not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result” (p. 229). LBJ, committing the federal government to mandating results, probably failed to see “what a break with the Western tradition these words represented,” but Pipes fears for our future, for “Social equality can be attained, if at all, only by coercion, that is, at the expense of liberty” (p. 229).
In Pipes’ somber judgment, the great threat to liberty today comes not from tyrants like Hitler “but from equality–equality defined as identity of reward. Related to it is the quest for security” (p. 283). To defend our freedom, we must recognize and reject the utopian egalitarianism of Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau, reasserting the importance of private property. For “Property is an indispensable ingredient of both prosperity and freedom” (p. 286). With Justice Brandeis we must “‘be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding'” (p. 290). To gain understanding–an understanding largely lacking in many sectors of the body politic–Pipes’ historical work provides most valuable assistance!