Spite is a little word; but it represents as strange a jumble of feelings, and compound of discords, as any polysyllable in the language.” (Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby (1839)
I sometimes wonder if I am, at heart, a spiteful man. I do not mean that I am an insidious mischief maker who delights in doing harm. While I am not above feeling (or even wishing for) schadenfreude, I generally leave the comeuppance of my enemies to fate. And I do not mean that I am given to backbiting or defamation. I abhor slander, if only because it suggests the envy of a scheming squirt.
You will notice that it is not goodness that prevents my “getting even” by way of vulgar revenge. It is laziness, and perhaps some cowardice, but above all pride. And pride, or rather injured pride, is at the root of all real spite. When the injured pride is petty, it is content with vulgar revenge. When the injured pride is great, it is harder to repair.
We see this in Satan, the architype of injured pride and envy. The beginning of Satan’s fall was his envy of God; the beginning of our fall was Satan’s envy of us.
In book nine of Paradise Lost, we find a jealous Satan muttering about Adam,
“. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . this new favorite
Of Heaven, this man of clay, son of despite,
Whom, us the more to spite, his Maker raised
Hear the voice of injured pride. To be at first rebuffed and then replaced by a strutting turd! It is enough to make an erstwhile prince of heaven spit. Spit and say:
“Spite then with spite is best repaid.”
And with these words Satan slips into the body of the slumbering serpent and takes his revenge upon God.
When Satan calls Adam “son of despite,” he means that, so far as he can see, God made (and professed to love) man simply out of spite. It is true that he and God have had a little tiff, but that is no reason for God to drive him nuts by pretending to have a “new favorite.” Satan’s position is, indeed, rather like that of a violent boyfriend who has been dumped, who is disgusted by (and at the same time jealous of) the chump who has taken his place, and who therefore resolves to hurt his ex-girlfriend by messing up the chump. It was spite that caused Satan to seduce Eve, spite with spite being best repaid.
Descending from the sublime to the mundane, we see spite sprouting from injured pride in these lines of the second murderer in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. When Macbeth asks him how he fell into his foul line of work, the murderer answers:
“I am one, my liege,
Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world
Have so incensed that I am reckless what
I do to spite the world.”
Here the word spite means something very close to despise, for in carrying out his bloody trade, the murderer is not so much injuring the world as he is despising the world and setting its value at naught. With its discourteous “blows and buffets,” the world told him that he was nothing in its eyes. With his bloody business, he returns the insult and says the world is nothing in his.
Those who feel despised despise, and that is the nature of spite.
Injured pride is the root of Satan’s spite, just as it is the root of the spite of Macbeth’s murderer, and of the woman upon whom Dickens was passing comment in the epigram at the head of this post. She had suffered the humiliation of rejection by the man she loved, and had just found relief in some very spiteful remarks about the woman who took her place.
Injured pride, jealousy and a thirst for revenge: this is the “jumble of feelings” and “compound of discords” that we call spite.
I sometimes wonder if I would think more highly of liberals if liberals thought more highly of me. And this makes me wonder if I became a reactionary out of spite. I sometimes wonder if I made myself an academic pariah because I could not make myself an academic pooh-bah. After all, many pariahs are failed pooh-bahs who have salved their wounds with spite. That I might be one of these hardly boggles the mind. I sometimes even wonder if I became religious out of spite, for kneeling in a church is one way of making a very rude gesture to the world.
These are not agreeable thoughts, and I doubt they are altogether true, but simply laughing at the hypothesis does not make it go away.