This Envious Age

“Envy is the most universal passion . . .”

William Hazlitt, Characteristics (1823)

“It was the age of envy and hate, of fierce passions, of constant social changes more or less violent, of strife between classes, of war between state and state.”

Edward Bulwer Lytton, The Coming Race (1871)

Envy is the ruling passion of this age.  We say that we are all engaged in the pursuit of happiness, yet we would be more honest if we said that we are all engaged in its persecution.  Show me a happy man or woman, and I will show you a million envious grumblers who are aggrieved by that happiness, and a thousand journalists, academics, and clergymen who are telling these grumblers that this happiness is unfounded, ill-gotten, or wrong.

When I was a child, we used to sing a song that began, “if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands.”  Now that I am an adult I seldom sing, but if I did my song would be, “if you’re happy and you know it keep it to yourself.”  Thomas Aquinas said that envy is “grieving for our neighbor’s goods,” and by this the Angelic Doctor meant that your good fortune makes almost everyone around you sad, mad, and bad.

It was once thought that social equality would remove the grounds of envy because no man’s happiness would be superior to the happiness of any other man.  This was a foolish expectation because we are by nature most envious of those we are taught to regard as our equals, but whose fortunes and triumphs have somehow surpassed our own.  Thus democracy does not cure envy, but rather inflames the spiritual disease.  In his great work Democracy in America Tocqueville observed:

“It cannot be denied that democratic institutions have a very strong tendency to promote the feeling of envy in the human heart . . . . Democratic institutions awaken and foster a passion for equality which they can never entirely satisfy . . .”*

Behind this is the dark truth that nothing is more galling than to fail in a land of “equal opportunity.”  This is why the evil twins of equality and envy advance into the glorious future with their arms locked, side by side.  In a land where “any boy can grow up to be president,” every boy who does not grow up to be president is humiliated by the handful who do.  Here is Tocqueville again:

“In a democracy, private citizens see a man of their own rank in life, who rises from that obscure position, and who becomes possessed of riches and of power in a few years: the spectacle excites their surprise and their envy: and they are led to inquire how the person who was yesterday their equal is today their ruler.”

In other words, democracy invites all unsuccessful men to ask, “what’s he got that I ain’t got,” and then teaches those men to disbelieve and hate the answer.  Tocqueville goes on:

“To attribute his rise to his talents or his virtues is unpleasant, for it is tacitly to acknowledge that they are themselves less virtuous and less talented than he was.”

Under the democratic doctrines of equal opportunity and meritocracy, social and economic failure is especially painful because it so strongly suggests personal inferiority.  Equal opportunity and meritocracy permit superior individuals to rise from humble origins, but their rising excites shame, and to assuage this shame envy, in all the inferior individuals they leave behind.  The expression “Americans love a winner” is true only under very heavy qualification.  Because they are democrats, what Americans truly love is to tear a winner down.

Here again is Tocqueville continuing the same passage:

“They are therefore led . . . to impute his success mainly to some of his defects; and an odious mixture is thus formed of the ideas of turpitude and power, unworthiness and success, utility and dishonor.”

Tocqueville acknowledged that many politicians and tycoons are crooks.  Had he lived in our day, he might have acknowledged that many actresses are whores.  But his point is to say that democratic doctrines cause widespread shame, that shame becomes envy of success, and that shame and envy are expressed in an “odious mixture” of dark mutterings about “turpitude,” “unworthiness” and “dishonor.”  The only thing Americans love more than a winner is tearing a winner down.  This is why Tocqueville said after his famous tour of the United States:

“I found the democratic feeling of envy expressed under a thousand different forms.”

* * * * *

Envy is expressed in a thousand different forms but never appears under its own name.  This is because envy is born of shame, and to confess envy is to confess personal inferiority.  Thus envy’s  endless disguises and protean forms.  In a letter to his son, Lord Chesterfield went beyond Aquinas (and Socrates) and defined envy as happiness over another’s grief, and grief over another’s happiness.  Schadenfreude as the Germans say.

“It is the nature of envy, to grieve at other people’s happiness, and to find a pleasure in knowing of their distresses and misfortunes.”**

It gratifies our envy to call this distress and misfortune their “comeuppance.”  Chesterfield went on to warn his son against this “mean, base, and tormenting passion,” and to observe that:

“A proof that it is the vilest, and the basest of all passions, is that no man ever yet owned having any, though he had ever so much in reality.”

What Chesterfield says of a man goes double for the multitudinous classes of disappointed democrats who have asked, “what’s he got that I ain’t got,” and who have been humiliated and angered by the answer.  Because we live in a democracy where the market supplies what the market demands, the press, the pulpits, and the politicians are ever ready to disguise this vilest and basest of all passions as righteous anger, a thirst for equality, and a demand for “social justice.”

What we now call “social justice” is nothing but vile envy in disguise.  It is the “odious mixture” of dark mutterings that invariably rises from people who have been told they are equal, who have been granted “equal opportunity,” and who nevertheless still have failed.  It is, at bottom, the pained cry of acute personal humiliation that is inseparable from democracy, and the democratic answer to this pain is, counterproductively, to beat the drum of equality louder and more frequently than before.

* * * * *

We live in an age of envy because we live in a democratic age, but envy is at bottom a spiritual disease.  Democracy inflames this spiritual disease because it makes envy virulent and well-nigh universal.  Indeed democracy makes envy a terminal disease because democracy invariably seeks to cure envy with more and more democracy.  The career of democracy is therefore predictable because democratic legislation is a mask of envy.  Sooner or later, legislated political equality becomes legislated moral equality, legislated moral equality becomes legislated social equality, and legislated social equality becomes legislated economic equality.

Communism is at the end of the democratic road because envy is inflamed by “equal opportunity.” It is not quenched!  It is not mollified!  It is only democratic delusion that prevent our seeing that “equal opportunity” makes failure harder to bear.  And when failure is harder to bear, envy will be much worse.

But even the absolute democracy of communism will not cure envy because there is no political cure for this spiritual disease.  In the absolute democracy of communism, envious men will be grieved that their comrades enjoy any happiness at all.  This is why the English writer William Hazlitt wrote,

 “Envy is a littleness of soul . . . and if it does not occupy the whole space, feels itself excluded.”

This is a line to ponder as the democratic slogans of inclusion and exclusion nowadays boom in our ears.  Envy is the unlimited pride of a man who has very little to be proud of, and this pride will be grieved by any happiness but its own.

The great Puritan divine Jonathan Edwards knew that envy is a spiritual disease that cannot be cured by politics.  He understood that the spirit of envy is most often expressed in grumbling about the “injustice” of someone else enjoying superior wealth, superior honor, or superior happiness.  But Edwards also knew that the spirit of envy does not die when democracy at last brings men to the democratic utopia of political, moral, social, and economic equality.  The protean spirit of envy simply takes a new form.

“And from this same disposition, a person may dislike another’s being equal to himself in honor or happiness, or in having the same sources of enjoyments that he has; for as men very commonly are, they cannot bear a rival, much, if any better than a superior, for they love to be singular and alone in their eminence and advancement.”†

*) Alexis de Toqueville, Democracy in America (1835-1840)
**) Lord Chesterfield, Letter to his Son, (1766)
***) William Hazlitt, Characteristics (1823)
†) Jonathan Edwards, “Charity Inconsistent with an Envious Spirit,” Lecture to the Students of Yale University (1738)

22 thoughts on “This Envious Age

  1. Nice post! It’s good to see a Conservative quoting Toqueville’s less-than-flattering passages from Democracy in America. As you know, the average “conservative” writer’s tendency is to cherry-pick from Toqueville’s book, and/or, to quote him out of context.

    • Thanks. When I knew Tocqueville only as some old French guy my professors would mention, I thought he must have been a big fan of Democracy and America. He actually said that American democracy had so far turned out better than French Democracy, but the wasn’t saying a whole lot. I recently read a collection of Tocqueville’s letters and found him a very interesting man.

  2. Pingback: Random Thoughts October 2021 | Gunner Q

    • There will be less envy because being born to low-class parents is not a personal failure. The downside of meritocracy is that it tells a great many people that they have very little personal merit. That shame is the source of envy.

      • The same thing can be said about democracy, although the inbreeding doesn’t lead to hemophilia. I’d say that an aristocracy degenerates less quickly because aristocrats have to keep up the the idea that they are something special, whereas democrats are all “just folks.”

      • Since meritocracy always triumphs over aristocracy just like the Meritocratic Qin Dynasty over the more Aristocratic States and Meritocratic Mongols over all the various more Aristocratic Nations he conquers.

        There has to be a third way.

      • A third way is certainly desirable, but that does not mean that there must be a third way. I think that we all understand the merits of meritocracy, but that very few of us understand that it has the demerit of inflaming envy. I cannot be humiliated by losing a race I am not allowed to enter. Once you see this it is obvious that a democratic and meritocratic society must implement strong cultural sanctions agains envy, but that our society celebrates envy and calls it “social justice.”

      • Imperial China and the Mongol Nation certainly wasn’t a Democracy. Perhaps the nature of being Imperial despite meritocracy could function better than meritocratic democracies.

        Meritocracy is more about discovering talent rather something that one necessarily works hard towards. So maybe contained in that is a way to mitigate envy.

      • Envy is a spiritual disease, so the only certain remedy is the spiritual discipline of humility. Meritocracy means rule by the talented, and talent is largely something one is born with. Hard work is also a talent. The point is that a man with little talent has as much grounds for envy as a man of low birth. Indeed he may have more since he sees some of his peers rising into the meritocracy.

      • @JMSmith

        “The point is that a man with little talent has as much grounds for envy as a man of low birth. Indeed he may have more since he sees some of his peers rising into the meritocracy.”

        That may be so. Envy isn’t necessarily rational. Given the truth of one being born with talent or lacking talent.

        So shouldn’t be grounds of humiliation. Because its just as much a roll of dice as being born in the high classes.

        If that is the truth and that truth is made clear. It shouldn’t be a problem in terms of fairness.

        Perhaps Imperial China already has Envy mitigation built in the society. Unless history proves otherwise.

  3. Off-topic but important: Are the editors here aware that Orthosphere has been banned by Facebook? I just tried to share one of your posts (“Almost all innovations are lethal”) and got a message to the effect that ‘This URL cannot be shared because of spam.’ Doubt that you guys are spammers…might want to check out what’s going on.

    • Yes, we know we’ve been under the curse for a while now. We don’t know why, or where to beg forgiveness, or whether we wish to be forgiven. We regret losing the publicity that comes when well-meaning readers link one of our articles on Facebook, but also take the ban as an assurance that we are doing something right. I’m afraid all of us would rather write a new post than wrangle with some postmodern pettifogger at Facebook.

  4. Bonald @ Sloth is a sin but the disposition to sloth is partly hereditary, so the expression “born lazy” has some truth to it. The disposition to work hard combines things like conscientiousness, energy, and probably neuroticism, and these are also partly hereditary. This is why I say that working hard is a talent similar to musicality or the ability to draw likenesses. All these dispositions are improved by practice but some people start with a big head start.

    I’d say the real talent is an ability to work hard when hard work is necessary, and to take it easy when hard work is not necessary. When I say hard work is a talent I do not mean that it is necessarily a virtue. Evil people can be very hard workers.

    • Sloth is a lot like scrupulosity. They are sins, but they are not exactly the besetting sins of contemporary America. I sat through a homily on scrupulosity once and came away thinking the priest was deranged—that particular homily was of great comfort to “being mean” and “failing to submit to your wife” which were looking kind of lonely and bored with one another in his oeuvre of condemned sins. Similarly, people who go around accusing their fellow Americans of being lazy always come across as insane, but, America being what it is, few seem to think so. I’m sure there are lazy (and scrupulous) Americans, just as I’m sure that there are needles in some haystacks.

      Is there even a named sin which is the opposite of sloth? Usually, one counterposes virtues (zeal, here) against sins. But, people (like me, more often than I would like) who prioritize making money and being industrious over God and family are kind of numerous, especially in professional circles. Avarice, I suppose. I mean, I get that an over-the-road trucker, say, has good reason to be absent from his family a lot of the time: the man doing that sort of work generally doesn’t have good other options to provide for his family’s needs. But, some near-C-suite guy with an 80% travel schedule? Are we seriously supposed to pretend that he is admirable? That he does not sin gravely by his choice of occupation? That his pride in being Diamond Medallion is anything other than an utterly repulsive addiction?

      The essay is great, and I think the point about sloth is closely related. The envy and the meritocracy feed the foolish industriousness. I’m meritorious! Look at my Tesla! Look at my resume! I’m definitely one of the elect, don’t you think?

      • I’m glad you liked the essay and agree that a great many Americans work too hard for foolish rewards. How many times I’ve read proud Americans who look down upon Europeans for their long vacations. Of course some of this addiction to hard work comes of the fact that life at the bottom of American society really sucks. I say this as someone who has lived poor among poor people in poor neighborhoods. It is interesting that there is no specific sin of over-industriousness, since the deficient industry of sloth should have a corresponding sin of excess. It also seems to me that Jesus had a very pronounced cynical streak of scorn for worldly swank and show. Matthew 6:25 could have been written by Diogenes

        “Be not anxious for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than the food, and the body than the raiment?”

        I’ve decided that any sins by which we are beset must be the sins that are never mentioned from the pulpit, and that the sins against which we are from the same place warned are sins we would not dare to commit. Failure to submit to my wife! Forsooth!

  5. @JM Smith: “I cannot be humiliated by losing a race I am not allowed to enter.” Some years ago, a friend was wondering how miners in (I think it was) South Wales could stand their situation and life their dilapidated little villages. “What do they have to live for?” He asked. “They have each other.” I answered.

    • I expect they saw their “dilapidated little village” as a necessary part of their life, and understood that they could not give up the village without giving up everything else–including, as you say, each other. When we envy, we imagine we could change one thing we do not like about our lives, without sacrificing a great many other things that we like very much.


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.