“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)