In politics, envy, or at any rate the hope of eliminating it, is said to be the reigning principle of socialism, as greed is said to be that of capitalism (though modern capitalist advertising is about few things more than the regular stimulation of envy). On the international scene, many if not most wars have been fought because of one nation’s envy of another’s territory and all they derive from it, or out of jealously guarded riches that a nation feels are endangered by those less rich who are likely to be envious of their superior position. In this connection, it is difficult not to feel that, at least in part, much of the anti-American feeling that arose after September 11, 2001, had envy, some of it fairly rancorous, at its heart. In the magazine Granta, the Indian writer Ramachandra Guha wrote that “historically, anti-Americanism in India was shaped by an aesthetic distaste for America’s greatest gift–the making of money.” But can “aesthetic distaste” here be any more than a not-very-well-disguised code word for envy?
Is envy a “feeling,” an “emotion,” a “sin,” a “temperamental disposition,” or a “world-view”? Might it also be a Rorschach test: Tell what you envy, and you reveal a great deal about yourself. It can be all of these things–and more. No one would doubt that, whatever else it is, envy is certainly a charged, indeed a supercharged, word: One of the few words left in the English language that retains the power to scandalize. Most of us could still sleep decently if accused of any of the other six deadly sins; but to be accused of envy would be seriously distressing, so clearly does such an accusation go directly to character. The other deadly sins, though all have the disapproval of religion, do not so thoroughly, so deeply demean, diminish, and disqualify a person. Not the least of its stigmata is the pettiness implicit in envy.
The Webster’s definition of the word won’t quite do: “(1) Obs. malice; (2) painful or resentful awareness of the advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage.” The Oxford English Dictionary is rather better: It defines envy first as “malignant or hostile feeling; ill-will, malice, enmity,” and then as “active evil, harm, mischief,” both definitions accounted Obscure. But the great OED only gets down to serious business in its third definition, where it defines envy as “the feeling of mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of superior advantages possessed by another,” in which usage the word envy first pops up around 1500. It adds a fourth definition, one in which the word is used without “notions of malevolence,” and has to do with the (a) “desire to equal another in achievement, or excellence; emulation,” and (b) speaks to “a longing for the advantages enjoyed by another person.” Aristotle, in The Rhetoric, writes of emulation as good envy, or envy ending in admiration and thus in the attempt to imitate the qualities one began by envying. Yet it must be added that envy doesn’t generally work this way. Little is good about envy, except shaking it off, which, as any of us who have felt it deeply knows, is not so easily done.
Both the OED and Webster’s definitions are inattentive to the crucial distinction between envy and jealousy. Most people, failing to pick up the useful distinction, mistakenly use the two words interchangeably. I suspect people did not always do so. H. W. Fowler, in his splendid Modern English Usage of 1926, carries no entry on either word, suggesting that formerly there was no confusion. Bryan A. Garner, in his 1998 Dictionary of Modern American Usage, says that “the careful writer distinguishes between these terms,” but does not himself do so sufficiently. He writes that “jealousy is properly restricted to contexts involving affairs of the heart, envy is used more broadly of resentful contemplation of a more fortunate person.”
With the deep pedantic delight one takes in trumping a recognized usage expert, it pleases me to say, “Not quite so.” The real distinction is that one is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have. Jealousy is not always pejorative; one can after all be jealous of one’s dignity, civil rights, honor. Envy, except when used in the emulative sense mentioned by Aristotle, is always pejorative. If jealousy is, in clich parlance, spoken of as the “green-eyed monster,” envy is cross-, squinty-, and blearily red-eyed. Never, to put it very gently, a handsome or good thing, envy. Although between jealousy and envy, jealousy is often the more intensely felt of the two, it can also be the more realistic: One is, after all, sometimes correct to feel jealousy. And not all jealousy plays the familiar role of sexual jealousy. One may be jealous–again, rightly–of one’s reputation, integrity, and other good things. One is almost never right to feel envy: To be envious is to be, ipso facto, wrong.
Apart from emulative envy, the only aspect of envy that does not seem to me pejorative is a form of envy I have myself felt, as I suspect have others who are reading this article: the envy that I think of as faith envy. This is the envy one feels for those who have the true and deep and intelligent religious faith that sees them through the darkest of crises, death among them. If one is oneself without faith and wishes to feel this emotion, I cannot recommend a better place to find it than in the letters of Flannery O’Connor. There one will discover a woman still in her thirties, who, after coming into her radiant talent, knows she is going to die well before her time and, fortified by her Catholicism, faces her end without voicing complaint or fear. I not long ago heard, in Vienna, what seemed to me a perfect rendering of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and was hugely moved by it, but how much more would I have been moved, I could not help wonder, if I were in a state of full religious belief, since the Ninth Symphony seems to me in many ways a religious work. Faith envy is envy, alas, about which one can do nothing but quietly harbor it.
Envy must also be distinguished from general yearning. One sees people at great social ease and wishes to be more like them; or feels keenly how good it would be once more to be young; or longs to be wealthier; or pines to be taller, thinner, more muscular, less awkward, more beautiful generally. All this is yearning. Envy is never general, but always very particular–at least envy of the kind one feels strongly.
The envious tend to be injustice collectors. “Envy, among other ingredients, has a love of justice in it,” William Hazlitt wrote. “We are more angry at undeserved than at deserved good fortune.” Something to it, but, my sense is, not all that much. Much more often than not, envy expresses feelings more personal than the love of justice. In another useful distinction, Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death wrote that “admiration is happy self-surrender; envy is unhappy self-satisfaction.” Envy asks one leading question: What about me? Why does he or she have beauty, talent, wealth, power, the world’s love, and other gifts, or at any rate a larger share of them than I? Why not me? Dorothy Sayers, in a little book on the seven deadly sins, writes: “Envy is the great leveler: if it cannot level things up, it will level them down At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst it is a destroyer–rather than have anyone happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.” A self-poisoning of the mind, envy is usually less about what one lacks than about what other people have. A strong element of the begrudging resides in envy, thus making the envious, as Immanuel Kant remarked in The Metaphysics of Morals, “intent on the destruction of the happiness of others.”
One might call someone or something–another’s family life, health, good fortune–“enviable” without intending rancor. In the same way, one might say, “I envy you your two-month holiday in the south of France,” without, in one’s mind, plotting how to do the person out of it. Or one might say, “I don’t envy him the responsibilities of his job,” by which one merely means that one is pleased not to have another’s worries. There probably ought to be a word falling between envy and admiration, as there ought to be a word that falls between talent and genius. Yet there isn’t. The language is inept.
Nor ought envy to be confused with open conflict. Someone has something that one feels one wants–customers, a high ranking or rating, government office, a position of power–and one contends for it, more or less aggressively, but out in the open. The openness changes the nature of the game. Envy is almost never out in the open; it is secretive, plotting, behind the scenes. Helmut Schoeck, who in Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior has written the most comprehensive book on the subject, notes that it “is a silent, secretive process and not always verifiable.” Envy, to qualify as envy, has to have a strong touch–sometimes more than a touch–of malice behind it. Malice that cannot speak its name, cold-blooded but secret hostility, impotent desire, hidden rancor, and spite all cluster at the center of envy. La Rochefoucauld opened the subject of envy nicely with a silver stiletto, when he wrote: “In the misfortune of our best friends, we always find something that is not displeasing to us.” Yes, really not displeasing at all. Dear old envy.
Joseph Epstein is the author, most recently, of Fabulous Small Jews: A Collection of Stories. This article is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Envy (Oxford University Press, August 2003).