Chapter 6: Envy
Envy is "one of the most universal and deep-seated of human passions." It is not a learned behavior, as it is noticeable in children before they are even a year old, and it is one that is very easily encouraged by a parent or educator that gives even the slightest appearance of favoring one child at the expense of another.
The emotion is just as prevalent in adults as among children, and it seems we do not learn to divest ourselves of envy but merely become more clandestine and subtle in its expression.
Envy, more so that justice, is the very basis of democracy as the prospect of living in a society in which all are equal holds very great appeal. While its political rights demand equal opportunity and equal status, many have extended it to demand equality of property, though not through equality of effort. Those who show the greatest support of democracy are covetous of what some have that they lack, and eager to take a share to be on even footing.
Any person more capable than another is instantly the target of great jealousy and malice, whether it is a woman with a better dress or a man with a better horse. Any story the degrades such a person is of great interest and is instantly given credibility based on the flimsiest of evidence.
Men, being obsessed with their profession, most greatly express their envy of their colleagues. It is well enough to praise the work of a man who is in another profession, so long as it is not one's own. Merely praise an artist in the presence of another, and you will witness "an explosion of jealousy."
Envy is a particularly destructive emotion, as it is far more often expressed in a desire to drag others down rather than life oneself up. It also destroys the pleasure which one man might otherwise take in his own possessions and achievements, however great, as he will in time witness someone else who has more.
Russell considers the greatest cause of envy to be misfortunes, particularly those of childhood. A boy who is raised in poverty will be forever covetous of wealth no matter how much he achieves. A girl who has few childhood friends will become a woman who despises anyone more popular than herself.
Merely to recognize one's own envious feelings is a step toward curing them. The second is to take contentment in that which is available to you, rather than drawing comparisons to others. The latter is greatly the reason that those who have the means to satisfy their desire, and surplus well beyond, deprive themselves of pleasure. "For all this the proper cure is mental discipline, the habit of not thinking profitless thoughts."
There is an oblique mention to history and literature, which exalts or invents those who embody the qualities we desire. Even the most accomplished general envies the deeds of Napoleon, ho envied Caesar, who envied Alexander - who likely envied the heroes of Greek mythology, who likely never existed. (EN: This is very pertinent to the media images we see in the present world, to compare oneself to an image or other depiction that is a carefully crafted fake that depicts something unachievable in reality.)
He ruminates a bit on the animal that is the symbol of pride: the peacock, which displays itself with pride. He does not imagine that any peacock envies the tail of another, nor wishes harm upon those of superior plumage so that they might be dragged down. The peacock thinks himself splendid in his own display, not in competition. He must not be the most handsome of all, just handsome enough to win himself a mate.
This brings to mind that envy is closely connected with competition - the inability to be satisfied with one's own ability for envy of the ability of others. The beggar envies the rich man, and the rich man envies one who is richer than himself - and the pleasures available to each are disregarded in their hatred of others who have more.
The essentials of human happiness are simple, so much so that people who reckon themselves sophisticated cannot bring themselves to admit that they are every happy.
He does get around to the press: in previous ages people knew little beyond their own village, and could only envy their neighbors. But with the press they are presented objects of envy from around the world - and journalists may aggrandize or even invent details to exaggerate the splendor, not merely beyond the truth but beyond the realm of possibility.
In this, there is a distinction between envy and ambition - as ambition drives us to achieve, whereas envy does not. Particularly when we believe in an exaggerated account, and see that we are incapable of achieving the same for ourselves, we are disheartened from action and can only seethe.
The great irony of envy is that to some degree every man not only envies others, but is himself the object of the envy of others who are covetous of his good fortune and who imagine it to be grander than it is. As such is man in his misery envies his fellow man, who is equally lost and equally unhappy.
When no amount of effort can enable us to achieve our vision, then that vision must be recognized as unattainable and a more attainable one adopted. And our life's effort must be to achieve the things we can, rather than to waste time in coveting those who achieve what we cannot.