Envy by Gurcharan Das


Envy can be positive also. It is possible for the envier to want something but without wishing the envied to lose it at the same time. This positive sort of envy that my father alluded to leads to ambition, to want to emulate the successful, but without the malicious desire to deprive the rival of the possession. This is called benign or emulative envy and it is the one on display when one says to a friend- I envy you for such and suck skill. One obviously does not want to deprive the friend of the talent or the skill. Nor is one filled with pain in the case of benign envy.

Mahabharata, the Indian epic, says- The man who envies other people for their conduct, beauty, courage, family lineage, happiness, success and favour has an eternal sickness.

Gore Vidal says- Whenever a friend succeeds a little, something in me dies.

John Rawls, Harvard teacher explains general envy as which does not have a particular person or its object (which is special envy), and is experienced by the less advantaged for those better situated.

The reason academic politics are so bitter is that so little is at stake, Henry Kissinger was fond of saying.

Envy also supplies the psychological foundations for our quest for justice, especially for equality. And this too can take both good and bad forms. Freud wrote that our desire for justice is the product of childhood envy of other children, which makes one hunger for equal treatment and brings about a group-spirit. He adds- If one cannot be the favourite oneself, at all events nobody else shall be the favourite.

Envy is thus a leveler, and it levels downwards. Instead of motivating one to better performance, envy prefers to see the other person fall. The envious person is willing to see both sides lose. Envy is collectively disadvantageous, the individual who envies another is prepared  to do things that make them both worse off, if only the discrepancy between them is sufficiently reduced. To avoid this sort of calamitous result, a just and sensible society ought to do something in order to mitigate if not prevent the conditions that bring about envy. Plurality of voluntary associations like churches, clubs, unions and other groupings, in a well-ordered society, each with its own secure internal life, tends to reduce the visibility, or at least the painful visibility, of variations in men’s prospects.  (John Rawls)

Nietzsche thought the French Revolution was fired by the sentiment of envy of the masses against the classes. Sometimes resentment over social inequality is so great that it wounds one’s self-respect. Such envy is understandable especially when it is exacerbated by ostentatious display by the well-off. It tends to demean the situation of those who have less. Although it is a psychological state, social institutions can and ought to mitigate such envy.

I had a conversation with an employee of the scandal-ridden  Satyam, an Indian company. She said that she and many of her colleagues at Satyam continued to support B.Ramalinga Raju, the disgraced founder of their company, even after his fraud was exposed. It was only after she discovered that the IT czar owned a thousand designer suits, 321 pairs of shoes and 310 belts that she turned against him. When I was burning the midnight oil, he was buying belts- she raged.

To be fair to leftists, what drives many of them is not envy but resentment, a different moral idea. Many socialists do not suffer from envy, but they resent the inherently unjust distribution of income and power in our social arrangements. What upsets them is not those who are better off. Resentment in this sense is a rational and impersonal moral emotion, which can also drive one to change the world for the better.

Envy is all-pervasive and hence the proverb. –If envy were a fever the whole world would be ill.

From- The difficulty of being good by Gurcharan Das.


One response »

  1. Pingback: India Unbound: The Social and Economic Revolution from Independence to the Global Information Age by Gurcharan Das | Wandering Mirages

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