On Envy

The envious.– He is envious; let us hope that he will not have children, for he would envy them because he cannot be a child anymore. 

–Nietzsche, The Gay Science, §207 (Kaufmann translation)

To envy is to judge the world, and your own life, prematurely and superficially. Envy takes root in an assumption that you know many things which you do not know, or cannot know. To envy a man’s wealth, for example, is to assume that wealth is essential to happiness, that the life of the man you envy is in fact happier than yours — and happy specifically due to his wealth — and that you could have had that man’s wealth without sacrificing any of the things in your own current life that you find worthwhile, or that might eventually prove worthwhile. And since envy also entails a judgment of cosmic unfairness (“Why shouldn’t I have what he has?”), envying a man’s wealth also implies a presupposition that the fact he has that wealth is somehow the reason you do not. But in truth, you know none of those things, so envy is unjustified on its face.

Furthermore, and even more importantly, to envy is to presume an understanding of the wider life implications or trajectories of this or that condition of the moment. Specifically, it is to presume that the supposed failure or deficiency you are suffering from now, relative to the person whose life you envy, can and will lead to nothing but further deficiency in the long run, and conversely that the other person’s enviable position can and will only lead to a permanent continuation of his supposedly superior situation. (Hence the sense of “cosmic unfairness.”)

Worst of all, this projection of the immediate surface of things — or rather the miniscule facet of the surface that the envious man is preoccupied with — into a false perception of the ultimate depth of reality is a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy for the man obsessed with what others have. For by hating the perceived disadvantage in his situation relative to others, the envious man is far more likely to miss the many passing opportunities for development that swirl around his life as it really is. That is, so perturbed is he at the injustice of the gods, that in his fuming disdain for reality he will likely miss a hundred shining particles of chance that cascade through his own stratosphere, but which he cannot see for all his obsession with the distant (perhaps imaginary) bright lights he observes in his neighbor’s sphere.

Things he might have learned, wealth (earthly or, more importantly, divine) that he might have earned, had he simply concerned himself with himself, will, in their  absence, become yet more false justification for blaming the universe. Envy, like all sins and addictions, tends to feed itself on its own errors and distorted pleasures.

The most basic error of the envious man, then, is an inability to find the meaning in his “failure” and disappointment, due in all likelihood to a fatal immaturity that seeks to blame and accuse specifically as a means of avoiding responsibility, effort, and the resiliency of the spiritually courageous, i.e., of those capable of growth.

As a young naïf with philosophical aspirations, I applied to three Canadian graduate schools. My first choice was the school which seemed to have the deepest specialization in ancient philosophy, my primary interest at the time. Although I was accepted into the program, the department chairman informed me that they were not able to offer scholarships to applicants from outside of the province that year. Because I had no independent source of university funding, I had to swallow the disappointment and settle for my second choice. In itself, there is nothing special about that little failure, a fate shared by untold numbers of university applicants each year. But I mention it for this reason: During the second week of my life at my “second choice” graduate school, I met the person who would become my one and only lifelong companion and best friend, the one without whom I would be none of the best things I am now, and would have accomplished none of the things of which I am proudest. 

When I think of what my life would be today, had I been able to attend my preferred school — that is, when I imagine my face on those other people who got the opportunity that I did not — I can only shudder at the thought of the entire adult life I have enjoyed, everything I have learned and experienced and achieved, so inextricably linked to a particular individual I could never have met had I been anywhere else that year, i.e., had I been “more successful” in my graduate school application process.

To envy is to presume you know many things that no one can know. To say this another way: To envy is to forsake the opportunity life has presented you in favor of childishly imagining knowledge of a reality that does not exist, has never existed, and will never exist — and then to despise the real world in the name of defending your own childishness.

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