Dr. Johnson called it “a stubborn weed of the mind.” Envy is fertile and tough, like crabgrass, and here’s the rest of Johnson’s sentence: “and [it] seldom yields to the culture of philosophy.” In other words, self-administered moral rehabilitation (good intentions) among the envious is unlikely to prove successful. It’s a security blanket of an emotion (or sin), reassuring us of our virtue and the world’s unfairness. We are the deserving ones, the scorned and misunderstood. Those possessing what we have been unfairly denied are selfish and rapacious. Johnson puts it nicely: “Envy is mere unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means, and desires not so much its own happiness as another’s misery.” The recently fashionable obsession with “equality” is nothing more than the latest eruption of envy, the unacknowledged driver of our politics.
When Ian Fleming was a member of the editorial board at the Sunday Times, he suggested that eminent writers be asked to choose a favorite among the Seven Deadly Sins and anatomize it in an essay. Collected in a small volume by William Morrow and Co., they were published in 1962 as The Seven Deadly Sins. Don’t miss Evelyn Waugh on Sloth, but here is some of what Angus Wilson has to say about Envy and what distinguishes it from the other Six:
“All the seven deadly sins are self-destroying, morbid appetites, but in their early stages at least, lust and gluttony, avarice and sloth know some gratification, while anger and pride have power, even though that power eventually destroys itself. Envy is impotent, numbed with fear, never ceasing in its appetite, and it knows no gratification, but endless self-torment. It has the ugliness of a trapped rat, which gnaws its own foot in an effort to escape.”
If self-torment were the only cost, envy wouldn’t be so perniciously corrosive. But remember Johnson’s caveat: envy “desires not so much its own happiness as another’s misery.” The envious are generous with their misery. In The Passionate State of Mind, and Other Aphorisms (1955), Eric Hoffer understood the link between envy and the delusory quest for equality:
“We clamor for equality chiefly in matters in which we ourselves cannot hope to attain excellence. To discover what a man truly craves but knows he cannot have we must find the field in which he advocates absolute equality. By this test the Communists are frustrated Capitalists.”