Envy: The Venom And Its Antidote

A very thin line separates jealousy from envy. While the former involves a claim over the desired object, boosted by the negative and anxious feeling of its anticipated loss, the latter consists of a painful state of discontent and resentful longing, aroused by someone else’s possessions or advantages. Derived from the Latin word invidere, envy is about coveting something we do not have, and looking askance at those who have it with subsequent malice and spite.

In this order of ideas, envy is mentioned by the Book of Genesis as the motivation behind the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, whose envy turned into anger when he knew that God favored his brother’s offering – and not his. Moreover, it is also considered as a “mind poison” by Buddhism (or Klesha), as a “disastrous emotion” by Hinduism, as one of the “seven deadly sins” by Christianity, and as an “impurity of the heart” by Islam. However, while envy has this one essential meaning, it can be manifested in different forms.

There are times when the envious believe that the envied do not deserve the desired object, at all. The more this situation seems unfair to them, the more they will fight to find ways to demean and dispossess the envied in the name of justice. And as William Hazlitt once said: "envy, among other ingredients, has a mixture of the love of justice in it. We are more angry at undeserved than at deserved good fortune”. Nevertheless, in case the readjustment of the balance fails, this premise should not justify the blindness of envy by maintaining passive inferiority. Unjust circumstances should never halt personal growth for the sake of recuperating what we believe is ours. Instead, we should liberate extra potential, grow more, and outrun the envied.

Furthermore, there are times when the envious believe that the desired object is mutually deserved, but strive to gain its exclusivity. How can we forget what the Roman historian Titus Livy once said: "no man likes to be surpassed by those of his own level”(in Latin: a proximis quisque minime anteire vult). This situation sharpens sight and brings up a fair competition in which the envious aim at pulling the envied down to take their place and become “King(s) of the Hill”. Being more attentive and concerned by the defects of the envied, they get to perceive faults they could hardly see in normal conditions, and hit straight where they should.

But the worst case scenario is when the envious know that they do not deserve the desired object at all, and do all they can, not to improve their credentials, but to merely dispossess the envied or stop them from reaching their goal. This is active inferiority, married to pride, and giving birth to envy. In this situation, the envious would reject the idea of seeing anyone in a superior position, regardless of whether it is earned or not. This policy of envy aims at preventing the other from being distinguished by success, and paralyzes his chances of elevation. People of genuine merit get attacked and hammered down because of their talents and achievements. This set of circumstances reminds us of the “crab mentality” – as first coined by the Filipino writer Ninotchka Rosca – referring to a pot of crabs in which the crabs could easily escape from the pot, but instead, they grab and prevent each other from escaping in order to ensure a collective demise. This image can be related to the famous saying: “if I can’t have it, neither should you”.

Museo Nacional de Antropología (Mexico City, Mexico)

Museo Nacional de Antropología (Mexico City, Mexico)

Whereas coping with envy is not a complicated issue, using the wrong attitude might get a bit confusing. This problem cannot be resolved by the simple caress of its surface; it should be tackled by its root cause. Instead of concentrating on the uncontrollable, it is advisable to shift the focus to whatis within our control. What brought the other to a better situation than yours? Was it something controllable he did, and you did not do? The person you envy could have taken steps you did not think of because of ignorance, or had the courage to face what you did not dare to approach out of fear. While praise can be bought, envy has to be earned. That being said, be careful not to flatter yourself too much; superiority can blind small minds.

Moreover, envy can be used constructively, against itself, by cultivating awareness and nourishing self-development. We often end up protecting ourselves from a known poison by using it in small doses, as the best antidotes are made of the same substance they fight. On the one hand, Socrates imagined envy as venom, tormenting virtue and leading to self-destruction. And on the other, Buddhism uses the term mudita for taking joy in the good fortune of others, considering this virtue as an antidote to envy. This notion is the exact opposite of the German loanword Schadenfreude, which represents the pleasure deriving from the misfortune of others. 

Kant defined envy in Metaphysics of Morals as "a reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by another's because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others". You do not necessarily need what the other has or desires, and what you obtain does not automatically make you happy. It is wiser to start by wanting what you have, than by having what you want. You must first learn how to appreciate what you have, before striving for more – which is always conceivable. What is the point of filling a cup you never drink from? You would remain thirsty, and kill others of thirst because of useless greed.

Dealing with the envious should not be hard either. The relish of their lives is inverted, and they remain in pain upon all occasions capable of injecting pleasure and providing satisfaction. Be patient towards them; their passions will consume them like fire eats itself when it finds nothing to eat. Saint John Chrysostom gave a clear image of these words when he said: "as a moth gnaws a garment, so doth envy consume a man". Keep looking forward with confidence and contentment; blindness will disintegrate and destroy them.But what about the assertion of Moliere: "The envious will die, but envy never” (in French: les envieux mourront, mais non jamais l'envie). Are we dealing with an eternal paradox? Are we facing fingernails, which will grow back every time they are cut? Use envy before it uses you, and absorb its venom before it kills you.


Paul M. Klimos