By Jessica Rosenfeld, Associate Professor of English Literature, Washington University in St Louis
In recent months, mental health experts have been drawing attention to what they have dubbed “quarantine envy.”
Many people, they note, have been sizing up the extent to which they’ve been affected by lockdowns and economic hardship. Who still has a job? Who gets to work from home? Whose home is spacious, light-filled and Instagram-worthy? The start of the school year adds another layer of comparison. Parents stuck in a small apartment with two kids forced to learn remotely might feel pangs about the fact that their friend’s kids get to attend a private school in person.
What should we do with these unpleasant feelings? Should we repress them or reason them away? Are they too shameful to be shared? Envy is one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins – the worst of them all, says the Parson in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” But my research into the long history of envy shows that the emotion has many sides to it. Some are certainly destructive. But envy can also be useful. The “sin” can help us better understand ourselves and the world around us – and it can be a key driver of social change.
Tales of envy
Envy has a bad reputation. Everyone feels it at one point or another, although we often don’t want to admit to being truly envious of others – harboring the kind of envy that gnaws at us and makes us feel inferior. Portraits of envy can show it as an astonishingly malicious emotion. One version of a popular fable tells the story of an envious man and a greedy man being given a single wish. The one condition is that the person who does not get to choose the reward will be given double what the other man wishes. The greedy man quickly asks that the envious man be given the choice; the envious man then wishes to be blinded in one eye.
In William Langland’s poem “Piers Plowman,” the personification of Envy confesses that all he wants is for his neighbor, “Gybbe,” to have something bad happen to him; he wants this even more than he wants cheese. In these stories, envy is typically defined as wanting misfortune for others, longing to feel superior in some way or at least making them just as miserable as you are.
Late medieval literature is also filled with stories that point to envy as a source of violence. The chronicler Jean Froissart describes the social unrest associated with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 as a consequence of the envy the commoners had toward the nobles and the rich.
Here – and elsewhere – envy is a label used to diminish the political claims of a particular group of people. In 2012, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of practicing the “bitter politics of envy.” In this way, criticism of the rich or powerful, or wanting the wealthy to be taxed more to fund public services, brings accusations of petty envy and resentment.
When envy spurs social change
Modern understandings of envy are also related to other kinds of negative feelings, like anger that someone has undeserved wealth or frustration that certain groups are hoarding money, power, or privileges. Here is where envy can take a turn that can lead to better outcomes. Envy can be productive when it is not directed at one person in particular but is instead directed at the way society is structured.
Economists and political scientists increasingly recognize that reducing inequality can be an end in itself. Envy – even the kind of nakedly competitive envy that seeks to damage others for no personal gain – can work to regulate inequality that has grown too wide.
Political scientist Jeffrey Green defends policies driven by a “reasonable envy” that targets the well off, even if there is no expectation of gain for everyone else. For example, he says that capping wealth might lower the material welfare for all, but this would be worth the reduction in inequality, since excessive or unjust inequality can lead to instability and feelings of disempowerment among ordinary citizens. Economist Robert Frank prefers taxing consumption to reduce “luxury fever,” in which competitive spending escalates wildly, especially among the super-rich, leaving less money for individuals and the government to spend on essential services.
In their new book, The Economic Other: Inequality in the American Political Imagination, political scientists Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky open with the line, “The human imagination is an engine of comparison.”
In their studies, they show that politics is driven by the social imagination – and Americans have fewer opportunities for comparison because of increasing class segregation in our society. Middle-class and poorer Americans see the wealthy online and on TV but not in everyday life. The authors believe policies might become more just if there were more opportunities for “upward comparison” – if everyday Americans could simply see, in their day-to-day lives, the extent to which the wealthy lead extravagant lives. Their research suggests that envious comparison would lead to more support for government spending on welfare, Social Security and education.
Dwelling with envy
Aristotle has a much more specific – and negative – definition of envy. In his view, the emotion is directed toward our equals. We become envious when our neighbors have something we desire and believe we deserve, and when we feel it is our own fault that we do not have that good thing.
He distinguishes envy from other comparative feelings like emulation, indignation or pity. These kinds of distinctions are helpful, because thinking carefully about emotions can give us information about ourselves and our environment. Some philosophers describe emotions as reasoning tools, a shortcut to filter copious amounts of information.
In a time of quarantine – when comparisons often involve who has the best version of being alone – dwelling with envy can open our eyes to ourselves and the world. Do these negative feelings say something about ourselves? Are they specific to another person? Or do they reflect an unjust system? Can these disparities change? If so, what could bring that about? Trying to manage or avoid envious feelings doesn’t allow us to answer – or even ask – those questions.