envy eyesStereotype-in-English

Envy, an engine for social justice?

envy eyes

Envy, for its etymology, is associated to the eyes. And somehow to green…

Envy is considered a negative, reprehensible feeling: it’s part of our education we receive, and it couldn’t be different. The word comes from the latin terms in, against someone, and videre, see. It indicates the action to look at someone the wrong way, for what he was or had. But from out there many different emotions can spring.

Worst case, we wish the fall of someone we think has a better status, and that’s what the germans call schadenfreude, enjoying other people disgraces. But are we sure that wanting to improve your own condition, gaining what we don’t have, is something so bad, to avoid? In the right proportions, can it be a driving force for development, justice and social equality?

Herodotus, the Greek historian, tells us that envy comes from archaic gods, ready to punish even with death any human who had too much glory. In this case envy isn’t generated by the will to achieve something, because gods already had any kind of power. Let’s have a look at the myth of Prometheus, to remain in ancient Greece. Humans wanted fire because they envied it. Without fire there’s no progress, so in this case envy pushes to move forward, it can’t be blamed.

Also the Latins highlighted the disruptive force of envy, and this was emphasized by christianity, starting with the story of Cain and Abel. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins, to St. Augustine it was the most diabolical one, by far. Dante uses the latin etymology to excogitate the proper punishment for the damned: stiched eyes. But they’re not in hell, just in purgatory. Not too bad for the guilty of a deadly sin.

envy dante purgatory gustave doré

An illustration of Dante’s purgatoty by Gustave Doré. Those guilty of envy had their eyes stitched

For the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, envy is part of christian morality. In its incapability to reach the heights of the übermensch, it promotes modesty. But that’s what really originates envy and hate. In a situation of equality, says Nietzsche, we tend to pull down to the status quo those who are trying to emerge. Something like the crabs in a bucket, whiche could easily escape but they keep dragging down the ones who attempt.

The behavior of other animals, many kinds of monkeys, we learn that there’s also a constructive envy. Frans De Waal, a Dutch primatologist, conducted a study on some capuchin monkeys, divided in transparent cages so they could see each other. They were trained to give stones to the scholar in exchange of cucumber bits. If the reward became grape for one capuchin, much more appreciated, the other one refused to do its task. But that’s not all. The privileged one also refused to eat the grape, because it understood iniquity itself.

capuchin monkey envy

A capuchin monkey. Their kind can feel envy for different rewards, but that leads to social equality

Italian sociologist Francesco Alberoni made a publishment on the topic of envy, in 1994, in which he stated that disappointment in comparisons, can lead the individual to surrender, devaluation of a model or a sense of injustice. On the other hand, envy can be a defense mechanism for insicure subjects. In his conclusions, envy has a conservative function, that stops the other people growth. But in the moment envy creates a new movement, there’s a possibility to change this force into an innovative one, that has nothing to do with resentment.

So, maybe without a pinch of envy most of social revolutions and all major changes of society to a better equality wouldn’t happened. And too much humility would have stay flattened under the arrogance of the few.


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