Books: Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior By Helmut Schoeck

by | Mar 12, 2002

The theme of Schoeck's book is that envy is man's most destructive emotion, and that societies which enshrine envy remain backward and undeveloped.

The theme of Schoeck’s book is that envy is man’s most destructive emotion and that societies which enshrine envy remain backward and undeveloped. According to Schoeck, the cultural stagnation engendered by envy is brought about by the institutionalization of this emotion—i.e., by the unleashing of the ruinous forces of egalitarian-socialist politics.

Schoeck’s book explores what has been said of envy in every important field, from anthropology, philosophy, and psychology to business management, literature, and politics. He shows how writers often do not grasp the nature of envy. Envy, he explains, is not the desire to emulate the achievements of others, nor is it primarily the desire to steal other people’s values; it is, rather, the desire to wipeout these values. “The envier,” Schoeck writes, “has little interest in the transfer of anything of value from the other person’s possession to his own. He would like to see the other person robbed, dispossessed, stripped, humiliated or hurt. Where that which is envied is another man’s personal qualities, skill or prestige, there can be no question of theft; he may quite well, however, harbor a wish for the other man to lose his voice, his good looks or integrity.” Schoeck observes that the envious mock an innovator if he fails and condemn him if he succeeds. In either case, the resentment is not so much against failure or success, as it is against the pursuit of values as such.

It is a society’s most industrious and creative individuals—those who are responsible for the advance of any culture—who become the most vilified when envy is rampant. In the U.S., for example, it is the doctors and the businessmen who are the main targets. When the successful are consequently shackled by the envious, either through self-imposed guilt or by externally imposed political constraints, the culture enters into decline. Civilization and progress require that envy have no political influence. Schoeck writes: “The more both private individuals and the custodians of political power in a given society are able to act as though there were no such thing as envy, the greater will be the rate of economic growth and the number of innovations in general. The social climate best suited to the fullest, most unhampered deployment of man’s creative faculties (economic, scientific, artistic, etc.) is one where accepted normative behavior, custom, religion, common sense, and public opinion are more or less agreed upon an attitude which functions as if the envious person could be ignored. It is an attitude which, in effect, enables governments to offer equal protection to unequal achievements of the members of the community.”

Schoeck offers important insights into the psychology of the envious. They are preoccupied with comparing themselves to others. They rarely admit their envy, because to do so would amount to confessing their inferiority. Instead, they couch their envy in calls for “compassion” or “social justice,” or they attack the “conceit» or “arrogance” of those they envy. According to Schoeck, most demands for altruism and socialism are facades behind which the envious hide. The reason the envious prefer to destroy, rather than steal, the values of others is precisely because they believe themselves to be inferior; they know they could never match the ability required to maintain such values, Schoeck finds that envy is as prevalent in primitive, tribalist cultures as it is in modern egalitarian-socialist ones, Both operate on the premise that values, from money to reputations, are achieved by some at the direct expense of others, and thus both are resentful toward the successful, Schoeck states the “primitive man is possessed by the same yearning for equality as has (or many years been apparent in political trends in modern societies.” Schoeck gives extensive evidence of the destructiveness of envy in Asian and Indian cultures, in the U.S.S.R. and in Nazi Germany. On the other hand, he finds that envy was not predominant in America until after World War Il, at which point, instead of being regarded as a shameful emotion for which the subject, the envier, ought to be condemned, it came to be viewed as a perfectly legitimate feeling, (or which the object, the envied person, was responsible. Hence the calls for protection, not from the envious, but from the envied, through the emasculation of private property rights, progressive income taxes, redistribution of wealth and egalitarian “leveling” in all fields. And hence the widespread condemnation o! successful cultures praise for primitive ones.

Schoeck warns against the dangers of trying to appease the envious by hiding one’s virtues, withdrawing into an isolated existence or promoting the redistribution of wealth, He believes such appeasement only hastens and intensifies the resentment of the envious, who see it as a further reminder of their inferiority. He shows how this happens on a personal as well as a political level. The envious often insult and condemn the philanthropist more harshly the more he concedes to giving. And the U.S. government receives the worst insults from those countries to which it gives the most foreign aid. The political defense against envy, Schoeck maintains, is not appeasement but property rights. For Schoeck, “private property is not the cause of destructive envy, as the apostles of equality are always seeking to persuade us, but a necessary protective screen against envy.” Whereas in tribal villages, without private property, “everyone grumbles before everyone else’s envy.

Anyone and everyone is suspect.” Although he does not address the issue explicitly, the conclusion is inescapable that collectivism and socialism flow from and reinforce the premise of destruction, while only individualism and capitalism are compatible with happiness and production.

The major drawback of this book is its author’s treatment of envy as a primary fact, with no volitional causes. Schoeck suggests that envy is “instinctive” and “basic to man’s very nature.” This is an incongruous position for him to take, as his book is filled with discussions of better and worse men and better and worse cultures. But to those who understand that all emotions are the product of some underlying thinking, Schoeck’s own exhaustive observations starkly reveal the nature of the ideas implicit in the emotion of envy and make clear the fact of individual choice in accepting or rejecting those ideas.

Ayn Rand defined envy as “hatred of the good for being the good.” Helmut Schoeck, in this monumental work, presents the full manifestations of this invidious emotion and does so with an exceptional degree of intelligence, erudition, and comprehensiveness.

If anyone doubts that the essential motivation behind altruism and socialism is a desire, not to lift up the helpless, but to bring down the able, this is the book to read.

This review is made available by the Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books)

The Ayn Rand Bookstore (formerly Second Renaissance Books) is your source for books and lectures for those interested in Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

Have a comment?

Post your response in our Capitalism Community on X.

Related articles

The Meaning of Americanism

The Meaning of Americanism

Review of “What America Is: The Moral Logic of the American Revolution and Other Essays” by C. Bradley Thompson (2023).

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

Pin It on Pinterest