Among The Unfortunate - In The Kingdom Of Envy
( Originally Published 1914 )
I. The ingenuity of man is chiefly manifest when he confronts his distress. We see then what exceptional gifts our brains have scattered to increase and complicate sorrow. Like the divine Creator, man has formed a world out of nothing. It is in this way that Envy was born.
What is Envy? Those who occasion it, as well as those who are its victims, are alike to be pitied. The human race, usually so disunited, seems on this point to be one and indivisible. In all latitudes we observe the same phenomenon : each member of mankind would believe himself dishonoured if he did not provoke around him the bitterness of envy.
The savages who perforate their noses in order to put ornaments in them, the Indians of the Orinoco who, according to Humboldt, work for a fortnight to buy paint, the object of admiration of all their associates, the Africans in the escort of Captain Speke who paraded in their goatskin cloaks in fine weather and hid them, though shivering with cold, when the dampness and the water fell on their nude bodies, are so many prototypes of that passion for sowing envy which preys upon the noblest and the most degraded specimens of men and women.
Our whole modern education is infected with the desire to appear, and not to be. Children are made to waste years of their lives in learning music, which they give up when they reach maturity, just as they are dressed like monkeys to attract the attention of the passers-by. These principles, inculcated in childhood, pursue us throughout our lives. Herbert Spencer says that men who would blush if they were taxed with ignorance concerning the fabulous labours of a demi-god, would not show the slightest shame in confessing that they do not know the location of the Eustachian tubes, the functions of the spinal marrow, or the normal number of pulsations.
To display ourselves and to arouse envy! This desire haunts us from childhood, when it is inculcated. Later it increases and accompanies us to and even after death, under the form of mausoleums and tombs, intended to make those who survive us exclaim enviously.
Leaders of nations or plain street-sweepers, politicians or Paytone+Ones, scholars or poets, financiers or aristocrats, great artists or ordinary strolling players, great ladies or little seamstresses, women of serious or of light manners, all think solely of displaying insolently or discreetly their claims to envy.
The author who relates the fabulous issues of his books; the lady of the great or the demi-world who boasts of her success with men; the politician who dazzles our eyes with his influence, or the financier with his millions; the physician or the lawyer who proclaims the amount of his income, are all acting under the domination of the same motive which urges a snob to attract attention in the front boxes or in a magnificent automobile.
The object in life for the majority of men and women is nothing but the desire to create along their path the worst of the moral deformities of man, envy. The means vary, but the motive always remains hopelessly the same.
II. History proves that, in every age, envy has been the most detestable factor in the march of human affairs. It is found at the bottom of all the great social and political revolutions. It has created more suffering than poverty.
If the dominant classes had been able to resist the deceptive charms of envy, the progress of the world would have turned in a different direction.
Those who take pleasure in creating envy cannot suspect its poisonous character. It humiliates, lowers, and sours natures. Once implanted in the soul, it takes possession of it as ill weeds grow in uncultivated soil, and stifles in its passage the development of the good seeds. The feelings of justice, of benevolence, of sympathy, perish in their contact like verdure in the sweep of the desert winds.
Fatal to individual happiness, it is still more so to that of the community. For envy produces hatred which, in its turn, exasperates and paralyses the will. Moreover, it destroys all feeling of solidarity. The social struggle often flows from the real distress of the poor, but it is almost always based upon the moral blindness of the rich.
The greater portion of our defects spring from envy, which leads to falsehood in life. It creates also falsehood of words and of thought. The wish to inspire envy prevents us from being natural. At its approach, kindness departs. Mutually attacked by its multifarious venoms, men act toward one another like poisonous plants.
III. I once asked a famous psychologist, whose vocation consists in writing evil books, why he boasted of his fictitious success, when the real was sufficient for his glory.
"The potion of envy, which we make friends and enemies drink," he replied, "affords us delicious sensations."
His colleagues, exasperated by his bragging, have succeeded, however, in diminishing his success and in ridiculing his fame. He is drinking the potion in his turn and he curses the fatal envy which, after having prompted him to pour poi-sons for others, now compels him to swallow them himself.
IV. Envy is a feeling of base essence. The fleeting satisfaction that it bestows recalls the delicious tingling caused by certain deleterious drinks. It begins with a kiss of vanity and ends with genuine unhappiness. It is dangerous to excite the wild beasts encountered along our way. It is still more dangerous to exasperate the wicked beast that slumbers in the lower depths of the human mind.
Those who are corroded by envy should think of those who are beneath them. When our souls are base enough or weak enough to suffer from the happiness—which is often delusive—of others, we should seek consolation in thinking of the ill-fortune of those, often far more numerous, who are our inferiors. Our self-conceit always enables us to find these people.
A pure and noble happiness borrows nothing from envy, quite the contrary. When encountered such happiness suffers from the meeting and even tries to hold aloof and never to cross envy's pathway. Delicate souls are wounded by the vicinity of evil. We should blush to provoke envy, as we would blush to diffuse an odour that is harmful to the health of our neighbours.
Ordinary souls rejoice at seeing envy born and grow around them. The unreflecting provoke it thoughtlessly. Really superior natures, through calculation or kindness, strive to kill it in the germ. When, against their will, it is encountered, they endeavour, since its destruction is impossible, to soften its effects.
V. The desire to occasion envy is a morbid one, a sort of ever-restless, never-satisfied neurosis. Those who can resist it are very rare. It appears under every form and affects every mind. Like the incorrigible coquette, who ends by looking in a fetching way at her own fingers, the vain person seeks to arouse envy among those who are dearest.
The ancient Greeks often punished impious wishes. The famous Athenian orator, Demades, had a man who sold funeral goods sentenced because his trade compelled him to desire the death of his fellow-citizens.
If the question now was to punish all whose business consists in diffusing hatred, the cities, suburbs, and country would be depopulated.
VI. A factory was in operation for half a century and had enriched two generations. The founder and his son lived amid their workmen without wounding their sensitive feelings, and concealed their luxury by indulging in it at a homestead far from the centre of their business activity. Their heir, forgetting the prudence of his predecessors, built a magnificent palace beside the factory. The envy of the poor workmen closely followed the erection of the splendid structure. When the castle rose in the midst of the Iittle houses, the evil feelings of the thousands of labourers filled the rich man's home. Alarmed, he then strove to turn aside their envy. But in vain. While comparing their life of poverty with the luxury of the manor, these simple souls were filled with an invincible rage, for it was caused by envy. Twice the factory was set on fire. Numerous strikes at last destroyed the long prosperity of the business. One day the factory closed its doors and the castle, deserted, spread desolation around its walls, on which might have been en-graved in black letters: Here lies Envy.
VII. When we consider the care with which the Government creates and maintains envy, we might suppose that the point in question was a primordial virtue.
The titles and the decorations which democratic governments themselves do not cease to multiply best prove how hard the human race toils to in-crease its troubles. This folly of the State is equalled only by that of "good society" or rich society, which amounts to the same thing.
The latter ceaselessly complains of the hostility which comes to it from below and trembles at the threats of the god Demos. Yet it works solely to excite this hostility. From fear that the poor may be ignorant of the stupid use of the money of the rich, the latter proclaim it by every means at their disposal. A special news department undertakes to discuss their luxury. The smallest detail of their foolish or criminal egotism is repeated in millions of copies. This special department has, moreover, become universal. All the ; papers have their society column.
Envy thus flows in a brimming stream. Men and women, urged by the unconquerable desire , of creating it, mutually hurl into each other's faces their relations, their country houses, their furniture, their horses, their automobiles, their teas, their dinners, their suppers, their lovers, their mistresses, their jewels. Young American women have displayed to reporters lace chemises, the cost of a single one of which would exceed the annual income of a working family of three persons.
The same morbid desire for publicity has crossed the ocean. The spectacle of young girls, creatures of graciousness and kindness, exhibiting their sumptuous wedding outfits, to poison by envy the atmosphere of the city, no longer shocks any one.
In this mad chase toward the multiplication of envy, we forget her younger sister, hate, but the latter, ever growing and threatening, closely follows her companion.
VIII. One day, at a social reception, I had the misfortune of scandalising those who were present.
"A naturalist," I said to the ladies glittering in all the brilliancy of their toilettes and their spark-ling jewels, "has just discovered a singular species of animal. Both males and females have only a single anxiety : to dazzle their neighbours. They make the most comical grimaces to show the superiority of their skin or of their muzzles. Intoxicated by these parade effects, some of them fall upon others, dealing numerous blows with their paws. Wounded and bleeding, they repeat the same performance; for the dominant characteristic of this animal is its endeavour to make itself envied by its associates, even at the cost of the great sufferings which are constantly occasioned. So they spend their lives in gratifying their vanity and suffering for it afterward."
" What is this animal's name?" I was asked in a general chorus.
"The society woman."
IX. Old Hesiod has already described the overflow of envy among his countrymen.
" The potter envies the potter, the artisan the artisan, the poor even those who are poor, the musician the musician, and the poet the poet."
This evil is of such long standing that it appears almost innate. Yet let us not err concerning its character. It is an acquired evil. The child is not reached by its malign influence. The child is simple and natural. This is the explanation of the unutterable charm which certain little folks exert upon us. After having breathed the vicious atmosphere of the desire to appear, we are enraptured by the sincere manifestations of childish dispositions. Their charm, as well as the attraction of their manners, is doubtless attributable to their naturalness. Pedagogy, the State,
Society, do their best to uproot these natural virtues. Few are those who, by the power of will, succeed in resisting the faulty training. Few as they may be, their example proves the possibility of cure. It is at the same time little and much.
Pedagogy some day will doubtless find that its duties are elsewhere. Instead of sowing envy, it ought to extirpate it from our souls. The task will not be easy. It will be necessary for pedagogy to reform its ideal, its programmes, its principles of emulation, its rewards. But the teacher who, in days to come, will be remunerated like an English judge and respected like a constitutional king, will be able to dispense with envy. He will eliminate from education the evil plant of which his own life will have been rid.
Henceforth let us endeavour to cure ourselves. The effort required is trivial. It is a ticket in a lottery whose price is almost nothing, and yet is assured, as are all the other tickets, of drawing large rewards.
To be rid of envy is almost the equivalent of being certain of happiness.
X. Ausonius was one of the happiest of men. Greatly admired by his contemporaries, the most popular among the Gallo-Roman authors, he attained the realisation of all his dreams. Rich and highly esteemed, he profited by a robust old age, which he enjoyed a long time. Elevated to the prefecture of the Gauls and to the consulate, adulated by the literary men of the period and pampered by fate, he possessed good fortune to a degree rare among human beings : he was conscious of his happiness. He could have desired nothing more. We are never rich enough, we are never famous enough, we never have enough talent or genius. But Ausonius declared himself fully satisfied with his destiny.
It is while reflecting on his father's life that the poet has succeeded in making for his own a philosophy imbued with a divine comprehension of existence.
In his Ephemeris he utters these profound words of his father : " I have always thought that happiness consisted not in having everything that we desire, but in not desiring what fate has not be-stowed." Animated by this thought, Ausonius desired only the things within his reach. And all his life he asked of God only the "favour of having nothing to covet." He died happy, for he died free from envy, and envy resembles the Egyptian brigands, the Philetes, who embraced their victims only to strangle them.
XI. The vain being whose life is spent in the desire to astonish or to vex others, the person, in short, who lives for the opinion of the world, ceases to control his own life.
And admire this inconsistency of human beings: we blush because we have lost our hair and wear a wig, yet we consider it perfectly normal to lose our souls and to live in the soul of our neighbours, of our friends, or even of that of men to whom we are wholly indifferent.
Why place our happiness outside of ourselves? Why confide our motives for living to the passing winds? Why seek our gratification in the annoyance and sorrow of others?
We do not entrust money to the first person we meet, but we do confide to him the causes of our happiness. By making our joy in living depend upon the envy of others, we embark upon a very fragile boat. Its guidance escapes us and we are delivered over to chance, which is often cruel, almost always unjust.
XII. The envy which is shown possesses only the very brief permanence of autumn clouds. It appears in a smiling guise and departs trans-formed into wrath, hatred, or vengeance. Almost always it becomes a desire to humiliate us in our turn.
Envy is the wound which we inflict upon the souls of others. It bleeds visibly or invisibly, but it always remains a hurt. Perhaps it apparently had a just cause in the period when we lived under the principle of universal warfare. But now, when we are establishing among the peoples good-will and mutual respect, envy seems to belong to a barbaric age, and, in any case, is stupid.
In the desire to create envy around us, we confide the happiness of our ego to others, thereby renouncing the principles dearest to our hearts. We renounce our individual life. But by scorning envy, by disdaining to propagate it about us, we enlarge our consciousness. Our intense life—and it alone is real—broadens. It does not depend upon the imagination of others; it is ours, thoroughly our own possession.
Without envy, life will perhaps appear to us less happy, but in reality it will be far more so.