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Part of the Liberty Fund network. Ivan is drawing the young and envious Nikolai further into a plot to disrupt Soviet society. He stews over the privileges and honors bestowed on others. Envy, says Schoeck, is something we all feel but hardly ever talk about. Other negative emotions are granted a degree of public respect. We can admit to hatred, fear, and even jealousy, but envy is a quality we attribute only to others, whose envy is to be feared.

He simply wants that person to lose those good things. The pleasure he looks forward to is the misery of his rival. The rival, moreover, need not even know he is the target of envy. The man who envies hides his resentment, typically by dressing it up in the clothes of altruism.

Why does he envy? Where does the resentment come from? Envy is for those who are close and with whom we can make minute comparisons.

Schoeck substantiates observations like this with an abundance of ethnographic data. Envy, to the contrary, is basic to the human condition and is to be found in all human societies—though it is elaborated, checked, and suppressed in many different ways.

For the Dobuans, those consequences are severe. We know of this island society mainly through the work of the anthropologist Reo Fortune who depicted the natives as paralyzed by fear of one another. Any slight advantage that a man might gain in gardening or trade will subject him to the envious spite of those around him, who will use supernatural means to bring him down.

He knows this about others because he feels the same envious spite towards them. The consequence is a society of extreme egalitarianism in which all alike suffocate their ambitions to avoid the dangers of being envied. The Dobuans may be an extreme case, but Schoeck offers an abundance of other ethnological evidence that envy afflicts social life in a great variety of small-scale societies. To do anything in a superlative manner is to court ill-feeling among the less skilled, and that ill-feeling is channeled into the subtext of daily life.

But does envy continue to dog societies at more advanced levels? At the same time he is building out his theory that envy is one of the glues of human society. Some of our key institutions, according to Schoeck, exist to curtail envy or to transform it into something else. Fear of envy pulls people back from the sorts of achievement that would unravel a social order that has to provide some degree of ordinary stability. Thus, many cultures view the truly exceptional man as tempting Fate.

Some societies make room for overachievers, but view them as risking the envy of the gods. Odysseus and Aeneas do not have an easy time of it. These stories serve as cautionary tales against hubris—and in this way, envy serves as a brake on reckless ambition.

Schoeck notes that American social science has a peculiar blind spot for envy. The eradication of social differences and status just gives rise to new differences and statuses. The social sciences ignore envy because to confront it would be embarrassing. This puts Schoeck firmly on the anti-utopian spectrum in modern social thought. Envy is a condition we learn to live with, not a problem that can be solved once and for all. This gives Schoeck a powerful tool for interpreting behavior that otherwise makes little sense.

Or they convince themselves through magical thinking that they can expropriate the wealth of the nation and that it will, out of thin air, replenish itself. No number of Venezuelas will persuade them otherwise, because envy has so tight a grip on their minds that they cannot imagine their project will fail. Still other leftists, however, stick with the classic formulation that imposing misery on all is better than allowing general prosperity if that entails having a handful of exceptionally wealthy individuals.

Socialism inevitably straddles an impossible aspiration and an inescapable reality. It can manage that only by summoning up fierce feelings of injustice. Its engine is unbridled envy. But if it is ever to have a break-out moment, we have surely arrived at it. Schoeck holds up a mirror to our egalitarian movements. The more we prosper as a society, the more envious people become of the small differences that set us apart. The unacknowledged because it is unacknowledgeable force behind such movements is envy.

Schoeck makes considerable use of literature and philosophy as he constructs his theory. When the book was first published, Soviet authorities mistook it as a satire against the envious young man, Nikolai Kavalero.

But soon word got around that Kavarero, though thwarted in the end, was actually the protagonist of the story and the deeper satire was against the commissar whom Kavalero envied. Kavalero knows that to be envious is to invite the contempt of his betters and he is indeed ashamed of himself.

But his ability to feel such shame seems somehow to elevate him over the bureaucrats who turned their envy of prosperity into a state religion. Envy is not nice, but it is indispensable. Envy domesticates power, says Schoeck. It guards property from theft and rights from expropriation. This, Schoeck says, makes envy one of the keys to the rise of civilization. A little too much will produce Dobuans, or worse still, the Soviet state.

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Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour

For fifteen years, starting in , Schoeck would work as a professor at various U. In , he taught philosophy at Fairmont State College , followed by a two-year stint at Yale. At Emory University he was awarded a full professorship in sociology. In , Schoeck returned to Germany, where he obtained a chair in sociology at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz , which he would occupy until his retirement in Schoeck, who was also a columnist of the Welt am Sonntag for twenty years, died of cancer in Schoeck gained international fame with his book Der Neid: Eine Theorie der Gesellschaft Envy : A Theory of Social Behaviour , which was published in , with the first English translation appearing in


Wanting the Worst

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Helmut Schoeck


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