by Robert Wyllie

Envy, Pontius Pilate realizes, drives the chief priests to hand over the King of the Jews to him. He knows these men. They are Roman appointees. Even their leader, Joseph ben Caiaphas, serves at his pleasure. Caiaphas seems to believe that he is saving Israel by executing Jesus, the popular wonderworker said to have raised Lazarus and hailed as a king. If this one man does not die, most of the assembled chief priests and Pharisees collectively reason, the commotion will bring in the Romans to destroy the Temple, and the people will perish. So in the eleventh chapter of Saint John’s Gospel, the fix is in. Christ’s “blasphemous” claim to be the messiah is only a pretext for judicial murder. Caiaphas makes a big show of rending his garments in feigned outrage, but this Bad Shepherd’s utilitarian calculation has sealed Jesus’ fate already. Through Pilate’s eyes, we see right through even Caiaphas’s behind-closed-doors Machiavellian raison d’état. No, it is envy that drives him to murder. In Christ he recognizes a Jewish leader who is more popular than him, more powerful even than Annas, his father-in-law, and yes—Caiaphas has heard the rumors—the true high priest.

How does Pilate know that the chief priests are envious? Saint Mark does not explain why the Roman prefect is such an astute study of human nature, but we can speculate. Perhaps he is the lone educated pagan in Judaea. This Pilate might draw the insight from the Greek poets’ fixation upon envy, and so from the education that was a privilege of his equestrian class. Hesiod could have taught him that envy engenders the discord of the present fifth age, and moreover, that envy is particularly intense within what John Rawls calls “comparing groups.” Brother envies brother, potter envies potter, Jewish priest envies Jewish priest.

Maybe Pilate senses the chief priests’ envy by instinct or frequent observation. He might even prefer subalterns who are liable to envy. Long political experience might have taught him to procure invidious agents who are motivated by malice. After all, Caiaphas’s father-in-law Annas, the deposed chief priest and something of an éminence grise among the Sadducees, is not particularly motivated to condemn Christ. Annas lacks the low self-esteem that marks those who are most liable to envy. A tyrant like Pilate has more use for the petty, grudging son-in-law. We do not know the source of Pilate’s intuition for certain. “Quid est veritas?” could just as easily be the question of a close reader of Cicero’s Academica or of a sanguinary brute impatient with any moral stricture. I imagine the real Pilate was both. As the proverb says, envy thou not the oppressor.

Though Pilate understands that Roman justice is being perverted into a ventriloquy of priestly envy, he washes his hands. Again, we are faced with ambiguity. Perhaps Plato and Aristotle, or years of experience in government, have taught him how seldom political justice can divest itself from envy. More likely he is no great lover of justice in the first place. No modern author has drawn a more compelling pen portrait of Pilate than the figure offered, in parallax view, by the alternating perspectives of Mark and John. Anatole France in The Procurator of Judaea makes Pilate an envier himself, vexed that the nameless sensual beauty whom we recognize as Saint Mary Magdalene was attracted to—a long-since retired Pilate struggles to remember, what was his name?—Jesus of Nazareth. A psychologist as subtle as Nietzsche flattens Pilate into an insouciant superior type in The Anti-christ, even a heroic prototype of Nietzsche himself, questioning the value of truth. Even the Master in Mikhail Bulgakov’s mise en abyme, whose wavering Pilate is so compelling, reduces him to obsessive guilt after the crucifixion. Each of these authors, then, eventually resolves Pilate into some overriding pathology. Yet it is Pilate’s ambiguity and elusiveness that makes him—unfortunately—the most relatable of the three human beings intoned by name in our creeds.  

I have been in Pilate’s sandals. For a few successive Good Fridays as a teenager, I performed the role of Pilate in the passion play at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Stamford, Connecticut. We were fortunate in the intense and joyful direction of the late Gaetana “Tana” Sibilio. I would like to believe Monsignor Surwilo in central casting saw the first hints of my dark fascination with Pilate’s strange idea of justice; probably I just looked like a jerk.

Let’s focus on Pilate’s strange idea of justice, then. After acquiescing to torture an innocent commoner to death, he seems to revel in lacerating the chief priests, twisting the knife of their envy by inscribing “The King of the Jews” on the cross. When they howl in protest, somehow still envious of his mutilated victim suffocating to death, Pilate suggests this side punishment was deliberate: “Quod scripsi scripsi.” “Heavy lies the gold spray-painted laurel!” I can hear Tana saying in her inimitable ebullience. It is an impossible role. Pilate is conflicted between various political calculations, interestedness and impatience, and resignation and contempt for the priests. A good man could not be satisfied with petty revenge upon the chief priests; an absolute villain would not have inflicted the unintentionally prophetic statement upon them. How much easier to play the unmovable Pilate portrayed by David Bowie in Martin Scorcese’s Last Temptation of Christ. Bowie’s aloof and imperious Pilate seems to be drawn more from Nietzsche than the bored and yawning figure in Kazantzakis’s novel. Tana made her thirteen-year-olds stick with the more challenging original source material, in my defense.

None of Pilate’s internal dilemmas explain the mob outside the praetorium screaming for Jesus’ crucifixion, for which we must return to the multi-layered rhetorical appeals of the envious Caiaphas. The crowd is not swayed by Caiaphas’s caution against angering Rome. That warning was only for the beneficiaries of Roman clientelism among the well-connected members of the Sanhedrin. The crowd clamors for the release of a revolutionary, after all, in virtually the same breath with which they cry for Christ’s crucifixion. Barabbas’s ecstatic fan base cares not a whit about angering Rome. Instead, they angrily accuse Jesus of blasphemy. Caiaphas’s shirt-ripping theater is meant for them. It is all for show, a rending of garments in the Hulk Hogan style, the first of many campy imitations of the ancient Hebrew gesture of aggrievement that are now familiar to us from W.W.E. WrestleMania. The crowd knows they are impotent under Roman law to fulfill the Law of Moses and stone the alleged blasphemer. This compounds their resentment. (The author of Ecce Homo could describe the crowd’s ressentiment more accurately than he diagnoses Pilate’s noble scorn.) One is tempted to wonder if this isn’t about Jesus at all, really. An innocent victim becomes a scapegoat of frustrated desires for national sovereignty, as have so many millions before and afterwards. Yet the Gospels confirm it is more personal than that. Time and time again, whether from the rank-and-file soldiers or the crowd of civilians, scorn betrays the disappointment and hate of Christ’s most intimate persecutors.

When you meditate on the Passion, do you see envious faces in the angry crowd? It is difficult to imagine them. A couple of years earlier, the Gospels describe how envy has rotted the bones of the villagers of Nazareth. Having long compared themselves to Jesus, who was just another ordinary neighbor of theirs, the hill people will not honor the carpenter and son of Mary as a prophet. They scoff at the cult following He seems to have gathered down in the fishing villages. Envy rots the bones of Caiaphas as well. Who is this upstart peasant leader who speaks as one with authority? We can understand the envy of the neighbor, or the rival priest. It is more difficult to understand how envy might have motived the crowd on Good Friday. They refuse to enter the praetorium so as not to defile themselves for the Passover, when in fact they defile themselves by calling for the death of God. They have no basis of comparison, no particular reason to envy Him. What then motivates the doubt and mockery of these conflicted, finally faithless pharaohs of the New Passover? If they waved palms or shouted “Hosanna!” or spread their cloaks beneath his ass’s colt on Sunday, now they are having second thoughts. Only a fool would believe that He could save them. He cannot even deliver Himself, they say. They are afraid of being played for fools, like many an American television audience. They are only probably envious in the weak and passive sense that we say, “Who does this guy think he is?” They are we.

In its subtlest form, envy is the seed of doubt planted in our admiration. Nobody wants to be fooled by a charlatan. Admirers are in an uneasy position vis-à-vis a great person whom they do not understand. As opposed to admiration, envy refuses to acknowledge superiority. Envy gainsays. The enthusiastic pilgrims on Palm Sunday hear the good news about Lazarus. They admire this messiah who comes in the name of the Lord. But their admiration is fragile. It must be nourished by virtues of faith and trust, virtues not even the Lord’s hand-picked twelve were able to cultivate adequately in the three years of their discipleship.

Admiration is vulnerable to envy in this subtle form, the passion that insinuates doubt. He is no more king than I am! He is no prophet but a blasphemer! Look how the Romans protect Him from the Law of Moses! That blistering critic of every speculative Good Friday, Søren Kierkegaard, directs us to this subtle conspiracy of envy and doubt. Doubt is not a passion, Kierkegaard reasons. What puts us in the mood to be incredulous at the appearance of someone better than us, higher than us, superior to us in ways we care deeply about? Envy. When a seemingly great person appears, admiration and envy are the passions that attend faith and doubt in him or her. In this subtle form, envy is not the gnawing pain or seething malice that Caiaphas may have felt quite intensely at times. Yet it still initiates the same train of thought, skeptical and seemingly well-intentioned. We indignantly reason towards justice, or towards what we believe to be justice, unaware that our concerns are rooted in envy. Kierkegaard warns that we reject our king no less decisively for our lack of awareness. A subtle envy quietly sows doubts in the hearts of the crowd who share none of the chief priests’ fears; the rancorous envy of Caiaphas does the rest.

That envy attends the dramatic climax of the Holy Scriptures is unsurprising. Caiaphas’s envy is prefigured after the Fall by Cain’s envy of Abel the worthy priest, and among the sons of Israel by the ten envious elder brothers of Joseph the prophet and by Saul’s envy of David the true king. Our Lord surrenders himself to envy because envy is the original original sin. The Book of Wisdom tells us that through the devil’s envy, sin entered the world. Paradise Lost imagines these infernal councils in unforgettable ways. Why envy, and not pride? Ignorance is the precondition of the pride of Adam and Eve. They could be tempted to believe they were godlike beings worthy of divine knowledge and power because they lacked the self-knowledge that they were not such beings. The first sinner was not so ignorant. Lucifer sinned in the fullness of intellectual light. The son of the morning defied God despite having what Saint Augustine calls the angelic “morning knowledge” of creation. If Lucifer is proud of something he is not, or if Lucifer misunderstands the nature of his power and knowledge, what is the origin of this pride? Envy, in-vidia, is the passion that un-sees what is Good-in-itself, because it perceives what is Good, and imagines how it would be good if it were under our control and directed to our wishful purposes. Lucifer knew the glory and power of God, and even the goodness of God, but succumbed to envy by desiring the glory and power of divinity for himself. God became man knowing He would have to sacrifice Himself to the envy that unwrought creation.

This brief reflection upon Mark 15:10, and even more briefly upon how Pilate’s political knowledge is a dim intimation of the mystery of our salvation, illustrates a number of observations about envy that have been made from Hesiod to Sigmund Freud. First, there is a proximity principle in the origins of envy: Caiaphas as high priest envies Jesus the high priest, just as the Nazoreans envy their old neighbor. Second, the liability of low self-esteem to envy: Caiaphas’s low satisfaction with his own project of amassing power and security makes him more pained by Jesus’ success than Annas is, for example. Third and fourth, there is the repression of envy and its sublimation into justice: Caiaphas copes with his envy by making a tendentious utilitarian justice claim that it is better for one man to die than the whole people, the murderous effect of which promises to assuage his unvoiced envy. (The skepticism of the crowd manifests this, as we have seen, in a subtler way.) Fifth, there is the insatiability of envy: even as our Lord expires on the cross, the chief priests are lacerated by the claim to kingship nailed above the gruesome spectacle.

For the first time since antiquity, envy is being widely recast in a positive light. In recent years, the New Yorker and the New Criterion have featured essays on the upside of envy. Ethicists even ponder whether envy is a necessary part of a virtuous life. Their intuition is that enviers care about equality and justice. They are unwilling to settle for less than they deserve. Left-wing populists such as Chantal Mouffe call for a politics that taps into reservoirs of envy which ordinary people allegedly feel towards the rich and powerful. These calls are not new, but socialists of an older vintage only reluctantly conceded the invidious motivations of their partisans, if at all. Bertrand Russell, for example, reasoned that envy may motivate many socialists to seek distributive justice, but the nasty motivational problem overcomes itself once equity is eventually achieved. The fact that today’s voices argue for a more fulsome rehabilitation of envy seems significant. Don’t sell yourself short, be a little more like Caiaphas!

These new vindications of envy invert a more common trope: that we late moderns are more envious than ever. This escalation claim is a favorite of conservatives, who basically corner the market in books about envy. (This is one of the odd academic topics where the literature is dominated by conservatives and libertarians.) Raymond Geuss suggests why. He criticizes conservative elites for projecting envy upon their social inferiors. Geuss argues that envy-attribution is a rhetorical cudgel typically used to impugn calls for equality and social justice. The conservative’s core intuition, already one that Plato and Aristotle inherit, is that envy motivates democrats to seek equality. (Contempt is the oligarchs’ corresponding vice.) Modern conservatives do not forget this argument; Tocqueville indicted envy as the cause of the French Revolution, but also worried it would leave a mark on modern democracies around the world. The basic argument is a syllogism that draws on the proximity principle: our envy is range-limited to our comparing equals; democracy extends the range of our comparing equals; therefore, the potential for envy is much increased in democracies. Modern conservatives argue that you and I are much more liable to envy than Caiaphas, or the first-century crowd outside the praetorium, or Saul, or Rachel, or Cain. While this should strike readers of the Holy Scriptures as an odd claim on its face, the modern-conservative literature is substantial and interesting enough to warrant exploring further.

The leading academic survey of envy remains a book published by the German sociologist Helmut Schoeck, Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. He combines Tocqueville’s basic conservative argument with Freud’s theory of envy repression. Schoeck argues that social justice is a sublimated envy-drive, and its egalitarian or socialist supporters are subliminally motivated by a desire to assuage the pain of their envy. Schoeck also defines the proximity principle proportionally: i.e., the more equal an inferior is to a superior, the more envious an inferior is to a superior. Now, every advance of equality that makes egalitarians and socialists closer equals only makes them more envious of their superiors. Perfect equality is impossible, and would require the mandatory plastic surgery regimes or handicaps for the physically strong out of 1960s science fiction. In a kind of snowball effect, Schoeck argues that egalitarians and socialists become increasingly rancorous each step of the way, unconsciously driven by pain to intrusively bring equality to ever-more-absurd dimensions of human life. The argument is overly complex (e.g., so long as we’re not taking egalitarians at their word, perhaps they aim for superiority?), politically biased in the extreme, and completely unfalsifiable. Worst of all, as we shall see, Schoeck completely ignores solutions that liberal egalitarians and democrats propose for the envy problem.

Similar warnings about envy found a wider audience in the early years of the Cold War, and not only from conservatives. Destructive envy runs amok in the speculative fiction of L. P. Hartley and Kurt Vonnegut, in the bestselling social criticism of F. A. Hayek, and in whatever we want to call Ayn Rand’s idiosyncratic combination of the two. When Whittaker Chambers famously calls Ludwig von Mises’s book The Anti-capitalistic Mentality “know-nothing conservatism at its know-nothingest,” he seems to have missed only the fact that the envy-critique of egalitarian justice is the most eloquent theme that connects almost three thousand years of recognizably conservative thinking. (It makes one sympathize with George Will’s claim that the shoe is on the other foot when it comes to Chambers and “know-nothing conservatism”.) A list of authors who contribute to the literature on envy would quickly grow too long for a short essay. Even more than Schoeck’s Envy, the Spanish essayist Gonzalo Fernández de la Mora’s Egalitarian Envy is the best comprehensive guide to the theme of envy in scripture, theology, philosophy, literature, and contemporary politics.

Anne Hendershott’s Politics of Envy is the latest installment in this controversial but well-pedigreed genre, published by Sophia Press in 2020. Hendershott unfortunately updates some of the genre’s more dubious conventions: Marxism is entirely based upon envy, and Senator Sanders of Vermont and Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez of New York follow this playbook. Less clear is exactly how Pope Francis is implicated in an “envy-driven ideological turn to the left in Rome.” Hendershott is a sociologist at Franciscan University in Steubenville, though, and her perspective as a Catholic sociologist has a substantial upside that makes the first three chapters of the book a delight. Hendershott shares a study from the University of California, San Diego, in 2015 which finds that men and older people tend to envy success at work, women and younger people in romance. She is in her element offering a lively review of the debate among sociologists about whether these sex differences in particular are constructs of how individuals are integrated into the workplace or facts of evolutionary biology. Hendershott favors the latter view, she says, in part because of her admiration for the work of René Girard.

If envy is a primordial principle of cosmic evil, older even than humanity, it is strange for Christians to think that we can ever come to a sociological understanding of its origins and effects. It is furthermore strange to think—with these modern conservatives—that we are more envious than the human beings who killed the incarnate God come to save them from sin. This is where Girard comes in. A French historian and literary critic who spent his life teaching in the United States, Girard developed his hallmark theories of mimetic desire and mimetic violence in the 1970s. The gist is that human beings are imitators. We desire what others desire. When he writes about Shakespeare in A Theater of Envy, Girard admits that “envy” is the more plain-spoken name of this problem. Mimetic conflict erupts over scarce and rival objects like wealth, power, or sexual partners, or over positional goods like honor. In Violence and the Sacred, Girard argues that because mimetic violence threatens to engulf and destroy communities, myths and rituals isolate a single individual as a scapegoat for the community’s mimetic crisis. At this point, French high theory and Girard’s conversations with his Stanford colleague Michel Serres lead—perhaps surprisingly—in the direction of a Christian apologetic. Christ is the ultimate scapegoat. The Gospels, however, do not present the Passion matter-of-factly like ancient myths, but reveal the manifest injustice. Christ has come, Girard argues, to reveal this “key of knowledge.” The Passion reveals the truth about human violence, according to Girard. Turning especially to the Sermon on the Mount, Girard argues that Christ enlists Christians in an apocalyptic struggle against mimetic violence, and teaches us an otherworldly justice altogether free of retribution.

When Girard takes up the Passion as the great counter-myth and anti-sacrifice in Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, he must emphasize how the inspired text presents the unanimity of the crowd, the Jewish authorities, and Pilate. The surprising volte-face of all Jerusalem between Palm Sunday and Good Friday lays bare how mimetic violence is transferred onto a convenient scapegoat.

Unfortunately for Girard and his followers, the Gospel allows us to distinguish between the envy-motives of the crowd and Caiaphas, which are each different in turn from the other chief priests’ fear of Rome, and different still from Pilate’s feelings of contempt, cowardice, and vengefulness. Girard overdraws the Passion as the great deconstruction of mimetic violence and human justice. Christ comes to save us from original sin and to undo the effects of envy upon the world, but perhaps not to star in an exposé of ever-spiraling mimetic violence.

Any “politics of envy” requires a mechanism for how envy (or mimetic violence) scales up from individuals and their comparing equals to an entire crowd or society. The weakness of the Tocqueville-Schoeck account is that formal political equality does not necessarily make us even roughly comparing equals. The simple fact of formal equality is often a necessary condition for envy, but it is hardly a sufficient one. One possible mechanism is technological. Hendershott suggests social media algorithms designed to boost the exposure of content to which users have a visceral reaction. Peter Thiel famously credits Girard, his teacher at Stanford, with inspiring him to see the potential in online social media and to become an early investor in Facebook. But even when I see putatively enviable content, why shall I envy what you envy? Hendershott considers studies suggesting that young people are particularly vulnerable. This is the time of your life that you spend dreaming of what your life will be like.

Fictionalization is a much older scaling mechanism for envy. It is nevertheless endemic to envy online, since social-media users can extensively curate and manage their digital appearances. We envy who others appear to be, not who they are. Again, this is an old problem, even if social media intensifies it, and a good lesson about it comes from The Apology, where Socrates dismisses the three younger men who accuse him of impiety and corrupting the youth and claims that “envy is my true accuser.” Let us assume Socrates simply observes rightly, taking the surface meaning claim as the Gospel-truth no less than Saint Mark’s description of Pilate. How can anyone in Athens, especially these three, a no-name poet, a no-name orator, and a democratic politician from a family of tanners, compare themselves to the great Socrates? Plato shows us that they envy Socrates, the bumbling natural philosopher and grifter fictionalized by Aristophanes in The Clouds. Aristophanes, the drinking buddy of Socrates from The Symposium, knows full well that his friend and rival is not or is no longer such a philosopher. But the young men who accuse him were too young back then to understand the joke, or so a septuagenarian Socrates argues in his own defense. They envy a lesser semi-fictitious Socrates whom they mistakenly regard as an equal. Subtle envy may induce us, democratic citizens too, to think extraordinary individuals less admirable than they are. The fourth-century Athenians are no happier about being played for fools than the first-century Jerusalemites are. “Who is he to ask questions about the gods of the city? Who is he to teach the youths? Does he know any better than their fathers?”

Whatever our Catholic-guilt levels, we should be skeptical of the maudlin suggestion that envy afflicts us much worse than it plagued Athens or Jerusalem of old; likewise, we should doubt that it affects us much less. Shakespeare gives us a lot about envy to ponder, as Girard recognizes, but the Bard wisely makes it mysterious. The summer before I started graduate school, some of us read The Winter’s Tale at the home of Michael and Catherine Zuckert, where they immediately lived up to their storied reputation as generous teachers of political philosophy. We puzzled over the strange change undergone by Leontes in Act I. What makes the king of Sicily suddenly paranoid that his friend Polixenes, the king of Bohemia, is cuckolding him? Shakespeare presents us with only the symptoms of jealousy. This was only the start of my education in envy. Meanwhile, my wife Christine started to budget for a family of three, then four, then five on my twenty thousand dollar annual stipend. I do not know whether she envied her friends their more responsible husbands. As for me, oddly, I never envied my sensible friends who studied medicine or the law, or waited longer to marry and raise children. It only now occurs to me they may have avoided lentils altogether. Instead, I envied my new peers when they published in the Review of Politics, even though I had only become acquainted with these scholarly journals months before. Potter envies potter, graduate student envies graduate student.

When I wrote my doctoral dissertation on envy, I discovered that political philosophers have solved the problem, though I doubt their solution goes as far as they think. I want to give two cheers for liberal institutionalist arrangements that are meant to cut against envy by supporting citizens’ self-esteem, but which assiduously avoid passions that involve esteem for others. (Martha Nussbaum’s turn to love in Political Emotions is an important exception.) In a rare neglected argument in his modern classic A Theory of Justice, John Rawls overmatches Schoeck’s argument that social justice is rooted in repressed envy. Famously, rational persons behind a veil of ignorance, blind to every determinant of their own social status and even their conception of a good life, would design basic political structures that (among other things) allow a marginal increase in social and economic inequalities so long as it benefits the least-well-off member of society. To refute Schoeck in particular, Rawls makes a special assumption that nobody suffers from envy in this blinkered boardroom at the beginning of the universe. But then in the last part of the book, he factors envy back in, to test whether his conventions of justice can survive in a world of invidious people. Here the mature Rawls draws deep from WASPy wisdom: an idle mind is the devil’s workshop. He argues that public respect for all persons and private opportunities for success in many different kinds of endeavors will form the kind of citizens least likely to suffer rancorous envy.

Almost three hundred years before Rawls, in The Hague in the mid-1670s, Baruch Spinoza first theorized institutional reforms that would serve to bypass the sources of envy. The mature Spinoza had no choice, perhaps, because he thought that admiration and faith were impossible to sustain without force and fear. If Rawls inclines to the same moral psychology, he does not write a treatise on the subject comparable to Part III of the Ethics. A critic might call Spinoza’s a hamster-wheel solution to envy, distracting citizens with opportunities for empowerment, so that we remain too busy with our own projects to look over our shoulders at others. Yet we can still appreciate how diverse, free, and rich civil societies, the fruits of early-modern liberal hopes, encompass many worthy pursuits. Even Girard admits that modern societies have a greater capacity to contain envy; this is one way that his student Paul Dumouchel wedges his mimetic theory away from the mainstream modern-conservative envy critique.

So what could Pilate have done, were he educated by Spinoza and Rawls rather than Hesiod and Cicero? First, he ought to have created more political opportunities for the people of Judaea. More public offices attached to burdensome duties, held on a rotational basis, could satisfy aspiring leaders like Caiaphas, as well as ordinary Jews in the crowd who feel the pain of powerlessness. Second, Pilate should have focused more on economic opportunities for Judaeans to earn denarii. Encourage everyone to contribute to and compete for limitless, movable, and fungible capital—as opposed to fixed land rents—and they might work from home instead of clamoring for you to murder God for them. Third, Pilate should have redoubled the efforts of Antiochus IV a century earlier to bring a rich and diverse civil society to Jerusalem. Ordinary Judaeans could then derive self-esteem from wrestling naked in the gymnasia and performing in the theater, pursuits that would keep them from falling away into Maccabee-style religious extremism. Fourth, Pilate should have committed himself to a contract conception of justice that publicly acknowledges everyone’s entitlements to basic rights.

These secular institutional solutions, especially a public commitment to respect others’ dignity, have real merit. I doubt, though, that they are enough. Like Nietzsche in Genealogy of Morals, I suspect that Christianity has played the most important role in assuaging, reproaching, occasionally perhaps indulging the envy of millions, but always buttressing Western societies against its destructive effects. The classical and Christian dams against envy (and their spillways) crumble because they are raised to the heights of admiration; Spinoza’s more modest dikes redirect our desires towards less-excludable and less-rival goods in order to avoid the causes of envy altogether. I am less sure than Spinoza and even Girard that we understand all of these causes. Shakespeare and Mark are more eloquent in their silence. Envy remains a mysterious problem in human history, probably a constant but for the changing methods that we believe we possess to understand it and mitigate its effects. If the liberal tradition seems too pessimistic about our capacity for admiration, it simultaneously seems too optimistic that envy can admit of purely secular, institutional solutions. Society is only realizing Spinoza’s vision now that envy is no longer a fearsome evil to be avoided; instead, its social determinants are. This is why the sophists have returned, after two thousand three hundred years of obloquy, to publicly sing the praises of envy once again.

To read more articles like this one,
subscribe to The Lamp here.