Envy: The Undiscussed Killer of Societies and Individuals

Throughout human history, the greatest of the great innovators have been rebuffed, persecuted or even put to death.

Socrates — regardless of what one thinks of his philosophy — was put to death for asking questions that even the democratic Greeks did not want to hear. Galileo was silenced by Church-government authorities for daring to discover that the earth revolved around the sun. Even in the comparatively free society of America, business geniuses such as John D. Rockefeller, Bill Gates and others are subject to incoherent and confiscatory tax and antitrust laws, as well as never-ending howls of moral disapproval from left, right and every which way. When sports stars, probably the only socially approved heroes in our society, are caught up in sex or other personal scandals, the gleeful satisfaction with which most greet these disappointments are revealing of a “gotcha–I knew it!” mentality which implies verification of something, perversely, many hoped to see verified all along.

What gives? Why do most human beings, throughout every period of human history, love to destroy their heroes?

To my knowledge, the best explanation is envy. The best definition of envy I know of is that of Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand: “Hatred of the good for being the good.”

This definition nails it. Envy is more than hatred. It’s hatred of something precisely because it’s good — or at least perceived as good. Envy is not hatred of Hitler. Hitler and others like him inspire fear and/or loathing — but not envy. Envy is reserved only for the good, or particularly the great.

Only envy could explain the hatred of success and achievement increasingly present in American society — one of the only societies in human history to ever uphold and celebrate achievement. Americans still love the good things that success brings. But whenever there’s a chance to hear a President morally condemn these things — they applaud it, and vote for it, and then vote for it again. When there’s a chance to tax it, irrationally regulate it, or in any way constrain it — they cheer it on.

It’s arguably true that most people are at least pretty good — with “good” defined as more or less self-responsible, trying to be honest and productive — most of the time. If that weren’t the case, civilization would be in a total state of collapse or not even exist at all. Yet there’s obviously something wrong with the great majority of people if society after society — particularly the great ones that matter, the American experiment most of all — ultimately start to go the way of the dinosaur.

If it’s true that the best within us are creativity, intelligence, productivity, the willingness to be the best we possibly can at whatever we rationally seek to do … then what’s the worst within us?

Some will say “hatred,” in the sense of irrational prejudice against certain people or groups. I certainly don’t condone irrational prejudice, and I agree that in its worst forms (where force is involved) it’s evil. But there has to be something deeper giving rise to the prejudice. What is it? My answer: Hatred of the good — for being the good.

Let’s think of a Jew-hating Nazi, for example. Jews were perceived as an unusually plucky and productive people. It’s precisely for this reason they were hated by Hitler and others (even today). They weren’t hated for being a bunch of lazy do-nothings. They were hated precisely because they were (on the whole) successful and productive, independent and survival-oriented. This was a threat to those (white Germans and others, in this case) who felt they were, by birthright, entitled to a superior status.

As another example, consider white racist hatred against blacks, especially in America. While it’s true that racists would spread the myth that blacks were, by birth, inferior, shiftless and lazy, it wasn’t for these (alleged) reasons that blacks were hated by white racists. They were hated precisely for the fact that given the same individual rights as whites, they would, on the whole, do just as well. This was the idea that white racists could not tolerate. Setting slaves free and getting rid of government-enforced laws to favor whites over blacks (as Jim Crow laws once did) would risk exposing the truth that blacks were not inferior, and were just as capable of goodness or greatness as any white person.

Hatred and prejudice arise out of fear — irrational fear. But the irrational fear, I think you’ll find, is always grounded in envy … hatred of good for being the good.

Time and again, this is the emotion that has killed civilizations. Americans can point with pride to the fact that they ultimately ended slavery and most of the irrational racism against blacks left in the culture. But envy is still alive and well. It takes different forms. At present, hatred is directed at the successful — because they are successful. “They have more than you, and we hate them for that. We’re going to take them down a notch.” It’s not about equality or fairness. Everyone is equal under the law, or at least should be. The issue is resenting, even hating, another for having what you feel they should not have — and to which you feel entitled.

It’s preached to us that we should not hate, and that irrational hatred makes the hater weak. I don’t disagree. But we have to face the fact that most of us feel hatred towards people and things which are not the usual suspects. Hatred and envy are alive and well in America, arguably even growing. This is what makes us susceptible to a more authoritarian government — proposed by the religious right no less than the socialist-fascist left. It will ultimately place us in a dictatorship, if we all don’t look into ourselves and identify the undiscussed killer of societies and individuals: Hatred of the good for being the good.


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