Welcome back to our occasional, ongoing series exploring the nature of envy.
In the previous article, we defined what envy is.
We based our definition of envy on Aristotle’s: pain at the good fortune of others.
We also experience envy when we feel joy at the bad fortune of others. The Germans call that schadenfreude
We experience envy when we compare ourselves to others, particularly people who are similar to us. You probably don’t feel envy towards Jeff Bezos for his wealth, but you likely turn green with it when you hear that your co-worker got a big raise.
There’s another feeling that often accompanies envy, and it’s one that philosophers have found particularly worthy of examination. Like envy itself, it not only makes us feel bad, but also is a vice which can canker our character.
That feeling/state/mindset is resentment.
Envy Leads to Resentment
Envy is, again, pain at the good fortune of another person. When you — whether consciously or unconsciously — blame the envied person for causing you that pain, that creates a form of resentment.
Resentment is a complex emotion. It describes the displeasure — the anger, disgust, and contempt — you feel towards someone you think has wronged you in some way or violated some code of values. Marked by a sense of indignation, resentment is often born from the perception that you (or those you care about) have been treated unfairly.
Sometimes feelings of resentment are justified. If a co-worker gets a promotion because he dishonestly took credit for an idea that was actually yours, you’re going to feel understandably indignant. If your brother’s drug problem has caused all kinds of headaches and heartache for your parents, you may come to resent him.
With resentment born from envy, however, the “offender” doesn’t know he or she has done something that’s affected you (they may, in fact, not know you, period!). They committed no intentional act of malice towards you or others. You simply feel resentful at what they have or who they are. You perceive that they got what they have unfairly, this causes you pain, and you categorize them as the source of your pain. It may not even be that you think someone has directly done something to you, but simply a sense, born of a scarcity-mindset, that because they have gotten something good, there’s less of it for you; they have in some way robbed you of a reward or quality that you desire for yourself. You essentially end up blaming someone for existing.
Resentment is a silent emotion. You usually don’t express it like outright anger. Instead of burning white hot, it smolders inside you. People often don’t know that you resent them. When resentment outwardly manifests itself, it usually does so through passive aggression. You might ignore people, snip at them, or gossip about them behind their backs. Resentment is sneaky.
Every now and then, resentment can flare up, and you suddenly lash out at people with words or even violence.
Ressentiment and the Inversion of Values
The pain that arises from envy can be described as dissonance: the discomfort that emerges in the gap between where you are and where the person you envy is — between what someone else has or is and what you think you should have or be.
There are two ways to close that gap, and eliminate that uncomfortable dissonance.
The first is to strive upwards, towards the person you envy, in order to attain or achieve what they have attained or achieved.
The second is to pull the person down, so that you no longer perceive them as being above you in any way.
We do this by denigrating someone’s success — finding ways to say that their achievements or virtues aren’t actually so great, and definitely don’t make them better than us.
“Yeah, that guy got the promotion, but he had to degrade himself with office politics and brown-nose to get it.”
“Yeah, that guy is a better artist than me, but I bet his family life is in shambles because he focuses so much on his work.”
“Yeah, that guy’s business is booming, but it’s only because he engages in so much hyped-up marketing on social media.”
“Yeah, that guy’s really ripped, but who’d want to be a meathead who spends so much time in the gym?