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Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins by Joseph Epstein


Rating: (Recommended)


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In less skilled hands, a small book about a deadly sin would be horrid to read. Thanks to Joseph Epstein’s wit and wisdom, Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins presents readers with a lighthearted and serious exploration of the many forms of envy. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 7 (pp. 51-58):

Under Capitalism Man Envies Man; Under Socialism, Vice Versa


Greed is said to be the sin of capitalist societies, envy that of socialist ones. There is something—quite a lot, actually—to it. Putting the best possible face on things, some say that greed is little more than emulative envy. Capitalism allows one the liberty to be as rich as—or, better, richer than—everyone else. Socialism, flying under the flag of equality, seeks a society in which no one has anything more than anyone else: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs," to quote a sentence that once had a lot more resonance in the world than it does today.

The doctrine of Marxism is many things, but one among them is a plan of revenge for the envious. How else can one view Karl Marx's central idea, the perpetual class struggle, ending in the defeat and eradication of the aristocracy, the rentier class, the bourgeois, everyone, really, but the working class, which will arise at last in the form of the glorious dictatorship of the proletariat? "It is only in Marxism, the abstract and glorified concept of the proletariat,  the disinherited,  and exploited," writes Helmut Schoeck, "that a position of implacable envy is fully legitimized." In certain minds, Marxism can be seen as less a body of economic theory than as an act of collective vengeance: soak the rich, is its rally cry, in their own blood, is implied.

Envy could be construed as injustice brought down to the personal level. Why him and not me? The fundamental question of the envious is at bottom a question about the injustice of the way the world has things arranged. One of the evils socialism was to eliminate, along with injustice, was envy itself. With everyone being equal, nothing would be left to envy. The problem, as the actual experience of revolutionary socialism revealed, was that some would be more equal than others, which put them in a position to crush the rest, which they, once established as first among equals, seem to have had a propensity to do, and, as history has shown, often—as in the Soviet Union and Mao's China—in appallingly large numbers.

Envy becomes political when it becomes generalized. It becomes generalized when a large, or at least ample, section of society feels, as John Rawls puts it in his Theory of Justice, an unfairness on the part of those "more favored for the kinds of goods they possess and not for the particular objects they possess. The upper classes are envied for their greater wealth and opportunity; those who envy them want similar advantages for themselves." Particular envy is more individual, more personal, more single-mindedly covetous, and tends to blame the gods and not any social system for its being.

In Rawls's words, "We may think of envy as the propensity to view with hostility the greater good of others even though their being more fortunate than we does not detract from our advantages." So viewed, "Envy is collectively disadvantageous; the individual who envies another is prepared to do things that make them both worse off, if only the discrepancy between them is sufficiently reduced." One sees this on those occasions when class warfare really is roaring. During the late 1970s and early '80s, when the British trade unions seemed to have a stranglehold on British industry, an English friend of mine, himself born into the working class, reported to me that, when told that their aggressive behavior threatened to sink the economy of the country, British labor unionists were likely to reply: "That's O.K. here, mate, so long as those upper-class bastards go down with us." There speaks envy in its most aggressive political form.

In John Rawls's opinion, a well-ordered society will do much "to mitigate if not prevent" the conditions that make for envy. Through its institutions, among them those allowing truly evenhanded justice and proximate equality of opportunity, it can take the sting out of serious disparities of possessions among its citizens. He remarks, too, that "the plurality of voluntary associations [churches, clubs, unions, and other groupings] in a well-ordered society, each with its own secure internal life, tends to reduce the visibility, or at least the painful visibility, of variations in men's prospects." All this presumes that the advantaged do not make an ostentatious display of their advantages "calculated to demean the condition of those who have less"—not, in a world more and more enthralled by advertising, an easy thing to guarantee. Envy, as John Rawls well recognized, presents a problem for any society that likes to think of itself as just, and one neither rightly gainsaid nor easily guarded against.

A problem on a larger scale is that presented by envy on the international scene. Many—one is inclined to write "most"— wars have been fought because of one nation's envy of another's territory and all the riches that derive from it, or out of jealously guarded riches that another nation feels are endangered by those less rich who are therefore likely to be envious of their superior position. The politics of balancing power have been employed to prevent these jungle-like conditions and impulses to rule supreme, sometimes with more success than at others.

Then there is the strong envy that the people in one nation feel for those in another, whom they feel have it too easy. When one sees the forms this can take, it is difficult not to feel that much anti-Americanism has envy at its heart. "The emotional leitmotifs of anti-Americanism," writes Timothy Garton Ash, in an essay titled "Anti-Europeanism in America," "are resentment mingled with envy." Envy of this kind flared up in an ugly way after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York. Although many anti-American intellectuals in other countries claimed that the attack came as a direct result of United States foreign policy, one sniffed something more personally rancorous behind these claims. Writing in such magazines as The London Review of Books and Granta, European and other non-American intellectuals weighed in with the notion that America somehow deserved what had happened, implying that, with any justice at all, more of the same kind would be coming its way, and rightly so.


Some of this anti-Americanism was of the standard brand. The playwright Harold Pinter hits the note nicely when he calls America "arrogant, indifferent [to human suffering, one assumes], contemptuous of International law," all of which has brought about "a profound revulsion and disgust with the manifestations of American power and global capitalism."

Standard stuff, as I say, but what was other than standard was the piercing note of envy, struck, for example, in the magazine Granta, by the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk, whose first memory of America was of a little American boy, living in his building in Istanbul, who had marbles of a much higher quality than any Turkish marbles and used to drop them from the balcony on Pamuk and his friends on the street below: a metaphor for the lofty contempt that came with American opulence. In the same magazine, Ramachandra Guha, an Indian writer, wrote that "historically, anti-Americanism in India was shaped by an aesthetic distaste for America's greatest gift—the making of money." Ariel Dorfman, an American who has become a Chilean citizen, tells of watching an annoying American child fall into a pool and begin to drown, while he himself felt "a pang of indifference" at the sight—"that it was none of my business, that in some perverse sense the kid had it coming to him." Happily to report, Dorfman did scoop the child out of the water, and he later remarks on his own ultimately murderous emotion, but one has to wonder where such hatred derives if not from a very deep envy.

"The searing heart-burn of envy," says a character in a novella titled Envy (1927), written and set in the Soviet Union by Y. Olesha. "Envy causes a choking feeling in the throat, squeezes the eyes out of their sockets." The characters in this novel are living in a purely socialist, nightmarishly bureaucratized society, and those whose sensitivity has not yet been rooted out of them, know that their lives have been horribly stunted. "I was sorry for him," the narrator of the story says of his father. "He could no longer be handsome or famous, he was a finished product, he could never be anything." Nor can anyone else in this novel, including the narrator, except the arid Soviet model of a bureaucrat working for the glory of the state. One of the main figures in the story, a figure of great prestige, is at work designing the perfect sausage.

"Only not for us," says the apparently (but not really) mad character Ivan Babichev to his daughter, "all that is left for us is envy and more envy. . . . " Envy and indifference: "I'd go as far as to say that indifference is the finest attribute of the human mind," this same Ivan Babichev remarks. "Let's cultivate indifference." The moral of Olesha's dark little story seems to be that all that remains to those trapped in a putatively envy-free society is envy for those who are able to live outside it. And of course no society was more envy-ridden than the late (and not in the least lamented) Soviet Union, where turning in one's neighbors for their perceived advantages allowed envy to become a way of life and a way to get a leg up.

No Utopia yet invented, no matter how brutal it has been willing to be in the name of its own idealism, has been able to root out envy.

Epstein really gets all the best writing jobs. Read Envy and see how it makes you feel.

Steve Hopkins, October 28, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the November 2003 issue of Executive Times

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