Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior

Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior



The Pequod Review:

Helmut Schoeck's Envy is a rich and lucid review of the many forms of envy — “a drive which lies at the core of man’s life as a social being." Schoeck intelligently avoids making facile moral judgments about enviousness itself, and instead focuses on the various ways it can be both constructive and destructive. He also shows how envy often underlies what on the surface appears to be "social justice" motivations:

The common denominator for this discontent, this unrest, is the egalitarian impulse; most of the problems experienced or imagined by such minds would theoretically be solved in a society of absolute equals. Hence the constant and strangely tenacious preoccupation of AngloSaxon social science with models and programmes for a society of absolute equals. The utopian desire for an egalitarian society cannot, however, have sprung from any other motive than that of an inability to come to terms with one's own envy, and/or with the supposed envy of one's less well-off fellow men. It must be obvious how such a man, even if only prompted by his unconscious, would carefully evade the phenomenon of envy or at least try to belittle it. It is true that certain American sociologists have repeatedly encountered the problem of envy and have actually named it -- Kingsley Davis, for example, in his textbook of sociology, or Arnold W Green. But what is significant is that the greater the currency of other hypotheses, such as the frustration theory, the more consistent is the neglect of every approach, even in contemporary specialist literature, to a recognition of envy. Practically never has envy as an hypothesis been raised in order to be refuted or subjected to criticism; instead, it has been ignored, as too embarrassing. Envy touched too painfully on something personal which it was preferable to keep buried.

Meanwhile, the tendency for political revolutions to assume the same authoritarian practices of the prior regime comes into sharp relief:

This book is not primarily concerned with forms of domination, power and force; yet the sociology of power and domination should not overlook the factor of envy, since it is always the wish of those who subject themselves to power that others, still able to evade that power, should also subordinate themselves and conform to it. Phenomena such as the totalitarian state and modern dictatorship cannot be fully understood if the social relations between those who have, and those who have not yet conformed, are overlooked. Let us take a typical case: A new center of power has come into being. It may be merely a routine change, it may be usurpation or a party acceding to power by legitimate or illegitimate means, or again it may be a new departmental manager in a plant or officer in a military unit. A previously existing vacuum or balance of power has been altered; a new center of power, whether vested in a group or an individual, exists, and it seeks to expand and to establish itself by bringing under its domination those groups and persons who have not yet submitted to it. At this stage some individuals or groups will already have lined up behind this new power, whether out of greed, cowardice, stupidity or genuine enthusiasm. But these men who have already submitted to the new power are not satisfied with conforming, themselves and almost invariably develop intense feelings of hostility towards those who continue to stand aside skeptically appraising the new power and considering whether to remain aloof.

This is one of those books that makes you look at both human behavior as well as human history — the progress of which has likely been constrained by our inability to properly channel envy toward less destructive ends — in an entirely different way.