Against the Politics of Envy
Professor Ed Feser on how left-wing appeals to “social justice” on questions of gender, race, and class mask a deeply antisocial ressentiment that’s destructive of peace and order.
The ideology that has in recent years come to dominate left-wing politics goes by many names: Critical Social Justice, identity politics, “wokeness,” the “successor ideology,” and so on. It also encompasses multiple sub-movements: Critical Race Theory, Queer theory, fourth-wave feminism, and the like. But a pervasive theme is that inequity as such is unjust, so that achieving equity is essential to social justice. Indeed, inequity is often treated as if it were the telltale mark of persistent and structural injustice, and eliminating it the highest imperative. And such claims are presented as if they were simply the consistent working out of principles of justice to which the modern West is already committed.
The reality is that the demand for equity has nothing at all to do with justice, but is rooted instead in one of the seven deadly sins – envy. If many modern people do not see this, that is precisely because this particular sin is itself now pervasive and deep-rooted in modern Western society. In any case, that the demand for equity flows from this sin is, or ought to be, obvious, given what moralists have traditionally said about the nature and effects of envy.
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We can see this by considering the views of two giants of Western thought who wrote at length on the subject – Thomas Aquinas and Friedrich Nietzsche. These thinkers couldn’t otherwise be more different. Indeed, Nietzsche deployed hisown account of envy in a critique of the Christianity represented by Aquinas. In fact, Nietzsche’s target was a crude caricature of Christianity, though explaining how is a topic for another time. What matters for our purposes is that the accounts these thinkers gave of envy itself (as opposed to their applications of these accounts) are compatible and complementary. And they both clearly expose the contemporary obsession with equity as rooted in vice rather than virtue.
Aquinas on envy
Aquinas discusses envy in several places, and in a systematic way in Summa Theologiae Part II-II, Question 36 and On Evil, Question X. Envy, as he says, involves “sorrow for another’s good.” The good in question might be anything. It could be money, talent, fame, a nice house, a beautiful wife, or a happy family. It could be peace of mind, knowledge, moral virtue, spiritual insight, closeness to God. The very fact that the other person has this good is resented by, and experienced as painful to, the envious person.
However, as Aquinas immediately goes on to note, this needs qualification. Not every kind of sorrow at another’s good amounts to envy. Suppose someone who means to harm you or your loved ones gains power by which he might do so. For example, it might be a rival at work who gains a position of influence by which he might get you fired. Such a position is a kind of good, and naturally, you grieve that he has achieved it. But that is not envy. Rather, it is a perfectly healthy concern for your own well-being and that of your loved ones.
Or suppose you are sorry that someone enjoys some goodbecause he has gained it unjustly. For example, you might be appalled at Bernie Madoff’s wealth, because he got it dishonestly and seriously harmed many innocent people in doing so. And you might be pleased that he eventually lost these ill-gotten gains and ended up in prison. That is not envy either. It is indignation at injustice, and satisfaction at seeing the wrong eventually corrected (however imperfectly in this case).
Or suppose that someone has achieved some good that you have sought unsuccessfully, and this is an occasion of sadness for you – not because you in any way resent the other person’s having it, but simply because it reminds you of your own frustrated desire. This is not necessarily envy either. It isn’t really that the other person has this good that bothers you, but simply that you do not have it. For example, you don’t begrudge the other person his good job or happy marriage, and may even be glad for him. You simply wish you had the same.
Envy is, again, sorrow over another’s good, not just over our lack of it. The very fact that the other person has it is itself the source of pain. And the pain is there not because the other person might use this good to harm us, or because he got it unjustly. Rather, Aquinas says, “we grieve over a man's good, in so far as his good surpasses ours; this is envy properlyspeaking, and is always sinful” (emphasis added). In other words, the envious person is pained simply at the fact that the other person has more of a certain good. The inequality in itself– and not the way it arose or what it might lead to – is what brings sorrow. The reason is that “one conceives the good of the person envied as an impediment to one’s own excellence” (On Evil, Question 10, Article 3).
As this indicates, envy can follow from the sin of pride, and Aquinas holds (in Summa Theologiae Part I, Question 63) that this is precisely what happened in the case of the fallen angels. It was because of their stung pride that these angels “grieved… over the Divine excellence,” which is greater than their own, and “desired to be as God.” To be sure, there is no sin in wanting to be like God in the way God himself makes possible through grace. But this was not acceptable to the fallen angels, who resented the fact that they needed divine assistance for this and were not owed it by nature. Aquinas writes:
The devil desired to be as God… in this respect – by desiring, as his last end of beatitude, something which he could attain by the virtue of his own nature, turning his appetite away from supernatural beatitude, which is attained by God's grace. Or, if he desired as his last end that likeness of God which is bestowed by grace, he sought to have it by the power of his own nature; and not from Divine assistance according to God's ordering. (Emphasis added)
That there is a natural inequality between angelic excellence and divine excellence, and that the former could not be made even to approximate the latter except by the help of the one who is more excellent, is intolerable to the demons. It is the inequity as such that pains them as an affront to their pride. So deep does this resentment go that, according to Aquinas, “when the devil tempts us to envy, he is enticing us to that which has its chief place in his heart.”
Envy tends to simmer. Aquinas notes that just as “hatred is long-standing anger,” so too “all envy is something long-standing” (On Evil, Question X, Article 2). Moreover, just as envy can have its source in pride, other sins in turn can have their source in envy. In particular, says Aquinas, envy has“daughters” – sins that have a tendency to follow upon it as natural byproducts. Envy seeks to defame the person envied, “disparaging the virtues of the other or by saying bad things about the other,” so that the envious “belittle every good and exaggerate every evil of their enemy” (On Evil, Question X, Article 3). Moreover, “the movement of envy sometimes ends in hate, namely, that a human being… wishes the other’s misfortune absolutely” leading to “exultation over those suffering adversity” (ibid.). When this evil wish is achieved, the envious person experiences a kind of disordered joy. When it is frustrated, the envious person suffers “distress” (ibid.).
Indeed, in his treatment of the sin of hatred in SummaTheologiae Part II-II, Question 34, Aquinas identifies envy as its chief source. He says that “since envy is sorrow for our neighbor's good, it follows that our neighbor's good becomes hateful to us, so that ‘out of envy cometh hatred.’”
Nietzsche on ressentiment
Nietzsche’s account of envy is consistent with Aquinas’s (even if, again, his application of this analysis to a critique of Christianity is certainly not). But there are differences of emphasis. Like Aquinas, Nietzsche takes envy to involve sorrow at another person’s possessing more of some good. But he consistently focuses on the greater power of others as that which the envious person cannot bear. Like Aquinas, Nietzsche takes hatred to be envy’s natural sequel. But he puts much greater emphasis on how envy and the hatred it spawns can harden into a seething and poisonous ressentiment intent on destroying its object.
Most importantly, Nietzsche goes well beyond Aquinas in developing an account of how the vice of envy can masqueradeas a virtue. Indeed, in On the Genealogy of Morals, he says that “ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values,” fabricating an entire system of morality by which the envious may achieve an “imaginary revenge” over those they envy (p. 36, Kaufmann and Hollingdale translation). What this involves is an inversion of the moral order – in particular, of any moralitythat would allow the envied person to have what the envious person lacks. First, the envied person’s possession of this good is re-conceptualized as immoral:
One should ask… precisely who is “evil” in the sense of the morality of ressentiment. The answer, in all strictness, is: precisely the “good man” of the other morality, precisely the noble, powerful man… but dyed in another color, interpreted in another fashion, seen in another way by the venomous eye of ressentiment. (p. 40)
Second, the envious person’s lack of the good possessed by the envied person is re-conceptualized as positively virtuous, precisely because it distinguishes him from the purportedly evil person he envies. The envious person’s “weakness is… lied into something meritorious,” something that makes him “better than the mighty” and indeed “a sign of being chosen by God” (p. 47).
Third, envious persons’ desire to see the envied person harmed and stripped of the good he possesses is thereby made to appear as if it were merely a matter of wanting to set things right. “What they desire,” says Nietzsche, “they call, not retaliation, but ‘the triumph of justice’; what they hate is not their enemy, no! they hate ‘injustice’” (p. 48). In this way, “a display of grand words and postures,” “noble eloquence,” and“mendaciousness [are] employed to disguise that [their] hatred is hatred” (p. 122).
Again, for Nietzsche as for Aquinas, it is inequality as such that is resented by the envious person, and Nietzsche hammers on the theme that modern egalitarian politics is an instance of this fabricated morality of ressentiment. In Thus Spoke Zarathustrahe writes:
You preachers of equality. To me you are tarantulas, and secretly vengeful…
“What justice means to us is precisely that the world be filled with the storms of our revenge” – thus [the tarantulas] speak to each other. “We shall wreak vengeance and abuse on all whose equals we are not” – thus do the tarantula-hearts vow. “And ‘will to equality’ shall henceforth be the name for virtue; and against all that has power we want to raise our clamor!”
You preachers of equality, the tyrannomania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue. Aggrieved conceit, repressed envy – perhaps the conceit and envy of your fathers – erupt from you as a flame and as the frenzy of revenge…
Mistrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful… Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! … [W]hen they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had – power…
Preachers of equality and tarantulas… are sitting in their holes, these poisonous spiders, with their backs turned on life, they speak in favor of life, but only because they wish to hurt. They wish to hurt those who now have power. (The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 211-13)
It is crucial to understand that it is not justice and punishment as such that Nietzsche attributes to ressentiment, but rather justice and punishment as conceived of by the egalitarian. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche explicitly repudiates the claim that the notion of justice as such is rooted in ressentiment (p. 73). The traditional idea that justice involves the dispassionate application of impersonal laws so as to maintain order is something Nietzsche describes positively, and contrasts with the morality of ressentiment and the pseudo-justice of personal grievance that it enshrines:
When it really happens that the just man remains just even toward those who have harmed him… when the exalted, clear objectivity, as penetrating as it is mild, of the eye of justice and judging is not dimmed even under the assault of personal injury, derision, and calumny, this is a piece of perfection and supreme mastery on earth…
Wherever justice is practiced and maintained one sees a stronger power seeking a means of putting an end to the senseless raging of ressentiment among the weaker powers that stand under it (whether they be groups or individuals)… partly by substituting for revenge the struggle against the enemies of peace and order, partly by devising and in some cases imposing settlements… The most decisive act, however, that the supreme power performs and accomplishes against the predominance of grudges and rancor… is the institution of law, the imperative declaration of what in general counts as permitted… [or] forbidden… The eye is trained to an ever more impersonal evaluation of the deed. (pp. 75-76)
Similarly, the “impulse to punish” that Nietzsche condemns in Thus Spoke Zarathustra has to do, specifically, with punishment motivated by ressentiment against the strong. He is not condemning the punishment of those who would undermine basic law and order. On the contrary, the refusal to punish such criminals is itself something Nietzsche identifies with the egalitarian morality of ressentiment. In Beyond Good and Evil, he writes:
There is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly. Punishing somehow seems unfair to it, and it is certain that imagining “punishment” and “being supposed to punish” hurts it, arouses fear in it. “Is it not enough to render him undangerous? Why still punish? Punishing itself is terrible.” With this question, herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate consequence. (p. 201)
For the envious, says Nietzsche, the supreme victory would be to get those they envy to adopt their perverse inversion of morality and thereby come to despise themselves the way the envious despise them. In On the Genealogy of Morals, he says:
They are all men of ressentiment… insatiable in outbursts against the fortunate and happy and in masquerades of revenge and pretexts for revenge: when would they achieve the ultimate, subtlest, sublimest triumph of revenge? Undoubtedly, if they succeeded in poisoning the consciences of the fortunate with their own misery, with all misery, so that one day the fortunate began to be ashamed of their good fortune and perhaps said one to another: “it is disgraceful to be fortunate: there is too much misery!” (p. 124)
Unmasking “Critical Social Justice”
I’ve criticized Critical Race Theory and popularizers such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo at length in my book All One in Christ: A Catholic Critique of Racism and Critical Race Theory. As I show in the book, the thesis that inequity as such is unjust is a central theme of this movement.
I also show that the thesis is more dogmatically asserted than argued for, and that what arguments these writers do give for their claims rest on crude logical fallacies, easily exposed errors of social science, and the rhetorical tactic of shrilly abusing as “racist” anyone who dares disagree with them. These writers also demonize Western civilization, which they claim upholds inequity, as “racist,” “white supremacist,” and otherwise uniquely oppressive. They favor policies of racial discrimination against those alleged to benefit from “white privilege,” and a program of reeducation to bring discomfort and self-doubt to those whose minds have purportedly been molded by “whiteness,” “white consciousness,” and “white fragility.”
We see in these notes the characteristic marks of the sin of envy as Aquinas understands it: The mere fact that some have a good that others don’t have is taken to be as such, all by itself, intolerable; the person objecting to this inequality seeks to defame those who possess the good, and in particular to downplay or deny their virtues and highlight and exaggerate their vices; and he also aims in other ways to harm them mentally and materially.
CRT promotes a subversive Manichean moral narrative according to which the ethical, legal, religious, and other cultural institutions traditionally honored and upheld by Western civilization are in fact a smokescreen for the evils of “racism,” “white supremacy,” etc. that lock inequity in place – with the angels on the side of the alleged “victims” of this villainous system, and of the “anti-racists” who claim to expose it. One cannot imagine a clearer illustration of Nietzsche’s idea that moralities of ressentiment invert the order of things by re-conceptualizing those who are envied as evil, and the envious person as good, and disguising the project of tearing down the objects of envy as a matter of “justice” rather than the seething, vengeful hatred that is its true motivation.
The shrill pseudo-moralism of CRT is reminiscent of the tarantulas of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. CRT’s attack on objectivity, color blindness, and equal treatment under the law in favor of subjective narratives of grievance is exactly the sort of thing which, in On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche says distinguishes mere ressentiment from true justice. The “defund the police” movement and refusal of left-wing DA’s to uphold basic law and order are exactly the sort of thing which Nietzsche scorns as a decadent softness and sympathy with criminals, which he takes to be another byproduct of the morality of ressentiment. And the warm embrace of CRT by governments, corporations, universities, churches, and the like is an instance of the “subtlest, sublimest triumph of revenge” that the envious can achieve over the envied – to convince the latter to adopt the very pseudo-morality of ressentiment that is aimed at destroying them.
What is true of CRT and its attack on “white supremacy” is also true of feminism and its attack on “the patriarchy,” Queer theory and its attack on “heteronormativity,” and all the rest of the grisly politics of grievance. While they masquerade as justice, Nietzsche’s analysis reveals them to be nothing more thanexpressions of envy and ressentiment.
For Nietzsche, the end result of the modern egalitarian politics that has grown out of ressentiment will be what he called the “last man” – the most contemptible of human beings, who is devoid of all noble aspiration and values only comfort and a bland sameness with everyone else.
For Aquinas, the sin of envy is particularly Satanic, “that which has its chief place in [the devil’s] heart.” It is interesting that thinkers otherwise so far apart should converge in the gravity they attach to this vice.
Because CRT and related doctrines portray themselves as opposed to racism (which is indeed gravely wrong, as I argue in my book) many churchmen and others of good will suppose that they must be benign, or at most mistaken about matters of detail rather than basic principle. This is like supposing that Maoism must be benign because it claims to represent the interests of workers, or that Fascism must be benign because it wears the mantle of patriotism. Woke politics has not yet had as destructive an effect as these ideologies, though the moral corruption and mutilation of children done in the name of gender ideology already puts it in the running. But its extreme proposals and shrill rhetoric should suffice to indicate that we are dealing here with something beyond ordinary policy error – a deeper spiritual disorder.
There is a reason why envy is traditionally classified as a capital sin – a sin that has a natural tendency to generate further sins, like falling dominos. And the further sins in this case are especially destructive of peace and order. What is peddled today under the label “social justice” is in reality a deeply antisocial ressentiment. True social justice requires extirpating it root and branch.