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Our Envy Machine

By seeking transcendence in the immanence of politics, we manufacture bad news.

The murder of Agamemnon after his return from Troy. (Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

We the People are spiritually sick. The discovery of evidence needs no diligent search. Discussion—if that’s the word I want—surrounding any trending news story offers conclusive proof. Take, for example, the death of Rush Limbaugh last week. 

If you happened to be unfortunate enough to peek at social media in the aftermath, you would have found the disgusting spectacle of gleeful grave-dancing even before the corpse was cold. If you are a member of the punditocracy, or a person who reads the New York Times or watches CNN on purpose and not for the laughs, or if you live in Yorba Linda, please allow me to say very clearly and very slowly that my point has nothing to do with Rush’s politics. One’s reaction to the death of a human being ought not to be determined by whether that person was on your team. Imagine we are talking about someone you like, and adjust accordingly. It could be Antonin Scalia. It could be Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Why this happy spite? What is wrong with us?

We cannot, I think, say “politics.” Our politics is a febrile attempt to fill a spiritual and existential void; our despairing and diseased political gamesmanship is therefore a symptom of that void rather than its cause. Calling our problem “politics” is similar to treating a brain injury with a nose job, and leaving it at that. And, anyway, it is merely one symptom. To put the diagnosis more generally, we like bad news, particularly when it has to do with someone else. The Psalmist says that the righteous man “is not afraid of bad news.” Well, neither are we, the unrighteous. We relish it.

The phenomenon puzzled Walker Percy, who found himself wondering about the following in Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book:

THE ENVIOUS SELF (in the root sense of envy: invidere, to look at with malice): Why it is that the Self—though it Professes to be Loving, Caring, to Prefer Peace to War, Concord to Discord, Life to Death; to Wish Other Selves Well, not Ill—in fact Secretly Relishes Wars and Rumors of War, News of Plane Crashes, Assassinations, Mass Murders, Obituaries, to say nothing of Local News about Acquaintances Dropping Dead in the Street, Gossip about Neighbors Getting in Fights or being Detected in Sexual Scandals, Embezzlements, and other Disgraces

But the problem is not an instance of American exceptionalism. We can find it already in one of the earliest Greek dramas we have, the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. Upon his arrival at home after a decade-long absence, the title character, commander of kings at Troy, says to his wife Clytemnestra:

In few men is it part of nature to respect 

a friend’s prosperity without begrudging him,

as envy’s wicked poison settling to the heart

piles up the pain in one sick with unhappiness,

who, staggered under sufferings that are all his own, 

winces again to the vision of a neighbor’s bliss. (Trans. Richmond Lattimore)

Though Agamemnon is not, it is true, a neutral (ahem) observer, he is only expanding on a point that has just been made by the Chorus. We are ready to grieve with those who grieve, but we do not really share their grief. In the same way, we do not share their joy when they are happy.

If one is distressed, all others are ready

to grieve with him: yet the teeth of sorrow

come nowhere near to their heart’s edge.

And in joy likewise they show joy’s semblance, 

and torture the face to the false smile.

The Chorus means that it is difficult, if not impossible, to enter into another’s experience, because “you” must always also mean “not-I.” Agamemnon extends this observation in an understandably cynical direction: we would not wish truly to enter that experience even if we could, because the success of others is a distress to us; another’s good fortune makes our misery more acute. Envy is soul-sickness, caused by one’s own unhappiness and the desire for everyone else to be as miserable he is. 

The ancient Stoics, too, were preoccupied with the perils of envy. Thus Epictetus, in his Enchiridion, cautions that worldly success is only apparently, rather than actually, good: 

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. 

His warning is in reality a mechanism of self-defense to prevent the root of envy from taking hold in the first place. Envy is so common, in fact, that Marcus Aurelius begins the second book of the Meditationsby advising his reader that he should begin every day with the recognition that he will encounter the envious. Seneca the Younger lists it as one of the things that “goad man into destroying man.”

Let us stipulate, then, that the contagion is ubiquitous. There is nothing peculiarly “modern” or “late capitalist” in feeling bad about good news, or good about bad news. And yet it stands to reason that not all of envy’s causes are the same everywhere. Doubtless one might think some of them are, at least if one believes in a universal human nature. But there is still ample room for a concomitant variableness—both nature and nurture, as it were. A nail can blow a tire anywhere, but it takes a special set of circumstances to get a flat from an armadillo.

So perhaps some of the reasons for our widespread spite are unique. What is different about the “nurture” in our case, as opposed to that of, say, the ancient Greeks or Romans? What is our cultural armadillo? 

Let us return to Percy for a moment. Percy notes that man’s discovery of self-consciousness introduced a duality into his existence that makes him fundamentally different from other types of (biologically) living things. We are not only organisms in an environment; we are also selves in a world that we build up and maintain through the use of signs. That is, these signs—and language preeminently—allow us to create our human world that is superimposed on our natural environment, as well as to communicate it to and share it with others. Consider: chlorophyll absorbs the morning sunlight in plants and allows photosynthesis to occur, which makes plants green. But only a human being tells another human being, “Your love is like the morning sun,” or claims that his love “is like a red, red rose.”  Self-consciousness—the recognition that “I” am different from the material environment, that, while I have a material dimension, I am also, and more fundamentally, a knowing spirit—is correlated in turn to our sense of transcendence, our recognition, even if cloudy, of the things of the spirit and of eternity beyond our material and temporal environment, while our physical, fleshly aspect is correlated to our sense of immanence in that same environment. Language is the vehicle of the spirit and helps us to grapple with the problem of transcendence. We deal with the problem of immanence by feeding, fighting, or fleeing.

The “transcendent self,” then, is constitutive of what it means, in the deepest sense, to be human. Without it, there might be a species called homo sapiens, but there would be no human person. 

But now we encounter a difficulty. Human beings have traditionally coped with transcendence via myth and religion. But according to Percy, we now live in a post-religious age. (It seems to me that this descriptor needs to be drastically nuanced and restated, but this is not the place for that. I shall stipulate that it is more difficult in the industrialized and secularized West for religion to do its public work with unanxious vitality than it has been in other times and places, and I shall leave it at that. That claim is (a) true, and (b) gets me far enough for what I want to say.) Yet the transcendent side of our existence has not actually been eliminated; it has just been displaced to other domains, particularly science and art. 

Science and art, however, are poor substitutes for scratching our eternal itch. They are not open to everyone in the way that religion and myth are, and their psychospiritual effect is brief. I once heard Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony performed in the Tonhalle in Zürich. It was glorious. Its effect had mostly faded by the second sausage and beer I had afterwards. 

Percy puts it like this—it is a long quote, but worthy of your attention:

The impoverishment of the immanent self derives from a perceived loss of sovereignty to “them,” the transcending scientists and experts of society. As a consequence, the self sees its only recourse as an endless round of work, diversion, and consumption of goods and services. Failing this and having some inkling of its plight, it sees no way out because it has come to see itself as an organism in an environment and so can’t understand why it feels so bad in the best of all possible environments–say, a good family and a good home in a good neighborhood in East Orange on a fine Wednesday afternoon—and so finds itself secretly relishing bad news, assassinations, plane crashes, and the misfortunes of neighbors, and even comes secretly to hope for catastrophe, earthquake, hurricane, wars, apocalypse—anything to break out of the iron grip of immanence.

This is why we love bad news. It provides a temporary transcendence of the nullity we fear to be at the non-existent center of our existence.

In The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Eric Hoffer observed that the bored and resentful will look for something—for anything—to fill the void at the nil-point of lives that seem empty and meaningless. Politics will do. This accounts quite well for the error, the fundamental misguidedness, both of the riots this past summer and of those staged more recently at the Capitol. It is the root of our radicalism, whose name we dare not speak. And it is probably the root of the perverse spectacle of gloating over the death of one’s political bogeymen. As Hoffer remarks,

There is perhaps no more reliable indicator of a society’s ripeness for a mass movement than the prevalence of unrelieved boredom. In almost all the descriptions of the periods preceding mass movements there is reference to vast ennui; and in their earliest stages mass movements are more likely to find sympathizers and support among the bored than among the exploited and oppressed….When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored. The consciousness of a barren, meaningless existence is the main fountainhead of boredom. 

But note what this means: The issue is not the issue, whatever just-so stories we want to tell ourselves about it. Spiritual sickness cannot have a political cure. We cannot do an end-run around the problem of lost transcendence by an intensification of our immanent urges. By making the attempt, we accomplish nothing more than turning society into “a wilderness of tigers,” as Titus calls Rome in Titus Andronicus.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I trust that readers will recall that play’s denouement. Politics as substitute-transcendence is a dead-end, literally and figuratively. It promises euphoria, and even delivers it, like a shot of grain alcohol. But it doesn’t last, and the hangover is severe. Promising salvation and escape, it only enmeshes us more inextricably in the machine of mass-produced and commodified resentment. In the end, we devour one another—and are just as depressed as we were before.

E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.

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