When a financially struggling Mario Puzo learned that the publishing rights to the paperback edition of his third novel, The Godfather, had bid up to a record $410,000, the not-yet-famous writer was ecstatic. Like any good Italian boy, he sought to share the good news with his Sicilian-born mother. “Don't tell nobody!” his mother responded to her son’s sudden windfall, passing on in her broken English the folk wisdom she and other southern Italians had learned from long experience in an envy-cursed society. Malicious envy, Schadenfreude, and hostility toward strangers—particularly strangers who come upon good fortune—was the law of life in the society in which Puzo's mother had been raised, and it was always best, she knew, to keep good news within the family lest the Evil Eyes of envious neighbors “get ideas” and try to do one in.
Envy of the kind southern Italians like Puzo’s mother knew so intimately is well-described in the entry under that term in the old standard Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics:
Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It is aimed at persons, and implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him. . . . There is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied, and a chafing under this consciousness. He who has got what I envy is felt by me to have the advantage of me, and I resent it. . . . Envy is in itself a painful emotion, although it is associated with pleasure when misfortune is seen to befall the object of it.
The advice of Puzo’s mother strikes us as amusing today because it reflected, like the ungrammatical English in which it was expressed, the limited ability of an uneducated foreigner to grasp the actual ways of American society and American life. Unlike in southern Italy, success in America, whether in terms of money, honors, or educational achievement, has usually not been something to be hidden or concealed but something to be celebrated with others. It has often served as the basis for public admiration and acclaim.
More discerning foreigners have recognized this as a characteristic feature of America, one distinguishing it from the Old World in which aristocratic contempt for the “upstart,” combined with the envy and grudging hostility of the poor toward the success of their peers, were the dominant features of a rigidly class-structured and tradition-bound society. In part because of the open market economy and the many opportunities for upward socio-economic mobility, and in part because those coming to America were largely a self-selected population with a common desire to get ahead, economic success in America has often been viewed as an indication of what could be accomplished by many rather than an occasion for covetous envy. The successful often served as role models for the aspiring, not simply objects of hatred or spite. “If he can make it, I can make it” was a common response negating the necessity for the “don’t tell nobody!” style of secrecy and concealment dominant in many European feudal and peasant cultures.
Envy of the Old World kind—which Aquinas described as “sadness at the good of others insofar as it is superior to our own”—has hardly been eliminated in America, but it often coexists with an admiration for, and encouragement of, the success and well-being of others.
The very word “envy” in modern American English has often taken on a secondary meaning, one radically different from the traditional one (where envy – invidia in Latin – was considered one of the Seven Deadly Sins). Envy in this secondary sense has a more benign character that involves the expression of praise and goodwill toward someone else’s admirable talent or achievement. The statement “I envy your academic ability, athletic talent, business skills,” is universally understood as a friendly gesture, one suggesting not anger, spite, or malice, but sincere admiration and acclaim. The vicarious pleasure in the well-being and good fortune of others expressed by this latter usage is always the strongest antidote to the social poison of covetous envy. It is also a necessary ingredient to any decent, harmonious society, as well as to any happy or contented personal life. Discerning foreign visitors have often noted that Americans display this quality in abundance, at least in comparison to the more class-conscious and envy-ridden Europeans.
Gunnar Myrdal is a good example. When the Swedish economist and future Nobel Prize winner toured the United States in the early 1940s, like Tocqueville he was struck by the restless desire of Americans to get ahead and by what he called the American “success cult.” Economically successful Americans, particularly famous ones, were most often objects of what Myrdal called “vicarious satisfaction” rather than covetous envy, grudge, or spite. In America, those seeking to improve their social and economic position through legal means were not held back by envious neighbors or hostile public opinion. On the contrary, they were often encouraged in their ambitions and honored when they succeeded. Americans were expected to strive and strain to improve their material condition, and young men lacking such ambition were often seen as deficient in some way.
“Americans worship success,” Myrdal wrote.
This peculiarity has been the object of their own and others’ ironical and often scornful comments. What has less often been pointed out is that this success cult in America is not particularly self-centered; instead it is generous. Usually it is not in his own but in other persons’ success that the ordinary American rejoices and takes pride. . . .
Of course there is personal envy in America, too. But there has been decidedly less of it than in the more static, less “boundless” civilizations of the Old World. Such ability and drive in others are more tolerated and less checked in America. Climbing is more generally acclaimed. . . . On average, Americans show a greater kindness and patience with others than Europeans do. This attitude is a natural product of the opportunities on the frontier and, more generally, in a rapidly expanding economy.
I have often thought about these observations of Myrdal in recent years when considering such recent developments as the Occupy Wall Street movement, President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” statement, and the success of such “tax-the-rich” politicians as Elizabeth Warren and Bill de Blasio.
From my own petty-bourgeoisie-shopkeeper family background, I see and hear in such developments the unmistakable siren song of jealous envy over the fact that our modern, technology-driven economy has produced new sources of great wealth for the most cognitively gifted, creative, hardworking, and ambitious. The success of the wealthy doesn’t sit well with many who are less successful, even though they may by no means be living in poverty or anything close to poverty. While some people can look upon the fabulous wealth accumulated by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs with the “vicarious satisfaction” and empathetic imagination that Myrdal describes, an increasing number of Americans are consumed by the green-eyed monster of covetous envy, deeply resenting the fact that some people make a lot more money than they do. Politicians like Obama, Warren, and de Blasio pander to this very unlovely emotion.
The politicians I have in mind may be genuinely concerned about the chronically poor in America, and while they can be criticized for rarely mentioning its major cause in the breakdown of the traditional family (with married husbands and wives raising their own biological children), a concern over poverty and the inability of some segments of the population to achieve upward mobility and the American Dream is a legitimate one. But when the poverty problem is conceived more broadly as one of “inequality”—as the Left is persistently doing these days—something other than concern for the least advantaged is going on.
The problem of the chronically poor is that they are chronically poor, not that some people make a lot more money than other people and bring about “inequality.” The fact that some fail to earn enough to live at a decent level is a genuine social problem. The fact that those who are not poor are widely dispersed in terms of how much they earn is not.
Under the rhetoric of “inequality,” covetous envy—including that of the upper-middle-class for the truly affluent—has reared its ugly head. Mayor de Blasio's proposal to fund universal pre-kindergarten education by an income tax increase solely on the income of the highest income earners making more than $500,000 a year, who already pay city income taxes at the highest graduated rate, is an iconic example of this newer tendency to combine genuine anti-poverty concerns with envy-driven, soak-the-rich taxation policies. It is perhaps no accident that New York's upper middle class (those making between $100,000 and $200,000 annually) voted for de Blasio in greater proportion than many New Yorkers in lower income brackets.
Historical experience teaches us that covetous envy is most intense between those who are similar to one another. The small shopkeeper envies most the owner of a larger store, not the owner of a giant department store chain. The latter envies mainly the owner of a still greater business enterprise.
There’s more. As Charles Murray shows in Coming Apart, in addition to the problem of poverty and a growing “white underclass”—a problem driven, Murray shows, more by irresponsible fathers and hedonistic lifestyles than by lack of education or opportunities for advancement—there is a problem with the increasing social isolation of the best-educated and most affluent living in communities like McLean, Virginia, and Scarsdale, New York. Under such circumstances there is always the temptation of another of the Seven Deadly Sins: the sin of pride.
Pride here is not meant in the more benign sense of legitimate satisfaction with a hard-earned achievement. Pride is here meant in the medieval sense of superbia, which is characterized by a kind of puffed-up conceit, emotional coldness, haughty self-satisfaction, and a lack of compassion and concern for the welfare of those less fortunate than oneself. Theologically, superbia is associated with a lack of that cosmic gratitude and humility that recognize that “only by the grace of God have I gotten where I am.” It was pride in this latter sense that was seen by medieval theologians as the source of all sin and the calamitous effects of sin on the harmony and well-being of human society. The pride of the more fortunate and successful stokes the envy of the less fortunate and less successful. This seems to be a law of man’s social nature, one understood very well by the medieval theologians.
One very positive development in recent years, which partially mitigates both the obnoxious pride of the successful and the covetous envy of those of lesser achievement, has been the great flowering of philanthropy. Andrew Carnegie once said that a man should spend the first part of his life making a lot of money, and then, if he succeeds, he should spend the rest of his life giving it away to worthy causes. Many of our wealthiest Americans have taken Carnegie’s advice to heart. In their generous giving, they have served as role models not only for the super-rich but for many of lesser fortunes. Over 120 very wealthy Americans, mostly billionaires, have signed the Giving Pledge of Bill and Melinda Gates promising to give away at least half of their accumulated wealth to various charities. Some have gone farther than this. David Rubenstein of the Carlyle Group intends to give away 90 percent of his $2 billion fortune, and Michael Bloomberg, going still further in his philanthropy, has said he hopes the last check he writes before he dies will be a check for his funeral expenses—and that the check will bounce.
Generous giving of this kind is infinitely better for the moral tone of any society than the generous taking and redistribution by a Leviathan state that is so eagerly recommended by the American left and its many envy-driven supporters. Caritas, humility, gratitude, and goodwill toward others are always a healthy society’s answer to the ancient curses of covetous envy and haughty pride.
Russell K. Nieli is a lecturer in the Department of Politics and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.