Title: Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins
Author: Joseph Epstein
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Explains how envy differs from similar conditions, like jealousy or resentment
Personal reflections on envy in his own life prove helpful
Epstein's conception of envy appears to be very limited
Exploration of the nature of envy, one of the seven deadly sins
Argues that envy can't easily be rehabilitated like other sins
Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Envy by Joseph Epstein was the first in Oxford University Press series on The Seven Deadly Sins. This series explores the nature and history of human thought secular as well as religious on sins, often concluding that there can be something very good and decent at the core of these supposedly sinful behaviors. With envy, though, thats much more difficult to do.
Its curious that Epstein seems to find envy everywhere he looks and especially in modern political movements. For example, he believes that ideologies like Marxism and feminism are, at the roots, both products and perpetuators of envy. To be envious, in Epsteins view, seems to be limited to envy of the rich, powerful, and successful. Theres no similar examination of quieter forms of envy: an infertile womans envy of a new mother, a childs envy of adults ability to stay up late, or a parents envy of a childs summer-long vacation.
Epsteins book is very helpful in emphasizing some of the psychological qualities to envy. In particular, he emphasizes the fact that its not mere covetousness, but is accompanied by a conviction that those who have what one wants dont really deserve it in the first place. He also distinguishes envy from related feelings like resentment and schadenfreude. Limiting his discussion in the way he does, however, also limits the usefulness of his analysis.
Given the current geopolitical situation, it might have been helpful if Epstein had spent some time exploring what role envy might play in peoples attitudes and reactions to the United States. It is argued by some that a great deal of anti-Americanism is fueled by peoples envy of America: this country is wealthy, strong, and influential, but doesnt deserve to be. Unfortunately, he doesnt have much to say that is relevant to this.
A bit more helpful may be Epsteins confessions about envy he has himself experienced in his own life. By reflecting on how envy has impacted him and what it has meant to his life, he may help others achieve a similar level of introspection, allowing them to delve more deeply into the issue than he was able in his book.