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Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Joseph Epstein

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Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Joseph Epstein

Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Joseph Epstein

Do other people have things which you want — and, even worse, which they don’t deserve in the first place? If so, then you are envious. Envy isn’t jealousy: to be jealous is to want to protect what you have; to be envious is to want what others have. Of all the deadly sins, envy is the one which few people are willing to admit to or willing to rehabilitate and make normal. People are willing to be lustful, angry, or even greedy. There remains something inappropriate about being envious, though.


Title: Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins
Author: Joseph Epstein
Publisher: Oxford University Press
ISBN: 0195158121

• 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

Book Review

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, that’s much more difficult to do.

It’s 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 Epstein’s view, seems to be limited to envy of the rich, powerful, and successful. There’s no similar examination of quieter forms of envy: an infertile woman’s envy of a new mother, a child’s envy of adult’s ability to stay up late, or a parent’s envy of a child’s summer-long vacation.

Epstein’s book is very helpful in emphasizing some of the psychological qualities to envy. In particular, he emphasizes the fact that it’s not mere covetousness, but is accompanied by a conviction that those who have what one wants don’t 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.

Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Joseph Epstein

Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins, by Joseph Epstein

Given the current geopolitical situation, it might have been helpful if Epstein had spent some time exploring what role envy might play in people’s attitudes and reactions to the United States. It is argued by some that a great deal of anti-Americanism is fueled by people’s envy of America: this country is wealthy, strong, and influential, but doesn’t deserve to be. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have much to say that is relevant to this.

A bit more helpful may be Epstein’s 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.

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