Aristotle described envy not as benign desire for what someone else possesses but “as the pain caused by the good fortune of others.” Not surprisingly these pangs often give way to a feeling of malice. Witness the fact that throughout history and across cultures, anyone who enjoyed a piece of good fortune feared and set up defenses against the “evil eye.” Of course, there is not much talk today about the evil eye, at least not in the West, but it surely isn’t because we are less prone to envy than our ancestors.
One of the reasons envy does not take a holiday is that we never give a rest to the impulse to compare ourselves to one another. I have had students respond with glee to being admitted to a graduate program and then a few days later coyly ask: “Hey, Doc. How many applicants do you think were rejected?” — as in, the more rejected the merrier I can allow myself to be.
Social media has generated new vistas for this compulsion to compare and lord it over others.
“Envy is secret admiration,” Kierkegaard said. As such, if we are honest with ourselves, envy can help us identify our vision of excellence and where need be, perhaps reshape it.
Gordon Marino writing in The New York Times