Monday, 3 February 2014

"Envy" by Bertrand Russell

A summary of the essay "Envy," from the book The Conquest of Happiness by Betrand Russell.
Most words have been taken directly from the essay.
If you have never come across the essay, you should read it yourself.
It's very entertaining, especially the part about peacocks!

Introduction of the most potent causes of unhappiness is envy. one of the most universal and deep-seated of human passions.
The emotion is just as prevalent among adults as among children.  

Envy is the basis of democracy.

Envy and the Society
Envy is...closely connected with competition. We do not envy a good fortune which we conceive as quite hopelessly out of our reach.
In an age when the social hierarchy is fixed, the lowest classes do not envy the upper classes so long as the division between rich and poor is thought to be ordained by God.

The instability of social status in the modern world, and the equalitarian doctrine of democracy and socialism, have greatly extended the range of envy.

The harmful effects of Envy
Of all the characteristics of ordinary human nature envy is the most unfortunate; not only does the envious person wish to inflict misfortune and do so whenever he can with impunity, but he is also himself rendered unhappy by envy.
Instead of deriving pleasure from what he has, he derives pain from what others have.

The Cure for Envy
  • Don't compare yourself with others
The habit of thinking in terms of comparisons is a fatal one. When anything pleasant occurs it should be enjoyed to the full, without stopping to think that it is not so pleasant as something else that may possibly be happening to someone else.

With the wise man, what he has does not case to be enjoyable because someone else has something else.
Envy, in fact, is one form of vice, partly moral, partly intellectual, which consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations.

You cannot...get away from envy by means of success alone, for there will always be in history or legend some person even more successful than you are.
You can get away from envy by enjoying the work that you have to do, and by avoiding comparisons with those whom you imagine, perhaps quite falsely, to be more fortunate than yourself.

  • Don't be too modest
Modest people believe themselves to be outshone by those with whom they habitually associate.
They are therefore particularly prone to envy, and, through envy, to unhappiness and ill will.
For my part, I think there is much to be said for bringing up a boy to think himself a fine fellow.

  • Reduce Fatigue
  • Secure a life which is satisfying to instinct
Much envy that seems purely professional really has a sexual source. A man who is happy in his marriage and his children is not likely to feel much envy of other men because of their greater wealth or success...

The essentials of human happiness are simple, so simple that sophisticated people cannot abring themselves to admit what it is they really lack.

If there is to be less envy, means must be found for remedying this state of affiars, and if no such means are found our civilisation is in danger of going down to destruction in an orgy of hatred.

 ...the human heart as modern civilisation has made it is prone to hatred than to friendship. And it is prone to hatred because it is dissatisfied, because it feels deeply, perhaps even unconsciously, that it has somehow missed the meaning of life, that perhaps others, but not we ourselves, have secured the good things which nature offers man's enjoyment.
The positive sum of pleasures in a modern man's life is undoubtedly greater than was to be found in more primitive communities, but the consciousness of what might be has increased even more.

 〔Civilised man〕 knows there is something better than himself almost within his grasp, yet he does not know where to seek it or how to find it.
In despair he rages against his fellow man, who is equally lost and equally unhappy.

Envy...evil as it is, and terrible as are its effects, is not wholly of the devil. It is in part the expression of an heroic pain, the pain of those who walk through the night blindly, perhaps to a better resting-place, perhaps only to death and destruction.

To find the right road out of this despair civilised man must enlarge his heart as he has enlarged his mind. He must learn to transcend self, and in so doing to acquire the freedom of the Universe.


  1. Very unsettling and very true. I feel much of my anxiety could be fought back by a greater understanding of the book you have presented. I try to cast away envy, but as a child grown older, I still have the nature of wanting to have everything to myself. The urge tugging at the back of my mind as a passive thought.

    On the other side of this, I feel that my current course of not caring what others have or about most outside stimulus is making me become cold to the world. "Why does it matter." or "Who cares." this is not a good solution for the problem. I need to seek tranquility in a satisfying middle ground.

    Thank you for sharing, I feel that I will be able to improve myself by looking into this further!



    1. You're being too harsh on yourself, CRRobbins.

      I feel that we all become indifferent to others when we are tired, sad, and have some inner struggles that we have to face. We just need to preserve energy to heal ourselves.

      I am sometimes cold to others, so I can understand what you mean.

      Please be kinder to yourself.

  2. Fantastic book, has helped me much and will continue to do so
    Good summary here