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Phthonos: Envy - A Toxic Trait

Classical Thought for the Day

Flicking through my LinkedIn posts as is my wont, I was intrigued by the following post:

It related a story allegedly about Einstein that when he ‘mistakenly’ (or deliberately to make a point?) wrote that 9 x 10 = 91 on a blackboard, the students took great delight in pointing this out and correcting him. His response:

“Despite the fact that I analyzed nine problems correctly, no one congratulated me. But

when I made one mistake, everyone started laughing. This means that even if a person is

successful, society will notice his slightest mistake. And they'll like that. So don't let

criticism destroy your dreams. The only person who never makes a mistake is someone

who does nothing."

I had not heard of the story before and have since been informed that it is not true, almost mythical. But like any myth, there is a kernel of universal truth.

Envy, the pleasure in seeing the mighty err. Praising the Athenian Megcles on his Pyhtian victory in 486 BC, Pindar soberingly says:

“but I grieve that fine deeds are repaid with envy.”

Opening his praise of Hagesidamus of Syracuse, he says he hopes that he will find his citizens ‘without envy’.

People might make noises about being happy for others’ success, but how many are secretly pleased when that unbroken record of success hits a rut? Whether the anecdote about Einstein was true or not, one could replace his name with ‘great scientist, ‘great athlete’, adapt the story accordingly and the result would be the same. The watching pupils would mock the mishap.

I am not for the minute saying that we are all mean and envy success. However, we would be quite wrong to deny that envy does cause such reactions in human beings and can be very toxic.

Herodotus says at 3.80.3 that from birth ‘envy is inborn in men’. He is describing the flaws of one-man-rule. Even the supreme ruler will develop envy towards the citizens he perceives as happier than himself. He willingly hears slander about them.

Such envy was turned on Themistocles. Timodemus looked for and found a pretext, claiming he had kept honours intended for Athens collectively as his own. Themistocles’ put down was the end of the affair.

We see it every day and social media has only made it easier. Undermining someone’s achievement, because it is secretly resented. We can, I am sure all think of times we have been the victims of envy.

It does not just follow great men, it is lurking in all of us ready to break out, especially when we are feeling that things are not going so well.

The anecdote, true or not, the ancient cautionary tales are all a warning to be aware of and check this harmful human trait.

Further Reading

1. Eidinow, E., Envy, Poison, and Death: Women on Trial in Classical Athens (Oxford)

2. Sanders, E., Envy and Jealousy in Classical Athens: A Socio-Psychological Approach (Oxford)

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