Mini-Feature: Does Jealousy Have Value?

Does jealously have value in driving humans to improve themselves or is it a purely negative emotion?

Forget jealousy for a minute. If you want to have a shot at living a fulfilling life, you must methodically eradicate your envy of others. First, you need to ask yourself: What is it to you? Why do you care in the first place? What assumptions are you making about yourself and what you deserve—never mind what justice is—that lead you to take offense at the circumstances of others? Answering those questions will reveal your own flaws and unresolved tensions. Your assumptions and judgments are likely unjustly and illogically favorable towards yourself, of course. "But what no one understands about my situation is..." Grow up.

Second, and even more significantly, let's unrealistically assume that you know what justice is, you know yourself relatively well, and thus you see what is just and unjust in your own situation clear enough. Now let's consider the other person you are envious of; consider what, in particular, you are envious of. Do you realize that no one is given anything, no one gets lucky, and no one is undeserving in the sense that, whether are cognizant of it or not, everybody pays for everything in some way? Everybody pays. And you and your grubby self, from your smudged and partial vantage point, have absolutely no idea of the cost they're paying or the toll it's taking from them, never mind whether or not they have whatever they have justly or not, never mind how this compares to your own circumstances, if they are even comparable, which is unlikely.

To take the extreme example: winning the lottery probably does lower lifespans, on average.

In general, being given much leads to higher expectations and often damages perception and distorts ability; "living simply" is often not to live carefree and can often similarly damage perception and distort ability.

In sum, the claim that someone else has something unjustly or undeservingly, never mind the claim that you ought to have it, usually requires an almost comically outrageous amount of assumption and pride on your part. How could you possibly ever really know that? And what would it even matter if you did?

Jealousy is something altogether different and often forgotten these days. There is a good form of jealousy that can indeed lead us to defend what ought to be defended and even to excel, I think, but the difference between this and paranoia or selfishness is tough to define in a world where no one has been taught moral distinctions. Ponder this for a start.

-Matthew Peterson, founding editor of The American Mind


Jealousy! From the Greek zēlos, typically used to describe, well, zeal, especially in emulation or rivalry. And Biblically, the meaning was intolerance of unfaithfulness, as in the jealous God. In both Athens and Jerusalem, salutary qualities, even if they might lead to violence.

Contrast with another term often conflated with jealousy: envy. Here the root is invidus, meaning possessed of hatred or ill will, from invidere, which meant literally to maliciously look at, to cast an evil eye upon. 

So, contrary to popular belief, jealousy suggests an appetite for what is or may be one’s due, envy an appetite for what is due another. In the first case, a spring to action and ties that, even with friction, bind; in the second, festering discord. 

-James Poulos, executive editor of The American Mind


All that jealousy and envy coming from my enemies
While I'm sipping on Remy
In front of black Lexus, Chevy's on the roam
'96 big body, sitting on chrome

2Pac knew the score!

-David Bahr, managing editor of The American Mind

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I prefer (predictably, perhaps) to think about this question in terms derived from the ancient rather than the modern languages. Typically the distinction one makes in English is between jealousy—wanting to guard closely over one's own goods and keep them from others—and envy—coveting something good of someone else's and wanting to take it from him. But in Latin there is a useful third concept: aemulatio. It's where we get our word "emulation," and it describes a healthy form of aspirational competition. When ambitious young men see the triumphs of their forebears, and want to outdo both those forebears and one another in the pursuit of virtue, that is aemulatio.

Rome was very good at inspiring aemulatio. Mostly it did so by attributing elaborate public honors to those who displayed traits considered virtuous by the state. In this way the mos maiorum, the reverence in which ancestral customs and traditions were held, remained strong. Polybius, after devoting a lengthy stretch of description to the pageantry with which noble men were honored in death, wrote that "the chief benefit of this is that young men are spurred on to endure all things in the name of the common welfare, hoping to meet with the glory that accrues to the best among men." You might almost say that inspiring aemulatio is one of the things we Americans are worst at right now, and must get better at if we are to survive.

-Spencer Klavan, associate editor of The American Mind