Jonah Goldberg

As my wife will attest, I often suffer from futterneid. This is the term Germans use to describe the envy we feel when, for example, someone orders a better meal than ours. I'm also prone to schadenfreude, the tendency to take pleasure in the misfortune of others. So if I get the braised short ribs and you get stuck with the snail tartare, your futterneid will fuel my schadenfreude.

Perhaps it's no coincidence the Germans have so many words for the chillingly petty emotions that run like cold streams through the human heart. Poor, dark and divided, Germany was an ideal location to harbor resentment against one's neighbor, be he a slightly more prosperous farmer, a Jew, a Catholic or even a nation. Latecomers to unification, industrialization and empire, Germany's 20th-century thirst for war and conquest might be blamed less on high-fallutin' philosophical theories or Romantic poetry and more on plain old envy. The Germans craved their "moment in the sun" and they were going to have it, no matter what.

Don't worry, this isn't a column about Germany. Rather, it's about envy, which Thomas Aquinas defined as sadness for the good of others.

We almost never discuss envy anymore. "One may admit to pride, avarice, lust, anger, gluttony, and laziness, and one may even boast of them," Gonzalo Fernandez de la Mora wrote 20 years ago in "Egalitarian Envy." "There is only one capital sin no one admits to: envy. ... Its symbol ought to be a mask." This is a shame; the most pathetic of the seven deadly sins is perhaps the most consequential.

Indeed, just look again on the 20th century. Envy turned Germany cruel. In Russia, the ideology of envy - socialism - likewise ran amok under the label Bolshevism and threatened to overrun the world.

The consequences of envy run even deeper. It will never be known how many millennia man endured in misery and darkness under the moldering blanket of envy. Helmut Schoeck writes in his timeless masterpiece, "Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior," that whole societies, hobbled by envy, rejected innovation and prosperity, preferring the arrested development of all to the advancement of the few.

In primitive societies, "No one dares to show anything that might lead people to think he was better off," Schoeck observed. "Innovations are unlikely. Agricultural methods remain traditional and primitive, to the detriment of the whole village, because every deviation from previous practice comes up against the limitations set by envy."


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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