Hannah More

On envy

Envy came next, Envy with squinting eyes,
Sick of a strange disease, his neighbour’s health;
Best then he lives when any better dies,
Is never poor but in another’s wealth:
On best mens harms and griefs he feeds his fill,
Else his own maw doth eat with spiteful will,
Ill must the temper be, where diet is so ill.

“Envy, (says Lord Bacon) has no holidays.” There cannot perhaps be a more lively and striking description of the miserable state of mind those endure, who are tormented with this vice. A spirit of emulation has been supposed to be the source of the greatest improvements; and there is no doubt but the warmest rival ship will produce the most excellent effects; but it is to be feared, that a perpetual state of contest will injure the temper so essentially, that the mischief will hardly be counterbalanced by any other advantages. Those, whose progress is the most rapid, will be apt to despise their less successful competitors, who, in return, will feel the bitterest resentment against their more fortunate rivals. Among persons of real goodness, this jealousy and contempt can never be equally felt, because every advancement in piety will be attended with a proportionable increase of humility, which will lead them to contemplate their own improvements with modesty, and to view with charity the miscarriages of others.

When an envious man is melancholy, one may ask him, in the words of Bion, what evil has befallen himself, or what good has happened to another? This last is the scale by which he principally measures his felicity, and the very smiles of his friends are so many deductions from his own happiness. The wants of others are the standard by which he rates his own wealth, and he estimates his riches, not so much by his own possessions, as by the necessities of his neighbours.

When the malevolent intend to strike a very deep and dangerous stroke of malice, they generally begin the most remotely in the world from the subject nearest their hearts. They set out with commending the object of their envy for some trifling quality or advantage, which it is scarcely worth while to possess: they next proceed to make a general profession of their own good-will and regard for him: thus artfully removing any suspicion of their design, and clearing all obstructions for the insidious stab they are about to give; for who will suspect them of an intention to injure the object of their peculiar and professed esteem? The hearer’s belief of the fact grows in proportion to the seeming reluctance with which it is told, and to the conviction he has, that the relater is not influenced by any private pique, or personal resentment; but that the confession is extorted from him sorely against his inclination, and purely on account of his zeal for truth.

Anger is less reasonable and more sincere than envy.—Anger breaks out abruptly; envy is a great prefacer—anger wishes to be understood at once: envy is fond of remote hints and ambiguities; but, obscure as its oracles are, it never ceases to deliver them till they are perfectly comprehended:—anger repeats the same circumstances over again; envy invents new ones at every fresh recital—anger gives a broken, vehement, and interrupted narrative; envy tells a more consistent and more probable, though a falser tale—anger is excessively imprudent, for it is impatient to disclose every thing it knows; envy is discreet, for it has a great deal to hide—anger never consults times or seasons; envy waits for the lucky moment, when the wound it meditates may be made the most exquisitely painful, and the most incurably deep—anger uses more invective; envy does more mischief—simple anger soon runs itself out of breath, and is exhausted at the end of its tale; but it is for that chosen period that envy has treasured up the most barbed arrow in its whole quiver—anger puts a man out of himself: but the truly malicious generally preserve the appearance of self-possession, or they could not so effectually injure.—The angry man sets out by destroying his whole credit with you at once, for he very frankly confesses his abhorrence and detestation of the object of his abuse; while the envious man carefully suppresses all his own share in the affair.—The angry man defeats the end of his resentment, by keeping himself continually before your eyes, instead of his enemy; while the envious man artfully brings forward the object of his malice, and keeps himself out of sight.—The angry man talks loudly of his own wrongs; the envious of his adversary’s injustice.—A passionate person, if his resentments are not complicated with malice, divides his time between sinning and sorrowing; and, as the irascible passions cannot constantly be at work, his heart may sometimes get a holiday.—Anger is a violent act, envy a constant habit—no one can be always angry, but he may be always envious:—an angry man’s enmity (if he be generous) will subside when the object of his resentment becomes unfortunate; but the envious man can extract food from his malice out of calamity itself, if he finds his adversary bears it with dignity, or is pitied or assisted in it. The rage of the passionate man is totally extinguished by the death of his enemy; but the hatred of the malicious is not buried even in the grave of his rival: he will envy the good name he has left behind him; he will envy him the tears of his widow, the prosperity of his children, the esteem of his friends, the praises of his epitaph—nay the very magnificence of his funeral.

“The ear of jealousy heareth all things,” (says the wise man) frequently I believe more than is uttered, which makes the company of persons infected with it still more dangerous.

When you tell those of a malicious turn, any circumstance that has happened to another, though they perfectly know of whom you are speaking, they often affect to be at a loss, to forget his name, or to misapprehend you in some respect or other; and this merely to have an opportunity of slily gratifying their malice by mentioning some unhappy defect or personal infirmity he labours under; and not contented “to tack his every error to his name,” they will, by way of farther explanation, have recourse to the faults of his father, or the misfortunes of his family; and this with all the seeming simplicity and candor in the world, merely for the sake of preventing mistakes, and to clear up every doubt of his identity.—If you are speaking of a lady, for instance, they will perhaps embellish their inquiries, by asking if you mean her, whose great grandfather was a bankrupt, though she has the vanity to keep a chariot, while others who are much better born walk on foot; or they will afterwards recollect, that you may possibly mean her cousin, of the same name, whose mother was suspected of such or such an indiscretion, though the daughter had the luck to make her fortune by marrying, while her betters are overlooked.

To hint at a fault, does more mischief than speaking out; for whatever is left for the imagination to finish, will not fail to be overdone: every hiatus will be more then filled up, and every pause more than supplied. There is less malice, and less mischief too, in telling a man’s name than the initials of it; as a worthier person may be involved in the most disgraceful suspicions by such a dangerous ambiguity.

It is not uncommon for the envious, after having attempted to deface the fairest character so industriously, that they are afraid you will begin to detect their malice, to endeavour to remove your suspicions effectually, by assuring you, that what they have just related is only the popular opinion; they themselves can never believe things are so bad as they are said to be; for their part, it is a rule with them always to hope the best. It is their way never to believe or report ill of any one. They will, however, mention the story in all companies, that they may do their friend the service of protesting their disbelief of it. More reputations are thus hinted away by false friends, than are openly destroyed by public enemies. An if, or a but, or a mortified look, or a languid defence, or an ambiguous shake of the head, or a hasty word affectedly recalled, will demolish a character more effectually, than the whole artillery of malice when openly levelled against it.

It is not that envy never praises—No, that would be making a public profession of itself, and advertising its own malignity; whereas the greatest success of its efforts depends on the concealment of their end. When envy intends to strike a stroke of Machiavelian policy, it sometimes affects the language of the most exaggerated applause; though it generally takes care, that the subject of its panegyric shall be a very indifferent and common character, so that it is well aware none of its praises will stick.

It is the unhappy nature of envy not to be contented with positive misery, but to be continually aggravating its own torments, by comparing them with the felicities of others. The eyes of envy are perpetually fixed on the object which disturbs it, nor can it avert them from it, though to procure itself the relief of a temporary forgetfulness. On seeing the innocence of the first pair,

Aside the devil turn’d,
For Envy, yet with jealous leer malign,
Eyed them askance.

As this enormous sin chiefly instigated the revolt, and brought on the ruin of the angelic spirits, so it is not improbable, that it will be a principal instrument of misery in a future world, for the envious to compare their desperate condition with the happiness of the children of God; and to heighten their actual wretchedness by reflecting on what they have lost.

Perhaps envy, like lying and ingratitude, is practised with more frequency, because it is practised with impunity; but there being no human laws against these crimes, is so far from an inducement to commit them, that this very consideration would be sufficient to deter the wise and good, if all others were ineffectual; for of how heinous a nature must those sins be, which are judged above the reach of human punishment, and are reserved for the final justice of God himself!


MLA Citation

More, Hannah. “On envy.” 1777. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 14 Feb 2007. 14 Apr 2024 <http://essays.quotidiana.org/more/envy/>.

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