Thursday, February 24, 2011
Snake in the Grass
When I was in college my girlfriend mentioned to me a guy she knew had told her about me, "You can do better than that." I had met him once and had a short but pleasant conversation with him. Why, I wondered, would he say such a thing about me?
The answer was immediate: he would have liked to take her away from me. He envied me. She was a cute one, it was true. Cute and smart, the kind he wanted but apparently couldn't get. So he wanted what I had. He was, to use a common expression, a snake in the grass. He was talking behind my back.
We use the term "snake" to refer to someone who is a backstabber. Apparently, this particular meaning has been used for thousands of years. Think of one of the best-known myths in the Western world, that of the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
Traditionally, the serpent in the Garden is a symbol of envy, because he wants to bring Adam and Eve down because they are the favorites of God. The word it's translated from is "nachash," which is a very interesting word indeed.
It doesn't literally mean "serpent." It has several interrelated meanings: to hiss or whisper like a snake, enchanter, prognosticator.
The word "enchant" means "to chant," as in hypnotize. Same thing as a "spell," meaning "tale," or "the use of words." The serpent used words in an attempt to cast a "spell" on Eve, to get her to do what he wanted so he could bring her and Adam down.
That's what the envious do. They don't come out and say, "I envy you." Usually they can't even admit it to themselves. Of all the Seven Deadly Sins, envy is the only one that isn't any fun. It is, in fact, one of the most corrosive feelings in the world.
Helmut Schoeck, in his magisterial work, Envy, described envy as "a drive which lies at the core of man's life as a social being…[an] urge to compare oneself invidiously with others." He considered it inborn. Perhaps it is, although the intensity varies in the person, from intense to almost non-existent.
Schoeck came to some surprising conclusions. After showing the ubiqitiousness of envy in primitive cultures, including the superstitious terror of arousing the envy of their gods, and that it was a crippling barrier to progress, Schoeck argued that one of Christianity's greatest achievements was in freeing people to progess, for it "provided man for the first time with supernatural beings who, he knew, could neither envy nor ridicule him," and who offered strong moral condemnation of envy.
Of all the myths I am familiar with, only that of the Garden of Eden condemns envy as a truly bad thing, because it sees it is essentially the cause of the overwhelming majority of evil in the world.
Private property, Schoeck claimed, emerged not as the cause of envy, as egalitarians assert, but as a defense against it -- "a necessary protective screen between people," deflecting envy that would otherwise be directed at people onto material goods.
The envious are subtle about their envy, they backstab, they whisper, as Iago whispered to Othello. They attempt to tell the future, to prognosticate. Essentially what my envious backstabbing acquaintance was telling my girlfriend was, "If you leave him for me, it will be better for you." He was attempting to cast a spell on her, to get her away from me. He just wasn't very good at it. Actually, he was terrible, because he was so obvious. But as Aesop noticed, envy always shows. Whenever you see someone trying to pull someone else down, it is almost always caused by envy.
In the myth, when God catches Adam and Eve, Adam blames Eve, and Eve blames the serpent. Blaming other people for our problems is the first defense everyone engages in, and is, as M. Scott Peck has noticed, the genesis of evil in the world. He called it scapegoating. The myth tells us most scapegoating --blaming others for our problems -- is caused by envy. Perhaps not all of it is caused by envy, but probably almost all of it.
That myth, thousands of years old, is a wise and perceptive one. It tells us envious people whisper behind our backs in an attempt to bring us down. They are never upfront. They attempt to cast a spell on the intended, to tell them how wonderful their future will be if they listen. After all, the serpent did tell Eve, "surely you will not die."
The clearest example of envy in a movie I'm familiar with is Amadeus. Salieri is eaten alive with his envy of Mozart. So what does he do? He devotes his life to ruining Mozart, and doing it in such a subtle, devious way that Mozart always thinks Salieri is his friend. Salieri does it behind Mozart's back, he whispers to people, he attempts to cast a spell on them. He is a snake. Of course, he blames Mozart for his failures as a musician. And he ends his life in an insane asylum.
Of all the political systems in the world, the one that has been the most destructive, that has caused the most deaths, is socialism. The heart of it, that which it's based on, is envy. That's why socialists are egalitarians. If everyone is the same, they think, and has the same, then there will no envy. Instead, this attempt to bring Heaven to earth instead bought the worst Hell the human race has ever experienced.
The one political system that is the least conducive to envy is the free market. As the ancient Greek philosophers noticed, the benign form of envy is admiration. At least under the free market, people have a chance to be upwardly mobile. They can attain the same heights, or close to the same heights, as those they envy. They can admire them instead of envying them.
The problem with the human race is not that people are stupid or evil. They're half asleep, hynotized. I am reminded of Kaa, the snake in Kipling's The Jungle Book. In the movie Kaa enchanted his victims by singing to them (and the word "nachash," can also mean "singing"). Kipling also wrote that "words are the most powerful drug ever invented." He was right.
Envy will never be gotten rid of entirely, as long as people are half-awake. It is, as the serpent tells us, part of our animal nature, and will be until our animal nature is overcome, if such a thing is possible. But if not possible, envy can at least be minimized.