Monday, July 15, 2013

Envy, Competition and Rivalry

When I was six years old and in the first grade, the two smartest boys in the class ended up being best friends. One was Paul and the other was me. (Don't get me started on putting smart kids in with average kids with whom they have very little in common...)

One day Paul brought to class a math workbook (which was independent of the arithmetic we were being taught in school) and began to rapidly do the problems in front of me.

I immediately felt something I had never felt before - a mild sense of envy and competition.

Years later I began to analyze what happened, and I realized that all competition just might have some envy in it. You want to compete to as good or better, i.e to win.

Usually envy is about dragging the other person down, even if you drag yourself down. That's is why it's such a horrible thing. It can destroy cultures if left unchecked. But there was none of that kind of envy towards Paul. I didn't want to best him or drag him down. Instead, I wanted to be as good as he was.

The Greeks noticed thousands of years ago that the benign form of envy is admiration. I'm not sure I admired Paul. After all, I was but six years old.

But perhaps in my six-year-old mind I did admire Paul in some way because I wanted to be like him - that is, I wanted to imitate him. And it is by imitation that people learn. It was not, however, strong enough of a competitive feeling to make me study math outside of class. Or inside it, for that matter.

I don't think I considered Paul a rival. We remained friends for many years, all the way into high school, where we pretty much went our separate ways.

It's all very complex. The ancient Greeks understood that. Zelos, for example, was the spirit (daimon) of eager rivalry, emulation, envy, jealousy and zeal, and he and his siblings, Nike (Victory), Bia (Force) and Kratos (Strength), were the winged enforcers of Zeus, who was was the chief judge of Mount Olympus and settled all disputes fairly. It was he who enforced law, justice and morality.

Zelos may have been identified with Agon, spirit of contest, worshiped at Olympia. He was also sometimes equated with Phthonos the spirit of romantic jealousy, and was closely connected with the god Eris, who is strife as the driving force of competition.

Complicated? Yes.

I will say this: imitation is not enough to learn. There has to be judgment about the quality of who or what to imitate and what is learned. That's why Zeus was the judge of right and wrong, about what should be emulated, about what was best to be victorious in, about rivalry, about how to use your strength.

The Greek gods weren't "out there." They were human traits projected into educating and entertaining stories. They are an example of one of the first things I learned in journalism class: show, don't tell.

There is something in us that judges. That can be a good thing or bad thing, depending on if we judge correctly or not. We have to judge when we should be courageous, which path to choose out of many, when to give people their due, when to exercise self-control.

Here is my take on it: we imitate (emulate) people and ideas, to become educated, because we judge it will improve the quality of our lives. We imitate those whom we admire (the benign form of envy). We have to have enthusiasm (zelos) to do this. We compete with rivals who have different views, to strive by force and strength (usually the strength and forcefulness of our arguments) so that we can achieve victory. We believe our victories are just and moral.

We're never going to get rid of envy, but it can be turned into admiration. That's what the purpose of civilization is - to transform the worst traits of human nature into something better. Things that make our lives better, and society better.

Civilization is a thin veneer on top of a whole lot of terrible human nature. When we start destroying civilization and society because we think we can design something better, we usually end up with the Law of Unintended Consequences. Then we wonder, "How the hell did that happen?"

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