On Envy by Dr. Johnson

Letter E.

Envy is almost the only vice which is practicable at all times, and in every place—the only passion which can never lie quiet for want of irritation; its effects, therefore, are everywhere discoverable, and its attempts always to be dreaded.

It is impossible to mention a name, which any advantageous distinction has made eminent, but some latent animosity will burst out. The wealthy trader, however he may abstract himself from public affairs, will never want those who hint with Shylock, that ships are but boards, and that no man can properly be termed rich whose fortune is at the mercy of the winds. The beauty adorned only with the unambitious graces of innocence and modesty, provokes, whenever she appears, a thousand murmurs of detraction and whispers of suspicion. The genius, even when he endeavours only to entertain with pleasing; images of nature, or instruct by uncontested principles of science, yet suffers persecution from innumerable critics, whose acrimony is excited merely by the pain of seeing others pleased—of hearing applauses which another enjoys.

The frequency of envy makes it so familiar that it escapes our notice; nor do we often reflect upon its turpitude or malignity, till we happen to feel its influence. When he that has given no provocation to malice, but by attempting to excel in some useful art, finds himself pursued by multitudes whom he never saw with implacability of personal resentment; when he perceives clamour and malice let loose upon him as a public enemy, and incited by every stratagem of defamation; when he hears the misfortunes of his family or the follies of his youth exposed to the world; and every failure of conduct, or defect of nature, aggravated and ridiculed; he then learns to abhor those artifices at which he only laughed before, and discovers how much the happiness of life would be advanced by the eradication of envy from the human heart.

Envy is, indeed, a stubborn weed of the mind, and seldom yields to the culture of philosophy. There are, however, considerations which, if carefully implanted, and diligently propagated, might in time overpower and repress it, since no one can nurse it for the sake of pleasure, as its effects are only shame, anguish, and perturbation. It is, above all other vices, inconsistent with the character of a social being, because it sacrifices truth and kindness to very weak temptations. He that plunders a wealthy neighbour, gains as much as he takes away, and improves his own condition in the same proportion as he impairs another's; but he that blasts a flourishing reputation, must be content with a small dividend of additional fame, so small as can afford very little consolation to balance the guilt by which it is obtained.

I have hitherto avoided mentioning that dangerous and empirical morality, which cures one vice by means of another. But envy is so base and detestable, so vile in its original, and so pernicious in its effects, that the predominance of almost any other quality is to be desired. It is one of those lawless enemies of society, against which poisoned arrows may honestly be used. Let it therefore be constantly remembered, that whoever envies another, confesses his superiority; and let those be reformed by their pride, who have lost their virtue.

Almost every other crime is practised by the help of some quality which might have produced esteem or love, if it had been well employed; but envy is a more unmixed and genuine evil; it pursues a hateful end by despicable means, and desires not so much its own happiness as another's misery. To avoid depravity like this, it is not necessary that any one should aspire to heroism or sanctity; but only that he should resolve not to quit the rank which nature assigns, and wish to maintain the dignity of a human being.

Dr. Johnson.