• A Liberty Classic Book Review of Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour by Helmut Schoeck.1

  • I’ve been such a fool, Vassili. Man will always be man. There is no new man. We tried so hard to create a society that is equal, where there’d be nothing to envy your neighbor. But there’s always something to envy. The smile, the friendship, something you don’t have and want to appropriate. In this world, even a Soviet one, there will always be rich and poor. Rich in gifts, poor in gifts. Rich in love, poor in love.
  • –Commissar Danilov in Enemy at the Gates, 2001.
In a few sentences in a desperate moment, Joseph Fiennes’ character in the 2001 film Enemy at the Gates gets to the heart of an intractable social problem. People will always be different, and we will always resent people who have what we don’t. In Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, Helmut Schoeck takes us on a historical, cultural, theoretical, and practical tour of one of humanity’s oldest sinful dispositions. It is a sin that goes back to the Garden of Eden and can never be satisfied no matter how much we capitulate to it.

What is envy? Schoeck refers to a dictionary definition of envy as “To feel displeasure and ill-will at the superiority of (another person) in happiness, success, reputation, or the possession of anything desirable.” In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas refers to the definition given by St. John Damascene: “envy is sorrow for another’s good.” “[T]he foule sinne of Envye” is the vice Chaucer discusses after Pride (quoted on p. 189). The envious person does not celebrate his neighbor’s good fortune. He grieves it, like Satan in Paradise Lost, who “thought himself impaired” by Christ’s exaltation (quoted on p. 190). Schoeck quotes William L. Davidson (p. 20): “Envy is an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent,” and Muhammad via Al-Kulaini (p. 28): “Envy devours faith as fire devours wood.”

Readers looking for a lengthy but simple denunciation of the foule sinne will be disappointed. Even loquacious authors might struggle to get 452 pages out of “Envy is bad, and you should stop it.” Rather, Schoeck offers what is truly a theory of social behavior. He gives plenty of space to envy’s malign consequences and argues, “A society’s civilizing power of achievement is dependent on that society’s skill in domesticating and canalizing envy” (p. 279). And yet he argues that in a very particular way, envy is a precondition for civilization: “envy alone makes any kind of social co-existence possible” (p. 4). How?

Private Vices and Public Prosperity: Benign Envy

Envy, according to Schoeck, serves two useful functions. First, envy can spur us on to greater effort. He writes of what he calls “indignation-envy,” an attitude of “I’ll show them!” that motivates someone to achieve, innovate, or excel. Envy is still a vice, but it is a universal part of the human condition that can be “domesticated” and “canalized” with the person who envies another for his social position striving to beat or at least join him. Envy can drive someone to become So Good They Can’t Ignore You, to borrow Cal Newport’s 2012 book title.

Commercial institutions–free markets–ameliorate or attenuate some of the worst excesses of the envious. Suppose people are and always will be envy-riddled status-seekers. In that case, it is far better that they compete for status in games where the best way to ensure you have a slightly bigger house or a slightly nicer car than your neighbor is to provide everyone with goods and services at attractive prices. It’s far better that someone who wishes to make his name great oversees a great grocery chain rather than a great empire. Envy “domesticated” and “canalized” in this way produces a genuinely Mandevillian outcome: private vice becomes public virtue.

Schoeck argues that envy can also check political ambition; it “has a positive and constructive function as watchdog” (p. 279). To the extent that envy makes people guard their prerogatives under the rule of law, they will tend to be very stingy with special privileges. Schoeck puts it this way (p. 416):

  • In so far as the ubiquity of envy runs counter to the unlimited monopoly of power, and hence will often lead to its dispersal, and in so far as it is only through the domestication of power that most creative innovations, and, indeed, humanity, become possible, envy cannot be regarded as a purely negative phenomenon.

Envy resents financial, intellectual, and artistic superiority. That’s bad. However, it also resents political superiority and demands checks and balances. As Federalist 51 explains, “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”2 Envy, perhaps, can counteract ambition, too.

Private Vices and Public Poverty: Malign Envy

So what’s all the fuss about? Envy, Schoeck argues, has a couple of salutary effects despite itself. When not “domesticated” or “canalized,” however, and left to run amok, envy makes cooperation impossible. Imagine Salieri in Amadeus working to destroy Mozart. Salieri goes mad, Mozart dies young, and the world never hears the beautiful music they could have created. Schoeck writes (p. 5):

  • highly developed and diversified societies from members of primitive societies–the development of civilization, in short–are the result of innumerable defeats inflicted on envy, i.e., on man as an envious being.

Most people agree that envy is a sin because of what it induces. Almost all ethical systems, proverbs, fairytales, and religions condemn it because of what it leads to.

  • … if the same citizens who keep jealous watch on the equality before the law, and from which they constantly benefit, now approach the state with the demand that it infringe the principle of equality before the law for those few citizens whom the state has enabled to become economically (or perhaps only educationally) unequal. (Schoeck, p. 279).

Undomesticated envy has an unquenchable, demented thirst for another’s suffering. It involves “the destruction of pleasure in and for others, without deriving any sort of advantage from this” (p. 140). Politically, it manifests as “a malicious delight in the leveling of society” (p. 267). Schoeck explains:

  • As people have always realized, however, the envier has little interest in the transfer of anything of value from the other’s possession to his own. He would like to see the other person robbed, dispossessed, stripped, humiliated or hurt, but he practically never conjures up a detailed mental picture of how a transfer of the other’s possession to himself might occur. The pure type of envier is no thief or swindler in his own cause. In any case, where that which is envied is another man’s personal qualities, skill or prestige, there can be no question of theft; he may quite well, however, harbour a wish for the other man to lose his voice, his virtuosity, his good looks or his integrity” (p. 8).

The person who envies you doesn’t want what you have. He just doesn’t want you to have it—and he might be willing to go to considerable lengths to see that you don’t. Depressingly, evidence from experimental economics shows that people are willing to pay “in order to torment” the objects of their envy (p. 138): “The envious man is perfectly prepared to injure himself if by so doing he can injure or hurt the object of his envy” (p. 28). People, in turn, go to great lengths—far beyond the requirements of modesty and propriety—to conceal what they have from others.

The “I’ll show them!” spirit of what Schoeck called “indignation-envy” can be thwarted easily by garden-variety “who do you think you are?” envy, which can thwart innovation. Skepticism reigns: why should we fix what isn’t broken? “Tradition asserts, with a fatal effect upon deliberate innovations, that what was good enough for the father is good enough for the son” (p. 55). Who, this brand of envy asks, are you to think we need a bunch of newfangled gadgets and habits like writing when mere oral transmission of wisdom and knowledge has served so tolerably well for so long?

People everywhere have looked upon innovation and prosperity with deep suspicion for a long time. Did you prosper? It must be because you have devilishly taken from someone else. Did your neighbor fail? It must be because you have devilishly cursed him. Something must be amiss that the envied person has so much and the envier has so little. Writing of one African people group, Schoeck explains, “A bright child who matures early is regarded by the Lovedu as a future witch” (p. 50).

“Schoeck describes a magical, zero-sum worldview. It’s the stuff of 21st-century American politics….”

Here and elsewhere, Schoeck’s language grates on the modern ear. He describes, for example, “envy-ridden primitives” who do not have the material advantages conferred by extensive specialization, division of labor, and technological change (p. 363). It would be interesting to see whether his basic conclusions would change in light of the last six decades of empirical anthropology. Schoeck describes a magical, zero-sum worldview. It’s the stuff of 21st-century American politics. It should not surprise us if it is also the stuff of tribal life worldwide. Regardless, his work is ripe for a reevaluation in light of advances in the humanities and social sciences.

Envy turns especially ugly when it feeds populist rhetoric and revolutionary violence against its objects:

  • … where the revolutionaries paradoxically directed the envy of the mob against those institutions and persons which, though they may have given rise to envy, were at the same time a prerequisite for any economic development: export-import merchants, foreign concerns or compatriots in slightly better circumstances as the result of certain services rendered, etc. (p. 397)

Schoeck’s analysis here resembles what Thomas Sowell has written in various places about despised “middleman minorities” like overseas Chinese merchants and moneylenders throughout Asia, Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, and Jews wherever they have gone.

Intellectuals, Schoeck argues, have a stake in continuing the problem rather than solving it. Twentieth-century visions of the New Socialist Man notwithstanding, “[n]othing could be worse for the utopian intellectual than a society where there was nothing left for him to criticize” (p. 360). There has never been a “golden age, when social harmony prevailed because each man had about as little as the next one” (p. 39). Schoeck’s analysis suggests that there never will be on this side of eternity.


  • “The envious man thinks that if his neighbour breaks a leg, he will
    be able to walk better himself.” (Schoeck, p. 27.)

While envy need not have wholly malign consequences, it is overwhelmingly a philosophy not of “I will” but “you won’t.” It is the conviction that two wrongs make a right: Ill fortune has visited me; therefore, justice requires you to suffer.

Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour is an important contribution that does not get the attention it deserves. Hence, it is an appropriate subject for a Liberty Classics essay explaining why we should read it carefully and take it seriously. It offers a more sophisticated theory of envy than we might think and explains how envy can be “pro-social” in two respects: first, it might spur us toward emulation, and second, it might provide a powerful check on the self-aggrandizing and politically powerful. Under the right circumstances, we can direct one of the darker angels of our nature toward the light. It becomes especially dangerous when un-domesticated and un-canalized–”sanctified,” perhaps, by the intellectuals–and allowed to run riot over the institutions of a free and prosperous society.

For more on these topics, see

Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour was originally published in German in 1966, translated into English in 1969, reprinted by the Liberty Fund in 1987, and is worth paying close attention to in 2023 and beyond. It reinforces my conviction that I should bias my reading in favor of old books for two reasons. First, they have worn out the critics’ hammers and stood the test of time. Second, it seems like there is an old answer to every seemingly “new” question. Its 452 pages span history, anthropology, social science, and literature; scholars across the humanities and social sciences should read it carefully because we all have something to learn from it.


[1] Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, by Helmut Schoeck. Liberty Fund edition, 1987. Originally published in German in 1966, translated into English in 1969.

[2] James Madison, Federalist 51. Online Library of Liberty.

*I thank ChatGPT 4 and Bard for research assistance.

Art Carden is Margaret Gage Bush Distinguished Professor of Economics and Medical Properties Trust Fellow at Samford University in Birmingham, AL and a Research Fellow with numerous organizations.

For more articles by Art Carden, see the Archive.