Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.51 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.51

Ed Sanders, Envy and Jealousy in Classical Athens: A Socio-Psychological Approach. Emotions of the past.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  Pp. xiii, 207.  ISBN 9780199897728.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Martin Hinterberger, University of Cyprus (


Although already a rather well-established field in Classics, for a much longer time than in other disciplines, the study of ancient emotions has been boosted during the last two decades by an invigorated interest in emotions both in the humanities and in the human sciences in general. A lively token of the scholarly progress made recently is the still young series Emotions of the Past edited by Robert A. Kaster and David Konstan, two pioneers of the field, and dedicated to the history of emotions in premodern societies. Ed Sanders' Envy and Jealousy in Classical Athens: a Socio-Psychological Approach, the second volume of this series, is a fresh approach to phthonos/envy, one of the especially conspicuous emotions of the Ancient Greeks. By 'socio-psychological approach' the author means investigating and taking into consideration the social circumstances and the psychological state that phthonos refers to. The book is divided into eight chapters, the first three of them providing the theoretical background for the investigation of specific texts.

Chapter 1 discusses methodology. Sanders agrees with emotional psychologists that it often makes more sense to speak of an emotional episode or scenario than an emotion per se. Emotional episodes begin with 'antecedent conditions' (cognitions/perceptions and our interpretation of them) which arouse psychological and physiological feelings, possibly followed by attempts to regulate or cope with the emotion. Then come verbal expressions and physical actions resulting from the emotion, followed in the end by some sort of resolution. Sanders' basic methodological tool for his investigation into envy is the 'scripts' approach (fruitfully introduced into Classics by Robert Kaster), a general script being the abstract pattern resulting from the analysis of specific emotional episodes/scenarios. Sanders argues that the usual lexical approach, focusing on emotional words, must be complemented with the scripts approach in order to get behind the terms envy/jealousy and their ancient Greek equivalents (primarily phthonos). A complementary approach is especially pertinent to ancient envy/jealousy for two reasons: first, phthonos words, due to the emotion's discreditable nature, are often suppressed and, second, no ancient Greek word for sexual jealousy exists until well after the Classical period. Wisely, Sanders has chosen to concentrate on Athens during the Classical period (479–322), for which plenty of literary texts survive (epigraphical evidence is not taken into account). Envy/jealousy episodes provided by this literary source material is supplemented by Aristotle's theoretical treatises, which repeatedly discuss phthonos.

In chapter 2, after a detailed analysis of the complex and versatile modern emotion envy, Sanders concludes that envy follows 'from noting that you have something, I do not, and I feel a painful feeling on contemplating our relative positions'. Sanders distinguishes five different scripts which are covered by the term 'envy' in English, to each of which, for practical reasons, he assigns a label, e.g., 'covetous envy' means 'I feel a strong desire to act to deprive you of the good, and a weaker desire to obtain it myself', whereas 'begrudging envy' means 'I feel a strong desire to act to deprive you of the good, but have no desire to obtain it myself' (the other labels are 'covetousness', 'emulation' and 'emulative envy'). Jealousy differs from envy in a number of respects, but it has many similarities too. Its main characteristic is a perceived exclusive bond with some object/person and it appears both in sexual and non-sexual situations. Being a blended emotion, it frequently includes envy. Sanders distinguishes four jealousy scripts, 'jealous of my position', 'possessive jealousy', 'sexual jealousy' and 'envy' (the term 'jealousy' being frequently used instead of 'envy' in everyday language). This chapter also includes a judicious discussion of other emotions related to envy (e.g., admiration, greed, schadenfreude, spite and malice). Chapter 2 in itself is an instructive overview of what modern research has to say about envy and jealousy.

In the same way, Greek terms corresponding to 'envy'/'jealousy' are examined in chapter 3. Phthonos, the most important term, is even more multifaceted than 'envy' and covers no less than 12 different scripts (i.e., senses of the word). It comprehensively covers the ground of English envy and jealousy, with the exception of 'emulative envy' and, partially, of 'sexual jealousy'. In addition to envy and jealousy, phthonos also covers the scripts 'begrudging refusal', 'odious hateful', 'censure', 'spite, malice, schadenfreude', 'begrudging sharing', 'rivalry' and 'phthonos theôn'. Despite this only partial overlap with modern English envy and jealousy, Sanders argues that in a translation the Greek term phthonos can perfectly well be substituted by such words as 'envy, 'jealousy', 'begrudging' etc. , except when a Greek passage relies on the ambiguity between different senses (but this frequently won't be the case, Sanders assures the reader). The meticulous and lucid analysis of phthonos' semantics, in itself is an important contribution to the history of Greek emotions.

Chapter 4 presents Aristotle's views on phthonos expressed in On the Art of Rhetoric and his Ethical Treatises. Sanders discusses how phthonos is related to spite (epichairekakia), pity (eleos) and indignation (to nemesan), and emulation (zêlos). Interestingly, Aristotle's treatment of phthonos in various aspects resembles modern approaches, a fact which supports the latters' application to Classical Athens.

After these four chapters on both modern an ancient theoretical approaches follows the treatment of phthonos in specific rhetorical and theatrical texts, offering new insights into the psychological depth of the literary characters presented. Sanders' investigation uncovers new dimensions, so far hidden or not sufficiently appreciated. Sanders examines whether or not Aristotle's theory is consistent with rhetorical practice as it is represented in rhetorical texts (ch. 5), investigating phthonos accusations, explicit suppression and arousal of audience phthonos, as well as covert arousal of audience phthonos. Morally sanctioned or 'good' phthonos (the script 'censure', close to indignation, which Aristotle labelled to nemesan, against the usage current in his time) could be aroused overtly, but it was inappropriate for an orator to arouse bad phthonos, an entirely base emotion which reflected negatively on the person who experienced it. Spite and envy, therefore, had to be triggered covertly alongside good phthonos, the label phthonos itself admitting both interpretations.

Plato declared that people attend comedy in order to laugh about their neighbour's misfortune. Chapter 6 examines if indeed the root of all comedy is malice and schadenfreude, showing that Aristophanes' political plays do indeed utilize extensively audience phthonos for the political class. The presence of phthonos in comedy and even more in tragedy has by and large been previously overlooked, because these genres almost never focus on phthonos terminology. Through a script approach, however, and with careful attention to the details of envy/jealousy scenarios, Sanders persuasively shows that phthonos does in fact occur (ch. 7). This discussion makes the profit to be gained from a script approach especially clear. Whereas phthonos proper is not a major onstage emotion in drama, sexual jealousy narratives are hugely important in tragedy, as Sanders convincingly demonstrates in the last chapter, the longest one and somehow the culmination of his book. The actions of such famous female figures as Medea, Deianeira and Hermione are motivated not only by such emotions as erôs, rage and anger, but to a considerable extent by jealousy as well. Sanders maintains, therefore, that sexual jealousy did exist as an emotional concept in Classical Athens, although no separate linguistic label was used. According to Sanders' analysis, this specific Athenian jealousy consisted of an explosive mixture of erôs, orgê, misos and phthonos and generally resulted in some sort of destructive action.

As Sanders declares in the introduction, he pursues a twofold aim besides elucidating phthonos in Classical Athens: first, to develop a methodological approach that contributes to the ongoing debate as to how research into emotions of the past should be conducted, and, second, to shed light on a number of literary issues relating to the texts and genres discussed. As is clear from my above exposition, Sanders' book has succeeded on all levels. His application of modern socio-psychological insights to Classical Greek is supported by the striking parallels between modern theories and Aristotle's analysis. One of the many merits of this study is the meticulous construction of different phthonos scripts, which are extremely useful in order to grasp the full semantic range of this multifaceted concept/term. The script approach is especially apt for chasing down hidden phthonos scenarios where, because phthonos was a social taboo, no phthonos word is used. Moreover, Sanders' analysis of specific literary texts presents them in such a fresh light that the reader will turn to these well-known works with refreshed curiosity – this is not a minor achievement.

In what follows I shall present a few remarks which mostly consist of questions I posed to myself when reading Sanders' stimulating study. In chapter 8, Sanders offers a lucid analysis of situations in which literary figures display a blend of emotions which comes close to what we call jealousy. Yet, does the coexistence of of erôs, orgê, misos and phthonos amount to the specific emotion jealousy, or was what these figures experienced just an array of separate emotions, as David Konstan suggested?1 Konstan rejected the existence of jealousy in Classical Greece, arguing primarily that an ingredient central to jealousy in the modern sense, namely the (anticipated) loss of another person's exclusive affection, is absent from the scenarios that at first sight seem to contain jealousy. Konstan obviously understands the concept of modern jealousy differently from Sanders, who does not regard (anticipated) loss of another's exclusive affection as a necessary feature. I agree with Sanders' in-depth analysis that the existence of jealousy in certain scenarios is plausible. Nevertheless, I wonder if the existence or non-existence of a label for jealousy in Greek (at that time) is a negligible fact. I would say that the existence of a label shows at least a higher degree of consciousness of the concept or a higher degree of conceptualisation.

Phthonos episodes discussed in Sanders' study provide sufficient evidence for antecedent conditions and results, but almost no access to the feeling connected to the phthonos complex is possible. Since nobody admits experiencing phthonos, there are almost no first-person accounts on how it feels. For the period under scrutiny, it is just Aristotle who refers to it when defining phthonos as pain caused by the perception of the good fortune of one of our peers. This pain must remain hidden, however, since phthonos is regarded as an immoral emotion and a social taboo. This internal torture and self-destruction was visually represented as a human figure strangling himself and choking, like the figure on the cover illustration. The non-specialist reader not familiar with phthonos iconography may ask himself what exactly the cover of the present book shows, since no mention of this topic is made inside. It is remarkable, though, that this 'visible' aspect of phthonos is not exploited in oratory or the other genres discussed by Sanders.

The careful identification of various scripts behind a certain term of course contributes significantly to a better understanding of this term. Nevertheless, by choosing one specific script as 'the right meaning' when interpreting a specific phthonos episode, we isolate scripts from each other which are strongly connected through the overall concept phthonos. Sanders himself has lucidly demonstrated how in oratory the multifaceted character of the concept phthonos is exploited by the rhetor and how good phthonos, inadvertently, shades into bad phthonos. Even if we carefully define what we mean by a certain modern term or a label for a specific script, by substituting phthonos with this term/label we preclude all other meanings inherent in the Greek concept.

The history of emotions is a field where research will hardly find ultimate answers, especially when multidimensional literary texts are the main source of information – it is the very characteristic and charm of good literature to permit more than one approach or interpretation, and it is also one of the most interesting aspects of the study of such elusive emotions as phthonos. The important thing is to be aware of the historicity and mutability of emotions and to approach them carefully. Thus, research into emotions enriches literary studies immensely. Sanders' book is a precious and enviable contribution both to the history of emotions and to literary studies. It is to be hoped that his study of envy will motivate other studies on envy of another period of Greek culture or on other emotions, and that Emotions of the Past will flourish without 'begrudging envy'.


1.   D. Konstan, The Emotions of the Ancient Greeks. Studies in Aristotle and Classical Literature. University of Toronto Press 2006, pp. 219-243.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010