BMCR 2003.12.28

Envy, Spite and Jealousy: The Rivalrous Emotions in Ancient Greece

, , Envy, spite and jealousy : the rivalrous emotions in ancient Greece. Edinburgh Leventis studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003. 320 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0748616039. £45.00.

The reviewer of a volume on envy, spite, and jealousy is clearly in a bind, but luckily for me I have largely positive things to say about these essays. All the papers save one (Simon Goldhill’s) were originally presented at a conference in March 2001 at the University of Edinburgh.1 The quality of the papers is quite high, and the many differences of opinion suggest that the conference must have been very lively. The essays cover three areas: ancient philosophy of envy and company (Konstan, Gill, Herrmann, Viano, and Ben-Ze’ev), these emotions in literature (Most, Harrison, and Goldhill), and the rivalrous emotions in politics and oratory (Fisher, Saïd, Cairns, and Kaster). Obviously there is some overlap, but the distinctions make sense and will help guide browsers. Greece is the main focus of all the papers save Kaster’s (which deals with Rome). The volume has a great deal to offer all readers, though absolute beginners will find some of the essays a bit difficult. The primary audience will be classical scholars or graduate students working either on the emotions generally, these emotions in particular, or one of the authors or subjects covered. Nevertheless, all Greek and Latin is translated, and the writing is not overly technical. I would have no hesitation suggesting essays to undergraduates or non-Classicists. Since a collection like this lacks a single, central thesis, I will summarize and comment on the papers individually before offering brief general thoughts.

In ‘Before jealousy’ David K[onstan] suggests that there may not have been any ancient Greek jealousy to discuss. He reasonably claims that we should not assume that emotions are the same in all cultures or times. K’s thesis has two parts: first, no ancient Greek word quite covers the same range as modern words for jealousy (in English and other modern languages); second, ancient Greeks may not have felt jealousy as we understand it. Thus, both the word and the emotion are different. For K the essence of jealousy as we know it is the fear, anger, and sadness directed at the alienation of a loved one’s affection. K makes an excellent case that the fear of transfer of affection is not central to Greek words such as ζηλοτυπία, but his arguments that the word is never used for this and that the Greeks never felt this, seem insufficient and require a great deal of special pleading over specific texts.2 K weakens his case, I think, by limiting our jealousy to its ‘romantic’ sense (note his collocation ‘jealousy in the modern or romantic sense’ (18)). What is missing from ancient Greece may not be so much jealousy as (for the most part) affection or romance.3 Where we do find affection or (broadly speaking) romance, we often find jealousy. In any case, K launches the opening salvo on what becomes a recurring question: Are emotions universal across time and culture, or are they cultural constructs which can be properly understood only in their time and place?

Christopher G[ill] offers a useful review of Greek philosophers on the rivalrous emotions in ‘Is rivalry a virtue or a vice?’. As the title indicates, Greek philosophy contains two evaluations of rivalrous emotions: on one side, Aristotle (following conventional thought) says that these emotions may be good or bad; on the other side, Plato, the Stoics and Epicurus say that these emotions are always and essentially bad (in a challenge to conventional thought). G helpfully makes clear why these views differ. Rivalry may appear good in contexts where there is competition for limited goods; in the case of unlimited goods, rivalry can be only harmful. In conventional and Aristotelian ethics, we find the thought that happiness requires both external goods (wealth, health, beauty, social status) and goods of the soul (virtues of character and intellect). External goods are often in limited supply and their acquisition is in many ways out of the agent’s power. Thus, these views of happiness make room for beneficial rivalrous emotions: they urge on the agent to acquire limited but necessary goods. For the Stoics, Plato, and Epicurus, however, happiness requires only goods of the soul. These goods are not in limited supply and their acquisition is entirely up to the agent. Thus, there is no place for beneficial rivalrous emotions. Rivalry would only be harmful — most likely to both parties.

In ‘ φθόνος in the world of Plato’s Timaeus‘ F. G. H[errmann] considers Timaeus’ claim that the divine craftsman was without jealousy and therefore created the world to be as good as possible. H explains the reference to jealousy here by reference to other Platonic dialogues, especially Phaedrus 247a7. The key idea is that a truly good being, whether god or man, is without jealousy and instead generous; this generosity pushes the truly good being to create and to share goodness as far as possible. H also argues that this generosity fits in with Plato’s overall ethical and metaphysical convictions and reminds us that it is another example of Plato’s denial of ‘popular’ religious belief, which emphasized the envy of the gods. Although the speed with which H moves between dialogues may trouble some analytically-minded readers, his explication of the Timaeus seems reasonable.

After an overview of Aristotle on the emotions, Cristina V[iano] argues (in ‘Competitive emotions and thumos in Aristotle’s Rhetoric‘) that the competitive emotions are essentially reactive and social according to Aristotle. In addition, V suggests that the faculty of the soul which is the source of these competitive emotions is the thumos. She admits, however, that certainty is not possible here since Aristotle never provided the complete account (physical and psychological) of emotions which he himself demands in De Anima 1.1.

In ‘Aristotle on emotions towards the fortune of others’ Aaron B[en]-Z[e’ev] offers an analysis of Aristotle which Aristotle would have loved; it bristles with divisions, sub-divisions, figures (3!), and distinctions. He explicates Aristotle’s account of these other-directed emotions with two basic divisions. The basic situation is one person, call him Hector, perceiving the fortune of another, call him Paris. As Hector considers Paris’ fortunes, he evaluates matters in two ways: first, Hector may consider himself superior or inferior to Paris; second, Hector may consider Paris’ fortunes to be deserved or undeserved. By manipulating this two-part structure, we can place the various Aristotelian emotions. Admiration, for example, will be the response of Hector when he perceives Paris’ fortune to be superior to his and deserved. Indignation, however, would result if Hector sees Paris as superior to him but undeserving. B-Z goes on to argue that Aristotle’s account has certain gaps because Aristotle does not sufficiently consider certain possible combinations.

In ‘Epinician envies’, Glenn M[ost] addresses the literary uses of these rivalrous emotions. M claims (contrary to Konstan) that jealousy is a universal human emotion, and he notes that jealousy has something heroic about it, but envy is less grand and often even ugly or embarrassing. Whatever the social realities of envy, however, poets make their own decisions concerning how or if to treat it. Thus, Homer almost entirely suppresses envy, but Hesiod makes it a central topic in his works. In particular, M argues that the importance of envy in Pindaric epinician poetry does not result from sociological factors nor from generic requirements. Instead, Pindar limits his attention to envy to those poems where there was “a background of political unrest” (136). M also makes an interesting contrast between Pindar and Bacchylides more generally: while Bacchylides represents himself as essentially an ordinary citizen praising victors who are part of a larger social group, Pindar represents both himself and his victors as superior individuals who stand opposed to the mass of common people.

In ‘The causes of things: envy and the emotions in Herodotus’ Histories‘ Thomas H[arrison] claims that the primary motivation of historical actors in Herodotus is envy. On the one hand, only a small number of events which H narrates are “the result of deliberate, autonomous human decision” (144). Most events are compelled by custom or circumstance; many things simply happen — here Herodotus provides no account of cause. On the other hand, among those events which do have individual decision at their start, envy is a key motivator. For H, however, in distinct contrast to Most, this view of envy is not so much a chosen literary device which Herodotus employs; instead, it is more like a mental lens through which Herodotus views history. His world view leads him to see things in terms of envy; he does not choose to represent things so. H also stresses the differences between history as Herodotus practices it and modern history.

Simon G[oldhill] begins ‘Tragic emotions: the pettiness of envy and the politics of pitilessness’ with a desire to move beyond an overly schematic dilemma: is tragedy primarily political or primarily emotional? He seeks instead to show how the representation and manipulation of emotions in tragedy is connected to tragedy’s larger political role. G argues that envy and jealousy are not prominent in tragedy, and indeed that these feelings are in some sense too minor to motivate the immense and immensely violent struggles of tragedy. (Anger or lust are more adequate motivations.) Although G makes strong and interesting observations about the (surprising) unimportance of envy and jealousy in tragedy, I don’t see how this helps his larger claim that because tragedy is political, petty jealousy and envy stay off-stage. Why is it not possible for envy or jealousy to be strong motivating forces in social or political struggles, as well as in more straightforwardly personal ones? This leads neatly to the next groups of essays.

In ‘”Let envy be absent”: envy, liturgies and reciprocity in Athens’ Nick F[isher] suggests that liturgies acted as a kind of release valve for the destabilizing force of envy. According to F, envy usually appears (unsurprisingly) as a negative emotion. In particular, it threatens social and political stability, since the mass, the demos, envies the elite and thus the state splits along class lines. Liturgies were meant to help with this problem, and according to F they were often successful in that task. Against many recent interpretations which view liturgies negatively as aristocratic self-promotion and almost hubristic, F proposes a positive, almost healing role for liturgies both in the minds of Athenians (elite and non-elite) and in practice.

Suzanne Saïd, in ‘Envy and emulation in Isocrates’, seeks to describe the social context for envy and emulation ( φθόνος and ζῆλος) in classical Athens by looking at Isocrates. S assumes at the start that social background shapes social emotions.4 Isocrates sets up envy and emulation as a set of polar terms. Though both are aimed at the same types of objects (goods of all kinds, success, powerful and successful people), envy and emulation have radically different causes and slants. Emulation is essentially positive: it starts from praise and causes a desire to imitate or rival in order to improve. Envy is just as essentially negative: it starts from hostility and resentment and causes a desire to harm or damage the person envied. Unsurprisingly, Isocrates primarily associates envy with inferior people (inferior in money, power, or ability), but he does also allow that powerful rivals may feel envy as they compete for limited goods. Emulation, on the other hand is predominantly an elite emotion for Isocrates. Saïd also provides a valuable account of how Isocrates inspires or diminishes envy in his audience for rhetorical purposes.

D. L. C[airns] attempts to reveal the self-serving and self-deceptive nature of ‘envy’ in political debate. He provides a penetrating analysis of the use of ‘envy’ by the haves to free themselves from guilt or distress: if they (whoever they are) are motivated against me by mere envy, then I (whoever I am) have no need to seriously consider my own behavior for possible faults. In political terms, then, sheer bad faith often motivates the elite’s (frequent) charge that the masses’ behavior stems from envy. C also usefully reminds us that we should not limit envy or jealousy only to “bottom-up” cases (where, most obviously, the poor envy the wealthy, begrudge them their success, and attempt to harm them through, say, liturgies). Envy also runs “top-down”, when the “wealthy and powerful…feel φθόνος towards any inferior who gives the appearance of rivalry” (239). Since envy and jealousy are highly disreputable emotions, Cairns argues that they are extremely liable to be hidden or take other forms — even for the person who experiences them. Cairns’ paper is as interesting for its larger political observations as it is for its specific observations on ancient Greece.

In ‘Invidia, νέμεσις, φθόνος and the Roman emotional economy’, Robert A. K[aster] argues that the ever thrifty Romans employed only one word — ‘invidia’ — to cover the range of two Greek words — ‘ νέμεσις‘ (indignation) and ‘ φθόνος‘ (envy). More importantly, he argues that lexical distinctions do not fully reveal the range and importance of emotion words. K proposes instead an investigation of what he calls ‘scripts’ or ‘narratives’. In a nutshell, a script provides a mini-drama which depicts an emotion in its fullest context. Such a script has three basic stages: a perception, an evaluation and a response. So, for example, you perceive another person speaking with your beloved, and you judge that the flirting — the touching even! — is the expression of shared desire and interest. Then (response) your stomach flip-flops, your blood races, you move towards them and so on and so forth.5 Obviously, there are alternatives at each stage (there need not be one and only one perception, evaluation or reaction in anger, jealousy, etc.). In the case of the ‘invidia’ emotion in a Roman context, K masterfully shows that the key branch point is evaluation. A hypothetical Roman may evaluate some other person’s good with or without reference to some idea of justice or fairness. So, for example, how dare he have this (without consideration of merit) vs. he doesn’t deserve this (with less emphasis on him and more on merit). By a very careful consideration of cases, K is also able to show that the various Latin words for (roughly) envy from the ‘invid-‘ root cluster in ways that the OLD and TLL don’t reveal.

As I said earlier, the differences in opinion among the various contributors suggests that the conference itself had interesting discussion periods. Two main questions emerge. First, are emotions universal features of human psychology or are they specific, variable cultural constructs? (Ben-Ze’ev, Most, and Cairns are more or less explicitly committed universalists; Konstan and Saïd are forthright social constructionists; Kaster tries to find a middle ground; the others are less clear.) A second, though related, question is this: do authors manipulate the conventions of their culture and literary forms, or do the culture and forms manipulate them? For Most and Saïd, the author is total master of his work; he takes what he wants or needs from his cultural background, but his genius seems to raise him somehow above whatever limitations the background might suggest. For Konstan and Harrison, on the other side, the presumptions of a writer’s world seem to literally map out the space available for the author to fill.6 Ultimately, the strength of this volume may be that it so clearly raises such important and difficult questions.


1. The editors apparently asked Goldhill for a paper on tragedy in order to cover that important topic in the book.

2. So, for example, his readings of Plato’s Symposium 213c8 ff., Sappho 31, and Lysias 1.32-33 (pp. 17 & 22), strike me as willful.

3. Perhaps to be more precise, I should say that what is missing is large-scale attention to affection and romance in Greek writing and culture. The point is that we cannot assert, without begging many questions, that the ancient Greeks did not feel affection and romance for loved ones, but we can say (reasonably, I think) that they did not make it a major focus of their literature for some time.

4. Since so many central emotions are interpersonal, I was unsure if she means to leave room for the idea that some emotions, say joy, are not shaped by social conventions but rather are natural.

5. A recent philosophical work makes use of a very similar notion of “narrative” in order to understand emotions: Peter Goldie The Emotions: A Philosophical Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

6. Note how the two questions can cut across one another. So, for example, Saïd explicitly favors a social construction theory about emotions, but she appears to view Isocrates the author as completely in control of his tropes and audience. He, at least, seems to stand out from the cultural construction that lesser Athenians swam in unawares. I am not sure that this combination of views must be contradictory, but I suspect that some such problem threatens such a view.