If an alien life form were to ask for a written history of mankind through the ages to the present, there would be a war, conflict, and violence on every page, in almost every paragraph. Violence happens because people experience envy, something that many cultures and religions identify as a trait rotten to the core. The trouble that can persist with seeking to stop violence is people’s inability to recognize their inner qualities that are derived from envious behavior. In the Bible for example, our civilizations source of values and spiritual faith, has in the first book Genesis, chapter four the story of Cain who grew envious of God’s favorable outlook upon his brother Abel, the story ended in blood (New American; pg. 11).[i] The interesting thing about violence is how we define it, how we as a species seek to understand it.
Typically you would expect most people to understand violence as some form of physical aggression, whether it is a horrific crime, or acts found within war. Interestingly enough, violence is simpler than that and by that very logic more readily prevalent within our society. Understanding violence as a furious, turbulent and intense action of sorts allows us to realize that violence isn’t solely a physical act of aggression, but a fundamental act of violation that more often than not ends in human conflict (Violence).[ii] When God favored Abel over Cain, the later did not seek to understand and properly place his own actions within the situation, but filled his heart with hatred and murdered his brother. As the 18th century philosopher Adam Smith wrote, Envy is “that passion which views with malignant dislike the superiority of those who are really entitled to all the superiority they possess” (Wealth of Nations).[iii] Here in lies the fundamental source of violence – envy – alongside a person’s ability to internally become aware of their envy and how this ultimately influences their subsequent behavior. If violence is to be stopped envy has to be recognized as the enabler, and if people want to be aware of their envy, their internal awareness alongside the consciousness of their innate capabilities, or unique talents, must be utilized.
Let us explore the issue of violence through what is to be called the “Web of Envy.” Since violence is not some mysterious phenomenon that should be assumed as a fact of life, what is its source? It is people, and people’s behavior. The beginning of this Web of Envy, or “the web” for short, starts with human existence, and ultimately consciousness. The human species and all its activity can be reduced to two simple foundational pillars: Pleasure and Pain (Legislation; pg 2).[iv] It is easily argued that because humans want to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain, all human activity whether it is going sailing, to the movies, or making friends, etc is the pursuit of acquiring things that will award the individual pleasure, and offer them the least amount of pain.[v] So what does this have to do with Envy, and violence? Since violence is caused by human behavior, and all human behavior is based on the wish to maximize pleasure, then what happens if people’s internal awareness of their pleasure or their perception on the outside world as to where pleasure lies, is distorted? (Violence; pg. 74)[vi]
Deriving from consciousness [internal awareness], envy can be channeled into two directions – benign envy and malicious envy (Violence; pg. 75).[vii] Benign envy is when an individual sees another enjoying a pleasure or success of some sort, and becomes impartially jealous due to their own lack of enjoyment and subsequently seeks to acquire something of a similar magnitude (Violence; pg. 75).[viii] Malicious envy sees the same individual and instead of impartial jealousy, resorts to hatred of the individual and seeks to deprive that other of their enjoyment (Violence; pg. 75).[ix] In Dante Alighieri’s thirteenth century work, La Divina Commedia [The Divine Comedy], finds the envious individuals of Earth in Hell with their eyes sown shut with wire because they gained sorrow at another’s good (Inferno)[x], and sinful pleasure from others brought low (Summa Theologica)[xi] [See figure 1 for the depiction of Dante’s portrayal].
The question still looms however, how one individual can channel that jealousy or envy benignly and the other with great malicious intention? The answer is internal awareness not only of the envy, but of one’s position within the relative setting causing that envious sentiment. In other words, the reason one person chooses to hate the other who is enjoying some pleasure, is because they believe the other’s act of enjoyment is causing them pain, and to diminish their pain they destroy the one experiencing the pleasure. Instead of finding an internal process or talent to acquire that same pleasure, they seek to destroy the obstacle instead (Violence; pg. 74).[xii] A person who resorts to benign envy is able to not only internally aware of what is causing them pain [the visible enjoyment of another], but are also aware of their innate talents to assist them in acquiring that same pleasure and thus enjoyment of that pleasure. This is what Cain failed to grasp when looking upon his brother Abel’s preference to God.
As seen in figure 2 below, Cain thought of his brother Abel as the source of his pain, when in reality it was the fact that God did not show him equal favor for his sacrifice. He believed that by killing his brother, out of envy for his situation and the favors stowed upon it [his perceived obstacle to pleasure], he would be ridding the source of his pain.
Figure 2 “Cain and Abel Offering Sacrifice to God”
The story finishes, after Cain has killed Abel out of envy, “therefore you shall be banned from the soil that opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. If you till the soil, it shall no longer give you its produce. You shall become a restless wanderer on the earth” (New American; pg. 11).[xiii] Cain immediately responded realizing the gravity of his actions, “my punishment is too great to bear” (New American; pg. 11).[xiv] When Cain committed to killing his brother in order to destroy the perceived source to his pain, he ended up securing for himself more hardship and pain. So again I will ask the question, since violence is caused by human behavior, and all human behavior is based on the wish to maximize pleasure, then what happens if people’s internal awareness of their pleasure or their perception on the outside world as to where pleasure lies, is distorted? What if Cain, realized that it was his own actions, his sacrifice to the Lord, that was his actual source of pain, and that his thoughts that his brother was the cause of his pain was simply distorted?
People who experience malicious envy resort to hatred because they hate the other for experiencing enjoyment from a pleasure, but also hate themselves for lacking that enjoyment in the first place [which they fundamentally desire due to the human need to maximize one’s pleasure] (Violence; pg. 75).[xv] The individual who experiences malicious envy never once is aware that they may be able to acquire more pleasure in life if they utilize their unique sets of talents – natural endowments, ability- to acquire that pleasure, rather than destroying a perceived obstacle to it. It is from this understanding of envy and how it interacts with individuals within the collective [society] that brought Adam Smith to his conclusion – “that passion which views with malignant dislike the superiority of those who are really entitled to all the superiority they possess.” Those who have acquired pleasure and enjoy them, are not deserving to the hatred from those who experience malicious envy. What Adam Smith is saying is that those who are viewed as “superior” due to what they “have” or are experiencing [thus have more pleasures], are in that position because of their ability to acquire such things. Those who look on with malignant dislike never internally realize that they are able to do the same. If they simply recognize their own abilities and focus their mind on acquiring the pleasure, and not destroying the other which is enjoying the pleasure they covet, they will reduce their overall access to pain.
Malicious envy and the hatred it creates, enables the person to internally rationalize a destructive and aggressive behavior toward the other that is enjoying their coveted pleasure. By the malicious person not being aware of their inner talents, thus causing them to resort to violence to what they believe is a remedy to their perceived problem or source of pain, ultimately creates violence within our society. So how then do people become not only aware of envious qualities, but their ability to influence how to behave based upon that internal awareness of envy? Simply ask the right questions, or in other words rationalize properly the situation when envy arises.
Look at it, for example, in regards to two people who are sitting in the same room. One of these people is eating an ice cream, and the other is not. The person without an ice cream asks the other if they may have a bite of theirs. The person eating the ice cream says no, which results in the person with no ice cream punching the other in the face, knocking the treat to the floor. What questions did the person without ice cream ask themselves before resolving the situation with violence? If we are pessimistic about the person’s [the who committed the violence] internal rationalization of their actions, we can assume that they were angry by the other’s response, and didn’t question any of their thoughts and simply acted on impulse. This time however lets have a little more optimism, lets assume that the person thought about the situation before acting. Their understanding of the situation was distorted, and justified their violent action not by recognizing their anger was caused by envy and how that was relevant within the given situation; but that their pain was caused by the other with the ice cream because they were not selfless or compassionate enough to give up their pleasure for someone else [more specifically them]. Never once did the person recognize their sentiment of envy and as a result concluded that it was acceptable to act violently to reconcile their pain. The best part about this scenario is that few people acknowledge the fact that there is a third option for the person originally without an ice cream to pursue. Not only is there a third option, but it is the easiest path to act upon, to have the person without an ice cream look at the other enjoying theirs and ask themselves, do I want an ice cream? If yes, then I will go buy one and enjoy one too. Nothing simpler.
Violence in today’s society is caused by a lack of understanding and awareness not with others and the outside world, but with one’s own self and subsequent talents in relation to all other human activity. If violence is to be reduced in the world, then the beginning to that process lies not with others, but with the individual. Human activity relating to envy is ultimately bound to end in conflict if no person is questioning the motives for the sentiments and level of personal awareness that propel them into either benign or malicious envy. Cain believed by killing his brother, he would be ridding himself of his greatest source of pain, but ended with a punishment he told God face to face, “is too great to bear.” Did he rid of his pain, or only add to it, while never addressing the actual source to his problem? Therefore, before resorting to hatred to those who are believed to have more enjoyment of pleasure, take a step back and ask whether the obstacle to your pleasure and happiness is within some stranger, or simply lies within you.
[i] The New American Bible. Nashville: Catholic Bible, 1987. Print.
[ii] Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
[iii] Smith, Adam. Wealth of Nations. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1991. Print.
[iv] Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1988. Print.
[vi] Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
[x] Dante, Alighieri, and John Ciardi. The Divine Comedy: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. New York: New American Library, 2003. Print.
[xi] Thomas. Summa Theologica. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981. Print.
[xii] Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
[xiii] The New American Bible. Nashville: Catholic Bible, 1987. Print.
[xv] Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.
Bentham, Jeremy. The Principles of Morals and Legislation. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1988. Print.
Dante, Alighieri, and John Ciardi. The Divine Comedy: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. New York: New American Library, 2003. Print.
Smith, Adam. Wealth of Nations. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 1991. Print.
The New American Bible. Nashville: Catholic Bible, 1987. Print.
Thomas. Summa Theologica. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics, 1981. Print.
Žižek, Slavoj. Violence: Six Sideways Reflections. New York: Picador, 2008. Print.