Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


We all know what the ancients said of this disgraceful passion and what the moderns have repeated. Hesiod is the first classic author who has spoken of it.

“The potter envies the potter, the artisan the artisan, the poor even the poor, the musician the musician — or, if any one chooses to give a different meaning to the word avidos — the poet the poet.”

Long before Hesiod, Job had remarked, “Envy destroys the little-minded.”

I believe Mandeville, the author of the “Fable of the Bees,” is the first who has endeavored to prove that envy is a good thing, a very useful passion. His first reason is that envy was as natural to man as hunger and thirst; that it may be observed in all children, as well as in horses and dogs. If you wish your children to hate one another, caress one more than the other; the prescription is infallible.

He asserts that the first thing two young women do when they meet together is to discover matter for ridicule, and the second to flatter each other.

He thinks that without envy the arts would be only moderately cultivated, and that Raphael would never have been a great painter if he had not been jealous of Michael Angelo.

Mandeville, perhaps, mistook emulation for envy; perhaps, also, emulation is nothing but envy restricted within the bounds of decency.

Michael Angelo might say to Raphael, your envy has only induced you to study and execute still better than I do; you have not depreciated me, you have not caballed against me before the pope, you have not endeavored to get me excommunicated for placing in my picture of the Last Judgment one-eyed and lame persons in paradise, and pampered cardinals with beautiful women perfectly naked in hell! No! your envy is a laudable feeling; you are brave as well as envious; let us be good friends.

But if the envious person is an unhappy being without talents, jealous of merit as the poor are of the rich; if under the pressure at once of indigence and baseness he writes “News from Parnassus,” “Letters from a Celebrated Countess,” or “Literary Annals,” the creature displays an envy which is in fact absolutely good for nothing, and for which even Mandeville could make no apology.

Descartes said: “Envy forces up the yellow bile from the lower part of the liver, and the black bile that comes from the spleen, which diffuses itself from the heart by the arteries.” But as no sort of bile is formed in the spleen, Descartes, when he spoke thus, deserved not to be envied for his physiology.

A person of the name of Poet or Poetius, a theological blackguard, who accused Descartes of atheism, was exceedingly affected by the black bile. But he knew still less than Descartes how his detestable bile circulated through his blood.

Madame Pernelle is perfectly right: “Les envieux mourront, mais non jamais l’envie.” — The envious will die, but envy never. (“Tartuffe,” Act V, Scene 3.)

That it is better to excite envy than pity is a good proverb. Let us, then, make men envy us as much as we are able.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01