Envy is half love. For the envier, it is the regard without the goodwill. For the envied it is the attention, without the faith. Thus where there is the appearance of love, but no real connection, there is not love, but envy.
I say this not to scorn love, but to understand envy. The word has a certain exoticism, a certain dramatic quality, a Biblical or Shakespearean stature. It belongs to Cain and Iago. Who in these diminished latter days is even capable of envy? Modern vices are so bloodless: not wrath, but tantrums; not greed, but CDOs. What business do we have with envy? I hear it went out with crinolines.
But envy is everywhere; envy reigns. We live by tinctures of the poison, watered enough to be safe, strong enough to be addictive.
Envy must not be confused with jealousy. Jealousy is as direct and solid as a bullet. When a man hates his neighbor because he wants that man's wife, he is jealous. Envy is as diffuse and insidious as gas. When a man hates his neighbor because that man has a wife, he is envious. Jealousy is satisfied with defeat; if our man takes the wife, he is indifferent to what may become of his neighbor. Envy demands degradation; if our man accomplishes the humiliation and dispossession of the neighbor, he is indifferent to what may become of the wife.
We are not busybodies; we mind our own business. We are proud; we resent being told that our lives are pointless and our possessions contemptible. Envy—properly diluted—is the only reagant to catalyze us, we indifferent human beings, into a society bound together by commitments and aspirations. Every channel for us to preoccupy ourselves with what cannot concern us, every prize held out as the reward of labor beyond needs, is created and supported by envy.
But envy is not a link, not a means of social contract; envy is a force. It drives the wheel of fortune. It conducts the rise of the great and smites their downfall. In between it propels their scuttling blind epicycles. Celebrities envy politicians; politicians envy celebrities. Businessmen envy intellectuals; intellectuals envy businessmen. Celebrities pursue politics and curse Washington; politicians deploy celebrities and damn fame. Businessmen quote philosophers and mock professors. Intellectuals abuse capitalism and invest. You stake your envy to enter the game; and those without envy (if they exist) are never seen to win.
True, analogies of matter and society should always be suspect. A reagent causes matter to break down, so the bright moment of commitment and aspiration should be a singular, unrepeatable luminescence—a fire, that is, burning out. But society is not matter; it is susceptible to perpetual motions, like insurance, which is scheme that never collapses, because most of its participants die without payouts. What seemed unsustainable to our grandfathers has been sustained this long and shows no signs of weakness.