Bacon's Essays: Of Envy

This month’s essay treats of a human emotion so insidious it rates as one of the deadly sins: Envy. Bacon only chose to write about one other deadly sin, Anger, which we’ll get to much later.

Envy, Heinrich Aldegrever, 1552.

I love this woodcut so much, I’m having trouble turning my attention to the essay! The motto at the bottom doesn’t make sense, though. It’s Sqalida livoris facies pallore voracis sat genus interni, detegit omne mali, which Google translates, “sqalida inner face pale and voracious kind enough internal discovers all evil.”

Too Dada-esque for me. But dig the face of that wicked beastie! He looks totally envious, of YOU.

The deadly sin

Envy rates its own Wikipedia page. It is one of the most corrosive of human emotions. Another great philosopher, Bertrand Russell, said that envy was one of the most potent causes of unhappiness. I agree. (Russell was distantly related to Francis Bacon, in the very extended sense, through Francis’s aunt, Lady Elizabeth Russell.) 

Envidia – envy – is serious problem in small towns in rural Mexico and many other parts of the world. If you look upon someone with envy, you cast the evil eye on them. That can cause tangible harm. It can make you fall and break your leg or catch a disease or suffer a painful loss. Envy can actually kill babies. Beware!

Better to keep your head down, appear ordinary. Don’t attract those envious glances!

Bacon’s take

Bacon doesn’t talk about evil eyes or amulets or other superstitious practices. He is chiefly interested in the social circumstances of envy. “[W]hat persons are apt to envy others; what persons are most subject to be envied themselves; and what is the difference between public and private envy.”

He starts off with a note about how envy functions. He believes there is some physical contamination or infection: “an ejaculation or irradiation of the eye.” He notes that envy, like love, can be inspired by a single glance.

Who’s got the greenest eyes?

“A man that hath no virtue in himself, ever envieth virtue in others.” “A man that is busy, and inquisitive, is commonly envious… For envy is a gadding passion, and walketh the streets, and doth not keep home.” He also states the corollary: “Neither can he, that mindeth but his own business, find much matter for envy.” In yoga terms, keep your eyes over your own mat.

Amulets to ward off the evil eye

“Men of noble birth, are noted to be envious towards new men, when they rise.” Their sense of time and distance is altered so they think the new guy has risen faster and farther than they did, thus pushing them back.

Envious people think other people’s successes diminish their own. They’re zero-sum thinkers. If you win, then I must lose. I’m more of a caucus race kind of a gal: we all run as fast as we like for as long as we want and then everyone gets a prize.

“Deformed persons, and eunuchs, and old men, and bastards, are envious. For he that cannot possibly mend his own case, will do what he can, to impair another’s.” In olden days, nobody was handi-capable and there weren’t any Elder Hostels or senior hiking clubs. Bacon’s list is far out-of-date (and aren’t we glad?), but I think the principle still applies. If your goals are obstructed — or you feel that they are — you might well envy those who freely pursue similar goals and succeed, leaving you in the dust.

“They that desire to excel in too many matters, out of levity and vain glory, are ever envious.” I’m not sure what he means by ‘levity’; lack of seriousness, perhaps. We all know people like this. They’re the know-it-alls who claim authority for every topic that comes up, or the ones who insist on being on every committee. I imagine they suffer from an unquenchable thirst for recognition. Who knows why?

As Bacon observes, they set themselves up for a never-ending torrent of envy, because not even a Renaissance Man could be good at everything. Think of Sir Walter Ralegh. He was handsome, brave, intelligent, curious, and capable in many directions, but he lacked the common touch. Actually,  his biggest problem was that he inspired boatloads of envy from everyone around him. Bacon was also harmed by envy, years after he wrote the first version of this essay. His enemies pulled him down from his highest position, Lord Chancellor, partly because he was the best Lord Chancellor England had ever enjoyed. He was smarter than everybody and everybody knew it, so down he had to come.

Who’s attracting those deadly green darts?

“First, persons of eminent virtue, when they are advanced, are less envied. For their fortune seemeth, but due unto them.” Fair’s fair, most people say. Do we envy J.K. Rowling because she’s beautiful, rich, and lives in a castle? No, because she wrote books that everyone on earth loves, which were rejected by nearly every publisher at first. Do we envy Sir Paul McCartney? No, because if he got a nickel every time Yesterday was played, he’d be ten times richer than he is. They earned their good fortunes.

“[E]nvy is ever joined with the comparing of a man’s self; and where there is no comparison, no envy…  unworthy persons are most envied…” Indeed. Maybe that’s what the Kardashian thing is about. They’re utterly uninteresting and yet they seem to have a lot of stuff. They’re envy-magnets for some people.

“Persons of noble blood, are less envied in their rising. For it seemeth but right done to their birth.” This is just a sub-type of the first class, ‘persons of eminent virtue.’ We don’t tend to envy movie stars, once they’re established, and even come to love them over time. Do we envy Ian McKellan for being able to get a dumb movie like Mr. Holmes made? No, we adore him. Let him make 100 such movies!

“For nothing increaseth envy more, than an unnecessary and ambitious engrossing of business.” I don’t understand this one, probably because I’m a retired indie novelist, not a hard-driving business macher. Bacon lived at the top of a very competitive culture. He had personal access to both of the monarchs he served in his lifetime, Elizabeth and James. Being able to complain-brag about how much work the queen loaded on your shoulders must have caused a fair amount of knuckle-gnawing among the less occupied. Or maybe he means taking too much upon oneself, but then people are just annoyed with you, not envious. They think you’re a hog and nobody wants to be a hog.

“Above all, those are most subject to envy, which carry the greatness of their fortunes, in an insolent and proud manner.” Again, in our times, this behavior attracts scorn, rather than envy. Nobody wants to be a little Miss Prancey Prance. On the other hand, everybody loves Elton John. Hm.

The cure for envy

This is a weird passage. Bacon writes, “the act of envy had somewhat in it of witchcraft, so there is no other cure of envy, but the cure of witchcraft; and that is to remove the lot (as they call it) and to lay it upon another.” He says the wise man will keep someone else on stage to attract the envy, like a minister or colleague. He says you won’t lack for volunteers. Maybe he was thinking of James’s favorite, George Villiers, created Duke of Buckingham. He provoked a lot of envy, all right.

I don’t think Bacon really believed in witchcraft, but he would never say as much out loud. King James believed in it absolutely, considering himself an authority on the subject. The wise man never says, “Methinks it the veriest crock of crap, your most gullible Highness!”

Public envy

This “is a bridle also to great ones, to keep them within bounds.” Bacon compares envy in the state or of the state as a form of public discontentment, usually aimed at high officers or ministers of the state.

These two paragraphs are not well written. He might have been unwilling to be too explicit when discussing possible errors of the state and its ministers. But discontentment with the status quo sounds familiar; in fact, it’s a leading motive force in the politics of our time. We are the 99%!! Occupy the palace!

Bacon ends by observing that the reason envy is so corrosive is that it tends to be continual. If you suffer from it, there will always be new stimuli to aggravate your condition. “For of other affections, there is occasion given, but now and then; and therefore it was well said, Invidia festos dies non agit*: for it is ever working upon some or other.”

* Envy keeps no holidays.

One last good quote

“Envy is as the sunbeams, that beat hotter upon a bank, or steep rising ground, than upon a flat.”

 

 

 

 

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