Acton Institute Powerblog

Virtuous envy?

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Edward Feser, with a nod to Thomas Aquinas, discusses whether there might be such a thing as virtuous Schadenfreude. As Feser puts it, “On the one hand, the suffering of a person is not as such something to rejoice in, for suffering, considered just by itself, is an evil…. However, there can be something ‘annexed’ to the suffering which is a cause for rejoicing.”

My collaborator and friend Victor Claar and I ran up against something like this in our engagement with Thomas on the topic of envy, and Thomas’ treatment of these questions should be read as an annex to the part of the Summa that Feser looks at. Envy is defined, following Aristotle, as grief or sadness or sorrow at the good of another. When you take the responses of grief and joy to another’s good or ill, you can plot them into four possibilities: joy at another’s good, joy at another’s ill, grief at another’s good, and grief at another’s ill.

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Envy and Schadenfreude are linked because they are opposite reactions to the evil or good of another. The envious person is the kind of person who will rejoice in the ills suffered by another, and vice versa.

And just as Thomas cautions against joy at the suffering of another because suffering in itself is evil, so too does he caution against grieving at the good of another, even as he leaves open the possibility of what might be called “righteous indignation” at the unjust or undeserved goods enjoyed by an evil person. In this case, Thomas warns against such feelings, because it really is only up to God to judge what someone really and truly deserves, and, in fact, something might be “annexed” to that good that makes it turn out to be even worse for that person.

For more on envy in relationship to economics, check out: Jordan J. Ballor and Victor V. Claar, “Envy in the Market Economy: Sin, Fairness, and Spontaneous (Dis)Order,” Faith & Economics 61/62 (Spring/Fall 2013) 33-54.

Victor has also spoken on envy in numerous venues for Acton, including Acton University. Here’s a link to a talk from a number of years back.

Jordan J. Ballor Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is also a postdoctoral researcher in theology and economics at the VU University Amsterdam as part of the "What Good Markets Are Good For" project. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012) and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous works, including Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology. Jordan is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary.

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