Envy or emulation? No, self-esteem.

Aristotle's Rhetoric

Whenever I come across someone who is better or more successful than I am, I can react either with envy or with emulation. According to Aristotle, envy is the pain that we feel because others have good things, whereas emulation is the pain that we feel because we ourselves do not have them. This is a subtle but crucial difference. Unlike envy, which is useless at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation is a good thing because it makes us take steps towards securing good things.

In the modern world, it strikes me that whenever a person comes across another who has something that is highly valued, for example, power, wealth, good judgement, or tranquillity, the most common reaction is envy, disdain, belle indifference, in short, anything but admiration and emulation. By reacting in this way, the person prevents himself from learning from those who understand more than he does, and thereby condemns himself to a lifetime of stagnation. Far better for him would be to humble himself and ask to be taught some wisdom.

Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honourable or aristocratic disposition. The opposite of emulation is not envy but contempt, and those who emulate or who are emulated are naturally disposed to be contemptuous of those who have bad things or who have good things through luck rather than through just desert.

There are three important inferences that I feel able to draw from all of this. The first is that the way that we see the world has changed radically since the time of Aristotle, and not necessarily for the better. The second is that, whereas emulation is the reaction of the few with high self-esteem, envy is the reaction of the many with low self-esteem. And thus that self-esteem is the key to self-improvement.

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