More than twenty years ago, Jean-Pierre Dupuy and Paul Dumouchel have used mimetic theory to explain how capitalism, scarcity and envy are indissolubly interconnected.4 At least in the German speaking world these insights have become part of contemporary social theory.5
Modern advertising is the best example to illustrate the importance of envy to keep our economy going.6 Advertizing uses envy to make commodities desirable. Posters, announcements and TV-spots show us enviable people who have those things and goods we lack but nonetheless need to gain happiness. Advertisement sells products with the help of envious contagion. Most of the time envy itself remains hidden and is not directly mentioned in commercials. But even this may no longer be true. Envy seems to loose its traditional bad reputation. More and more commercials directly refer to envy to make their commodities more desirable. Cars should be bought to become the number one in one's street, a building and loan association promises a swimming pool which will make our neighbors envious. The most well known example of an open reference to envy is a perfume produced by the Italian company Gucci with the brand name "Envy" promising that you will not only be envied for some external object that belongs to you but for your very self embodied in a seductive fragrance.
Those of you familiar with traditional definitions of envy and emulation may, however, question my thesis that our modern economy is driven by envy. Is it really envy that governs our economy or would not emulation be a more appropriate and less moralizing term? There is an easy answer to this question. In parallel with the emergence of our modern world and the rise of capitalism the traditional distinction between bad envy and good emulation has slowly lost its meaning. Where Immanuel Kant, for instance, refers to the passions nature uses to turn a sheepish, idle and inactive Arcadia into a prosperous culture he refers to an "enviously competitive vanity" that no longer allows a neat distinction between envy and emulation but mentions a form of human desire comprising both these traditionally distinguished emotions.7 Our modern world no longer seems to be in need of a critical view of envy. It therefore does no longer make much sense to distinguish between envy and emulation. Whatever term we use it refers to a benevolent competitive passion promising growing prosperity. But is that really true?
Adam Smith, the founder of the classical school of economics, is a good example to demonstrate, how modern economic thinking began to make its peace with envy.8 And yet, he is far apart from modern economic liberalism as we know it today. He still clings, for instance, to the Aristotelian distinction between bad envy and good emulation and insists on the necessity of the state to protect the owners of properties against the envy of the poor people:
"The poor man's son, whom heaven in its anger has visited with ambition, when he begins to look around him, admires the condition of the rich. He finds the cottage of his father too small for his accommodation, and fancies he should be lodged more at his ease in a palace. He is displeased with being obliged to walk a-foot, or to endure the fatigue of riding on horseback. He sees his superiors carried about in machines, and imagines that in one of these he could travel with less inconveniency."13
Out of envious ambition poor people devote themselves "to the pursuit of wealth and greatness."14
It was Smith's economic trust in the invisible hand that allowed him to value the unleashing of this envious ambition. Specific preconditions at the beginning of the rise of capitalism justify his trust in this magical mechanism. For a certain period of time, the envious admiration of the rich helped to increase the wealth of the nation without leading to a Hobbesian war of all against all.
Let us now take a closer look at two of these preconditions that enabled early capitalism to unleash envy in this quite harmonious way. First, we have to recognize that according to Smith "the distinction of ranks"—which he identifies with "the peace and order of society"—is also "founded upon the disposition of mankind ... to go along with all the passions of the rich and the powerful."15 Envious ambition and the distinction of rank are both rooted in the natural inclination of humanity to admire wealth and power.16 His trust in the stability of a hierarchical order is a clear sign that Smith lived in a society in which modern equality has not yet emerged and social differences could still be seen as natural barriers against a total unleashing of envious competition.
A second precondition is that Smith's own society was a "poor society", in which the "consumption of the mass of the population is concentrated on basic material goods" whereas only a very small group of rich people was engaged in a competition for positional goods.17 These rich people bought all those "baubles and trinkets, which are employed in the economy of greatness," that led through the mechanism of the invisible hand to the prosperity of the entire nation.18 The poorer people became employed to satisfy the desires for positional goods of the rich:
"The rich only select from the heap what is most precious and agreeable. They consume little more than the poor, and in spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own conveniency, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ, be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, they divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species."19
But what happens to this economic logic when a society grows richer and more and more people are able to join the group of those who primarily long for positional goods? In his well known book Social Limits to Growths, the American economist Fred Hirsch made clear that the problem of modern capitalism consists in the fact that economic prosperity undermines exactly those preconditions of early capitalism that allowed its benevolent unleashing of envy. The richer a society gets the more dangerous a passion like envy becomes: "Increased material resources enlarge the demand for positional goods, a demand that can be satisfied for some only by frustrating demand by others."20
Economic liberalism was partly justified to claim that the logic of the invisible hand was able to overcome the threats of a Hobbesian war of all against all. But it completely overlooked the fact that it is exactly its own success which leads to a return of these dangers. In the long run, economic prosperity increases the likelihood of a war of all against all: "Positional competition ... intensifies the distributional struggle to a potentially dangerous point. In short, it threatens to displace Smithian harmony by Hobbesian strife and is thereby a dangerous element to leave in the Smithian sector of individualistic optimization."21 The victory of liberal economy over Hobbes's insight into the conflictual nature human relations remained a Pyrrhic victory. Intensified wars have returned after they seemingly had been overcome forever.
The current situation of our world favors Hobbes. Despite the fact that Hobbes lived more than a century before Smith, his thinking is closer to our own world. Hobbes talks about a world characterized by equality bringing conflicts and violence along with it. He also focuses primarily on a world governed by the fight for positional goods.22 Famous is his identification of human life with a race, which has "no other goal ... but being formost."23
Hobbes is the thinker of our time. Civil wars, terrorism and Americas war against terrorism bring central insights of his political philosophy to the fore. After the Cold War we are living in an age of a planetary civil war. Many of us—at least those from the German speaking world—thought of Hobbes as an outdated thinker. Until recently, he was really the dead old white man. Even my own dissertation—a mimetic critique of Hobbes's political philosophy—resembles something like an intellectual coup de grâce. I criticized a thinker who was no longer thought to have any importance.
Today the situation has completely changed. Books and essays more and more refer to the insights of this dark English thinker. After the end of the Cold War more and more civil wars have broken out or have significantly intensified. According to the German poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in a world in which living bombs are straying around of all political thought from Aristotle to Max Weber only the "Hobbesian ur-myth of the war of everyone against everyone else" remains.24 Similarly, the American political scientist Benjamin Barber—famous for his formula "Jihad vs. McWorld" characterizing globalization25—compares the state of our world after the terrorist attacks from September 11 with Hobbes's war of everyone against everyone.26 Others recommend concepts of world order to overcome our current political crisis by openly drawing a close parallel to Hobbes's mighty Leviathan to overcome civil war.27
Hobbes is not only a thinker who helps to understand our current political situation but enables us also to link human violence to the passion of envy. Superficially seen, he seems to follow Aristotle's distinction between good emulation and bad envy. A closer look, however, reveals that Hobbes no longer makes a moral distinction between these two passions. Like Kant and many more modern philosophers, he treats them—at least morally—as a single and natural human passion. According to Hobbes, envious competition leads to war, if there is no political power to check human emulation, and that is the task of Hobbes' absolutist state. Quite similar to mimetic theory, Hobbes refers to mimetic rivalry to explain human conflicts: "If any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end ... endeavour to destroy or subdue one another."28 Hobbes also understood that equality between human beings increases the likelihood that more and more people desire exactly those objects which are already desired by others. In accordance with a long standing tradition he was aware that equality increases the potential danger of envy. Whereas Smith sees in the distinction of ranks a naturally given means to create peace and order keeping envious passions in check, Hobbes emphasizes natural equality of men with its resentful consequences.
Hobbes' insight into the connection between envy or emulation, equality and violence helps us to understand the current danger of fundamentalist terrorism. It is not primarily rooted in poverty and economic underdevelopment but, to the contrary, in a world in which those people become more resentful who move closer towards those people who are better off.29 Contemporary terrorism roots to a high degree in a global competition that is going to erase more and more differences between cultures and nations transforming our world into a global arena where enhanced competition increases at the same time envy and resentment.30 René Girard is right when he refers to the planetary mimetic rivalry that contributed to the terrorist attacks of September 11.31 Fundamentalist terrorism is closely connected with envy.32 Understanding this, one has to recognize that economic development—despite its social and ethical importance—does not automatically overcome terrorism but may even increase violent fanaticism and aggression. In a recent book on war the German sociologist Karl Otto Hondrich calls this strange paradox "Tocqueville's theorem":33 The liberation of oppressed groups frequently increases their tendency towards conflictual behavior. The closer they get towards equality the more they become aware of even the slightest forms of inequalities increasing their readiness to engage in conflicts. René Girard described this paradox of equality in his first book referring to Stendhal, Flaubert, and also Tocqueville:
"The increasing equality ... does not give rise to harmony but an even keener rivalry. Although this rivalry is the source of considerable material benefits, it also leads to even more considerable spiritual sufferings, for nothing material can appease it. Equality which alleviates poverty is in itself good but it cannot satisfy even those who are keenest in demanding it; it only exasperates their desire."34
We live in a world that promises happiness and recognition to everybody. But the more we try to reach these goals the more we become obstacles to each other causing frustration and resentment leading easily to violence of all sorts. Hans Magnus Enzensberger underlines this problem in his book Civil Wars
"The more freedom and equality people gain, the more they expect. If these expectations are not fulfilled, then almost anyone can feel humiliated. The longing for recognition is never satisfied. Newspaper editors know the story well enough: the ghetto kid who wants a pair of designer training shoes enough to kill for them; the office worker who fails in his ambition to become a pop star and robs a bank or shoots into the crowd of people to get his own back for the humiliation he has suffered."35
3. A Mimetic Understanding of Envy and Emulation
The traditional distinction between bad envy and good emulation goes at least back to Aristotle's Rhetoric
Envy is, according to the Greek philosopher, a painful passion that can be felt if equals have good fortune. Like envy, also emulation consists in a feeling of pain due to a highly valued good exclusively possessed by someone who resembles us. The moral difference between these two passions consists in their contrasting attitudes towards those goods of the other. Whereas emulation causes us to try to obtain those goods ourselves, envy forces us to prevent the other from possessing them.
At first glance, Aristotle's distinction seems to be clear, helpful, and without further complications. A closer look, however, reveals its basal difficulty. We all know—at least from our own experiences—how easily emulation can turn into envy and how seldom we are able to resist such a bad development of our feelings. We also have to take into account that our modern world no longer seems to be able to follow Aristotle's moral distinction. Cultural, social and religious preconditions have heavily influenced the possibility to distinguish between envy and emulation. William Law, an Anglican theologian living in the period between Hobbes and Smith sharply criticized usual attempts to distinguish envy from emulation in his best-seller of the eighteenth century A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728):
"The fineness of the distinction betwixt envy and emulation would show that it was easier to divide them in words, than to separate them in action. For emulation, when it is defined in its best manner, is nothing else but a refinement upon envy, or rather the most plausible part of that black and venomous passion. And though it is easy to separate them in the notion, yet the most acute philosopher, that understands the art of distinguishing ever so well, if he gives himself up to emulation, will certainly find himself deep in envy. For envy is not an original temper, but the natural, necessary, and unavoidable effect of emulation, or a desire of glory. So that he who establishes the one in the minds of people, necessarily fixes the other there. And there is no other possible way of destroying envy, but by destroying emulation, or a desire of glory. For the one always rises and falls in proportion to the other."37
William Law is right when he insists on the big difficulty to distinguish between envy and emulation. At least our modern inability to distinguish between envy and emulation justifies his critique. But he seems to be too general in his reproach of emulation, a passion which has undoubtably also its good side.
Mimetic theory can help us to go a step further. Envy, emulation, ambition, and competition are all passions rooted in mimetic desire and characterized by a triangular structure for human beings long especially for those objects that are also desired by others.38 Discovering the common root of both envy and emulation in mimetic desire explains why all theories which neatly separate bad envy from good emulation fall into the trap of a certain kind of Platonism that blurs the deeper affinity between envy and emulation. This closeness of envy and emulation, however, does not mean that we have to become pessimistic fundamentalists who sometimes even forbid their children to engage in sports in order to avoid the bad spirit of competition.39 Mimetic theory is not a pessimistic anthropology but views mimetic desire as something intrinsically good and essentially human.40 Neither does it lead to a total condemnation of the modern economy with its emphasis on competition. According to Girard, the modern economy, with its enormous increase of productivity is an example of the good side of mimetic desire.41
This, however, does not mean that mimetic theory identifies itself with the ideology of economic liberalism neglecting the problems coming along with the unleashing of mimetic desire. Girard does not at all ignore the dangers connected with envy but understands his theory as a continuation of Biblical thinking with its rejection of envy. In one of his most recent books he strongly defends the deep wisdom of the tenth commandment prohibiting envious or mimetic rivalry: "You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor." (Exod. 20:17)42 According to Girard, this commandment was given to resolve the problem of internal violence in human communities and to prevent the outbreak of a Hobbesian war of all against all.
The Biblical teaching on envy and emulation does not, however, end up with a prohibition. We have to take the Decalogue in its entirety to understand the thrust of the Bible. Just as the tenth commandment comprises the second half of the Ten Commandments focusing on mimetic rivalry that ultimately can lead even to murder so the first commandment summarizes the core of the first table that was given to Mose. "You shall have no other gods before me." (Exod. 20:3)43 The commandment against idolatry expresses the indispensable precondition that enables us to follow the tenth commandment. Human beings are religious beings whose desires aim at an infinite and universal good. This ultimately means that our natural inclination directs us towards God. If this fundamental longing is disturbed human beings begin to look for worldly things they desperately try to worship as their god. Envy results from such a deviation of our religious longings. Augustine defines religion as the imitation of our adored models because it is the "highest duty of religion to imitate him whom thou worshippest."44 This close affinity of worship and imitation explains the connection between idolatry and envy. As soon as we are no longer directed towards God we begin to worship our neighbors and through imitation we finally long for their goods. Worshiping our neighbors, however, will unstoppable force us into envy. The first commandment directs us towards God enabling us therefore to resist exactly those dangerous temptations which are forbidden by the last commandment. A careful look at the tenth commandment itself reveals that the sin of coveting is nothing but an idolatrous form of desire.45 In the New Testament the close connection between the first and the last commandment is expressed in the interrelation between love of God, self love and love of our neighbors. Jesus gave us two commandments: "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" (Mark 12:29-31)
It was the German novelist Theodor Fontane at the end of the nineteenth century who marvelously expressed the connection between idolatry and envy in his novel Der Stechlin. This novel describes the breakdown of aristocratic Prussia and the dawn of a democratic age bringing the increase of envy along with it. Universal ambition—everyone is aiming high—was in this novel said to be the "signature of the time".46 Dubslav von Stechlin, an old aristocrat and the main character of this novel incarnates true humanity and Christian humility, who neither belongs to the decaying world of the old aristocracy nor to the dawning new age because of his true good heart reaching out beyond such passing epochs. At his funeral pastor Lorenzen, his friend, makes clear that it was Stechlin's rejection of idolatry that protected him against envy. Because he did not worship the Golden Calf his life remained—contrary to that of many other people—free from envy and did not end up in ruin or unhappiness.47
The teaching of the Church Fathers on envy is related to this Biblical insight into the religious nature of human beings and into the necessity to direct our hearts towards God. Longing for God means for the Church Fathers, who are important predecessors of mimetic theory, to imitate Christ instead of Satan.48 Whereas the imitation of Christ leads towards God the imitation of Satan results in envy. Cyprian, who wrote the first Christian treatise on envy emphasizes especially these two very different modes of imitation.49 Basil the Great and Augustine call Christians to prefer eternal goods to temporal goods to avoid the creation of social scarcity that will inevitable result in envy.50 As soon as we long for God we will aim at a universal good that will not cause scarcity but will increase the joy of possessing this good with the number of people imitating our passion.51 Building on these basic insights Benedict of Nursia, the founder of the Benedictine order, was able to distinguish a good zeal (emulation) from a bad zeal (emulation) in his Rule. Good emulation depends on its orientation towards God.52
In Saint Thomas Aquinas Summa
we can find a Christian understanding of envy and emulation that comes close to our mimetic interpretation of these passions. At first glance, Thomas just seems to repeat the Aristotelian distinction between bad envy and good emulation. A closer look, however, shows us that he—like mimetic theory—knows of a common root of envy and emulation that does not allow an essentialist distinction. Whereas Aristotle uses the Greek term zelos
for good emulation Thomas knows—like Benedict—that zeal or emulation can be either good or bad depending on the good it is directed at. Thomas is quite well aware that temporal goods easily cause scarcity which often lead to an envious form of zeal—zelus invidiae
—no longer allowing a neat separation between envy and emulation.53
Thomas makes a similar argument in his treatise on envy. Again, he insists that zeal or emulation can be either good or bad depending on the good:
"We may grieve over another's good, not because he has it, but because the good which he has, we have not: and this, properly speaking
, is zeal, as the Philosopher says (Rhet. ii, 9). And if this zeal be about virtuous goods, it is praiseworthy, according to 1 Cor. 14:1: 'Be zealous for spiritual gifts': while, if it be about temporal goods, it may be either sinful or sinless."54
According to Saint Thomas emulation can be either god or bad depending on the good we aim at and the specific way we desire it. Envy, to the contrary is always bad: "A certain zeal may be good, whereas envy is always evil."55 Thomas' position comes close to mimetic theory if we understand that zeal is another term referring to mimetic desire. According to Girard, "mimetic rivalry is not sin but rather a permanent occasion of sin. The sin occurs when our relentlessness makes the rivalry obsessive. Its name is envy, jealousy, pride, anger, despair."56 To avoid envy or any other of these sinful passions, he recommends to imitate Jesus instead of Satan. Through Jesus we direct our longings towards God aiming at a universal good that enables us to free ourselves from envious struggles for those temporal goods easily causing social scarcity.
4. Catholic Social Teaching on the Relationship between Economy and Religion
Recommending the imitation of Christ to solve the problems of our modern economy with its unleashing of envy sounds odd. It tastes like a fundamentalist recipe or comes down to the futile claim of a theologian who tries to insist on the importance of religion in a world which no longer seems to need religion or—even less—theology. Contrary to this view, I think that economy and religion are both part of a complex relationship that can never be fully separated. Going beyond Max Weber's insight into the relationship between the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism and going beyond Walter Benjamin's even more profound claim that capitalism has become a religion itself we have to understand how deeply economic activities of human beings are based on our religious nature.57
Alexis de Tocqueville was clearly aware of the religious foundation of economic productivity: "In man the angel teaches the brute the art of satisfying its desires. It is because man is capable of rising above the things of the body, and of scorning life itself, of which the beasts have not the least notion, that he can multiply these same goods of the body to a degree of which the inferior races cannot conceive."58
The French historian was, however, also aware that as soon as human beings limit their activities to the sole pursuit of material goods they quickly would fall back on the status of animals: "If men were ever to content themselves with material objects, it is probable that they would lose by degree the art of producing them; and they would enjoy them in the end, like the brutes
, without discernment and without improvement."59
Tocqueville's warning addresses the problem of the disappearance of man possibly coming along with this end of history.60
It is highly questionable, however, how likely such an end of history is, even if pharmacology and biotechnology may bring us closer to it.61
A mimetic understanding of envy and emulation leads us to an even more important danger following an exclusive occupation with material goods. A world in which all our desires and passions would be directed towards material goods only would automatically lead to a world of ongoing conflicts and wars. It would result in a Hobbesian world in which violence has always to be contained by violence. Hobbes' political philosophy comes down to an ontology of violence because—contrary to the Church Fathers or Saint Thomas Aquinas—he no longer saw any possibility to overcome social scarcity by orienting our deepest longings towards eternal goods.62 Whereas the Christian tradition recognized God as the summum bonum, Hobbes rejected even the possibility of a highest good.63 In this regard Hobbes's philosophy remains essentially immanentist, a position he shares with Adam Smith as my colleague Wilhelm Guggenberger will make clear this afternoon.
It is, however, our contemporary world with its violent dangers that needs to emphasize the importance of religions enabling us to direct our infinite passions towards immaterial goods.64
Catholic Social Teaching has emphasized the necessity to give religious values precedence over material interests since its very beginning. It is this insistence on the true scale of values that builds the core of an ontology of peace clearly visible from Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum novarum
onwards. According to this tradition, it is God who is the highest good—the summum bonum
—giving everything else its proper place by subordinating it to this good.65
Most of the encyclicals, for instance, quote a passage from Matthews to give the search for the kingdom of God priority over everything else: "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be given you besides." (Matt. 6:33)66
Catholic Social teaching is quite aware that human beings are religious beings longing for an infinite and universal good. Only if this infinite desire of human beings is directed towards God the danger of a "perpetual strife" can be avoided.67
Out of this reason Rerum novarum
recommends the Church as an essential institution to bring human conflicts to an end: "If human society is to be healed, only a return to Christian life and institutions will heal it."68
This claim does not mean that we have to build closed Catholic societies as it was sometimes done in the past or favor any other political versions of Christian theocracy. We need the Church—or maybe similar institutions of other world religions—as an essential and public part of civil society because she is the proper institution able to teach us "to desire the infinite with an infinite desire and the finite with a finite desire."69
Without a community like the Church we would not be able to obey the commandments of the Decalogue.70
Wherever a society can rely on this basal orientation of our passions the economy is a helpful and definitely positive means for our life.71
But the economy turns into a dangerous threat if the hierarchical relationship between means and ends is reversed and the economy becomes an end in itself. Catholic Social Teaching has criticized this reversal as a form of an economism, which does not pay attention to the hierarchy of goods and which subordinates being to having.72
Economism is also prone to envy leading to a world of perpetual warfare.73
Let me conclude with a passage from Pope Paul VI's encyclical Populorum progressio
which shows that whenever material growths becomes an end in itself disunity and discord inevitably will arise:
"Increased possession is not the ultimate goal of nations nor of individuals. All growth is ambivalent. It is essential if man is to develop as a man, but in a way it imprisons man if he considers it the supreme good, and it restricts his vision. Then we see hearts harden and minds close, and men no longer gather together in friendship but out of self-interest
, which soon leads to oppositions and disunity."74
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