He kept cutting off all the tallest ears of wheat which he could see, and throwing them away, until he had destroyed the best and richest part of the crop.
Herodotus’s The Histories, Book 5, Chapter 92.
The Politics of Envy
Democracy is a jealous tyrant
The French aristocrat Alexis de Toqueville studied American democracy extensively during the 1830’s. He particularly noted the dangers associated with our system of government. He warned, “Democratic institutions awaken and flatter the passion for equality without ever being able to satisfy it entirely.”
Democracy is certainly tied to this “passion for equality”. Democracy is based on the idea that all have an equal say in political decisions. If a man is said to be greater than his peers, democracy is threatened; the passion for equality ignites, desiring his downfall.
This sentiment is also called “tall poppy syndrome”. The king in Herodotus’s story above cuts off the most promising of his crop, signifying what a tyrant must do to keep his people in check. In the same way, democracy tries to rid itself of such dangers. Anyone that threatens mediocrity is dangerous.
The vice of envy
The passion for equality quickly grows into the vice of envy. As de Toqueville puts it, “Égalité is an expression of envy. It means, in the real heart of every Republican, ‘No one shall be better off than I am;’ and while this is preferred to good government, good government is impossible.”
Bertrand Russell said, “Envy consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.” Envy throws us into distraction, never allowing us to see ourselves for what we are. It ruins not only our ability to govern ourselves, but also our sense for what is true happiness.
Heroes combat envy
The best way to combat the vice of envy is to understand true worth. For this, we must look to heroes. Some would say that a hero is one who saves you. More than that, I say a hero is one who inspires you to save others. He is a person like us who surpasses us. A hero is a human Call to Greatness.
Our culture wants to destroy those we used to hail as heroes. This is a further step of envy. Not only does it drive us to destroy those around us who are great, it also tries to convince us that those we used to hail as heroes had no goodness in them at all. If we are to combat envy, however, we must look to heroes.
Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon
Despite Bertrand Russell’s demeaning comments about Alexander the Great, Caesar, and Napoleon, these men stand out in history. They did not let their envy lead them; they turned it to their good. Instead of continuing in envy, they rose to the call of greatness.
For example, Plutarch tells of Caesar’s reaction to reading a history of Alexander:
He sat a great while very thoughtful, and at last burst out into tears. His friends were surprised, and asked him the reason of it. “Do you think,” said he, “I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable.”
Politics of greatness
While no one now-a-days would say these men are perfect, we cannot deny that they made each other reach for something beyond mediocrity. They each set another on a path towards greatness. They inspired each other to see worth all alone, without relation to those around them.
In the same way, we must continue to remember the heroes of our history and culture. We must teach their stories to our children to give them the same access to inspiration. Only then will we be able to have lives and government based on greatness, not on envy.