Envy is a curious emotion with a long and tragic history in human affairs. At certain times, such as the English Renaissance, it was said to be the worst sin of all, as it disrupted the most natural and healthy form of bond: brotherhood.
There are many ways in which we might show up the nature of envy, so that in becoming clear we can wriggle free from its dark and burning grasp. As this is being written in a Mathematical village in Turkey established by the Nesin Foundation, perhaps we can take an approach that suits the location. Aziz Nesin was a famous comedian and communist leader in 2 20th Century Turkey. His wit often dissected the hypocrisies of a corrupt and proto-fascist government, and he formed a foundation to take care of street children who were otherwise being abandoned on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. The Nesin foundation has thus been mostly concerned with creating and administering orphanages. Aziz’s son, Ali, became a famous mathematician in his own right, and concerned that the state of higher education in Turkey and around the world was falling totally under the necessities of profit and business, decided to return to first principles. The entire tradition of the Academy goes back of course to the Greeks, and though Plato founded the first Academy, which later evolved into the University, Plato was heavily indebted to the ideas of Pythagoras. In the 6th Century BC, Pythagoras founded a polis mathematikos, a mathematical village, on the isle of Samos just a few miles off the coast of Turkey. The latest enterprise of the Nesin foundation is to found a village in a similar spirit, . In nearby Samos, 2 2600 years earlier, Pythagoras and his followers had formulated numerous revolutionary mathematical principles, the most famous being the Pythagorean triangle. Much more influentially, through his experiments with a self-constructed monochord, Pythagoras discovered the ratios of the musical octave, the foundation of most music in the world ever since. Could similar rich things be discovered in the Nesin village—a place devoted to pure research and mathematical contemplation? That remains to be seen.
To return to our discussion of envy, I need to speak a bit more about the Pythagoreans and how they understood the cosmos. To them, the whole of this cosmos was a beautiful harmonious form. We humans, however, were not born with the ability to see the form or hear its harmony; therefore education was central to guiding us to do this. It wasn’t enough for Pythagoras to teach in the open spaces of Ionian cities such as Ephesus. He wished to found a city where all things conformed to the most perfect mathematical ratios, and thus reflected the sublime harmony of the cosmos in human dwelling. Thus he founded a Mathematics village at Croton, a place to give birth to a new kind of human life in tune with the inherent universal harmony. These villagers were vegetarians, and by day tilled the earth and built simple dwellings, while nights were spent gazing at the stars, seeking inspiration for mathematical insight. Although Mathematics and Geometry were the main topics of dialogue, Pythagoras coined a term for their whole enterprise; he called it Philosophia. At this time in Greece and Ionia there existed no schools as such; rather, wise men who called themselves sophists taught whoever would pay them in the open spaces of the larger cities. Typically these were the sons of the rich. Pythagoras opposed most of the sophists, for he felt they were just as often as not teaching false doctrines and therefore ruining the minds of the youths. He questioned their claims to wisdom (Sophia), calling them hubristic, for humans were not by nature wise and never could be. Only the gods were truly wise. Humans could imitate this however by philo Sophia: they could love wisdom. Thus he initiated the tradition of the philosopher, one who remained in a state of permanent yearning for wisdom, of love and adoration for wisdom, but retaining the humility of acknowledging that they did not possess that wisdom themselves.
Plato was greatly indebted to the Pythagoreans, and in particular he developed the notion of philosophy through the articulation of his spokesperson, Socrates. Most of Plato’s dialogues consist of Socrates discussing various topics with many of the famous sophists of his day. In each case, Socrates, who claims to have no wisdom, ends up showing the ‘wise’ through argument that their wisdom has no integrity. This, of course, stirs up a lot of hatred against Socrates and he ends up being executed in his old age by a gang of angry statesmen and sophists that he embarrassed on several occasions. However, he had a large group of followers who, through following the path of philosophy with Socrates, gained a great philo for each other. Many of the discussions therefore took place about the nature of love, which is the essential human condition in relation to Sophia for which it strives.
This comes out most strongly in the dialogue called Symposium. In this dialogue, in a scene that takes place in Athens after a festival, each of a number of guests at a party makes a speech in honour of love. All the speakers make very beautiful and lofty speeches, extolling Love as being the most beautiful among the gods and the greatest gift bestowed upon mankind. Socrates, the last speaker, surprises everyone in speaking of love not as overflowing goodness, but rather as a child of poverty. Countering the speeches before him, he refers to love as a state of great destitution, a mad desperation for its object, the beloved. It is therefore not a rich condition, but one of the poorest of the poor, for one does not have what one most desires. Following from this, he argues that mankind does not constitute creatures of fullness; we are creatures of endless desire, and our profoundest and most troubling desire is the desire for Sophia. Sophia for the Greeks refers to absolute beauty, justice, and goodness, and by ‘absolute’ I mean to say that which is ‘at rest’. This striving for ‘wisdom-at-rest’ is therefore the essential nature of love.
The fact that we do not possess Sophia, but instead live in an adventurous striving for it, is Socrates’ great challenge. To understand human affairs we must see each one of us not as perfected godly beings, but strivers in the madness of love, and that the gulf that separates us and the absolute rest in wisdom we seek is very large.
Now we may raise the question: for what reason did the sophists and statesmen of Athens sentence Socrates to death? As Plato’s dialogue Apology shows, the outward courtroom reasons were a farce. The true reason was envy. They were envious that Socrates had captured the hearts and minds of the youth of Athens, and that he charged no money or asked no favours in return. But why, if Socrates asked for nothing in return, should his actions arouse such envy? Did we not just say that the human being’s nature is not wisdom but love that loves wisdom? Surely, the truest nature of the sophist is also love, and therefore should not even the sophist rejoice in the man who punctured his balloon of pretension to wisdom?
Plato’s answer to this is that love is a very hard master. Imagining ourselves as great possessors of wisdom stokes the fire of the vice of pride, so that our being becomes given over to possession, the avaricious element, rather than love, which constantly spends and exhausts itself into poverty for the sake of the beloved. The human race may have been created as lovers, and our essence indeed may be that, but the difficulty of that constant state of lack, of want, can be so pleasantly hidden behind our imagination of ourselves as wise beings, that we give ourselves over to possession, and dim the philo at our core. And we may subsist that way for a time, strengthening the illusion, until Socrates comes along and sends us crashing down into our basic poverty of spirit. This ‘crash’ becomes the bedrock of envy, and we wish to conquer or destroy that which reminds us of our poverty.
In the light of this Greek thinking then, envy is born from the self-hatred of living in falseness. That hatred then gets channeled onto the one who exposes that falseness, and envy is born. Such exposing may be done by a philosopher, or someone more beautiful than us, someone smarter than us, richer than us, anyone who belittles the proud high idea we have of ourselves that we strive to maintain.
The hard truth, as Socrates says, is that we are lovers. Why that truth is so hard to accept is the mystery wherein envy is born. Thus Pythagoras sought to base his polis mathematikos not on wisdom, but on the love of wisdom, and on guarding the humility of human nature and on keeping ourselves free from the destructive desperation of envy, the daughter of pride.
For Plato, the way to escape this destructive ‘daughter’ is by learning to live with love. Not the ideal higher love which the gods possess, but the desperate impoverished love that is the core of the human being. Through learning about this love, we become friendly and gracious to it, and begin to humbly grant our fellow beings their imperfections. As Plato wrote in a letter when he was consoling an angry friend who had an injustice done to him:
Above all, be kind.
For everyone that you meet is going
Through a titanic struggle.
This struggle consists of course of the spiritual demands philo places upon us. Philosophy therefore becomes not only a love of wisdom, but of acquiring wisdom about love, for in knowing all the trials and tribulations that love and life brings us to, we eventually become at home in love, and it becomes not such a terrible master as it seemed at first. This is expressed at the end of a famous song of the English Renaissance, after the lover passes through all the trials of love and is finally granted godly wisdom:
Then securely Envy scorning
Let us end with joy our mourning
Jealousy, Jealousy still defy
And love till we die.