Envy and Pity: Proverbial Wisdom?

Pindar, Pyth. 1.85

“Envy is stronger than pity

κρέσσον γὰρ οἰκτιρμοῦ φθόνος

This line is something I bounce around twitter every few months or so. As with many of our tweets, it is divorced from its context and takes on a new meaning in our own time (one, I think, which is less than positive since people are motivated more by an acquisitive, begrudging impulse than one of empathy).

A twitter correspondent (@History_Twerp) noted that this line was echoed in Herodotus.

Herodotus 3.52

Periander speaks to his son and says “since you have learned how much being envied is better than being pitied, and also what it is like to be angry at your parents and your betters, come home…”

Σὺ δὲ μαθὼν ὅσῳ φθονέεσθαι κρέσσον ἐστὶ ἢ οἰκτίρεσθαι, ἅμα τε ὁκοῖόν τι ἐς τοὺς τοκέας καὶ ἐς τοὺς κρέσσονας τεθυμῶσθαι, ἄπιθι ἐς τὰ οἰκία.» Περίανδρος

The notes on Perseus for Pindar’s Pythian 1 refer to the passage from Herodotus as “proverbial” without any additional evidence. The passages do seem proverbial since they use the same basic lexical items to express the same basic idea. Nevertheless, there is not additional evidence for a proverb. Instead, I think we probably have evidence of a general cultural value immanent among aristocratic classes during the early Classical period.

Here’s a fuller context for Pindar, Pyth. 1.84-86

“Satiety reshapes
Fast and easy expectations—
And the citizens’ secret witness grows especially burdened over foreign wealth.
But still, since envy is stronger than pity,
Do not overlook noble things, but guide the people
With a just rudder. Make your tongue
Bronze on an truthful anvil.”

….ἀπὸ γὰρ κόρος ἀμβλύνει
αἰανὴς ταχείας ἐλπίδας:
ἀστῶν δ᾽ ἀκοὰ κρύφιον θυμὸν βαρύνει μάλιστ᾽ ἐσλοῖσιν ἐπ᾽ ἀλλοτρίοις.
ἀλλ’ ὅμως, κρέσσον γὰρ οἰκτιρμοῦ φθόνος,
μὴ παρίει καλά. νώμα δικαίῳ
πηδαλίῳ στρατόν· ἀψευ-
δεῖ δὲ πρὸς ἄκμονι χάλκευε γλῶσσαν.

In the context of the Pythian ode, the brevity of the statement along with the epexegetical γὰρ gives the impression of a proverb drawn from elsewhere. But it is my sense, from reading through a lot of Pindar and Bacchylides, that the epinician genre is in the business of sounding proverbial  (it lends itself towards gnomic utterances because of the lyric brevity of expression, lack of epic-style repetition, and limited syntax). The trick of epinician poetry is to sound old and authoritative without actually being so.

The positive valence attributed to envy over pity is present as well in Hesiod’s Works and Days where two types of Strife are distinguished in order to mark one type of human conflict as good and one type as bad.

Hesiod, Works and Days, 26-7

“And a potter is angry with a potter, and a carpenter with a carpenter;
Even a beggar will envy a beggar and a singer a singer.”

καὶ κεραμεὺς κεραμεῖ κοτέει καὶ τέκτονι τέκτων,
καὶ πτωχὸς πτωχῷ φθονέει καὶ ἀοιδὸς ἀοιδῷ.

So the general attitude projected by Herodotus’ Periander and Pindar is harmonious with the Archaic Greek notion that ‘envy’ produces a type of rivalry that has positive effects. It is better than pity because pity is something which people in a stronger position have over those in a weaker position (and who wants to be in the weaker position?). For Pindar, envy is better because it imbues Hiero’s people with a spirit of rivalry; for Periander, who uses the statement in an attempt to get his son to come home, it is an attempt to convince him to give up the ways of a mendicant and return the palace. Interestingly, according to Herodotus, Periander fails.

The relationship between pity and envy appears in Diogenes as well.

Diogenes Laertius, Life of Zeno of Citium 7.111

“[they claim] that grief is an irrational reaction. Its variations include: pity, envy, jealousy, rivalry, annoyance, bitterness, anger, and distraction. Pity is pain for someone who suffers evil unworthily; envy is grief over someone else’s good fortunes; jealousy is pain over what another possesses when you want it yourself; and rivalry is pain over what another has and which you possess too…”

Καὶ τὴν μὲν λύπην εἶναι συστολὴν ἄλογον· εἴδη δ’ αὐτῆς ἔλεον, φθόνον, ζῆλον, ζηλοτυπίαν, ἄχθος, ἐνόχλησιν, ἀνίαν, ὀδύνην, σύγχυσιν. ἔλεον μὲν οὖν εἶναι λύπην ὡς ἐπ’ ἀναξίως κακοπαθοῦντι, φθόνον δὲ λύπην ἐπ’ ἀλλοτρίοις ἀγαθοῖς, ζῆλον δὲ λύπην ἐπὶ τῷ ἄλλῳ παρεῖναι ὧν αὐτὸς ἐπιθυμεῖ, ζηλοτυπίαν δὲ λύπην ἐπὶ τῷ καὶ ἄλλῳ παρεῖναι ἃ καὶ αὐτὸς ἔχει, ἄχθος δὲ λύπην

At first sight, there is little value judgment in this summary. But pity and envy are collocated as emotional or unreasoning impulses distinguished by their frames of reference but united by the fact that both are a type of pain. The comparison between pity and envy, does not seem otherwise common in Greek literature. (But this conclusion is extremely tentative. Please let me know of any other passages.)

A fragment of Plutarch (quoted in Stobaeus) established what turns out to be somewhat proverbial, that envious people risk two sources of pain.

Πλουτάρχου ἐκ τοῦ διαβάλλειν (Plut. fr. 155a = Hippias fr. 16).

Hippias says that there are two types of envy. One is just, whenever someone envies evil men who have been honored. The other is unjust, whenever someone envies good people who are honored. Men who envy suffer twice as much as others; for they are troubled not only by their own evils, but by others’ good fortunes.”

῾Ιππίας λέγει δύο εἶναι φθόνους· τὸν μὲν δίκαιον, ὅταν τις τοῖς κακοῖς φθονῇ τιμωμένοις· τὸν δὲ ἄδικον, ὅταν τοῖς ἀγαθοῖς. καὶ διπλᾶ τῶν ἄλλων οἱ φθονεροὶ κακοῦνται· οὐ γὰρ μόνον τοῖς ἰδίοις κακοῖς ἄχθονται, ὥσπερ ἐκεῖνοι, ἀλλὰ καὶ τοῖς ἀλλοτρίοις ἀγαθοῖς.

This sentiment is rather similar to one attributed to Anacharsis the Skythian by the Gnomologium Vaticanum:

“When asked by someone why envious men are always in pain, he said “because not only do their own evils bite them, but the good fortunes of those near them cause them grief too…”

῾Ο αὐτὸς ἐρωτηθεὶς ὑπό τινος, διὰ τί οἱ φθονεροὶ ἄνθρωποι ἀεὶ λυποῦνται, ἔφη· „ὅτι οὐ μόνον τὰ ἑαυτῶν αὐτοὺς κακὰ δάκνει, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὰ τῶν πέλας ἀγαθὰ λυπεῖ”.

Plato in the Timaeus detracts from envy a little too (29e) when discussing the attributes of a creating deity.

“He was good. And no envy ever develops in a good man about anything.

᾿Αγαθὸς ἦν· ἀγαθῷ δὲ οὐδεὶς περὶ οὐδενὸς οὐδέποτε ἐγγίνεται φθόνος.

Later paroemiographers do record some proverbs on envy, with an interesting variation.

Arsenius, Cent. 6.1a1

“Democritus says that envy is a wound from the truth”

Δημόκριτος τὸν φθόνον εἶπεν ἕλκος εἶναι τῆς ἀληθείας.

Stobaeus 3.38

“Socrates says that envy is a wound from the soul”

Σωκράτης τὸν φθόνον εἶπεν ἕλκος εἶναι τῆς ψυχῆς.

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