Beatriz Bossi

Beatriz Bossi

Title :On envy as self deceit. A case of intellectualism ?


Envy is a complex and puzzling emotion. In this paper I would like to explore the relation Plato seems to establish between envy and self deception in the light of Philebus 47-51. While it may be obvious why arrogance is a result of self deception,  it does not seem easy to understand why Socrates describes envy as somehow connected to a lack of self knowledge, for envy seems to arise on the basis of a certain judgement about  other people’s fortunes, rather than regarding oneself. However, perspectives about others reflect comparative perspectives about ourselves. Envy is a propensity to view the well-being of others with distress, even though it does not detract from one’s own. Why? It is a tendency to see our own well-being overshadowed by another’s because the standard we use to see how well off we are is not the intrinsic worth of our own well-being but how it compares with that of others. In this sense, I will suggest, envy could be interpreted as lack of knowledge and as a case of self deceit based on false opinion.

A second issue I would like to consider is that while Aristotle defines envy as pain at the good fortune of others (Rhetoric,  1387 b 21) Plato introduces it as a  ‘strange mixture of pleasure and pain’ of the soul, in the sense of that pleasant emotion one feels in a comic context, towards the misfortunes of a character on stage or towards friends in disgrace. Socrates regards this pleasure at the misfortunes of others as unfair and as a signal of ignorance. If this is so, it is rooted in some poor condition of the soul. In his brief consideration of envy here, Plato does not seem to offer resources to erradicate it.

Is it enough to have self knowledge in order to refrain from this passion? Obviously, it is not the case than once you are told that you do not deserve the goods others enjoy, or that others do not deserve their unfortunate condition, you will not stop feeling envious automatically. Self knowledge is not a question of information but of self conversion towards the truth.

I will attempt to show in which sense the general Platonic view that knowledge should control pleasure in the Philebus can also turn out to be a key to work on this mixed pleasure. Truth is one of the aspects of the Good related to measure. In my view, only when we are capable of having a sense of our limits we will be in the position to calculate pleasures and pains properly. And when self knowledge of our limits and powers is the source of self esteem, envy has no room in the soul.

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