Envy is a complex topic and in life can produce complex difficulties, not only for the person envied but for the person who feels envy. Is envy ever justified? We might approach the question in two ways: Is it ever right to be envious? Is it ever useful to be envious?
Aristotle in the Nicomachaean Ethics distinguishes between envy (φθόνος, phthonos), righteous indignation (νέμεσις, nemesis) and spite (or malice, rejoicing in evil, ἐπιχαιρεκακία, epichairekakia) (Book II, 1108b). All three involve ‘pain and pleasure at what happens to one’s neighbours.’ Undeserved good fortune inspires righteous indignation; any good fortune inspires envy. Spite involves joy at another’s distress in misfortune.
This threefold system is not quite coherent, particularly as the third element deals only with misfortune. In fact a little earlier Aristotle takes a different approach, saying that envy and malice cannot be classified in a threefold system of mean, excess and deficiency because they are always wrong and it is impossible to find a right version of them (1107a). Elsewhere Aristotle sees envy and spite (malice) as two sides of the same outlook: someone who is envious of a person’s good fortune also rejoices at the person’s misfortune (Rhetoric 1386b-1387a). This passage also discusses pain at undeserved misfortune and joy at deserved misfortune.
In Vatican Saying 53 Epicurus comments on envy as a response to the good fortune of a good person and the good fortune of a bad person. We may take it that in the former case the good fortune is deserved while in the latter case the good fortune is undeserved. On this analysis, no situation emerges that would justify envy. Whether a person is good or bad, and whether good fortune is deserved or undeserved, envy is inappropriate.
Thoughts for the Day, September 10: ‘We should envy no one. For good people do not deserve envious resentment, and as for wicked people, the more they prosper the more they hurt themselves.’ (Vatican Sayings 53).