Plutarch, On Envy and Hate

Translated by Mr. P. Lancaster, of Baliol College in Oxford. Edition by William W. Goodwin, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878.
Annotation of text copyright 2007 David Trumbull, Agathon Associates. All Rights Reserved.

¶ A prosperous man is likely to attract both envy and hatred, passions which are alike in being opposite benevolence, but are, as Plutarch shows, quite distinct.

[1] Envy and hatred are passions so like each other that they are often taken for the same. And generally, vice has (as it were) many hooks, whereby it gives unto those passions that hang thereto many opportunities to be twisted and entangled with one another; for as differing diseases of the body agree in many like causes and effects, so do the disturbances of the mind. He who is in prosperity is equally an occasion of grief to the envious and to the malicious man; therefore we look upon benevolence, which is a willing our neighbor’s good, as an opposite to both envy and hatred, and fancy these two to be the same because they have a contrary purpose to that of love. But their resemblances make them not so much one as their unlikeness makes them distinct. Therefore we endeavor to describe each of them apart, beginning at the original of either passion.

¶ A man is hated as he is perceived to be bad; envied as he is perceived to be happy.

[2] Hatred proceeds from an opinion that the person we hate is evil, if not generally so, at least in particular to us. For they who think themselves injured are apt to hate the author of their wrong; yea, even those who are reputed injurious or malicious to others than ourselves we usually nauseate and abhor. But envy has only one sort of object, the felicity of others. Whence it becomes infinite, and, like an evil or diseased eye, is offended with every thing that is bright. On the other hand, hatred is always determined by the subject it adheres to.

¶ Envy is also distinguished from hate for that a man may hate any animal, but he can be envious of his fellow men only.

[3] Secondly, hatred may be conceived even against brutes; for there are some men who have an antipathy to cats or beetles or toads or serpents. Germanicus could endure neither the crowing nor the sight of a cock; and the Persian Magi were killers of mice, as creatures which they both hated themselves and accounted odious to God. In like manner also all the Arabians and Ethiopians abhor them. But envy is purely a human passion, and directed only against man.

¶ Likewise, animals display hatred, but envy is uniquely a human passion.

[4] Envy is not likely to be found among brutes, whose fancies are not moved by the apprehensions of each other’s good or evil; neither can they be spirited with the notions of glorious or dishonorable, by which envy is chiefly stirred up. Yet they have mutual hatred; they kill each other, and wage most incredible wars. The eagles and the dragons fight, the crows and the owls, yea, the little titmouse and linnet; insomuch that it is said, the very blood of these creatures, when slain, will by no means be mixed; but though you would temper them together, they will immediately separate again. The lion also vehemently hates the cock, and the elephant the hog; but this probably proceeds from fear; for what they fear, the same are they inclined to hate.

We see then herein a great difference betwixt envy and hate, that the one is natural to brutes, but they are not at all capable of the other.

¶ Hatred may be just, as in the case hatred of a man who truly is evil, while envy, not being the response to any wrong done one, is always unjust, for which reason men dissemble or cloak their enviousness.

[5] Further, envy is always unjust; for none wrong by being happy, and upon this sole account they are envied. But hatred is often just; for there are some men so much to be avoided and disliked, that we should judge those worthy to be hated themselves who do not shun and detest them. And of this it is no weak evidence, that many will acknowledge they hate, but none will confess they envy; and hatred of the evil is registered amongst laudable things.

Therefore, as some were commending Charillus, the nephew of Lycurgus and king of Sparta, for his universally mild and gentle disposition, — How, answered his colleague, can Charillus be a virtuous person, who is pleasing even to the vicious? So the poet too, when he had variously and with an infinite curiosity described the deformities of Thersites's body, easily couched all the baseness of his manners in a word, —

Most hateful to Achilles and Ulysses too;

for to be an enemy to the good is the greatest extravagance of vice.

Men will deny the envy; and when it is alleged, will feign a thousand excuses, pretending they were angry, or that they feared or hated the person, cloaking envy with the name of any passion they can think of, and concealing it as the most loathsome sickness of the soul.

¶ According to Plutarch, hatred grows as the object is perceived to grow worse and envy grows as the object is perceived to grow more felicitous, however, envy abates when the object has reached the splendor of matchless prosperity; therefore he concludes that the death of Alexander the Great, if an assassination, was done from a motive of hatred, not envy.

[6] Moreover, these disturbances of the mind, like plants, must be nourished and augmented by the same roots from which they spring; therefore hatred increases as the persons hated grow worse, while envy swells bigger as the envied rise higher in the true braveries of virtue. Upon this consideration Themistocles, whilst he was yet young, said that he had done nothing gallant, for he was not yet envied. And we know that, as the cantharis is most busy with ripe fruits and roses in their beauty, so envy is most employed about the eminently good and those who are glorious in their places and esteem.

Again, extreme badness makes hatred more vehement and bitter. The Athenians therefore had so utter an abhorrence of those who accused Socrates, that they would neither lend them fire, nor answer them any question, nor wash with them in the same water, but commanded the servants to pour it out as polluted; till these sycophants, no longer able to bear up under the pressure of this hatred, put an end to their own lives.

Yet envy often gives place to the splendor of a matchless prosperity. For it is not likely that any envied Alexander or Cyrus, when they arrived at the height of their conquests and became lords of all. But as the sun, where he passes highest and sends down his beams most directly, has none or very little shadow, so they who are exalted to the meridian of fortune, shining aloof over the head of envy, have scarce any thing of their brightness eclipsed, while envy retires, being driven away by the brightness overspreading it.

On the contrary, hatred is not vanquished by the greatness and glory of its objects. For though Alexander had not one to envy him, yet he had many haters, by whose treacheries at last he fell /1/. So, on the other side, misfortunes cause envy to cease, but take not enmity away; for men will be malicious even toward abject enemies, but none envy the distressed. However, what was said by one of our Sophists, that the envious are tenderly inclinable to pity, is true; and in this appears a great unlikeness of these passions, that hatred leaves neither the happy nor the miserable, but envy becomes languid when its object has either prosperity or adversity in excess.

¶ Hatred is abated if (1) it is discovered that the object of hatred had been mistakenly conceived of as being bad; (2) the object reforms himself to become good; or (3) the object insinuates himself through beneficences, but envy, is indifferent to the first revelation, grows worse upon knowledge of the second, and reacts with exasperation at the third.

[7] We shall better understand this from the poising them together.

Men let go their enmity and hatred, when either they are persuaded they were not injured at all, or if they now believe them to be good whom before they hated as evil, or, lastly, when they are appeased by the insinuations of a benefit received. For as Thucydides saith, A later service or good turn, if it be done at the right moment, will take away the ill resenting of a former fault, though this was greater than the recompense.

Yet the first of these removes not envy, for men will persist in this vice, though they know they are not wronged; and the two latter (the esteem or credit of a person, and the bestowing a favor) do exasperate it more. For they most envy the virtuous, as those who are in possession of the chiefest good; and when they receive a kindness from any in prosperity, it is with reluctance, as though they grudged them not only the power but the will of conferring it; the one of which comes from their happy fortune, the other from their virtue. Both are good. Therefore envy is an entirely distinct affection from hatred, since, as we see, the very things that appease the one only rouse and exasperate the other.

¶ Hatred seeks the ruin of its object; envy is content to reduce its statute.

[8] Now let us consider a little the inclination and bent of either passion.

The design of hatred is to endamage; and hence they define it, an insidious desire and purpose of doing hurt. But envy aims not at this. Many envy their familiars and kinsfolk, but have no thoughts of their ruin nor of so much as bringing any troubles upon them; only their felicity is a burden. Though they will perhaps diminish their glory and splendor what they can, yet they endeavor not their utter subversion; being, as it were, content to pull down so much only of an high stately house as hindered the light and obscured them with too great a shade.

Here Ends Plutarch's On Envy and Hate


/1/ Elsewhere (Life of Alexander, 77) Plutarch seems to reject the claim, endorsed in this essay, that Alexander was treacherously murdered.