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Evil's green root

Published Sep. 2, 2005


By Joseph Epstein

Author, thinker, professor. Joseph Epstein makes me green with envy. In only 98 pages of text, he informs and thoroughly captivates the reader of the pitfalls and false pleasures of envy. Worst of all, he has done all these things at a younger age than I.

Envy is the first of seven books, really extended essays, on the seven deadly sins that are being published by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press. Some publication dates seem to have special significance. Appearing this month in time for Thanksgiving is Gluttony. For Valentine's Day we can read Lust. April, income tax month, will see Greed; Anger, September 2004; Sloth, November 2004 and Pride, February 2005.

"Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all," Epstein begins. It is "the one that people are least likely to want to own up to, for to do so is to admit that one is probably ungenerous, mean, small-hearted."

He adds, "Not the least of its stigmata is the pettiness implicit in envy."

Epstein explains how jealousy differs from envy. "One is jealous of what one has, envious of what other people have." Then he sticks his neck out: "The modern feminist movement can, I believe, be said to have been built on an impersonal, generalized envy. Women wanted what men seemed to have: freedom of choice in career, in mates, in living with the same irresponsibility _ as men."

Having dissed half the people in the world, Epstein turns to foreign relations. "Many _ one is inclined to write most _ wars have been fought because of one nation's envy of another's territory and all the riches that derive from it." He calls the Soviet Union the most "envy-ridden" nation because it encouraged its citizens to rat on each other.

He finds it easy to attribute much anti-Americanism to envy, and assigns the terrorist attacks of 9/11 to an "ugly" envy.

Moving to sports, Epstein is righteously envious of highly paid athletes. He singles out a basketball star making about $14-million a year and says, "I hope his family will forgive me, but I'm not sure I altogether wish him well."

Turning to his own profession, Epstein frets over writers who have done better than he has and concludes, "The moral of this little story, I believe, is that it is difficult to be ambitious without also being envious." Scattered throughout the book are cartoons dealing with many forms of envy.

Book reviewers are inherently envious. Look what Epstein did with envy in only 98 pages! How am I supposed to top that in 600 words?

Reviewer Jules Wagman, the last book editor of the old Cleveland (Ohio) Press, reviews books in Jacksonville.

"Envy," by Joseph Epstein, Oxford University Press and New York Public Library, $17.95, 109 pages.