Is envy at the root of all claims for justice (so says Freud), or is envy a regrettable but surmountable human tendency that will be minimized in a just society (as Rawls has it)? Should we, as newer political and feminist theory has suggested, take envy seriously as a “political emotion” and allow it to direct the building of a better democracy? My talk will trace the recent history of envy’s role in theorizing social justice and then turn to medieval literature as a terrain of close attention to envy, not only as a “deadly sin,” but as an emotion that provokes the social imagination, and the articulation of the move from the individual to the political. The figures of the winner (upstanding citizen) and waster (profligate spender, “welfare queen”) have a long history, and can help us to understand the passages between the personal and the social, the economic and the affective, and perhaps to disentangle the threads of envy, resentment, and justice.
Presented by the Centre for Ethics