I was looking up images from the exciting marketplaces in Istanbul – such wild color and thrilling fun – and the same item kept turning up. It is a blue charm with a white space in the middle and another shade of blue, finished off with a dark blue dot.
It’s a bit strange looking and basically unknown in the West outside those who travel and come back with souvenirs. It looks kind of like an eye. What it is? It is called the Nazar. It is a foil to the evil eye. The theory is that when someone resents you for your success, this charm looks right back at the person and wards off the dangers of envy.
When you travel in Turkey and Greece, you see the charm everywhere: airports, cars, boats, shopping centers, houses and so on. Why such prominence for this item, which has no religious basis and emerges entirely from a folk tradition? It has ancient origins, originally designed to ward off resentment people feel toward a cute and healthy child.
As time went on, wealth took other forms. The Ottoman Empire is one of the oldest commercial regions in the world, a place where the rise of wealth began to appear in the course of one generation during the 16th century. To keep others away from your just earnings was certainly a priority. It still is.
That’s the point of the Nazar: to protect the rights of commerce against those who would destroy it through attacks on wealth-making success. We need that now more than ever.
When was the last time you heard a sermon against envy or observed a media figure casually recognizing its evils? Condemnation of envy as a motivating force for the destruction of life and property has nearly entirely vanished from the culture. This is probably because so much of modern public policy is based on it and depends on encouraging it. What was once one of seven “deadly sins” is now a baked-in part of our public ethos.
What Is Envy?
Let’s return to the classic understanding of what envy is. It is part of the general vice of looking negatively upon the success of others. It is different from mere covetousness. To be covetous means to desire something that is not yours to have. It is also different from jealousy, which means to look upon the success of others and wish it were yours too.
Jealousy can lead to emulation and that can be good. It is not the same as zeal, which is to feel inspiration from the good fortune of another to adapt your own life to also experience good fortune. (This commentary is taken straight from St. Thomas Aquinas.)
Envy is distinct from all these. It observes the excellence of others and desires it to stop. It sees the fortune of another and aspires to punish it. Envy is actively destructive of another’s successes as an end in itself. It is not even the case that the realization of envy brings happiness to the person who wants to harm others. It merely achieves the goal of satisfying the anger you feel when looking upon the happiness of others. It tears down. It harms. It hurts. It crushes, smashes, and kills. It begins with resentment against others’ achievements and ends in the infliction of personal harm.
To review, you notice a nice house. To say, “that very house should be mine,” is to be covetous. To say, “I want to buy a house like that,” stems from jealousy which leads to emulation. To say, “I aspire to a life in which I can afford a house like that,” is zeal. Envy is to say: “I want to burn down that house.”
There is an additional layer to this. The realization of the envious desire might and probably is related to a certain outcome that could be favorable to the person with the evil eye. Your success is the reason for my failure so I must stop it. Your good fortune is the cause of my bad fortune so I need it out of the way to excel. If your more-beautiful house is gone, my less-beautiful house will rise in rank. In this way, envy is connected with a theory of cause and effect: the poor are that way because of the good fortune of the rich; my lack of a job is due to your employment; your country’s high GDP is the cause of our low GDP, and so on.
Envy is a ubiquitous problem but it is not felt by everyone. Let’s say you have a person with a naturally aspirational personality. He or she looks at life as a trajectory of opportunities for success; it is a matter of will, intelligence, and creativity, and he or she believes in all those things. There is no room for envy in this person’s heart. The success of another serves as inspiration and drive to perform, not tear down.
But let’s say another person has no such outlook. He or she imagines himself to be intellectually limited, unskilled, uncreative, bound by a restricted personality or a lack of will. In this case, life seems like a series of routines not to be disrupted, and begins to resent others who pass him or her by in the struggle to achieve. This person is ripe for feelings of envy, that is, the desire to harm others who perform better than their peers.
Every successful person has to deal with the problem of encountering the envy of others. You might begin your career thinking that your excellence will be rewarded. You find that it sometimes or often is. At the same time, it incites envy as well, and you have to deal with knives in the back, hidden attempts to undermine you, plots and conspiracies to stop you from advancing.
One of the great merits of the writings of Ayn Rand is that she drew attention to this problem. She saw it first hand in Russia where she grew up, how a political movement fueled by envy destroyed her family and nation. She struggled mightily in all her writings to warn others of the evil of resenting the success of others. She put together a psychology of resistance to help people embrace success as a justly deserved reward for achievement.
In this concern, she was reviving a very old moral concern. Medieval mythology described envy as the “green-eyed monster” because it looks at any sign of wealth with an aspiration to bring an end to it. The legend of the “evil eye” goes back to antiquity and denotes the profound fear all people have felt concerning envy. In Judaism, the rabbis taught to favor the “good eye” which calls for us to rejoice in the fortune of others, while the evil eye is the opposite impulse.
The Politicization of Envy
At some point in the 20th century, we normalized envy as a political idea. Down with the rich! Tax them 70%! Success must be punished and the successful pillaged! That country’s successes are the cause of our country’s failures! All these ideas trace to an ancient idea that was widely seen not as a virtue or a good motivation but rather a socially destructive sin. Thus are the trade policies of Trump and the tax policies of AOC traceable to the same envious root.
There is a burgeoning academic literature that seeks to rehabilitate envy as a motivator. It leads people to oppose unfairness and inequality, and hence builds the kinds of political institutions that many progressives and protectionists favor.
To be sure, there are good reasons to be upset and yell at the immorality of unjustly acquired wealth, but keep in mind that the problem here is not the wealth as such but the means of acquisition. Real envy makes no distinction: it is unhinged loathing that ends in destruction. It seems like an implausible thing to do, take a sin and convert it to a political virtue. But there is a hidden truth here that people are unable to face: modern political institutions are in fact built on an ancient vice, institutionalized and unleashed.
Envy can seem relatively benign when it is embodied in political institutions. If you teach with every speech and every article to sow hatred and encourage people to blame others’ successes for their own plight, you are playing with fire. This view can lead to vast destruction.
Most sides of the great ideological splits of our time are rooted in vices. While we are quick to recognize the evil of race and religious hatred, we do not like to think about the insidious effects unleashed by hatred of wealth and success. Maybe it is time for the Nazar to make its way from the Ottoman region to our own homes. We need some protection from the evil eye that modern politics is working daily to unleash.