Call for Papers: Politics and Envy

Politics & Poetics Conference

University of Oxford, 4-5 January 2022

Envy has always been a human problem: “Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.” But what is its significance for political life? The history of philosophy and political thought is full of rival answers to this question. If Nietzsche can be trusted, Greek attitudes toward envy turned on Hesiod’s distinction between Good and Bad Strife (Eris). Thus Thucydides traces the causes of the civil conflict at Corcyra back to one type of envy (phthonos), but he also has Pericles describe it as a ubiquitous spectre haunting every kind of success and spurring it on to greater achievement, so that only the dead are finally free from it. Plato’s Socrates parodies this Athenian self-image in the Menexenus; yet in the Apology he deliberately shifts the blame for his predicament away from his immediate accusers onto the envy of the many.

 

Modern thinkers have been equally divided about the political meaning of envy. For Hobbes, envy is what distinguishes human beings from other social animals, like ants and bees, whose communities need no sovereign. If envy is among the dominant passions of Hobbes’s state of nature, then the Leviathan is a perfect envy-dispersing machine. For the thinkers from Mandeville to Montesquieu profiled in Albert Hirschman’s classic study of the intellectual origins of capitalism, on the other hand, envy is merely the antisocial perversion of a more innocent—and politically useful—desire for gain. If envy can be softened into love of lucre, its powers can also be harnessed to generate political stability and economic prosperity. Yet in the nineteenth century, Tocqueville and Kierkegaard worry that envy will be only aggravated and intensified by the dual levelling forces of democratic equality and market economy.

 

As new outbreaks of envy afflict democratic societies worldwide and spread virally on the Internet, the problem of envy has become newly urgent. Yet we seem no closer to understanding envy and its relation to political life than at any other time in our history. Fifty years ago, John Rawls influentially argued that envy would naturally disappear from a well-ordered society satisfying the principles of justice as fairness. For René Girard, meanwhile, chronic outbreaks of envy cannot be avoided unless its twofold identity—both the singular origin of human culture and an apocalyptic threat to its ongoing existence—is recognized. Where do we go from here?

Politics & Poetics seeks submissions addressing these and related themes for an interdisciplinary conference to be held at the University of Oxford on 4-5 January 2022. Please send abstracts of no more than 400 words for a 20-minute presentation and a C.V. to editor@politicsandpoetics.co.uk. The deadline for applications is 1 November 2021. Successful applicants will be notified by 15 November. Presenters will receive a travel stipend and complimentary accommodation, as well as special consideration for publication in Volume 5 of the journal. Registration for others who would like to attend the conference will open in the fall.