I have a few theories based on what he wrote and how he lived. But first, a bit of context because Nietzsche was very far ahead of his time, placing his finger upon profound societal shifts in the 19th century which we’re still grappling with nowadays – shifts exacerbated by our fixation with celebrities and dependence on social media.
(He discussed his post-humous popularity, predicting “I have a terrible fear that I shall one day be pronounced holy“, and he set the date somewhere around Y2K: “Let us assume that people will be allowed to read (my work) in about the year 2000.” He was confident they would enjoy it when they did: “It seems to me that to take a book of mine into his hands is one of the rarest distinctions that anyone can confer upon himself. I even assume that he removes his shoes when does so – not to speak of boots.” This was especially striking because Nietzsche died penniless and alone in an insane asylum, partially due to the fact that during his lifetime his work went largely unread and he toiled in obscure poverty.)
In addition to accurately predicting upcoming societal shifts, Nietzsche was also basically alone amongst philosophers in that he addressed suffering in a radically different way: Instead of attempting to assuage one’s suffering with his writings, he advocated that one should cultivate what caused suffering in order to turn it into something beautiful.
(Nietzsche wanted to be a professional gardener at one time, and he viewed one’s problems as the roots of a plant. Ugly and gnarly though they may be, if you properly cultivate your problems they could produce something beautiful like a flower.)
In other words, he didn’t view suffering as a net negative or as something to be embarrassed about. And he thought that the pursuit of temporary happiness as a means unto itself was a sure route to hell; that this sort of “cozy well-being” or, as Nietzsche put it, “the religion of comfortableness” would lead to “small, mean people hiding in forests like shy deer.”
Instead Nietzsche wrote that lasting happiness in one’s life comes from rising to the occasion and overcoming one’s suffering. He realized that difficulties of every sort were to be welcomed by those seeking fulfillment.
This is why he famously wished those closest to him to be afflicted in some really awful ways because he believed that it was through the overcoming of life’s obstacles that one gained real meaning:
“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities—I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.”
Out of this belief, Nietzsche wrote a tremendous amount about envy. For Nietzsche, the psychological health of a person or society depends on being able to resist denigrating what one wants but can’t have.
He touched on three cultural trends coming together and how the combination of them would cause an overwhelming amount of envy:
First, there was (and still is!) the “Bright Unique Snowflake Syndrome” – although he didn’t call it that.
Nietzsche foresaw the rise in mass democracy i.e. the overthrowing of the monarchies, and how this shift towards mass democracy would then lead people to believe that we’re all equal and anything is possible.
(Nietzsche lived and worked during the end of the 19th century. This was a time when monarchies still ruled Europe, and European empires dominated the rest of the world geopolitically.)
Second, Nietzsche foresaw the rise of atheism. There is Nietzsche’s famous quote about “God is dead” which is often misconstrued. The full quote actually goes like this:
“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”
Nietzsche was terrified – and convinced – that people would fall for all sorts of utopian ideas as a result of God’s death because, as Carl Jung so eloquently put it in The Undiscovered Self, “You can take away a man’s gods, but only to give him others in return.”
The bloody history of the 20th century is a testament to how accurate both men were; it was in the aftermath of God’s death that the great collective horrors of Communism and Fascism popped up to fill the void, as Jordan Peterson has rightly noted.
When it comes to how envy would be magnified by atheism, Nietzsche foresaw that because you’d no longer believe your life in lot was static you would be more susceptible to envy. Someone born a peasant no longer must stay a peasant. Someone born a noble no longer shall automatically stay a noble.
(Whereas previously the only ways to change one’s lot in life was to leave i.e. emigrate from stultified, overcrowded Europe to the expansive New World where you could remake yourself or simply escape in search of adventure, treasure, etc. – both of which were quite dangerous – or join the Church; now you actually had the chance improve your lot in life through your own ingenuity, education, and hard work. If you were born a peasant you weren’t automatically expected to stay a peasant.)
Third, there was the changing social norms of how the nobility presented itself. Prior to Nietzsche’s time, the nobility went to great lengths to show the rest of the world how different they were. They dressed in distinctive colors like purple and wore crowns, capes, jewels, etc. – all designed to reinforce visually that they were different from the peasants.
Fast forward to the 21st century, and the clarion call of egalitarianism is heard everywhere i.e. we’re constantly told that we’re all equal and that anything is possible. Couple this with the fact that our modern-day “nobility” look and dress just like you or I, and it’s easy to believe that huge wealth and success is just within our grasp.
Take Mark Zuckerberg for example: It’s statistically as unlikely that someone could nowadays become as successful as Mark Zuckerberg as it was unlikely in 17th century France that someone could be as rich as King Louis XIV.
Yet what’s changed is that Zuckerberg dresses like the barista at your favorite coffee shop, donning t-shirts, cargo shorts, and Adidas flip flops. And you can see his daily routines in all their minutia thanks to social media (something impossible with King Louis XIV, whom you’d only see on special occasions filled with lots of pomp and circumstance). Checking our Zuckerberg’s Instagram feed, it’s understandable to think, “He gets a coffee and walks his dog in the mornings just like I do?! Wow I’m going to build the next Facebook and make billions!”
And this gets me to my point about envy in the 21st century: We’re surrounded by forces which trigger it, and we have no idea what to do with it because we’re taught conflicting ideas about it.
You’ve probably been told at one point or another that being envious is not good. It’s one of the 7 Deadly Sins after all right before Pride. It’s also just not fashionable in today’s culture which espouses that everybody is created equal and that we’re all “bright unique snowflakes.”
Enter the smart phone and your social media feed: You have access to your favorite celebrities. You can see how they live, what they wear, who they’re with, and what they like whenever you’d like. And yet, your life doesn’t measure up – hence you’re envious of them.
(Take The Rock for instance. 166 million IG followers, and you can watch him eat his favorite ice cream.)
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Most people shun these feelings of envy. They’re uncomfortable. They’re also culturally taboo to reveal to others.
Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, then we shouldn’t be afraid to admit that in certain moods we’d certainly wish to be more like others, to possess what they possess, to be where they are.
(I mean I don’t know about you but I’d like to eat ice cream and be as fit and wealthy as The Rock that’s for sure.)
What’s particularly tricky with Instagram is that we can see this on a daily basis. Who we follow subconsciously shapes our envy. Our feed feeds it.
As Hannibal Lechter famously said in Silence of the Lambs, “We begin by coveting what we see every day.”
Ask yourself: Are you looking at photos and videos of people which you don’t personally know doing amazing things? You’re subconsciously feeding your envy.
And that’s okay – so long as you’re consciously aware of it, and harness that energy which underpins your envy towards productive means.
Bonus tip: If you want to throttle back the fuel feeding that envy machine of yours, then there are two useful strategies to implement.
First, decide whom to follow on Instagram (and whom to not).
Follow your real-life friends and people whom you’ve consciously chosen to emulate if you’d like. Knowing that it’ll serve as a form of ongoing motivation, so long as you cultivate the envy it’ll spark.
(And you can still do this whilst also maintaining a healthy dose of skepticism about whether or not the people you’re seeing on social media are in fact as happy, beautiful, sexy, successful, popular, etc. IRL as they seem to be online. There’s a reason after all people derisively refer to Facebook as “Fakebook”…)
Second, intentionally limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Some studies have shown that about 20 minutes a day maximum is what you should consume. Personally I’d argue that this daily amount should go down as you follow more people whom don’t know IRL because you want to limit the amount of celebrity-driven “envy fuel” you take in.
Nietzsche’s message is that one of the most mature acts we are capable of is to admit to the strength of our envy – and the scale of our regret – without falling prey to defensive philosophies of denial in all their many and ingenious disguises. He called this “amor fati”:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.”
So the next time you’re on Instagram and you feel envious, take note. It’s an indication of an area of your life that’s causing you suffering – and which, if properly cultivated, could spur you on to greater heights.
Don’t wallow in envy. That only causes bitterness and resentment. Don’t pretend it isn’t there either. That only causes disillusionment.
In other words don’t hide or shame your envious feelings from yourself – use them as guides instead. It’s especially challenging in our modern world, where we’re encouraged to feel that we’re all equal to everyone else. And consciously cultivate your social media feed so that you’re following people whom you actually want to emulate along with limiting your daily social media usage. This multi-pronged approach to social media would get Nietzsche’s approval in my opinion.