Good envy? There’s no such thing, according to innumerable writers and theologians. Samuel Johnson calls envy (in Rambler 183) an “unmixed and genuine evil.” Yet in a letter to a friend in 1757, Johnson talks about innocent envy: “I who have no sisters or brothers, look with some degree of innocent envy on those who may be said to be born to friends.” Johnson had a younger brother, Nathaniel, but he had died in 1737 at the age of twenty-five.

One could argue that Johnson’s innocent envy is not real envy, but then why does he—a scrupulous writer—use the word envy? In Rambler 9 Johnson writes, “almost all passions have their good as well as bad effects.” Did he sometimes think envy had good effects?

Innocent envy is the kind of envy that one is willing...


New to The New Criterion?

Subscribe for one year to receive ten print issues, and gain immediate access to our online archive spanning more than four decades of art and cultural criticism.

Popular Right Now