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Hume’s Passions: Envy and Malice

’Tis from the principle of comparison that both these irregular appetites for evil arise.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book II, part II, section VIII

Hume has already presented the great epistemological pitfall of men, comparison—a significant source or pride. He dwells on it to explain envy and malice, two (additional) passions which he distinguishes as follows:

This reasoning will account for the origin of envy as well as of malice. The only difference betwixt these passions lies in this, that envy is excited by some present enjoyment of another, which by comparison diminishes our idea of our own: Whereas malice is the unprovok’d desire of producing evil to another, in order to reap a pleasure from the comparison.

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, book II, part II, section VIII

It is the proximity with others (resemblance, similarity of condition) which produces envy. A peasant is less envious of a rich lord than of another peasant of the same status who happens to be more fortunate than him. Malice would consist for the former to sabotage the latter in order to feel less inferior, through comparison.

It is therefore not by pure malice that human beings are mean, but rather by putting a given situation in relation to themselves, to their own pride.