The Joy of Schadenfreude

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Schadenfreude – Pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Oxford English Dictionary.

Christopher Hitchens was once asked what the purpose of life was. He replied that it was to crow over other people’s misfortunes – in other words experience schadenfreude. This word of German origin has two parts – schaden (harm), and freude (joy) – to derive joy from another’s harm.

Schadenfreude is our secret joy, the worm that eats into the heart of the rose. Driving this sentiment is the thing that drives all our emotions – the survival instinct. The basic dynamics of this driver say that when you are stronger I am weaker, and when I am stronger you are weaker. And so it would make sense that we crow over other people’s misfortunes, since their weakness is our strength.

Various philosophers have commented on this emotion and it’s close relative, envy. In fact schadenfreude is just one aspect of envy, since envy also includes the pain we experience when another person experiences good fortune, in addition to the pleasure we get from their ill fortune. Here is what Spinoza says about envy:

Envy is hatred, insofar as it so affects a man that he is pained at another’s good fortune and rejoices at another’s ill-fortune. Spinoza, The Ethics

As you can see Spinoza considers envy, and hence schadenfreude, to be a form of hatred. Of course most of us will deny having such feelings, particularly in our increasingly politically correct society. All this political correctness does is push the beast further into the subconscious where it eventually surfaces in even more harmful behaviors. The beast, our survival instinct, will not be denied, and will always find a way to achieve its aims.

Spinoza considers envy to be our natural state. To quote him again:

… men are by nature envious that is, they rejoice at the weakness of their fellows and are pained at their accomplishments. Spinoza, The Ethics

However he goes on to say that we are only envious of those we consider to be our peers. Most of us would not rejoice at the misfortunes of a poor child in an under developed country. Similarly we are not envious of the Queen of England – although some people are jealous. In most cases we are envious of our peers – the people we work with or who live down our street.

Schopenhauer considers schadenfreude to be more than a negative emotion, but wickedness itself.

There is no more unfailing sign of a thoroughly bad heart and profound moral worthlessness than a streak of pure, heartfelt schadenfreude. One should avoid for ever anyone in whom one has perceived it. Schopenhauer

From this we can understand why Schopenhauer avoided most of the human race, as we would too if we were to take his advice to heart. We should also try to avoid ourselves – which most of us do quite successfully through denial.

As always the understanding of these emotions diminishes their power. But to understand them we have to see them, as unpleasant as this might be. For most people this will not happen – they simply do not have enough self-honesty.

Sometimes if I want some entertainment I will attend a social event to watch the faces that look like they have just sucked on a lemon, and the other faces of triumph as they manage to assert superiority. Welcome to the chimp’s tea party.

By MB

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