On Envy and Greed: From the Garden of Eden to the Stock Market
Charlie Munger, the vice chairman of Warren Buffett’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway, recently remarked that the world is driven by envy, not greed. He was referring to the ‘everything bubble’ which has inflated asset prices across the board, particularly in cryptocurrencies and the stock market.
He has strong support for his theory, I’m sure, in the form of numerous psychological studies that corroborate his assertion. Most notable, and perhaps most controversial, would be Sigmund Freud’s view on envy, specifically female penis envy.
Surely these theories aren’t original, as ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Ecclesiastes 1:9). Whenever someone makes a statement about life, or anything in general, it would serve us well to ask for proof — how do they know, what is their source?
The source of all wisdom is the Torah. Let’s start at the very beginning, at the first principles of the human condition, and find if and where envy rears its ugly head.
Adam and Eve were placed in the Garden of Eden and adjured by G-D not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. But ‘the snake was cunning beyond any beast of the field (Genesis 3:1),’ and manipulated Eve into partaking of the fruit, saying: ‘G-D knows that on the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like G-D (ibid 3:5).’
So the snake, which symbolizes our evil urge, played on her desire for more, to be more than what she is, to be more like G-D. The first example of penis envy.
[Not that G-D is male in the sense of being non-female, or possesses body parts — Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith]
Envy is not a weakness of just women, of course, and the next episode in the Torah concerns that of Cain and Abel.
They both brought offerings to G-D, but He only accepted Abel’s.
Seeing’s Cain’s frustration, G-D warned him: “If you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door. Its desire is toward you, yet you can conquer it (ibid 4:7).”
Cain was envious of Abel’s success and his relative lack. He was desirous of G-D’s good graces, of winning, of being the best.
So, in both of the first two episodes of the Torah, and also its first two instances of sin, we see envy as the cause for humankind’s failures. It indeed appears that Freud and Munger were right — envy drives the world.
But envy didn’t act alone. In both cases there was another influence at play.
In the case of Adam and Eve it was the snake who tempted Eve, the snake who convinced her to act against her best interests.
The text doesn’t tell us his motivations, at least not explicitly, but it does tell us he was the ‘most cunning beast of the field.’ The Midrash (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 1:7) teaches us that he wanted Eve as his mate, to rule over the world in place of Adam, and to stand erect and partake of all the world’s delicacies.
So we can deduce that his status as a mere beast wasn’t adequate for him, despite his elevated stature as ruler in his beastly domain. He was greedy for more.
Then with Cain, G-D told him to guard himself against the ‘sin that crouches at the door’, whose ‘desire is toward you.’
Sin, or our evil urge, had been given an opening to our psyche, a door, thanks to Adam and Eve’s sin. But crouching at the door wasn’t enough and this evil urge wanted more, its ‘desire toward you.’
So, it was greed again which propelled humans to envy. Instead of Cain conquering sin, sin conquered him. Cain became a slave to sin, and sin ruled over him.
People are driven by envy but they are manipulated by another force — that of greed.
People are driven by envy by rulers who are driven by greed.