Sunday, July 11, 2004



Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. I confess that it warmed the cockles of my heart to see Enron's Kenneth "Kenny-Boy" Lay do the perp walk in handcuffs.

In English we borrow the German word 'Schadenfreude' to describe the emotion of joy at seeing someone else's misfortune. It's one of those compound words whose meaning you can almost figure out if you know the roots, in this case 'Schaden' (harm, damage) and 'Freude' (joy).

In his Parerga and Paralipomena, volume II, chapter VIII (On Ethics), section 114, Schopenhauer criticizes the emotion in the strongest terms (tr. T. Bailey Saunders):
But it is Schadenfreude, a mischievous delight in the misfortunes of others, which remains the worst trait in human nature. It is a feeling which is closely akin to cruelty, and differs from it, to say the truth, only as theory from practice. In general, it may be said that it takes the place which pity ought to take -- pity which is its opposite, and the true source of all real justice and charity....Envy, although it is a reprehensible feeling, still admits of some excuse, and is, in general, a very human quality; whereas the delight in mischief [Schadenfreude] is diabolical, and its taunts are the laughter of hell.
Nietzsche, in Human, All Too Human, II (The History of the Moral Sentiments), 103 (The Harmlessness of Malice), refers to this passage when he asks, "Is Schadenfreude diabolical, as Schopenhauer says?" He argues that it isn't.

The ancient Greek word for Schadenfreude is also a compound, 'epichairekakia', from the preposition 'epi' (upon, over), the verb 'chairo' (rejoice), and the noun 'kakia' (disgrace). Diogenes Laertius (Lives of the Philosophers 7.114) defines it as 'pleasure at another's ills', and Aristotle (Art of Rhetoric 2.9.5, tr. John Henry Freese) connects it with envy ('phthonos'):
He who is malicious [epichairekakos] is also envious (phthoneros], since if the envious man is pained at another's possession or acquisition of good fortune, he is bound to rejoice at the destruction or non-acquisition of the same. Wherefore all these emotions are a hindrance to pity [eleos], although they differ for the reasons stated; so that they are all equally useful for preventing any feeling of pity.
The parallels between Aristotle and Schopenhauer are obvious. But there were some ancient Greeks who did not regard the emotion as sinful. In Sophocles' Ajax (79), the goddess Athena asks the question, "Is not laughter at one's enemies the sweetest laughter?"

In Latin, Schadenfreude is 'malevolentia' (ill-will), defined by Cicero in his Tusculan Disputations (4.9.20) as 'pleasure at another's misfortune, without any gain of one's own' ('voluptas ex malo alterius sine emolumento suo').

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