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Jealousy is often confused with envy. Envy is coveting something someone else possesses. It is one of the deadliest corrosives on the human soul, as it suggests that we should not be content with what we have. Jealousy, in contrast, bespeaks a desire to hold on to what one has. Though often disparaged as a vice, jealousy guards many virtues and good practices. Jealousy can be excessively narrow and demanding, but a soul incapable of jealousy is likely to fail to maintain valuable human goods.

The God of Israel is “a jealous God” (Exod. 20:5), in that he protects and defends all that is precious to him, including his people above all. The jealousy of God the Father is the archetype of the jealousy that is proper to our family lives. Parents prefer their own children to other kids, even though other kids might be superior in some respects. Parents resent it when schools usurp their prerogatives in raising their children. A husband will be jealous if his wife seems interested in another man, or a wife if her husband seems interested in another woman. Such jealousy is a sign that parents would fulfill their duties themselves and that fidelity in marriage is treasured.

Sophisticated reformers see family jealousies as pretexts for oppressive mores and sexual inequality. Radicals oppose “family chauvinism” and suggest ways of breaking it down. They hope to transform a communal sense of love and responsibility into more fluid relations.

Simone de Beauvoir, founding mother of feminism, sees jealousy—especially in a man’s desire to control or possess a woman—as a means “to compel woman to adapt herself exactly to the role society has forced upon her.” Since no person can ever enjoy absolute possession of ­another, jealousy “can be insatiable” and elicit cycles of violence and submission. The defeat of jealousy requires the rise of an “independent woman” who will love only after she has achieved godlike transcendence of earthly bonds and social expectations. Then, “entirely self-sufficient human ­beings” will form “unions . . . in accordance with the untrammeled dictates of their mutual love.” Such unions may not involve the sharing of a life; they may not even entail faithfulness. Lovers would respect each other’s independence within this so-called union. No jealousy here.

Radicals of an earlier vintage agreed. Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s What Is to Be Done? (1863), a novel more often cited than read, portrays the good people of the future shedding lovers and adding new ones without a tincture of jealousy. A beautiful Russian couple, dedicated to socialist revolution, seeks to reconcile marriage with individual independence and freedom. They repeat the old chestnut that, should they break up, they could not help but be friends. Each wants what is best for the other, even if it means severing the relation. Yet as soon as there is a concrete prospect of the wife’s moving on to another man, the husband finds himself jealous. Near the end of the novel, Rakhmetov—the novel’s most advanced revolutionary, and an icon for many real-life Russian radicals—instructs all concerned that jealousy “shouldn’t exist in a developed person,” since it is “a distorted emotion.” It is “the result of regarding a person as my own property,” no different from the attachments “that would make me refuse to let anyone wear my underclothes or use my cigar holder.” Thus edified, the members of the love triangle transcend jealousy and form looser relations, more akin to free love than to marriage.

Feminists like Chernyshevsky and Beauvoir built on a more or less liberal critique of jealousy. From the perspective of individual autonomy, marital jealousy is irrational and paranoid. Tolstoy mocks such views in Anna Karenina. ­Karenin, a husband who worries about being jilted, insists that jealousy is a “shameful thing,” as it “insulted a wife” and “degraded” both spouses, characterizing their relationship as one of chattel and owner. As Karenin would not have his wife, Anna, a slave, so he would not be a master. Of course, Anna would never cheat—he tells himself—so he should trust her. And even if she were to cheat, he does not own her and should not seek to control her. Love must be freely given at every moment, not compelled through habits or onerous feelings of duty. If anything outside the free gift of the will restrains a human being in love, the love itself is inauthentic and less than free. High ideals—but Karenin’s notions of romance prove inconsistent not only with jealousy, but with the very marital love he is so concerned to keep pure.

Karenin’s eventual reaction to the revelation of his wife’s infidelity ­suggests a more reasonable way to understand jealousy. He confronts her, worried about the impending break. Abandoning prepared remarks about his respect for her independence, he pleads in hope: “I am your husband, and I love you.” The fear of losing Anna impels the ordinarily unemotional Karenin to a jealous reaction. His jealousy concerns not the exercise of power or ownership, but rather his fear of losing his wife and son and hence his connection to community and posterity. Another character in Anna Karenina, the well-married Levin, feels a similar jealousy when his wife, Kitty, talks to another (lesser) man. But a bit too much jealousy is more fitting than a bit too little.

The main narrative of War and Peace ends with the marriage of Pierre and Natasha. Then in the first epilogue, Tolstoy fast-forwards to the couple’s life seven years after their wedding. The formerly dainty Natasha has “let herself go,” thinking it ridiculous to try to keep her husband interested through curls of the hair and a fancy toilet. She is loved for being the mother of Pierre’s children, after all. But to guard what is hers, Natasha requires Pierre to abstain from flirting with or even talking to other women. Pierre must dine at home instead of at the club and forgo all but the most essential business travel. Natasha believes that every moment belongs to her and to the family. In her jealousy, which is fodder for jokes among the servants, Natasha is nevertheless more correct than Karenin, who imperiled his family by pretending indifference to the bonds and duties that sustained it.

Karenin, Chernyshevsky, and Beauvoir each prize freedom, but each misconstrues its relation to jealousy. The writings of our Founders are eloquent on this relation as it touches on one sphere, that of politics. A lack of political jealousy marks the loss of spirit necessary to sustain free government (call it political Kareninism). A free people are jealous, afraid of losing liberties and suspicious of the long-term costs of relinquishing them. Patrick Henry warned Americans to “guard with jealous attention the public liberty.” Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Kentucky Resolutions that “free government is founded in jealousy.”

Of course, political jealousy can be taken too far. The Founders rejected, as Hamilton writes in ­Federalist No. 1, “an over-scrupulous jealousy of danger to the rights of the people” that prevented a consolidation of power at the national level or anywhere. Still, Hamilton always recognized that a properly informed jealousy contributes to the establishment of a free market in goods and to limited government. Political jealousy is judged by the cause it serves.

We are jealous of our political freedom in part because we wish to maintain a sphere of action in which we may be spouses and parents, fulfilling our singular duties and meeting our exclusive obligations, delivering goods to those we (jealously) love. Familial jealousy is not fundamentally a matter of owning or controlling. It is a matter of maintaining the marital community. Naturally, one does not wish to lose something that is beautiful and central to one’s happiness. More, spouses want the best for each other and, still more, they want to provide it to each other. Jealousy is the recognition that uniting with another in marriage means losing an important part of oneself if the marriage fails. A love without jealousy is mere affection. A love capable of jealousy is a terrible risk, and in itself a great reward. 

Scott Yenor is a professor of political science at Boise State University and a Washington Fellow at the Claremont Institute’s Center for the American Way of Life.