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Early usage of schadenfreude in English and literature
Schadenfreude has always been with us.
- Aristotle spoke of the emotion more than 2,000 years ago.
- The first appearance of the word in English-speaking countries gave speakers a new way to express themselves.
- To this day, there is still some unease around the feeling.
Schadenfreude — the word really rolls off the tongue, doesn't it? This German word we've co-opted, perfectly encapsulates one of our most complex of feelings. That is, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the pleasure derived from another person's misfortune. Yes, the many multi-faceted emotion that, apparently, comes in a few types. . .
From the get-go, English-speaking people have had a complicated relationship with both the word and the feeling behind it. Schadenfreude has been a central emotional tenant of literature, philosophy, and general storytelling before we even knew what to call it.
Schadenfreude first graced the English page in 1853, by a devout and dour Richard Chenevix Trench, who would later go on to become the Archbishop of Dublin. Regarding the German word, he lamented its existence:
"Thus what a fearful thing it is that any language should have a word expressive of the pleasure which men feel at the calamities of others; for the existence of the word bears testimony to the existence of the thing. And yet in more than one such a word [like schadenfreude] is found."
Before we had angry moralists waving their fists about a perfectly normal human emotion, the Greeks got to it first. Some Greek references go all the way back to the works of Aristotle, where he references the misfortunes of others with the Greek word epichairekakia.
It turns out that a lot of different languages, indeed, have a word for this feeling. And its usage is implicit in not only their literature, but their culture as well.
Schadenfreude as a central literary theme
A majority of these words are compounds of the two words "harm" and "joy." The Danish have skadefryd, the Dutch leedvermaak, French joie maligne, and the list goes on and on. There are of course a few languages that don't have such a word, at least not yet.
Harvard-based cognitive psychologist and linguist, Steven Pinker, remarks about the ubiquitous nature of the feeling, regardless of whether or not the language has created its own word for the feeling. He states:
"The common remark that a language does or doesn't have a word for an emotion means little. . . When English speakers hear the word schadenfreude for the first time, their reaction is not 'Let me see… Pleasure in others misfortunes. . . What could that possibly be? I cannot grasp the concept; my language and culture have not provided me with such a category.' Their reaction is, 'You mean there's a word for it? Cool!'"
The object of schadenfreude is a common theme that's usually easily inferred in literature and in rare cases explicitly stated.
In psychologist Wilco W. van Dijk's book Schadenfreude: Understanding Pleasure at the Misfortune of Others, the author delves into literary instances of schadenfreude. In the case of Shakespeare's Othello, the characters of Iago and Cassio are prime examples of humans led by envy to bring about the destruction of individuals while being satisfied in the event. Yet they do not derive pleasure from it in a sadistic manner. Merely, this is a type of competitive schadenfreude.
While they perform cruel or what could be considered immoral acts, they are not sadists. Instead van Dijk feels that in literary cases such as these, writers such as Shakespeare are evoking core human sentiments — while extreme in the boundaries of regular experience, these feelings still do not constitute any kind of sociopathy — or psychopathy — in terms of fixed personality traits.
It's important to make this distinction clear, so you can better grasp the feeling of schadenfreude in more common or modern works.
Take, for instance, the downfall of any half-rate villain in a movie or novel. Even just some regular person violating social norms, schadenfreude is that feeling we get when we believe someone deserves their suffering and we revel in it.
Countless stories and films resonate with this kind of feeling as a central emotive plot point. You'll know it when you see it.
Schadenfreude entering the English vernacular
Thomas Carlyle. Image source: Elliot & Fry / Wikimedia Commons
Once the word was brought to the forefront, people had varied reactions to it. In 1867, the Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle admitted to feeling schadenfreude while he imagined the potential chaos that would come from the passing the Electoral Reform Act, allowing working-class men the right to vote.
Dr. Tiffany Watt Smith, cultural historian and author of Schadenfreude: The Joy of Another's Misfortune and The Book of Human Emotions, goes into great detail in her book about the early usage of the term in popular culture during the 19th century.
One such hilarious instance was from 1881 when "a chess columnist advised persuading naïve opponents to use a tricky strategy, just to 'indulge in what the Germans call 'schadenfreude' when they invariably floundered."
Or another more malicious form when a physician by the name of Sir William Gull, pioneer of a healthy living movement in Victorian England, who self-righteously preached about drinking water and a form of vegetarianism suddenly became seriously ill.
"He went about giving self-righteous talks about how his lifestyle would protect him from diseases. So when in 1887 it emerged that he had become seriously ill . . . Well, reported the Sheffield and Rotherham Independent gleefully, there was 'a certain amount of what the Germans call schadenfreude' among advocates of 'fuller diet and freer living.'"
Still, there were many Victorians and even modern day people that aren't too fond of the idea of schadenfreude.
Dr. Smith remarks how the modern psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen pointed out that "psychopaths are not only detached from other people's suffering but might even enjoy it." Many modern day moralists believe that, on the worst end of the spectrum, schadenfreude is some kind of anti-empathy.
Van Dijk's book explores the equally ambivalent response that many 19th-century American authors gave to the emotion as well. As taboo as the sentiment was in England, it held a similar status for those in the United States — references to schadenfreude was seen as overwhelmingly negative.
In the end, the culture is partly responsible for how the emotion is portrayed morally. Van Dijk suggests that, "It is not unlikely that contemporary American novels have more diverse approaches to schadenfreude than the nineteenth-century texts do."
- 3 types of Schadenfreude and when you feel them - Big Think ›
- What is the psychology of schadenfreude? - Big Think ›
Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.
- U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
- Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
- While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
The U.S. Navy controls patents for some futuristic and outlandish technologies, some of which, dubbed "the UFO patents," came to life recently. Of particular note are inventions by the somewhat mysterious Dr. Salvatore Cezar Pais, whose tech claims to be able to "engineer reality." His slate of highly-ambitious, borderline sci-fi designs meant for use by the U.S. government range from gravitational wave generators and compact fusion reactors to next-gen hybrid aerospace-underwater crafts with revolutionary propulsion systems, and beyond.
Of course, the existence of patents does not mean these technologies have actually been created, but there is evidence that some demonstrations of operability have been successfully carried out. As investigated and reported by The War Zone, a possible reason why some of the patents may have been taken on by the Navy is that the Chinese military may also be developing similar advanced gadgets.
Among Dr. Pais's patents are designs, approved in 2018, for an aerospace-underwater craft of incredible speed and maneuverability. This cone-shaped vehicle can potentially fly just as well anywhere it may be, whether air, water or space, without leaving any heat signatures. It can achieve this by creating a quantum vacuum around itself with a very dense polarized energy field. This vacuum would allow it to repel any molecule the craft comes in contact with, no matter the medium. Manipulating "quantum field fluctuations in the local vacuum energy state," would help reduce the craft's inertia. The polarized vacuum would dramatically decrease any elemental resistance and lead to "extreme speeds," claims the paper.
Not only that, if the vacuum-creating technology can be engineered, we'd also be able to "engineer the fabric of our reality at the most fundamental level," states the patent. This would lead to major advancements in aerospace propulsion and generating power. Not to mention other reality-changing outcomes that come to mind.
Among Pais's other patents are inventions that stem from similar thinking, outlining pieces of technology necessary to make his creations come to fruition. His paper presented in 2019, titled "Room Temperature Superconducting System for Use on a Hybrid Aerospace Undersea Craft," proposes a system that can achieve superconductivity at room temperatures. This would become "a highly disruptive technology, capable of a total paradigm change in Science and Technology," conveys Pais.
High frequency gravitational wave generator.
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Another invention devised by Pais is an electromagnetic field generator that could generate "an impenetrable defensive shield to sea and land as well as space-based military and civilian assets." This shield could protect from threats like anti-ship ballistic missiles, cruise missiles that evade radar, coronal mass ejections, military satellites, and even asteroids.
Dr. Pais's ideas center around the phenomenon he dubbed "The Pais Effect". He referred to it in his writings as the "controlled motion of electrically charged matter (from solid to plasma) via accelerated spin and/or accelerated vibration under rapid (yet smooth) acceleration-deceleration-acceleration transients." In less jargon-heavy terms, Pais claims to have figured out how to spin electromagnetic fields in order to contain a fusion reaction – an accomplishment that would lead to a tremendous change in power consumption and an abundance of energy.
According to his bio in a recently published paper on a new Plasma Compression Fusion Device, which could transform energy production, Dr. Pais is a mechanical and aerospace engineer working at the Naval Air Warfare Center Aircraft Division (NAWCAD), which is headquartered in Patuxent River, Maryland. Holding a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, Pais was a NASA Research Fellow and worked with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems. His current Department of Defense work involves his "advanced knowledge of theory, analysis, and modern experimental and computational methods in aerodynamics, along with an understanding of air-vehicle and missile design, especially in the domain of hypersonic power plant and vehicle design." He also has expert knowledge of electrooptics, emerging quantum technologies (laser power generation in particular), high-energy electromagnetic field generation, and the "breakthrough field of room temperature superconductivity, as related to advanced field propulsion."
Suffice it to say, with such a list of research credentials that would make Nikola Tesla proud, Dr. Pais seems well-positioned to carry out groundbreaking work.
A craft using an inertial mass reduction device.
Credit: Salvatore Pais
The patents won't necessarily lead to these technologies ever seeing the light of day. The research has its share of detractors and nonbelievers among other scientists, who think the amount of energy required for the fields described by Pais and his ideas on electromagnetic propulsions are well beyond the scope of current tech and are nearly impossible. Yet investigators at The War Zone found comments from Navy officials that indicate the inventions are being looked at seriously enough, and some tests are taking place.
If you'd like to read through Pais's patents yourself, check them out here.
Laser Augmented Turbojet Propulsion System
Credit: Dr. Salvatore Pais
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.
Seek pleasure and avoid pain. Why make it more complicated?
- The Epicureans were some of the world's first materialists and argued that there is neither God, nor gods, nor spirits, but only atoms and the physical world.
- They believed that life was about finding pleasure and avoiding pain and that both were achieved by minimizing our desires for things.
- The Epicurean Four Step Remedy is advice on how we can face the world, achieve happiness, and not worry as much as we do.
Self-help books are consistently on the best-seller lists across the world. We can't seem to get enough of happiness advice, wellness gurus, and life coaches. But, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. The Ancient Greeks were into the self-help business millennia before the likes of Dale Carnegie and Mark Manson.
Four schools of ancient Greek philosophy
From the 3rd century BCE until the birth of Jesus, Greek philosophy was locked into an ideological war. Four rival schools emerged, each proclaiming loudly that they — alone — had the secret to a happy and fulfilled life. These schools were: Stoicism, Cynicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism. Each had their advocates and even had a kind of PR battle to get people to sign up to their side. They were trying to sell happiness.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives.
Many of us are familiar with Stoicism, a topic I covered recently, because it forms the foundation of cognitive behavioral therapy. Skepticism and Cynicism have become watered down or warped variations of their original forms. (I will cover these in future articles.) Today, we focus on the most underappreciated of these schools, the Epicureans. In their philosophy, we can find a surprisingly modern and easy-to-follow "Four Part Remedy" to life.
Epicureans: The first atheists
The Epicureans were some of history's first materialists. They believed that the world was made up only of atoms (and void), and that everything is simply a particular composition of these atoms. There were no gods, spirits, or souls (or, at most, they're irrelevant to the world as we encounter it). They thought that there was no afterlife or immortality to be had, either. Death is just a relocation of atoms. This atheism and materialism was what the Christian Church would later come to despise, and after centuries of being villainized by priests, popes, and church doctrine, the Epicureans fell out of fashion.
In the atomistic, worldly philosophy of the Epicureans, all there is to life is to get as much pleasure as you can and avoid pain. This isn't to become some rampant hedonist, staggering from opium dens to brothels, but concerns the higher pleasures of the mind.
Epicurus, himself, believed that pleasure was defined as the satisfying of a desire, such as when we drink a glass of water when we're really thirsty. But, he also argued that desires themselves were painful since they, by definition, meant longing and anguish. Thirst is a desire, and we don't like being thirsty. True contentment, then, could not come from creating and indulging pointless wants but must instead come from minimizing desire altogether. What would be the point of setting ourselves new targets? These are just new desires that we must make efforts to satisfy. Thus, minimizing pain meant minimizing desires, and the bare minimum desires were those required to live.
The Four Part Remedy
Given that Epicureans were determined to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, they developed a series of rituals and routines designed to help. One of the best known (not least because we've lost so much written by the Epicureans) was the so-called "Four Part Remedy." These were four principles they believed we ought to accept so that we might find solace and be rid of existential and spiritual pain:
1. Don't fear God. Remember, everything is just atoms. You won't go to hell, and you won't go to heaven. The "afterlife" will be nothingness, in just the same way as when you had no awareness whatsoever of the dinosaurs or Cleopatra. There was simply nothing before you existed, and death is a great expanse of the same timeless, painless void.
2. Don't worry about death. This is a natural corollary of Step 1. With no body, there is no pain. In death, we lose all of our desires and, along with them, suffering and discontent. It's striking how similar in tone this sounds to a lot of Eastern, especially Buddhist, philosophy at the time.
3. What is good is easy to get. Pleasure comes in satisfying desires, specifically the basic, biological desires required to keep us alive. Anything more complicated than this, or harder to achieve, just creates pain. There's water to be drunk, food to be eaten, and beds to sleep in. That's all you need.
4. What is terrible is easy to endure. Even if it is difficult to satisfy the basic necessities, remember that pain is short-lived. We're rarely hungry for long, and sicknesses most often will be cured easily enough (and this was written 2300 years before antibiotics). All other pains often can be mitigated by pleasures to be had. If basic biological necessities can't be met, then you die — but we already established there is nothing to fear from death.
Epicurus's guide to living is noticeably different from a lot of modern self-help books in just how little day-to-day advice it gives. It doesn't tell us "the five things you need to do before breakfast" or "visit these ten places, and you'll never be sad again." Just like it's rival school of Stoicism, Epicureanism is all about a psychological shift of some kind.
Namely, that psychological shift is about recognizing that life doesn't need to be as complicated as we make it. At the end of the day, we're just animals with basic needs. We have the tools necessary to satisfy our desires, but when we don't, we have huge reservoirs of strength and resilience capable of enduring it all. Failing that, we still have nothing to fear because there is nothing to fear about death. When we're alive, death is nowhere near; when we're dead, we won't care.
Practical, modern, and straightforward, Epicurus offers a valuable insight to life. It's existential comfort for the materialists and atheists. It's happiness in four lines.