In his book “The Art of Rivalry,” Sebastian Smee writes about the often-bitter rivalries that existed between the great artists of the 20th century. Matisse and Picasso, Manet and Degas, Pollock and de Kooning, and Freud and Bacon were sometimes friends, sometimes enemies and always in competition with one another. Smee shows that the rivalry made each a better artist.
The notion of rivalry to improve rather than simply destroy is increasingly rare. In sports, the end-zone dance is to mock the opposition. In politics, the argument is not for clarity but victory. There is a delight in the downfall of others that goes beyond the normal limits of schadenfreude. We suffer from an excess of schadenfreudal glee.
“The envy of scholars increases wisdom,” teaches the Talmud. Rabbi Johanan was saddened by the loss of his intellectual sparring partner, Resh Lakish, and complained that others just supported his positions when Resh Lakish offered 24 objections to each view. Trying to outdo another can make us better.
We are spurred by competition but debased by maliciousness. Time to re-learn the precious art of rivalry.