Euro 2020: How Irish people should feel – philosophically speaking – about England’s loss

Feeling gleeful? Schopenhauer wouldn’t approve, but Nietzsche would understand

England’s coach Gareth Southgate embraces England’s forward Raheem Sterling after the Uefa Euro 2020 final at Wembley stadium in London. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

England’s coach Gareth Southgate embraces England’s forward Raheem Sterling after the Uefa Euro 2020 final at Wembley stadium in London. Photograph: Paul Ellis/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

 

Many people watching last night’s Euro 2020 final will have experienced an unfamiliar emotion – something akin to regret or guilt over a neighbour’s misfortune. It’s not that the average Irish soccer fan wanted England to win. Rather the usual satisfaction – or sense of schadenfreude – at watching them lose was lacking.

Undoubtedly, a large part of that is down to the likability of Gareth Southgate’s young squad but could something deeper be going on within the Irish psyche? After playing the “800 years of oppression” card for so long, are we finally showing signs of emotional maturity, or at least emotional development, in responding to the fortunes of “Ingerland”?

The issue is no trifling matter; it relates to a key debate within moral philosophy. In one corner sits Friedrich Nietzsche, who believed humans to be naturally resentful of one another. One of the most pleasurable aspects of life is watching the bloke next door fail, he reasoned, with anti-Christian glee.

That this is a natural state of affairs is borne out by ample research, including a 2015 study in Würzburg in Germany, which showed that football fans smiled more quickly and more broadly when their rival team missed a penalty than when their own team scored.

In a similar finding from the political sphere, a team of US psychologists surveyed Democrats and Republicans and found that each group of supporters got more pleasure when their opponents suffered political humiliation than when their party succeeded.

This phenomenon could be seen domestically in recent days as some of the parties which failed to win the Dublin Bay South byelection could hardly contain their glee – because they didn’t do as badly as Fianna Fáil.

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Yes, schadenfreude, or taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, is a natural emotion but whether it’s a good one is another matter. Nietzsche’s great intellectual rival Arthur Schopenhauer described it as “the worst trait in human nature”. It goes beyond mere envy and is instead “closely akin to cruelty”, he wrote. Such “delight in mischief is diabolical, and its taunts are the laughter of hell”.

Schopenhauer was heavily influenced by Eastern philosophies, in which something very un-Irish called “sympathetic joy” – the opposite of begrudgery – is celebrated. This righteous sentiment, also known as “empathetic joy” or mudita in Buddhism, is one of the four brahmaviharas, or the four highest qualities of the heart, the other three being loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity.

Irish Times columnist and mindfulness expert Pádraig O’Morain has written about the benefits of mudita, saying “sharing in the happiness of others” takes us out of what the psychiatrist Dr William Glasser called “the comparing place”. Such gladness removes us from “that small-minded, bitter resentment at other people’s good fortune”.

The concept of mudita is replicated in the Herbrew term Firgun but, curiously, there is no one-word equivalent in English.

That’s not to say the idea has lacked support down the ages, and one of its greatest advocates was an Irishman, Richard Chenevix Trench (1807-1886). A former Anglican archbishop of Dublin, Trench helped to found Alexandra College in Milltown on the city’s southside but is better known as the instigator of the Oxford English Dictionary. He is also credited with introducing the word schadenfreude in English writing in 1853 with the purpose of excoriating what he described as “a mournful record of the strange wickednesses…of man”.

In a tract originally addressed to trainee priests, he said “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”, describing the very existence of schadenfreude as “a linguistic token of sin”.

Another Irish writer – the feminist and animal rights activist Frances Power Cobbe (1822-1904) – is also frequently cited in discussions of schadenfreude. She likened it to the kind of pleasure sadists get from torturing small creatures.

It is no coincidence that Schopenhauer was a great defender of animal rights: empathetic joy in the lives of others may be closely related to love of nature as a whole.

So can human beings generally – and Irish football fans particularly – replace schadenfreude with “empathetic joy” over time?

Any student of character, be they Buddhist, Aristotelean or Roy Keanesian, will tell you that human habit will only change with repeated practice. The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius had a policy of getting up early every morning and declaring that he would “embrace everything” that occurs with equanimity and a generous heart.

Try that for the next 16 months or so as, indisputably, this English team will have a strong chance in the 2022 World Cup. Learning to be happy for the old enemy, should football eventually be “coming home”, is not unimaginable.

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