The Amazing And Complicated Legacy Of Spite


Spite is a close cousin of anger and resentment. It is a combination of resentment and defiance which make our lives and the lives of others miserable. Spite and the feuds it creates have a long history and some hidden benefits.

What Is Spite?

According to Dictionary:

  • a malicious, usually petty, desire to harm, annoy, frustrate, or humiliate another person; bitter ill will; malice.
  • a particular instance of such an attitude or action; grudge.
  • Obsolete. something that causes vexation; annoyance.
  • to treat with spite or malice.
  • to annoy or thwart, out of spite.
  • to fill with spite; vex; offend.

We can legitimately think of spite as an expression of anger, but is it always wrong?

Spite Examples

Mental Floss wrote an interesting article about the topic and the many ways in which frustration can play out. Here are two examples from their article: 

  1. According to a 13th-century chronicler, nuns from a monastery in Scotland literally cut off their noses to spite their faces in 870 CE. Upon hearing the news that Viking raiders were approaching, the abbess, Aebbe the Younger, told the nuns to cut off their noses and upper lips, thus making them so unattractive to the Vikings that they wouldn’t be raped. It worked—the women weren’t raped, but the Vikings instead burned the monastery to the ground with the nuns inside. —Erin McCarthy
  2. There was no love lost between William Waldorf Astor and his aunt, Caroline Schermerhorn Astor. Though they lived in neighboring mansions on Fifth Avenue in New York City, they hated each other—so much so that when William moved to England in 1890, he razed his mansion and built the 13-story-tall Waldorf Hotel, in part to irk his aunt. Caroline’s son (and William’s cousin), John Jacob Astor IV, convinced his mother to move uptown, then proceeded to knock down their mansion and built an even bigger hotel, which he called The Astoria Hotel. It was eventually combined with his cousin’s to create the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, proving that sometimes, spite pays off. (The hotel eventually moved uptown when the block it was on became the site of the Empire State Building.) —E.M. from Mental Floss, 38 Things Done Out Of Spite

Another form of spite not yet mentioned is the spite of authoritarian rule, a form of spite that functions as coercive control over members of the regime. You get a choice: compliance or spite, and it is one of the nastiest forms of spite.

What Can We Learn From Spite?

Obviously, vengefulness can harm. It can be a withholding that actually harms someone, like withholding food from hungry people. However, it can also be the fuel that spurs us on.

There is a close connection between justice and spite that seems to make a big difference. When unfairly denied, spite can thwart the thwarting by pushing us to more extraordinary accomplishments. However, sometimes when we feel vengeful, it is because we may feel jealous of someone. If we are being spiteful for that reason, we may be hiding our true desires from ourselves and even thwarting ourselves for some reason. Spite can be used punitively, but sometimes it is a balancing mechanism when faced with a more powerful force as a form of self-defense. 

There are downsides to spite.

  • It can increase alienation rather than resolve it. 
  • It can be costly for many people, including loved ones.
  • It has a negative staying power rather than a positive one. That means that anger has to be maintained over the long term, which is not healthy. Feuds can be exhausting. 

It is worth considering the role of spite in your life. In what ways have you or others in your life trotted out this challenging dynamic, and how has it affected you? Having a healthy understanding of spite, when it is useful or not, is important if you are to have a life filled with joy.

The Spite House: Photo by Nils Huenerfuerst on Unsplash

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