Immoderate Desires IV: The Deadly Sin of Envy

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Envy, in our modern idiom, is treated almost as a joke, a backhanded way of celebrating our neighbor’s good fortune: “I envy you, brother.” “You got the new X-Box? ENVY!” We don’t really resent them for having it or consider ourselves lessened in worth by not possessing it. Or, if we do, that feeling is slight and easily, almost magically dismissed by acknowledgment. But Envy isn’t a joke. True Envy, or jealousy, has been the motive behind many civil torts and violent crimes throughout history. Like all the seven capital (or “deadly”) sins, Envy is a sin that drives other sins.

Defining Envy

Joseph Delaney, writing in the old Catholic Encyclopedia, defined Envy as “a sorrow which one entertains at another’s well-being because of a view that one’s own excellence is in consequence lessened.” Saint Thomas Aquinas explains, “… [Another man’s] good may be reckoned as being one’s own evil, in so far as it conduces to the lessening of one’s own good name or excellence. … [M]en are envious of those goods in which a good name consists, and about which men like to be honored and esteemed …” (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 36, A. 1, resp.).

Today, Envy takes on a broader definition, as in the Oxford Dictionary: “A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck.” The modern, secular description doesn’t contradict the older explanation but rather comprises and complements it. In both cases, we compare what we have to what our neighbor has and find ourselves lacking: I want what you have, not merely because it’s desirable but because I don’t have (enough of) it. Just as in the capital sins of Gluttony, Lust, and Avarice, Envy manifests the scarcity mindset, which sees paucity even in the midst of abundance.

If only the envious feeling were confined to believing ourselves inadequate! Then the lack of charity would only be a wound against ourselves — grievous enough, but not so far doing injury to others. But Envy prompts us to see not only inequality but also injustice: In a fair world, I would have as much as they do. Or worse: They don’t deserve to have more than I do. In its most pathological iteration: They have what properly belongs to me.

Sidebar: A Jealous God

In Exodus 20:5, God describes Himself as “jealous.” How is that possible? Does our inattention make Him feel inadequate? Does God sin in such a fashion? No and no.

At the time Moses instituted the Law, the Hebrews weren’t monotheists as such. They had worshiped other gods besides Yahweh; some would regrettably do so again in the following centuries. Only during the Babylonian exile (ca. 597 BC – 538 BC) did they become true monotheists, rejecting even the existence of other gods. God, being perfect, has no lack; so to say He wants anything is misleading. However, no creature or concept is due the supreme honor and adoration (Gr. latria) we owe the Holy Trinity, which is the point of the First Commandment and the “idols clause.”

Justice and Equality

Before the sidebar, I said that Envy sees not only inequality but injustice. But doesn’t justice imply a balance — one side equals the other? By contraposition, then, should not an imbalance or inequality imply an injustice?

This is a tricky question to answer because equal and equality are loaded terms. Equal is not synonymous with identical; for this reason, to achieve balance, justice must recognize differences, not ignore them. Put differently, while each of us possesses the same intrinsic human dignity as a child of God, not everyone is entitled to everything in equal measure. The balance of justice is that one party gives or receives equals what is due the other party; to establish justice, then, legislators must decide what differences matter, how they affect a given balance, and how an imbalance must be rectified.

For instance, some people (e.g., women, children, the disabled) require special protection from dangers that affect them more than others. Some rights or privileges must be denied other people due to public safety concerns or as part of retributive justice. Some people merit greater compensation because of their responsibilities, contributions, skills, or other considerations, while some must be provided for despite their inability to contribute anything to society. What appears to be fair when only one dimension is considered often turns out to be unfair in practice, as unconsidered dimensions come into play; for an historical example, race-segregated public facilities.

My older brother earns a very good salary as an information security executive for a mortgage lending corporation. In God’s eyes and in the eyes of the law, my brother and I are equal. Yet I have no education and little practical experience which would qualify me for a similar position. Under what concept of fair, then, could I claim entitlement to similar pay? Our current economy may be unjust to many people, but to pay everyone equally without regard to relevant differences would also be unjust.

Envy and Wealth

The above example is similar to many conservative writers cite when referring to “the politics of envy.” Yet we must not suppose that the wealthy are free from Envy. Envy and Avarice bookend each other; a poor laborer grumbles over how little his rich employer pays him, while the employer gripes over how much he must pay the laborer. Indeed, St. Thomas speaks of Envy as a spur to accomplishment (supra, ad 3); we might well believe that “keeping up with the Joneses,” given enough time and success, can eventually become “keeping up with the Hiltons.”

And even those who seemingly “have it all” may resent one whose sole prized possession is something they haven’t got.

Consider 2 Samuel 11:2-12:23: Not even as King of Israel was David entitled to sex with anyone he chose. Most certainly, he wasn’t entitled to the favors of Bathsheba, who was married to Uriah the Hittite. (Nor, in strict justice, was Bathsheba entitled to extend her favors to him, King or not.) David had plenty of wives of his own. As Nathan told him, if everything God had already given David was insufficient, He would have given more (12:8). Yet for all these gifts, David begrudged Uriah his one wife, finally compounding adultery with murder by proxy.

But just as wealth is not necessarily a product of Avarice, neither is discontent nor resentment necessarily a product of Envy. When competing claims meet, the defendant’s perception of what is due them is just as subjective and biased as is the plaintiff’s, which is why a neutral third party must be brought in to either arbitrate or adjudicate the dispute. To peremptorily dismiss claims of injustice as provoked by Envy, however, is imprudent. It wasn’t solely bitterness over the French nobles’ wealth that built the Revolutionaries’ guillotines.

Army of Envy

The example of David and Bathsheba shows that Envy isn’t solely concerned with material possessions. People also grow jealous over intangible qualities, such as intelligence, talent, or charisma. They covet others’ height, physique, sex appeal, strength, or other physical attributes. They can even wax green-eyed over other’s spiritual qualities, such as their faith, their hope, or their charity. To be in the presence of a truly, thoroughly good person for very long can be very ego-deflating, or even irritating; you want them to curse, throw a hissy fit, or tell a dirty joke just so you can feel better about yourself.

And thus arises what Pope St. Gregory the Great called Envy’s “army”: hatred, gossip, detraction, and schadenfreude (cf. Moralia in Job 31:45:88). Those who are fortunate or above average in some way bring out the leveling urge in us; we want to “cut them down to size,” to do something that negates their advantage and shows that they’re really not so great. Envy is what drives scandal rags like the National Enquirer. As fast as our culture factories put heroes up on their pedestals, our media strives to tear them back down again.

Certainly, the excessive adulation paid some celebrities and public figures verges on idolatry. Yet Envy forbids us from grudging them their positive contributions to our society. An interesting example from history is Julius Caesar: We need not believe such a divisive and pivotal figure was Virtue personified, especially not after reading Caesar’s own account of the conquest of Gaul. However, a century and a half later, the historian Suetonius suspected some of the tales he received about the dictator to be politically-motivated slanders. It’s very likely his assassins were motivated less by patriotism than by Envy.

Conclusion

Envy, then, is an offense against charity; it lacks the virtue of generosity or magnanimity which permits us to rejoice in another’s accomplishments and good fortune without feeling lessened in self-esteem by it. Without charity, justice is emptied of meaningful content; it becomes merely a synonym for vengeance. Even when that good fortune does come at a personal cost, Invidia prompts us to respond to injustice with injustice. For instance, I hold intersectionality a spiritually dangerous ideology to hold because it’s Envy formalized and dogmatized — the prejudice of the resentful impoverished versus the tainted inheritance of the privileged.

And yet, I can’t help noting that, as often as the deadly sins work hand in hand, they also work against each other. Not just Envy but all the capital sins are offenses against charity. The many problems we face as individuals and as a society stem not just from one capital sin but from all seven working in both harmony and discord. Social injustice arises from individual injustices. To create a just society, we must have the charity to clearly perceive what we owe each other. A society without personal or social obligations cannot be a just society.

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1 thought on “Immoderate Desires IV: The Deadly Sin of Envy”

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