Soren Kierkegaard once remarked that envy was hidden and unconscious for most men. This might explain why we find the seeds of it scattered throughout our culture. There is the advertising industry for example which is built entirely on the goal to stir envy for things that we don’t really want except for the fact that other people have them. So deeply embedded is envy that it is even institutionalized in the pitting of the poor against the rich (or women against men or nearly every other class conflict) in a quasi-communistic class struggle that our liberal democracy has adopted. Therefore, it is instructive to shine a light on the havoc this vicious habit can create in our lives.
Envy has long been considered to be one of the Seven Deadly Sins, or, more aptly named Seven Capital Sins. These “sins” are called Capital sins not because they are sins per se, but because they act as motivating forces for the actual sins we commit. In short, one does not commit envy, but instead commit a sin because you are envious. Envy is like a tree that produces rotten fruit. Until we expose the roots of the tree, we will never be rid of its fruit. The tree of envy is known by its tendency to, as St. Thomas says, experience “sorrow in the face of another’s good.”
The Sorrow of Envy
While this definition is correct, it needs to be nuanced a bit so that we do not chop down the wrong tree. There is a holy envy that St. Thomas calls zeal in which we experience sorrow not because another person has something, but because we don’t. We look at some good that another person has that we know we do not have and our sorrow moves us to work zealously to obtain that good thing. In other words we grieve not because the other person has the good, but because we don’t.
Envy, on the other hand, grieves simply because the other person has that good. It has a competitive quality about it in that the other’s greatness seems to subtract from my own. This is why envy follows on the heels of pride and is the “second sin.” Lucifer committed the sin of pride and then begrudged mankind for the good that he had lost. It is by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it” (Wisdom 2:24). The first sin of man was pride, “to be like God.” The second sin was “crouching at the door” (Gn 4:7) when sadness over God’s favor toward Abel, led Cain not to “do well” but to kill his brother.
It is ultimately envy that led directly to the death of Our Lord. As Venerable Fulton Sheen articulates, “Annas was envious of His innocence; Caiaphas was envious of His popularity; Herod was envious of His moral superiority; the scribes and Pharisees were envious of His wisdom…And in order that He might no longer be person to be envied, they reputed Him with the wicked.” Envy was the cause of the death of Peter and Paul and a cause of division in the early Church. When the Corinthian community begins to form factions, Pope St. Clement sends them a letter reminding them just how deadly envy can be.
There are two reasons why envy is an especially strong temptation for us as 21st Century Americans. The first is that we are a people that is obsessed with equality. When everyone is equal in all ways, envy will seem justified and you will hardly recognize it for what it is. If we are all equal, then we must do all that we can to level the playing field.
I alluded to the second reason earlier when I mentioned about the competitive nature of envy. In a world that is mostly governed by a philosophical materialism, envy will seem like merely a recognition of the truth. If life is a zero sum game then what you have actually takes away from what I have. If I am poor it is because you are rich—you have taken more than your fair share and there is nothing left for me. But most of life is not a zero sum game, especially when it comes to spiritual goods (which tend to be the things we envy most) related to personal character.
Because envy remains somewhat hidden to us, we may only recognize it by its effects. When I see another person’s greatness somehow diminishing mine, there will always be the accompanying temptation to detract that person. Somehow dragging another person down acts as a way of raising ourselves up. If we step back and see truthfully however we will acknowledge that we can only envy those when we think better than ourselves in some way. As Pope St. Gregory says, “We witness against ourselves that the other is better” (Moralia of Job, 84). Knowing this, we should be very slow to make judgments about other people. Envy causes us to find chinks in the armor of everyone we meet looking for ways in which we are superior to them. It also explains why we often don’t like someone else, even though we cannot explain why. “There is just something about them I don’t like” usually means “there is just something about them that makes me envious.”
This tendency to misjudge another person that accompanies envy is also a good reason why we should be very slow to believe things that we hear about other people (Fulton Sheen goes so far as to say we should not believe 99% of what we hear about other people). Envy is the most common cause of gossiping and one of the reasons why we should avoid entangling ourselves in it. It is also the reason why you can’t go wrong thinking the best of another person until you have hard evidence to the contrary.
The Antidote to Envy
While the Devil essentially says to mankind, “As I envied you, so now you must envy one another,” Our Lord offers the antidote to envy, “As I have loved you, so must you love one another.” Vices can only be overcome by an opposing virtue so that envy is overwhelmed by charity. When tempted to envy, we should perform some charitable act towards that person. It can be as simple as saying a prayer for them or offering a kind word to or about them. Fasting or making some other sacrifice for that person, especially that the gift we envy might flourish, can remove any traces of envy in our hearts. Once we have skin in the game, that is invest in the person and their gifts by making a sacrifice, we cannot help but to root for them.
Dante, in the Purgatorio, offers us a second virtue to overcome envy. As he meets the envious in the Second Terrace of Purgatory, he finds them scrambling about, deprived of the gift of sight by having their eyes sewn shut with iron wire. They become like blind beggars depending upon each other to avoid falling off the Mountain. In this way they learn to rejoice in other’s goods. In being forced to depend upon each other they learn magnanimity. The magnanimous person has a “large soul” in that they can rejoice in the good of another as if it were their own. The magnanimous person is not offended by natural or even supernatural inequality, but simply rejoices in the good that is to be found.
In each of the terraces of the Mount of Purgatory, Dante also proposes a Marian example of the virtue. For envy he offers Our Lady’s intercession at the Wedding of Cana as the example. It is Our Lady’s magnanimity that causes her to see the threat to the joyful celebration and take the concern (“Woman how does your concern affect me?”) on as if it were her own. This is why the 12th Century Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once counseled “If you are tossed upon the waves of pride, of ambition, of envy, of rivalry, look to the star, call on Mary the star of the sea.”
Our Lady, Star of the Sea, pray for us.