There is a persistent folk belief among Mediterranean peoples that envy is an almost palpable kind of malign force in the world. Envy appears when good fortune befalls someone. It was believed to be so strong that folk strategies appeared to ward off its power. In rural Greece or Italy, it was considered bad form or even dangerous to praise the beauty of a baby lest “envy” snatch it away. Many homes would post an effigy of an all-seeing eye “to keep envy away.”
Envy, in that sense, was a destructive force very different from what we mean when we use the term today. We might admit to envying a neighbor’s new Lexus or express envy at the good luck of someone who won the lottery. Those uses, typically, are casual, conversational and harmless. They are more akin to simple jealousy than venomous envy.
Why, then, did Pope Gregory the Great slip envy into his list of the seven deadly sins? Why did he see it as part of a chain springing from pride, the mother lode of sins? Why did Church fathers, who thought deeply about envy at a time when people took the capital sins more seriously than they may today, see in it something destructive to one’s humanity? A clue may be found in an observation of Thomas Aquinas. He describes envy as sadness (tristitia) at the goods possessed by another. The kind of sadness embedded in the Latin word tristitia carries with it a complex tone of suppressed rage, melancholy and festering resentment.
In The Divine Comedy, Dante likens envy to a kind of blindness. Those who walked on the path up the mount of Purgatory had their eyes stitched shut to pay for casting an envious eye on others during their lifetime. Thus, to make the punishment fit the crime, the envious had to have their sense of sight and their hearts purged.
Let us consider how this blindness or sadness operates within a person. At the success of another, one may harbor an inner sense of grievance, a certain self-pity, resentment and a feeling of superiority. This envy may simply reside within the self, mixed with a smoldering sense of anger, or it may become a goad to action. Let us consider each case in turn.
To internalize envy is rather like internalizing resentment. Only the envious person is aware of the envy. The person envied may go on about life totally oblivious to the fact that he or she is the object of such a powerful negative emotion. The envious one falls into a pattern of constant comparison, adding up real or imagined slights. Interactions with others become self-conscious, suspect, calculated and full of second-guessing. This brooding only stokes envy further, bringing with it more sourness, unhappiness and emotional turmoil. Envy easily turns into hatred, and when the person envied makes a gesture of kindness, it only fuels the feeling of envy (“Who does he think he is?” “What does he really mean by saying that?”).
Envy takes a more ominous turn when the perpetrator feels compelled to lash out at the object of his envy. Literature and life are filled with examples, some of them murderous, of those who allow their sense of resentment and envy to spill over into strategies and plots to bring down the other. The textbook example is the scheming Iago, who drives the noble Othello to a tragic end. Hypocritically, Iago warns Othello against the “green-eyed monster” of jealousy, by which Shakespeare obviously meant envy. The phrase “green-eyed,” in the Bard’s vocabulary meant sickliness, which speaks to how draining and all-consuming it can be for a person to be caught up in the cycle of envy.
One does not need to consult Shakespeare, however, to find such models of simple jealousy turned to sinful envy. My suspicion is that in every institution—business, university, church—one can find daily examples of those who thwart the good works or reputation of others by seemingly innocent passivity or through active sabotage. An envious person may bad-mouth a colleague, “accidentally” reveal a secret or undermine a co-worker by failing to complete his part of a joint project in a timely manner.
Something else is connected to envy and it goes by various names. The envious person is inordinately delighted at the bad fortune of others. The Germans call this Schadenfreude, while the old moral theology texts called it “morose delectation.” To delight in the misfortune of others is an obstacle to kindness and benevolence. For example, in the Purgatorio, Dante describes a woman who is so delighted in the downfall of her fellow citizens that she rejoices at the death of her own nephew. Thus the power of envy can marginalize or destroy the capacity for generosity of spirit.
While we separate envy as a distinct vice, it is clear that in life, envy is usually bound up with or leads to a whole complex of unhealthy human impulses. Envy is not unconnected to pride—over-estimation of one’s own worth—and is certainly not free from avarice or anger. The early monks often listed envy as part of a catalog of ills pouring from a disordered life. These dissatisfactions can be the equivalent of emotional gnats that flit about in our life now and again. But when they are allowed free rein, envy and its allies can become consuming and destructive of one’s humanity. The envious person not only poisons his own life but, given the chance, will allow that poison to seep out and harm others.
It is one thing to describe envy but it is quite another to prescribe antidotes to its presence in our lives. While there may not be a sure purgative for envy, the ingredients that would go into such a spiritual medicine would include a more wholesome appreciation of one’s own limits and capabilities, the cultivation of a more generous attitude towards others, the discipline of showing gratitude, and a greater sense of proportion about what ultimately matters in life.
Perhaps the most practical antidote to envy is largeness of heart. It is common in our religious tradition to say that generous, self-giving love is the highest form of love. To give to the other out of sheer love leaves no room for envy to seethe within us. That is why, in the end, faith and hope will disappear when we are united with God in heaven, but pure love will remain forever.
—Lawrence S. Cunningham is O’Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Additional reflections in this series on the seven deadly sins: