Saturday, April 26, 2014

Envy (the Vice Devoid of Pleasure)

~~  "An envious man waxeth lean with the fatness of his neighbors. Envy is the daughter of pride, the author of murder and revenge, the beginner of secret sedition and the perpetual tormentor of virtue. Envy is the filthy slime of the soul; a venom, a poison, or quicksilver which consumeth the flesh and drieth up the marrow of the bones."  --Socrates  ~~

Well, that opening quotation is full enough to be an essay in itself.  Pithy and brief, it does capture the essence of Envy.  The deeper I've looked into and thought about this one, the more I realize (yet again) how many ways there are for us frail humans to descend into habits and behaviors that are destructive to us and hurtful to others-- most especially God.

Just to avoid confusion, let's first draw a distinction between Envy and Covetousness (Avarice/Greed).  Simply put, Covetousness focuses on things (gold, land, cars, etc.), while Envy focuses on people.  Envy is what makes me sad because you have something-- which I may or may not actually want, but I definitely do not want you to have it.  That train of thought, once pulled out of the station, is heading for perilous places, as we'll discuss forthwith.

A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.  -Proverbs 14: 30

By the way, while some people conflate Envy with Jealousy, I see them as close-but-not-so-close-after-all (they are called out separately in the listing of the "deeds of the flesh" in Galatians 5: 19-21).  Jealousy, to me, is really about not wanting to lose something that I already have (or think I have), and often involves matters of romance.  While Jealousy can certainly be destructive ("For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice." -James 3: 16), I think it is usually less so than Envy.  Furthermore, in some ways-- depending upon one's exact definition of it-- Jealousy can be a positive force.  Aristotle distinguished the two by saying Jealousy is reasonable since through it, a person can make himself get "good things;" while Envy would not want his neighbor to have those good things.

~~  "Jealousy is in a manner just and reasonable, as it tends to preserve a good which belongs, or which we believe belongs to us. Envy, on the other hand, is a fury that cannot endure the happiness of others."  --François de La Rochefoucauld  ~~

Envy is from the Latin "invidia," which means "to look against or at in a hostile manner."  It has been called the "side-long glance" that we cast at others whom we think are better off in some way than we are.  It can bring us to feelings such as "God is not fair because He has given others what He has not given me."  As we'll discuss, Envy leads to bad things, and always has.  Genesis (chapter 4)  shows the results of Cain's side-long glance... all the evil that came from that.

Envy "loves" what other people possess, instead of loving what is Good, Beautiful and True. It eats away the heart of the envious person.  In his "Inferno," Dante presents the envious as among those farthest away from Heaven.  Their eyes are sewn shut (no side-long glances that way) as they weep over their sins.

Envy intrinsically carries an evil because it is, literally, displeasure at another person's good; and that puts it contrary to right reason and the high virtue of Charity, which rejoices in our neighbor's good.  Aristotle remarked that "the very mention of envy denotes something evil."  Envy arises from vainglory, since it is concerned with opinions and other people.  It is also, sadly, all too common in most every one of us at some point-- clearly more in some than in others.

~~  “It is in the character of very few men to honor without envy a friend who has prospered.”  --Aeschylus  ~~

Gregory the Great says Envy's "daughters" are: "hatred, tale-bearing, detraction, joy at our neighbor's misfortunes, and grief for his prosperity."  St. Augustine called Envy the "diabolical" sin, and listed its offspring as "hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbor, and displeasure caused by his prosperity.”  From these two ancient wise men and their virtually identical lists, we are now getting the notion that there is more to Envy than simply wanting something that someone else has and being upset because they have it.  Envy also often takes great delight in other people’s misfortunes, faults, and failures.  In fact, Envy is often not satisfied unless someone is hurt.  Thomas Aquinas points out that while joy at another's misfortune is not directly the same as envy, "it is a result thereof, because grief over our neighbor's good, which is Envy, gives rise to joy in his misfortune."

Now we are crossing into deeper sin, to be sure.  A German word for this is "schadenfreude," which is satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else's misfortune (the Germans have a word for everything, by the way).  The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the problem very clearly:  "Envy is a capital sin. It refers to the sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to acquire them for oneself, even unjustly. When it wishes grave harm to a neighbor it is a mortal sin."  There is no arguing with that.  Simple deduction shows the formula: we are called to love one another fully and deeply-- wanting the very best for our neighbor and never wanting bad for him-- and Envy takes us from that road and puts us on the highway to hell.

~~  “Our envy of others devours us most of all."  --Alexander Solzhenitsyn  ~~

Envy pits us against one another-- maybe more so than any other vice, because it is so personal.  St John Chrysostom saw this and said, "We fight one another, and envy arms us against one another" and we wind up "devouring one another like beasts."  If you have not read it (or don't remember it), please read Nathan's Parable in the biblical book 2 Samuel, Ch 12.  When the prophet Nathan wanted to spur King David to repentance, he told him the story about the poor man who had only one ewe lamb that he treated like his own daughter and the rich man who, despite having a great number of flocks, envied the poor man and ultimately stole his lamb.  I won't spoil the moral of the story, so please do visit it.

But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world, and they who are allied with him experience it.  -Book of Wisdom, 2: 24

Finally, let's look at the "why" of Envy.  With other sins and vices, we can at least usually see where there is some pleasure to be gained-- some desire to be satisfied.  What do we get from Envy?  Well, since every person seeks "good" (and oh, so often we are mistaken on what is and isn't a good to be sought), there must be something good we feel can be gained through Envy.  So, it may be that someone else's "good" is seen as our own "bad"... and from there comes our sorrow for the other's good.  That is, almost always, a perversion of the rational appetite, and a surrender to what St Thomas called the "irascible appetite."

Ultimately, any sin or vice that seeks a good for oneself over someone else is problematic.  It boils down to Love and Charity, as does most everything in the end.  At the heart of it is the fact that a person desires good for the one he loves, and if that one is himself, then... well, you get the picture.  While Envy may involve that "side-long glance" at others, it is really about what is going on inside.  Just as Gluttony is not about the food, and Sloth is not about the specific slothful activity, Envy is not about the other person at all.  Things have a way of always circling back to our own inner workings, eh what?

~~  “A man who as a physical being is always turned toward the outside, thinking that his happiness lies outside him, finally turns inward and discovers that the source is within him.”  --Soren Kierkegaard  ~~

Well, since we've arrived back at ourselves, let's figure out how to dispatch this Envy monster (Shakespeare's "green-eyed monster" maybe).  The obvious answer is Love.  St. Paul lays it out quite clearly for us in 1st Corinthians (13: 4): "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud."  There- problem solved.  Oh... wait.  Not so simple, after all.  Love, Love, Love... love your God, love your neighbor, love your enemy.  Where are we called to love ourselves over those others?  Nowhere- that's where.  Yet, we so often do love ourselves and put ourselves above all else.  Love is a powerful force, but it is one that can be fraught with peril when we imperfect humans attempt to wield it.  In proper alignment, Love is the answer to Envy, plain and simple.

One of Love's soldiers is pity.  When we feel pangs of pity for some wretched person's plight, that is an act of Love.  In fact, pity can be thought of as something of an opposite to Envy.  This is not to say that we should condescendingly go around pitying people all the time... that would be downright annoying and is obviously superficial and disingenuous.  I refer to true pity that comes to us naturally when we see a fellow human suffering.  It means we saw in them something we know could happen to us (back home again), and through that, we have empathy for them.  This is a good use of "personalizing" things.  We want their suffering to end because we can empathize with it and know it to be bad.  In practice, that means we love them.

Practicing simple acts of brotherly love, including pity in its proper form, can be one way to strengthen our virtue and avoid Envy.  Here is a thing I try to do that has helped me with this beast.  When I start to feel what I take to be Envy, I ask myself if this person (whom I may be glancing side-long at) has any problems or issues.  Of course he does.  In fact, even if I'm not aware of the specifics, it is quite possible that he has problems worse than any I may have.  Well, I honestly do not want people to have bad problems, so that leads my soft heart toward other, nobler feelings besides Envy.

A chief source of Envy seems to be that we feel something is not "just" or "fair."  A cure for this is to invoke the Cardinal Virtue of Justice.  Remind yourself that while you may think someone has something that you should rightfully have, the chances are that it is not "cosmic justice" that is misaligned; but rather your perception of it.  In any case, Justice calls us to look outside ourselves and be rational and reasonable.  In the face of that, Envy, which is anything but rational and reasonable, will usually shrink away in humiliation.

The bottom line for me is to realize that Envy is the one vice that really has nothing good to offer me-- not even temporary pleasure in any real sense.  That should make it one of the easier ones to get past-- with some good spiritual elbow grease, that is.  Love and Charity in all things, good people... that is how we get to where we all want and need to be.

Let us not be made desirous of vainglory, provoking one another, envying one another. -Galatians 5: 26

God bless!


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