Faith Formation Seminar, Bishop’s House, 1 February 2014

Today we leave Evagrius’ 8 thoughts and follow instead Pope Gregory the Great (+604). It was he who first listed envy among the seven deadly or capital sins.

It is worth looking at envy.

There is something distinctly nasty about it. It is a real presence in human life. It affects us as individuals and in society. It is very destructive. ‘There is no more damaging vice implanted in the human soul than envy’ (St Basil the Great, +379).

Names for Envy

English envy, French envie, Italian invidia, Spanish envidia all go back to the Latin invidia from the verb invideo: to look at closely and maliciously, to cast an evil eye upon. So it is a kind of distorted malicious looking.

Another Latin word is livor, from liveo, to be of a black or bluish or leaden colour. So there is something off-colour to envy.

German Neid from Middle High German Nid, meaning hatred, anger, resentment.

Greek phthonos from the verb phthio: to perish or waste away. Does this imply that to be envious is to diminish oneself, to waste away in that sense?

Buddhists speak of irshya, which is roughly equivalent to our envy or jealousy. It is regarded as a fetter, a poison, an unwholesome mental factor.

The Concept of Envy

The classic definition, going back to Plato and Aristotle and found in the CCC (2553) is ‘sadness at another’s good’.


‘A feeling of sadness, irritation or hatred which animates us against someone possessing a good thing we don’t have’ (Robert).

‘The feeling of mortification or ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of superior advantages possessed by another.’

‘A reluctance to see our own well-being overshadowed by that of others’ (Kant).

Someone appears to have what I don’t – perhaps material things or human qualities, all the way from the most superficial to the most spiritual – and this, for some reason, wounds me, pains me. It arouses in me ‘an almost frantic sense of emptiness’ (Nelson W. Aldrich, Jnr). It makes me sad, bitter and even angry. I begin to hate the person who has what I don’t and to wish them ill. I want to deprive them of this ‘good’. So I begin to run them down, to denigrate their good qualities. I resent them being praised and will always try to qualify or contradict any praise I may hear, e.g. by sarcasm. Envy is ‘a hidden snake-bite’ (John Cassian). If something bad befalls them, I am secretly relieved, positively pleased. If they flourish, my envy intensifies. So ‘from envy are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbour and displeasure caused by his prosperity’ (St Gregory the Great).

Here’s an interesting remark of a monk who writes crime novels: ‘In Soul Murder I have suggested that some of the most egregious cases of sexual predation, especially in respect of younger or otherwise vulnerable people, are not motivated so much by lust or even by the allure of money…but by envy, by the cruel use of power to destroy innocence, to deflower, to deprave, to humiliate, to drag somebody down to one’s own level. This is indeed the very definition of soul murder’ (Andrew Nugent).

The worst, indeed fatal, kind of envy is that of my neighbour’s spiritual well-being. To be sad at one’s fellow human being’s progress in virtue brings one perilously close to the famous ‘sin against the Holy Spirit’.

From the point of view of social biology, envy would seem to have to do not with one’s personal physical survival or the transmission of one’s genes or with territory, but with one’s social standing (one’s place in the tribe). Its focus is esteem / status. One is envious of someone who has this more than oneself.

Two Questions

Is there a difference between envy and jealousy? In common speech, often not. But there is a distinction. We’re jealous when we lose or fear losing something we have and feel is ours to someone else. The classic case is in love: we are jealous of the third party if they ‘steal’ our loved one. We’re envious because someone has something else we don’t have.

Jealousy relates to good things which cannot be shared between many, but envy appears to be wider and embrace communicable goods as well.

If gluttony is our physical appetite out of control, lust our sexual appetite, is there similarly a good thing of which envy is a distortion? One could suggest emulation. When we see someone else developing their gifts or being successful, we are naturally stimulated to do the same. There is a kind of healthy competitiveness, of which envy is a caricature or perversion.

Features of Envy

It is a painful emotion. It’s the only passion unaccompanied by pleasure (Plato). It is a punishing of ourselves – for being inferior to others. It’s being lacerated or ulcerated by the qualities of others. It can become a constant saga of self-torture. ‘Is someone brave and vigorous? This is a blow to the envious man. Is someone better-looking than he is? Another blow. Does so-and-so possess superior mental endowments? Are they looked up to and emulated because of their wisdom and eloquence?… All these blessings are so many blows and wounds piercing the envious man to the very core’ (St Basil the Great).

It’s so unpleasant and demeaning an emotion that we tend not to acknowledge it. We lock it up inside. We neither speak of it to others nor see it in ourselves.

It is one of the most potent causes of unhappiness (Bertrand Russell). It is indeed very powerful. It can get hold of us in a deep way. It can distort or disfigure us. It can become pathological. Proverbially (in the English-speaking world, in Polish also), it turns us green, i.e. can change our complexion.

If we nurse it, feed it, give into it, make it part of ourselves (not just experience it as passing emotion), it is indeed a sin, and ‘when it wishes grave harm to a neighbour it is a mortal sin’ (CCC 2539).

Marc Chagall (1887-1985), the Russo-French Jewish artist, has a powerful etching of Envy (1925). It shows a headless man, surrounded by pairs of scissors and the torsos of those he has cut down to size.

In the Purgatorio of Dante (+ 1321), the envious have their eyes sown shut by leaden wire and are totally dependent on others for compassion. They cannot see the sun of goodness. Their punishment reveals their state.

It is not a purely private thing. It can affect social and political life. There is a lot of it about! Nations or social or ethnic groups can be gripped by envy. It has been said that what fuels Islamist terrorism is a mixture of contempt for and envy of Western society. So was envy behind the destruction of the Twin Towers? It certainly provokes political rivalries and factions. It can enter the Church and Christian communities too.

It’s most likely to arise among people who are close to each other, eg among a tight-knit group of fellow-professionals.  St Benedict warns the abbot against envy of his prior (RB 65). ‘As a pragmatic fact, there is much envy in ecclesiastical and religious circles – as also in the academic world…Just think of the novels of C. P. Snow’ (Andrew Nugent OSB). Also in artistic milieus. This confirms the point above about ‘place in the tribe’.

It is ‘the base emotion of base people’ (Aristotle). On the one hand, the ambitious or vain-glorious are liable to this vice, and on the other the faint-hearted, the depressed, the timid. It can springs, then, from pride or from low self-esteem, an unawareness of one’s own gifts.

It is a particularly tragic form of egoism, of a self-referential outlook. It is a symptom of a certain narcissism. ‘Envy is directly opposed to charity’ (Ambrose Autpert, +784). Perhaps its deepest root is the fallacy that I can only be myself in spite of or against others. It sees the other as rival, and therefore does not truly see him at all: it is in-vidia, sight-less.

It is contrary to the 10th Commandment.

It is ‘the diabolical sin’ (St Augustine).

Envy in the Bible

It is prominent in the Bible.

‘Through the devil’s envy, death entered the world’ (Wisdom 2:24). ‘This was interpreted by some of the Fathers of the Church to mean that the demons were envious of humankind’s vocation to become divine, as adopted children of God. So they became the sworn enemies of every human person – seeking by temptation to wreak soul-murder on a massive scale’ (A. Nugent).

The devils ‘first disciple’ (St Basil) was therefore Cain, jealous of the divine approval given his brother’s offering, and murdering him in consequence (Gen 4).

Other great tales of envy or jealousy are Sarah’s envy of Hagar (Gen 16), the envy of Joseph’s brothers (Gen 37), Saul’s jealousy of David (esp 1 Sam 18:6-11), Ahab’s envy of Naboth and his vineyard (1 Kings 21).

It was ‘out of envy’ that the chief priests handed Jesus over to Pontius Pilate (Mk 15:10). Jesus was thus a victim of envy. And later Jews were jealous / envious of the success of early Christian preaching (Acts 5:17; 17:5).

Envy appears in the New Testament’s lists of vices, often associated with evil / malice and strife / contention. For St Paul it is a sign of a Christian still being ‘in the flesh’ (cf. 1 Cor 3:3; Gal 5:21). It is contrary to life in the Spirit (Gal 5:26). For St Peter, envy is something to ‘be put away’ (1 Pet 2:1) by the new-born Christian. For St James, it causes rifts and ructions in the community (Jas 3:13ff).

The Healing of Envy

According to John Cassian (+435), envy is ‘worse than all faults and harder to get rid of’.

But there is hope. There is redemption. There are strategies.

The first is to recognise it at work in oneself, to ‘name’ it, not to delude oneself.

Envy also calls us to correct our scale of values. Many of the things which arouse our envy are less than ultimate. They are ‘second-order’ goods. They are not worth the emotional bother of envy.

It is also good to develop a reasonable awareness of one’s own gifts. One isn’t bereft. At the same time, humility or acceptance can kick in. I have my own place in the whole, in the universe, in the Body of Christ, and I can be content with that. It is where and what God wants me to be. Envy can then fade away; it would again be a waste of energy. I will not feel threatened in my ‘place’ by someone else being in theirs. Another way of putting this: the remedy is a sense of personal vocation.

The great antidote, though, seems to be humanity, generosity, kindness, mercy, charity, brotherly love. ‘Confronted by outstanding merit in another, there is no way of saving one’s ego except by love’ (Goethe +1832). ‘Envy represents a form of sadness and therefore a refusal of charity; the baptized person should struggle against it by exercising good will’ (CCC 2540).  ‘The remedy for envy is brotherly love and doing good and, where the power to act is lacking, goodwill. So much strength have love and goodwill in their working that they make another’s good our good as well. Only love his good and be well pleased and glad of it, and so you turn it to you and make it your own’ (Ancrene Riwle, early 13th c). ‘Would you like to see God glorified by you? Then rejoice in your brother’s progress and you will immediately give glory to God’ (St John Chrysostom). A warm-hearted recognition of the good qualities of others heals our own hearts. A habit of appreciation and praise. This is an opening of the eyes to the beauty of God’s creation.

Three of the early Christian writers most remembered for their writings against envy are also remembered for their passion for brotherhood and unity – Pope Clement I, St Cyprian of Carthage, St Basil.

The great healing truth to be contemplated here is that of the Communion of Saints (E. Ranwez). Here everyone has his or her place. There is no one who is homeless or uncherished, and the ‘little’ are as vital to the whole as the ‘great’. Here there is no longer ‘yours’ and ‘mine’. ‘Since all the faithful form one body, the good of each is communicated to the others’ (St Thomas Aquinas). Supernatural solidarity reigns. In a united family, when one member achieves something good, it’s as if all do. The joy of the honour is shared. In the family of Christ, this is still more true. Here ‘none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself’ (Rom 14:7). ‘If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together’ (1 Cor 12:27). Here, each of us, whatever our various talents, receive the one and same Christ, the whole Christ, in the Eucharist and together become one body with him. It’s a pointer to heaven.

‘If someone wishes to be freed of the disease of envy, let him love that [heavenly] inheritance which is not diminished by the number of those who inherit it, which is given as one to all and fully to each, and which is shown to expand in the measure that the number of those who receive it increases’ (St Gregory the Great).

A final word

Let me end with Pope Francis: ‘How many wars take place within the people of God and in our different communities! In our neighbourhoods and workplaces, how many wars are caused by envy and jealousy, even among Christians! Spiritual worldliness leads some Christians to war with other Christians who stand in the way of their own quest for power, prestige, pleasure and economic security…

‘Our world is being torn apart by wars and violence, and wounded by a widespread individualism which divides human beings, setting them against one another as they pursue their own well-being. In various countries, conflicts and old divisions from the past are re-emerging. I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). This was Jesus’ heartfelt prayer to the Father: “That they may all be one… in us… so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21). Beware of the temptation of jealousy! We are all in the same boat and headed to the same port! Let us ask for the grace to rejoice in the gifts of each, which belong to all.

‘Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of fraternal love!’ (Evangelii Gaudium 98, 99, 101).

Cf. Cyprian of Carthage, On Envy and Jealousy, Basil the Great, Homily on Envy, Gregory the Great, Moralia, Thomas Aquinas, ST 2-2 36, Dante, Purgatorio, Cantos 13-15.


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