Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Envy and Grace

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Envy and Grace

Article excerpt

Envy is ugly. It's an inner constriction and contraction of the human spirit. In its effects, it is a malicious withholding of what is, rightfully, due another. The medievals classed sins as "warm" or "cold." Thus, lust, as one might have guessed, is placed among the warm. It seems that sins connected to one's bodily being are, generally, so classed. Interestingly, sins in the warm category are not viewed as seriously by the medievals as are sins in the cold category. Recall that Paolo and Francesca, who had sex outside of wedlock, are placed by Dante at the very upper level of Hell while sowers of discord, hypocrites, and the like have their place much lower in his Inferno. Envy, an affliction of the mind and spirit, is in the cold category. Lust may not be rooted in genuine love but, at least, it wishes well to another at some level. Envy would contemplate with pleasure the thwarting or even destruction of another. I don't know when, exactly, envy began to sink its icy talons into me, but I believe it began when I decided to become an academic. Academics are prone to compare themselves to each other and to constantly assess their worth (academic and otherwise) by sizing up the competition in terms of scholarly achievement, publications, institutional prestige, and so forth. We tend to keep a close eye on each other. Or, at least, I do.

Traditionally, envy is one of the "seven deadly sins," but it's often confused with jealousy, which is not nearly as ugly. Jealousy is a desire to get what another has or to measure up to another's achievement. The root of the word jealousy goes back to the Latin zelosus and to the Greek zelos of which our English word "zeal" is a cognate. It is a "positive" vice in that it spurs one on to achieve what another has. Envy is purely negative. It is the experience of pain at another's achievement or success, accompanied not by zeal to also achieve or measure up but by the malicious desire to deprive the other of the good he or she has. It may be a stab of pain upon hearing of another's success and the wish that he or she had not achieved it. Why this reaction? My experience is that the other's success makes me feel insecure, as if what I've achieved has been belittled in my eyes and in the eyes of others, and I find that lessening a humiliation. Another's achievement should call forth my joy and admiration, but I can experience it as a threat. I don't feel this with the achievements of my children or my wife, and I don't feel it all the time. Most often, envy is evoked in me by the achievements of other academics or by someone who has been egregiously successful and happy.

The root of the word envy is in the Latin invidia, which is related to invidere, "to look upon with malice." Though it may not be etymologically related to the Latin word, the Greek word phthonein, "to begrudge," is certainly related to the essential nature of envy. The Greeks certainly knew about this phenomenon. The Homeric gods and those of tragic drama constantly begrudge humans raising their heads too high. Swift punishment comes to those who try it. Plato, in his bold challenge to Homeric theology, says in his dialogue Timaeus that the god who framed the universe is good and, as such, is aphthonos, that is, "free from begrudging." This is the charter for a new kind of divinity.

"The envious man," as the eighteenth-century thinker Immanuel Kant once put it, "does not merely want to be happy; he wants to be the only happy person in the world; he is really contented only when he sees nothing but misery around him. Such an intolerable creature would gladly destroy every source of joy and happiness in the world." (1) The envious person, then, begrudges others their happiness or, in vampire fashion, feeds off of their unhappiness for his own happiness. Gore Vidal nicely captures this begrudging aspect of envy, "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies. …

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