Envy is one of the seven capital sins. It is a root sin that produces a number of poisonous offshoots. What is envy? It is sadness at the sight of another’s goods, opportunities, talents or advantages. It is this discontent which makes us unhappy and dissatisfied with what we actually have ourselves. We can be envious over another person’s possessions such as his house, his car or his swimming pool. We can envy another’s reputation, position, opportunities and influence or accomplishments. Remember how in Peter Schaffer’s play Amadeus, the Court Composer Antonio Salieri becomes consumed with jealousy of the young upstart Mozart, envious of his far superior musical talent.
St Thomas Aquinas notes that the progress of this vice has a beginning, a middle and an end. Initially, envy itself may lurk below the surface but it soon comes out in sarcasm, in bitter comments, in nasty criticisms. When we begin to be jealous of someone, we may start quietly undermining their reputation, through gossip or detraction.
For example, your neighbour is building a new swimming pool in his garden. You start to brood on this — your garden isn’t big enough for such a large status symbol — so you start to talk about it, a little disparagingly. ‘Isn’t it rather ostentatious?’ you remark. Or you casually question how your neighbour could possibly afford it ‘in these hard times’. And before we know it, our criticism turns from the pool, which we now hate (can’t the local council put a stop to it?) and becomes focussed on the neighbour himself. At first it was the swimming pool that disturbed our rest at night, now it is the man who owns it who keeps us awake. When we hear that he has been elected President of the Golf Club, we feel sick with envy, but when we hear that his son has been expelled from his school, we can barely suppress our glee. We no longer pretend to be objective or just. We are sad when our neighbour is successful and we rejoice when things go badly for him.
The awful fruit of this vice is hate. What began as a rather silly envy of someone else’s possessions, reputation or good fortune ends as a hatred. First we hate whatever it is they have and we don’t, even though it was clearly something we wanted because it was good in itself. Yet now we have grown to loathe it. But not quite as much as the person who has that thing or else, is that person we would like to be but which we are not: rich, clever, good-looking, talented, happily married, a parent blessed with wonderful, gifted and well-mannered children and so on.
Whatever it may be, when we permit envy to gain entrance, we soon lose any sense of perspective or reality. It is desperately sad, since envy and jealousy are so utterly corrosive, eating away at the soul, destroying our ability to love, without which we find ourselves far from God. Saint Augustine saw envy as the diabolical sin. ‘From envy,’ he says, ‘are born hatred, detraction, calumny, joy caused by the misfortune of a neighbour, and displeasure caused by prosperity.’ Furthermore, ‘He that is jealous is not in love’ and therefore not in God. St Cyprian can have the last word. ‘While envy leads us to hate our neighbour for their prosperity’ (or indeed, whatever) ‘love and patience drive it out.’ Let us pray for those virtues and to be free from envy and jealousy in everything.