Envy and grace.
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."
There is a dual aspect to envy that makes sense. Others' unhappiness is one's own happiness and, conversely, others' achievements are one's own diminishment. Kant goes on to say that envy (along with malice and ingratitude) is a vice that is "devilish." (2) He says this because with envy we have a "direct inclination to evil" that causes us to become inhuman. (3) Kant tells the story of the rich Dutch merchant who coveted tulips: "A rich merchant, who had one of the finest and rarest specimens, heard that another had a similar specimen. He thereupon bought it from him for 2,000 florins and trampled it underfoot, saying that he had no use for it, as he already possessed a specimen, and that he only wished that no one else should share that distinction with him. So it is also in the matter of happiness." (4)
Think of Shakespeare's Iago, who detests Othello for his excellence and leads him to suspect his beloved Desdemona of infidelity and duplicity to the point of wringing the life from her by his own hands. Melville's story of John Claggart's hatred of Billy Budd is similar; or consider Henry James's terrible study in envy, Madame Merle, who fueled by her bored, dissipated, and disappointing life, arranges the disastrous match of the energetic, attractive Isabel Archer to the impotent, pseudointellectual Gilbert Osmond, only to observe Osmond suck the life out of her. In all these cases we see that what is willed is the cruel, direct destruction of some good or person.
Thomas Aquinas quotes John Damascene who defines envy as "discontent with another's good." He says that envy is a "sadness" when "we regard the good of others as lessening our own status and prestige." Aquinas continues, "But being saddened by another's good precisely because it surpasses our own is envy and is always wrong, because we are being sad about what should give joy, our fellowman's good fortune. Envy is fatal of its nature, opposed by definition to God's love which is our spiritual life. ... Love of charity rejoices in the good of our fellowmen, but envy is despondent." (5)
Envy's nature should be clearer now. But I wish to shift the focus of our attention.
It's important to note that I was powerless to overcome this vice. I still am, but I want to turn to an experience that helped me to imagine overcoming this deadly sin, and even take a few halting steps in that direction. Here is what I wrote of an experience I had nearly three years ago:
Tonight, while taking a shower, it was revealed to me for one shining moment what it would be like to be free from the poison of envy that has so scarred my thoughts and days for so long. It was an enormously freeing thought and feeling. It was like realizing and feeling that the burden could be put down, that it no longer had to be carried by me. Very liberating. It seems that God can set us on our way, can show us the path if we're not strong enough to find it or have so lost our way that the true path doesn't even seem like an option. But God is so gentle with us, so subtle. I'm somewhat bewildered by this because I didn't know that I could feel free or freed up by letting go of envy. I've clung to it for so many years believing that it was necessary to my happiness. I'm also bewildered because it feels like God has shown me this and I've struggled with this for so many years, helplessly, and I was shown, effortlessly, what it would feel like to drop the whole thing and be released from it. I still feel that I must move forward on this but I have a glimmer of hope that I can move forward because I've been shown how freeing it can be to let go of it.
It's difficult to clarify this experience. As I recall now it seems to have come out of the blue. It was an emotion I felt, an inrushing of pure joy, but it was not the "bare," nonsignifying experience of it. It was joy with cognitive content, joy pertaining to this problem of envy. I'm not sure whether the joy was the cause of the freedom I felt or whether the sense of freedom was the basis of the joy. They were both present but I can't say which is the cause and which the effect. It was a kind of informational infusion of pure delight. The feeling that the whole sorry business could be let go, that it was all so hilariously unnecessary to keep clinging to these chains only increased my elation. It was an experience of God's grace, disclosing what it would be like to be delivered from this cramp in my soul. This grace was an opening, a passage, a possibility--there was no coercion. I was free to accept, reject, or neglect the offer. There was no overtaking or branding. Sometimes, I wish there was--"Batter my heart, three-person'd God"--says John Donne. But this doesn't seem to be God's way. Recall that Aquinas said that the wrong of envy is its violation of God's love in that the envious person feels sorrow, not joy, toward another's good.
There are certain themes here that directly relate to the philosopher Gabriel Marcel's discussion of admiration:
Not so long ago a dramatist affirmed during an interview that admiration was for him a humiliating state which he resisted with all his force. This affirmation may seem grotesque, but I am afraid that it embodies a state of mind which is becoming more widespread. There is hardly anything which is more characteristic of our present state of degradation than the tendency to view with suspicion any acknowledged mark of superiority. ... There is a burning preoccupation with self at the bottom of this suspicion, a "but what about me, what becomes of me in that case?" Admiration, insofar as it may be rendered in the form of a judgment, however, is precisely the affirmation of a superiority which is not relative but absolute; absolute, I repeat; the word incomparable has a clearly distinct meaning in this context. ... To affirm: admiration is a humiliating state, is the same as to treat the subject as a power existing for itself and taking itself as a center. To proclaim on the other hand, that it is an exalted state is to start from the inverse notion that the proper function of the subject is to emerge from itself and realize itself primarily in the gift of oneself and in the various forms of creativity. (6)
The envious person struggles with admiration because, as Marcel sees it, he exists for himself, is closed off from, unavailable to another (Marcel's indisponible). The presupposition of admiration is we are not our own but are for each other and are diminished when we refuse to rejoice in each other's good. Marcel's careful exploration of the significance of admiration shows that it is the spiritual opposite of envy. Indeed, one of the things that I found so liberating about the grace that came to me was that I imagined how refreshing it would be to admire all the people, all those years, whose achievements I saw as diminishing my own and my person. It was wonderful to imagine, to feel the release of admiring them freely without the sense of it having to reflect negatively on me.
A theological dimension is never far from the trajectory of Marcel's thought. The refusal to acknowledge another human person's superiority, to view it as a kind of humiliation, is poor practice when it comes to acknowledging God's superiority, which is absolute and ineradicably so. It's not hard to see that envy is closely allied to the other "capital" sin of pride. Pride as a healthy sense of one's own goodness, worth, and dignity is hardly a sin. But there are other kinds of pride that are damnable. One sort of sinful pride is that which consists in a vehement refusal to acknowledge God as God, wherein the ego sets itself up as a new center and arbiter of value. Here, one views oneself as a new kind of freedom and destiny. Consider Nietzsche's rejoicing (though it cost him dearly) at the "death of God." In his book The Gay Science: Book V there is an installment titled, "The background of our cheerfulness." Here, the source of his cheerfulness is "the greatest recent event--that 'God is dead,' that the belief in the Christian God has ceased to be believable." For almost everyone else, he says, this news will be greeted with dismay and deep depression. But "for the few"--by which he seems to mean for those elect, like him, who can bear up under the weight of God's death, who deliriously affirm the sweetness of earth over against the pale promises of heaven--Nietzsche proudly declares this news is
rather like a new, scarcely describable kind of light, happiness, relief, exhilaration, encouragement, dawn. ... [At this news] our heart overflows with gratitude, amazement, anticipation, expectation. At last the horizon appears free again to us, even granted that it is not bright; at last our ships may venture out again, venture out to face any danger; all the daring of the lover of knowledge is permitted again; the sea, our sea, lies open again; perhaps there has never yet been such an "open sea." (7)
Of course, Nietzsche's brand of pride is only one sort of many but it is at the root of a host of others because it is, fundamentally, a defiant stance toward God's sovereignty. Nietzsche views God as the eternal negation of his freedom and his being. Note, above, how he views God's death as the joyful presentiment that the sea may, finally, be ours. At long last, he seems to be saying, the transcendent interferer is out of the picture. Let the festival of Earth begin! He will not acknowledge God much less admire God as the Eternal Wellspring of his and all creation's being. Nietzsche wants to affirm, "I am my own; Not Thou but I am who am." Nietzsche's virulent antitheism may be rooted in his inability or refusal to admire God based upon God's ineradicable superiority. Nietzsche, a superior man in his own right, could, perhaps, only view God's incomparable superiority as a kind of humiliation. In short, his envy fueled his pride, and his pride rose up to kill the source of his humiliation. Envy may have serious spiritual consequences.
Perhaps what Nietzsche required (and not a few of us also require) was the virtue of humility. Of course, for Nietzsche, this suggestion can only come as "bad air" from a "dark workshop," to use Nietzsche's phrase from Genealogy of Morals. But what I mean by humility may be different from what he took it to be. I don't intend self-humiliation or a self-dramatizing groveling in one's worthlessness. We are made in the image and likeness of God and part of what it means to be humble is to assent to our creaturely status. As a wonderful (and humble) priest of my boyhood Fr. George Thompson once said, "Humility is knowing your place and taking it." False humility feigns that your place is not really yours. Dietrich von Hildebrand has some helpful things to say about humility. After diagnosing many forms of pride, he discusses the virtue of humility in connection to God:
Humility calls upon us to allow our hearts to be wounded by the glory of God, to fall on our knees in loving adoration, and to deliver ourselves over to God entirely. We must display that pure response in which our center of gravity is thus transferred from ourselves to God so that His glory taken in itself, without any reference to His benevolence toward us, becomes for us a source of precious joy: "My God and my all," said St. Francis of Assissi. (8)
Humility is the opposite of the destructive sort of pride we diagnosed in Nietzsche. God's existence is not the source of oppression but an invitation to celebrate in God and rejoice in one's limited but real share in the existence God bestows. Von Hildebrand says, "He who has true humility is not oppressed and cast down by the knowledge that God is everything and he nothing; no, his awareness of the glory of God carries him in a state of bliss over the precipice of his nothingness and his obscurity. He wills that God shall be everything and he nothing; past all oppression and despair, he is filled with a holy longing for God." (9) Certainly inconsistent with Nietzsche's depiction of the Christian character type as weak, repressed, and vengeful is von Hildebrand's claim that the central Christian virtue of humility contains an element of "holy audacity":
Our jubilant assent to our own insignificance, our heroic abandonment of all self-glorification, our relinquishment of self in following Christ--all this is incompatible with tepid mediocrity and cautious smugness. Humility is the opposite, not only of all malicious pride but of all forms of self-centered mediocrity, such as emphasis on petty pleasures or honors, any kind of slavery to conventions, any attachment of importance to unimportant concerns, any cowardice, any bourgeois complacency. ... Humility implies a heavenward aspiration that carries with it a breath of greatness and holy audacity. The total relinquishment of self, the blissful dying away of the ego--this means an ultimate jubilant freedom; an unthwarted subsistence in truth. (10)
Though Nietzsche would have rejected the spiritual basis of the character von Hildebrand portrays, he certainly would have admired the strengths he lists. The virtues of the paragraph above are often mentioned by Nietzsche in connection with his ideal type, the overman. (11) Interestingly, the mediocrity, pettiness, and complacency that Nietzsche sees as central to his account of Christian values are the very vices, according to von Hildebrand, that the Christian virtue of humility delivers us from. For Nietzsche, humility could never be the basis of the sort of bold, free, and dignified personality whom von Hildebrand paints. Humility can only be a kind of self-mutilation of the strong, or for the weak, a vengeful mask. In the end, these are rival versions of the meaning of this virtue, irreconcilable accounts.
Sadly, I still struggle with envy. Old habits die hard. God's grace hasn't been, for me, a silver bullet. I'm not ready to receive all that God has already given. But, perhaps, as God and I make me more adequate, I shall come closer to the freedom and joy of which I was given a foretaste. More holy audacity!
(1.) Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics, trans. Louis Infield (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), 219.
(4.) Ibid., 223.
(5.) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae: A Concise Translation, ed. and trans. Timothy McDermott (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, Inc., 1989), 365-66.
(6.) Gabriel Marcel, Creative Fidelity, trans. Robert Rosthal (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1964), 48-49.
(7.) Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, ed. and trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Viking Press, 1954), 447-48.
(8.) Dietrich von Hildebrand, Humility, from Transformation in Christ (Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 1997), 30-32.
(9.) Ibid., 35.
(10.) Ibid., 54-55.
(11.) See The Portable Nietzsche, third part of Thus Spoke Zarathustra. There are numerous references to the notion of the overman in many of Nietzsche's other works.
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|Author:||Aultman-Moore, Lloyd W.J.|
|Publication:||Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2008|
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