Into the envious tangle

One of my kindest and most attentive readers writes to contest the account of Envy in my Thing column today (here). She distinguishes a venial from the deadly mortal sin, in this way:

“I am not sure that Envy is simply the inclination to feel sorry for oneself because everyone else seems to be having a better time of it. That might be mere Jealousy. I have always understood Jealousy to be the venial sin that sees the desirable thing which the other possesses and wants it. I find if I work at it, then with a little imagination (and a lot of charity) I can usually turn Jealousy into Admiration for the success of the other.

“On the other hand, I think of Envy as the mortal sin that sees the desirable thing which the other possesses and then seeks to deprive the other of it. Dante understood Envy as deadly: witness the second storey of his mountain. It is almost as if there is a negative energy in Envy that prevents me from transforming it into something positive, an energy the source of which is Hell.”

In my view, they are a continuum, and there are many venial sins like that, which act as it were like liveried footmen at the doors to Satan’s hotel. Or, I could compare what our latter-day hippies call “recreational drug use” to the full, lethal, opiate addictions. Or, cite the difference between “sounding off” in web Comments, and shrieking obscenities in the street. One does not necessarily lead to the other. The little angelic voice still within says, “You are being lured to your death, don’t go there!” Pride, self-interest, and bourgeois hygiene are still on the side of hesitation. The little demonic voice makes his last pitch: “You can always come back!”

Jealousy turns to Envy in many ways, as we search through our excuses. Let me use the example of sexual infatuation, to be very odd. Many young, and many older, too, form the (characteristically powerful, but silly) notion that they are “in love,” with someone unattainable. The hunter wants to possess the prize — in this case a human being — even steal her if necessary. The interesting thing here is that Envy is contorted — an Envy of whomever might be the rightful possessor — yet the thing to be ruined is the object itself. For Satan’s hotel (my trope for “hell on earth”) does, after all, offer a full-service brothel, and in our contemporary media phantasia, crawling with pornography, there is constant advertising for the pleasures of a false and drug-like sexual and emotional bliss, waiting to be focused on any passing “babe.”

Of course the deadly sin in this case is nominally Lust, but the psychic mechanism is often indistinguishable from that of Envy. We begin by perceiving something worth having — perhaps some sparkle of innocence and beauty — then by increments resolve to snuff it out. Jealousy was the first indication: of that desire to possess what does not and must not belong to us. This does not always end in murder, to be sure; more often only in the “spiritual equivalent” of murder. Or in our current drug-laden environment, in which virtues such as chastity are held to no account, the commonplace of constructive rape. (Or its feminine equivalent in a bold seduction.)

My point in the Thing article is that the motive of Envy is there, from the beginning; and with that the desire to destroy. Indeed our entire welfare state is built on the emotional attractions of “equality,” the moral essence of Leftism. It is true that everyone can’t be rich (in the broadest possible interpretation of that word), but on the other hand, there may be ways to bring the rich down to our level. We begin by wanting what they have; we end (as in Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, &c) by making sure that no one can have it. We’d rather starve than let them flourish.

(“Islamists” have something so similar as to be identical with the motive force of Socialists and Communists. They would rather starve, and bring cruise missiles down on their own heads, than miss a chance to harm the subjects of their Envy.)

Or else we go Catholic and Christian, and learn to take pleasure in another’s achievements, and be content — even take a thanksgiving joy — in what we have. Too, we agree to submit to the frequent reminders of the Church, that whether mortal or venial, sin is sin. “Everyone does it,” but the task before us in temptation is to forget about “everyone” and “stop it here.”

Christmas is coming! Everyone to the Confessional!