Of the seven Capital Vices, those supposed mortlers which in exercise threaten the well-being of your soul or moral compass, depending upon your belief system, Envy has never held much sense or appeal to me. I’ve had many opportunities to answer the siren call of Pride, Lust, Wrath, Greed, Sloth, Gluttony with varying degrees of pleasure and regret. On their own, each is relative to a particular circumstance and not necessarily harmful or corruptive in a meaningful way. A religious moral taxonomy may codify as evil what is just merely human to some. What clerics call sin others would understand as a foible or lack of balance. Folks who argue that you can’t discuss vice and virtue outside of religion need to indulge in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography and have a look at the man’s moral economy in ledger form. In the 1730s Franklin drew up columns in a notebook under the virtues he thought worthy of cultivation, each day taking account with score how well he fared to uphold them. (Franklin chose Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Tranquility, Chastity and Humility. His explanations for each virtue underscored a commitment to moderation and happiness over deprivation or austerity in service to any code that regards flesh or desire as wicked). The thing about the challenge to be an ethical person is whether you feel the need for a daddy-in-the-sky mediator to have to answer to or if you prefer to answer to the group or community you inhabit as part of good citizenship.
The green eyed leviathan signals an alarming form of monomania distinct from the other vices that heralds no real enjoyment or payoff, just bile, begrudgery and a whole lotta schadenfreude. Those who make a habit of seeking joy in other’s misfortune or hardship step right outside the social contract. Envy flips the bird to community. The problem with Envy is that there’s no end; once you surrender, alienation from others and a healthy, integrated self-image follow, hence the iconic shrunken Gollum and his ring. Envy isn’t about jealousy or having what others possess, rather, it’s an impulse from gall that hopes to witness others lose out or have less. In The Faerie Queen, Edmund Spenser characterises Envy as a ravenous wolf that eats his own entrails, to illustrate the vice’s consumptive nature. William Dunbar’s The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins emphasises the socially destructive and insincere force behind Envy, part of what modern colloquialism would identify as the act of ‘grin fucking’ to a lesser extent:
Next in the Dance followit Envy,
Filled full of feud and felony,
Hid malice and despite:
For privy hatred that traitor tremlit;
Him followit mony freik dissemlit,
With fenyeit wordis quhyte:
And flatterers in to men’s faces;
And backbiters in secret places,
To lie that had delight;
And rownaris of false lesings,
Alace! that courts of noble kings
Of them can never be quit.
Dunbar clocks the vice as duplicitous, disingenuous and malicious. For a dude born in the 15th century, he sure recognised a perennial take on a weakness or flub of character. Christopher Marlowe offers what is perhaps the most accurate representation of Envy’s rotten core in Dr. Faustus:
‘I am Envy. I cannot read and therefore wish all books burned.’
Marlowe’s Envy also confesses ‘I am lean with seeing others eat.’
Envy is petty. Envy resents fortune, progress, benevolence, empathy. It dehumanises us.
There is, however, much to my chagrin one discernible trigger that launches the green eyed monster to unfurl in an instant. The moment occurs at a dog park when an owner watches her /his dog run for ten minutes then smiles and boasts about how well the dog will then sleep. I have to halt the verdant shudder of Envy which starts to rip through my innards and smile back. Thank goodness for the dog walker. She prevents Envy from taking root and turning ‘my precious’ into some old fat pooch who gets winded in three blocks.