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The Vice Of Envy

I had always thought Envy was the disordered desire for what another owns. In reading The Divine Comedy, I learn that the medievals thought of Envy in a slightly but significantly different way. To them, Envy was hatred of the fact that others had what one didn’t have. Do you see the difference? If I see that my neighbor drives a Mercedes, I might be green with envy that he drives a Mercedes, and wish I had one. That’s not the same thing, exactly, as wishing that my neighbor’s Mercedes would be taken from him so I would no longer feel my own lack.

Years ago, a Parisian friend who emigrated to the US to start his own business was explaining to me why he left France. He said that the culture of envy in France was terribly destructive. If your neighbor sees that you drive a nicer car than he thinks you should have, he will call the tax authorities and report this as evidence that you might be cheating on your taxes. This sort of thing destroys incentive, my friend said; he loved his native city and country, but couldn’t put up with that kind of thing. He came to America and built a hugely successful business that employs lots of people.

I remember marveling at that story. What an un-American thought, the idea that you would rat out your neighbor as a possible tax cheat because he drove a nicer car than you thought he deserved. This was the first time I had really encountered Envy in the medieval sense, or at least the first time I had become aware of the distinction.

Tony Esolen, a scholar who translated Dante, writes about this:

Now if we set aside our politically correct egalitarianism—that anti-politics of universal envy—we may see why the hatred of another’s good not only hurts the community, but destroys the very foundation upon which a community must be built. That is because we are plainlynot endowed with the same fortune, talents, health, and industry. And we should give thanks to God for that inequality, since he it is who has willed it. A diversity of goods, distinct and hierarchically ordered, is necessary, says Aquinas, for the flourishing of any community—even that of the angels, who strictly speaking need nothing from one another, yet rejoice in their orders bright.

The family is a good analogy. If we flatten the family into a Kansas of egalitarianism, with each member fulfilling the same role, or no role at all, as each pursues his private ends, then we lose the good of the order wherein each should share, and in a sense share equally. That is, the small child is as fully blessed as he can be by the order of a family wherein he is but a small child, whose portion of authority is defined by the virtue of obedience. So too the father is blessed by the same order wherein he is the head, whose form of obedience is to lead the family in self-sacrificing obedience to God. Nor should there be any grumbling from child or father. “For the body is not one member, but many,” says St. Paul, correcting the errors of his charges at Corinth, who managed to be snobs, partisans, and egalitarians all at once. “If the foot shall say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” (1 Cor 12:15).

All this came to mind this morning when, through the agency of the invaluable daily digest Prufrock, I found my way to Jordan Ballor’s review of the John Lanchester novel Capitalwhich is set in London, 2008, amid the financial crash. The novel, says NYT reviewer Liesl Schillinger, “shows how the easy-­money era affected not just greedy speculators but the society that fattened around them.” From Ballor’s own review:

One of the key realities that Capital communicates about wealth is that it does not in itself change who we are. The flaws of our character cannot be erased by an addition of material wealth. No cosmetic surgery can address the defects of our souls. If anything, wealth enhances our defects, allowing us a broader area of influence in the world in which to manifest our own shortcomings. To the extent that the material culture on Pepys Road gains any agency, it is only as an external expression of the realities of the individuals who live there. The houses become proxies for the moral and spiritual status of their residents.

The moral challenge of affluence is something that animated the career of the sociologist Robert Nisbet, who worried about the fraying of the “social fabric” that created individuals loosened from relational bonds of family, neighborhood, church, and broader community. “What sociologists are prone to call social disintegration is really nothing more than the spectacle of a rising number of individuals playing fast and loose with other individuals in relationships of trust and responsibility,” he wrote in The Present Age (1988). The spiritual isolation of fallen human beings is perhaps most visibly expressed in the physical isolation of suburbs and gated communities, but the development of Pepys Road in Capital manifests these antisocial realities as well.

According to Ballor, there is in the novel’s narrative a rising tide of vandalism towards the homes of the rich, on the premise that what they have they have gotten undeservedly. But not everyone farther down the social and economic ladder reacts this way. Here’s Ballor, on a Polish plumber working in London:

A different response to inequality, both real and perceived, is to work positively toward remedying that which is lacking in yourself rather than in attempting to seize from others or in destruction. Zbigniew personifies this positive response particularly well, as he sees in London a land full of opportunity to earn a living, even if success is only achievable by hard work.

As Lanchester writes of Zbigniew, “A boy who grew up in a tower block on the outskirts of Warsaw could not fail to notice marble worktops, teak furniture, carpets and clothes and adult toys and the routine daily extravagances that were everywhere in this city.” Likewise Zbigniew sees “the expense, the grotesque costliness of more or less everything.” For the frugal Polish laborer, this reality depresses and yet simultaneously inspires him to action: “There was in Zbigniew’s opinion something fundamentally wrong with a culture that had all this work and all this money going spare, just waiting for someone to come in and pick it up, almost as if the money were just left lying around in the street—but that was not his concern. If the British wanted to give work and money away that was fine with him.” Indeed, in this regard this is precisely “the reason he was here” in London: to work and get the money that the British were too lazy, stupid, or decadent to pick up themselves.

This is why conservatives react against the leveling impulse — the idea that justice requires equality in all things. No, it doesn’t. In fact, egalitarianism can offend greatly against justice, as well as being a disaster for all. Communism achieved rough equality by making almost everybody equally poor and equally powerless. A just society is one in which there is unavoidably some measure of inequality. To the conservative, “social justice” consists not in egalitarianism, but in working to see that people are justly rewarded for their labors. It is hard for many conservatives today, however, to perceive how a society in which most of the wealth is highly concentrated in the uppermost ranks, and the great majority of people below work hard just to keep their heads above water, qualifies as a just one.

Because of our prejudices, we tend to think that money (or its lack) and character (or its lack) go together. People who think of the poor as uniformly virtuous and noble are sentimentalists. People are equally unrealistic about the rich. I do think many of us imagine, against the testimony of Scripture, of literature, and experience, that money will solve all our problems. It does solve some of them, but introduces new ones. Money and its lack only amplify the virtues and the vices we carry within us. I know a woman of modest background who is consumed by the meanness of the rich. Talking to her, I know from experience that all her notions are almost comical in their demonization of the Other, about whom she knows nothing. In fact, all the vices she imputes to the wealthy she herself exemplifies to a stunning degree — but she cannot see this because she excuses herself from all self-judgment, because she doesn’t have money, and they do. Envy has crippled her, or so it seems to me from the outside. And I know people for whom fear of poverty, and of the poor, cripples them morally. That is a middle-class vice, and I often think I am guilty of it to a discomfiting degree.

My French friend — the man who moved to America to escape the Envy in his native land — eventually moved with his family back to Europe. He had good reasons, and I think — I think, based on our past conversations; he has never said this specifically to me — that one of them is that he observed how enormous wealth proved to be a crippling burden on the characters of his industry colleagues’ children, and didn’t want to raise his kids in that gated-community culture. Whatever the problems of Europe related to wealth, it was less risky, in the end, to raise his kids there than in the American culture of wealth to which he had vaulted himself through his own hard work and creativity.

As Esolen points out in that essay, Dante, in Purgatorio, shows those doing penance for Envy dwelling on the terrace of the mountain with their eyes sewn shut by wire. They cannot see each other, so they cannot know what the other has, or lacks. Because they are dwelling on the precipice, they must depend on holding on to each other to avoid falling over. They live in communion. This repairs the vice of Envy. There’s a lesson there. We must teach ourselves both to avoid looking on the fortune, or misfortune, of others with envious eyes, and to hold on to the essential communion we share as brothers and sisters, stranded on the side of a mountain, wanting to go home.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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