Whatever Became of Envy?

Team Members/Contributors

Mary Louise Bringle Brevard College Contact Me

About this sabbatical grant for researchers

Envy used to be second among the cardinal sins. Medieval artists cautioned against it in vivid imagery: souls doing battle with deadly adversaries, vice trees hanging with rotted fruit, hollow figures eating their own hearts out. Teaching tales depicted envy’s personal and social costs: Aesop’s fables and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (surprisingly appearing alongside biblical narratives in early Christian preachers’ manuals); pilgrims’ tales (DeGuileville, Dante, Chaucer); and pageants of vices (Langland, Spenser, and Marlowe).

Yet, in our culture, envy has lost its moral taint. Over the past hundred years in the US, advertising has increasingly urged us to envy our neighbors or to provoke them into envying us. The once-deadly sin now names multiple product lines, from Envy Scooters to Massage Envy Spas. Such a cavalier attitude toward status comparisons raises critical questions.

Is such competition “only natural” – a mere by-product of survival struggles that come with the territory of being human? Or can envy as “sin” be differentiated from more wholesome expressions of social comparison: ambition (yearning for betterment), admiration (appreciating the goods of others), and righteous indignation (opposing unjust situations that enable some to “have” while others “have not”)?

Whether it is “natural” or not, if (as I maintain) the sin of envy is as pernicious as the old moralists thought, we stand to benefit from recovering their pastoral insights. Further, cultivating the virtues they counsel as remedies for envy – humility, gratitude, generosity, and compassion – could well transform our churches, our communities, and our individual lives.

Image Title Year Type Contributor(s) Other Info
Envy: Exposing a Secret Sin 2016 Book Mary Louise Bringle