July 02, 2003

That (Second) Pernicious Vice

Joseph Epstein, writing in The Washington Monthly, has produced a fascinating and thought-provoking essay on the nature of Envy. It is worth your time to read it in its entirety, for it casts sunlight on that widely-held and pernicious vice; and it examines its workings within our society in-depth.

However, having taken some time this evening to read his work, I fear that Mr Epstein has fallen short. Consider this excerpt:

No one would doubt that, whatever else it is, envy is certainly a charged, indeed a supercharged, word: one of the few words left in the English language that retains the power to scandalize. Most of us could still sleep decently if accused of any of the other six deadly sins; but to be accused of envy would be seriously distressing, so clearly does such an accusation go directly to character. The other deadly sins, though all have the disapproval of religion, do not so thoroughly, so deeply demean, diminish, and disqualify a person. Not the least of its stigmata is the pettiness implicit in envy.

The tenor of Mr Epstein's words remains consistent throughout his article, and I must note that as an examination of envy, his work is spectacular. But it amazes me that Mr Epstein fails to note the worst of all vices, that deepest and earliest of the universe's sins: namely, pride.

For pride is at the root of all sins; in the Christian tradition, pride was the Original Sin that ruined both mankind and the regis inferni. Its potential to corrupt and ruin and destroy is boundless. I don't think saying that discounts envy's well-deserved place as the second-worst vice; for envy is truly the mark of a defeated and angry person. But when all is lost, that ruined wretch can still overcome his envy and his other faults, and become whole again. Such a person whose pride still enslaves him will throw such a chance back in the face of his liberators.

Now the above is certainly not my idea; it is, really, nothing more than a quick summation of the excellent work done by Lewis, perhaps the 20th Century's greatest theologian. But even Lewis built on tradition: and at the heart of that tradition is St. Augustine and many other religious authorities. In short, it is nothing new: hence my surprise that the learned Mr Epstein does not say it.

But then, to do so would invalidate his argument that no vice like envy "so thoroughly, so deeply demean(s), diminish(es), and disqualif(ies) a person." For how could Mr Epstein say, first, that not the least of its stigmata "is the pettiness inherent in envy" and not say that at least an honest man recognizes that pettiness? Only the self-conceited would fail to see such a thing. Thus it is that envy really masks a deeper and crueler sin.

I would also argue that Mr Epstein treats what he calls "yearning" with a bit too much diffidence. He writes:

Envy must also be distinguished from general yearning. One sees people at great social ease and wishes to be more like them; or feels keenly how good it would be once more to be young; or longs to be wealthier; or pines to be taller, thinner, more muscular, less awkward, more beautiful generally. All this is yearning. Envy is never general, but always very particular--at least envy of the kind one feels strongly.

I don't think this is an incorrect analysis on its face. Sure, we'd all like to look better and have more cash in our pockets and live young forever. That's human nature. However, since that nature is fundamentally flawed, one can't just pass over it. Why is it people -- to take one example -- would generally like to have more money? In our own personal circumstances, there may be any one of a thousand good reasons for that: family needs, education, a home with more space. Such things are not, naturally, bad in themselves. But if, in the final analysis, our answer is reduced to because, then we have lost another battle to avarice. If left unchecked, that avarice can quickly turn into envy, and the envy can fester into pride.

One final thought, though; and again, I would encourage you to read Mr Epstein's work in depth. It is also worth noting that the seven deadly sins, at least according to Dante's Purgatorio, were not equal offenses. Certainly Dante recognized pride as the worst of those offenses, with the second-worst being envy. Anger was next up the ladder, then sloth, then avarice, then gluttony. Finally, Dante rightfully thought lust the least of these offenses. Far better that one partake of too much drink or too much sex than have too much pride. Although, as Lewis said in a different context, it is better if one does neither.

(link via Sheila O'Malley)

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 2, 2003 07:33 PM | TrackBack