An Examination of Sins and Virtues: Envy

Wanting to want the right things

There’s an old Russian fable found in Deirdre McCloskey’s book, Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World. This fable tells the story of Ivan, and his neighbor, Boris.

God tells Ivan that he can have anything he wants, under one condition: Boris will receive twice as much. Ivan thinks, pondering the vast and endless possibilities, but is dumbfounded: he is subject to envy, and does not want to see his neighbor prosper. Finally, he answers contentedly, “I have it: give me the gift of having one of my eyes blinded––so that Boris will get two.”

This story seems extreme, right? Well, yes, it is, but it accurately represents a very extensive aspect of human nature: envy. Envy is one of the seven deadly sins, along with wrath, greed, sloth, lust, pride and gluttony. Each of these sins are supposedly fundamental, and part of human thought and action. More specifically, envy is the feeling of wanting to have what someone else has.

This sin may not seem all that serious, and, in some aspects, can be seen as only applicable to Bible times. Abraham, Moses and Jesus were never able to covet that 60” TV, or a neighbor’s new speedboat.

Furthermore, envy is listed last in the Ten Commandments: You shall not covet.  With Christmas approaching, an unjustified feeling of entitlement seems to incline, as does the prevailing sense of envy.

Our society seems to disregard envy as significant. It is only a feeling, not an action. However, envy is unlike the other deadly sins, in that it does not bring pleasure to someone (gluttony, lust, etc.); instead, envy is seen to be competitive, and can lead to other sins such as hatred, which, in turn, can lead to more heinous sins.

So the little feeling of envy can lead to grave consequences, which is why, indeed, it is a deadly sin. By seeing the sumptuous accessories of those around us, we––by default––will want those accessories and strive to reach the achievements of the people around us.

The Eastern Orthodox “little red prayer book” addresses envy and the 10th commandment, asking questions such as: “Have I envied anything good that has come to others?” and “Have I wished for anything good that was another’s?”

In 2012, a study was conducted by Mathias Pessiglione and his team at INSERM (National Institute of Health and Medical Research) in Paris. Pessiglione, to determine inclination of human decision making, showed adults two videos: The first, a piece of candy sitting on a surface. Second, an identical but different colored piece of candy sitting on a surface but with a hand reaching to grab it. The adults then had to decide which piece of candy was more appealing.

Unsurprisingly, the second video, with the candy about to be grabbed, won the majority of votes. Based solely on the fact that someone was about to grab the second piece of candy, it became much more desirable.

Now, how can one refrain from desiring the commodities of others? In Buddhism, for example, a major focus is to reduce suffering by abstaining from want. The logic is that if one does not have desire for worldly assets, (materials, relationships, etc.) then they will not suffer if those properties are lost. This concept is rather interesting, and makes sense as a whole, as it attempts to end human suffering. But behind this teaching is the understanding that it can be good to desire the right things. Complicated, isn’t it?

Let’s say a man looks out at his neighbor’s garage and sees a new, red sports car. He immediately is overwhelmed by envy and wishes to have  it. Another neighbor walks out of his house and gazes at the same sports car. It’s appealing, but he doesn’t envy it because he feels a profound sense of contentment with what he has.

Now seeing that there are two sides to human desire, maybe it is OK to envy and desire in some ways––as long as we are desiring the right things. Again, the envy is the feeling of wanting to have what someone else has. What if someone has positive characteristics, worth striving for? Then, envying these traits is something that should be done.

Sure, there will always be evil in this world, and there will always be negative feelings of envy.  However, not all feelings of envy have to be cynical. Wanting to become more generous, happy, content, and positive doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, now, does it?

So this holiday season, as those around you envy redundant, futile items, think about what is truly vital; envy to have well-founded things, circumstantially––whatever they may be.


About Kenny Kiratli

Kenny Kiratli ('17) attends Northwestern University.

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