There is a picture of envy in the First Book of Samuel: Upon David’s return from slaying Goliath, the women sing a song praising him. Saul should rejoice with all Israel but instead he is resentful and envies David: Saul was very angry and resentful of the song, for he thought, “They give David ten thousands, but only thousands to me. All that remains for him is the kingship.” And from that day on, Saul looked upon David with a glaring eye. Saul discussed his intention of killing David with his son Jonathan and with all his servants (1 Sam 18:6-9). Saul’s reaction is way over the top; this is what envy does.
What is envy? Most people use the word as a synonym for jealousy, but traditionally speaking they are not the same.
When I am jealous of you, I want to possess something that you have—inordinately so. The key point is that there is something good about you, or there is something good that you have, that I want to have for myself. Jealousy is sinful when one desires something inordinately or unreasonably.
Envy’s Theological Definition - In traditional theology, envy is quite different from jealousy (cf Summa Theologiae II, IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness, or anger at the goodness or excellence of someone else because I take it as lessening my own. The key difference is that with envy (unlike with jealousy) I do not merely want to possess for myself the good or excellence you have, I want to destroy it in you.
Notice in the reading above that Saul wants to kill David. This is because he thinks that David’s excellence makes him look less excellent, less great. Saul should rejoice in David’s gifts, for they are gifts to all Israel. David is a fine soldier and this is a blessing for everyone. The proper response to David’s excellence should be to rejoice, to be thankful to God, and where possible to imitate David’s courage and excellence. Instead, Saul sulks. He sees David as stealing the limelight and possibly even the kingdom from him. Envy rears its ugly head when Saul concludes that David must die. The good that is in David must be destroyed.
Envy is diabolical. St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316) because it seeks to minimize, end, or destroy what is good. Scripture says, By the envy of the Devil, death entered the world (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve (made in the image of God) had, and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his—or so he thought—and so he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Envy is ugly and it is diabolical.
Examples of Envy - I remember experiencing envy in my early years. In every classroom there were always a few students who got A’s on every test. They always behaved and the teacher would sometimes praise them, saying, “Why can’t the rest of you be like Johnny and Susie?” Some hated students like this because they made them look bad. So what did some of them do? They sought to pressure the “teacher’s pets” to conform to their mediocrity. In effect, they sought to destroy the goodness or excellence in the ‘A’ students. They would taunt them with names and pelt them with spitballs. If ridicule and isolation didn’t work, sometimes they’d just plain beat them up. This is envy.
St. Thomas lists the “daughters” of Envy are: tale-bearing, detraction, schadenfreude (joy at the misfortune of others), hatred. By these things we seek to denigrate others or reduce the esteem which they are owed. In effect I dismiss the good and destroy its influence.
Virtues that overcome envy - The proper response to observing goodness or excellence in another is joy and zeal. We should rejoice that they are blessed, because when they are blessed, we are blessed. Further, we should respond with a zeal that seeks to imitate (where possible) their goodness or excellence. Perhaps we can learn from them or from their good example. Instead, envy rejects joy and zeal, and with sorrow and anger sets out to destroy what is good. Charity too bids us to see that my neighbor and I are one, and when he is honored or blessed, so am I.
Envy can be subtle. Envy isn’t always obvious; sometimes it’s something we do almost without thinking. When there’s someone at work who is a rising star, we may engage in gossip and defamation that undermines their reputation or tarnishes their image. We may do this at times in an unreflective manner; we diminish or belittle others and their accomplishments through careless and insensitive remarks. We often do this because we need to knock others down in order to feel better about ourselves. This is envy. Sometimes we show envy passively by failing to praise or encourage others or by not calling attention to their accomplishments.
Envy concealed with a smile – Finally, there is an odd form of envy that is particularly annoying because it masquerades as sensitivity and kindness. Consider a typical youth soccer or baseball game. The children are on the field playing their hearts out. On the sidelines, a decision has been made by the coaches not to keep score. Why? Because the children’s egos might be damaged by losing. Frankly, it probably isn’t the egos of the children being protected but rather those of the parents. The fact is that the kids know the score in most cases. God forbid that on the sports field there should be winners or losers! The losers might “feel bad.” The solution is to destroy or to refuse to acknowledge the goodness and excellence in some children because it is taken to lessen that of the “losers.”
This is envy and it teaches terrible things (by omission). First, it fails to teach that there are winners and losers in life; this is a fact of life. Sometimes you win; sometimes you lose. Either way you should be gracious. Second, it fails to reward excellence, which is unjust. Excellence should be rewarded, and that reward should motivate others to strive for excellence. Much is lost when we fail to praise what is good.
Another example of this practice is at school award ceremonies at which scads of awards are given out. There are the traditional Honor Roll awards but then a plethora of made-up awards, created so that everyone “gets something.” I even witnessed an award given for the nicest smile! The problem is that when everyone is rewarded, no one is rewarded. Once again envy subtly rears its ugly head, but this time it’s wearing a smiley face. Heaven forbid that some child’s ego be bruised because he doesn’t get something; someone else’s excellence might make him look less excellent by comparison.
The bottom line is that it is envy: sorrow at someone else’s excellence because I take it to lessen my own. Envy is ugly, even when it masquerades as kindness and fairness. It diminishes and often seeks to destroy goodness and excellence. The proper response to excellence and goodness is and should always be joy and zeal.
In the story of Snow White, the wicked queen envied Snow White, who was the fairest of them all. Considering Snow White’s beauty as a threat, the evil queen cast a spell on Snow White to remove her beauty from the scene. Envy consumed the evil queen.