Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote that it’s possible for us to reckon the good of another person as an evil unto ourselves insofar as it hurts our good name or excellence. And for that reason, envy grieves for another’s good.
But it’s necessary to be more specific when defining Envy. While Envy is the grieving of another’s good, not all grieving for another’s good is Envy. Sorrow for the good of another comes in four ways, and not all are sin.
The first is if another’s good brings you harm or harms your good. If ISIS took over New York City, we would naturally grieve their success. And if ISIS was subsequently eradicated from the earth, we would naturally rejoice at their destruction. This grieving of another’s good is not Envy, but a response to our sense of justice and order.
The second is the grieving over another’s good, not because they have it, but because you do not. Aquinas calls this zeal. When you see a man further along in your own field who has achieved the success you hope to achieve, you may not begrudge his success one bit, but grieve that you haven’t been able to cultivate the relationships, the mindset, the resources, or whatever else, that enabled his success. This kind of sorrow for another’s good is more a call-to-arms and an inspiration. It is especially praiseworthy if what you’re admiring is the virtue manifest in another. This is not Envy.
The third is grieving the success of the wicked. When we look at those who we judge, by good sense, to deal in immoral, dishonest, and egregiously sinful behavior and see that they are being rewarded for it with money, fame, or some other kind of material good, we might grieve their success. Why should they have the good of which so many others are more deserving? While I’m not certain whether or not this kind of grieving exactly qualifies as Envy, we are nevertheless forbidden to do it. If any good is allotted to the unworthy, it is for their correction or for their condemnation and is certainly no business of ours. If we believe that the universe and all of time has been ordered by the Logos, by the Will of God, then we can be assured that the good of the wicked has been given to them for some good reason.
The fourth and last way to grieve another’s good is Envy proper. It is the grieving of another man’s good merely because it surpasses our own.
How to Acquire Charity and Contentedness
There are two important components to overcoming Envy: Charity and Contentedness. Both are essential to develop.
Thomas Aquinas writes about Charity:
"Charity rejoices in our neighbor’s good, while envy grieves over it."
Charity is a kindness towards others and a genuine joy and excitement that comes from seeing what good they have. Charity requires empathy and love. It is not selfish. Charity, I believe, comes naturally from the second component, Contentedness.
Contentedness begins with a change of mindset. Whatever good another earns or inherits, whether material or virtue or experience, is no concern of yours. You are not owed anything. You deserve only what you receive. Further, what you receive is allotted to you for your own benefit. Every obstacle is an opportunity to make the choices you would hope to make and be the man you would hope to be. You don’t often live up to your ideal, but you can in small ways. Every day. Where you are. With what you have.
When you begin to honestly believe that you get what you deserve and you were meant to use it toward good ends (even and especially if it seems at first glance negative), then it becomes impossible not to have Charity for another’s good. You are able to recognize the good you have without comparing it to the good of another. And you are able to have joy for another’s good because you are entrenched in a battle with yourself and no one else. It’s difficult to care about deciphering whether another’s good surpasses your own when you’re fighting to make good with what you’ve been given.
Aim to deserve what you have, to take full responsibility for it, and Envy won’t be a problem.
More from "The Seven Deadly Sins" series:
- Fighting Sloth: How to Acquire Diligence
- Fighting Greed: How to Acquire Liberality
- Fighting Wrath: How to Acquire Patience
- Fighting Lust: How to Acquire Chastity
- Fighting Gluttony: How to Acquire Temperance
- Fighting Pride: How to Acquire Humility
- An Introduction to the Seven Heavenly Virtues
- Demarcating the Battlefield: An Introduction to the Seven Deadly Sins