By Pavel Bartos
October 25, 2001

Thou shall not envy! Thou shall not fear envy, nor shall thou feel guilty for the envy of others!

While there are several theories suggested as to the motivation of the suicidal killers who destroyed the lives of thousands in New York and Washington on September 11, very, very seldom do I hear the word "envy" uttered in the official pronouncements from the government authorities, the media, or even in the expert opinions of professional psychologists, sociologists, or theologians in this respect. Yet, I am not only convinced that it was ultimately a certain kind of envy standing behind these terrorist acts as the most fundamental cause, but also that there is a causal relation between envy as the ultimate motivational ground and the horrors of World War I, Hitler's national socialism, Stalin's international socialism, as well as all other wars and revolutions, civil or international, all around the world now and in history. In other words, I suggest that envy reaches way back to the original sin representing the main constitutive element thereof, as well as the main perpetual constitutive factor, of the hereditary sin of mankind. This seems to be the main reason for the linguistic tabooization of the term "envy" in human popular speech and communication, especially in the twentieth century and onward.

Now, to use the Watergate President oft-repeated dictum, "let me spell out precisely what I mean." To put it negatively, first, I do not mean envy as jealousy in terms of the Biblical covetousness where one has a bad feeling of resentment about the material possessions of his neighbor and seeks in his heart to steal it. This kind of envy can be often, though not easily, transformed into an effort or will to possess what others do. Thus, unless this mental motion degenerates into greed (which is still socially less detrimental a sin than actual stealing of any kind), we could even speak of a beneficial role of envy. Thus should have spoken Max Weber, but did not, at least not explicitly nor directly so, when he was explaining capitalism as the spirit of Calvinism. I believe it was only Calvinism that managed to inhibit detrimental envy in the most beneficial manner via stressing the "active" reception of the Biblical concept of predestination which resulted in a competitive effort, high division of labor, and social cooperation among the unequal. This is in sharp contrast to religions that prefer the "passive" reception of fate or whatever kind of impersonal determinism.

Second, I do not speak of envy as a feeling of resentment towards somebody else's mental possessions (mental talents) or manual skills (physical talents). Again, this feeling can be transformed into an effort to improve one's own skills or talents, and, as everybody does have some skill or talent, this can result in an ever-improving social aggregate toward the benefit of every individual. Here we should recall the Calvinistic emphasis upon the high value of every calling in the eyes of God. On the contrary, religions and societies which built their social orders on a concept of an intrinsic, unchangeable scale of social being and which do not sufficiently provide for a dynamic social and economic mobility cannot successfully cope either with a general apathy or with the strong envy among the equal.1

Thus, third, nor do I speak of envy as a feeling of resentment towards one's social status related to the feeling of inferiority. While envy of others' higher social status is quite prevalent in human society as the feeling of inferiority touches the very sense of meaningful life (as a social being man seeks social recognition of any kind and can hardly survive in total social alienation), there are several institutional instruments which can more or less successfully serve as inhibitors in social orders coping with these phenomena. Liberal democracy of the constitutionally equal is one such attempt; communist, socialist, or people's democracies of the economically equal are another, far less successful one. The church and family are the most proper non-political instruments above all.

However, it needs to be stressed that any attempt consistently seeking either to naively eliminate or malevolently instigate envy via institutional means cannot survive for long. The only social "system" capable of progressive development (progressive sanctification) is the one which includes built-in faith inhibitors against envy. It is again and again mainly Calvinism which places the sovereignty of the tri-Personal God of grace, Who has verbally spoken and revealed Himself in Christ, the Redeemer, as the ground for the dignity of man and his corporate coexistence. Consistent democracy of any kind is a very poor inhibitor of the vice of envy in this respect as it necessarily suggests at least a political equality - the mirage of demophiles. The best inhibitor of envy is that social order which reflects the vertical order of God and His creation in the human horizontal plane of interpersonal relations. In other words, it is the society that best reflects God as the source of legitimacy and law and Christ as the Savior of man via grace.

What I have in mind under the term "envy" is best reflected in the Latin word invidia which means an "evil eye" or a "malevolent look." It is the kind of evil resentment towards the social or economic status, mental capacity, or physical character of which one knows he can never reach; and out of this feeling he rebels in a self-destructive manner against the very ultimate hierarchic order of reality. Making a sharp shortcut to make my point: It is ultimately the very rebellious resentment toward the status and power of true God reflected in religious, psychosocial, political, economic, or cultural form. It is the very sin of and penalty for Adam and Eve. It is the sin of the Hebrews of old reflected in their resentment toward Moses, the God-appointed deliverer, resulting in another forty years of slavery. It is the sin of Korah, Joseph's brothers, the sin of Judah, the sin of the Hussites, Karl Marx, or the sin of the "nations" seeking their unprecedented "right of self-determination," and on and on. In other words, it is the very core of the natural sinfulness of us all. In its uninhibited form, it is the utmost self-destructive sin man is ever capable of exerting. It is the "rottenness of the bones" (Pr. 14:30) which creates its own objects. One of the expressions of such a kind of envy in social relations is the idea: "If I cannot have it, then nobody will have it." Other popular proverbs say:

  • Were envy a fever, the world would have been dead long since.
  • Envy envies itself.
  • The envious die, envy is inherited.
  • He who is without envy must not tell of his joy.

Many languages describe envy as an utterly self-destructive, uncreative, and even diseased state of mind for which there is no remedy. But a much better mental characteristic of envy is reflected in this idea: "I will rather die than accept God in Christ as sovereign Lord."

Surely, it is no surprise that the claim of the universal occurrence, the ubiquity of envy in men, is not very popular today. Rather, it is a taboo, and I am quite certain that "Without Envy to the New Millennium!" would not be the best slogan in the populist pre-election campaigns in modern democracies. What surprises me, however, is the relative absence in the occurrence of this term and its in-depth, non-Kantian phenomenological analysis adequate to the enormity of this cardinal vice in its social and political implications among Christian theologians and writers. You can hardly find the word "envy" in the indices of the works of most Christian ethicists of the twentieth century. It is missing in modern commentaries, and, if present, it is usually treated under the meaning of jealousy. Of course, it is almost totally missing in the works of Christian antinomian psychologists. Why is this so?

There might be several explanations to this relative absence. First, the Scriptures themselves present envy mostly under the idea of covetousness or jealousy in correspondence to the very literal idea of the tenth commandment although here and there more than only materialistic covetousness is in focus (see any concordance). Second, while Adam's and Eve's "evil eye" is recorded as clearly self-destructive in the Bible, as well as is every envious rebellion of man against God, envy in its social, political, economic, or cultural relations is not so much present in the Bible vis-à-vis the social consciousness of modern man in the twentieth century; and this is probably so, for the fact is that up to the time of the modern era, human social orders reflected the vertical order of the Christian, Biblical concept of reality much more than do the modern social orders. To put it rather bluntly, until recently, the idea of democracy in its modern understanding, was wholly unthinkable for men, and this was definitely not so in Biblical times, so that socially self-destructive mass envy had a small chance to spring up and bloom.

Third, American usage of the term, usually as jealousy, is indeed influenced by the Calvinistic consciousness in such a way that not only one's own envy, but also the very idea of being envied, became gradually abhorrent in the common American mind. Also, it does not suit the business-oriented American milieu either. Surely, there is enough of materialistic or other jealousy present there as anywhere else, but not so much the kind I am trying to describe here. After all, one would hardly expect this kind of envy to bloom in those who came to America to seek freedom or the chance of socio-economic mobility. Indeed, in comparison to any other nation in the world, the highest level of social cooperation and division of labor in the USA reflects the highest level of an en masse inhibition (not an elimination, though) of this vice.

And fourth, pure envy, unlike jealousy or other milder forms of envy, does not have a rational basis, and thus it is very difficult to treat it legally. It is rather of a primitive, pagan origin. In primitive, highly egalitarian societies (tribes), people still believe that the sudden relative wealth of others is a result of an evil magic exercised against the rest of the tribe. They are thus enormously afraid of becoming more wealthy or "rich" due to the fear of the envy of others who might use magic (voodoo, occult practices) to kill these less equal. Hence their anti-progress mindset (primitivism). Yes, the socialist ever-present dictum "the wealthy are wealthy because the poor are poor" is not only irrational and empirically stupid, but also reflects how pagan are the societies that practice various modern voodoo social policies.

What needs to be considered here, then, is the potential negative effect of organized envy-suppression in the form of the institutionalization of guilt for the envy of others. In other words, once envy is being "legally" suppressed by the envious envy-instigators (actually, rather self-haters or God-haters), rather than inhibited by self-critical Christians and churches via the least institutional means, one is on the way to socialism and statist slavery. However, even Christians are not free from the fear of envy and can adopt various pagan policies. To give just one example out of many: I was told by the director of recruiting for one of the church world mission boards that it is an adopted policy of the board not to speak about money before nationals. This perhaps well-meant policy focused on the avoidance of envy and not only reflects the pietistic, if not Gnostic, conception of reality and the naiveté of the gospel reductionists but, ironically, it actually creates the psychosocial root for the vast envy emergence and the consequential enslavement, both mental and economic. Indeed, pietistic social antinomianism can be very, very cruel for the nationals as well as counterproductive in its evangelistic effort.

Speaking of the elementary irrationality of envy, Schoeck states, "[T]he envious man is perfectly prepared to injure himself if by so doing he can injure or hurt the object of his envy. Many criminal acts, in some cases perhaps even suicidal, become more comprehensible if this possibility is recognized." Envy stews in its own juice. Thus, as much as we can think of the religious motives behind the WTC terrorist attack, a more basic human vice should be considered here, too. Moslems are not monsters, only humans. Interestingly though, according to Dwight M. Donaldson in his Studies in Muslim Ethics, Islamic ethic and wisdom in proverbs regard envy (hasad) as one of the greatest ills: "Al-Kulaini writes: 'Envy devours faith as fire devours wood,' the Prophet is held to have said....The plagues of religion are envy, vanity, and pride....Moses is held to have said: 'Men should not envy one another what I give them out of my fullness.'.... 'The true believer is he who wishes others well.....'" ("vide" Helmut Schoeck: Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior, p. 29). Of course, in the context of the explicit militant claims of the Koran, especially against Christians, we should conceive this ethic rather in a closed system of Islam, not in general interhuman, let alone interreligous relations.2 Nevertheless, the threat of the special type of radical Islamic etatism and socialism created by basic envy, which can easily become totalitarian in scope, is an ever-present danger.

To conclude, envy as well as an institutionalized guilt for the envy of others are phenomena that need to be newly emphasized in the study of ethical and psychosocial causality in the unprecedented era of ecumania (my abbreviation of ecumenical mania) - religious, political, social, cultural, etc. While it is bad Christian ethics to reduce man's sinful behavior to envy and utopian attempts towards its elimination (social salvation by legislature), the Christian analysis of the enormously broad implications of this highly complex sin in its most elementary conception seems to be still missing. Several works do exist on the spoiled economic relations in regard to envy, but there is not a comprehensive Christian treatment of the phenomena in its overall associations.

Since we currently live in a time when the question of freedom versus safety is again hotly debated on both national and international scenes, the danger of evoking the paralyzing fear of envy (never explicitly so, of course) appears on the statist or secular globalist horizon. The fear of envy, however, destroys the courage of faith as the individual responsibility and liberty man could enjoy in the (post) Christian West is gradually replaced by the mirage of social, collective safety. It is only the wonderful courage of the Christian faith that can crush the gates of the terrorist hell and never a surrender of the faith and liberty we have in Christ Jesus. Although ideal love does not envy (1 Cor. 13:4), we have to remember that Paul does speak in a hyperbolic language and does not urge us to seek it in an absolutized form via egalitarian social or political programs. Rather, he teaches individual salvation by grace through faith. It is upon this mighty faith that our personal and political liberties rest. And if there comes a time to decide whose claim of dominion and conception of liberty we are to defend, whether God's or the Devil's, every Christian should know his place. With the hope that the fear of the loss of liberty or even life will evoke the saving fear of God among many in the world of today and a shift to the true Christian right, I pray that the country of the dreams of my youth, but also the country of my home would become the land of the images of God ever growing in consistency and courage in Christ, our Lord.


1. There is hardly any openly expressed envy in between the castes of Hindus, while there is a strong occurrence thereof within respective castes. This conforms to the general rule that envy is a matter of social proximity. One does not so easily resort to envy or envious action if compared to Bill Gates or Hollywood stars, but beware if one's neighbor next door becomes, let alone openly claims, to be more equal than the rest of the relatively equal. History of revolutions shows quite clearly that the permanent social status of monarchs, aristocracy, or clergy was never so much the problem for the lower class as for the middle class. The lower class usually acted in a mass hatred against the high class only if her latent but inhibited envy was instigated by the more socially proximate middle class elite or the apostates from the high class. There is no doubt that communo-socialist revolutions were bourgeois in origin.

2. Speaking of Islamic ethics and seeing the strict order of Islamic social determinism, it is not the best policy to send women-negotiators to Islamic countries as democratic governments habitually do (perhaps to make the world safe for democracy and tolerance), or to have women pilots bomb the ultramaskulinist Islamic population (to the utmost but wholly unnecessary enragement of the Taliban crazies). To fight the socially and religiously established discrimination of women by political, let alone military feminism is not the best strategy. Furthermore, as much as well meant and conducive the humanitarian aid can be recognized, the counter reaction should be considered, too. Altruism is a water to the mill of fanatical envy. It only shows the giver as superior in the eyes of the envious which only creates more hatred in their hearts.

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Pavel Bartos

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