"….AGAINST ALL OTHER VIRTUE AND GOODNESS"
AN EXPLORATION OF ENVY IN RELATION TO CONCEPTS OF SIN
by Mary Ashwin
Envy has always had a bad press. Of all the negative traits or vices a person will own up to envy is the least likely one that they will acknowledge. They may well admit, with a deprecating grin, to being proud, greedy, covetous, lazy, bad-tempered or promiscuous; but most will be chary of professing their envy. Why is it that envy is so repugnant? I would suggest it is to do with the understanding, conscious or not, that envy is so bound up with a feeling of deficit. We envy what we do not have, not what we have, though psychologically it might be said we can envy what we have, but that we are unconscious of that asset. Impoverishment both real and imagined, material and psychological is implicit in envy.
The word envy comes from the Latin invidere: to look upon maliciously. It is to look at another's good fortune grudgingly; it is the feeling of mortification when we contemplate another's advantages; it is the need to spitefully criticise and denigrate; it is the fear that others are getting more than their fair share. In the 14th century Chaucer wrote of envy in 'The Parson's Tale', 'It is the worst of sins as it sets itself against all other virtues and goodness...' (p.506). Chaucer's view of envy is akin to Melanie Klein's; they both emphasise envy's destructive assault on anything that is admirable. 'Envy is the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something desirable - the envious impulse being to take it away or to spoil it' (Klein, 1957: 181). In psychological terms envy is a feeling, emotion or impulse which in its destructive and spoiling qualities is deleterious to the personality. Envy can inhibit development when deeply entrenched in the psyche and exerts a malign influence on the whole personality.
An article in The Independent (20.7.96) called envy the 'Nineties disease'. Perhaps envy is more prevalent or more manifest today than in any other era, but I doubt it. Each age imagines it is worse that previous ones and that the next generation is more iniquitous, unprincipled and dissolute than in the imagined golden age; standards are inexorably being whittled away and criminality increasing.
A recent Gallup poll is cited in the article in which the sample was asked which is the worst of the seven deadly sins. Envy was considered the worst. It is interesting, I think, that this random sample should recognise envy's destructive power. Envy is out of the closet so to speak. For some time the understanding of envy's malignancy was the preserve of the analytic community. However in 1964 Segal comments that even among analytic writers there was a tendency to muddle envy and jealousy. Certainly people are more likely to describe themselves as jealous rather than envious. Sometimes they mean they are jealous, more often they mean they are envious. I suspect that this lack of differentiation is because even without being fully aware of the difference or knowing entirely what envy is, there is an understanding of the malicious, crabbed aspect of envy which makes it uncomfortable to own. Envy and jealousy are interrelated and are often confused.
Jealousy is the affect in a triangular situation when a person fears that something that they believe belongs to them has been or is about to be taken away. Essentially the difference between envy and jealousy is that envy is between two objects; jealousy between three.
Frequently it used inaccurately as in, 'I'm so jealous of your car, job, house marriage, talent or whatever.' It may be that the sample used by Gallup was exceptionally love-lorn. Or it may be, as I suggested earlier, that the other deadly sins are no longer viewed with any degree of abhorrence.
The word religion comes from the Latin stem religio which means link back, which, it seems to me, is one of the functions of psychotherapy. Religion, mythology and psychology are all ways of looking at human experience and trying to understand it. They are a history of ideas. Whether religions in general or Christianity in particular are based on historical truth is not under discussion here. Religion and myth hold verities which are none the less true for not being verifiable. Freud and Jung both recognized the importance of myth. We cannot look at the history of thought and the mind without reference to myths; they lie at the very root of it. All races without exception have a mythology. Reading myths not only gives us the pleasure of fine stories we also acquire an insight into civilisation's thoughts. 'The goal of humanity and of psychoanalysis is the facilitation of a suitable space for containing, ruminating and making use of experience - not tipping it out, reprojecting it, mimicking it, batting it away, etc.'(Young,1984:34). That aim could equally well be couched in religious language
'... the concept of the shadow is analytical psychology's contribution to, and extension of, theology's sin' (Hubback, 1972: 163). The shadow is an unconscious part of the personality which is characterized by traits and attitudes which the conscious ego tends to reject. It contains the behaviour we find unacceptable; the ideas we do not approve of voicing; attitudes we did not know we held; in short all the aspects which do not suit the idealised view we have of ourselves. Shadow contents are personified in dreams by a person of the same sex and are not necessarily negative. They may prove to be valued gifts of new energy and insight to the ego if made conscious and assimilated.
This paper is about the background, the foundation which is the basis for much of what we think about good and evil and their place in the world. Some of the creation myths are looked at and are seen as way of explaining how evil came into the world. It seems that notions of sin evolved early in our history and some cultures and religions are more enmeshed in views of humanity's essential sinfulness than others. Orphism and Gnosticism opened the way to dualism, still inherent in many attitudes and beliefs today and they also provided the matrix from which the notion of the seven deadly sins evolved. The dogma of original sin is discussed in relation to the guilt it imposes on humanity for being human. Envy and its place in the list of deadly sins is considered. Biblical envy is explored and the way in which the Old Testament writers described God.
Evil and Sin
Religions and mythologies, which can be seen as the precursors of depth psychology, are concerned with the presence of evil in the world and how it affects humanity. Many now regard psycho-analysis as a religion and it behoves us to look at ideas and attempts to understand how evil came into the world, and from there to look at notions of envy as a sin as well as an important and potent factor in psycho-analytical thinking.
The need for humans to try to understand evil is apparent in many myths. The difference between moral and physical evil is not easy to delineate. Although moral evil could be perceived as the product of an act of free will, involving human responsibility alone, the almost magical conviction that the human heart is contaminated, so to speak, from outside leads to social blame being internalised as guilt. Even when there is a feeling of sin of which we are the originators, there is the sense of being overwhelmed by a power that corrupts us.
The seeming impossibility of not becoming mired in the swamp of sin that sucks us in despite the struggle to extricate ourselves is eloquently put by Saint Paul, 'For the good that I would I do not; but the evil which I would not that I do' (Romans,7;19).
Although physical evil can be recognised as the effect of natural causes there is also the sense of there being an element of punishment. This is particularly noticeable in sickness when plagues and epidemics cut swathes through populations and groups. (The AIDS epidemic is an interesting contemporary example of this.) Sickness attacks the individual and makes him suffer physically and emotionally. The illness, which was outside is now inside, and is acting aggressively against the body and is experienced both as a malevolent power and to do with one's own unwholesomeness. From there it is easy to see illness and death as a punishment for evil.
Later, behaviour that transgressed tribal mores was seen as the result of the same evil force which occasioned other disturbing physical manifestations. Later still this would be visualised as demons. Demons were '... originally connected with disease, the most obvious form of ill, and later, as a conscience developed, with moral qualities. Numerous disease-metaphors describing sin are used in the Bible and elsewhere and such imagery has persisted down to this day (Bloomfield, 1952:28). Physical and moral evil were conceived as different aspects of the same principle. Physical ills were frequently explained in terms of moral turpitude. From the earliest times evil was linked with disease and in some ways still is. Robert Burton, writing in 1621 in his treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy talks of envy both as a sin and a disease.
A major cause of suffering is the violence one human inflicts on another. To do evil almost always directly or indirectly inflicts suffering on another. The overlapping of evil perpetrated and evil suffered prevents them from being entirely separate. The function of myth is to provide a 'because' to the question 'why'. The function of psychotherapy is to explore the tangled web of perceptions, experiences and notions that infect individuals with unbearable feelings of unworthiness, sinfulness and culpability.
Myth, in narrating how the world began, recounts how humanity reached its present unhappy and uneasy state.
In earliest times man was pitted against the elements and large creatures; he must have felt a sense of impotence. How was he to explain and attempt to control physical problems that beset him? In order to combat his sense of helplessness he resorted to magic. Magic was a way of being an active part of cosmic functions rather than being at their mercy. The objects that were acted upon were never indifferent; some acts were tolerated by the gods, others were reserved for them alone and were taboo.
Manipulation of taboo was dangerous and required a ritual for subsequent purification. The transgressing of a taboo was often necessary and unavoidable and there would be no guilt. The offender had to be cleansed through magical acts. There was no implication of personal culpability as there would be through disobeying expressed divine will. 'What is dreaded by the "primitive" is not offending a transcendent being but upsetting the cosmological order. Thanks to myth, he knows what is taboo, and thanks to magical rites, he knows how to do it: he confesses and expiates' (LeCocque,1987:326).
The difficulty was that although the killing of animals was necessary for survival, they were also worshipped; their forgiveness had to be invoked before the kill. LeCocque sees the further reparation as magical. Bolle (1967) holds that, although the successful hunter would be honoured and purification rites ensued, there was a consciousness of man's intrinsically sinful state as well as awareness of individual wrongdoing.
There are many myths of paradise and the fall which could indicate both a sense of individual transgression as well as an inherited or inherent 'sinful state'. Perhaps the earliest
chronicled creation story is Sumerian. It is usually placed in the second millennium BC. Campbell (1968) recalls there is a Sumerian seal from 3500 BC depicting the serpent, the tree and the goddess giving fruit to a visiting male. In the legend of the Huluppu-tree,
'In the first days, in the very first days...
In the first days when everything needed was brought into being' (Wolkstein & Kramer,1984;4),
Innana, daughter of Nanna the Moon God and Ningal the Moon Goddess planted a tree in her garden. The tree grew and in its boughs the Anzu-bird roosted, in its roots the serpent 'who could not be charmed' rested and the 'dark maid Lilith built her home in the trunk' (p.6). They would not leave despite all Innana's tears. Not until Gilgamesh came to the garden; he cut down the tree and killed the serpent; the bird and Lilith fled. Innana and Gilgamesh are joined and Innana comes into her own as Queen of Heaven and Earth.1 However, Lilith and the serpent, as personifications of dark, disruptive forces, which were thought of as evil, were now abroad in the world. In the second millennium BC, the Egyptians were emerging from their devotion to the Osirian cult, '... an awesome, terribly dark affair of massive suttee burials...'(Campbell, 1968;348), and moving into the religion of the god of light, Re. In this system, there had been since antiquity a conscious principle, Atun. He alone without feminine help fertilised himself and produced the first divine couple. Very early on Atun was associated with Re the god of the sun. Nevertheless the Egyptians remained preoccupied with death as their temples, tombs and monuments show. Pyramid texts (c.2350-2175 BC) show an assessment of a man's moral behaviour so the divinities could judge what kind of after-life he was worthy of. Later (1500 BC) The Book of the Dead described the journey of the soul after death through the underworld and showed the judgements of Re, the guardian of truth and goodness. There was also the belief that a man's soul was weighed at death against a feather; sinful souls tipped the balance. Already there was the notion that the life lived on earth influenced the nature of the life of the hereafter. Acts not committed in order to display virtue were listed; this is one of the earliest examples of sin listing.
In the biblical account of creation (Genesis 2 and 3) God creates the world and places Adam and Eve in it to be fruitful and multiply. The only stricture is that they may not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, if they do they will die. The serpent approaches Eve and tells her she will not die if she eats the fruit, but that her eyes will be opened and she will be like God, knowing both good and evil. Eve, desiring the fruit and the wisdom it will impart eats and takes some fruit to Adam. God curses the serpent and promises enmity between him and his seed and woman and her seed hereafter. In this tradition the serpent is the symbol of temptation and evil. In tempting Eve what were its motives? It would seem the serpent envied God and his ability to create a world that was perfect and wanted to disrupt and spoil the innocence and perfection; maybe it envied God his place high above in Heaven whereas the serpent moved along the ground; maybe it envied Adam and Eve their uncomplicated, artless happiness. Eve as the one who tempts Adam with the fruit is the serpent’s agent and is held responsible for Adam’s (and all humanity’s) Fall. A useful excuse for some misogynists to rationalise their prejudices. Adam in taking the fruit Eve offers is guilty of pride in wanting to be like God.
Orphism and Gnosticism
The Orphic mysteries were perhaps the first pagan religion that incorporated a sense of sin not dissimilar to that of Christianity. 'The Orphics regarded the soul as celestial in nature, as a spark of Dionysus imprisoned in an evil body. They felt that purification, which the Orphic ritual provided, was essential' (Bloomfield, 1952;8). The idea of purification, so central to Orphism, could only have taken hold if disease and sin were thought of as being closely connected. If the necessary expiation was not achieved through the rituals the soul transmigrated to another body. The goal was to escape the cycle of death and rebirths, thus releasing the soul from carnality and becoming true untainted spirit. Much of Orphism evolved into Gnosticism.
Orphism had an influence on Plato, and, Bloomfield asserts, although Plato was not a dualist he opened the door to dualism. Bloomfield suggests that while there is evil, some type of ethical and metaphysical dualism is necessary. Aristotle, however, was less concerned with the metaphysics of evil; his ethical thought is based upon his belief in the importance of desire and his concept of virtue as a mean and evil as an extreme. Ontological dualistic tendencies rooted in spirit-matter opposition were strengthened by the Gnostics. Basically they believed that the world, matter, the body were inherently evil.
Judaism had a different view of evil, for, naturally, metaphysical dualism could not be tolerated. The whole world was potentially good, evil was rebellion against God's law, and essentially inner, though often personified as demons and evil spirits. However, as the Gnostics noticed, if God created everything, then, ipso facto, he must have created evil as well.
The Gnostic answer was that the world was wicked and created by an evil power. This unrelenting, bleak hopelessness had to relieved, however, and a redeemer found. The Christian Gnostics found him in Jesus, the messenger of the transcendent God, who came down to earth to save mankind. He is certainly not the son of Yahweh, who was viewed as the evil creator, but his adversary. So there were two Gods, a higher more serene God and Yahweh. The Yahweh of the Old Testament was too petty, unpredictable and moody, too human to be the God. In this teaching the serpent was the divine instrument of God.
From the infinity of the realm of the higher godhead the divine serpent fell, and this fall was due to the schemes of Yahweh, the creator of this fallen world, which is a mixture of divine light and deepest darkness. For the God of the Old Testament could not create the world from nothing but did so by 'engulfing a quantity of the light of the infinite true Father. This light, the Spirit, he lured, conjured or ravished downward into Matter where it is now entrapped' (Campbell, 1968:156).
The second descent of the serpent was voluntary and was to strike back at Yahweh by creating Adam and Eve to break his commandment. Yahweh retaliated by delivering the Ten Commandments to Moses, an 'impossible set of moral laws'(p.156). The serpent's reply was to return yet again in the form of Jesus who was not himself a redeemer but a vehicle for the redeemer. So the 'heresy' of the Gnostics was that in order to achieve eternal life the laws of Old Testament had to be disobeyed. Thus, in this tradition, it is necessary and sanctioned to break the law, to sin. Jesus stirred the implacable hatred of the Pharisees and Sadducees by his new interpretation of ancient laws. Saint Paul wrote, 'Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law' (Galatians,3:13). But not from guilt.
The Soul Journey
With that brief summary of some of the ideas of evil prevalent in early times, we come to sin and the concept of the seven most important sins. Bloomfield's thesis is that the seven cardinal sins, which appeared in Christian theology in the fourth century, are a product of the eschatological belief which is called the Soul Journey, and was central to Gnosticism. The Soul Journey was a particular manifestation of the Otherworld Journey which is part of the cultural inheritance of humanity and is spread throughout civilisations. What is common to all the Otherworld Journeys is that it is the journey either of a living person or, post-mortem, of a soul into the underworld to receive teaching , information or revelation.
In the Sumerian myth, Innana Queen of Heaven and Earth goes down in the lower world to attend the funeral of her sister's husband. She goes though seven gates losing her clothing at each gate until she stands naked before her sister Erishkigal Queen of the Underworld. Erishkigal, inconsolable in her loss and perhaps envying Innana her living, potent husband, and upper world glory, strikes her dead; Innana is hung on a hook as rotting meat for three days and nights. When she does not return after three days and nights her faithful servants start to gather help for her rescue.
The Book of the Dead contains accounts of journeys in the underworld. In Greek mythology there are several examples; Orpheus and Eurydice, Persephone, Aeneas all undertake these journeys and are irrevocably changed by them. Today these accounts of Otherworld Journeys are often understood in terms of individuation, a rite of passage on the way to maturity. Of course, Jesus' descent into Hell after his death and before his resurrection three days later is central to Christian dogma. Jesus' descent to Hell was to set free those held captive by their sins and introduces the teaching of atonement for sins.
Dante's Divine Comedy is perhaps the most famous example of the Otherworld Journey in Western European literature. He, with his companion Virgil, visits Hell and meets the souls of the damned. In Purgatory they meet souls who are not damned nor, as yet, virtuous enough to go straight to Heaven. The doctrine of Purgatory is not scriptural but is, Dorothy Sayers says in her introduction to Purgatory, 'of early Patristic origin and seems to have been first clearly formulated by the Alexandrian Fathers' (1953:54).
Dante clearly held to an early, more pure doctrine that purgatory was a place of where sins were purged by cathartic pain. This, unlike Hell, was not a place of punishment. It was later that the debased and bureaucratic view of Purgatory became accepted. It was the practice of selling indulgences and the ability of the mourners to buy expiatory masses for their loved ones to shorten their time in Purgatory which in some ways led to the Reformation.
Dante arranges Purgatory into seven cornices and each one is devoted to the purging of what are usually called the seven deadly sins. However, less misleadingly, they are also called the cardinal or capital sins which are recognised by the church as the fountain-heads from which all other sins ultimately spring. They were not only serious moral offences but gave rise to other sins.
Interestingly, in Hell, Dante met a victim of envy who in despair committed suicide for which he was damned (Canto xiii). But it is in Purgatory, on the second cornice, he meets the envious whose eye-lids have been sewn up with wire (Canto xxxiii l.70); the eyes which could not bear to look on the joy of others. This could also be an allusion to the awful power of the envious or evil eye.
To return to Bloomfield's idea of the seven cardinal, or capital sins, being a remnant of the dogma of the Soul Journey. The Gnostic belief in the Soul Journey was to provide a solution to the problem of evil and to bridge the barrier of spirit and matter. Briefly, the Soul Journey is about the individual soul which emanates from God or from an upper world and descends through seven or eight spheres of planets gaining the characteristics of each until it enters earth in the new-born infant. At death the soul leaves the body and ascends to the Godhead or upper world, having given back to the seven spheres their elements. 'So, although the Gnostic conception of the maleficent planets faded out, the seven cardinal sins remained in the orthodox theology of the Church, as a remnant of all this Gnostic and Hellenistic speculation, unknown to the faithful'(p.36).
The listing of sins was an ancient and widespread practice; for example the Egyptians pyramid texts has lists of sins not committed. The naming of the sins was believed reduced their power; once named a sin can be subject to control and expulsion. This is not unlike the analytic practice of encouraging patients to 'name ' their fears and anxieties in order to reduce the power of the unexpressed or unconscious phantasy. The early church fathers in their writings were concerned with lists of sins. Tertullian (160-220) was the first to use the term deadly sin and also he gave authority to the use of the number seven. Bloomfield cites Adverssus Marcionem iv,9 as the reference.
The Theology of Sin
Having explored ways in which our ancestors tried to explain why there is evil in the world and the origins of the concept of the seven deadly or cardinal sins, we come to look at sin and how it is viewed from a theological viewpoint. Sin is more than a transgressing of accepted social mores, there is the element of displeasing a higher power, and from this sense of failing to act correctly comes a sense of unease or guilt. Both Christianity and Judaism place the emphasis firmly on wilful disobedience to explain why humanity sins. Sin is seen as a revolt against the will of God, it is a disruption of what is religiously sanctioned or required. Sin always indicates the result of a power of evil its causes are human pride, insubordination and self-centredness. Roman Catholicism has long held that evil is power outside man and into which power he falls but by the grace of God.
In Judaism, in biblical Hebrew, there are about twenty words for sin. One commonly used is hata which means to miss the mark, to fail. Rabbis rarely talk of sin in the abstract but focus on specific sins; the rabbinical term for sin is averah from the root avar, passover; sin is seen as a rejection of God's will.
The Islamic view is that sin is divided into two categories; dhanb, which is a failing, shortcoming or limitation and the consequence of which is a sanction and ithm which is a wilful transgression and incurs punishment. It is the three Semitic religions that are concerned with sin, though in varying degrees. Christianity gives it the most attention; Islam the least.
Buddhism and other eastern religions produce concise ethical rules, teaching non-violence, truthfulness, not stealing, not mis-using sex and the restraint of selfishness. Some include the concepts of karma and or reincarnation. Karma is an idea that one's life is the fruit of one's own actions. Reincarnation suggests that the spirit will return to earth after death again and again in order to clarify and release it from limitations, which are the equivalent of sin, until a delivery from egoism is attained. In this respect this belief system is very akin to Gnosticism.
'... how comes it that men are tried with suffering, and above all oppressed with their own inescapable shame?' (Mackintosh, 1912:531) Theologically, the answer lies in the doctrine of original sin God gave man free will, set him in paradise and told him not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam, having free will, ate the forbidden fruit. In exercising his God-given free will he disobeyed God and sinned. He sinned and all humanity is rendered sinful. '... human beings not only share a corrupt nature, which they obtain by inheritance, but they also share in Adam's guilt. The solidarity of the human race is such that all are guilty because all were mystically present in Adam when he sinned' (Urban, 1995;127). However, Christianity teaches that as God's creature, man yearns for union with God which can only be achieved by seeking perfection; a perfection which, because of original sin, is impossible.
Life is full of paradox, it is part of the human condition. The philosophy and practice of psychotherapy is shot through with paradox, yet the guilt and ensuing suffering that emanate from striving for the impossible are more than paradoxical, they are what provide psychotherapy with its endless stream of unhappy, despairing patients. In psychological terms, the weight of apparently inherent culpability could be to do with the persecutory flavour of envy and the effect that has on the immature and weak ego leading to precocious guilt in the infant. (Stein, 1990 and Spillius, 1993).
As the early church expanded and became institutionalised so it became necessary to formalise notions of sin. Sin was seen as an offence against God; a word or deed or desire in opposition to the eternal word of God. Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) formulated the prototype of the doctrine of original sin in order to counteract the attractive heresies of Pelagius who believed that man was inherently good (Against Secundinus the Manichean).2 Specifically, Pelagian heresy averred that man could attain salvation through his own efforts, whereas Augustine maintained that the supernatural gifts that man was originally endowed with were lost in the fall. Thus man suffers from inherited moral degeneracy and, moreover, has inherited the legal liability for Adam's sin. From these evils he can only be saved by divine Grace. Augustine seems to have been an early adherent of infant observation noting, 'Myself have seen and known even a baby envious; it could not speak, yet it turned pale and looked bitterly at its foster-brother (397:7). Later, in 1547, the Council of Trent formalised the definition of original sin and is now seen as, 'The hereditary sin incurred at conception by everyone being as a result of the original sin of choice of the first man, Adam' (Peter, 1966:780).
In neither Islam nor Judaism is there a concept of original sin. In the Islamic traditions the responsibility for the fall and the expulsion from paradise is not Adam's but Satan's. Although, in Judaism, rabbis do not see sin as hereditary - that man's sin is inevitable because of Adam's disobedience - their view is 'far removed from liberal optimism regarding man's inherent goodness' (Encyclopaedia Judaica, p.1591). Indeed the rival schools of Hillel and Shammai spent over two years debating whether it would have been better for man not to be created because of his propensity to sin. It was decided that it would have been better if he had not been created but since he had been 'let him investigate his deeds' (ibid). An early presentiment of psychoanalysis as the Jewish science perhaps.
In Milton's Paradise Lost Satan envied God and wanted to spoil Heaven and take it over. He was foiled, so he and the other fallen angels constructed Hell as a rival to Heaven and assumed the powers of death instead of the forces of life. They sought to destroy what God had created. Long before the Fall sin, in the form of envy, had entered the world, and this is noted in the Apocrypha, 'By the envy of the devil death entered into the world' (Wisdom,2:24).
After the Fall, in the Biblical myth, things went from bad to worse. Adam and Eve had two sons and one brother murdered the other. The reason for this was that Yahweh favoured Abel's offerings of firstlings from his flock and had no regard for Cain's agricultural offerings: the start perhaps of the friction between the nomad and the farmer. So first Yahweh wished to keep humanity in a state of innocence or as perpetual children because he was jealous of his excellence and secondly in rejecting Cains's offerings he naturally stirred up sibling rivalry, jealousy and envy.
Envy was recognised as a dangerous and treacherous emotion by the writers of the Bible, though in the instance of Jacob it is condoned. Jacob is considered the ancestor of Israel; he achieved that position through trickery. We are told Esau and Jacob fought even before they were born, in the womb. 'And the children struggled together within her'(Genesis 25:22). Esau was born first, though Jacob had hold of his heel. As firstborn Esau would have all the rights of primogeniture and his father's blessing. Jacob envied his position and stole his brother's birthright and the blessing. Many would view these as acts of envious duplicity but the theologian Anderson writes, '... Jacob shrewdly tricked his brother out of his birthright (25:27-34), and later tricked him out of their father's final blessing (Gen. 27)' (1976;183).
There are many other accounts of envy; Rachel envied her sister's fecundity (Genesis 30) and Joseph's brothers envied his favoured position in his father's affections and his coat of many colours; they were also incensed by his dreams showing that he would be made ruler over them, which Joseph, hubristically, kept telling them (Genesis 37). However Joseph prospered through his brothers' envy for, having been rescued from the pit where his brothers had cast him, sold and taken to Egypt, through his interpretations of Pharaoh's dreams attained great office - prime minister of Egypt (Genesis 41).3 Proverbs speaks of envy being the 'rottenness of the bones'(14: 30), and later 'wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous: but who is able to stand before envy? (27:4)
In the New Testament there is the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew, 20:1).4 Saint Paul exhorts the early Christians against envy (Romans 1:29; Philippians 1:15; 1 Timothy 6:4). and in his letter to Titus points out the noxious effects of envy had on himself before his conversion, 'For we ourselves were... living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another (Titus 3:3).
The Seven Deadly Sins
Theological writers were much concerned with sin; they wrote copiously about it and in great detail. Aquinas in Summa Theologica deals painstakingly with every aspect of sin and admits that whereas there are seven capital sins there are only four capital virtues. Sin does seem to be more interesting than virtue, particularly when the chief virtue is cited as Prudence. (Summa Theologica Q lxi article 2). Theologically there are differences between deadly or mortal sins, and cardinal or capital ones, but to the layperson they need not be important. Bloomfield (1952) asserts the muddle originated in the Middle Ages. However for my purpose I shall use them interchangeably and use the terms to mean the seven most serious sins.
The concept of the seven cardinal sins is a product of the Hellenistic age, an age which is of great importance in the understanding of the bases of both Christian and Mohammedan civilisations. The Hellenistic age can be taken as after the death of Alexander in 323 BC to the fall of Rome and the Western world in the fifth century. 'The history of the seven cardinal sins in the Middle Ages begins with a pupil of Evagrius, Cassian , whose list is of great significance' (p.60).
The number of deadly sins in various listing varied between four and eight. Cassian's list, which Bloomfield asserts came from Egypt, leaves out invidia (envy) and usually listed eight sins (p.71). Bloomfield also says that a hundred years later Gregory the Great (540-604) in Moralia discusses the capital sins in his exegesis on Job xxxix 25. It was he who added invidia to the list. The debates, at that time, on the most heinous of sins centred around pride and avarice. Pride, the sin of rebellion against God and of exaggerated individualism and avarice which, as Saint Paul declared, was the root of all evil (1 Tim. 6:10). The list usually stood as pride, envy, anger, gluttony, sloth, lust and greed or avarice.
Envy as a Sin
Jacob's Well is a fifteenth century manuscript written as an allegory which sees the sinful body of man as a pit full of oozy water and mire which has to be cleansed painstakingly by degrees until it becomes a 'fit receptacle for the limpid waters of Grace' (Brandeis,1900:vi). It describes each of the seven deadly sins and suggests an antidote; for envy it is Love.
The writer goes on to particularise the areas where envy works. Envy has three corners: the heart, the mouth and the deed. Each corner is said to be three feet in breadth, which are three examples of envy. The heart's are, judging falsely, thinking badly of another's goodness and being jealous of another's welfare. The examples of envy in the mouth are slander, bitterness, which means to exaggerate, and to spread calumny and backbiting. Lastly envious deeds are, restraining a man who commences well, ruining a man who tries to do right, and discrediting the name of a good man.
Traditionally envy is second to pride in the list of seven deadly sins, though Burton (1621) thought it was incurable except by a miracle and cites Saint Basil (Homilia de Invidia) as having the same pessimistic view. Psychotherapists and their patients must sometimes fear that this is so, though Klein is confident that by 'analysing over and over again the anxieties and defences bound up with envy and destructive impulses, progress in integration can be achieved ‘ (Klein 1957:231).
Pride was given its pre-eminence because it was thought to be the first sin to be committed and which led to all others; Adam's sin was pride. But was it? Was Adam guilty of pride or envy?
Envy is, seminally, about discrimination. It must be remembered that, initially, before the sadness at another's joy, before the need to spoil, the first glimmer of apprehension is the recognition of something good. That acknowledgement may be painful and instantly contaminated by wanting it for oneself, hating it, or needing to spoil it, but the nascent energy is discrimination; sifting, sorting all the stimuli that enter the awareness and knowing this is good and, therefore, desirable. Were Eve and Adam, in reaching for the fruit and the knowledge of good and evil, proud in wanting to be like God, or envious and covetous in desiring denied consciousness?
Central to pride is the impetus towards an end, a desire, a need, an ambition to be, to achieve, to have something which one does not already own. This sounds very like covetousness which, as I have already said, is close kin to envy in that there is the desire for something, but covetousness lacks the need to destroy and despoil which characterises envy. The Lord Buddha announced that the root of all evil and suffering in life was desire. Desire is perhaps another face of covetousness. It seems there is quite a lot of weight behind the contention that it is envy from which all other sins breed.
Perhaps pride holds its place at the head of the league table as it is, surely, pride that leads to questioning the will of God and a violation of this is a definition of sin. However it could be looked at in another way: to question God's will is a step towards putting humans on a more equal footing with God. This can seen as pride but could it not also be seen as emulation? But to emulate God is seen as prideful rather than loving admiration for in emulating God we forget our lowly station.
Davidson (1912) in his contribution on envy in The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics links it with emulation, noting that, although it is often taken as a synonym for envy, it is very different from it. Emulation is neither selfish nor malevolent and, essentially, it is not associated with hatred. It is rather an 'exhilarating emotion, drawing forth and strengthening our activity, and it is the condition of progress and healthy development in the individual, and it is the result of aspiration or the pursuit of an ideal'.
It could be said that God was none too sure of his ascendancy and that is why he was so jealous as he frequently told his people. However, Ulanov writes,
Zeus punished Prometheus for intervening on behalf of humanity and stealing fire. Zeus in keeping fire from humans is akin to Yahweh withholding knowledge from Adam and Eve. So Prometheus' role is similar to that of the serpent in making the chasm that divides God from man less absolute. The line between envy and emulation is a thin one. Wanting to raise humans nearer to God's infinite superiority can be seen as envious; envy finds it hard to tolerate difference from an inferior position. According to the Bible the history of the world started with an act of rebellion against God. The vengeance that followed is awesome.
Adam and Eve, and all humanity, are roundly cursed, 'Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception: in sorrow shalt thou bring forth children... And unto Adam he said... cursed is the ground for thy sake: in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life' (Genesis 3:16/17).
Repeatedly the Israelites are smitten with God's jealous vengeance when they show any sign of turning away from him. But consider Job; a man who was 'perfect and upright and one that feared God and eschewed evil' (Job 1:1). God summons Satan and asks 'Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God and escheweth evil?' (Job 1:8) Terrible events overtook Job but 'in all this Job sinned not nor charged God foolishly'(1:22). Jung, in An Answer to Job, points out that at the time Job was written there were many contradictory descriptions of Yahweh. Here was a
In fact the Old Testament shows a God who is multifaceted, containing both good and evil. As Jung says he synthesises all the oppositions in his totality. Christianity undid that with its insistence that God is entirely and wholly perfect, and has been labouring ever since with the contradictions and dichotomies that predication spawns.
Anderson, B.W.(1958) The Living World of the Old Testament. London: Longman.
Bloomfield, W.(1974) The Seven Deadly Sins. East Lansing: Michigan State College Press.
Bolle, K. (1976) ‘Sin’ in the New Catholic Encyclopaedia. Vol.13. New York: McGraw Hill.
Burton, R (1621) The Anatomy of Melancholy. London: Dent (1972)
Campbell, J. (1968) Creative Mythology: The Masks of God. London: Penguin (1976).
Chaucer, G. ‘The Parson’s Tale’ in The Canterbury Tales. Trans. N. Coghill, London: Penguin (1982).
Dante (Aligheri),The Divine Comedy, Hell and Purgatory. Trans. D Sayers (1955) London: Penguin.
Davidson, W.L. (1912) ‘Envy and Emulation in The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics Ed. J. Hastings, Edinburg: T.&T. Clark.
Encyclopaedia Judaica.(1971) Jerusalem: Macmillan.
Hubback, J. (1972) ‘Envy and the Shadow.’ Journal of Analytic Psychology 17: 152-165.
Jacob’s Well: An English Treatise on the Cleansing of Man’s Conscience. Ed A. Brandeis. London: Kegan Paul.
Klein, M. (1957) Envy and Gratitude and other works 1946-1963. Reprinted London: Virago (1993).
Jung, C. G. (1952) Answer to Job. Reprinted London: Routledge & Kegan Paul (1979).
LeCocque, A. (1987) ‘Sin and Guilt’, Encyclopaedia of Religion.Vol.13:325-331.
Mackintosh, H.R. (1912) ‘Sin (Christian)’ in The Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Ed. Hastings, J. Edinburg: T. & T. Clark.
Milton, J.(1667) Paradise Lost. London: Penguin.
Peter, C. J. (1966) ‘Original Sin’, The New Catholic Encyclopaidia.Vol.10 New York: McGraw Hill.
Ricoeur, P. (1987) ‘Evil’, Encyclopaedia of Religion. Ed. Eliade M.Vol.5:199-208 New York: Macmillan.
Saint Augustine, (397) Confessions. London: Dent (1907).
Spillius, E.B. (1993) ‘Varieties of Envious Experience’, Int. J. Psycho. Anal. Vol. 74:1199- 1212.
Stein, R. (1990) ‘A New Look at the Theory of Melanie Klein’, Int. J. Psycho. Anal. Vol.71: 499-511.
Ulanov A. & B. (1993) Cinderella and Her Sisters: The Envied and the Envying. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
Urban, L. (1995) A Short History of Christian Thought. London: Oxford University Press.
Young, R. M. (1994) Mental Space .London: Process Press.
Young-Eisendrath, P. & Wiedemann, F. (1987) Female Authority: Empowering Women Through Psychotherapy. New York: Guildford Press.
Mary Sherlock Ashwin is a psychotherapist in private practice in London.
Copyright: The Author
Address for correspondence: 9 Nottingham Mansions, Nottongham Street, London W1M 3FJ
The Human Nature Review © Ian Pitchford and Robert M. Young - Last updated: 28 May, 2005 02:29 PM