ENVY By James Stalker

ENVY By James Stalker

By James Stalker, 1902


Four hundred years ago a Scottish poet—the greatest of all our Scots bards, in my opinion, with the single exception of Burns—wrote a famous poem, entitled ‘The Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins.’ It is a vision of hell, but very unlike the composition of Dante called by the same name. The daring poet imagines a holiday in hell, when Satan calls for a dance, and the different groups of partners are led out on the floor by the deadly sins. It is a bizarre and gruesome conception, such as the Scottish muse has always had a partiality for–this ancient poem of William Dunbar is a forerunner of Burns’ ‘Tam o’ Shanter—but it affords the opportunity of a most graphic and pointed description of the deadly sins, an effort not unnatural to a churchman, as Dunbar was.

The dance of the deadly sins is placed by the poet in hell; but it goes on in many a brain, and the devil provides the music.

1. Envy is grief or displeasure at the good of another–the good consisting of wealth or fame, or any other possession which men prizeAnd it is only the reverse side of the medal if we feel delight and exultation in another’s evil—in his failure or ill success, or any other kind of calamity. 

It is of consequence in the case of this sin to be particular about the definition, because there are motions of the mind not unlike it which are not vicious but virtuous. There is, for instance, emulation, which is frequently confounded with envy, but is, in fact, quite different. Emulation is also excited by a neighbor’s good; but the effect is not the same—envy produces a sense of depression and despair, but emulation produces feelings of admiration and imitation. Emulation may, indeed, desire to excel the virtue or ability, which it copies—this is its nature—but it does so not for the sake of outstripping a rival, but in the sheer desire for excellence. 

Envy, in short, is ill-humored, and emulation good-humored desire to excel. The old writers used to distinguish from envy another feeling to which they gave the name of nemesis—a word which we do not now use in this sense; in fact, I hardly think we have any name for the feeling itself. 

It was lawful, they thought, to grieve over the success of another or to rejoice in his downfall, if it was in the interest of the public cause. Thus a good man might lawfully grieve over the social elevation of a neighbor whose influence was likely to lower the moral tone of the locality, or a patriot might lawfully rejoice in the downfall of a tyrant.

Perhaps, also, we may lawfully grieve at another’s worldly prosperity, if it is obviously doing him spiritual harm, and wish to see his career checked, to make him think. But such sentiments are easily vitiated by the introduction of a personal element, because as one of La Rochefoucauld’s biting maxims says, ‘few are able to suppress in themselves a secret satisfaction at the misfortunes of their friends’. At all events, it is the selfish element, which is the poisonous ingredient in envy—the sense that we are affronted because another rises, or that we reap benefit and gratification from another’s humiliation. 

2. It may not be thought that this sin is worthy to be ranked with those we have already discussed—pride, avarice and lust—and certainly, in some respects, it comes short of their colossal proportions. But there is something extraordinarily mean in the spirit, which is unhappy and disappointed because another succeeds, while it glories in another’s misfortunes. Such sentiments betray a selfish isolation and an utter absence of love, which cannot but be both demoralizing to character and, in the highest degree, displeasing to the God of love. 

In history, envy has been the cause of some of the greatest crimes. The second notable sin of the world—the murder of Abel was prompted by this base passion. Cain could not bear that there should be anyone more acceptable to God than himself. And may we not say that a great many of the persecutions and martyrdoms suffered by the people of God in every age have been due to the same cause—to the spite of the wicked at the existence of those whom they have secretly felt to be better than themselves? 

A great many of the worst sins of the tongue are the product of envy. It is miserable to think how much of conversation consists of disparaging remarks about the character or the talents, the position or the conduct of others. Gossips cannot but admit the brilliance or the benevolence of the person they are criticizing, but Oh, with how many of these envious ‘buts’ is conversation garnished. Those who make use of them not infrequently claim for themselves, as they do so, the character of virtue: they are sorry they have to say what is about to follow; really it gives them pain to have to reveal it; but truth compels. Yet they have been working up to it all the time: they have only laid on the praise that they might the more effectively introduce the exception which was to cancel all. There are those who are cleverer still: they do not themselves make the damaging statements, but draw them out of the mouths of others, openly deprecating the censures in which they secretly rejoice. 

How is it that we can be so petty and so false? Why should the humiliation of another thus afford us gratification? There are people who are sick with fear lest another should attain an honor which they themselves have not been able to reach and sick with chagrin because others are happier than themselves. But the worst element in their own unhappiness is their pettiness. Envy is its own punishment. To be consumed by this passion inwardly, and to live and move outwardly in an atmosphere of gossip and detraction, is a hell upon earth. Yet many are living in it. 

Not only individuals, but families, classes, and even nations, can allow themselves to fall into this state of mind. There is a widespread belief that the glory and prosperity of our own country are regarded by certain other countries with chronic envy; but this idea is probably exaggerated; and, at all events, it will be safer for ourselves to remember that other nations believe us to be chronically the prey of a feeling not dissimilar to envy—the desire of Ahab for Naboth’s vineyard. 

We have not yet had in this country much of that bitter feeling between rich and poor which, on the part of the less fortunate, is mere envy of the more fortunate; but on the Continent this has been a prominent feature of the propaganda of socialism and communism. I have myself sat an entire day in a gathering of the International, where orators from the great cities of Germany were haranguing a crowd of working men. From the oratorical point of view, the speeches were of the most brilliant quality; but not one word was said of the interest or pride which a man should take in his work for its own sake, the only string harped upon being denunciation of the plutocracy for running away with more than its own share of the spoil. In the contests among ourselves between the different classes of society there has hitherto, I think, prevailed much more of the spirit of good-humour. And long may this continue; for nothing can poison the happiness of any class so completely as envy for the goods of those above them. By all means let emulation prevail, and let the pathways be opened to merit; but it would do no good to those underneath in the social scale to blot out the image of a more refined life displayed in the class above them; for this is the very magnet which draws them upwards. 

3. There are, no doubt, some natures more inclined to the sin of envy than others. It has sometimes been spoken of as a sin of the strong, who cannot endure that smaller people than themselves should appropriate any of their praise or obtain any share of their possessions; and there have been in history remarkable instances of this insane desire to engross everything, as, for instance, that of Alexander the Great, who is said not to have tolerated any praise of his own generals, esteeming any recognition bestowed on them as subtracted from his own glory. But, I should fancy, envy is principally a vice of the weak, who, finding themselves beaten in the competition of life, grow sick with disappointment and are ready not only to envy man but to reproach God. ‘Why has He created me as I am? Why has He not given me the gifts lavished on others?’ As well might anyone ask, ‘Why am I not six feet high?’ As well might the clay say to the potter, ‘Why have you made me thus?’ 

Very moderate abilities may be associated with limitless ambitions. A woman with but a tolerable voice may be as hungry for praise as a prima-donna, or the orator of a town council covet as much recognition as would be the due of a statesman able to command the applause of listening senates; and, when the expected tribute is not paid, the sensitive, artistic nature is plunged in gloom and discontentment. Not infrequently envy is the fruit of idleness and laziness. 

Many have been endowed by nature with talents sufficient to win for them a foremost place, but they have not made use of them. Instead of living laborious days, they have expected fortune to drop into their lap, and, instead of cultivating their minds by burning the midnight oil, they have calculated on winning the prize by genius or cleverness alone. Then, when they see the object of their ambition passing to those who have worked for it, they murmur against Providence and blame their stars. But they have only themselves to blame. A man of distinction, who was being assailed by envious detractors, said, ‘They wish to have my fortune, but why do they not wish to have my labors? ‘(See a capital sermon on Envy by South.) 

4. If it be asked how envy is to be cured in a nature which may be prone to it, I should say, first of all, Learn to love excellence for its own sake. In an old castle in the heart of Germany, celebrated for its picturesque situation and its noble proportions, and rendered famous by the fact that Martin Luther, the reformer, spent in it one of the most eventful years of his life, there is a wonderful series of proverbs painted on the walls?

For many a year this old rhyme has haunted my memory and helped me, I hope, to keep envy at bay. To have an eye for whatever is fine, even though it is not ours and never can be ours, immensely increases our resources, for the world abounds with fine and noble things, and in a real sense they belong to us if we have the power of appreciating them. I once said to the owner of an estate in which I had the privilege of walking, and in which I walked nearly every day for years, that it was more mine than his, for he seldom visited it; and we may become very rich if we make the most of all the fine things that are accessible to our observation and enjoyment. 

This argument acquires far more force when those whom we are tempted to envy are using their talents for the glory of God and the good of the world. What! do we grudge that humanity should be served and God glorified by powers superior to our own? Would we impoverish the cause of progress or of the Gospel by restricting it to the support of those inferior to ourselves? We cannot love the good cause very passionately if we do not welcome every talent consecrated to its service. 

Yet, it is to be feared envy enters sometimes into the most sacred service. The human nature in a minister is tried when someone is settled in the same town whose fame puts out the light of his popularity, and it may take a time before even a good man can say, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ 

There is a kind of vicarious envy which it is even more difficult to check—when a man’s family or friends are more jealous of his position and influence than he is himself, and find it more difficult than he to brook the interference of a rival. Thus, in the Old Testament, the family of Moses looked with an evil eye on the prophesying of Eldad and Medad. But the great man of God, rising above the sentiments of his own champions, said to Joshua, ‘Do you envy you for my sake? Would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them.’ In like manner, when St. Paul’s friends were drawing his attention to the shortcomings of rival preachers, he said, ‘Nevertheless, every way Christ is preached, and I therein do rejoice, yes, and will rejoice.’ 

I will give you one more remedy for envy: Count your mercies. The envious are always comparing themselves with their more fortunate neighbors; but the world contains many who are less fortunate than any of us; and why should we not sometimes think of them? If you ever enter an almshouse or a poorhouse, you will feel yourself to be wealthy, even if you have only a moderate income; if you pass through the wards of a hospital, you will thank God for your good health, even if you sometimes have a headache or a toothache; and so, by thinking sometimes of the multitudes less gifted or less prosperous than ourselves, we shall make the springs of gratitude flow within us. 

Do the mercies we have to be thankful for include the great salvation? Is our soul redeemed, and do we carry the hope of immortality in our breasts? If so, how can we ever be disappointed or envious? If we only realized how much we possess when we possess Christ, our mouth would be filled with laughter and our tongue with praise all the day long, and, catching the spirit of the Savior, we should be able to rejoice with them who do rejoice and to weep with them who weep; and this is the final victory over envy.

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