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Envy, Covetousness, and Bertrand Russell
Green-Eyed Monster, Deadly Sin, and an Analytical Philosopher
In the Brothers Grimm telling (and other works it inspired), Snow White was an uncommonly beautiful young woman whose stepmother also happened to be Queen. That Queen, no slouch in the beauty department herself, had a magic looking glass. All was well until the magic looking glass informed her she was now the second fairest of them all. As the Grimms put it:
"Looking-glass upon the wall,
Who is fairest of us all?"
"Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true,
But Snow-white fairer is than you."
This gave the queen a great shock, and she became yellow and green with envy, and from that hour her heart turned against Snow-white, and she hated her. And envy and pride like ill weeds grew in her heart higher every day, until she had no peace day or night.
The Queen hates Snow White not because she is beautiful, but because Snow White is more beautiful than her. The young daughter of the previous queen has now stepped into her limelight. Brooding constantly on what Snow White has stolen from her finally drives the Queen to order her hated enemy slain.
Snow White is out of the castle and living in a cottage with seven kindly dwarves. But still her looking-glass tells her that Snow White lives. It is not enough that she is the Queen, or that she is now the fairest in the castle. The very fact that Snow White is still alive and still beautiful is enough to drive the Queen to sorcery and ultimately to her doom. (Chased off a cliff in the Disney version: forced to dance in red-hot shoes until she dropped dead in Grimm).
There’s not much said about envy nowadays. It’s not the sort of fun sin you can celebrate, so it doesn’t get to become a target market and hold parades. At worst it’s seen as a character flaw, hardly a Deadly Sin. But many spiritual thinkers and philosophers throughout history took Envy very seriously indeed.
Two of the Ten Commandments deal with Envy. Both come from Exodus 20:14.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house.
You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey, or whatever belongs to your neighbor.
“Covet” is the English translation of the word חמד (chamed) in the 9th Commandment, and the word אַוֶּה (avah), which might better be translated as “crave,” in the 10th. These rules are unqualified: you are to refrain from lusting after the good fortunes of your neighbor. Other Torah mentions of these words are generally pejorative and connected with theft and other forms of bad behavior.
At the time of the 10 Commandments, covetousness could lead to blood feuds. Moses was leading an often-fractious band of clans that not infrequently had beefs with each other. Arguments over wives, servants, donkeys, or oxen could end with ongoing disputes in an already beleaguered group.
Jewish scholars also understood the psychological torment of envy. In his Decalogue on the Ten Commandments, the great 1st Century Alexandrian Jewish scholar Philo notes:
when any one, having conceived an idea of some good which is not present, hastens to lay hold of it, he then drives his soul forward to a great distance, and extending it in the greatest possible degree, from his anxiety to attain the object of his desires, he is stretched as it were upon the rack, being anxious to lay hold of the thing, but being unable to reach it
Covetousness generally doesn’t lead to a spear in the chest nowadays, but it can definitely lead to crime. It can tempt you to embezzle money from the boss whose Rolex and tailored suits you simultaneously despise and desire. Many rich relatives have found themselves prematurely dispatched by covetous beneficiaries. And many rich landowners then and now have used legal if unethical means to take property from poorer holders on convenient land they coveted for a farm, factory, or AirBnB.
You can also find yourself making bad financial decisions. Many max out their credit cards trying to keep up with their neighbors or co-workers. They get little joy out of the items they coveted, and enormous worry over their ever-mounting debt load. And with the rise of social media, capitalism has found ever more effective ways to remind you of all the necessities you don’t own.
A whole industry of “influencers” has risen to convince you that all the cool kids own this purse, drink this beer, and wear these shoes. Covetousness is generally excused if the covetous persons involved are wealthy enough. Yesterday’s seedy businessman kicking out widows and orphans is today’s ruthless power-player. Yesterday’s sin is today’s profit opportunity.
While religious sources have largely been deprecated in modern society, many secular thinkers have come to understand the dangers of envy and covetousness. If you don’t believe me? Ask one of the smartest atheists of all time.
Next to worry probably one of the most potent causes of unhappiness is envy. Envy is, I should say, one of the most universal and deep-seated of human passions.
Lord Bertrand Russell’s 1932 The Conquest of Happiness aimed at making life better for the common man. He aimed his considerable genius at fixing unhappiness by rational analysis of its causes and treatments. Written in a polished but unpretentious style, Conquest is an example of conversational Russell at his dryly witty best, Perhaps the most fascinating chapter is his treatment of Envy.
Russell, like the Aristotelean theologians before him, seeks to find a holistic solution by breaking things down into their constituent parts. He catalogues a number of other manifestations of envy: the animosity women feel toward a better-dressed woman; the competition between academics over prestige and status; the love of scandal; his servants who would no longer carry heavy weights because their pregnant colleague didn’t have to.
Russell goes on to blame most envy on a feeling of being unloved or unwanted in childhood. He has clearly read a great deal of Freud, like most intellectuals of his day. But he also makes a very good observation:
We do not envy a good fortune which we conceive as quite hopelessly out of our reach. In an age when the social hierarchy is fixed, the lowest classes do not envy the upper classes so long as the division between rich and poor is thought to be ordained by God. Beggars do not envy millionaires, though of course they will envy other beggars who are more successful.
For Russell Envy was a social and psychological problem to be treated and ultimately cured. But Russell’s analysis stops at human psychology. He was one of the 20th century’s greatest logicians and mathematicians, but his knowledge of the human psyche is limited to what he can analyze, examine, and measure.
The chapter which follows “Envy” is called “The Sense of Sin.” As you might have expected, Russell finds the outmoded term distasteful. Russell, like Freud, believes that guilt is largely caused by arbitrary repression. Once we shook off those superstitions, we might be able to create a free new world based on utilitarian rather than theological ethics. And we can all see how that worked out.
In consciousness certain kinds of acts are labelled Sin for no reason visible to introspection. When a man commits these acts he feels uncomfortable without quite knowing why. He wishes he were the kind of man who could abstain from what he believes to be sin...
Consequently he goes through life with a sense of guilt, feeling that the best is not for him, and that his highest moments are those of maudlin penitence.
Obsessive guilt about sinfulness certainly exists. St. Alphonse Liguori, who suffered from it, called it “scrupulosity.” But guilt also serves important social functions. Russell dismisses the distinction between remorse and repentance as unimportant self-flagellation. But the difference between “I’m sorry I got caught doing bad things” and “I want to stop doing bad things” is a rather important one. Guilt about one’s past bad actions is a great inspiration to avoid repeating them.
Russell spent his life promoting causes like disarmament, Indian independence, feminism, and world peace. He spent several stretches behind bars for his belief: at 89 he was arrested for Breach of Peace at a nuclear disarmament rally. If efforts to implement Russell’s worldview have not gone as planned, it’s not because of Russell’s insincerity or bad intentions. It is because Russell, and those who have come after him, didn’t understand the nature of Sin.
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