Excerpted from Dorothy L. Sayers’ essay, “The Other Six Deadly Sins”
Hand in hand with covetousness goes its close companion — invidia or envy — which hates to see other men happy. The names by which it offers itself to the world’s applause are right and justice, and it makes a great parade of these austere virtues. It begins by asking, plausibly, “Why should I not enjoy what others enjoy?” and it ends by demanding, “Why should others enjoy what I may not?”
Envy is the great leveler, If it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouth are “my rights” and “my wrongs.” At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer; rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.
In love, envy is cruel, jealous, and possessive. My friend and my marriage partner must be wholly wrapped up in me and must find no interests outside me. That is my right. No person, no work, no hobby must rob me of any part of that right. If we cannot be happy together, we will be unhappy together, but there must be no escape into pleasures that I cannot share. If my husband’s work means more to him than I do, I will see him ruined rather than preoccupied; if my wife is so abandoned as to enjoy Beethoven or dancing or anything else that I do not appreciate, I will so nag and insult her that she will no longer be able to indulge those tastes with a mind at ease. If my neighbors are able to take pleasure in intellectual interests that are above my head, I will sneer at them and call them by derisive names because they make me feel inferior, and that is a thing I cannot bear. All men have equal rights, and if these people were born with any sort of privilege, I will see to it that that privilege shall be made worthless, if I can, and by any means I can devise. Let justice be done to me, though the heavens fall and the earth be shot to pieces.
If avarice is the sin of the haves against the have-nots, envy is the sin of the have-nots against the haves. If we want to see what they look like on a big scale, we may say that avarice has been the sin of the Anglo-Saxon democracies, and envy the sin of Germany. [Ed. note: this essay was written during the Second World War.] Both are cruel — the one with a heavy, complacent, and bloodless cruelty; the other with a violent, calculated, and savage cruelty. But Germany only displays in accentuated form an evil of which we have plenty at home.
The difficulty about dealing with envy is precisely that it is the sin of the have-nots, and that, on that account, it can always find support among those who are just and generous minded. Its demands for a place in the sun are highly plausible, and those who detect any egotism in the demand can readily be silenced by accusing them of oppression, inertia, and a readiness to grind the face of the poor.Let us look for a moment at some of the means by which envy holds the world to ransom.
One of its achievements has been to change the former order by which society was based, on status, and substitute a new basis — that of contract. Status means, roughly speaking, that the relations of social units are ordered according to the intrinsic qualities that those units possess by nature. Men and institutions are valued for what they are. Contract means that they are valued, and their relations ordered, in virtue of what bargain they are able to strike. Knowledge, for example, and the man of knowledge can be rated at a market value — prized, that is, not for the sake of knowledge, but for what is called their contribution to society. The family is esteemed, or not esteemed, according as it can show its value as an economic unit. Thus, all inequalities can, theoretically, be reduced to financial and utilitarian terms, and the very notion of intrinsic superiority can be denied and derided. In other words, all pretension to superiority can be debunked.
The years between the wars saw the most ruthless campaign of debunking ever undertaken by nominally civilized nations. Great artists were debunked by disclosures of their private weaknesses; great statesmen, by attributing to them mercenary and petty motives, or by alleging that all their work was meaningless, or done for them by other people. Religion was debunked and shown to consist of a mixture of craven superstition and greed. Courage was debunked, patriotism was debunked, learning and art were debunked, love was debunked, and with it family affection and the virtues of obedience, veneration, and solidarity. Age was debunked by youth, and youth by age. Psychologists stripped bare the pretensions of reason and conscience and self-control, saying that these were only the respectable disguises of unmentionable unconscious impulses . Honor was debunked with peculiar virulence, and good faith, and unselfishness. Everything that could possibly be held to constitute an essential superiority had the garments of honor torn from its back and was cast out into the darkness of derision. Civilization was finally debunked till it had not a rag left to cover its nakedness.
It is well that the hypocrisies that breed like mushrooms in the shadow of great virtues should be discovered and removed, but envy is not the right instrument for that purpose, for it tears down the whole fabric to get at the parasitic growths. Its enemy, in fact, is the virtues themselves. Envy cannot bear to admire or respect; it cannot bear to be grateful. But it is very plausible; it always announces that it works in the name of truth and equity.