On Envy

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

In French, the word ‘envy’ became synonymous with desire before I was born. It is therefore highly difficult for me to natively think of it as a sin. I can hear the voice of parents and friends asking me ‘Qu’est-ce qui te fait envie?’ literally ‘what makes you envy’, meaning, ‘what would you like?’ I can hear the lyrics of an 80s rock song that played on the radio through my childhood: ‘On m’a trop donné, bien avant l’envie – qu’on me donne l’envie, envie d’avoir envie’ – and though the song is about the exhaustion of desire in a consumerist world of material abundance, a word-for-word translation would read ‘I’ve been given too much, way before envy – let somebody give me envy, envy to have envy.’ It’s an odd reversal of values when the radio broadcasts an aspiration to sin.

The lyrics of that song echo my experience of material abundance as an only child of wealthy divorced parents. Toys and games rained over me – both parents, I guess, and parts of the broader family vying for my affection through gifts. I had more things, I think, than any kids at school. I remember moments of envy, when one of them had a toy that I didn’t – but this never lasted very long: either I came back home and appreciated how superior my collection was, or I was able to acquire the plastic object of my desire.

Material abundance protected me from material desire, but a different and deeper form of envy characterised elements of my life that compared unfavourably with others. I envied the children of married parents, who didn’t have to shuffle around from one apartment to the other, nor act as mediator in the financial and emotional struggles of adults. When my father left for the capital, I envied anybody whose two parents lived in the same city, and were spared a fortnightly plane commute. Later still, I envied kids without hostile or manipulative step-parents. Envy led me to regular bouts of despair, a belief that my family situation would make it impossible for me to reach happiness, ever – while others around, though materially less fortunate, were given all the right emotional and spiritual circumstances to lead balanced happy lives. And I became incapable of seeing the good in my own situation.

At school, struggling with my own romantic attraction to men, growing up in a period when gay was not OK, I envied couples of male platonic friends who shared a clear mutual desire to spend time together. Some times, instead of letting new friendships and attachments emerge, I let myself be possessed by envy, targeted and seduced – soon resulting in embarrassment, or even harm.

Envy lost its grip on me when I came out and moved out of home. But the possibility to do this depended on so much – high levels of privilege, a scholarship system, decades of activism from LGBT groups, and the sheer luck of remarkable encounters leading to friendships and romantic relationships that, I hope, were mutually nourishing. And so, when I look back at my own experience of envy, I sense how difficult it is to curb its power, and how dangerous it is for all communities and social relations.

Tragedies of the commons are all based on envy. Prisoner’s dilemma: what if I was to reduce my carbon emissions, and others don’t. Why should I work harder for lower benefits? Why should less developed countries – hey, China – get a right to burn more cheap coal and save money to buy beef, while we must forsake immediate satisfaction to build more expensive insulated buildings and wind farms? Why should future generations be protected, and live in a world of greater potential abundance than us? Why should I go to the effort of looking after the public good, if the public does not look after my interest?

Envy squares greed: while greed is a perverted relationship to the material world, envy looks at other people and their possessions or attributes, seeking discrepancies, and aiming to get even. Envy derives from a scarcity mindset: you have more of something than I do, whether brains, looks, money, relationships, or attention. Envy wears a mask of heroic justice – I would rather risk both of us losing everything, than let such inequality continues. But the same person, here, is both judge and party.

I am writing this – the last of my reflections on sin – on Easter Day. Judah betrayed for greed, but envy led the Pharisees to condemn and kill Christ: why should this man receive such attention – yay, claim to be son of God – rather than us? I would rather take the chance of killing the Messiah than let this uneducated man steal the love and respect of the people from us. Easter, however, is not a revenge story. The judges and executors simply disappear, while abundance returns for the believers who did not let envy possess them. And on this day, at least, it is possible to dream of a future community where envy does not exist, and a genuine sense of abundance prevails.

On Wrath

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

Late on Tuesday, I found myself looking at Facebook. A friend had shared an article on a new proposal from our immigration minister, to give white South African farmers exposed to violence at home a fast-track to an Australian visa. The same minister had previously opposed increasing visa numbers because of the burden on Australia’s welfare system and the risk to Australia’s jobs. At 11h30, I shared the piece on Facebook with a flaming quote: “For a moment, I thought that our present government had something against refugees, and I felt ethically challenged. But as it turns out, I was wrong this whole time – they’ve got nothing against refugees, just brown people. Now that’s a government I can proudly stand behind!” At 1am, I still couldn’t sleep – I was excited by my act of righteous boldness, curious to see reactions, ready to go and overthrow the government. What happened in the end? Nothing more than a few likes and comments – I deprived myself of time I could have used more productively, literally burning it in the fires of wrath.

My first long piece of writing explored wrath: it was a verse tragedy called The Sirens about the death of Patroclus and the wrath of Achilles. The Illiad is the a cornerstone of the Western canon. Achilles, Greece’s foremost warrior, incensed by some internal slight with another general, is overtaken by wrath and refuses to fight. His lover Patroclus goes in his stead and is killed on the battlefield ,shifting Achilles wrath against the Trojans. The version I wrote opens and closes with Achilles’ mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, and her choir of sirens, calling her son to rejoin her in the shapeless ocean. At the beginning, Achilles, tired of the war, dreams of dissolving back into the maternal waters with his lover. The guile of Greek generals sends Patroclus to the battlefield – he’s not the son of a Goddess, and could only stand on equal footing with demi-God Achilles through the glory of heroic battle. The death of Patroclus prompts a change in Achilles: the only way that he now can unite with his lover is by rejecting murky death by water, and instead, join him on the funreal pyre of heroes.

Wrath is the fiery twin of depression. It is a form of moral perfectionism, an allergy to the corrupt world. It is a mask of strength hiding internal weakness. It is not a last resort resistance to evil, but violence let loose. Wrath is possession: alienated freedom. And so wrath is always a form of self-destruction. Every time we give in to wrath, we reproduce on a small scale the actsof a suicide bomber.

But wait – I hear you say – is not God himself wrathful? Here may be the crux of it. In wrath, all human doubt and frailty vanishes. We know what is right, and if we just let the powers of wrath take possession of our bodies and souls, we feel that we could bring order to the world. Is this not a sacrifice worth making? So wrath is ultimate temptation, inviting us to be like God: the most harmful and seductive form of hybris.

On Gluttony

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation. 

‘Little belly, rejoice, rejoice – every cent I make is for you.’ According to family lore, this is what my great-grandfather used to chant before each meal. Being of French-Italian descent, one would expect gluttony to be particularly challenging for me: from the earliest age, I was trained to believe that food is at the centre of civilised life.

I have noted on several occasions that food plays a role in my own psychological balance. Two days without a good meal, and I will start feeling sad and grumpy. The sensual pleasure of a well-balanced dish enjoyed on a regular basis is a way for me to offset the many frustrations of the day. To that extent, food – good food preferably – is a drug that I depend on to keep my own balance.

As with all drugs, addiction is a risk. Stress, frustration, or even boredom, call for a quick solution. This I find in the form of a chocolate, pizza, cake – or a very large bowl of lettuce with cracked walnuts and shaved parmesan that I prepare, for no reason, in the middle of the afternoon. There is a huge, complex project to work on, where so much is unknown. Munching my way through chips and a burger gives me the sense of control that is missing in other areas of my life, even if only temporarily. When I eat, I’m in charge.

Gluttony, Lust, and greed all have to do with excessive appetite. They are the vices of our time, fed by advertisement, capitalism, and our hedonistic ideology. But what exactly distinguishes them? Is it purely their object – food, sex, money? Or do those three sins differ in a more subtle manner? This is what I would like to reflect on in this post.

I have not been warned against gluttony to the same extent that I have been about sloth, wrath, or envy. Indeed, our entire social system is built on gluttony. Food is available everywhere, and cheap. We subsidise farmers – irrespective of their impact on our environment – so that we can eat in abundance.

Gluttony goes beyond the sensual enjoyment of drink and food. It establishes the purpose of the natural world ss ingestion by humans. Gluttony, quite literally, may result in our species eating the planet to destruction – with all fish- and meat-lovers to the front.

Waste is the necessary by-produce of gluttony. Let the sin go loose, and the world will literally turn to shit. Gluttony destroys its object in order to nurture the self – and to that extent, may be seen as an extension of pride. Gluttony seeks balance and fulfilment through consumption rather than activity – and to that extent, may be seen as an extension of sloth.

Gluttony goes beyond the mindless consumption of food to those extensions of our selves – gas-guzzling SUVs and big houses and the fuel we burn for heating, cooling and decorating them. More broadly, the cities we build, where suburbs encroach further and further into the non-human world, because we want to live close to nature, may be framed as a form of gluttony.

Gluttony comes with an expectation that there will always be more. Resisting it, therefore, is also respecting the right for others to leave. Resisting gluttony preserves our future freedom: parts of the world are untouched. I don’t have to transform the entire world into my own substance. It is OK that food remains uneaten – or even, that food may never be produced.

Resisting gluttony creates internal space: physically, by lowering the pressure on our internal organs, and spiritually, by giving up on our limitless appetite for ingesting the whole world, and keeping time for other activities. What if, then, gluttony was nothing but the fear of freedom, replacing the space of possibility with endless food consumption – and therefore, also, the best ally of tyranny?