A wee green monster

…of "the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all,"…We are creatures who, with rare exceptions, compare ourselves to others; therefore, we are creatures doomed to find ourselves wanting. In some great cosmic joke, Epstein notes, we seem incapable of wanting what we've got. Envy is a charming, breezy call to look at this dark corner of our own hearts, and refuse to let it grow.

The Toronto Star
October 19, 2003

A wee green monster
The Deadlies are everywhere; a new series ponders why. If sins have sizes, envy is small — a little rat-faced weasel.
Nora Young

by Joseph Epstein
Oxford University Press, 134 pages, $22.95

Lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy, pride. What is it with The Seven Deadly Sins, anyway? Why does a 1,500-year-old list composed by a medieval pope named Gregory the Great still have resonance for our angry, arrogant, all-around sinful culture? After all, even during those idle, shoe-gazing commercial breaks while watching Temptation Island and Joe Millionaire, we seem only glancingly concerned with the weight of sin on our immortal souls.

The Deadlies are turning up a lot these days, often in secular, even silly, contexts. French chefs recently proposed taking gluttony off the list of seven. A Toronto club-district bar takes its name from them; they have served as a skin-crawling plot device in film (Seven). They even fuel a current ad campaign. (L'Oreal's sins-themed hair gel campaign, though what, exactly, the stylistic argument is for gluttonous hair remains unclear.)

Maybe their power lies in the sins' highly intimate quality. For the most part, they're not actual acts of wrongdoing, but mental states: feeling angry or superior to others, resenting other people's success. They may not be criminal acts, but they are despicable; they shut us off from other people and, of course, from God. The deadly sins make Ebenezer Scrooges of us all, whether our particular greed is for money, sex, food or ego stroking.

Not only are they so interior, so psychological, they're menacingly common, and that combination means there's something of a slippery slope to them. How much money is too much? When is food about more than nourishment? One minute you're having a coffee with a co-worker, the next you're imagining him or her splayed out on the photocopier wearing nothing but a copy of the performance review manual. No wonder so many philosophies and religions warn of the dangers of pride, greed and the like.

And yet, and yet. They have an allure of sexiness about them that you don't find in such sins as, say, murder. Their very persistence and near universality means they always hold out the temptation and promise of giving in to them. Self-control is so difficult; indulgence so luxurious.

Given this taut balance, the seven deadly sins are hard to beat as a handy way of taking our moral pulse. Now, Oxford University Press is coming out with a series of light volumes on each of the sins. Entries will include playwright Wendy Wasserstein on sloth; philosopher Simon Blackburn on lust; Buddhist theologian (and Uma's dad) Robert A.F. Thurman wrestling anger.

The first of these is Envy by Joseph Epstein. He's is an American writer of the New Yorker/Harper's variety: highly literate and intelligent but with a light touch and a wry and suitably urbane sense of humour.

Epstein opens the book by defining envy, observing that of "the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all," and acknowledging that it's likely the failing we're most ashamed of out of all seven. If sins have sizes, envy is small — a little, rat-faced weasel. It has none of the go-big-or-go-home bravado our culture loves so much, for which even greed, lust and pride earn grudging approval from some quarters.

Paradoxically, envy is likely the most common. Epstein tracks it everywhere: in Bible stories, in Freudian dynamics, in celebrity culture and water cooler politics. Epstein even refers to the ancient Greeks, who created the institution of ostracism as a way of dealing with the poisonous envy felt for great political men. Think of poor, ostracized Aristides the Just, who was said to be excessively virtuous, says Epstein: ("‘I’m fed up with hearing him called the Just everywhere,' an Athenian citizen is supposed to have remarked.")

But if envy is nearly universal, Epstein also shows us how complex it is. We're not just a pack of teeth-gnashing, scheming, green-eyed creeps. Envy is a quicksilver sin, with a hundred shades and variations, some more poisonous than others.

After all, as he documents, envy is so easily mistaken for other things: ambition, a desire to better oneself, a cry for justice, healthy competition. This is where Epstein really shines, in parsing the subtleties of envy, showing us the mask of superiority and twisted ego that conceals it.

Who tends to be more envious? (Answer: artists, academics, various "injustice collectors.") How do we recognize the envious? (Look out for irony, but also overpraise: "Watch the eyes of those who bow lowest.") Which environments stoke the fires of envy? (Pretty much any, but celebrity culture does the trick nicely.) What distinguishes those with fleeting stabs of envy and regret from those who are consumed by it? These are some of the many aspects of envy Epstein explores.

Most interesting is the distinction Epstein makes between men's and women's envy. For him, men tend not to envy women their power or money, but rather envy other men's ability to attract women, whether through looks, power or money. Epstein speculates that as women acquire greater freedom and power, their envy will come to resemble men's. For now, though, women tend to envy the "personal and particular," whereas men's can often be "zanier," "built on fantasy and overestimation of the self." Epstein's example not only illustrates his point, but also offers a good example of his style:

"Not long ago I was watching, on PBS, a taped version of Simon And Garfunkel's Concert In Central Park. Although I write no songs, have a poor singing voice and play no instrument, none of this stopped me from mocking Paul Simon's wretched hairpiece or the thinness of his sensitive little songs, when what I was really thinking was: ‘Why does this guy command the attention of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers half high on pot and why isn’t the same adoration accorded me?'"

And who can blame him, really (especially when it comes to Paul Simon)?

If you're going to write about sin, from a secular point of view, at least, you absolutely have to have the right tone. No one's going to put up with hectoring admonishments. We have to believe that you're an experienced sinner, that you're singularly reflective about the nature of sin, that you have a good sense of humour about it, that you take it seriously — all at the same time. Epstein has exactly the right self-deprecating but brainy take on the subject.

The only parts of Envy I found less than revealing were Epstein's discussions of envy's political manifestations. Epstein speculates that Marxism is built on envy of the bourgeoisie, and that nationalism and war can be seen as cases of collective envy. While cynical political leaders can certainly exploit citizens' base feelings of envy, greed and spite, surely the politics of war, prejudice and nationalism are more subtly understood with reference to geopolitics and elite machinations. Here at least, Epstein is asking the sin to do too much heavy lifting.

At the heart of Epstein's book is the absolute folly of our condition. We are creatures who, with rare exceptions, compare ourselves to others; therefore, we are creatures doomed to find ourselves wanting. In some great cosmic joke, Epstein notes, we seem incapable of wanting what we've got.

Envy is a charming, breezy call to look at this dark corner of our own hearts, and refuse to let it grow.

Nora Young is a Toronto-based freelance writer and broadcaster. Her two seven-part miniseries The Seven Deadly Sins and The Seven Heavenly Virtues aired on CBC Radio last summer.

Just released: Gluttony by Francine Prose (Oxford University Press, 108 pages, $22.95)

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