Volume 37 - Issue 3

Off the Record: Sorrow at Another’s Good?

By Michael J. Ovey


One of the most unnerving things you can read is John Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost. Don’t mistake me—I do not dislike the work, far from it. I love it and deeply admire it, but it is profoundly unnerving. Let me explain...

One of the most unnerving things you can read is John Milton’s great poem Paradise Lost. Don’t mistake me-I do not dislike the work, far from it. I love it and deeply admire it, but it is profoundly unnerving. Let me explain. It seeks to ‘justify the ways of God to men’, and Milton goes on to describe the background against which the historical catastrophe of the historical Adam’s fall occurs. As he does so, he describes the rebellion of Satan in heaven and starts to draw out Satan’s character. And that is where things become unnerving. I am not sure if Milton has the pathology of Satan’s sin correct, but as the poem develops, Milton catches an awful lot about the human heart, certainly mine and, to be honest, I think others’ too.

Milton does not just attribute blame for Adam and Eve’s fall to Satan. He describes Satan’s motivation:

Who first seduced them to that foul revolt?

Th’infernal Serpent; he it was whose guile

Stirred up with envy and revenge, deceived

The Mother of Mankind . . . .

Milton depicts Satan’s pride extensively and very powerfully, but what makes his account so telling, I think, is the way he has linked Satan’s pride with envy. It is envy of God’s supremacy that led him to rebel in heaven in the first place. It is, further, envy he feels when he sees Adam and Eve in the uncomplicated bliss of Eden in the period of Gen 2.

Why is Milton’s stress on envy so telling? After all, a very strong element of Augustinian accounts of humanity after the fall is the way that in our pride we are curved in on ourselves (humanity incurvatus in se). We have a love of self that is disordered so that typically we think more highly than we ought of ourselves and more disdainfully of others than we ought. Of course, there is debate about whether this depiction of pride can cover issues like low self-esteem and apathy, and I am not going to enter into that here (other than to observe that I think that self-love can be disordered in several ways, of which straightforward arrogance is one form). What interests me here is the connection between envy and pride.

Let me make some observations as we think this through. To begin with, most of us are familiar with the notion of the Ten Commandments as dividing roughly into two connected halves, the first half dealing with sins directly against God and the second half with sins against our fellows. For Luther, all of them are ways of fulfilling the great commandment to love God. It is also rightly said that all of them are ways of breaking the First Commandment.

But what about the Tenth Commandment? In some ways it doesn’t fit very easily as a sin against our fellows. Sins of murder, theft, and adultery have very obvious victims in the real world. Covetousness, or envy, does not. Yet it so easily lies behind some of the others. One envies another’s wealth and steals it. One envies another’s spouse and fornicates with him or her. And so on. Just as the First Commandment can lie behind the others, so to some extent can the Tenth.

Aquinas’s analysis makes this even clearer. He comments that envy is a sin against other-personed love because it is sorrow at another’s good for no reason other than simply that ‘his good surpasses ours’ (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae.36.2). As such, it is a ‘capital’ sin which motivates all kinds of other sinful action (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae.36.4). To that extent it is not difficult, although still very important, to make some obvious applications. Envy can be present for others in a home group as an attractive loving couple simply sit together on a sofa. Envy can be present as one pastor’s preaching is preferred to others by the congregation. Envy can be present on a college faculty when one teacher receives recognition the others do not, just as it can be in a student body. Envy can take institutional forms, as one college knocks another or one church runs down another. It is not surprising that such settings can feature gossip, backbiting, undermining, factionalism, and social sabotage.

Yet Aquinas’s comment that envy is sorrow at another’s good ‘in so far as his good surpasses ours’ is hugely suggestive in other ways. Aquinas’s point is that behind this sorrow lies a sense of self which suggests that the other should not surpass us in whatever good is in issue, be it spouse, wealth, reputation, or whatever. The lurking assumption is that one is entitled to at least as much of that particular good as the other is.

That word ‘entitlement’ is highly significant here. Put this way, we start to realise how profoundly important the discussion of envy is for contemporary culture. Social psychologists like Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell argue convincingly that a prominent feature of current western culture is its growing sense of individual narcissistic entitlement. And such a sense of entitlement, as Twenge in particular notes, equips one very badly to deal not only with one’s own failure but also-and this is the point-with somebody else’s success.

The sense of entitlement relates very closely to a particular sense of self: whatever good another has, one is entitled to it in at least the same measure. Here an attitude of disordered self-love does indeed form part of the raw material for envy. Intriguingly, though, this kind of entitlement-pride is not necessarily coupled with an overt sense of superiority. Rather this entitlement-pride can look a lot like a sort of egalitarianism, a perception that ‘I’m as good as s/he is’, and hence the person in question has no better title to whatever good it is than one does oneself. It is just this sense of ‘I’m as good as s/he is’ that C.S. Lewis satirises in his essay ‘Screwtape Proposes a Toast’. Put bluntly, it is worth asking whether some forms of current egalitarianism are actually motivated by envy. Entitlement-pride, resentful egalitarianism: envy starts to have a pandemic feel as you look at our contemporary culture.

Envy along these lines is just what Milton’s Satan feels. God, he feels, is no better than he is, and therefore no more entitled to the throne of heaven than he is. Satan has a feeling of ‘injured merit’. And when it comes to Adam and Eve, again his envy rests on a feeling that they are no more entitled to an existence in bliss than he is: he is as good as they are. Here, though, Milton’s Satan trumps Aquinas’s original account of envy. For Aquinas envy is something predominantly felt between humans. What is so frightening about Milton’s Satan is his envy of God.

This is why Milton’s Satan is so unnerving: he seems so truly human. After all, consider the temptation of Gen3. In part, Eve is prompted to distrust God with the innuendo that God envies humans for their potential to be like him. But behind this lurks the thought that Eve is also being tempted to take the fruit out of envy of God and the wish to have all the goods that God has. In modern terms she behaves as if she feels she is entitled to be like God. The charge of God’s envy of human potential looks like a piece of Nietzschean camouflage disguising the truth that in fact the real envy is what she and Adam feel towards God. This is reinforced by the parable of the tenants in the vineyard in Mark 12, where the final reason for the murder of the vineyard owner’s son is the tenants’ urge to inherit in his place (‘Why should he get all this? We’re as good as he is’): again a sorrow at another’s good ‘in so far as his good surpasses ours’.

Now I am used to the thought that I envy my fellow-creatures. It is unpalatable, but familiar. But my envy of my creator takes the insanity of disordered self-love to another level, although I reluctantly recognise it as Milton’s Satan holds the mirror up to me. Here, though, following Athanasius of Alexandria, another thought strikes us, and we part company from Milton’s Satan: the creator in his generosity not merely does not envy, but takes flesh precisely to redeem the envious.

Michael J. Ovey

Mike Ovey is principal of Oak Hill College in London and consulting editor of Themelios.

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