Envy, one of the Seven Deadly Vices, is the desire for another person’s traits, status, wealth, abilities, or situation.

“Jealousy,” which is akin to Envy, was called “the green-ey’d monster” by Shakespeare (Othello, Act 3, scene 3)

Of course, we are all aware of the good fortune of others. This fortune can be physical health, material wealth, good character, positive attitude, political freedom, or family happiness.

But what do we do with this awareness? On the one hand, it can inspire us and teach us to achieve those good things in our own lives. In more dire circumstances of servitude and poverty, the awareness can inspire a zeal for reform or even violent political revolution.

Suppose it is simply impossible to change our political or economic circumstances. For example, a slave living on a plantation in Mississippi in 1820, an Indian born into the Untouchables Caste in 1750, or someone with an incurable disease.  In such cases, awareness of the greater fortune of privileged others can at best lead to acceptance of one’s lot, coupled with some indefinite hope for the future.

Note that all of the outcomes just above – from achieving to accepting – are positive actions.  Some of those actions are taken in the outside world, and some (like acceptance) are taken in the mind.  All of them require attention and work.

Envy, on the other hand, is the absence of action.  Envy is the unhealthy mental wallowing in resentment over the good fortune of others without ever taking any action, whether that action is out in the world or in the mind.  In other words, like an old saying says, “harboring envy and resentment are like drinking poison… and then waiting for the other person to die.”

The Contrary Virtue that traditionally defended against the Catholic Vice of Envy was the Virtue of “Kindness.” Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a very close opposite to “Envy.”  A better proactive Virtue is to take these actions: Celebrate the honest good fortune of others as evidence of the creative process of G>O>D>, be inspired to do better in our own lives, work with others to reform or overthrow bad tyrants and tyrannical systems, and, if all else fails, to mentally and emotionally accept what cannot be changed.

Of course, being human, most of us will be doing well if we simply moderate the envy we do have.

“If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.”
– the poem Desiderata.

For more about Virtues and Vices, see our Essay, Leading a Virtuous Life — in The Book of Continuing Creation.