What is envy? St Basil teaches us that “envy is distress caused by your neighbor’s prosperity. The jealous person is never free from anguish, never free from despair.” Is your neighbor successful? Does he drive a nice car, live in a nice house, have an attractive wife and precious children? Is he happy? Is he healthy? Is he wealthy? “All these things feed the illness and increase the pain of the jealous person.”
Often the person who envies buries his envy deep in his soul, not wanting to reveal it to others, sometimes not willing to recognize it himself. He is embarrassed to reveal the envy rotting his soul as rust destroys iron, he is embarrassed to admit to himself, ‘I am resentful and bitter,” I am depressed by the joy of my brother,” my neighbor’s good fortune is my affliction.
The cure he seeks for the misery of his envy is waiting for his neighbor to fall on hard times. St Basil warns, the envious waits for his more fortunate neighbor to be “deprived of his happiness, to become an object of pity.” He may even pretend to be his neighbor’s friend when he falls on hard times, praising the heights from which he has fallen, weeping with him now that he is sad. “Riches he admires only after they are lost.” His neighbor’s health and vigor “he praises and extols only after they are ravaged by illness. He is an enemy of good things when they are present but their friend when they are gone.”
St Basil teaches us, “Envy is the form of hatred that is the hardest to tame. While acts of kindness may soothe those who might otherwise be our enemies, this same kindness shown to the envious and malicious person irritates him even more. The more he is shown kindness, the more indignant and displeased and disgusted he becomes.”
EXAMPLES OF ENVY IN THE HOLY SCRIPTURES
St Basil recalls the same examples from Scripture as St Cyprian, with a differing emphasis for some examples. The fallen angel, Lucifer, “was angry with God because of God’s generosity towards humanity, showing his vengeance against humanity since he could not take vengeance against God.” St Basil credits envy for the original sin, the rebellion of Lucifer from God, the disobedience of Adam. “Just as freedom from envy belong to God who is good, so envy belongs to the devil.”
St Basil continues, “By acting in the same way with envy Cain showed he was the first disciple of the devil, learning from him both envy and murder.” God saw the good in Abel’s heart, Abel’s offering was accepted by God while Cain’s offering was rejected. When Cain saw the honor bestowed on Abel by God he showed his vengeance against Abel since he, like Lucifer, could not take vengeance against God.
Saul was only too happy to allow the lowly shepherd boy armed only with a slingshot to face the mighty giant Goliath in battle. Saul had David try on a heavy suit of iron, but the armor was too bulky for the young David, but David had faith, for God had given him the courage to face down lions with his slingshot while guarding his herds alone at night. But after David quickly downed and killed the giant Goliath, and after David was made a general and the crowds celebrated Saul who killed his thousands and David who killed his ten thousands of the enemy, Saul’s jealousy grew. David soothed the insanity of King Saul with his lyre, but Saul in his anger threw his javelin to kill David. Once when King Saul was pursuing David and his band relentlessly, he camped in a system of caves where David was hiding. David cut a swath of cloth from Saul’s clothes, showing it to Saul in the light of day, reminding him that Saul’s life was in his hands, but even this kindness would not extinguish Saul’s anger towards David.
ENVY LEADING TO MURDERS AND CRUCIFICTIONS
Like St Cyprian, the highest example is the envy shown by the madness of the Jews who crucified the Savior. St Basil asks, “Why did they envy Christ? Because of His miracles. What were these miraculous works? The salvation of the needy. The hungry were fed, and Christ who gave them life was resented. Demons were expelled, and Christ who commanded them to depart was plotted against. Lepers were cleansed, the lame walked, the deaf heard, and the blind saw, and Christ who worked these miracles was put to flight. And finally, they handed over to death the Christ who granted them life, scourging the liberator of mankind, condemning the judge of the world. Envy is so evil it led to all this.”
When first reading these passages linking the shouts of the crowds on the eve of Passover regarding our Christ, “crucify him, crucify him,” shouting to Pilate that he should rather release Barabbas than Christ when he told the crowd this Jesus was innocent, that he had done nothing wrong, although this was doubtless an evil act, I never thought of the crowd being driven by envy. But then, why did the crowd who cried Hosanna when Jesus entered Jerusalem but a few days before, why did that same crowd enthusiastically cry out, crucify him, crucify him? Doubtless they were not the same exact crowd, but we should trust the Church Fathers on these matters, they were much closer to these times than we modern readers are, they understand the ancient mindset far better than us. If the crowds were not driven by envy, what other madness would have seized on the crowds for them to turn on Christ so quickly?
Envy can cause madness. St Basil teaches us that the envious are worse than wild beasts. “Dogs become gentle when fed. Lions become tames when treated with kindness. But when treated kindly, jealous persons become all the more savage.”
We see in history many examples of envy driving mass murderous mayhem. We have seen the persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages, how the crowds massacred many Jews in their ghettoes on the way to the Crusades, and we see how in recent years the Nazis murdered most of the European Jews in the Holocaust. The Nazis were envious of the Jews’ success, their wealth, their intelligence, their influence in society. The Nazis blamed a Jewish conspiracy for Germany’s defeat in World War I and all the sufferings of the Germans in the Great Depression.
Do you say this cannot happen in America? Our envy has drawn blinders over our eyes, not only can our envy cause such nightmares to happen in America, they have already happened in our history. In particular, America has had several incidents similar to the Nazi’s Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, where the Gestapo instigated the looting and burning of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, schools and home. The American equivalent is the Red Summer of 1919, where white mobs attacked negro neighborhoods in three dozen cites, including Washington DC and Chicago, resulting in hundreds of deaths and many homes and businesses were destroyed. Rarely were whites prosecuted for these crimes of envy, envy of those down-trodden who managed to attain a level of prosperity despite the obstacles they faced. This is in addition to the hundreds of lynchings since the 1860’s, sometimes these were public events commemorated by gruesome postcards.
HOW CAN WE AVOID ENVY
How can we avoid envy? St Basil teaches us, the key is reminding ourselves that “no human circumstance is great or marvelous in itself, not prosperity,” not wealth, not health, not success, “not renown which fades away.” The rich man is not enviable for his riches, nor the powerful for their dignity and celebrity, nor the vigorous man for his strength and health, nor the wise man for his intelligence and eloquence.
Why should we envy those who have these advantages? They can make the advantaged either blessed or cursed, depending on their heart that only God can see. St Basil reminds us, “These are all instruments of virtue when used in the right way, but none of these advantages guarantee our happiness.” Whoever uses these advantages in the wrong way is pitiable, like the man who cuts himself with the sword meant for defense against his enemies.” But whoever uses their advantages in service of the good and the light, “according to right reason, is a trustworthy steward of the gifts he received from God.” The virtuous do not hoard their wealth and good fortune solely for “their own personal enjoyment.” The virtuous deserve their “rightly given praise and affection for their love for their brothers and their generous character.”
What is St Basil’s closing advice? “When you elevate your mind . . . and fix your attention on what is truly good and praiseworthy, you will be far beyond thinking that any corruptible and earthly good is a source of happiness or enviable. When you acquire this habit of mind you will not be obsessed with worldly goods as if they had great eternal value, and you will find it impossible to feel envy for your neighbor.”
St Basil warns us, “If you seek only personal glory, if you seek to outshine your neighbor, if you cannot bear to be in second place, you need the change the direction of your life as if you were redirecting the course of a stream, you need to redirect your ambition to the acquisition of virtue. Free yourself entirely from the desire to get rich in any way that you can, you need to free yourself from the desire to be known for your worldly accomplishments, for these are not in your power.”
“Instead, be righteous, and self-controlled, and prudent, and courageous, and patient in your sufferings for the sake of piety. In this way you will save yourself.” “Virtue cannot be present in the soul unless the soul is purified of all the passions, especially envy.” Salvation is freedom from envy.
 St Basil the Great, “Homily on Envy,” In On Christian Doctrine and Practice, Popular Patristics Series, translated by Mark DelCogliano (New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2012), pp. 132-140.
 St Basil the Great, “Homily on Envy,” pp. 141-144.