Envy and Covetousness

In poor and humble homes, in cottages,
In hardship and disaster, hearts are joined
More lastingly and truly than where ease
And opulence with envy are combined,
In regal courts and splendid palaces,
Where cunning and conspiracy you find,
Where fellow-feeling long extinct has been,
Where there’s no friendship that is genuine.

–Ludovico Ariosto, Orlando Furioso CANTO XLIV, 1

Ariosto here observes that it is among the wealthy and powerful where envy is found, not among the poor. Indeed, those who preach the gospel of envy are always the right and powerful—those looking to gain and maintain political power. I grew up working lower-middle classed, and most of the people I knew and was related to were the working poor. I never heard any of them spontaneously express envy of the rich, but I have heard them express gratitude toward those who hired them, who signed their paychecks. It’s only among the relatively wealthy (or those on generational welfare) who I’ve heard express envy. And the envious wealthy in turn project their own feelings on the poor, who they’ve never known nor met nor intent to ever actually get near enough to really know them.

The resentful longing for what others have primarily seems to be a trait of those who already have a great deal. This is perhaps not surprising, since that longing can be expressed in three ways: as greed, as covetousness, or destructively.

If it’s expressed destructively, the person will likely seek to destroy the goods, property, or relationships that person has. It’s the attitude that if I can’t have it, nobody can have it. This is what you seen when protestors against “greed,” free markets, and free trade riot and destroy businesses.

If it’s expressed as greed, the person will likely act to get similar things as those they envy. I would also expect that the “longing” for what others have is less resentful when it leads to a desire to acquire similar things to what others have. At its most positive, people build businesses and contribute to society through mutual exchange; at its most negative you have scammers and white collar crime.

And then there is covetousness.

“In coveting is evil’s root” (Chretien de Troyes, Eric and Enide, Ruth Harwood Cline, tr. line 2935).

Consider this line in light of the commandment that “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife or goods.” Indeed, without the sin of covetousness, there would be no need for “Thou shalt not steal” nor “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” I would venture to guess that there would also be no need for “Thou shalt not murder,” either. When one covets what others have, one wants precisely that thing that they have, and not just something like it. Coveting results in theft, adultery, and even murder, as well as resentment, which incidentally gives rise to redistributionary economic and political theories, giving rise to taxation, the welfare state, and the various forms of socialism, especially communism. When one covets, one can even learn to hate the good for being good.

As noted above, if one wants the kinds of things others have, one is typically compelled to work hard to get those things, to provide others with goods and services. This attitude is the very basis of capitalism. But if one wants the exact thing someone else has, one is guilty of the sin of covetousness, which leads to theft, adultery, and any number of other sins. We have typically failed to differentiate between these two attitudes toward what others have. That too, it seems to me, is a great sin as well — for then we cannot tell the difference between good and evil.

The problem is that people do not differentiate among these different responses to envy. Some responses to envy have positive social outcomes and thus are moral; other responses to envy foster resentment and have negative social outcomes and thus are immoral. Wanting to destroy what others have because they have it is immoral. Wanting to have the exact things others have and taking it from them (or having a third party take it from them for you) is immoral. If you are destructive or covetous, you have bad character. There is not and can never be virtue in these attitudes and the actions they provoke.



It’s the Small Things

David McElroy has an interesting piece in which he laments the decline of general competence. As he points out, we are seeing this more and more. Being concerned about people misspelling words may seem a bit much, but what happens when even highly educated people are often misspelling words? What happens when school teachers and administrators misspell words or make errors such as using “could of”?

While there is a degree of carelessness and, worse, not caring, there is also a strong degree of miseducation and, even worse again, false confidence. Everyone thinks they can write and don’t need an editor. Except that, no one can write and literally everyone needs an editor–especially if you’re a regular writer (it’s simple math: the more you write, the more errors you’ll make; it’s also psychological: the more you write, the more confident you are, and the less likely you are to catch your own errors). Excellence matters, and it is precisely excellence which it being put aside throughout our culture.

The biggest problem is precisely the problem of false confidence. And it extends well beyond writing. While I have had former students insist they were good writers because their teachers loved their writing and told them they were good (I always told those students they should go back and sue those teachers), we see people insisting on competence in teaching when they have only graduated a year ago, we see people insisting they know how to fix the economy when they haven’t had a single course on economics, and we see people having opinions about cosmology and biology when they don’t know the first thing about either. In the U.S., math competency is among the lowest in the developed world, and math confidence is the highest.

But these are hardly the only small things. Etiquette is long gone. And so are manners. People are rude, they won’t hold open doors for you, they consider everyone an inconvenience–one could go one an done (and I invite you to include examples in the comments). It seems a small thing, but etiquette is the foundation of ethics. They show what kind of character you have. If morals are the rules that help us live together in social groups, then etiquette is the foundation of morals. Every time you’re rude or call someone a name or bully someone because of their world view, politics, religion, lifestyle, whatever else you want to think of that makes people different from you, then you are acting unethically. Each violation of etiquette is a violation of ethics.

So I think David McElroy is on to something in his pointing out the little things. The little things are the foundations of the big things. Chip away at a dam long enough, and it will break and release the flood waters.

The Ruiners of Mankind

“all the means by which one has so far attempted to make mankind moral were through and through immoral.” — Nietzsche, TI

In The Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche warned us against the “improvers of mankind,” that such people never in fact sought to improve a thing, but rather sought to weaken mankind. Why weaken mankind? Because, fundamentally, the “improvers of mankind” hate all of mankind. If they didn’t why would they want to “improve” us?

The racists on the Right want to “improve” us through breeding. They imagine that it is their race which is the superior one which ought to be selected for, but if we are to be honest, this is really an argument for incest, ultimately. The Hapsburgs thought themselves too elite to marry outside their own family–the result being disfigurement and genetic disease. Purebred dogs are much more prone to health issues, while mutts are typically healthier and better-tempered. Those who would prefer one group of humans to another think mankind would be thus improved by breeding more of the preferred group over the unpreferred group(s)—if you think this in any way, shape, or form, you’re a racist (whether you’re on the Left or Right).

The postmodern multiculturalist Leftist version is the position that European culture is the bane of the world, and it needs to be completely destroyed in favor literally all other cultures. Of course, inverting the Right-wing racist position isn’t any sort of actual improvement on anything, since it’s really the same thing. Declaring one race superior to another, regardless of what race is considered inferior, is racist, just like declaring men superior to women or women superior to men is sexist.

Indeed, if you would “improve” women by making them more like men, you are sexist. And if you would “improve” men by making them more like women, you are sexist. Do you want to “improve” homosexuals by making them heterosexual? You’re homophobic.

But do we then need people to “improve” the racists, sexists, and homophobes? Those improvers—those who would impose such improvement on everyone—are little better in their bigotry against people as they are. Does that mean we shouldn’t try to improve mankind? Absolutely. Does that mean mankind cannot improve? Absolutely not. While those who tried to push acceptance of homosexuality primarily put homophobes on the defensive and retrenched their positions, T.V. shows like Ellen and Will & Grace actually caused people’s minds to change and, as a result, the American culture to change. Attempts at shaming people failed and backfired, while artistic representations, fun and entertaining popular stories, succeeded.

We do not need improvers of mankind. We do not need socialists, we do not need fascists, we do not need racists, and we do not need sexists out there trying to improve us. They each and every one want to reform us, improve us, change us because they hate us—they hate human beings as such, qua human beings. They hate human beings for being human. Why should we listen to such people? Would you take advice from someone who hated you?