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.