Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

What Dante Can Teach Us about Envy

Lost in the dark wilderness of the world, the pilgrim Dante seeks by his own power to climb a mountain robed with the rays of the rising sun, “the hill that brings delight,” as Virgil will soon call it, “the origin and cause of every joy” (Inferno 1.77-78). But his path uphill has been blocked by three beasts: a lynx, traditionally associated with lust and other sins of the flesh; a lion, associated with violence and pride; and, worst of all, a she-wolf

whose scrawniness seemed stuffed
with all men’s cravings, sluggish with desires,
who had made many live in wretchedness. (1.49-51)

She is the wolf of avarice, and given what will be the Divine Comedy’s constant vituperation of popes and princes who use their God-ordained offices for piling up wealth, it seems just—at least poetically—that avarice should be the focus of this scene. Indeed, it is this beast, not the other two, that causes Dante to despair:

So heavily she weighed my spirit down,
pressing me by the terror of her glance,
I lost all hope to gain the mountaintop. (1.52-54)

But why that beast? There’s not a hint in the whole Divine Comedy that the poet Dante was enamored of moneyboxes and real estate; indeed, Dante suggests that if a poet is genuinely enamored of his visionary art, he will not stoop to so petty a vice as greed (Purgatorio 22.22-24). The questions only multiply when Virgil appears on the scene to assist Dante by leading him on a pilgrimage to the world beyond. Virgil singles out the she-wolf for special execration. He, the poet of fallen Troy and imperial Rome, sees in the wolf the cause of social destruction. For the love of money and land, he says, “many a living soul takes her to wife” (Inferno 1.100), in a foul parody of social union, and many shall do so still, until the coming of a mysterious savior:

He will bring health to humbled Italy,
the land for which the maid Camilla died,
and Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus.
Through every village he will hunt her down
until at last he drives her back to hell,
whence envy set her loose upon the world. (1.106-111)

Now that characterization of “humbled Italy” is strange. Camilla, Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus—all of them figures in Virgil’s Aeneid —are fellow countrymen in these verses, one in poetry and praise. But they fought on opposite sides in Aeneas’ war to settle his refugee Trojans in Italy, yet they are not presented as emblems of strife. No, they are patriots. It’s as if an American poet were to unite forever Lee and Grant, Sheridan and Stonewall Jackson, not as great fighters, but as symbols of unity. What then brings down upon Italy the plagues of strife and humiliation? The beast of avarice, evidently, but avarice not understood as a secret vice, or as a private itch producing public benefits by competition for cleaner dishwashers and more degraded television shows. The origin of this beast is surprising and diabolical. That savior will drive her back to hell, says Virgil, “whence envy set her loose upon the world” (111).

Pride may be the fundamental sin of Satan and of Adam, but the taproot of evil in our practical affairs, the great corrupter of our practical reason, as St. Paul says, is the love of money (1 Tm 6:10). And now Dante claims that the mother-vice of that love, what set it loose upon the world to ruin our communities, is envy.

Why envy? What is so ruinous about that vice? And why should we, in our day, attend to what a medieval poet has to teach us?

The Jaundiced Eye

Here let us turn to precise definition. Pride is a kind of self-idolatry, a disordered love. Satan fell by pride. But small-minded envy, the cousin of pride, is rather a disordered hate. By its nature it cannot be consumed with self-regard. Envy is instead consumed with the idea that everyone and everything outside the self is threatening or diminishing it. St. Thomas Aquinas says—with much qualification and explanation—that envy is the hatred of a good enjoyed by one’s neighbor or the rejoicing in his harm. The proud man wants to usurp the lord’s rightful power. The envious man wants there to be no lord at all.

That nervous hatred is what the Latin term invidia literally suggests: seeing things inside out, looking at them askance, interpreting them all wrong.

Medieval and Renaissance poets understood the destructiveness of envy. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer’s Parson makes the remarkable assertion that envy is the worst of sins, “for in truth, all other sins are at times directed against one special virtue alone. But envy takes sorrow in all the blessings of his neighbor” (“Parson’s Tale,” 488-489).

It is a sin, says the Parson, against the Holy Spirit itself, the source of all bounteous gifts. The Renaissance poet Torquato Tasso illustrates that insight dramatically when a status-seeking Norse prince turns every virtue of his noble young rival Rinaldo into a vice,

painting him vain and proud; his valorous soul
the mad and reckless fury of a fool. (Jerusalem Delivered, 5.23.7-8)

The result is a deadly quarrel that nearly tears the crusading army apart. Even charity—or maybe especially charity—cannot escape envy’s glare. So Edmund Spenser, in his pageant of vices in The Faerie Queene, portrays Envy wearing a cloak embroidered with eyes and chewing a venomous toad, as hating above all the love that binds all social classes together:

He hated all good works and virtuous deeds,
And him no less, that any like did use,
And who with gracious bread the hungry feeds,
His alms for want of faith he doth accuse;
So every good to bad he doth abuse:
And eke the verse of famous Poets’ wit
He does backbite, and spiteful poison spews
From leprous mouth on all, that ever writ:
Such one vile Envy was, that fifth in row did sit. (Faerie Queene 1.4.32)

When Milton’s Satan catches the innocent and naked Adam and Eve kissing—or, as he puts it with stunning insight and spitefulness, “emparadis’d in one another’s arms, / the happier Eden” (Paradise Lost, 4.506-507), he hates the good, a profoundly social good, which he cannot enjoy.

Aside the devil turn’d
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Ey’d them askance. (502-504)

The fault, we see, lies not in the object—often in the old poets a fellowship, as when the monster Grendel alone on the moor hears the glee of men feasting in Heorot and hates what he cannot join. The fault lies in the diseased and solitary subject, who, as the old saying went, sees out of “a jaundiced eye,” dulling and filming all the world with the color of his disease.

Divinely Unequal Order

Now if we set aside our politically correct egalitarianism—that anti-politics of universal envy—we may see why the hatred of another’s good not only hurts the community, but destroys the very foundation upon which a community must be built. That is because we are plainly not endowed with the same fortune, talents, health, and industry. And we should give thanks to God for that inequality, since he it is who has willed it. A diversity of goods, distinct and hierarchically ordered, is necessary, says Aquinas, for the flourishing of any community—even that of the angels, who strictly speaking need nothing from one another, yet rejoice in their orders bright.

The family is a good analogy. If we flatten the family into a Kansas of egalitarianism, with each member fulfilling the same role, or no role at all, as each pursues his private ends, then we lose the good of the order wherein each should share, and in a sense share equally. That is, the small child is as fully blessed as he can be by the order of a family wherein he is but a small child, whose portion of authority is defined by the virtue of obedience. So too the father is blessed by the same order wherein he is the head, whose form of obedience is to lead the family in self-sacrificing obedience to God. Nor should there be any grumbling from child or father. “For the body is not one member, but many,” says St. Paul, correcting the errors of his charges at Corinth, who managed to be snobs, partisans, and egalitarians all at once. “If the foot shall say, because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body?” (1 Cor 12:15).

Note that this order is not the order of a collective, or of a partnership (See “Communion vs. Partnership,” pg. 8). The natural law philosopher Russell Hittinger points out that such organizations, which may be proper for some purposes, fall far short of the fulfillment that man desires, since man is made for communion, whose greatest model is the Trinity. So Hittinger cites Pope John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis:

Beyond human and natural bonds, already so close and strong, there is discerned in the light of faith a new model of the unity of the human race, which must ultimately inspire our solidarity. This supreme model of unity, which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three Persons, is what we Christians mean by the word “communion.” (SRS 40)

It is a great but lost medieval insight that this communion with my friend, my countryman, my kinsman, or my spouse, requires a devotion both to the common good (the friendship, the city, the family, the marriage), and to the individual blessings of the other—blessings that I may be denied, or that I may be meant to enjoy only through someone else, by my participation in the common good. By contrast, the egalitarian ideal now prevailing—defining good as those things which an ego happens to desire—attempts to build a stable social order on the sands of appetite and fortune. It must hold under the microscope the most negligible differences in reward or punishment or prestige or shame. These differences are then magnified into felt injustices. Anyone who has watched children quarrel over two apparently identical slices of pie will see the point. If there is a microgram of advantage one way or the other, sharp-eyed envy, disdaining the lesser, will find it out.

So Dante and Aquinas (and Tasso, Spenser, and Milton too, for that matter) claim far more than that inequalities are inevitable in a fallen world, and that attempting to level them by government diktat would flatten one inequality by raising up another and worse—because only a giant can pretend to level the mountains and fill up the valleys. They claim that envy—the hatred of my neighbor’s good, which I do not enjoy in the same measure or in the same respect—is a crime against both the Providence of God and the charity that ought to bind us one to another in communion. To robe this insight in flesh, let us turn again to the poet, and follow Dante and Virgil up to the second terrace of the mountain of purgatory, where the effects of envy upon the soul are scoured away.

Go Up Higher, Friend

As always on Dante’s mountain, when you climb to a new terrace you are greeted with examples of the virtue that slays the vice in question. Which virtue, then, does Dante choose as the slayer of envy? It is magnanimity: the virtue, literally, of having an expansive soul. The magnanimous soul embraces the good of his neighbor as if it were his own, and deplores his harm, likewise. It does so, not by some egotistic appropriation of the good, but by a joyful and large-hearted recognition of inequality.

On the second terrace, the poets are greeted with voices as of spirits in the air, “graciously welcoming to the wedding feast of love” (Purgatorio 13.26-27)—literally, to the mensa d’amor, the table of love. It is a powerful and versatile metaphor. Everyone at table is at table, but there are higher and lower places, as Jesus’ advice to his disciples suggests. We are to take the lowly place, that the master of the feast may say to us, “Friend, go up higher” (Lk 14:10). Moreover, the table is not just a convenient device whereby each guest can feed himself. It is of the essence of any feast that we feast together. That is especially the case here, as it is no ordinary supper that Dante alludes to, but the supper of the kingdom of God. It is a wedding feast, suggesting the primacy of bride and groom, in whose joy the guests share, though in different ways. The couple and the guests together form a community, indeed a church, whose integral good embraces all the individual feasters within it.

Naturally, we should think of our reception of Christ in Holy Communion, and Dante immediately refers us to Jesus’ first and perhaps most self-revealing miracle, that of the wedding at Cana:

The first voice called aloud as it flew by,
“They have no wine,” and so it made its way,
continuing the message of its cry. (13.28-30)

Think of that verse, so beautiful and mysterious: “They have no wine” (Jn 2:3). It is Mary, referring to the bride and groom, who are in danger of seeing their guests leave in disgruntlement. What threatens them is not the failure to quench the thirst of an individual Hannah or Jehudi, but the collapse of the whole—the end of the conviviality of the feast. Mary feels the loss as if it were her own, because in fact it is her own, and everyone else’s too: no wine, no feast, no community. Her words to Jesus, and her instruction to the waiters, “Whatsoever he saith unto you, do it” (Jn 2:5), make sense only in a lovely array of human relationships, mother and son, friend and friend, master and servant, Savior and mankind. They have no wine, she says, and before Jesus passed the cup of his blood round to his disciples at that first Eucharist, we, his enemies, his scattered sheep, each going our own separate way to destruction, had no wine either.

Spiritual Dependents

Before Dante has time to consider that verse, he hears another voice, this one from pagan mythology, calling to mind yet another dramatic scene. “But I’m Orestes,” comes the cry (32). What does that have to do with envy? Dante is referring to the classical exemplum of friendship, that of Pylades and Orestes. When Orestes was condemned to death for killing his mother the murderess Clytemnestra, his friend Pylades stepped forth to claim that he was Orestes—something I daresay no mere partner in a law firm would do. That prompted an argument between the friends, each striving to save the life of the other. The point is not simply that Pylades and Orestes felt affection for one another. (Even lawyers sometimes feel affection.) It is that the friendship itself, the greater good of communion, prompts each young man to desire the good of the other as if it were his own. Again we are presented with an order, a communion, that embraces the good of the individuals and transcends it.

The third voice the poets hear repeats the words of Jesus. “You must love your enemies,” it says, or, literally, you must love those from whom you have bad things (36).

Now the spiritual medicine for envy, as Dante presents it on the mountain, is ingenious. It is an enforced blindness. The once-envious souls cannot eye one another askance, because they cannot see at all. Their eyes are sutured shut with an iron wire

as hunters seel
the wild hawk’s eyes to train him to be tame
And rest unruffled. (71-72)

They must be tamed—Dante the pilgrim will pick up the metaphor later on—before they may climb the mountain. That suggests there is something savage in envy, something a social order must overcome. And that fact is underscored by all that these blind sinners say and do. Because they are blind, sitting near the edge of a precipice, they must rely upon one another—intimately, bodily, helplessly—to keep safe:

In humble horsehair they were covered all,
propped back to back to bear each other up,
while everyone was propped against the wall. (58-60)

Dante compares them to poor blind men who station themselves, two by two, along the road on special “pardon days” (61), laying their heads on one another’s shoulders, so that the sight of their weakness and their mutual help will quicken pity in the hearts of those who see them and who will thus be welcomed into a community of suffering. Dante himself is so welcomed as, his heart wrung with woe, he sees their cheeks “glistening with the tears they pressed through the horrible seams” (83-84). Far from feeling superior to them, he addresses them courteously, praying for the return of their vision.

His prayer reflects the communion of this small church in woe, for the envious now must rely for their spiritual assistance, no less than for their physical safety, upon someone else. Here it is not only their equals in envy, but their superiors in bliss: “Mary, pray for us!” they call out, and, “Michael!” “Peter!” “All the blessed, pray!” (50-51).

Desire for What We Have

What would a life without envy be like? Return to that strange connection between envy and avarice. Envy we will always have with us, but we need not dwell in a civil order that knows no good other than what can be parceled out, each man looking over his shoulder to make sure that no one receives more than he, or each striving for some office of preeminence as if it were his private good, which by its nature could not be shared with anyone else. It is our civil order, or civil disorder, Dante has in mind, a world defined by strife, as Virgil suggests:

Because your longings focus on a point
where company would lessen each man’s share,
envy blows up its bellows for your sighs. (15.49-51)

What a different world it was when simplicity of manner was one with a natural aristocracy, laments the once-envious Guido del Duca, also atoning in purgatory for the sin of envy. So he reminisces about “the good quest for truth and gentle life” (14.92), and

The ladies and the knights, the battle press
and leisured ease inspired by courtly love,
where now all hearts have turned to wickedness. (14.109-11)

It is easy for us to dismiss such talk as sentimental, we with our anonymous subdivisions, the overpriced inns we call “homes,” silent but for the seductive electronic voice; our village churches crumbling into the dust, our culture of dissolved partnerships and children sawn in half to satisfy the demands of the ex-partners.

And perhaps it is all sentimental, without the love revealed by Christ and in Christ. If we are all, as Sapia says, citizens of one true city (see “Citizens of One True City,” right), and if, as the great medieval thinkers understood, a community is not a collective, not a grab bag of separate and arbitrary wills, but a mutual participation in a good that is greater than any of us or all of us together, then what would that community look like? What might it be like to have the eyes cleared of their miserable jaundice? Even Virgil the pagan understands something of it, as he tries to explain what he, by natural reason, knows of our patria above:

For there, the more who say, “This joy is ours,”
the more joy is possessed by every soul,
the more that cloister burns in charity. (15.55-57)

Should I love my friend only as much as he loves me? Should I give to my wife only insofar as she gives to me? If I say so, I might make a good bank teller, but I am no true friend, and no true husband. Nor am I yet fit for the kingdom of heaven.

This principle is so important to Dante that he stresses it in the opening lines of Paradise:

The glory of the One who moves all things
penetrates the universe with light,
more radiant in one part and elsewhere less. (Paradiso 1.1-3)

The soul of the emperor Justinian rejoices in the greater blessedness of almost everyone else in heaven, employing the metaphor of music to suggest an order transcending all those, great and small, who participate in it:

Various voices make the sweeter song:
here in our life the various thrones endow
the wheels of heaven with sweet harmony. (6.124-26)

Piccarda, the shy nun who was stolen from the cloister, who now occupies “the lowest stair of heavenly blessedness” (4.39), explains to Dante why she does not envy those of higher grace. Their greater blessedness not only does not diminish hers; it is a part of hers, indeed it is essential, because it is indistinguishable from her love of the incomparably great God who has blessed them all. Her words, which I will quote in full, are among the loveliest and theologically most penetrating ever written by a Christian poet:

Brother, the virtue of our charity
brings quiet to our wills, so we desire
but what we have, and thirst for nothing else.
If we should feel a yearning to be higher,
such a desire would strike disharmony
against his will who knows, and wills us here.
That cannot catch these wheels, as you shall see:
Recall love’s nature, recall that heaven is
to live in loving, necessarily.
For it is of the essence of this bliss
to hold one’s dwelling in the divine Will,
who makes our single wills the same, and his,
so that, although we dwell from sill to sill
throughout this kingdom, that is as we please,
as it delights the King in whose desire
we find our own. In his will is our peace:
that is the sea whereto all creatures fare,
fashioned by Nature or the hand of God. (3.70-87)

Is such admiration only for the peasants of Dante’s Paradise? If anything, it grows the warmer the higher we climb. Witness the Dominican Aquinas, who sings the praises of St. Francis, and the Franciscan Bonaventure, who sings the praises of St. Dominic. Or Beatrice, so stunned with wonder at the glory of St. John, that she gazes upon him “like a still and silent spouse,” saying,

This is the man who lay upon the breast
of Christ our Pelican; who was chosen for
the glorious duty from the very cross. (25.112-14)

Or St. Bernard, who motions Dante to see, far above him, where Beatrice has resumed her seat high among the blessed, and who instructs him to look into the face that most resembles Christ, the face of Mary, and to pray to her for assistance. Or Mary herself, “humbler and loftier past creation’s measure” (33.2), who intercedes for Dante by turning to the eternal light, ever the object of her loving contemplation (33.43), wherein she sees more profoundly than does any other creature, whether man or angel.

Christ Shall Be All in All

For all notions of height and depth, of power and weakness, of glory and obscurity, all our objects of blinding envy, are reconciled and made beautiful in the love of Christ, who sits incarnate on the throne of God, both God and Man, Son both of God and Man, anointed universal King. That is not only theology for the end of time, but anthropology for here and now. It is the law of communion. For Christ

did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Phil 2:6-8)

The Sons of Thunder, John and James, jockeyed for position in the kingdom, but Jesus the Master, the one who would suffer in silence upon the cross, showed them what greatness was when he knelt to wash their feet. When we race, let us race for love. When we set out for that city greater than Rome or Florence, let us cry out that happy Middle English proverb, “The more the merrier!” Envy knows no peace, but in that city there is peace, the tranquility of order. Its name is Peace, and its Prince is Love.



Communion vs. Partnership

What is the difference between a communion and a partnership? Partners collaborate and parcel out, privately, according to explicit or implicit contract, the profit or loss. They may be friends, or they may not; one partner may be exchanged for another without necessarily hurting the enterprise. No one would sacrifice his life for a partnership; the idea makes no sense, since I join with a partner for my private ends, as he does for his. If we dissolve the partnership, we can each leave with a just portion of the business.

But a communion brings into being a common good that is not the sum of private goods. If a man and wife divorce, they may walk away with half a house each, but they cannot walk away with half a marriage each, half of the mutual help and support, half of the love. Friends who fall into enmity do not retreat into their dens with precious portions of friendship. Sever the Persons of the Trinity, and you do not have deities by thirds. You have, Christians affirm, no true God at all.

Citizens of One True City

The souls on the mount of purgatory are eager to give spiritual instruction. When Dante asks if any of them hails from Italy—implicitly promising them to bring back news of them, that their kinsmen and friends may pray for their souls—Sapia, a noblewoman from Siena, answers:

My brother, each man is a citizen
of one true city. What you mean to say
is, “who once lived a pilgrim in that land.” (13.94-96)

The point is not that Sienese should not love Siena, but that all human communities, Siena included, are so by their participation in, and their foreshadowing of, the “one true city,” the heavenly Jerusalem, towards which all men must walk in pilgrimage.

In life, though, Sapia was of no use to her native city or to her kin. Her folly consisted in the community-destroying sin of envy:

Though I was called
Sapia, I was never sapient, for
another’s harm made me far happier than
My own good fortune. Trust me, it’s no lie!
Listen to me, see if I was not mad—
And when my years were sloping down to die! (109-114)

Her countrymen, led by one of her own kin, were engaged in combat with the enemy, when Sapia prayed for the other side —I will refrain from drawing any analogies to contemporary Americans here—and rejoiced to see the Sienese routed, rejoiced with such savage abandon that she shook her fist at God and cried, “Why should I fear you now!” (122), as if neither the joys of heaven nor the pains of hell could count for more than to watch her people being mowed down. At a stroke, her envy severs her from family, Siena, and God.

Sapia did not die in that alienating sin. As she lay dying, she wanted peace with God. She repented at the latest hour, and by the laws of purgatory she should be lingering still at the base of the mountain, one year for every year of her life. But she was speeded on her pilgrimage by a simple man who never envied her:

And penitence
would have diminished nothing of my debt
If Pete the Comb Man in his holy prayers
had not remembered me, for when I died
he felt the pitying warmth of charity. (125-29)

She is grateful to him—grateful to that poor fellow who was her spiritual superior. So her heart goes out also to Dante, when she learns that he has been given the privilege of ascending purgatory while yet in the flesh:

“Oh! This is such a wondrous thing to hear,”
said she, “it’s a great sign that God must love you!
So please, assist me sometimes by your prayer.” (146-48)


Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!