In the Purgatorio, the middle book of his Divine Comedy, a book organized around the seven deadly sins, the great Italian poet Dante describes the envious as the "one who, when he is outdone, / fears his own loss of fame, power, honor, favor; / his sadness loves misfortune for his neighbor."
Much attention, particularly in Italy, will be devoted to Dante in 2021, the 700th anniversary of his death. His lasting artistic impact has much to do with his enormous influence on major poets well into the 20th century. But there is another reason we should turn to him now. His psychologically astute depictions of the deformities of the human soul, particularly in the vices of envy and wrath, speak directly to the personal and political disorders of our age.
For Dante, envy focuses on goods that I can have only by depriving others of them; these goods can be physical, but they are primarily goods of recognition or influence: "fame, power, honor, favor." This should resonate with us at a time when our politics seems a zero-sum game. Envy is certainly a personal vice, one which arises whenever we take umbrage at the good fortune of another, but it can also have a political or social dimension, particularly in a time when ideological disagreements lead us to divide up between us and them, the saved and the damned.
We envy the attention, the influence and the power of those on the other side and fear that whatever success they have will entail painful loss and even destruction for our side. And for Dante, envy naturally generates wrath — another characteristic of our culture.
Resenting perceived injury, the wrathful "angrily, seeks out another's harm." Think of the internet phenomenon of doxxing, the threat to reveal private information of someone with whom one disagrees.
Now anger for these medieval thinkers is not always a vice. It is a natural reaction to real injustice. The question for us is how much of our anger is motivated by actual injustice and how much by the fear of my side, my party, my group losing out.
The secret root of envy, as intimated in the quotation from Dante above, is sadness or sorrow over one's own sense of loss in comparison with the gain of another. The philosopher Thomas Aquinas, whose thought had a huge influence on Dante, defines envy as sorrow over another's good. Might there be a connection in our culture between our mounting anger and the deep wells of sorrow in our own souls?
Surveys show there has been a sharp decline in friendship — both deep, personal friendship and what used to be called civic friendship — and a spike in loneliness and depression. These phenomena are exacerbated by COVID-19. We also witness increased partisan animosity, with nearly 50% of Americans now answering in the affirmative to the question, do you hate members of the opposite political party? All this is intimately connected to the sense of loss, of lack of belonging. How many, on all sides of our political divisions, are inclined to say, I no longer recognize this as my country?
For Dante and Aquinas, the point of our reading about vice is not just to understand it but to uproot it from our soul and to practice virtue.
The counter to envy is some form of generosity. Aquinas contrasts the sorrow over another's good, which undergirds envy, with the sorrow felt in response to another's misfortune, which is at the root of mercy. And mercy is not so much about forgiveness as it is about responding to the deprivations and sufferings of others.
The merciful are the opposite of the proud, who are without pity because "they think those who suffer deserve their suffering." Mercy acknowledges that we all share the same vulnerable human condition, in which whatever goods we have are at least partly due to unearned gifts and can be reversed or lost in a moment. Thomas writes, "the old and the wise who consider that they may fall upon evil times ... are more inclined to mercy." The practice of mercy involves solidarity with the entire human race.
Dante's great work — weaving together image, argument, and story — seeks to transform our passions and shape our imagination so that we surrender our attachment to the vices of pride, envy and wrath and begin to practice the virtues of generosity and mercy.