On Envy

By Mario Baghos

Ancient persons, even before the coming of Christ, knew of the forces at work, both human and supernatural, that disrupted interpersonal and institutional relations. Cultures throughout the world still believe in the ‘evil eye’ (βασκανία), which consists in misfortune befalling a person when someone gives them an aggressive or envious stare. The extent to which such a force is considered anchored in the supernatural is ambiguous. In other words, it is unclear whether the evil eye is viewed as a spiritual force, or whether it ‘proceeds’ from the eyes of the one casting it. Perhaps the ‘evil eye’ is a way of explaining just how important it is to positively regulate our perception of things? The Lord Himself affirms, “the eye is the lamp of the body. If your vision is clear, your whole body will be full of light” (Matthew 6:22). Elsewhere, He exhorts us to let our light “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). Here, the positive effect of ‘seeing clearly’ can be related to doing good works for the glory of God. Conversely, the Lord warns: “But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” (Mt 6:23).

In any case, the ‘evil eye’ was so widespread in the collective folklore of the Balkans and beyond that the Orthodox Church was compelled to compose a prayer against it. (The superstitious accompaniments in the use of this prayer by laypersons could be either ‘magical’ accretions or ‘leftovers’ from pagan practices.) What is interesting is that instead of rejecting wholesale this pre-Christian spiritual phenomenon, the Church, in its pastoral wisdom, met the people halfway by acknowledging that one can be affected by negative thoughts and perceptions—whether from people or evil spirits—and that the only One who can defend us from them is the Lord Christ; the same One who exhorts us and helps us to change our way of viewing the world, people included.

Related to this, in ancient times there was another force that facilitated disunity or chaos and had to be warded off at all costs. This was, in Greek, phthonos (φθόνος)—which was sometimes used interchangeably with βασκανία—what we would translate as ‘envy.’ The Romans personified ‘envy,’ or in Latin, Invidia, as a malevolent entity that was pertinently described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses:

“She never smiles, save at the sight of another’s troubles; she never sleeps, disturbed with wakeful cares; unwelcome to her is the sight of men’s success, and with the sight she pines away; she gnaws and is gnawed, herself her own punishment.” (Metamorphoses 2)

The role of envy as causing and even embodying unhappiness and suffering (the extent of which are typified in a sort of self-cannibalisation) is a powerful metaphor for the destructive effect of this passion on a person’s wellbeing. Because of the power of this metaphor, it crops up again and again in Greco-Roman historiography. Cassius Dio (Roman History 44) and Sallust (The War with Catiline 5) used it in a similar way to how the ‘evil eye’ has been described above; a tendency towards envy, causing strife. Later, the earliest Christian historians, who modeled their writings on Greco-Roman historiography (but of course infused it with Christian content), appropriated the concept of envy in relation to demonic and human activity that disrupted the unity of the Church. Thus, in his Ecclesiastical History, Eusebius of Caesarea referred to two kinds of envy.

One kind, described aptly in relation to the historical circumstances that prevailed in the Church just before the Great Persecution in AD 303, occurs when there is peace within the Church, where: “increasing freedom transformed our character to arrogance and sloth: we began by envying and abusing each other” (HE 8.1). This reminds us that the external peace and comfort that the Church experiences at various times and places could come with a terrible cost if one drops his or her guard. As St Antony the Great stated to St Poemen, “This is the great work of a man [or woman]: always to take the blame for his [or her] own sins before God and to expect temptation to his [or her] last breath” (Sayings of the Desert Fathers).

In the case described by Eusebius, the lack of circumspection among Christians in a time of ostensible ‘freedom’ made them haughty, so that they turned against one another. This, Eusebius argued, is why the Great Persecution was permitted to take place: it was a sort of divine pedagogy to bring the people of God back to spiritual health. Another kind of envy that Eusebius referred to is in relation to demonic activity. In his Proof of the Gospel, Eusebius described envy as conditioning the demons’ behaviour insofar as it was because of their envy of humankind’s salvation that they fell and turned against God and the saints (PG 4.9). In his Ecclesiastical History, the bishop of Caesarea gives many examples of these attacks against saints and martyrs, in some cases explicitly naming them as motivated by the demon envy (such as in the death of St Apollonius the martyr in EH 5.21).

So far, we have seen that the two kinds of envy referred to in the classical sources, whether in relation to the ‘evil eye’ or as an entity that disrupted unity, are likewise reflected in the writings of the first Christian historian in relation to human beings and demons. The fact that Eusebius deployed envy in his History as a source of division in the same way historians such as Dio and Sallust did points to two things: that envy is seen in all cultures as malignant, with the Church being able to identify this passion as either the result of human behaviour or demonic activity, the latter possibly influencing the former (though not in every case); and that, by using the literary device of envy as a force of division in his History, Eusebius was engaging with readers in the Greco-Roman context who would have been familiar with the writings of classical historians who used the same motif.

This form of cultural appropriation that—in interpreting a term/motif from the ancient world from a Christian point of view—sheds light on the forces at work against the Church, was repeated by subsequent Christian historians. Socrates the Constantinopolitan, whose Ecclesiastical History comprises a continuation of Eusebius’ to his own day, includes a letter from St Pope Julius of Rome on the trials of St Athanasius the Great, concerning which he declared that “our Lord Jesus Christ” protected Athanasius from envy/phthonos in order to restore him to the see of Alexandria after his second exile (EH 2.23). It is not clear if Julius, in referring to envy in the singular, is denoting the envy of the Arians who contrived against Athanasius or the demon envy. Elsewhere, however, Socrates referred to the demon as “insidiously at work in the midst of a prosperous condition of affairs” (EH 1.22). Socrates then ponders “for what reason the goodness of God permits this to be done”—i.e. for envy to attack the Church—whether He wishes to perfect the Church thereby or to “break down the self importance” which often accompanies faith. Either way, the test of such conditions is meant to strip away the pride that can creep up on Christians. Moreover, the humble endurance in the wake of attacks from envy is a testimony of the faithful adherents of the Gospel. This much can be discerned in the life of St John Chrysostom, who, according to an unnamed disciple (whom posterity knows as Ps.-Martyrius and who composed the saint’s Funerary Speech) was attacked by two kinds of envy, both human (FS 13) and supernatural (FS 39), the latter being the source of the former, until the saint’s life came to an end in martyrdom on account of their attacks.

Although I have given a brief outline of the use of envy as a literary device by way of consulting the early Christian historians, in fact this motif is prevalent in Christian spiritual literature. For example, in a sermon Concerning Envy, the fourth century Cappadocian father St Basil the Great related φθόνος and βασκανία in a way that denotes the effect of ‘envy’ (phthonos) on a person, namely by making them ‘evil-eyed.’ Moreover, the saint alluded to Ovid’s description of the self-cannibalising personification of envy, the Latin Invidia, by stating that “the envious [person] consumes himself, pining away through grief,” before asserting that the demons find kinship with, and attach themselves to, envious souls (CE).

Having given a brief account of how envy, or phthonos/indivia, was appropriated by the earliest Christian writers to describe a reality affecting the Church and us all, what lessons can we infer? In the examples given above, the Christian authors cited were concerned with envy as it affected, not the outside world, but the Church. This is because of the concern of these writers for the Church whenever it lapsed into disunity. Did not our Lord Jesus Christ pray that “all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21)? Disunity within the Church, caused by envy, is an unfortunate reality: but we must also acknowledge—however difficult it is for us to do so—that it is an affront to the unity between Christ and God the Father and the witness to the Gospel. This is why the demon envy attacks the members of the Church, which is the body of Christ, more violently than anyone (or anywhere) else. And according to the testimonies that we have seen, envy attacks precisely when the Church seems to be flourishing. In such times, no one is immune: both the enactors of envy and its targets become victims of the “father of envy” (FS 39), and the only way it can be overcome is by showing humility, dispassion, and love to all parties involved.

My goal in exploring the cultural appropriation of ‘envy’ in the writings of the early Christians has been twofold. To remind us that this phenomenon is real, and that it continues to afflict us in the Church. The Lord exhorts us to participate in His life through communal fellowship and love for our neighbour, even our enemy. Loving unity in Christ is the polar opposite of the disunity, chaos and pain caused by envy, which makes us, according to St Basil: “sharers in the works of our Adversary … so [that we may] be found condemned together with him” (CE). It is precisely by engendering envy that the enemy foils both our participation in Christ and the witness to the Gospel. But the Lord exhorts us to be agents of light, to have clear vision (Mt 6:22) and to “shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt 5:16). In order to get there, we need to cast off the false presumption that we are ever spiritually safe, expecting, to paraphrase St Antony, temptation to our last breath. We need to cultivate a constant vigilance, better still, to “put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light” (Rom 13:12). This armour is described by St Paul in Romans as a change in behaviour, which implies a change in thought. It is also associated with ‘clothing ourselves with Christ’ (Rom 13:14). To get there, let us together—as one Orthodox Christian family—turn our minds and hearts in prayer towards God the Son, our Master and Saviour. Let us imitate Him in loving one another, to the mockery of envy, and for the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.