Petrarch hit the nail on the head when he wrote, “Five great enemies of peace inhabit within us: avarice, ambition, envy, anger, and pride; and if those enemies were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.” Envy is definitely one of the great enemies of inner peace. Like a thief, it slides into the heart under cover of darkness and steals away contentment.
Envy is the desire to become better or at least equal to one’s peers in achievement, excellence, or possessions. The ancients referred to envy as a malignant or hostile feeling. Augustine listed it among the passions that “rage like tyrants, and throw into confusion the whole soul and life of man with storms from every quarter.” He then described such a soul as having an “eagerness to win what was not possessed . . . Wherever he turns, avarice can confine him, self-indulgence dissipate him, ambition master him, pride puff him up, envy torture him, sloth drug him.”
Torture is an appropriate description of what envy does. This disease of the spirit exacts a heavy toll on its victims.
Jealousy and envy are often used interchangeably, but there is a small, yet profound difference between the two. Jealousy begins with full hands and then moves through life in the terror of losing something. It is fueled by the fear of loss, and it fuels an all-out, life-or-death struggle to maintain those possessions. Envy, however, begins with empty hands, lamenting what it does not have. In Purgatorio, Dante portrayed this character flaw as “a blind beggar whose eyelids are sewn shut.” One who is envious suffers greatly because he is sewn up within himself.
Jealousy wants to preserve what it already has; envy wants to gain what another possesses.