Friends Divided: The Destructiveness of Envy

Of the moral ills in this secular age, greed is a popular concern for Christians and others. Greed for money or for political power is widely decried—and only the other side is greedy, of course. But another vice gets overshadowed or conflated with greed: envy. For a powerful exposition on the dangers of envy, it’s necessary to look back a century to Spain.

Abel Sanchez (1917), a short novel by Miguel de Unamuno, is the story of envy. It’s a modern interpretation of the story of Cain and Abel, following childhood friends Abel Sanchez and Joaquin Monegro. Abel’s success among their friends and, later, professionally, eats at Joaquin, poisoning their intimate bond. Joaquin becomes consumed by his anger, insecurity, and personal failings to the detriment of both men. Even as he finds a wife, builds a successful career, and has a child, Joaquin cannot overcome his inferiority complex toward Abel. As much as Abel will suffer at Joaquin’s hands, Joaquin is contorted by his passions and cannot break free.

He also reveals a failure, all too familiar, of rejecting personal responsibility. Joaquin’s envy allows him to disguise his sins as righteous indignation. The world undermines him. He reacts, defends, and opposes the outside forces driving him to fail. This is simple self-justification, but the subtlety with which Unamuno shows it is a rare skill. Joaquin’s flaws are revealed as blind spots obvious to everyone around him; with an older literary style, it would be a lecture for the readers, but Unamuno writes it smoothly into the narrative.

For example, Joaquin masks his envy in offense at privilege and arrogance when he and Abel are discussing the Biblical story:

Ah, you think, do you, that the fortunate, the favored, are not to blame? The truth is that they are to blame for not concealing—and not concealing it as a shameful thing, which it is—every gratuitous favor, every privilege not earned on proper merit; for not concealing this grace instead of making an ostentatious show of it. For I have no doubt but that Abel flaunted his favor under the snouts of Cain’s beasts, or that he taunted him with the smoke of the sheep he offered to God. Those who believe themselves to be of the company of the just tend to be supremely arrogant people bent on crushing others under the ostentation of their “justice.”

It is an ironic projection, but in focusing on justice, Joaquin deflects a reckoning with his anger and envy. It’s a pattern repeated throughout the novel.

This disturbing power that drives Joaquin, and takes him to his inevitable end, is humanity’s insatiable appetite. What’s so dangerous about envy is how it subverts contentment and gratitude for what one has. All becomes second-best. What was satisfying yesterday becomes worn and faded. And even when Joaquin acknowledges his irrationality, he cannot overcome it. Though he admits that his wife Antonia “was very much superior to her [Abel’s wife], without any doubt” he cannot end his fixation on Abel’s wife because “the other was the other” and Joaquin could not persuade her to marry him when they were younger. Joaquin’s jealousy weakens him, but it also has a negative effect on his wife and son, depriving them of a committed father and a loving family.

And that failure to commit to his family and his career cuts off hope of liberation and redemption for Joaquin. In a conversation with an acquaintance, Joaquin is told that “Action liberates one and dissipates poisoned sentiment, and it is poisoned sentiment which sickens the soul.” But the only action that Joaquin could take was to give Abel the fate of his namesake. On his deathbed, Joaquin attempts to face his life as it was, but still eschews responsibility: “Why must I have been born into a country of hatreds? Into a land where the precept seems to be: ‘Hate thy neighbor as thyself.’” Love, and action guided by love, remained out of reach. Joaquin started from love, but his envy drove him to extremes.

Those extremes were powerful around Unamuno when he wrote Abel Sanchez and again when he died at the beginning of the Spanish civil war.

Unamuno’s novel feels fresh; its modernism shows in short sentences and chapters. It avoids being overly philosophical and delivers a plot. But Unamuno’s style isn’t the only reason why his short novel feels modern. His insight into envy and entitlement transcends his time and place. Though he doesn’t explore this angle in depth, Unamuno gives readers an insight into an individual shrugging off their agency. “My life has been made bitter by these people. And I have realized that the world is naturally unjust, and that I have not been born among my own. That was my chief misfortune, not to have been born among my own. The vulgarity, the common baseness of those surrounding me, led me to my downfall,” Joaquin declares on his deathbed.

Blaming that “common baseness” remains politically useful, especially when used by those who already hold political power or are socially comfortable. It’s used by the left and the right at different times and for different purposes, be it “justice” or “in the name of the people.” Though the left in America is called envious for demanding more “social responsibility” from the rich via higher wages or more tax revenue, the right isn’t bereft of the vice. Economic nationalism, absolute fealty to entitlement programs they benefit from, and political schemes to gain more cultural power are common. But ideologues will continue to project all vices and absorb all virtues. It’s up to the rest of society to safeguard truth and not give in to the sophistry.

Unamuno, born in Bilbao in 1864, was a philosopher, poet, and novelist. He rose to prominence at the University of Salamanca, though he was removed from his position twice. The first time was during the dictatorship of Miguel Primo de Rivera in 1924, and the second was at the hands of Franco and the fascists in 1936. He was a quixotic defender of liberal values before the civil war, part of his reputation bolstered by a myth, dramatically opposing a high-ranking Falangist at a public speech at risk of his life. Though the reality of his life may not be as heroic as he is in popular imagination, his writings—like his life—deserve a re-examination.