We don’t hear a lot about coveting these days. What was once a sin, a transgression of Commandment number 10, seems to pretty much be the basis for modern economics. No longer a failing or flawed characteristic, wanting what others have is seen as aspirational and positive. In the late-Medieval and Reformation shift of religious ideas, where churches were once kaleidoscopes of Christian iconography, the new thinking put words at the heart of everything. In the now closed and re-purposed church of St. Michael Spurriergate, York, the Commandments occupy a central position behind the altar. The increased placement of inscriptions in churches was both a cause and effect of growing literacy.
“During the later Middle Ages images came to be supplanted by written texts: a format that was destined to outlast images and to dominate the interior landscape of churches after the Reformation”Orme, N. (2021). Going to Church in Medieval England. Yale University Press p. 113
Coveting is not the same as feeling envy. The latter is regarded as a negative emotion and is one of the deadly sins. The former is a longing to enjoy the same possessions as someone else. However, it is easy to see how the two are closely related: coveting might become envy. The problem with commandments is that they are easy to announce (and to read) and far more difficult to enact. This can result in the stigmatisation of emotional responses that are to a large extent beyond our mental capacity to control. In other words, we long to have lawnmower quite as splendid as the one owned by our neighbour; we know that we should not be feeling this envy; but thought alone cannot dispel the desire.
“Envy is an emotion characterized by intense coveting of what another has (see e.g., Smith & Kim, 2007). Social life presents us with a wealth of opportunities to covet what another person has. Indeed, there is always somebody who is more moral, more intelligent, more attractive, more popular, more prosperous, more skilled, or more successful than we are. There are no boundaries to what we can desire in envy”.Rodriguez Mosquera, P. M., Parrott, W. G., & Hurtado de Mendoza, A. (2010). “I fear your envy, I rejoice in your coveting: On the ambivalent experience of being envied by others”. Journal of personality and social psychology, 99(5), 842.
One recent response to the topic of envy suggests that psychologists and philosophers can work together to overcome the perception that envy is reprehensible. The authors of the paper conclude that envy is a more neutral concept than commonly believed, and that envy can be ‘functional or dysfunctional’. However, interesting as this approach might be, I would argue that there is a wealth of evidence that in the digital age, where image can be seen to be everything, envy is both more pervasive and more destructive than ever before. In the society which received the Ten Commandments covetousness of a neighbour’s possessions or lifestyle probably meant someone across a fence or down the road. Now anyone can click online and take a virtual tour around the homes of the mega-wealthy; gaze at the bodies of super-models; or find any one of thousands of lifestyles that might be envied. Capitalism is driven by our dissatisfaction and desire for more and for better.
I think there is a distinction between this envy of what others have, and a desire for the improvement of life-chances for everyone. We might ‘envy’ a country for its health system or treatment of older citizens. This is not about our own possessions but about the wellbeing of the community as a whole. In some quarters the aspirations of Trade Unions for better pay and conditions is attacked with a suggestion that workers are engaging in wealth-envy. The language of class warfare is used to imply that people who have failed to become rich are simply jealous of those sitting in their mansions with millions. This is to misunderstand the anger of those who believe that people in full-time employment using food banks in a wealthy society is both immoral and unacceptable.