Envy and Wrath as Virtues

As I all too slowly wrap up the work on the Doomwalker sequel (I have a name, but announcing that and commissioning a cover Are thing I want to hold off from until I put the last period into pixels), I get ideas. The present moment lends itself to it, as it’s weirdly stressful and does what weirdly stressful present moments do: lay bare human nature to the bone. This is actually a post about writing, by the way.

I am fascinated by how how people transform their perception of outright poisonous (and classical) vices into virtues. I used to think people did this because they lacked awareness of these particular flaws of theirs, as we do, but I’m starting to doubt that.

Recently Papa John gave a tour of his ridiculous massive mansion. I don’t particularly care of itself, it’s silly, I’ve been to Hearst Castle (medieval manuscript lampshades) and am hard to impress in this fashion. He has the house he wants, good for him. The reaction was what interested me.

Envy is monstrous. The depiction of it as changing people into raging destructive beasts is very accurate. Lots of those beasts were on display in regard to that house tour. Papa John- or Jeff Bezos, or any other rich person- is a human, maybe a jerk, maybe cruel, maybe callous, I don’t know, but as much a person as anyone else. To wish everything they have, and often built themselves, torn to the ground is vicious and self-degrading. We modern men and women of the first world live better than kings, all of us. Someone worse off than you could wish the same of you and actually might. Does that seem right to you?

To the envious in this, however, their jealousy seems to them a virtue. Demanding angrily that someone else surrender everything…to them…ah, it’s often presented as ‘to the less fortunate’ or ‘to others’…is something they see as noble. They decree what’s necessary or desirable to another like tinpot tyrants based on matters of taste- not that they aren’t as ridiculous as their target, given opportunity.

The most recent Star Wars brought to light that the same dynamic is in play with wrath. Rey doesn’t have many standout personality traits, but one of the few is a deep abiding anger. This is an interesting thing to explore in a hero, a tendency that requires one to resist to be a good person, but it’s not treated that way. Her rage is presented as one of her many virtues (she has no outright flaws by the movies’ logic; even her seeming naïveté is actually proven to be the right mindset in the story). You see this online, where ‘getting angry’ is trumpeted as the correct and best solution to problems. In some circles it’s more common than others but it bleeds over everywhere.

Wrath, like envy, turns you into a destructive beast. One thing that stands out about it as a sin is that the destruction you seek to bring is that it becomes the consuming focus, even if you state that you want to build something better on the ashes. It’s not a sober or calculating thing, though some people have that tone by merit of personality (less than think they do). Broken, doomed, obsessive Captain Ahab is the result of being consumed by wrath, not apocalyptic destruction followed by heaven on Earth.

Sin makes us small. They didn’t call them the Seven Deadly Sins for fun or fashion or even control. They make us less- while wallowing in them, mistaking them outright for virtues often enough! I didn’t understand this until recently. Besides being being spiritually or philosophically interesting, it’s also something I think makes for an interesting setting or character element that can be very compelling.

It’s certainly a simple but effective set up for character development. If you’re writing a dystopia, or just a setting or culture with glaring flaws, making envy or wrath or pride to be treated like virtues instead of the obvious sins they are is a useful start. It’s an insidious thing, more so because it doesn’t seem like it should be.

If you- like me- often come up with a good setting, plot, or characters but not always at the same time, this might be a way to figure out how to combine them. People and cultures and places do not exist in vacuums and the effects they have on one another, like this twisting of vice into virtue, has impacts large and small on all of them. Thinking about may help bridge a gap in a story you are writing in an interesting and perhaps even disturbing (but interestingly) way.

Published by kathrynzurmehly

I am, among many other things, an Army vet and a freelance writer.

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