Together, the corrupting sins of pride and envy destroyed the democracies of ancient Athens and Rome. But what lies at the root of these two greatest of sins? And is there any remedy or antidote that can cure us, and our society, once we give way to them? Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s “Immortal Combat” offers answers.
Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness, by Dwight Longenecker (160 pages, Sophia Institute Press, 2020)
Dante’s journey up the mountain of purgatory includes seven levels devoted to the purgation of the seven deadly sins: avarice, envy, gluttony, lust, pride, sloth, and wrath. Since everything in Dante’s medieval Catholic universe is ordered in a series of carefully designed hierarchal patterns, Dante consciously ranks the deadly sins in terms of their severity and of the damage they wreak on the human soul. Whereas in the inferno the least bad sins are at the top and the worst sins are at the bottom, in purgatory that order is reversed, with Dante working his way upward from the worst to the least bad of the seven deadly sins.
Few who read Purgatorio will be surprised that Dante chose pride as the worst of all the sins. Many, however, will be shocked at his choice for second worst sin: not wrath or lust or avarice, but envy. “What’s so bad about envy,” the modern American is likely to ask, “Isn’t envy a victimless crime? How do I hurt someone if I envy his house or job or wife?” As it so happens, in the Ten Commandments, God himself places the “victimless” crime of coveting (that is, envy) alongside the victim-causing crimes of murder, adultery, theft, and bearing false witness. Coveting, far from being victimless, leads to envy, which in turn leads to resentment, bitterness, and a desire for revenge.
As I write this essay, our nation is being rocked by outbreaks of rioting and looting in the wake of the unjust killing of George Floyd. Though many who participated in peaceful protests were motivated to do so by a sincere and rational desire for justice and charity, many more were driven, and continue to be driven, by a deep-set pride and envy that they either cannot or will not recognize in themselves—a pride and envy that are disturbingly similar to those which drive malicious policemen to misuse their authority. The deadly sins of pride and envy are dangerous to all societies, but especially to democracies, where peace and order are maintained by an unspoken covenant between virtuous, morally self-regulating people.
Together, the corrupting sins of pride and envy destroyed the democracies of ancient Athens and Rome. In the first half of the twentieth century, they twisted and perverted the seeds of democracy in Russia, Spain, Italy, and Germany, resulting in totalitarian governments that crushed human freedom and dignity. Those governments in turn spread their evil into Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and dozens of nations across Africa and Latin America.
But what lies at the root of these two greatest of sins? And is there any remedy or antidote that can cure us, and our society, once we give way to them? Even as I asked myself these questions, a book arrived at my doorstep that offered answers. The book is titled Immortal Combat: Confronting the Heart of Darkness, and it was written by a former evangelical who studied at Oxford and served as an Anglican priest before being received, together with his wife and children, into the Catholic Church. Fr. Dwight Longenecker, a senior contributor at TIC who currently serves as the pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Greenville, SC, has written a book that not only speaks to Christians of all denominations but that should speak strongly to any person, religious or otherwise, who recognizes that there is a darkness in the human soul that must be recognized and exposed for what it is.
In the tradition of G.K. Chesterton, who was wont to find more truth in fairy tales than in logic or science, Fr. Longenecker employs a unique method for drawing out that evil from its hiding place in the deep-down darkness of our souls. That method involves conjuring up the oldest and most persistent monsters of myth and legend—not zombies, werewolves, and mummies, but the half man/half bull Minotaur, Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guards the underworld, and Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon whose terrifying visage turns men to stone.
While King Minos throws elaborate parties in the banqueting halls of the fabled Palace of Knossos, the Minotaur lurks beneath in the labyrinth. He is called the Minotaur (the “bull of Minos”), Fr. Longenecker reminds us, because he represents “the bestial side of the king himself” (24), the side he wants to hide from his polite company upstairs. Like Minos, we too “deny our demons. We hide our shameful secret sins and lock away the evil creatures of the night. This is what we do as individuals, as families, as a Church, and as a society” (24). The deception ensures that our parties will not be spoiled, but it leaves the dangerous matter of the Minotaur unaddressed.
But what is the Minotaur, and how is it related to pride and envy? To answer that, Fr. Longenecker riffs off the mimetic and scapegoating theories of René Girard. At the root of pride and envy lies our natural desire to imitate others, a desire that is not bad in itself but that quickly becomes perverted into a form of covetousness that transforms the role model into a rival. Fr. Longenecker refers to this as an “imitation desire” and defines it as “the desire not only to have what belongs to our rival, but to be like the rival, to become someone greater—not only to take what they have, but to take what they are and finally to destroy them and take their place…. Greed, envy, and covetousness are the simple fruits of our distorted desire, but this imitation desire is the darker dragon. It is the engine of all the dark desires” (32-33).
Once it takes hold of us, this imitation desire manifests itself in terms of a desire for Power, Pride, and Prejudice, which Fr. Longenecker compares to the three heads of Cerberus, and Resentment, Rivalry, and Revenge, which he compares to Medusa and her two sisters. Although C.S. Lewis famously links pride to competition in Book III, Chapter 8 of Mere Christianity, I think Fr. Longenecker comes closer to the truth when he defines pride as “the total, complete, foundational assumption, before all else and above all else that I am right, that my choices are right, that my beliefs are right, that my decisions are right, that everything I do is right” (37). It is that pride, and its concomitant desire for power over others, especially our rivals, that leads to prejudice—for if we are right about everything, then others must be wrong.
In one way or another, we all desire Power, Pride, and Prejudice, but we, like Cerberus, are held back by societal leashes that prevent us from exercising our selfish lust for power and enacting our false belief that we are right about everything. Those leashes work externally, but we take our revenge on them by deceiving others and ourselves into believing that our motives are always pure and that we are loving people. Meanwhile, as we hide our will to power behind a tolerant, open-minded facade, we seethe within with resentment against all those who refuse to recognize our superiority.
And that is when we fall into the “Resentment loop,” a self-feeding addiction that only needs a trigger to bring it out into the open. “Why do we fall into the Resentment loop?” Fr. Longenecker asks. “[B]ecause our exercise of power was constrained. Our pride was wounded. Our prejudices were challenged, and we didn’t get our own way. So we sulk. We pout. We have one big pity party. We wallow in Resentment, and why do we do this? Because we enjoy it…. because when we’re in the Resentment loop, we are asserting ourselves over our rival. We feel powerful again. In our minds we prove that we are right, and they are wrong. Our pride is fed. Our prejudices have been proven. We prevail. We are omnipotent again, and that feels good” (45).
Immortal Combat appeared on Kindle in early April of 2020 and in paperback in early May, but those who read Fr. Longenecker description of what the Resentment loop leads to on a societal level will feel sure that he must have written it in the shadow of the events of early June. His analysis has proven to be so prescient that it is worth quoting at some length:
The powerless person—cursed by Medusa—begins to imagine that his unhappiness is not caused simply by one person or one incident or even a collection of incidents. Instead, it is part of a larger pattern and a larger group of people… Once the Resentment is directed toward a group of people, it widens out. A conspiracy mentality develops…. Before long, this slave of Medusa finds other slaves who also wallow in their frustration, and their Resentment builds into rage. They form a group to nurse their Resentment and resist the imagined enemy group that has caused the problems…. The Resentment group is not satisfied with discussion and debate. They want action. They need to go to war against the enemy. They develop an identity and demand change…
It doesn’t matter what identity and ideology it is…. Despite their noble ideals and good intentions, the activism is driven by Resentment, Rivalry, and Revenge, and it is relentless. It will not stop and cannot stop…. When the resentful form into a collective mob, it is truly frightening to see. Their Resentment and rage render them irrational. There is no discussion with the slaves of Medusa. They are obsessed with their righteous crusade because it has become the source of their self-esteem. Unwilling to compromise, they are driven by an unholy energy….
They can never be appeased because they do not want their problem to be solved…. When I say that “they can never be appeased,” I do not mean you should not attempt to appease them, but even if you do, they will not be satisfied. They breathe the air of Resentment. They need Resentment as a vampire needs blood. If you appease them, if you give what they demand, they will throw it back in your face with anger and demand something else or something more. (48-49)
The picture Fr. Longenecker paints here is as accurate as it is daunting. How can we possibly combat our Power, Pride, and Prejudice when we are not willing to acknowledge that we, or our party, might be mistaken about the issues or our interpretation of the issues? How can we break out of the addictive cycle of Resentment, Rivalry, and Revenge when we are unwilling to recognize their root in envy and imitative desire and will not surrender the sense of self-righteousness and moral superiority they give us?
Thankfully, there is a solution, and it can be summed up in a single word: repentance. Only through true repentance, Fr. Longenecker explains, can we admit that we are not right about everything, that we must bear a part, often a large part, of the blame, and that those we consider enemies are not as evil as we have convinced ourselves that they are.
As a fellow Christian, I agree with Fr. Longenecker that such things can only happen perfectly through Christ, the pure and innocent Lamb of God who took upon himself all the Power, Pride, Prejudice, Resentment, Rivalry, and Revenge of mankind. Still, we as a society can move toward that ideal if we and our leaders will be willing to first admit that we are guilty of pride and envy, and then be willing to surrender them. There needs to be confession, but it needs to come from both sides of the fence. Virtue signaling, phony outrage, and scapegoating will not solve the problem, for all three are covers for the Pride and Resentment that we don’t want anyone to see.
Prejudice is not confined to those who hold social, economic, or political power any more than Resentment is confined to those who lack it. Both grow together in the depraved human soul and can only be dealt with if they are confessed. As for the dividing line between good and evil: It runs, if I may paraphrase Solzhenitsyn, not between white supremacists and antifa, nor between those who believe that law and order should be privileged above all other things and those who believe that black lives matter more than others. It runs instead through that dark labyrinth that lurks within each of our souls.
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