Evidence of Envy? A Reflection on the Elimination of Valedictorians

blog5-25Some of you have heard the news that a local school board in Charlotte, North Carolina voted to eliminate the naming of valedictorians. The following appeared on FoxNews.com:

Citing what it calls “unhealthy” competition among students, the Wake County school board is the latest in the country to make valedictorians and salutatorians a thing of the past, The News & Observer of Charlotte reports. … [S]chool officials say singling out two people for their grade point averages just encourages students to take easy classes and to not help their classmates study.

It seems unlikely to me that there would be a lot of “competition” for just two slots. I think it’s more likely that 99% of the students would never even think they stood a chance and so would not engage in the competition described. Why work so hard for something that you’re not likely to get?

I graduated at the top of my class in Seminary and received a cash award (not a large one, I promise you) but it wasn’t as if I postured or took easy classes to get it. In fact, it never occurred to me that I would get a prize; I just studied hard because I enjoyed learning the faith.

Thus something tells me that the “explanation” offered by the school board is not the real reason. To quote an old Nat King Cole song, “Your story’s so touching, but it sounds just like a lie.”

Pardon me if I suspect old fashioned envy at work here. There are some who despise the fact that others excel because it makes them look worse by comparison. But such an attitude is classic envy: sorrow or sadness at the excellence of someone else because I take it to lessen my own.

Excellence is a beautiful thing, something to esteem and hold up before all. I would argue that it is yet another sign of the decline of our culture that we can’t seem to “tolerate” the celebration of excellence and achievement. Why is this? One reason is the tyranny of relativism. Another is obsessive, excessive concern for the feelings of others. But a more fundamental answer lies in the cardinal or deadly sin of envy.

What is envy? Most people today use the word as a synonym for jealousy. But traditionally, jealousy is not the same as envy.

When I am jealous of you, I want something that you have and wish to possess it, inordinately so. But the key point is that there is something good about you or something good you possess, which I want to have for myself.

In traditional theology, envy is quite different (cf. Summa Theologica, III IIae 36.1). Envy is sorrow, sadness, or anger at the goodness or excellence of someone else, because I take it to lessen my own. The key difference with envy is that (unlike with jealousy) I do not want to possess the good or excellence you have; rather, I want to destroy it.

Envy is diabolical – St. Augustine called envy the diabolical sin (De catechizandis rudibus 4,8:PL 40,315-316), because it seeks to minimize, end, or destroy what is good. Scripture says, By the envy of the Devil death entered the world (Wis 2:24). Seeing the excellence that Adam and Eve (made in the image of God) possessed, and possibly knowing of plans for the incarnation, the Devil envied Adam and Eve. Their glory lessened his, or so he thought, and he set out to destroy the goodness in them. Yes, envy is very ugly; it is diabolical.

The effect of the Wake County school board’s decision is to further suppress the praise of excellence. Excellence should be praised both for the gift that it is to the whole community as well as for the way it acts to encourage excellence in others! Decisions like this further minimize esteem for excellence and mute the encouragement of it.

Some will argue that academic excellence is but one sort of excellence. Is there not artistic excellence, emotional intelligence, and so forth? Certainly. Then find ways to honor those sorts of excellence as well. I paraded around my high school for three years sporting a “letter jacket” that broadcast my athletic excellence as part of the track and field team. The band issued “letter sweaters” to their best students.

Excellence is a blessing. I’m sorry if this implies that some are less excellent, but life is like that. Some people excel, some are also-rans, and some are even poor at certain things. (I never made the cut to become part of the math club but somehow I survived the blow to my ego.)

Count me among those who see the elimination of honors as another sign of an ailing culture. If we cannot honor excellence and achievement we have tipped our hat to what a great saint and learned man, St. Augustine, called a diabolical sin.

Is it too strong for me to say that Satan must be having a good laugh? When we are embarrassed or alarmed by excellence and even call it “unhealthy,” I can hear Satan gleefully crowing, “My perversion of them is almost complete. They are ashamed of their glory and they glory in their shame.”

8 Replies to “Evidence of Envy? A Reflection on the Elimination of Valedictorians”

  1. The public education system has excelled at reaching it’s highest level of incompetence.

    1. it’s = it is
      its = possessive

      I’m sure that Miss R, my 11th-grade English teacher, would be able to assign an appropriate penance…

  2. Envy is one of the dominant vices of our time, and it produces much anger and resentment. It is the seed bed of political AND cultural Marxism—cultural Marxism is the spearhead of the sexual revolution. Envy often masquerades as social justice amongst left-leaning Christians, and it is deeply anti-hierarchical. Perhaps it is the principal motive that inspired Adam and Eve in the first sin—psychologically, it most certainly is tied to pride. Helmut Schoeck was a german sociologist who wrote a very interesting book, now a classic, ” Envy – a theory of Social Behaviour”. Therein he demonstrates how the Marxists have so successfully created the mask of justice covering over the deep-seated envy. Unfortunately, the entry for envy in the old Catholic Encyclopedia (the online version) seems to equate envy with jealousy, which is unfortunate, because jealousy can be a very productive motive, and spurs on all kinds of creative behavior, such as hard academic work. Envy, on the contrary, is very destructive, and seeks to destroy creativity in one’s self and in others.

  3. Monsignor: Great article! This goes well with James Bowman’s History in the Disappearance of Honor and these effects! Also, if you had opportunity to hear or see Capt. Guy Gruter’s interview I posted from the Marcus Grodi “Journey Home” show on EWTN he spoke about how this impacted the people he was prisoner of in Vietnam. Taking Honor brings dishonor to the world ultimately! Thank you for bringing life to this truth! God bless the good men! Amen

  4. Reminds me of GK Chesterton on humility in his great book “Orthodoxy”.

    The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race — because he is so human. As the other extreme, we may take the acrid realist, who has deliberately killed in himself all human pleasure in happy tales or in the healing of the heart. Torquemada tortured people physically for the sake of moral truth. Zola tortured people morally for the sake of physical truth. But in Torquemada’s time there was at least a system that could to some extent make righteousness and peace kiss each other. Now they do not even bow. But a much stronger case than these two of truth and pity can be found in the remarkable case of the dislocation of humility.

    It is only with one aspect of humility that we are here concerned. Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything — even pride.

    But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt — the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from Nature. But the new sceptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn. Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that preivented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.


  5. Maybe the public school system in Charlotte finally recognized the education had degraded so much that excellence at it wasn’t worth honoring. Of course, that’s not what the reported reason is.

    Envy is increasingly ascendant in our public life and politics, another sign of the Evil One’s growing influence.

    Jealousy isn’t always wrong. God is a jealous God. Bad bad Leroy Brown “learned a lesson ’bout messin’ with the wife of a jealous man.” As well he should have.

  6. Reminds me of the following by G.K. Chesterton in his book “Orthodoxy”, Chapter 3 – The Suicide of Thought

    “The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on. For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”

    “Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance. It is exactly this intellectual helplessness which is our second problem.”

    Read the whole thing here:


  7. Msgr. imagines Satan’s glee; “My perversion of them is almost complete. They are ashamed of their glory and they glory in their shame.”

    Excellent!!! I had not thought of it that way, but how true!

    I was in the circle of kids who were the top students in my small high school. The guy who ended up Valedictorian was a friend of mine. The girl who was the Salutatorian was my best friend. I was way down at number 29 in the class of 450. These kids were not only number 1 & 2, they were among the nicest people I ever met. The guy was funny as heck. He was on the track team, and although kind of short (5’9″), he was good enough to make the basketball team and play. The girl played the violin, and although she was deaf in one ear, sang beautifully. She was modest, and very pretty. They both got parts in the senior play.

    Neither of them has a conceited or arrogant bone in their body. They helped anyone who asked them. I was proud to be their friend, and proud they achieved what they did. I felt proud they considered me a friend too. Far from envy, I rejoiced when they received their honors. It made me want to strive to be as good as they were.

    Msgr., I have benefited very much from your writings regarding envy, and I am glad now I know clearly what distinguishes it from jealousy. And I can see the malice behind envy, and how demonic it is. It has helped so much to understand this.

Comments are closed.