Solicitude: The Second Lively Virtue

About the distance of an earthly mile
we’d gone already, and in little time,
because our wills were eager – when we heard
Spirits coming our way, flying above,
heard them but never saw them, graciously
welcoming to the wedding feast of love.
The first voice called aloud as it flew by,
“They have no wine,” and so it made its way,
continuing the message of its cry.
Dante, Purgatory 13.22-30

Just as the heart-opening virtue of humility is the remedy for pride, so solicitude for the good of others is the remedy for envy, the second of the deadly vices.  Our name for this vice derives from the Latin invidia, which literally means the habit of seeing things twisted (the inner meaning of our word wrong) or inside-out.  When, for example, Milton’s Satan catches sight of the innocent Adam and Eve engaging in a passionate kiss, he cannot help but look:

Aside the Devil turned
For envy, yet with jealous leer malign
Eyed them askance, and to himself thus plain’d:
“Sight hateful, sight tormenting!  Thus these two,
Imparadised in one another’s arms,
The happier Eden, shall enjoy their fill
Of bliss on bliss, whilst I to Hell am thrust,
Where neither joy nor love but fierce desire
(Among our other torments not the least)
Still unfulfilled with pain of longing pines.  (Paradise Lost, 4.502-511)

We can imagine him there, squint-eyed, compelled to see and hating what he sees.

Envy is a kind of small-souled reduction of pride.  There is a vain glory in one who strives to be seen as preeminent among his fellows; but there is not even a vain glory in one who wishes that no one were seen to be the least bit greater than he.  Envy, as Thomas Aquinas defines it, is the self-indulged sorrow at beholding the good of others, especially if that good is spiritual.  My neighbor is affable; I call him a gladhander.  My brother considers well before he speaks; I call him sly.  My sister weeps when she sees an animal suffering; I call her a sentimentalist.  My friend crosses himself and says grace before he eats his lunch in the cafeteria; I call him a religious zealot.  Envy does worse than attribute vices to people who are not vicious.  It grieves at the sight of their very virtues, and turns those virtues the wrong side out.  Nor is there any virtue that cannot be eyed askance by the envious soul.  Ask our Lord.  He was a wine-tippler who cast out devils in the name of Beelzebub.  So said the leering Pharisees.

As always in Dante’s Purgatory, the work I have quoted above, the principal exemplar of the virtue we are to cultivate is provided by Mary.  When the poets enter the terrace where envy is punished, they hear voices overhead, and the first of these merely cries out, “They have no wine,” the words of Mary to Jesus at the wedding feast at Cana.  How is that meant, as Dante puts it, to welcome souls “to the wedding feast of love”?  What virtue does it represent?

That short utterance, so simple and yet so powerful, recalls the whole scene in the Gospel of John.  Jesus and the first disciples are at a wedding feast, when the bride and the bridegroom run out of wine.  An envious person at this moment would secretly rejoice, or feel a thrill of self-satisfaction.  “I knew better.  I told them that twenty jars would not be enough.  Well, some people just don’t listen.”  But Mary, solicitous for the welfare of the married couple, makes their plight her own.  She wishes to avert the embarrassment.  We can go farther: she wishes that the conviviality of the feast, a great good in itself, would continue, for without the wine the feast would surely break up.

“They have no wine,” she says.  What can this mean?  It is wine that gladdens the heart, as the psalmist says, and so her appeal to Jesus is more than an appeal to provide some practical necessity.  It strikes to the heart.  “I have come to give you life, and life in abundance,” Jesus will say to His disciples.  He has come to make our joy complete.  He is Himself the wine that makes the heart leap; the wine pressed from his own veins upon the Cross, and the wine drunk anew in Heaven with all of those who accept His gifts.

“Woman, it is not my hour,” says Jesus in response, and I have long heard it said that by this statement He meant, “I had not planned on performing any wonders just yet,” or perhaps that He was testing Mary to see how she would react.  But if we remember the bread and wine of the Eucharist, that wonder that the apostle surely has in mind, we may hear Jesus as intimating to us that it is not yet time for the broaching of that sweet wine of the sacrament.  What we have, then, is not a solicitous Mary and a reluctant Jesus, but both Mary and Jesus solicitous for the good of others, and Jesus then rewarding His mother’s complete faith in Him and her gracious good will for the bride and the groom.  He turns the water into wine.  It is not the wine of the kingdom of God, not yet; but it is excellent wine, as the headwaiter says, who reproaches the groom for saving it to the end, when, for half drunken revelers, any old wine would do.  Jesus, so to speak, will reverse the order for all of us drinkers of wine: every blessing we enjoy now will be but a foretaste of the liquor of heaven.

No doubt the feast at Cana went on, and only a few people knew that Jesus and Mary were at the heart of that feast.  It was their solicitude that enabled it to go on.  And this rejoicing in the good of others is one of the notes that should surprise us most about our Lord.  Not only does He deign to dwell among us and to bless us; He derives real delight from our feeble attempts to understand Him and to love Him.  “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah,” He cries out when Peter confesses that He is the Messiah, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven!”  He offers to enter the pagan centurion’s home to cure the man’s dying servant, and when that brave Roman soldier says, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my servant shall be healed,” Jesus marvels at the man, saying, “I have not found such faith in all of Israel!”  Of John the Baptist He says that no greater man has ever been born of woman, yet the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than he.  He compares His father to the man who threw a great feast when his wayward son had returned to him, and to a woman who invited her neighbors over to rejoice with her when she found her lost coin.  We know, in worldly terms, what that prodigal son was worth – we hear it from the elder son himself, caught in sorrow at his brother’s spiritual blessing.  The boy was a shiftless and ungrateful wretch who squandered his father’s wealth on drunkenness and whoring.  We may guess that the coin the woman found would have been as nothing to a Herod or a Pilate.  Nor is a single sheep lost in the wilderness worth any great deal.  But Jesus the Good Shepherd, rejoicing, carries that lost sheep home upon His shoulders.

How difficult this virtue is to practice!  The hedonist is not only the man who steeps himself in pleasures of the belly or the flesh.  The hedonist may be quite austere – Epicurus himself was, who lent his name to the pursuit of one’s own pleasure.  But when we are truly solicitous for the blessings of other people, then and only then do we begin to hear the singing and the laughter of the feast, as from a castle upon a great height.  Then we join our fellows, and say with the psalmist, “I rejoiced when I heard them say, ‘Let us go up to the house of the Lord.’”

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • Centurion 9.41


    It’s not that I dislike your thoughts, or think the intent wrong.  But I think there is great danger, when trying to evangelize or spread the Word, in metaphorical drama or reaching with “NPR” hyperbole type story or tone.

    Specifically, there is a great danger of losing the audience which most needs to hear the teachings of the Church through such reaching.   They end up, understandably, turning away from such childish dramatics.   

    This is especially so when speaking of vice and sin that is not clearly mortal, because so that which makes them sinful is so deeply tied to the spirit rather than evident purely in the words or actions observed.    I.e. some of your examples as opposed to murder.    Here is an example of what I mean; “My sister weeps when she sees an animal suffering; I call her a sentimentalist.”    What if the sister is a animal loving pagan who believes in abortion being the mere removal of a few cells yet treats her pets as if they were real children? 

    While it is right to have sympathy where there is suffering, even if it’s an animal, there are clearly many who are in great danger, due to poorly formed consciences, who care far  more for the suffering of animals than of people.   Something not uncommon in today’s Western cultures.

    I am reminded of a book comprised of letters by St. Pio.  To most it would come across as the thoughts and emotions of a sensitive child.   Though such is not incongruent with Catholic or Christian tradition, teaching or spirit, it would not be properly understood by most lay readers and certainly by few non-believers. 

    So though I do think your points are important, I think you would do far greater works and reach far more people, if you simply let the truth, unencumbered by drama, speak for itself. 


    • Jcbf19

      I appreciate what you are saying here Centurion- we need to be very effective in engaging the culture if we want to bring the transforming power of the love of Jesus Christ to lost souls. True, very true- and there is much to be said for communicating with people where they are on a grand level to really make an impact- all true. I know you are concerned that we might miss the forest in favor of focus on the trees. I contend that it is all the same—
      What Professor Esolen writes here is very important and very meaningful for the salvation of souls. 
      We deceive ourselves if we think that because we do not murder it is of lesser consequence when judge our neighbor as lower than ourselves in our hearts. (This is exactly the duplicitous thinking that leads someone who adores their pets to think it is no problem to murder their unborn.) Jesus told us plainly that we are on the verge of the guilt of mortal sin when we say these things about another person. (Matthew 5:22) Tragically, our culture is full of this as a practice, and so is our Church. In our time, it is the witness of authentic holiness that will be the signpost leading to heaven for a lost humanity.  Authentic holiness does not come through pious practice alone, but by the transforming power of grace made evident through the nuances of virtues lived out. These act as an antivenin to the poison of Satan running rampant in our society today. Living according to these virtues, making the difficult choices to conform to the understanding we can gain by reading Dr. Esolen’s reflections for example, can alter the course of humanity for all eternity. That is the power of even the smallest good act peformed by the strength of grace, through love for Jesus Christ. So, this work of his can have immense impact.

      • Centurion 9.41

        Re “we need to be very effective in engaging the culture if we want to bring
        the transforming power of the love of Jesus Christ to lost souls.”

        I think you’re missing my point a bit.  The above is a good example of one of the mind set errors Im talking about; guess what, Christ’s Word, His parables, etc., DOES NOT need you or anyone else’s  “engaging” creativity [re CAPS – fyi, underlining not possible, please consider them as such & not yelling.]   The fact is +90% of the time well over 50% of the listeners are turned off by it.   Those that arent, are much more likely to be open to the seductions of personality and “Cults of Personality”.  All this “we need to be more ____” is really no different than the behavior seen by high school kids who love to put on a school play and their sycophants.

        As for Mr. Esolen’s piece.  I dont think I challenged the facts regarding sensitivity to sin as one becomes more pure; read Padre Pio’s letters to his confessor – Pio sounds, to those who dont understand the true depth of horror that is sin,  like a hypochondriac child. 

        So again, my point is, since Vatican II the laity engaging in EVANGELICAL activity have become more and more like drama queens trying to out do their last performance.  And the reason they do it is ALL about THEMSELVES, not about Christ or the souls of others.

  • James Stagg

    Well done, Professor, and quite to the point.  Thank you!

  • Dear Centurion,

    I meant to illustrate just what envy does: invidia, seeing things inside out.  You can find similar examples of the vice in Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and, of course, the Divine Comedy.  I have to disagree with you; I don’t think it is childish.  All of the vices are constantly at us, helping to rot us from inside.  They will rot us inside, if we let them, even if we accept all of the teachings of the Church, notionally.  The key is to live those teachings, and that we can only do if we set ourselves to be transformed by Christ, day in and day out.  I am no expert in this transformation, but I only know that it is needful. 

    • Sponsachristi

      I just came across this article. Thank you so much, Dr Esolen. I’d just like to add to your last sentence the words “and possible”.  Jesus does transform us even in this life; some literally overnight, other through a slow imperceptible process.  It’s pure grace, pure gift.  But it does happen.

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  • Ruthmcc

    I almost skipped clicking on this link because I have too much to read.  I am so glad I did. Reading Professor Esolen and others that Crisis brings to us deepens my faith and causes me to look more critically at myself.  Who among us could read that first  paragraph on envy and not say, “yes, I have thought that”? 
    Centurion criticizes the example of  “my sister who loves animals and I call her a sentimentalist.”  Isn’t he guilty of precisely what Dr. Esolen describes?  Cannot Centurion appreciate the gift that this woman demonstrates but instead he must find fault with her?  Yes, okay, she loves animals but what about aborted babies?

    I loved this article.  It brought tears to my eyes. 

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