I will post a bit less frequently during Lent. But it is still Tuesday, and it seems like I could do much worse than to meditate on greed. The following comes from a short book by the well-known writer Phyllis Tickle. Tickle begins by noting that American religion is passing through a dramatic time of rupture and reconfiguration. This is true, she says, whether we focus on spirituality, institutional structures, or, for that matter, morality. Regarding morality, Tickle, who served as the religion editor for Publisher’s Weekly, draws our attention to an increasing American preoccupation with sin. To be sure, this is not really unexpected “during the decades surrounding an era of apocalyptic anxiety.” But that does not mean that it is any less valid or real.
And so we come to greed. We generally imagine greed to be one of a group called the “Seven Deadly Sins.” There were the seven laws, or mishpathim, of Noah, and the Book of Proverbs tells us, “There are six things that the Lord hates, seven that are an abomination to him” (Prov 6:16-19). Early monastic authors, such as John Cassian and Evagrius, list eight divisions of sin: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, dejection, sloth, vainglory, and pride. Greed or “avarice” would seem to have a rather prominent place among the sins – after all, St Paul wrote, “Radix omnium malorum avaritia” (1 Tim 6:10). If we should doubt this placement, we might want to consider Holy Scripture’s incessant preoccupation with concerns about wealth, property, and covetousness. Tickle reminds us that the very first Christian ecclesial court concerned greed, or, more specifically, duplicity regarding the proceeds from the ownership of land (Acts 5:1-10). We might also want to meditate on the real destructiveness of greed. Evagrius writes, “Avarice suggests to the mind a lengthy old age, inability to perform manual labor (at some future date), famines that are sure to come, sickness that will visit us, the pinch of poverty, the great shame that comes from accepting the necessities of life from others.” In other words, greed is an enslavement to our fantasies, especially our fears, of what might come to pass.
Tickle then brings us to of Prudentius’ early fifth century text, Psychomachia. The Psychomachia describes seven battles, one for each of the Seven Deadly Sins. Avaritia is preceded in her particular battle by Luxury, Lust, Pleasure, and so on. But they are all unsuccessful – Vanity, for instance, is stripped naked and her precious robes are dragged from her. Avaritia herself then enters the battle with her “rake-like” fingers to salvage the weapons, jewels, and garments left on the battlefield; she is accompanied by Care, Hunger, Fear, Anxiety, Perjury, Dread, Fraud, Fabrication, Sleeplessness, and Sordidness. We are told: “Neque est uiolentius ullum/terrarum Vitium” (Of all the vices, there is none more frightening). Avaritia next tries to seduce faithful priests, yet fails as Reason arrives on the scene. Then quite angry, she disguises herself as Thrift, taking up what Prudentius calls “the delicate veil of maternal concern,” so that all of her grasping and longing can be said to be for her children. Human beings follow Avaritia, convinced that they are following virtue, and “The wicked fiend finds them cheerful victims happy to live in her shackles.” This story, Tickle tells us, shows that Avaritia is the mother of a large and horrific clan, that she threatens us with apostasy, that she can appear in the clothing of virtue, and, finally, that she is really about “desiring a life subject to human control over a life of vulnerable trust in the unseen.” Remember what Evagrius said.
But something then changes in our attitude towards greed. We can see this in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1557 engraving, Big Fish Eat Little Fish. It is all rather nastily Darwinian. We see a giant beached fish throwing up smaller fish. Its stomach is cut upon, so that other sea creatures pour out. They, in turn, are vomiting forth other creatures. Tickle writes, “There is in all this macabre rendering not one whiff of either emotion of theology, only a neutral observation of the way things really are, along with a kind of tacit acceptance of the acceptability of that position. Indeed, squatting noncommittally on a nearby bank, another fisherman is calmly using a small fish to entice a larger one to strike his hook. Such existential sangfroid is, we recognize instantly, much more comfortable for us than Prudentius’ warfare ever could be, primarily because it is infinitely closer to us in its reformative objectivity.”
Instead of seeing things through the lens of spiritual struggle, we moderns look merely at “the way things really are” and then try to attain moral knowledge. This may lead to compassion for our “fellow prisoners” in this world, but “it assumes as well an immutability or impersonality of conditions and principles that blocks us from hope.” Avaritia once hid herself as Thrift, now she disguises herself as the sheer inevitability of laissez faire, or free trade, or, for that matter, fish eating smaller fish. The most moving images of greed in the nineteenth century are perhaps Silas Marner – “the tragedy of social and religious circumstance, not personal failing” – and D.H. Lawrence’s “The Rocking Horse Winner,” which is less about character than the sad and predictable result of the introduction of a magical object among fallen human beings.
Tickle claims that twentieth century portrayals of greed tended to see it as “someone else’s sin and/or the sin of the oppressor.” Otto Dix’s 1933 painting of The Seven Deadly Sins portrays Avarice as an old hag, with Envy riding her back. Envy wears a mask of Adolf Hitler. More recently and closer to home, we have Michael Douglas’ coldly stunning rendition of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, Wall Street: “Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms — greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge — has marked the upward surge of mankind.” As accurate as these portrayals might be of their respective subjects, we are not, and do not aspire to be, Hitler or Gekko.
So, how do we confront our greed today? How will we combat Avaritia this Lent? There are images on which we may meditate – perhaps those of environmental destruction. But Phyllis Tickle suggests a 1996 painting by Mario Donizetti. Donizetti rendered the Seven Deadly Sins in seven panels. Avarice is in the middle position of the three verticals, showing its central position among the sins. We see someone who looks like us, not Gordon Gekko. She is naked, so greed reflects who she is, not merely an unfortunate social and religious circumstance. We notice that she is painfully thin and her downcast eyes show that she cannot see. She is desperately using one bag of treasure as an impossibly uncomfortable pillow, but it is leading her into darkness. And she sits unsteadily on another bag of treasure, unaware that she is crushing another human being.
Well, is this us?