Religio Philologi II: Greed

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A consideration of these Lenten readings of St. Paul’s epistles  should prevent any sensible person from the delusion—so common among conservatives today—that one can reconcile the teachings of Christ with the teachings of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman.

From 1 Thessalonians 4:

Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.  For ye know what commandments we gave you by the Lord Jesus.  For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication: That every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honour; Not in the lust of concupiscence, even as the Gentiles which know not God: That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter: because that the Lord is the avenger of all such, as we also have forewarned you and testified.

From Ephesians 5:

Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet smelling savour. But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints . . .

In these traditional readings for the second and third Sundays in Lent, St. Paul warns against submitting to “covetousness” and against defrauding one’s brother.  In other similar passages, variously translated, we are told to beware of avarice or greed.  Calvin interprets “covetousness” (the Vulgate’s avaritia) as “nothing more than an immoderate desire of gain,” while on 1 Thessalonians 4, he comments: “Paul teaches that this also is a department of holiness—that we conduct ourselves righteously and harmlessly towards our neighbors. The former verb refers to violent oppressions—where the man that has more power emboldens himself to inflict injury.”

It is tempting to think that Calvin was seeking to justify Max Weber’s famous linking of capitalism and the Protestant ethic by defining covetousness as only an “immoderate” desire for wealth or as an instance of “violent oppression,” thus leaving the door open to the normal getting and spending which men of the past five centuries have elevated to one of the highest virtues.  However, neither Catholic nor Anglican translations into English are much different.  Even a Latin word like avaritia typically (though not always) carries with it the inherent moral disapprobation conveyed by English words like “greed” and “avarice.”  Surely the Greeks of Thessalonike and Ephesus already knew that it was wrong to be greedy or immoderately eager for wealth.

Paul’s original Greek is a bit more precise than his translators have been.  In Ephesians the word is pleonexia, while in I Thessalonians 6 we have the related verb form pleonktein.  The Greek echein is the simplest verb meaning “to have,” while pleon means more.  So pleonektein means having or getting more and pleonexia a condition or process of getting or trying to get more.  The verb, which is not necessarily pejorative, thus can be used to mean “to have more than others” or “to claim more than one is due.”  A person who is a pleonektes, then, claims more than he has or more than he is due, and the derived noun pleonexia refers to the character of the pleonektes or the process by which he gets more and more.

There is a range of meanings and implications, not all of which are obviously moral faults.  Medical writers use pleonexia to mean surfeit or excess, e.g. of liquid or heat, while Xenophon applies it to the superior extent of the Spartan empire.  The comic poet Menander says that pleonexia is an evil, but only because those who plot to gain their neighbor’s goods fail in their attempt.

Though a moralist will generally condemn the desire for more, he may not actually restrict this desire to what we would regard as immoderate.  When Stoics or Neoplatonists or Christians stigmatize pleonexia, it is because the pleonektes wants more than he needs, in other words, more than bare necessities.  The pleonektes’ desire leads him into injustice, because he desires what he does not have, and into luxury, because he acquires material things he does not need and which cloud his mind and will.  Thus, Plutarch, who couples the word with with strife and contention and cruelty, and Demosthenes, who pairs it with wantonness, both use pleonexia in a negative sense.

Aristotle disapproves of economic pleonexia, because while wealth is a natural necessity, a man seeking higher things should not wallow in the possession of more and more material wealth, especially in the form of money, which is artificial.

To sum up this disorganized and lengthy account, the Greek cluster of words translated as greedy, avaricious, and covetous are objective terms, not in essence terms of disapproval except in the writings of moralists who think the pursuit of wealth is a base occupation for man.  It is, then, misleading to speak of an “immoderate” desire for wealth, since Bill Gates, after making his first billion, would not have thought it immoral to continue wasting his time on getting a second billion.

It is especially wrong for a Christian to pursue wealth at the expense of the brethren: “That no man go beyond and defraud his brother in any matter.”  This is a gross over-translation.  To take the second part, Paul says merely to make a profit (pleonektein, again) off his brother and says nothing about fraud.  Now common sense tells us Paul did not mean that Peter should not make an honest profit by selling Paul fish or Paul by selling Peter a tent.  Peter and Paul have themselves to feed and, if they were not apostles, might have hungry mouths to feed. Indeed, St. Paul makes it clear he does want working people to subsidize the idle—even if the idle claim to be or are preachers or prophets.  He enjoins the Thessalonians, “that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you. That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.”

St. Paul is telling us to work hard and make an honest living for ourselves and our  families, lest we burden our brothers or become a matter of scandal to the non-believers.  The stipulation is that the profit-taking must be constrained within limits.  There is an extensive ancient moral literature discussing the moral limits on profit-seeking.  Paul makes the situation a bit clearer in the first phrase, “go beyond.”  Here the Greek is hyperbainein, to walk beyond, overstep, outdo or transgress.  A good English word might be “get the better of.” In other words, we are not to make a good business deal that takes advantage of a brother’s weak position.  Indeed, the word translated “matter” (pragma) is typically used of business deals.

If we read St. Paul in the light of the Greek language and its higher moral traditions, we can see how correct St. Thomas is, in describing sin as a disorder that turns us from higher and divine things to lower temporal things.  This is not simply an immoderate desire for wealth, unless we consider immoderate anything that distracts us from our obedience to the two great commandments, love of God and love of our neighbor.  Dickens, for a change, gets at least the human part right.  When Scrooge objects his late partner’s preaching, “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob.” The Ghost cried out:

Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!

To understand the borderline between thrift and prudence, on the one hand, and the avarice that hardens our hearts to God and our brothers, you should consult your priest or minister.  All I can do is to draw your attention to the severe judgment that Paul is passing on people who would be regarded as upright businessmen and pillars of the community.  A consideration of these passages should prevent any sensible person from the delusion—so common among conservatives today—that one can reconcile the teachings of Christ with the teachings of Adam Smith and Milton Friedman.  Lord Acton, a brighter and better read man than most of us, failed utterly in the attempt.  He knows better now.

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