Greed

I’ve been thinking a lot about greed lately. Maybe it’s that I’m getting older and wondering what I have accomplished in life. I have not through greed amassed a great fortune, although I suppose I make a comfortable living. I have no great desire to do be unthinkably rich, either, unless it might give me the freedom to provide more help to people who need it.

I have been perusing a number of thoughts and ideas on greed, but one really struck me as being odd. Actor and conservative pundit Ben Stein reflected that, “Greed is a part of animal nature. Being against it is like being against breathing or eating. It means nothing.”

Really, Ben?

Other than Ben Stein and the denizens of the rarified 1%, few people would subscribe to the idea that greed is good. Stilted, self-important hate-monger, Ayn Rand perverted scripture much as did Satan with Eve, when she preached through her character in Atlas Shrugged that, “Money is the root of all good.”

That greed is natural, even normal, even virtuous seems to take a dismal view of all of humanity.

I choose to disagree with Mr. Stein for a number of reasons. Outside a cadre of money-centered business people, the mantra of the 1980’s that said, “Greed is good,” is hollow. There is little point to gaining more than you can possibly use. Money is of no good unless it is a tool to achieve an end. Sir Francis Bacon astutely observed, “If money be not thy servant, it will be thy master.  The covetous man cannot so properly be said to possess wealth, as that may be said to possess him.” He also noted, “Of great wealth there is no real use, except in its distribution. The rest is just conceit.” Now, no offense to Mr. Stein, but in 350 years, I am confident that thoughtful people will still be seeking the wisdom of Bacon, but most will not remember Mr. Stein’s words of back-handed defamation.  

Greed is indeed a common feature of our species. However, I view it more as a mutation, and not the norm. As social creatures, we would benefit more from cooperation and altruism, not conflict in the accumulation of wealth, and the constant concern and worry over keeping it.

The Bhagavad Gita says that greed is one of three gates of hell, along with anger and lust. The Bible says that money is a root of all kinds of evil. A well-known Cherokee proverb says, “There is a battle of two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth. The wolf that wins? The one you feed.”

Proverbs 11.24 says, “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.” Here, I see one who gives much, and receives much, although it may not be in material wealth. The one who withholds, who guards his hoard of gold, only wants more, and may become consumed by that lust for gain. The same story was immortalized by Tolkien in his character of Gollum, the once gentle being who succumbed to an all-consuming greed for a ring of power. The allegory is obvious.

In the words of the Chinese warrior/philosopher, Sun Tzu, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Greed is the enemy of all humanity. So much human suffering is directly tied to it, from the pursuit of greed by the wealth seeker to the denial of wealth to the poor. Only by knowing it, recognizing it for all that it is and all that it does and all that it harms can we defeat it. And it can be defeated.

To say that greed is an unavoidable part of humanity is to say we lack the vision to see our faults. Greed may indeed be a natural part of life, but so is cancer. Accepting its existence and acknowledging that it happens does not mean that we do nothing to fight it. Life is precious, and far more so than wealth.

As I think about wealth and greed, I have often dreamed of what it would be like to be wealthy. I know I never shall be rich in conventional wealth, although I am now richer than the greater mass of humanity on earth. Nor do I really want it, except to be able to do more good with it. My greatest joy comes with helping people. I shudder to think about the money wasted on trivialities when others are sick and cannot afford medicine. Others are starving, while we throw away food. There is so much suffering that could be alleviated if people would wake up to the evil that is greed.

When CEOs make millions and their workers are on Food Stamps (now SNAP benefits), greed is in play. When governments are run by those who prefer their own wealth to saving the lives of poor children or seniors, greed is in action. If we some day fall as a nation, it will likely be because of our unwillingness to reach out and help our neighbors.

I hope that never happens. I hope that we awaken to the dangers of unbridled greed and see money for what it truly is: a tool with which to make a better world, not just for a few wealthy people, not just for some who want to remake society in their image, but for everyone.

The weight of rational humanity is against Mr. Stein’s fatalistic philosophy. Greed has been viewed with disdain by every great moral thinker in every culture that I can recall. There is no positive virtue in greed, only an endless, pointless, and ultimately fruitless quest for more. And while it may only reveal my limited, provincial and moralistic thinking, I still assert that the old proverb is indeed true: “Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice.” (Proverbs 16.8)  

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