2017-05-12

Greed/Avarice

Greed, more than any of the other “seven deadly sins,” has numerous and powerful champions. Oliver Stone’s 1987 film, “Wall Street,” was initially titled “Greed.” The ruthless corporate raider, Gordon Gekko, advocates greed:
“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. 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 -- and greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA.”


The speech by the fictional Gekko was inspired by a similar speech given by the actual Ivan Boesky, the Wall Street arbitrageur who was charged by the SEC with insider trading and who paid a $100 million penalty to settle those charges. Speaking at the University of California's commencement ceremony in 1986, Boesky said:
"Greed is all right, by the way. I want you to know that. I think greed is healthy. You can be greedy and still feel good about yourself."
The gospel of Greed has many followers. The stars and director of “Wall Street” have commented that over the years “people still approach them and say that they became stockbrokers because” they admired the characters in that film.

Yet greed is also universally seen as a problem by the world’s faith traditions. It goes by many names: covetousness, acquisitiveness, avidity, cupidity, avarice, miserliness, simony. Many find greed the root of all the other sins. In Hinduism, for example, the Mahabharata says:
“Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and goodness. From covetousness proceeds sin. It is from this source that sin and irreligiousness flow, together with great misery. This covetousness is the spring also of all the cunning and hypocrisy in the world.... It is from covetousness that loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice, as also vindictiveness, loss of prosperity, loss of virtue, anxiety, and infamy spring.... Pitilessness for all creatures, malevolence towards all, mistrust in respect of all, insincerity towards all, appropriation of other people’s wealth... all these proceed from covetousness.”
Buddhism puts at the center the observation that desire is the cause of suffering. The Visuddhimagga says:
“Greed is the real dirt, not dust... The wise have shaken off this dirt and live.”
The Daoist text, the Dao De Jing, says:
“There is no greater calamity than indulging in greed.”
Sikh scripture declares
“Where there is greed, what love can there be?”
The goal of the secular world is to meet material needs. A fair secular structure will ensure that everyone has a chance to have their most basic needs met. That's important. Still, it’s about people wanting things – basic things, food, clothing, clean air, housing – and not so basic things, cars, TVs, books, "nice" clothes, corner offices. If we don’t have people wanting stuff, then we don’t have them doing the things to get it – thing which typically also provide goods or services to others.

Yet the market, upon which we depend for our material needs, requires a counter-weight. The good life includes openness to whatever comes – not just desire-driven activity to make certain things come. We express this in phrases have become clich├ęs precisely because it is so important to remember them: the best things in life are free; you can’t take it with you; money is the root of evil; we do not live by bread alone.

Even in the secular, market sphere, greed, unconstrained, backfires. Gordon Gekko, in the 2010 sequel, “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” has come to recognize the problems of unmitigated greed:
“It’s greed that makes my bartender buy three houses he can’t afford with no money down. And it’s greed that makes your parents refinance their $200,000 house for $250,000. Then they take that extra $50,000 and they go down to the mall. They buy a plasma TV, cell phones, computers, an SUV, and, hey, why not a second home, while we’re at it, because, gee whiz, we all know the prices of houses in America always go up, right? And it’s greed that makes the government of this country cut the interest rates to one percent after 9-11 so we can all go shopping again. They’ve got all these fancy names for trillions of dollars of credit: CMOs, CDOs, SIVs, ABSs. I honestly think there’s only 75 people in the world who know what they are. I’ll tell you what they are: WMDs: Weapons of Mass Destruction.”
Too much greed damages our economy. All the more so, it damages our souls. Some good things come to us only by not wanting them. Joy comes to us when we en-joy what we were not anticipating, did not expect, or earn, or deserve. Grace just takes paying attention. You can’t earn grace – if you earned it, it isn’t grace -- but you can work on your attentional skills.

A path of spiritual practice and development is necessary for seeing and coming to terms with our delusions, yet the spiritual path is a tricky one. The very practices to open us to uncontrolled grace can so easily turn into technologies of attempted control. At that point, “spiritual practice” is just one more ego delusion, one more channel for a kind of greed. That can happen, as this "Dharma the Cat" comic illustrates:


Having a community of accountability helps us stay on the path without the path becoming delusive. Left to ourselves to practice, our egos will bend the spiritual path into one more on-ramp to the ego highway. We need the help of others in identifying our delusions. (This is the crucial point that the SBNRs -- "Spiritual But Not Religious" -- often overlook.) With a spiritual path and a supporting community of faith, we have a chance to transcend greed and move into grace. We have a shot at freedom.

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See also
The Seven Deadlies
Gluttony
Sloth
Anger/Wrath
Envy
Lust
Pride
Pride

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