The Grip of Greed

Greed is neither good, nor good for us.

Posted Dec 11, 2010

A deeper understanding of greed can help us to see that it is not only material goods that we desire money for, but also the security and independence that wealth can bring. Wealth is not a bad thing, in and of itself. It can help us meet our basic needs as well as enjoy luxuries which make life better. In many ways, greed is foremost a matter of the heart, of our inner lives. Greed is an excessive love or desire for money or any possession. Greed is not merely caring about money and possessions, but caring too much about them. The greedy person is too attached to his things and his money, or he desires more money and more things in an excessive way. Greed has unpleasant effects on our inner emotional lives. The anxiety and restlessness we feel when we long for some possession, and the false assurance that upon gaining it we'll be put at ease and satisfied places us in a literally vicious circle. By contrast, the virtue of generosity is most present not only when we share, but enjoy doing so.

While greed is an inner condition, it can be expressed in many of the choices that the greedy person makes. In fact, greed is related to justice in the following way. If I am greedy, and am excessive in my acquisition and keeping of possessions, I may be depriving others of their basic needs. Perhaps I could make do with last year's winter coat, rather than buying a new one, or if I do buy a new one I can donate last year's to a local shelter or agency, or to a person I know who is in need.

Finally, there are some things that we can do to combat greed in our lives. First, a bit of self-assessment can be helpful. We might track our spending over a one or two month period, and categorize our expenditures. This could shed some light on our priorities, and on ways we could cut superfluous spending. Second, we could take a holiday from consumerism. During this break, try to avoid advertising, trips to the mall, looking through catalogues, watching home improvement shows, and the like. This is both countercultural and freeing. Finally, just give some money away. Make some commitments to give a certain amount of money away on a regular basis to a charitable organizaiton, local religious group, or a relief agency. It may be difficult to do at first, but over time doing so will not only be good for you, it will help meet real needs that others have.

I think the words of Aristotle are appropriate for concluding here:

For what good would their prosperity do them if it did not provide them with the opportunity for good works?

For more on greed and the other capital vices, see Glittering Vices, from which most of the above is drawn.

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