Looking back over 2017, in preparation for starting the new year, I decided that if I could not be especially good in 2018 perhaps at least I could try to be less bad. Perhaps in 2018 I could make less errors than usual and become a little better by altering the balance sheet, not by gaining more plus marks but by loosing less negative marks. I good place to start, I thought, might be the Seven Deadly Sins. If I could not be virtuous hopefully I can be less sinful.
There is not one of the seven deadly sins that I have not committed. Perhaps not often nor repetitively for many, but there is a clear theme in the seven sins which applies to me and my failings.
When listed in this order, the warnings about desire and want are very easy to see. The first four sins all take this theme :-
- Lust – the desire for pleasures of the flesh
- Gluttony – the desire for the pleasures of food an drink
- Greed – the love for material possessions
- Envy – the desire for things rightly possessed by others.
The christian church is clearly of the opinion that avarice and greed are dangers that we must avoid. Indeed it holds that greed “is the root of all evil and a sure path to corruption“. Islamic teachings share this concern as revealed in the Hadith saying “Watch out for greed because the people before you perished from it. Greed led them to be miserly so they became misers. Greed led them to break the ties (of kinship) so they broke them. Greed led them to sins so they committed sins” (Abu Dawud). One of the three poisons of Buddism is Raga or greed, and in the Hindu theology lobh (greed) and kama (lust) are the passions of the mind which prevent one from finding salvation.
Leaving the major religions and looking at the views of the ancients the same advice comes clearly to the fore. Plato detested greed and the accumulation of wealth as did the cynics and stoics who saw that the purpose of life was live a virtuous life. This virtuous life would lead to happiness and, to be virtuous, necessitated the avoidance of greed and materialistic desire. The more recent philosophers concur; David Hume felt greed was one of the most destructive of vices. Despite the protestations of Gordon Geko that “Greed is good” Adam Smith did not believe so. Though he felt that self-interest was a valuable human trait he deplored the application of this if it were to the detriment of others; cooperative self interest was good, that which tried to obtain more than a fair share (greed) was viewed in a very poor light. As he wrote :-
“To be anxious, or to be laying a plot either to gain or to save a single shilling, would degrade the most vulgar tradesman in the opinion of all his neighbors”
Adam Smith championed the view of voluntary self-restraint, the avoidance of greed, and held that this underpinned the healthy operation of a market economy and society as a whole.
Therefore it would appear that the consensus of religious and philosophical thought form the ancients until now is that greed is one of the major sins and problems to which mankind is heir. Certainly in our modern affluent, post-scarcity society, many of our problems do appear to relate to greed and avarice rather then need and lack. In terms of health, in the west, conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke and obesity all seem to be markers of excess consumption. Looking at mental health services these seem to be drowning under the dual tides of people damaged by substance abuse and those dissatisfied and disillusioned by life not meeting their desires.In social terms our family structures, which helped us develop a successful caring society, are being jettisoned in preference for satisfaction of our erotic desires. In politics greed drives increasing sequestration of wealth and increasing inequality between rich and poor. In global terms our greed rapes our natural resources and threatens our continued existence. Unless we all tackle greed our future looks increasingly bleak. Everything has to start somewhere and I am going to start with me and my own problems with greed.
So, while I may not be able to be much better in 2018 (I am not going to give myself targets to which I will never adhere) I am going to have the low aim of being less bad. I am going to pay attention to my desires, curb my tendencies to want things I don’t need, consider giving things to others rather than holding them for myself.Generally I am going to consume and want less. Perhaps if I do all of this, perhaps if I am just a little less bad, it will be almost like being good.