I joked in a previous column that the vice of Avarice was associated with one political party, and Envy with another. Were that entirely true, we could say that the recent election marked a new era in vice — one where Greed is no longer good, but Envy’s exquisite.
These questions are never so simple. A Wall Street banker who offers reckless mortgages might be one of those men who love too much — too much foie gras, too much vacation time in Barbados, too many antique pistols, snifters of brandy, and hand-rolled cigars. These things are all quite innocent in themselves, and in proper doses, they add the spice to life. On the other hand, a banksta might be driven by competition, by resentment at the sight of his classmates from Wharton living just a little bit better. That kind of man could watch his own house of cards collapse and still be happy when he sees the "For Sale" signs on his classmates’ condos, and watches his boss’s Lamborghini get towed by the repo man: Republican envy.
Conversely, the slacker who votes to "redistribute" the wealth might not be envious at all. Let’s say he’s eager to get a government check, or have his liposuction paid for by the state, but he doesn’t daydream about higher IRS bills for his neighbors, or inheritance taxes seizing other people’s ancestral homes. He just doesn’t give much thought to where the money is coming from: Democratic greed.
So let’s leave politics out of this. Our country is blessed with just two competitive parties, but we’ve got Seven Deadly Sins, and there’s plenty to go around.
And that’s what Greed is all about: the happy, carefree feeling of limitless life and lucre. The gumbo pot is full, the keg is overflowing, Victorian homes are sprouting fully decorated from the ground (at only 3 percent, with no down payment), and all is right with the world. It’s the same fizzy frisson we felt in New York through the Internet boom, accepting instead of salaries "options" in stock that hadn’t been issued, which we’d someday sell to investors who didn’t know better, who’d buy up shares of a business that didn’t make money — and we’d all retire at 30.
This sense of plenitude is what Adam enjoyed in Eden, when he turned to Eve and said:
It’s summertime and the living is easy
Fish are jumping and the cotton is high
Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good-looking
Hush, little baby don’t you cry (Gershwin 2: 11-15).
No wonder we want to bring back that loving feeling. And it’s no surprise that we all hate economics, the science of scarcity — a fact of life the Bible tells us is as unnatural to us as death. (Some theologians have boldly asserted that without the Fall, even animals wouldn’t have died — which raises the ugly image of antediluvian critters like the T-Rex munching celery.)
Regardless of how literally we take little details like Adam’s rib, there are solid facts conveyed in Genesis, which the Church won’t interpret away. And one of them is this: Barring the whole "Apple Scandal" (about which the less said the better), man was meant to live forever with an unlimited supply of whatever he needs. I don’t pretend to understand the mechanics of this, since we were also supposed to breed. If nothing else, space would have gotten scarce, after 50,000 years of people giving birth but never giving up the ghost. Would the planet have ended up as overcrowded as Hong Kong — till finally somebody got so sick of it, he started baking Forbidden Fruit into strudels and passing them out to thin the herd? Medieval theologians, who spent their time sweating such details, had another answer. They pointed to the fate of the Virgin Mary — who, ever since the early Church, had been famous for ending her time on earth by rising up to heaven, body and soul. (See actual video footage here.) Would that have happened to everyone, absent the Fall? That’s a pretty big assumption . . .
So we’re all designed to crave endless life and limitless wealth — but we’re born into a world full of sharp edges, raging bulls, and grisly bears. The very first human couple to walk the earth wrecked our credit rating, and while Christ came to pay the tab, He left us with the penalties and interest. He promised us life after death, and eventual resurrection, but you’ll notice He didn’t repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics. It’s still on the books: All created things speed toward their own decay — as you might have noticed in the mirror this morning if you’re a day above 23.
So is it really such a sin to try to regain a piece of Eden, if only as a time-share we use off-season and deduct as a business expense? That’s really all Greed amounts to. We yearn for a life without limits, for a second jar of Gerber mini-Franks, just one more ride on the Tilt-a-Whirl. We’re reaching out for the Fruit of the Tree of Life, and keep burning our hands on the Flaming Sword.
Now, it’s not quite true that wealth is zero-sum; some systems work better than others. (If you’re curious which is which, check which countries people are sneaking into, and which they’re sneaking out of.) There’s not a strictly limited pie, which the nice man from the government ought to slice for us, so we each get an equal share. We don’t all deserve the same. The folks who develop a safer treatment for cancer deserve a richer reward than people caught shoplifting cigarettes. Fashion models who brighten our lives by simply existing in front of a camera deserve elaborate French meals, which, alas, they’ll never eat.
But there are limits, so many limits, to the wealth each of us can earn. When we crave much more than that, sometimes we steal. If we lack the enterprise for that, we sulk or simply beg. On a small scale, guilt works pretty well; able-bodied panhandlers often make more money than the workers whom they harass. But begging on a huge scale relies much more on threats — for instance: Give us $700 billion or we’ll bring back the Great Depression. You don’t believe us? Just try it and see . . .
John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for InsideCatholic.com.
Here’s the full list of John’s reflections on the Seven Deadly Sins.