Friday, February 15, 2008

The Seven Deadlies: Covetousness

[Previous: Gluttony] [Next: Envy]

["Repent and believe in the Gospel" is one of the catchphrases of this holy season. As we begin our Lenten journey, I thought I'd post excerpts from the chapter on the seven deadly sins in that remarkable book by Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the Relevance of Christian Doctrine, written during WWII. The chapter is called "The Other Six Deadly Sins."]


[This section is rather long, but well worth the read. There is a damning critique of the fruit of covetousness - usury, and a lot of it is quite relevant to our times. The last section I've highlighted, since it is more than relevant to the current election discussions. However, the inveterate free-trader and pro-liberalization (economically speaking), pro-globalziation kinda guy that I am, there is a lot that doesn't sit well with me. Maybe I'll get to writing something again about free-markets and Catholicism.]

Gluttony is warm-hearted. It is the excess and perversion of that free, careless, and generous mood that desires to enjoy life and to see others enjoy it. But, like lust and wrath, it is a headless, heedless sin, that puts the good-natured person at the mercy of the cold head and the cold heart; and these exploit it and bring it to judgment, so that at length it issues in its own opposite – in that very dearth in the midst of plenty at which we stand horrified today.

It is especially at the mercy of the sin called avaritia or covetousness. At one time this sin was content to call itself honest thrift, and under that name was, as they might say in Aberdeen, “varra weel respectit.” The cold-hearted sins recommend themselves to church and state by the restraints they lay upon the vulgar and disreputable warm-hearted sins. The thrity poor do not swill beer in pubs or indulge in noisy quarrels in the streets to the annoyance of decent people.
Moreover, they are less likely to become a burden on the taxpayers. The thrifty well-to-do do not abash their pious neighbors by lavish indulgence in gula or luxurua – which are both very expensive sins. Nevertheless, there used always to be certain reservations about the respect accorded to covetousness. It was an unromantic, unrespectable sin. Unkind people sometimes called it by rude names, such as parsimony and niggardliness. It was a narrow, creeping, pinched kind of sin; and it was not a good mixer. It was more popular with Caesar than with Caesar’s subjects; it had no glamor [sic] about it.

It was left for the present age to endow covetousness with glamor on a big scale and to give it a title that it could carry like a flag. It occurred to someone to call it enterprise. From the moment of that happy inspiration, covetousness has gone forward and never looked back. It has become a swaggering, swash-buckling, piratical sin, going about with its head cocked over its eye, and with pistols tucked into the tops of its jack-boots. Its war cries are “Business efficiency!” “Free Competition!” “Get Out or Get Under!” and “There’s Always Room at the Top!” It can no longer be troubled to deal in real wealth and to remain attached to work and the soil. It has set money free from all such hampering ties; it has interests in every continent; it is impossible to pin it down to any one place or any concrete commodity – it is an adventurer, a roving, rollicking free lance. It looks so jovial and has such a twinkle in its cunning eye that nobody can believe that its heart is as cold and calculating as ever.

Besides, where is its heart? Covetousness is not incarnated in individual people, but in business corporations, joint stock companies, amalgamations, trusts, which have neither bodies to be kicked, nor souls to be damned – nor hearts to be appealed to, either. It is very difficult to fasten on anybody the responsibility for the things that are done with money. Of course, if covetousness miscalculates and some big financier comes crashing down, bringing all the small speculators down with him, we wag self-righteous heads and feel that we see clearly where the fault lies. But we do not punish the fraudulent businessman for his frauds, but for his failure.

The Church says covetousness is a deadly sin, but does she really think so? Is she ready to found welfare societies to deal with financial immorality as she does with sexual immorality? Do the officials stationed at church doors in Italy to exclude women with bare arms turn away anybody on grounds that they are too well dressed to be honest? Do the vigilance committees who complain of suggestive looks and plays make any attempt to suppress the literature that suggests getting on in the world is the chief object in life? Is Dives, like Magdalen, ever refused the sacraments on the grounds that he, like her, is an “open and notorious evil-liver”? Does the Church arrange services, with bright congregational singing, for total abstainers from usury?

The Church’s record is not, in these matters, quite as good as it might be. But iti s perhaps rather better than that of those who denounce her for her neglect. The Church is not the Vatican, nor the Metropolitans, nor the Bench of Bishops; it is not even the vicar or the curate or the church wardens; the Church is you and I. And are you and I in the least sincere in our pretense that we disapprove of covetousness?

Let us ask ourselves one or two questions. Do we admire and envy rich people because they are rich, or because the work by which they made their money is good work? If we hear that Old So-and-so pulled off a pretty smart deal with the town council, are we shocked by the revelation of the cunning graft involved, or do we say admiringly, “Old-so-and-so’s hot stuff – you won’t find many flies on him”? When we go to the cinema and see a picture about empty-headed people in luxurious surroundings, do we say, “What drivel!” or do we sit in misty dream, wishing we could give up our daily work and marry into surroundings like that? When we invest our money, do we ask ourselves whether the enterprise represents anything useful, or merely whether it is a safe thing that returns a good dividend? Do we regularly put our money into football pools or dog racing? When we read the newspapers, are our eyes immediately arrested by anything that says “MILLIONS” in large capitals, preceded by the £ or $ sign? Have we ever refused money on the grounds that the work that we had to do for it was something that we could not do honestly or do well? Do we NEVER choose our acquaintances with the idea that they are useful people to know, or keep in with people in the hope that there is something to be got out of them? And so we – this is important – when we blame the mess that the economical world has got into, do we always lay the blame on wicked financiers, wicked bankers – or do we sometimes ask ourselves how far we have contributed to make the mess?

Just as the sin of gluttony thrives on our little greeds, so the sin of covetousness thrives on our little acts of avarice – on the stupid and irresponsible small shareholder, for example, who is out to get money for nothing. There is a book called Wall Street Under Oath that makes entertaining but shameful reading. It is an account of the exposure of various great business and banking frauds in the United States at the time of the post-war slump. When we have finished wondering at the barefaced venality, graspingness, and lack of scruple of the notorious financiers who stood in the dock to answer the charge of fraud, we may fruitfully wonder at the incredible avarice and criminal folly of their victims. For no shareholder could vend his worthless stock if he could not count on meeting, in his prospective victim, an unscrupulous avarice as vicious as his own, but stupider. Every time we expect, as is said, our money to work for us, we are expecting other people to work for us; an when we expect it to bring in more money in a year than honest work could produce in that time, we are expecting it to cheat and steal on our behalf.

We are all in it together. I often wonder why Germany was so foolishly impatient as to go to war. If domination were all she wanted, she could have it without shedding a drop of blood by merely awaiting long enough and trusting to the avarice of mankind. You may remember the sordid and cynical French businessman on the boat that brought Elie J. Bois to England after the collapse of France. Someone asked him, “Why did France break down like this?” and he answered: “Because she has too many men like me.” France was bought; the politicians were bought; the press was bought. Labor was bought, the church was bought, big business was bought, even the army was bought. Not always by open bribes in cash, but by the insidious appeal to security, and business interests and economic power. Nobody would destroy anything or let go of anything; there was always the hope of making a deal with the enemy. Everybody, down to the smallest provincial official and the pettiest, petty shopkeeper, ahd a vested interest in nonresistance.

Wars are not made by businessmen, who are terrified at the threat of their powers: what businessmen make are surrenders. Nobody prays more fervently than the businessman to be freed from the crushing burden of armaments; the first thing that happens in a war is the freezing of international credits, which the businessman does not like. The same businessman who will view with perfect indifference the senseless destruction of fish and fruit, coffee and corn in peacetime, because it does not pay to distribute them, is preternaturally sensitive about the senseless destruction of property by war. Patience, cunning, and the appeal to avarice could bring down the whole world into economy subjugation by a slow, interior corruption. We may, perhaps, count ourselves fortunate that Hitler’s patience was at length exhausted and that he conjured up the devil of wrath to cast out the devil of covetousness. When Satan casts out Satan, his kingdom does not stand; but we have come to a grievous pass if we have to choose between one devil and another – if the only deliverance from covetousness is the wrath of war, and the only safeguard against war, a peace based on covetousness.

The virtue of which covetousness is the perversion is something more positive and warm-hearted than thrift. It is the love of the real values, of which the material world has only two: the fruits of the earth and the labor of the people. As for the spiritual values, avarice has no use for them; they cannot be assessed in money, and the moment that anyone tries to assess them in money they softly and suddenly vanish away.

We may argue eloquently that honesty is the best policy. Unfortunately, the moment honesty is adopted for the sake of policy it mysteriously cease to be honesty. We may say that the best art should be recompensed at the highest rate, and no doubt it should; but if the artist lets his work be influenced by considerations of marketing, he will discover that what he is producing is not art. And we may say, with some justice, that an irreligious nation cannot prosper; but if a nation tries to cultivate religion for the sake of regaining prosperity, the resulting brand of religion will be addressed to a very odd God indeed. There is said to be a revival just now of what is called interest in religion. Even governments are inclined to allot broadcasting time to religious propaganda, and to order National Days of prayer. However admirable these activities may be, one has a haunting feeling that God’s acquaintance is being cultivated because he might come in useful. But God is quite shrewd enough to see through that particular kind of commercial fraud.

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