One night back in 1984 I was sitting at a Greek diner listening to my sponsor talk with A., who apparently had relapsed again. Being sober only a few months, I didn’t quite understand the tenor of their conversation. But something A. did stuck in my mind. He took out a pack of cigarettes and, with a grin on his face, pointed to the brand: MORE. It was as if that name somehow explained everything.
Many years later I realized what he’d meant. Alcoholism is a disease of more: more booze, more sex, more money, more adventure, more everything. It is insatiable. That’s why he couldn’t stop.
The 12&12 quote below nicely sums up the syndrome. “We eat, drink, and grab for more of everything than we need, fearing we shall never have enough" (S4, p. 49). Many of us would probably identify with that. Few would readily relate it to greed, however. Greed is so endemic in the culture that it largely passes unnoticed, certainly in ourselves. Indeed, greed elicits more self-righteousness cum self-deception than most other defects of character. As Milton Friedman suggests below, it’s always “them,” never me.
An alcoholic taking inventory of himself may readily admit to having been a thief, but not attribute his thievery to greediness. Another may admit to working two jobs or putting in 60 or 80-hour weeks to the detriment of her family and her health, but deny it had anything to do with being greedy. Still another may acknowledge having maxed his multiple credit cards amassing all sorts of things and been forced to declare bankruptcy, but greed? Nah.
Our inability to recognize greed in ourselves increases instead of decreasing after we’ve been in the program for a while. That happens with most character defects. That’s because the ways in which they manifest themselves are less extreme and therefore less obvious. We don’t steal anymore. But we just can’t wait to get the latest version of gadget X, or upgrade to Y or Z. We remain as acquisitive as ever.
If we find it hard to detect greed in us, we’ll probably find it harder to detect avarice. The term sounds so old-fashioned that we can’t see how it could possibly apply to us. The two words have become largely synonymous, but whereas greed is primarily about having “more,” avarice is primarily about what is “mine.” The two of course are related. I get more so that there’s more for me to call mine. One grabs, the other hoards.
“Another may develop such an obsession for financial security that he wants to do nothing but hoard money,” declares the 12&12 (S4, p.43) as it seeks to explain how our natural desires can become distorted. There’s nothing wrong with money; nothing wrong with wanting to be financially secure or to possess the material goods that make for a comfortable life. These are all good things.
But that’s just it. Like other defects of character, greed is not just a bad thing, it is a good thing gone bad. The defect lies in excess. Avarice or greediness is an immoderate or inordinate attachment to money, wealth, and possessions. These things have become too important to us. We care too much about them. (We can see this in the etymology of avarice (Latin avere, crave), the root of which is present in our word “avid,” meaning eager, keen, ardent, fervent). As a result, they drive our actions and make for defective emotions.
First among these emotions is fear. That’s why in calling it the “chief activator of our defects,” the 12&12 defines self-centered fear as being primarily “that we would lose something we already possessed or would fail to get something we demanded” (S7, p.76). Greed, with its excessive attachment to material and related goods, breeds unreasonable demands for them (from ourselves, other people, the world), creating the conditions which then breed the fear we won’t be able to secure them. As avarice, greed also fosters possessiveness, and possessiveness the fear that we will lose the goods and assets in which we’ve become so heavily invested.
Greed may also foster anger and resentment, when our incessant demands for more are not met and we don’t get what we want. It may also foster depression, when we lose what had become so essential to us, and self-pity, when we then blame ourselves for the loss. In all of these cases greed distorts our emotions.
Greed is also related to various defects of character. In its voracity or inability to exercise restraint or moderation, it is an expression of intemperance. Because its distorted desire for more reveals an inability to see the value of what it already has, it is a manifestation of ingratitude. Because it is so concerned with getting and keeping, acquiring and accumulating, greed and avarice may also take the form of stinginess and miserliness. For the same reason, greed can make us callous toward the needs of others, and in so doing, render us insensitive to the claims of justice.
There’s also a comparative and a competitive aspect to greed which relates it to pride. We may construe having more as making us look better, the size of our salary and the quantity and quality of our possessions as making us stand out and appear different, important, or special. As it affects our careers in particular, this is where we tend to “let greed masquerade as ambition,” as the 12&12 notes (S6, p.66). Sometimes the pride motivating greed may go deeper. It may signal a desire to create a self-sufficient sense of security. If we can become totally self-reliant, what need is there to rely on God, to turn our will and our lives over to his care?
Given its association with these various defects, the main antidotes to greed and avarice are clear. Primary among these is the virtue of gratitude. To the extent that we are grateful for what we have, to that extent we are satisfied with it and less desirous of more. Thus gratitude tempers greed. Being grateful for what we have helps us to see it as a gift and disposes us to give back in return, opening us up to the virtue of generosity, the antithesis of greed and avarice.
There is another remedy that is perhaps less clear. This is the virtue of simplicity. To see this we need to distinguish between the intemperance of greediness and that of gluttony. The latter indulges physical pleasure (primarily eating and drinking). As Aquinas suggests below, the former indulges the pleasure of possession, of just having stuff. (A current commercial appeals to both, urging the viewer “Eat ____, Get Stuff.”)
Simplicity replaces the pleasure of having more with the pleasure of having less. If we cultivate simplicity in the home, for instance, we will become less comfortable with clutter. Stuff will begin to weigh on us. We will start to dispense with the superfluous and the unnecessary and avoid net additions to what we own. We will gradually gain pleasure in the plain and simple and modest. Such a material downsizing can bring about a mental downsizing, a lightness of being, a sense of freedom even. Things no longer possess us.
Practicing these principles begins with taking inventory of the ways in which greed may express itself in us. If we don’t see the problem, we won’t see the solution. To conduct our inventory, we may examine such things as our buying and spending habits, our susceptibility to ads, commercials, and sales, how often we browse through catalogues and their online equivalents, how much time we spend shopping for things other than necessities like food, the size and quality of our wardrobe, our debt levels, and so on. If we own a business, the need to make a profit presents us with added temptations to greed, and we will have to examine where we may tend to give in.
Of course, we will want to look at greed and avarice from the other end: our giving habits and our readiness to part with things, including money and possessions. Here quantity won't be necessarily the determining factor, for we are typically dealing not with more, but with less.
As with any inventory, we'll need to go beyond the specific instances of defect we may uncover, greed in this case. These are after all externals, possible symptoms of a defective condition. What determines the presence of greed and avarice in us is the orientation of our heart. Why is having more of this or that so important to us? What is it that motivates our getting, our keeping, and our giving? What is driving us?
[Image: Bill W. in unusual photo taken during visit to Knoxville, Tennessee.]