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Greed by Phyllis A. Tickle


Rating: (Read only if your interest is strong)


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Having enjoyed Joseph Epstein’s contribution, Envy, to the Oxford Seven Deadly Sins series, I rushed to read Phyllis Tickle’s offering, Greed. Tickle must envy Epstein because her writing pales in comparison. Tickle uses artwork to illustrate how depictions of greed have evolved over time. I found myself losing track of her points regularly, especially in her long motif of the changing role of religion. Greed provides a scholarly approach to the topic, and the references to the artwork could have been clearer, and the lengthy footnotes may have been helpful to scholarly readers, but not to the targeted general reader. By the time I finished the book, I was less clear about Greed than I was at the beginning, and still unsure as to what Tickle was trying to say. I’m willing to accept that it could have been my lack of scholarship in the area as a barrier, but I’ll also place some blame on her fuzzy writing. Here’s an excerpt from the beginning of “The Argument: Being a Study of Less Than Three Parts,” pp. 17-23


           This essay on greed that, like the sin it treats, is only one in a suite of seven, is an expansion with annotations of a lecture first delivered at the New York Public Library in October, 2002, where it served as one paper in a series of lectures sponsored jointly each year by the library and Oxford University Press. The choice of “The Seven Deadly Sins” as the topic for 2002’s lecture series had been made some two years earlier in late 2000. I mention this here because no one I know, least of all me, would have been intrepid enough in 2002 to agree willingly to deliver a public lecture on the subject of greed in the heart of Manhattan. Such a proposition, however, had seemed imminently reasonable and even diverting to me in the more halcyon days of 2000 before Chairman Greenspan made his diagnosis of our national illness as being that of “infectious greed.” There have, in other words, been many times over the months of working first on the lecture and then on the present essay when I positively yearned for a more socially agreeable sin like lust or a more socially acceptable one like plain, old, all-American gluttony. But the die had been cast and the Rubicon crossed. Greed it was and greed it was destined to remain.


The truth is that, in addition to my expanding sense of trepidation about the whole matter, especially after the autumn of 2001 as scandal after scandal was followed by exposé after exposé, I also found myself becoming sated with greed, even wearied, for lack of a better word—wearied with it almost into nonchalance, in fact. My suspicion is that a lot of adult Americans were, actually. Nonchalance, where greed is concerned, however, is a fool’s attitude. Thus, I came in time to believe that as a corrective—though hopefully pleasant—change of pace, I might most effectively clear my head and interrupt my own tedium as well as that of my hearers and readers, if I were to look at greed from the long view of the history of the common era rather than from the immediacy of 2002’s headlines and evening newscasts. This seemed to me to be especially likely if I were to do my looking imagistically rather than didactically.


There was an additional and very practical impetus toward this choice as well, namely that sin in any of its forms is so vaporous and diffuse that ultimately it can be addressed only as an abstraction or as a presence. As an abstraction, sin tends fairly quickly to become more a theory than an integer; yet as a presence, it almost always requires an image to serve as its vehicle if it is to he entered into human conversation. Both approaches, as we shall see, have certainly been followed over the last 2,000 years; but always the images have been, and remain, not only more fun than the theories to think about but also, in the end, infinitely more informing as well. This latter observation, by the way, is perhaps of even more pertinence for the readers of an essay than for those who engage its content only as hearers of its thesis in lecture form. In addition to the luxury of being able to pace one’s intake of material to meet one’s own needs and pleasure, the reader has the singular advantage of end notes and authorial asides. Having become over the years a great admirer of the conversational aside, I have indulged myself here, inserting them with what can only be called abandon. I have succumbed to this penchant of mine in the belief that asides not only enrich and spice the content, but that they also give the presentation of it a bit of the human engagement that traditionally has been the lecture’s most obvious advantage. So thus to those readers of like mind, my greetings; but with equal goodwill, to those who find meanderings tediously off-target, my apologies.


Meanwhile, in my desire to consider sin imagistically, whether with or without sidebars and notes, there is of course at least one rather considerable danger: art is always more persuasive than dogma tinder any set of circumstances, but of course it is also slyer in its conquest of our thinking. To do what I have set out to do, in other words, assumes on my part a prior interpre­tation of the history of the last 2,000 years; and since this is a monologue and not a dialogue per se, I need to lay out openly my own take on these ages in the name of critical fairness.


Ten years as a religion editor for a trade journal have taught me many things, some of them undoubtedly irrelevant, if not outright suspect; but it has convicted me as well of many other, worthier concepts, one of them pertinent here. The common era can he divided and subdivided, as we all know, into at least a dozen periods or segments—the early Middle Ages from the late ones, Classicism from Enlightenment, etc. But above all that slicing and dicing, there are three—or actually two and a fraction—overarching sets of sensibilities that order the various periods. The first 1,500 years, more or less (there being no clean moment of division), are a whole; and the second 400 plus are another whole. The fraction is now, which by the way, is what I’m convicted of.


The first of these eras traditionally we have named as that of the religious imagination, and the second as the era of the secular imagination. Those labels of religious and secular, however, while accurate enough to have lasted a long while, are also, in my opinion, just incorrect enough to be obscuring. We would be better served, I believe, by regarding the first fifteen hundred years as the centuries of the physical imagination, and the latter four hundred plus as the time of the intellectual imagination. The fraction, as you may have guessed, I believe is/will he that of the spiritual imagination, if in all this we understand imagination to reference the informing sensibility or seat of the attention during any given period of time. In order to observe greed as it makes its way to us over the common era, then, I want to take one or two images from each grand division and one or two from the segue between them, seeing what greed can tell us about us, as well as about herself, in this grand progression.


Paul, being the first Christian, is obviously the segue into the common era as well as the author of Christianity’s first imaging of greed. Radix omnium malorum avaritia, wrote St. Paul to the early Church.14 We translate that rather badly as “The love of money is the root of all evil”; but Paul certainly had an authority other than his own to support the assessment he made, however translated. Antecedent to the apostle’s earliest formalizations of doctrine, the Christian Gospels treat the issues of wealth, espe­cially of individual wealth, quite frequently. Passage after passage admonishes those who would follow the Way that they must sell all they have and disperse the money to the poor, thereby buying for themselves a place in the Kingdom of God. These are not easy instructions to follow, but for at least two decades before Paul, they became—and have remained for us as—the Christian ideal.


It is equally true that as the cornerstone and foundation of monasticism, the path of intentional poverty lived with caritas, while it may be the ordained and holy way, is nonetheless blocked for most believers by other vocations. Whether the Christian believer assigns responsibility for his or her failure in this regard to necessity, to other and honorable responsibilities, to a more palatable exegesis, or to outright personal failure, he or she is always aware of being, thanks to greed, just a little hit less than truly Christian in the fullest—that usually should be understood as Saint Francis of Assisi defined—sense of things. The truth in this is that we in our Christianized culture are very conflicted about Greed, and she absolutely loves us for it, which is another thing that any treatise on her must acknowledge. For either a sin or a virtis, conflict in one’s intended host is a compromising and very desirable thing, a fact that Greed appreciates far more astutely than we ever will.


Translated in any fashion, however, the metaphorical root of Paul’s radix oinnium maloruin avaritia flourished as an image, primarily visually and primarily in church murals and frescos, all over Europe until about the fifteenth century.’6 It is not the use of his image as such that interests us most, however. Rather, it is Paul’s Latin sentence itself. Even as the early church accepted the apostle’s warning about avaritia as the root of all evils, the evolving church came to employ his words with a sense of humor as well as of proper theological sobriety. Especially, in the fourth and fifth centuries, as the corruption of a failing empire became more and more oppressive, the devout took to writing Paul’s doctrine stacked as an acrostic, making of it a kind of political cartoon as well as a cautionary dictum:


Radix (the root)

Omnium (of all)

Malorum (evils)

Avaritia (avarice).


It is the kind of graphic punning and cartooning that has characterized greed more than any other of the sins in the common era, primarily because greed is the most social and by extension the most political of the sins. In addition, because greed is the most ubiquitous of the sins, more of us have a great need to deflect public attention off ourselves and onto others rather quickly, lest somebody suspect us of being infected as well. What better way to distract diagnostic attention, in other words, than with good graffiti?

Had there been more good graffiti and clearer writing in this essay, I might have enjoyed Greed more. Readers with more scholarship in this area might enjoy Greed, as well as academics. General readers may want to take a pass.

Steve Hopkins, August 26, 2004


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the September 2004 issue of Executive Times

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