2016-06-30
This article first appeared on Beliefnet in 2002.

Although death claimed Kenneth Lay before he served a day in prison, the convicted former CEO of the Enron Corporation will forever be an icon of unbridled greed. The son of a Baptist minister, Lay--who in May was found guilty of fraud and conspiracy charges in one of America’s biggest corporate scandals--maintained his innocence until he died. "We believe that God in fact is in control, and indeed he does work all things for good for those who love the Lord," he said after the verdict. Despite Lay’s protestations of purity, evidence presented during his trial painted a picture of wretched material excess that included a $200,000 yacht for his wife’s birthday, as well as $100 million in personal debt, all of which Lay defended by saying "[I]t was difficult to turn off that lifestyle like a spigot."

Lay’s extravagance may fuel our collective outrage, but our righteous indignation runs smack up against a steady barrage of countervailing cultural messages: that greed--well harnessed and regulated--is good not only for corporations, but society as a whole, even the poor. In truth, we’ve come to think of greed as an ambiguous quality--sometimes good, sometimes bad.

The world's major faiths have no such illusions about greed. Greed, say many of them, is not only unambiguous, it is the Mother of All Sins.

In the ancient Hindu epic "The Mahabharata," Bhishma, son of the holy river Ganges and one of Hinduism’s great yogis, delivers Hinduism’s great treatise on greed, naming it for the faithful as the matrix out of which all other evil arises:

"Yudhisthira said: 'I desire, O bull of Bharata’s race, to hear in detail the source from which sin proceeds and the foundation on which it rests.'

Bhishma said: 'Hear, O King, what the foundation is of sin. Covetousness alone is a great destroyer of merit and goodness. From covetousness proceeds sin. It is from this source that sin and irreligiousness flow, together with great misery. This covetousness is the spring also of all the cunning and hypocrisy in the world. It is covetousness that makes men sin....'"

Bhishma isn't alone in naming greed as the preeminent sin. Buddhism, in essence, rests on a practiced abhorrence of the ways of desiring. The Visuddhimagga explicitly counsels: "Greed is the real dirt, not dust …The wise have shaken off this dirt, and in the dirt-free man’s religion, live."

The Tao Teh Ching, too, tells us that, “There is no greater calamity than indulging in greed;” and The Guru Granth Sahib or Adi Granth, the holy book of the Sikhs, delivers the same news: “Where there is greed, what love can there be?”

Here in the West, it is Judaism and, by declension, Christianity that has appointed greed as the matriarch of all other sins. Long before Sinai and the giving to Moses of the Law, there was Noah and the seven laws or mishpathim that are presented, one by one, incident by incident, in the first 11 chapters of the book of Genesis. Known as The Seven Laws of Noah, they were the governing principles of Judaism before the Ten Commandments, and sketched in the first parameters of Jewish moral and religious thought.

In order of their biblical occurrence, the first of these seven mishpathim is blasphemy; the second is idolatry; the third, theft; the fourth, murder; the fifth, illicit sex; the sixth false witness or duplicity in adjudication; and the last, the eating of flesh torn from a living beast. Many rabbis came in time to teach that theft was the greatest, because all the others come from it: To commit adultery is to steal another’s partner. To blaspheme is to steal the name of G-d for human purposes. To commit murder is to steal another’s life, etc., etc. And theft comes out of greed.

This idea--that greed is the source, not the substance, of sin--continues to inform Judaism. In his book, "The Nine Commandments," Donald Neal Freedman argues that the last two commandments, against coveting one's neighbor's goods or wife," don't name a sin as the other commandments do, but forbid an attitude.

Jesus of Nazareth, irregular rabbi that He was, erased the traditional moral distinction between committing an act and intending. He taught that desire itself is a sin, that the thought is enough. The early Christians shaped their evolving theology around this principle, but even in this new scheme of sin, the primacy of avarice (avaritia, which we translate somewhat inadequately as “the love of money”) remained. Avaritia, the Apostle Paul warned, is the root of all evil; and the early Church took up his cry. The devout took to writing Paul’s doctrine as an acrostic, making it a kind of cartoon about the corruption of Rome as well as a cautionary dictum:

Radix (the root)
Omnium (of all)
Malorum (evils)
Avaritia (avarice.).

We in the new millennium understand this kind of graphic punning. Our own version might look like this:

United (in the)
Sin (of)
Avarice

Does this seem harsh? The current tear in our national self-confidence, which our Fed chief put a name to this week, arises in part from a loss of naivete. That would have come as no surprise to Bhishma, who says that from greed spring "loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice."

We are good people, we want to object--as are ex-Enron CEO Ken Lay, supporter of many good causes; Joseph Berardino, head of a system of accounting that was the system; Dennis Kozlowski, appreciator of the arts; Bernard Ebbers, proof-positive that a poor boy from Mississippi can make it big. We say to ourselves, because we need to, that these are not “bad” people, just greedy ones. As stockholders—more Americans own securities today than ever before--we profited from their greed, enabled them, and we are certainly not impious!

Brishma puts the lie to this conceit as well. “When wicked-souled persons," he tells the king, "under the domination of covetousness, apparently practice the duties of righteousness, the consequence … is that the desecrations committed by them soon become current among men.”

Desecrations and habits of desecration, both theirs and ours, current among us? Our times, if not our selves, made impious? If that be true (and we know in our hearts that it is), then the sin amongst us must be pulled up in the same manner as it took root, one citizen at a time.

And thus it is perhaps good that we turn ourselves, and our leaders, for the first time in many decades, to the study of Greed.

The Farm in Lucy
July, 2002