Greed (or avarice) is an uncontrolled longing for increase in the acquisition or use of material gain (be it food, money, land, or animate/inanimate possessions); or social value, such as status, or power. Greed has been identified as undesirable throughout known human history because it creates behavior-conflict between personal and social goals.
Except for “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” the image which most of us have of politicians – at least generically if not specifically – is one of undisguised cupidity.
When Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was first released it generated a lot of hate from politicians because of the way some federal Senators and state government officials in the film were portrayed as corrupt. At the same time, the Press also despised the film because some in their profession were shown to be opportunistic and in cahoots with the politicians – just making up stories for the sake of selling newspapers. Hell, more than seven decades later the Press still tries to tar director Frank Capra as nothing more than a maker of cheesy, lightweight movies (despite his three Oscars for Best Director). I say any film that simultaneously pisses off both politicians and the Press is one that is well worth seeing.
It must be owned however that greed especially when involving politicians is a two-way street. It is the reciprocity that preserves the fault from emphatic abhorrence or from being perceived as merciless advance. While most of us are outsiders in this binary relationship – and therefore we have the liberty of pointing the judicious finger of morality – the transaction of greed involves people on both sides who intend to capitalize in their own manner; and both of whom have succumbed to the compromise of something they have for something they want.
Seen from this perspective the swapping of possessions for power, or arranging status for stuff, is but an example of the elemental barter system and seemingly doesn’t impair legislation. While the political sphere dictates an altruistic posture (specifically doing what is best for society) self-interest (basically, getting elected and maintaining one’s seat and influence) is touted as a critical part of the political process, the sine qua non without which the strategies of public affairs don’t happen. Acknowledging this imperative succeeds to tolerance of its methods even to the point of suggesting the one cannot exist without the other, that the switching of materialism for power is the lubricant that keeps the machinery of government moving forward. The argument is that greed gets things done.
Within one’s personal sphere the relentless devotion to acquisition precipitates its own complication. Once again the supportive claim for greed is the natural human desire to do what is right for oneself and one’s family. At this level greed is arguably both native and commendable. Yet cupidity even for the limited scope of private and familial purpose is considered a social shortfall. Does this mean that like our Greek mythical ancestor Penia we should opt for a life of poverty?
Penia (“deficiency” or “poverty” in Greek) was the Goddess of Poverty.
Although she was despised by many, she played an important role in teaching mankind to stay humble and productive. In her portrayal by the playwright Aristophanes, Penia attempts to convince two foolish men about the dangers of allowing wealth to be abundant for everybody. She debates the issue of motivation among those who are wealthy; by acquiring a luxurious life, humans will not see a need to put in effort to produce goods and products. She explains that there will come a time where mankind will not be able to purchase much of anything because of low supply, and people will end up working significantly harder than before in order to obtain food or build furniture. She understands that she is resented, but also knows that she is vital for maintaining the continuity of mankind.
In the end we learn that no amount of capital or control guarantees life or security. I won’t however advocate parsimony as a rebuttal of wealth and position. Instead I prefer the singularity and conviction of the via media. The compromise of extremes is at the heart of much philosophical analysis not the least of which includes both Stoicism and Epicureanism. I find too that the “less is more” recipe works particularly well for my evening vinaigrette.
The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings, and those external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good nor bad in themselves (adiaphora) but have value as “material for virtue to act upon.”
Stoicism flourished throughout the Roman and Greek world until the 3rd century AD, and among its adherents was Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It experienced a decline after Christianity became the state religion in the 4th century AD. Since then, it has seen revivals, notably in the Renaissance (Neostoicism) and in the contemporary era (modern Stoicism).
Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following the Cyrenaic philosopher Aristippus, Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest, sustainable pleasure in the form of a state of ataraxia (tranquility and freedom from fear) and aponia (the absence of bodily pain) through knowledge of the workings of the world and limiting desires. Correspondingly, Epicurus and his followers generally withdrew from politics because it could lead to frustrations and ambitions which can directly conflict with the Epicurean pursuit for peace of mind and virtues.
Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism insofar as it declares pleasure to be its sole intrinsic goal, the concept that the absence of pain and fear constitutes the greatest pleasure, and its advocacy of a simple life, make it very different from “hedonism” as colloquially understood.