The Curse and Cure of Covetousness
DECEMBER 01, 1967 by LEONARD E. READ
While many people deplore covetousness, few will compare it to murder, theft, adultery as an evil. Nor will they think of it as having any bearing on our current politico-economic problems. This wrong assessment may be due to the fact that "Thou shalt not covet" brings up the rear of the Mosaic thou-shalt-nots.
I suspect that the ordering of the Commandments had nothing to do with a sin-grading scheme. Only one of the ten had obvious priority and it became the First Commandment. The other nine were listed, perhaps, as they came to mind. And covetousness, more subtle and an afterthought, concludes the list. But on reflection, covetousness is as deadly as any of the other sins — indeed, it tends to induce the others.
Covetousness or envy generates a destructive radiation with ill effect on all it touches.
Psychosomatic illnesses can be traced as much to envy as to hate, anger, worry, despondency.
But consider the social implications, the effects of envy on others. At first blush, the rich man appears not to be harmed because another covets his wealth. Envy, however, is not a benign, dormant element of the psyche; it has the same intensive force as rage, and a great deal of wisdom is required to put it down. Where understanding and self-control are wholly lacking, the weakling will resort to thievery, embezzlement, piracy, even murder, to gratify his envy and "get his share."
Though weakness of character afflicts all of us to some extent, only a few are so lacking in restraining forces as to personally employ naked force, such as thievery, to realize the objects of envy. Fear of apprehension and reprisal tends to hold such open-faced evil in check.
However, if the evil act can be screened, if the sense of personal guilt and responsibility can be sufficiently submerged, that is, if self-delusion can be effected, gratification of covetousness will be pursued by the "best people."
Hiding in Anonymity
The way is an open secret: achieve anonymity in a mob, committee, organization, society, or hide behind legality or majority vote.
With the fear of exposure removed, millions of Americans feather their own nests at the expense of others, and on a scale never imagined by thieves, pirates, or embezzlers. Our "best people," including the highly "educated," gratify their envy with no qualms whatsoever. But their salved conscience in no way lessens the evil of covetousness; quite the contrary, it emphasizes to us how powerfully this evil operates at the politico-economic level. This subtle evil is indeed the genesis of more obvious sins.
We should also note the extent to which this "guiltless" taking of property by coercion is rationalized. Accomplices, bearing such titles as philosophers and economists, rise to the occasion; they explain how the popular depredations are good for everyone, even for those looted. Thus, we find that covetousness, unchecked in the individual, lies at the root of the decline and fall of nations and civilizations.
In considering the effect on the one who covets, we must be careful not to confuse the taking of another’s property with the taking unto oneself of a higher level of intelligence and morality exemplified by another. The former is depredation, harmful to both self and the other; the latter is emulation, helpful to all concerned.
As contrasted with the emulation of virtues, which takes nothing from but adds to the welfare of others, envy is nothing more than an avaricious greed to possess what exclusively belongs to others. Envy is a lust of the flesh as opposed to an elevation of the spirit. The Hindus saw it clearly for what it really is: "Sin is not the violation of a law or a convention but… ignorance… which seeks its own private gain at the expense of others…."1 William Penn grasped the point: "Covetousness is the greatest of Monsters, as well as the root of all Evil."
Thwarting One’s Purpose
As a person cannot be in two places at the same time, so is it impossible for the eye to be cast covetously at the material possessions of others and cast aspiringly at one’s own creativity. Thus, envy leaves unattended the human being’s upgrading; it is a positive distraction from the "hatching" process — Creation’s Purpose. It’s either hatch or rot, as with an egg; envy leaves the soul, the spirit, the intellect, the psyche to rot, and there can be no greater evil than this.
Count Your Blessings!
When it is clear that covetousness thwarts Creation’s Purpose and, thus, man’s destiny — that among the cardinal sins none is greater — it surely behooves each of us to find a way to rid ourselves of this evil.
I believe the way is simple to proclaim: Count your blessings!
Any person who is not aware of countless blessings, regardless of how low or high his estate, will be no more aware of his blessings should his envy be gratified. Awareness of blessings is a state of consciousness and is not necessarily related to abundance and affluence. He who is rich in worldly goods but unaware of his blessings is poor, and probably covetous; he who is poor in worldly goods but aware of his blessings is rich, and assuredly without envy.
How easy the advice: Count your blessings! But what about the person unaware of his blessings? As well advise him to acquire wisdom, for wisdom is awareness. Some individuals are aware of no blessings, others of a few, still others of numerous blessings. Yet, no one is more than slightly aware, just as no one is more than slightly wise.
Exactly how unaware we are of our blessings can be seen by committing them to paper — actually counting. While they are in infinite supply, observe how few are recognized. Now, throw the list away; for these must be alive each and every day in the consciousness, not stored on paper, not mechanically canned.
Try again, later: this is an exercise that one should never abandon. The list is longer? Note, also, how much greater the wisdom is. Conscious effort, really trying, constantly pressing against the unknown for more light is the nature of this discipline.
As progress is made in an awareness of our blessings, we are struck by how greatly they outnumber our woes and troubles. In a state of unawareness, the woes loom enormous, and we tend to covetousness; in awareness the woes are but trifles, and the covetousness fades away.
What a remarkable cure for covetousness! While the cure rids us of our woes, it also puts us on the road to social felicity; and a further dividend is wisdom.