The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age: 3. Greed

Article by   November 2014
Given what I have said in the last installment about Gluttony, you might well be wondering what we could possibly say about the distinctive shape of Greed in a digital age. Digital content, by its nature, cannot be possessed in the way that the traditional objects of avarice can; not only is it physically insubstantial, but it is limitlessly replicable, much to the dismay of the music industry. Whatever our attempts to extend the logic of ownership to digital content via intellectual property agreements, the fact remains that such content is essentially consumed (without limit) rather than possessed, inasmuch as possession pressupposes a certain scarcity. As such, as we saw last week, the digital world may well be a site for something like the vice of gluttony, as we devour a smorgasbord of ever-new content and gadgets, but even our hardware devices--our laptops, tablets, and smartphones--are so transient as to have become more consumer goods than productive assets. (We will recall that for Aquinas, the essential contrast between Greed on the one hand and Lust and Gluttony on the other, is that Greed is an inordinate desire for the "useful good," Lust and Gluttony for "the delightful good.") 

Our whole modern way of life, in fact, might seem on reflection to have left behind Greed altogether, as we spend rather than save, throw away rather than hoard, and entertain ourselves in the moment rather than invest for the future. Not only that, but one of the key evils of Greed in the classical moral tradition seems no longer to apply. Aquinas says of Greed, "it is a sin directly against one's neighbor, since one man cannot over-abound in external riches, without another man lacking them, for temporal goods cannot bepossessed by many at the same time" (ST IIaIIae Q. 88 a. 1 ad 2), and we are inclined to chuckle at his ignorance. What zero-sum thinking! We now know that productive investments can create wealth, so that one man can abound without depriving another. And even if this is not nearly so true as we might like to think in the realm of external goods, it is certainly the case in the digital world. Recent headlines in the news about "net neutrality" underscore this conviction: the internet is a great global commons, in which all can have equal access, and none ought to be able to buy special rights of way.

But if we leave things here, we have delved only very superficially into the essence of Greed. The second and greater evil of Greed, says Aquinas, consists "in the internal affection which a man has for riches when, for instance, a man loves them, desires them, or delights in them, immoderately. On this way by covetousness a man sins against himself, because it causes disorder in his affections, though not in his body as do the sins of the flesh. As a consequence, however, it is a sin against God, just as all mortal sins, inasmuch as man contemns things eternal for the sake of temporal things" (ST IIaIIae Q. 88 a. 1 ad 2).  

Indeed, it is only when we consider the nature of this disordered affection that we can understand the extraordinary condemnations that Scripture reserves for Mammon--"the love of money is the root of all evil." There are few better places to go for such insight than the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:16-21): "The ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits? And he said, This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry."

The most striking thing about this little soliloquy is its solipsism: "within himself," "I," "I," "my," "I," I," "my," "I," "my," "my," "I, "my." Here is a man who is completely wrapped up in himself, so much so that he makes little speeches to himself, talking to his soul like an old friend. This gives us the first key to the heart of avarice.

The other key is found in James 4:13-14: "Go to now, ye that say, To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell, and get gain: Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away." 

Riches are valued chiefly as a source of false security, a way of helping us feel in control of our lives--absurdly so, since they are even more transient than life itself. One of the many hats I wear is as an investment advisor, and I am always aware, with a bit of nervousness, that we are in the business of selling security. It's hard not to write advertising copy without falling into the tried-and-true trap of manipulating your customers' fears. "If you're worried what the future may bring, save and invest with us so you can sleep easy." 

Solipsism and security: these are the heart of greed, and show us that greed, in fact, is more closely allied to Pride (which is why Pride is also often described as the root of all sin) than to Envy, as we might have imagined. Envy, in fact, whatever its problems, at least has the virtue of being a social sin. When we envy, we look at another person and wish that we were like them. When we feel greed, we retreat into ourselves and seek to be self-sufficient. When we do this, we deny what we were fundamentally created to be. The first thing the Scripture says about mankind is that we were formed from the dust of the ground, and made alive by the breath of God: we are wholly dependent, secure only as we rest upon God. The second thing the Scripture says about us is that "It is not good for man to be alone." We were created to share; nothing is more natural to us. Consider the instinctive reaction of the little child when she discovers some new marvel in the backyard--"Come and see." Consider your instinctive reaction when you hear a new piece of marvelous music or see a great new film: you tell everyone about it and try to get them to experience it as well. We are never more human than when we are sharing, and in nothing is the Fall clearer than in the barrier it introduces to such sharing (the first thing Adam and Eve did was hide their bodies from one another). Greed, then, is fallen man's descent into solipsism, the evidence that we have become incurvatus in se ("turned in upon ourselves"), in Augustine's memorable phrase.

Again, though, all of this might merely seem like further evidence that our digital age, whatever its evils, has transcended the vice of Greed. For what is the internet if not a place for sharing, a place to be social? On every web page, it seems, we find the little button, "Share this," with a dozen different venues on which to invite our friends to experience or learn from what we have just seen. If the sign of Adam and Eve's sinfulness was that they covered their nakedness, hiding themselves from one another, then our social media might seem to have reversed the Fall, as we make ourselves fully transparent to one another in our online profiles. 

But do we really? To be sure, some teens and more immature or attention-starved users of social media may try to render themselves transparent to the world, sharing every thought or experience without a filter. Even this, though, is hardly true sharing, which is motivated by delight in and with the other; rather, it is simply the lonely cry of the soul incurvatus in se, hoping that the rest of the world will turn in upon it as well. For most of us, though, the seeming immediacy and transparency of social media is an illusion; on the contrary, we remain hidden even in our self-disclosure far more effectively than Adam and Eve's fig leaves or the norms of social etiquette can do. We appear to share while holding one half of ourselves behind our back, like Ananias and Saphira, we share to maintain a certain appearance and sense of control, like the greedy benefactor who gives ostentatiously while still clinging tightly to his main hoard of capital. 

When I encounter a real human being in conversation or friendship, however detached or reserved I may be, I ultimately have to relinquish some control over myself, sharing more than I may want to. I cannot ensure that my body is always viewed from its most flattering angle, and unless I am a master of self-possession, I cannot keep my facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice from letting on hints that I might rather hide. If, in the give-and-take of conversation, I am asked a question or faced with an insult for which I am ill-prepared, I may respond awkwardly and kick myself afterward. On Facebook, Instagram, my blog, however, I remain in full control of my self-presentation. I can share only the most flattering photos, the wittiest status updates, the most well-considered opinions, and may if necessary police the boundaries of my social space, refusing others entry or silencing them if they make unwanted remarks. 

Charles Taylor has described the move from pre-modernity to modernity as the move from the "porous self" to the "buffered self." In this as in so much else, digital technology is the apotheosis of modernity; indeed, with social media, we have moved beyond the buffered self to the curated self. 

Obviously, I will have much more to say about this phenomenon when I return in a few weeks to consider Pride in a digital age, but it is worth pausing to recognize that for all the immateriality of the digital space thus staked out, we are dealing here with the spiritual heart of Greed. Greed, the denial of the sharing and interdependency that God created us for, consists in the desire to stake out and continually expand a realm of private property whose use remains wholly subject to your control. For many of us, the endless opportunities afforded to us by digital technology to stake out, curate, and control a virtual space of our own constitute a powerful temptation to indulge this vice, even when we have few material possessions on which to exercise it. The temptation is not irresistible, to be sure; many recognize the loss of authenticity that it entails and consciously seek to make their digital worlds and selves porous. But it does require conscious effort, a determination to be hospitable to the stranger (the awkward or obnoxious commenter who keeps chiming in), and to let go of the need to be seen always in the most flattering light. And this is only possible, I should add, when we learn to stop seeking security in our material or social capital, and learn to rest securely only in God.

Brad Littlejohn holds a Ph.D from the University of Edinburgh and is the Managing Editor of Political Theology Today, the General Editor of The Mercersburg Theology Study Series and can be found writing regularly at bradlittlejohn.com

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